Still sweet sounding pop songs.
Junior Boys have always been a musical chameleon. From dubstep via synth-pop to disco, their musical focus always shifted. On their fifth release “Big Black Coat”, the Canadian duo incorporates modern R&B into their sound.
Waking up from a mid afternoon power nap on the office floor of their new label City Slang in Berlin-Kreuzberg, Jeremy Greenspan seems deeply relaxed as we sit down with Matt Didemus. Matt didn’t nap, and it shows: He won’t say very much in the interview, only interjecting from time to time. But as will become clear later on, this mirrors exactly the roles they play in the band, with Jeremy at the helm and Matt being an inspiring or correcting presence. Jeremy’s sentences come out calmly and with absolute definity.
This is your first release after you completed a four album deal with Domino Records. Why did you join City Slang?
Jeremy Greenspan: They wanted us the most. We didn’t have any label deal when we made the album. We gave it to a bunch of labels only after we finished it, and City Slang liked it a lot. Plus, Dan Snaith of Caribou was very enthusiastic about City Slang and told us how well they treated him making “Swim” a few years ago. They are really nice guys.
City Slang released a lot of US and Canadian indie bands in the past. Would you feel comfortable being labeled “indie pop”?
J: No, not at all. That genre is pretty far from my interest. To be honest, I am pretty ignorant about indie. It wasn’t big in Hamilton when we grew up. But I think indie rock and punk music were much bigger with the generation that came after us.
Matt Didemus: In the Nineties, there was a good techno and dance scene in Hamilton. People from all over the world came to play warehouse parties there.
Where would you position yourself musically?
J: There is a core of stuff that I am into: Modern R&B, hiphop, dance music and new wave. I don’t listen to a lot of guitar music, except for a bit of heavy metal. But I don’t like modern rock music of any kind.
M: Also, Seventies ambient is an influence for us. Synthesizers tend to be a common thread.
Do you use any guitars at all when recording or playing live?
J: I actually do some ambient sounds on the guitar sometimes. But it is mainly synthesizers, samples and drum machines. We are interested in any kind of studio trickery, but we don’t play many live instruments in the studio.
M: We don’t overuse the laptop either. It is no fun watching someone standing on stage with a glow on their face. So we tend to bring a lot of equipment with us when we go on tour.
How do the two of you work together, with Jeremy living in Canada and Matt being here in Berlin? What is your work process?
J: See, there are eleven songs on the new album. Half of these songs I did by myself. And the other half Matt started in Berlin and then came and finished them with me in Hamilton. He would bring some loops or drum patterns that he liked and I would put them in a song frame, adding other loops or chords in the process. I like to work on stuff that has already been started by someone else, because it is so much easier than starting something yourself. That is why I continue working with Matt – even though we have this great distance between us and little time together.
Your sound changed a lot over the years, wouldn’t you agree?
J: That is hard to tell from the inside. It is similar to old photographs, where after a while, it doesn’t really seem to be you in that picture anymore. Let’s put it this way: Our influences have always stayed quite the same, but our workflow has changed a lot. It did so because of very specific changes in the equipment that we use. We are a gear driven band.
M: The gear that you use has such a big impact on your music. And it is always very exciting to play with new stuff and to try out new possibilities.
So you just go and buy something and see how it works out afterwards?
J: There you go. That’s exactly how it works for us. You go home with something and fiddle around with it. That fiddling around is recorded and then you turn it into a song. That is our process, basically.
Where exactly would you locate your new album with respect to your discography?
J: It is a bit of a return to the beginning. There is more early Nineties techno and industrial music on it than on our last records. It has some harsher sounds, but is still within the framework of Junior Boys. More aggressive music, but still sweet sounding pop songs.
Was that the goal: To make sweet pop music?
J: It is not like we wanted to make it. That is simply what comes out of us in the end.
M: Even if we try to do it very differently, something always pulls us back.
J: Sometimes we try be very hard and aggressive. And then I throw a chord on it, and before we know it, it has become melancholic or sweet. There is nothing we can do about it, that is just how we always sound. But when we have to make any kind of musical choice and we have an option that we think we shouldn’t take, you know: the one that feels a little weird – that’s usually the right choice to make.
M: That is the way experimentation happens. Otherwise, you just go with the comfortable thing, which you know will work, but which will get you nowhere new.
But you have your signature sound.
M: But that is a result of experimentation.
J: If we were better at the stuff that we wanted to sound like, we would sound more like that stuff. We are just not very good at it. We are only good at sounding like us. So no matter what we try and do, it just comes back to sounding like us. So it is not that we are trying to sound like this, but it is the only thing that comes naturally. We are constantly trying to sound differently, though.
So what did you want to sound like this time?
J: On this album, it was R&B. If you said to me, Jeremy, try to write an R&B song, I’d said: Sure, and I’d go into my studio and start writing. But it would come out sounding like a Junior Boys song, no matter how hard I tried. And I really do try sometimes. I had to accept that fact.
Jeremy, you worked with Jessy Lanza recently. Is that why you are into R&B these days?
J: She surely had a huge influence on me. “Pull My Hair Back” was the first time I made a whole album with someone other than Matt, and when that album became fairly successful, I suddenly had a whole other career.
But you stepped quite a bit out of the Junior Boys sound there.
J: That was all Jessy. Every relationship, in music or otherwise, is different from any other. So if I do a track with Matt, it sounds differently to when I do a track with Jessy. But what I learned from doing stuff with Jessy, I brought to Junior Boys. And the fact that Jessy’s album did well meant that I didn’t have all this pressure to make another Junior Boys album to survive. I only had to do it if I wanted to.
…and you wanted to.
J: I did. But it meant that we could take as long as we wanted. Because Jessy was doing so well, and I was doing well because of her.
Was that new to you, not having any pressure to make another album?
J: Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t get a lot of pressure from Domino before…
M: But we had… commitments.
J: If we still had that commitment, we probably would have released something, like, two years ago. But it wouldn’t have been the album we wanted to put out.
So is this exactly the album you wanted to put out? After all, you did just say that you wanted to make something else, and it just turned out to be another Junior Boys album.
J: To us, then new album sounds pretty differently, because we know the subtle differences. To everyone else, it probably sounds like another Junior Boys album. At least to everyone who hasn’t been with us for a very long time and will notice the changes. There are certain songs on this album that would never have appeared on the last albums. “Love Is A Fire” for example, which is heavier and darker than before. There are a couple of those on the album, songs that sound more unfinished, with a lot of buzzing sounds which I usually would have cleaned up, and pitched vocals which I wouldn’t have produced before. Those decisions are pretty radical for me.