It feels surprising to write those words in the present tense, because for a few years it looked like Junior Boys were done. After a string of moves and personal crises, the duo's music grew gloomy, its playful energy sapped and somber. By the time of their last album, 2011's It's All True, those feelings had swallowed them up completely. That record felt like their last—when their contract with Domino expired, they didn't bother to renew it. Greenspan went home to Hamilton, Ontario while Didemus stayed in Berlin.
The friends tried to collaborate remotely but eventually scrapped everything they'd come up with, convinced it sounded forced. Meanwhile, Greenspan was making house for Caribou's label, Jiaolong, and Didemus found dance floor success with his DIVA project on New Kanada (including the minor club hit "Paris Stabbing"). Once Greenspan started working with Jessy Lanza, a longtime friend of both members, he found a creative outlet that would pull him even further away from Junior Boys, and then finally drive him back to it.
If Pull My Hair Back was Lanza's breakthrough moment, it was Greenspan's saving grace. He was working much faster than usual, and felt freed by his lack of a record contract. He could do whatever he wanted without worrying about the end product, or even worrying if there would be an end product. For the first time in a while, he felt good about the music he was making, and this made him want to bring back Junior Boys.
Greenspan and Didemus worked remotely again, and this time it bore fruit. Though they might not call it one, Big Black Coat is a classic comeback record. Didemus and Greenspan sound refreshed—after the heaviness of the last two records, they sound like they're dancing on their tiptoes. Without the emotional baggage of It's All True and Begone Dull Care, we're left with the lean, funky skeleton of the Junior Boys sound. With its winking love songs and synth pop come-ons, Big Black Coat most resembles So This Is Goodbye, the band's landmark 2006 LP.
The breeziness of Big Black Coat is a product of a much happier lifestyle for Greenspan. That much was clear when he told me over the phone about his personal problems during (what felt like) the last years of the Junior Boys, his frustrations with the creative process and, by contrast, his newfound comfort in Hamilton. Things have worked out pretty well for the man who, at a low point in his career, sang: "Never seen, never been in a truly happy ending."
Why did you guys take a break after It's All True?
Well, we didn't really talk about it. It wasn't like this thing where we were like, "Let's take a break." The tour after It's All True wasn't such a great time. There were a lot of things that went down personally, there were some deaths in the family. It was just a bad time, and so at the end of it we were pretty beat. But we started working on music pretty much right afterwards, and it just wasn't working. The music that we were doing wasn't good, and then everything started happening with Jessy. That just completely took over all of my attention.
What do you mean everything started happening?
Basically it was between It's All True and this new album. Jessy's album happened. I've known her for a long time, and I originally brought her in to do some vocals on one of the songs on It's All True. And then she asked me to help her out. She had inherited, from her father, these synthesizers, and wanted some advice on how to use them. So I said, "Sure," and then we got together, and then we started writing together.
I got really excited about writing a new album with someone else. I prioritized that over Junior Boys because it was just more exciting. And then it ended up being so much of a bigger deal than I thought it was gonna be. It took up more time and what ended up happening is that I was really not interested in the Junior Boys stuff I was doing. We scrapped it all. It was basically a whole album's worth of material that we didn't like. And it was only after doing some of the solo releases that I did, and then Jessy's album coming out, that I became inspired to do some Junior Boys records.
Why didn't you like any of the Junior Boys stuff you had?
I could just hear that I wasn't interested. To me it sounded like Junior Boys-by-numbers or something. On most records there's a bunch of songs you throw out because you don't like them. And it was basically all of them until we did one song, "Come On Baby." It's track number three on the new album. That one was so different and excited me a lot. It was a path forward to make a new kind of record for me.
What did you take away from working with Jessy that you brought to Junior Boys?
Everything. It completely revitalized my attitudes. There were a whole bunch of different things. One was, because Jessy's album went well, it brought up a whole different career for me. Which was nice as it meant that I didn't have all my eggs in one Junior Boys basket, it meant I could go back to Junior Boys and I didn't have to be stressed out about how it was perceived or how it did commercially, because I didn't have everything riding on it. It's like an old cliché: when you're not worried about a thing you can actually do some good work. And then of course, working with another person, working with Jessy for example, clues you into different ideas. I just took lots of inspiration from her approaches and her ideas in terms of production and songwriting.
How did you approach the songwriting differently?
I always approach songwriting the same way. I've done a bunch of solo releases over the last couple of years of these techno-y dance tracks that I've released on Jiaolong, Dan Snaith's label. All of them would start exactly the same way as a Junior Boys track would start or a Jessy track: I set up a bunch of equipment and noodle around until I have a series of loops, things that are skeletons of dance tracks. Once I have those, either I can strip them away and build them into dance tracks, or I can say, "OK, this is a chorus, this is a verse," and just build a structure out of that. If I'm the one starting a track then at the beginning it could be a song for Jessy, it could be a song for Junior Boys, or it could be a solo dance release. It's not like I get into some different headspace for any one of them.
After Pull My Hair Back, was it weird or different going back to work with Matt?
It wasn't weird. The new Junior Boys album is split in half. Half the songs I did by myself and half of the songs I did with Matt. And of the five songs that I did with Matt, four of them were started by him. He would just come with some stuff that he had started, and then we worked on it. And then the other half of the album I just did by myself. It was just good vibes—we had done all of this material that we didn't like, and then suddenly we're working on this stuff that we really liked, and we didn't really care about the fact that maybe it was different than what some people might think Junior Boys ought to sound like. We were having a really good time. The whole experience of making the album was very positive, as opposed to the last two, which were not. It felt much more like making So This Is Goodbye, in a way—everything happened really fast and we were in a good headspace the whole time.
The album sounds a lot less laboured.
Yeah, it was a lot less laboured than the last two records. I like those records a lot, but they're different for me to listen to because they weren't made in good mental spaces. Like any kind of photograph or whatever might bring you back to a time, the last two records were not good mental spaces for me, and this one really was.
I think the climate of music, especially indie music right now, is really different than even when It's All True came out. It's a little more mainstream, more accepted. Does that change anything for you?
I don't know. Electronic dance music of any kind is a hyper-accelerated market, even more so than pop music. There's so much stuff, so many great producers and so many great people who've done music in the last 15 years that just vanish into the ether. It's weird, even I'll think about things that I liked that I completely forgot about because there's so much music that comes. Peoples' perception of what is current changes so fast. It gives me a little bit of perspective in the sense that, you know, we've been releasing music for 12 or 13 years. That anybody cares about what we're doing is pretty gratifying. People get lost in the shuffle in music all the time, and I'm pretty thankful that I don't have to stress about that so much.
What was it like working on Jessy Lanza's new album, Oh No? How is it different from the first one?
It's pretty different. I feel like it's a bit more in the world of the outsider. We have this running thing of constantly listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra and their variants, and being inspired by this stuff that skirts the worlds of pop music and dance music... but also being quite abstract. It's a slightly more abstract record in some ways than her first one. But also poppier. It's hard to explain. I'm really happy with it. So, that was a good thing for the Junior Boys because it was this cross-pollination, this super intense work period. I've never worked on so much music in such a condensed period of time.
Did you carry over any ideas to the Junior Boys album? A lot of the synths sounds on Big Black Coat sound a bit more retro than what you'd done previously.
I don't know, we've always been accused of sounding retro. All of the records are very outboard. Everything is made with actual outboard pieces of equipment. I don't do a lot of writing inside the computer. And the older I get, the more I do that, just because it's a lot faster for me. I get ideas going much faster. And because I rely on the idiosyncrasies of the equipment to generate ideas for myself.
What were some of the key pieces of equipment that helped make the new album what it is?
I got really into an effects processor that I use a lot called an Eventide H3000, which I always loved using and putting on everything. The main thing I use all the time is a modular synthesizer. The thing about modular synthesizers is you can swap modules and you can re-patch a synthesizer different ways every single time, and you get rid of a module you're not using and maybe buy a new one, stuff like that. And that's a constantly changing environment.
If you really get into the modular headspace then you start viewing your whole studio as a modular. Because you have all sorts of stuff in the studio that can generate a part of a patch. It's like, "OK, I have this synthesizer patch going into this reverb unit," and what you're doing is generating patches. And then you press play and your brain isn't generally able to remember all of the different parameters that you've set. So there's a degree of—this is gonna sound ridiculous—there's a degree of divination about it, it's like you get into a ritualistic place. You're just randomly doing stuff and suddenly a piece of music appears out of nowhere.
It's a fun way of making music because stuff just happens, and your job is to record it and then try and experiment with it. A lot of electronic musicians I idolized were people who had worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this perfect ideal of going to a lab all day, and playing with weird equipment and try to generate ideas out of it. That's, for me, the most fun aspect of making music.
Do you generally spend all day in the studio?
I spend a lot of time in the studio, although I tend to work in spurts. I go to my studio religiously everyday. And then I usually will work in a spurt and then leave and go to the bar down the street and hang out with my friends and then I go back. Back and forth all day. In terms of the mood and atmosphere and inspiration of the album, it comes from that walk that happens between my studio and the bar. The vibe of downtown Hamilton, where I live, and the people I'm around.
What's Hamilton like?
Hamilton is surrounded by beautiful, lush green space. But the core of Hamilton is your typical rust-belt tragedy. It's a post-industrial city. Hamilton's funny because it's becoming super hip now. People are moving from Toronto to Hamilton because of the price inflation that happens in Toronto.
Why have you stayed there all these years?
It's cheap and it has this lawless feel about it, you can kind of do anything. A lot of my friends I hang out with every day, none of them are interested in music, really, in the world of dance music or indie music. There's no feeling of being inundated, or belonging to a scene, or a competitive atmosphere of hipness. For me, that's good, because I see myself as an outsider musician.
Hamilton is hyperreal. It's the most real place you can imagine in the sense that nobody has any concerns outside of the city of Hamilton. It's the least globally- or nationally-thinking city. Everybody's world is Hamilton. It's really weird that way, and I love that about it. It's a completely unpretentious place. Which is good, because I don't react well to being in a place where I feel as though I need to impress anybody. Our entire career has been a bit of a situation of me not being able to sell the product. I don't think I am what people who are interested in the band would expect me to be.
There are some people that say they're a reluctant frontman or whatever, but really they aren't. Maybe they're just shy and introverted, but that's easy to sell. I'm not that at all. I'm just... I don't know. Let me give you an example. I'll play a concert and people will come up to me and be like, "I had no idea that you would be the guy." If there was a motto that summed up my career, that would be it.
I take some sick pleasure in that, so I want to still be the guy that people are surprised by. If I moved to Berlin or New York and was going to the right parties, then I would stop being that guy, and I think that that would be to the detriment of how I see myself.
I'm not sure how true it is that you're not good at selling the product. Obviously you're quite successful.
Let me put it this way. We've done really well in the sense that I couldn't be happier with the way that things have gone. However, we had a lot of hype when things first started. And I suspect that there are a lot of ways that we could have capitalized on that hype, in a way that could have made us a really big band, you know? Things that I didn't know how to do or wouldn't feel comfortable doing.
I have a lot of friends here who know that I do music but we're not particularly popular in Hamilton. People will come up to me and say, like, "You guys are huge in Europe, right?" and I'll say, "No, no we're not." And they'll say, "Well, where are you huge?" I say, "We're not big anywhere, but we kind of do OK everywhere, which is really nice." We can go and play just about anywhere and there'll be some people who will come and see us. That's unusual for a Canadian band. A lot of the time if you're a successful Canadian band it means that you do really well in Canada, and then you don't do well anywhere else. I like to think that because we've been around a while it means we're cult-y.
Yeah, I would agree. One other thing I wanted to bring up: the lyrics on Big Black Coat seem a little more direct than on the other records.
It's All True was all about me going through a personal crisis, a relationship meltdown. I was like, "OK, well, what am I gonna write about on this record?" I like to write about emotional things. I don't write about politics, I don't write about big idea stuff. I like to write about the relationships between people. And so it's this age-old problem—what do you write about when things in your life are OK? What I wanted to do is represent the people that I see all the time. If you live in a place where there's a degree of human tragedy—which happens in Hamilton all the time—at first you have to be kind of comfortable with it, and on some level you have to be attracted to it. It's kind of hard to explain. Where do you live? Vancouver?
So I imagine you probably have some friends that live in East Vancouver.
I live in East Vancouver.
OK, so you know there's a degree of human tragedy in East Vancouver. On some level, that probably attracts you or your friends. Vancouver is a funny case because it's such a city of extremes. You have that urban gentrification on steroids, that yuppie thing that happens in Vancouver, alongside this total zombie apocalypse of the drug culture. And in Hamilton it's different in the sense that there's no real yuppie side. It's just a lot of people struggling, just struggling in whatever way.
I wanted to write about those people because they're the people I see a lot and people who I know have complex emotional lives. I wanted to talk about them. And so a lot of the lyrics on the album are about people, mainly men, who are feeling desperate and feeling alone and confused. And that's the permeating theme. I wanted to write it in their voice as much as possible, so I didn't want the lyrics to be overly lyrical. I wanted them to sound like they were coming from a real place. A lot of the songs are inspired by specific people, and that's why I wanted to use the word "baby" all the time on the record. It's a word that sounds real—it's a word that's coming from this desperate emotional place and it's my way of saying that I'm not fucking around. I'm just talking about it. I don't want to get bogged down in words. I just wanna say "baby."
Junior Boys play Field Day at Victoria Park in London, on Sunday 12th June.