Cold Ontario nights: the creative rebirth of Junior Boys

'I've made this album, and I don't really care who likes it or not. I like it.'

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Jeremy Greenspan doesn’t feel that old. “I read something that said ‘veteran producer is being honored,’ and I was like, ‘Veteran producer? Really? Fuck! What happened? What happened?’" Greenspan is nursing a cup of a tea at a table in the back of The Brain, the Hamilton, Ontario bar that’s something like his second home. “I was always this kid, and then one day I was suddenly the oldest person I knew. All of my friends were suddenly younger than me.” He says it with a bewildered grin, the face of someone who knows time flies but still can’t quite believe it’s happened to him.

Greenspan is getting ready to release Big Black Coat, his fifth album as half of electro-pop duo Junior Boys. (It's coming out on February 5th.) It’s the band’s first LP in half a decade — their last album was the glossy, reserved It’s All True — and it’s a marked departure from the records that won Junior Boys fans and critical acclaim during the mid-’00s. Instead of leaning on cosmopolitan ‘80s pop and turn-of-the-millennium British dance music, Greenspan and bandmate Matt Didemus are tapping into the disco and icy Detroit techno that shaped their earliest musical experiments. Greenspan takes his supple, rich voice — the band’s “sacred cow,” as he puts it — and warps it until it might as well be a guest vocalist. Albums like 2004’s Last Exit and 2006’s So This Is Goodbye helped to set the stage for the success of artists like Disclosure and Duke Dumont, but Greenspan and Didemus are moving on.

"I started writing another album... I felt like I was over the whole thing."

Junior Boys weren’t just poised to take advantage of British dance music’s American ascendance — they were sitting at the vanguard of alternative pop and R&B too, blazing a trail for everyone from How to Dress Well to Grimes. Why abandon a place at the forefront of two genres about to explode? To hear Greenspan tell it, moving forward was the only way to keep his creative spirit alive. "I started writing another Junior Boys album in the same way I always had," says Greenspan, "and it wasn’t interesting or exciting to me. I felt like I was over the whole thing." In order to get over the hump, Greenspan had to do more than flip a switch: he had to draw inspiration from his city and its people, tweak his creative process, collaborate with other artists, and take on the biggest workload of his career. It was a demanding time, but it paid off: when I spoke to Greenspan a few weeks ago, he sounded like he’d finally achieved true creative freedom.

If you want to fully appreciate Big Black Coat, you need to understand Hamilton. A city of just over 500,000 people anchoring the bottom end of the Golden Horseshoe, it’s the Canadian city closest in demographics and spirit to the beleaguered, scrappy cities of the Rust Belt. Greenspan has lived in Hamilton for almost his entire adult life, and he’s seen the city move through several distinct stages: thriving steel capital, depressed punchline, resurgent creative hub. It’s now largely reliant on the education and health care industries — "I always joke that half of Hamilton is employed giving health care to the other half," says Greenspan — and it also attracts young people and artists, creative types pushed out of Toronto (a 45-minute drive to the north, around Lake Ontario) by its insane real estate market. The result is a city that’s become more vital than ever without sacrificing all of its trademark grit.

Greenspan can’t imagine living anywhere else. "I think there are two kinds of people in the world," says Greenspan. "There are the people who can move wherever — who like the feeling of being a loner in strange place, or the adventure of traveling, or whatever it is — and there are people who feel like they need a sense of belonging, or a sense or ownership over the place in which they live, and I’m the latter. I feel like Hamilton is such a massive part of who I am… I feel a little lost without it." It became a massive part of Big Black Coat, too: more than any other Junior Boys album, it’s impacted by the dance music that enthralled Greenspan and Didemus when they were younger. Detroit’s socioeconomic decline and ensuing decay helped to grant the city’s music a cool starkness; Hamilton’s parallel slide manifested itself in the affection its electronic musicians have for that sound.

Greenspan is more comfortable embracing it now than he might’ve been at the beginning of his career, when his music was more explicitly focused on the fusion of multiple genres. "When I first started with Junior Boys… I thought, ‘Okay, I’m synthesizing my interest in R&B and UK dance music and synthpop, and no one’s done this. At least it’s mine,’" says Greenspan. "Now that I’ve done a whole bunch of stuff, I don’t question that anymore; I don’t worry about belonging… I think of that music from my past as part of my core. When I’m doing stuff that’s consciously influenced by it, it feels like I’m returning to my roots."

The city also supplied Greenspan with the characters and perspectives that end up defining the album. "It’s basically inspired by this bar… if you walk by this place three times, you’ll see what the city is like every day. You’re passing by these lonely downtown Hamilton guys. That’s who I was communicating with and talking to — they have complex emotional lives, but most people who go to a bar alone are lonely for some reason. They’re frustrated, they’re usually pissed off about life, they’re mildly misogynistic. They have this desire for someone or something, but it’s unfulfilled… I wanted to give them a kind of life. I wanted to write in a real voice, I didn’t want to be overpoetic or overly lyrical."

Greenspan’s familiar with that frustration, at least in a creative sense. After touring the world in support of It’s All True, he found himself stymied by personal turmoil and a lack of interest in the process he’d employed to make Junior Boys’ first four albums. "Things weren’t going well… I thought, ‘You can’t do this again. This was just too heavy,’" says Greenspan. "I felt like going to the wanted pages and saying, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do?’" He started working on new Junior Boys material before abandoning it to focus on other projects, material he’d later scrap entirely; he released solo and collaborative material on Jiaolong, the label run by Caribou’s Dan Snaith. (Snaith has roots in the Hamilton area, and Greenspan mixed a few songs on Caribou’s 2010 LP Swim.)

The fog hanging over Greenspan’s music with Junior Boys was ultimately lifted by the emergence of a new working relationship, one that’s come to define this new stage in his career. Greenspan and fellow Hamiltonian Jessy Lanza started working as part of the sessions making up It’s All True, and when the album finished they started cobbling together tracks around her voice and piano melodies. Those tracks became Pull My Hair Back, Lanza’s 2013 debut LP; Greenspan co-wrote and co-produced the album, and facilitated Lanza’s connection to venerated UK electronic label Hyperdub.

"When [Pull My Hair Back] came out, it did so much better than I ever anticipated. It did better than the last Junior Boys album," says Greenspan. "People liked it so much, and young people liked it — people who were 15-20 years younger than me were into it. And I thought, 'This is amazing, I have this whole other career now… Fuck this shit, I can make Jessy Lanza albums.'" With one successful, rewarding collaboration in the books, Greenspan and Lanza came together again to work on Oh No, the followup that’s being released on May 13th. At the same time, Greenspan had found the spark he needed to return to Junior Boys revitalized.

The twin demands of Big Black Coat and Oh No — "I’d never worked on music at that kind of pace," says Greenspan — meant focusing on speed rather than sophistication and polish. On earlier Junior Boys records, Greenspan would put together immaculate, precise songs like "In the Morning" and "Banana Ripple" by slowly, painfully tweaking them. "The idea was, ‘I’m gonna make these the most sophisticated pop songs I can,’ and they’d have these crazy chord changes like Steely Dan or 10cc or whatever," says Greenspan. "That was what I wanted it to sound like. I did this record totally differently."

He’d take pieces of equipment scattered around his studio, rearrange and link them together, and press play; he’d take the resulting chaos and shape it like a potter working a piece of clay into a vase, turning dials and adjusting sounds until something exciting emerged. At that point, he’d quickly mix it and throw it in a pile with other drafts. "I did it the way we did Jessy’s album: you develop a song really quickly, you mix the song and then it’s done. The whole thing happens really fast… you just do a shit-ton of songs, and you can choose which ones are good and which ones are bad [later]."

Greenspan used the same quick-and-dirty approach when it came to writing lyrics and recording vocals for Big Black Coat. The vocal takes on the first four Junior Boys records were gleaming, the products of serious contemplation and expensive microphones. Like any other quality pop topliner, Greenspan would start with a wordless vocal melody, one that’d exist as near-gibberish before he’d start stumbling onto key phrases. He’d take those phrases and edit them into an independent piece of writing, and he’d tinker with them until they were perfect. The songs on Big Black Coat use what Greenspan would’ve previously considered demo takes. "I’d write the song, and the minute it was written I’d sing into a cheap microphone," says Greenspan, "and at a certain point, I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna use these demos.’"

It's the least delicate, least composed music Junior Boys have ever made

It’s a strategy that helps to explain the prominence of certain words and themes throughout the album. The most notable is probably the word "baby," which appears on almost every track; according to Greenspan, it was a bit of shorthand, a way to inhabit the downtown Hamilton characters he was trying to realize in the music. "‘Baby’ became this word that captured where these guys were coming from. It became a kind of anchor."

As a result, Big Black Coat has a raw, energetic feel. Percussive loops and little snippets of melody rub up against each other, threatening to fall off-kilter; short phrases jump out and stick in your teeth like popcorn kernels, suggestive and mysterious. (I’ve spent weeks with the line "And you say that I am / the dirty one," a piece cut from opener "You Say That." I twist it and toss it around like a Rubik’s cube, waiting for it to reveal some truth stuffed inside.) It’s the least delicate, least composed music Junior Boys have ever made, and that makes it exciting. It’s music with heart, and I’m glad Greenspan took all the time he needed to make it instead of forcing himself through the motions four or five years ago. There’s something inspiring about the winding path that led to this record. It suggests it’s never too late to step back, to take a breath, to rediscover the joy that made you want to create in the first place. Greenspan’s found it: "I’ve made this Junior Boys album, and I don’t really care who likes it or not. I like it."

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