It’s a Friday at noon and I’m calling Jeremy Greenspan, 50% of acclaimed synth-pop duo, Junior Boys. He’s tells me he’s currently making sausages that the other 50% of the band (Matt Didemus) has made at home. For years, Greenspan has remained in Canada (Hamilton, Ontario) while Didemus has been living in Europe (Berlin and recently, Slovenia). Sometimes when people take breaks from things, consequences can be tumultous at best.
Remember that episode of Friends? Well, in the case of Junior Boys, this whole situation actually works pretty well if your break lasts for 5 years. Since their last release in 2010 (It’s All True) both Didemus and Greenspan have explored different business ventures and solo projects. For Greenspan, it’s allowed him to have a lot more fun making music.
Where once you were a full time musician, now music has once again become a fun outlet for you. The prospect of sitting down and making something new is now exciting instead of tedious. You realize that you don’t have to focus on the parts you found frustrating, you can focus on the parts you love.
That’s why listening to the Boys’ new album is so damn refreshing. It’s the sound of two artists getting back into their groove and making some damn funky tracks. Over the phone, Greenspan is affable and good-humoured. We spoke about the long break, what a career in music looks like now, and his love of electronic music.
Northern Transmissions: So you guys are rehearsing right now. Getting ready for the new live shows?
Jeremy Greenspan: Yeah, they start in two weeks, or like 3 weeks, we’ve just been rehearsing this month. We don’t really play outside of touring the album so we haven’t played a show in like 3 years or something. It takes a long time for us to get back into the swing.
NT: Yeah with Matt [Didemus] living across the world….
JG: Exactly, and Dale who plays drums for us lives in British Columbia. Our sound guy who’s basically a 3rd member of the band lives in Edmonton.
NT: How does that process work with everyone being so far away and having a limited time to work together? Is there a lot of online back-and-forth or…?
JG: The writing is usually just me and Matt. Although on this album the way its worked out is that there’s basically 11 songs and 50% of those I did by myself and then 50% Matt came and worked with me. Of those ones, he kind of started the ones (that we did together) in Germany. So he came to Canada a bunch of times and we worked on some stuff.
NT: So that was since 2013. There we’re a couple times that he came?.
JG: He came actually before then and worked on some material that we never used. Then he came again after I had finished the Jessy Lanza album [Pull My Hair Back]. After that he came again and we sort of started fresh.
NT: It’s been about 5 years since your last release. How does it feel to return to something after so long, or do you feel like you never really left?
JG: Well… no I felt like we left, it didn’t feel that long because I was pretty busy the whole time doing other things. I really notice a difference when it comes to touring, because that’s the part of your life that really changes. Putting out material doesn’t seem that weird, but getting ready to tour again, now it really feels like it’s been a long time, because it has.
NT: The writing process, when you were writing with Jessy [Lanza] it was a back and forth process one person working on a song then another takes their time with it, is that the same way it works for Junior Boys?
JG: More or less, it depends, like I said there’s half where I do myself, and with those ones I’ll just do it myself, but the ones with Matt he’d already started a bunch of those and I would take those ideas and turn them into songs and he’s there and puts in some ideas. There’s no set roles, you know, no ones’ in charge. I do the lyrics writing and vocals, but other than that there’s no one’s who’s in charge of drums and melodies and all that.
NT: So it’s very collaborative.
JG: Yeah, it is.
NT: You had a whole albums’ worth of material before Big Black Coat?
JG: More or less, that’s true.
NT: Didn’t make the cut?
JG: Exactly, it was stuff i was doing along the same time as Jessy and I was much more interested in doing the album with Jessy. That stuff was more exciting at the time, and when you’re not excited to do something, you can hear it. It was only after working with Jessy that I felt sort of more invigorated to do some new Junior Boys stuff. So I got rid of a lot of material and just kept working until there was stuff that I thought was up to snuff.
NT: So this was a much needed break for Junior Boys.
JG: I think so, yeah.
NT: I noticed you’re still listed as a current artist on Domino’s website-
JG: [chuckles] Is that true?
NT: Yeah, an you made the switch over to City Slang. Was there a reason for that? Was it time to go?
JG: We had a contract with Domino for four album and that contract was fulfilled and once the contract is fulfilled it’s sort of like being a free agent in baseball or something. You just go where the most amount of interest is. I have a really good relationship with the guy who runs the American office of Domino and I still like him a lot, but I think everyone felt, we felt, and I expect probably Domino felt that it was time for us to change. I’m friends and work with Dan Snaith (Caribou) and I’ve seen what kind of success that he’s had with City Slang and I met those guys and liked them and it just seemed like such natural fit. They were so enthusiastic, they were more enthusiastic than anyone has been about the music in years. I still am for example, published through Domino, so I still have a working relationship with them.
NT: There was one comment you made when It’s All True came out, that was about how so much of the industry was just about aesthetic and posturing and branding. Was this one of the reasons that the time off was taken?
JG: Not particularly, I guess I had some resentment on the fact that I thought that marketing became such an important issue with independent music especially because people are so worried about the fact that they don’t sell records anymore. There’s a general unease. Record labels expect musicians to be marketing examples. That kinda thing, I felt kinda burnt out about that, what “crazy”, “wacky” ideas can we come up with to sell the record. I think that’s what I was talking about more than anything. That hasn’t been too much of a problem going forward.
NT: I feel like music really speaks for itself with Junior Boys,
JG: Well got nothing else up our sleeves. We don’t have a great look. Hopefully, you’re right cause we got nothing else to fall back on.
NT: Do you feel like for the younger bands, there’s a lot of marketing pressure?
JG: I think so. It preys on this mentality for people who are young in music who are desperate to make it in music. What ends up happening is that the music suffers for it because people are trying to shift everything towards what they think might be something that will catch fire. So the most important thing young people can do in music is have a back up plan, you know? Financially, if you have something else that you’re doing that doesn’t rely on music then you can be free to make the kind of music that you want to make.
NT: And you’ve got a pretty big back up plan. [Greenspan owns a bar in downtown Hamilton as well as a music venue]
JG: Yeah, don’t put all your eggs in one basket because music is likely to disappoint you. You should just be doing it for the fun of doing it. That was one of the great things about doing this album. Doing the stuff with Jessy became such a success that I suddenly had this other career. That was amazing because that all of my anxiety about Junior Boys paying my bills, that went away. Because that went away it meant that I could actually have fun with it and I think the album was better because of it.
NT: That particular record [Jessy Lanza’s Pull My Hair Back], it sort of follows that natural flow of what’s been really trendy in music, but I don’t feel you guys have ever been a “trendy” band per se.
JG: Well that’s because it’s hard to be a trendy band living in Hamilton. That’s why I live in Hamilton. If I moved to New York City there’d be all this pressure to be a trendy guy. It just makes it easier to not get caught up in trying to sound like the thing of the moment.
NT: You’ve been in that moment a couple times, Kode9 put you on Hyperdub’s website, and right around So This is Goodbye, that was right around this time of 80s nostalgia was very successful. Do you ever feel like you’re naturally following these things, or this is is just coincidence?
JG: I think in terms of the first record being a group that was into R&B and synthpop at the same time, I think we did this album that didn’t really sound like much else. It was one of those things where it kind of registered at the right moment. As the years have gone by, that kind of approach in terms of Dance music and R&B, that’s become more normal. The kind of stuff that we were doing a while ago, you see more and more of it. Our early stuff makes more sense the longer time goes on, which is good. I listen to a lot of music, and I try to listen to a lot of new music and old music and a lot of it gets filtered into what I do. I’m not very conscious about making decisions about Junior Boys that are determined by what I think we ought to be doing.
NT: I heard you describe the Jessy Lanza record as the most R&B focused thing that you’d done.
JG: Yeah, because that ties into what Jessy’s interests were, so she’s bringing that kind of expertise to it. It was just us trying to make something that was like what we were listening to but it doesn’t really come off sounding like R&B. That’s just because we don’t know how to make conventional R&B.
NT: Well, your solo stuff is more techno focused and you dropped that ambient tune a while ago.
JG: Yeah, I’m actually working on more of that. I’m really into that, that’s what’s been inspiring me lately [ambient music]. I’m just leaning in that direction these days. I’m working on an EP that’s going to be quite ambient in a way, and then yeah, you just go with whatever your interests are. Go with the flow as they say.
NT: Does that depend on what equipment you’re using?
JG: Absolutely, so for example I just bought this really, really nice reverb. So now I’m just inclined to go to the studio and play with my nice reverb, and it lends itself to doing really nice, lush ambient stuff, so that’s what I’m doin.
NT: The thing about electronic music I think so much of the sound depends on what synths that you like to work with.
JG: Absolutely, I think that’s more true of all music than people might think. In terms of the music that you make is dependent on the conditions in which you record it and the instruments that you choose to record with. That’s true of all music in lots of ways, but in electronic music it’s sort of hyper-realized. For me that’s the main focus of my creative process, what am I using when I’m doing stuff . So I mix up the things I use all the time to try and avoid repetition, or getting lazy.
NT: Moving to the record itself, does Bobby Caldwell know you covered his song?
JG: I suspect that he probably does, I don’t know. I have no idea.
NT: It sounds great.
JG: A lot of people have covered his song so it might just fly by him.
NT: I thought it summed up the record in this interesting way because with Jessy Lanza is more R&B focused while your solo work is more techno and the song manages to fall somewhere in between. Where does Junior Boys fall on that line for you between classic R&B and experimentation?
JG: I don’t know, it’s a good question. In my mind it’s just trying to make pop music as best as I can, and synthesizing all the things that I like, I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer. I think part of it, you asked about the earlier stuff and why I scrapped it, I think I scrapped it because it was fitting too much into some sort to like, mould of what I thought Junior Boys was supposed to be about. So when I did the stuff with Jessy and changed the way I was working and it changed my attitudes as to what I could do Junior boys. And her album was so successful, it meant that I didn’t have to worry about the Junior Boys sounding like Junior Boys, it could sound the way I wanted it to be. So I took more risks and did more different things with the material than I had previously.
NT: The songs are notably shorter on this too. was that to make it a bit more pop focused? There are a few interludes on the album.
JG: The main idea was that the whole writing process was a lot faster and so I wanted to reflect the frenzied activity and speed of everything by making sure that the songs were overly long. In the previous albums especially with the third album (Begone Dull Care), I -on purpose- made the songs quite long. The idea there was that I wanted them to be kind of similar to the disco era of the long song. So on this album I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to keep them within, I guess within more of a context of listening to R&B, keeping them in that short form song context.
NT: You make a reference to the “big black coat” being an idea that encapsulates the whole album, it’s not really a concept album but where does that come from?
JG: It’s about living in Hamilton. It’s about my past in Hamilton, and my roots in the city’s music scene. In the scenes of industrial music and techno music that were happening in the early 90s, and I sort of like, associate that with people wearing bomber jackets and black coats. The other part is that the songs were all inspired by people that I met going back from my studio to the bar, back to the studio, just walking that stretch of James St. and just meeting all these kinds of characters. So all the songs are kind of about these guys, who are just sort of lonely barfly guys. They’re just kind of you know, emotionally distraught, and don’t know how to articulate it. The coat just became a way to symbolize how people insulate themselves in the winter. You know, all that shit. Every time you’re walking around hamilton and you see some you know… sketchy guy.
NT: You started this in the late 90s when you were in England, why exactly were you over there?
JG: I started Junior Boys a little after that. I dropped out of high school, I wasn’t doing well, I was too into music and my parents didn’t know what to do. And I have a sister, an older sister and she’s really sensible. She was at university in England, and so she said “he should just come here and live with me and there’s music stuff happening here and he’ll be more inspired here, and he can just do high school through the correspondence books”. So that’s what I did. I moved to England for about a year and a half and I moved in with my sister and Steve Goodman who runs Hyperdub (Kode9) and I lived with them and I got a job at a recording studio, my whole life in music just started at that point. It was just a lucky thing.
I assume you graduated high school since then.
[laughs] I did. I also graduated university.
NT: Excellent. Before we go, you’ve made the comment about how a lot of these electronic scenes appear to come from one area. Things like Dubstep from London or Detroit Techno, so many of those scenes are supported by people around it, it’s not necessarily one spot…
JG: Obviously in Detroit techno a lot of those guys were from Detroit, but a lot of them weren’t. A lot of them made real contributions like Richie Hawton and John Acquaviva from Windsor [Ontario, Canada] and Dan Bell who was from St. Catherine’s [Ontario, Canada], and Dan Curtain who was from Ohio, all these guys who were just all over the place who were part of a community of musicians who were from from just like suburban nowheres. I think a lot of that music speaks to people in those situations.
NT: Do you think electronic music has a nationality?
JG: No, I don’t. I think that one of the things that’s great about dance music is that it’s most truly unnationalized, it’s un-racialized and it’s un-sexualized. Dance music isn’t black and it’s not white, it isn’t straight but it’s not entirely gay. It’s all of these things. That’s why dance music was more powerful and more important to me than punk music, because punk music was white and middle class, dance music wasn’t.
NT: A real pleasure to talk to you man, thanks so much.