Interviewed Junior Boys for Subbacultcha’s festival guide to Where The Wild Things Are 2016.
Only available in print, here is a link to the cover page with my writing credit.
And here is the interview text at the stage of its final edit:
Skype interview by Callum McLean
Don’t be misled by the name: Junior Boys are by now arch-statesmen of the Noughties’ synth revival, not to mention vanguards of the recent wave of experimental R&B that they prefigured a decade ago. 2004’s Last Exit and 2006’s So This is Goodbye still sound as softly radical as ever, and so does their creator, Jeremy Greenspan. On the eve of releasing their first record in five years, we talk disco melancholia, small-town stories and new beginnings.
PULL QUOTE 1: I prefer music with a kind of subtle sadness or happiness to it
PULL QUOTE 2: nowadays it’s quite acceptable for people like me to be into R&B
You’ve spoken before about something you call ‘soft sadness’?
I don’t respond to music that is overwrought emotionally. I prefer music with a kind of subtle sadness or happiness to it, which I find more meaningful. For example, Prefab Sprout. I think that’s more accurate in describing emotional states.
Something like you might get from a disco record?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s this mixture of emotions with disco that I find incredible where you have this [feeling of] release but at the same time it always sounds apocalyptic to me: dancing while the world is ending. I like that a lot – that’s why a lot of the time I tend to veer away from things that are super confrontational, because those emotional states aren’t subtle enough.
A lot of your records had pretty strong concepts behind them – your attempt at ‘synth crooning’, a tribute to animator Norman McLaren…
They’re usually ideas at the time [of recording]. But they’re useful to me at the same time as they probably aren’t for other people! That’s a weird line that you have to draw when you’re making music: the way you see an album isn’t necessarily the way others do. And you’re probably not going to be able to communicate what you want to.
Was there a similarly big concept behind you new album, <I>Big Black Coat<$>?
No, and that’s made it different. In fact, I could see what the lyrics were about only after the fact. The label asked me to write them all out – which I’d never done before – and it was only then that I realised they were all kind of about the same thing: lonely people in Hamilton [Canada] who are confused emotionally, who are lashing out a bit, slightly misogynistic. That was in virtually every song, and I realised that was the theme of the record. I wanted the lyrics to sound almost naive in a way – that’s why I use the word ‘baby’ over and over again. Like I was talking in a real voice, not in a lyrical way.
Which is funny because your voice on the album is at least as modulated as ever.
I like doing that, especially because it divorced me from [my voice]. When you’re listening to your own voice and you’ve heard it for a lot of years mixing something, you start to know it pretty well. I was inspired to break away from people’s expectations as well as my own. People associated my voice with the band, so it was a nice way for me to say, ‘I can do whatever I want.’
It’s interesting because your voice has that weird anonymity, again like disco and all those one-time session singers whose stories you never really heard.
Yeah, I like that. And also the idea of people hearing that and being surprised that it’s Junior Boys, it being unfamiliar.
Well, it’s also been a long time since your last record. There were points where it seemed unlikely you would release another full-length. How did it come together eventually?
At the end of writing the last record I started writing stuff with Jessy Lanza. When her album did as well as it did it gave me a huge jolt in confidence – which is much more important than people often think or like to say: when people like what you do, it gives you the energy to go out and do more of it! I felt like there was a new life in me as a producer. As a matter of fact, we did almost a whole Junior Boys record before. It just wasn’t going well at all. My heart wasn’t in it, it was Junior Boys by numbers. Then after Jessy’s album was done we just decided to scrap all of that and go with this new energy that I had instead, and make a new record. And that’s what we did!
The kind of glacial, electronic R&B experimentation you were doing in 2003 is now fairly commonplace. Are you due some credit?
I don’t know, we were definitely doing that kind of thing. I don’t presume that these people know who we are, were fans or listened to us then. But when we first started I really felt like there was nothing much like it. That was really exciting. Whereas nowadays it’s quite acceptable for people like me to be into R&B, it’s the norm. I think that’s good because any time people aren’t trying to make new rock music, I’m excited about that! There was a period when it felt like all the great promise of dance music, to bring about a kind of cultural revolution in music, was lost because of the rise of indie rock. So anything that makes that go away I think of as being a positive thing.
It’s certainly much harder to date your early records than a lot of the more explicitly ’80s revivalist synth bands that appeared at the same time.
Well, the music tradition that I hope we’re part of is this kind of outsider pop music. One of the reasons why I live in this unknown town in Canada is a fear of infecting myself too much with the zeitgeist, you know? I listen to all sorts of new music but I’m not part of any kind of community of new musicians. I just take what I want and do what I want, and hopefully it sounds like it comes from a nowhere place. So I hope for that reason it doesn’t sound part of some kind of movement that has come and gone.
Junior Boys play Action Factory at 20.00 on Friday, 04 March.