Boston-based space rock quartet Junius built its darkly sexy sound over the course of two EPs and a full length album. The band’s full length debut, The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist, recounted the life story of Russian scientific theorist Immanuel Velikovsky, a staunch catastrophist whose attempts to provide scientific explanations for noteworthy biblical events were met with uncharacteristically vehement opposition from the scientific community. It sounds like a heady concept, but Junius’s attack is more character study than philosophical debate, and Martyrdom‘s batch of Velikovsky-inspired tunes is buoyed by the band’s enticingly hooky brand of moody guitar rock.
The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist was a three year undertaking that came to life via guerilla recording sessions at Henson Studios, the current incarnation of the famed A&M Studios, which has played host to hundreds of musical luminaries in its half century in operation. Released quietly in 2009, the album would inspire a wave of belated acclaim months after it was released. After a series of whirlwind tours of the United States and Europe, the band is finally taking time out to breathe and unwind. We recently caught up with singer/guitarist Joseph E. Martinez and guitarist Michael Repasch-Nieves to discuss the ride so far.
You’ve said before that you wanted Martyrdom to focus on Velikovsky’s personal life rather than his body of work. With a figure as whose ideas were as compelling as his, why go that route?
Joseph E. Martinez: His theories are what intrigued me at first, and so I began reading all his books, but in doing so I became more fascinated with the way he writes. He’s very eloquent and very poetic. Definitely not what I expected. So that lead me to read more about him. I read his memoirs and a book his daughter put out which contained letters he had written over the years to various scientists, publishers and family. These books really showed how much of a struggle it was for him to get his theories out into the world and was instantly far more relatable to a struggling musician. Anyone who is trying to take the road less traveled encounters pretty much the same resistance. I could easily write the story arc for his life and put it over mine and Junius’s. So I plotted out the album beginning with his birth and ending his death. We worked our butts off trying to make a cohesive album that wasn’t too abstract and really covered the basic outline of Velikovsky’s life.
Mike Repasch-Nieves: Focusing on his life is what made the whole thing relatable. Human. Being seven years deep in a band and still struggling to pay bills makes you appreciate a story like his. Anyone who’s struggled at something they feel passionate about can relate to that. They’re some universal themes.
What kind of work went into immersing yourselves in the world of such a polarizing figure?
Martinez: Lots of reading and searching for parallels. I felt like I was an actor preparing for a roll. I did my research, I tried to identify with his struggle by drawing parallels in my life, and then I would turn the filter on, only allowing the words and notes I felt made sense for his life and our album. It was a great experience. More work than I really wanted to do, but it was definitely worth it.
Martyrdom finds you working with a much wider sonic palette than your earlier work, which is largely constructed on guitar, bass, drums, and vocals exclusively. Was there a focus on diversifying this time out?
Martinez: That was due to boredom. We had the basic songs worked out but no real recording schedule. We were getting free studio time in Hollywood and Henson Recording studios, but we had to work around their schedule. So we would go in and track the drums and bass, but would have to leave before the guitars got started because Justin Timberlake would want the studio the next day. Or Mariah Carey. Or Akon. We got booted out a lot. It was a pain in the ass, but it allowed me to sit around and embellish the album with mellotron or Mike to mess around with a glockenspiel. The album definitely benefited from the sporadic recording schedule.
Repasch-Nieves: Some stuff was also kind of serendipitous. Like the fact that they had a grand piano in the studio, so we thought, why not use this? They also had some really cool echo chambers and things like that which we made use of. Most of the sounds on the album are totally organic in that sense—what you’re hearing are natural room sounds and echo chambers for most of that stuff. Due to the way the album is mixed, there are probably a lot of subtle textures that aren’t really noticeable, but we spent a lot more time than we ever did before on getting different tones and sounds—guitar-wise especially—since they had this room of amazing vintage gear owned by the producer, John Shanks, who was awesome enough to let us have free reign. Most of it was just a matter of “why not?”
Your music has often drawn comparisons to the work of acts like the Cure and Joy Division. For the record, what are your influences?
Martinez: No one really. I was listening to a ton of Philip Glass during the writing process, but that’s about it.
Repasch-Nieves: That’s always the hardest question, man… It’s just so hard cause it’s like, where to begin? Do I include the MC Hammer tape I bought when I was 9 years old? Somehow, that’s an influence. Everything’s an influence. Some of the stuff we all bonded over when we first met were bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Cursive, Failure, Hum, Deftones, Mogwai, Hot Water Music, Tears For Fears, and At The Drive-In. For myself, I’ve always been into film scores. I was obsessed with Danny Elfman and John Williams when I was a kid, which wasn’t particularly “cool.” I remember asking for movie scores like Batman for Christmas and not actually getting the score, but the “soundtracks” with songs “inspired by the movie,” which would have all the pop songs on it like Prince or Madonna or whoever ‘cause they just assumed that’s what I meant, but I actually wanted the scores.
Tell me about recording at Henson Studios. A lot of classic music was created there.
Martinez: That place was so much fun. We became friends with everyone there and they were all very welcoming and hospitable. The rooms sounded great, the equipment was topnotch, couldn’t ask for a better studio. It was even haunted…
Repasch-Nieves: It was inspiring and slightly humbling to work in a place with so much incredible history. There was a feeling I got every time I walked in there that I just can’t describe. A combination of nervousness, excitement and reverence. Kind of like being in an old church, but also knowing that we were there to work and create something (hopefully) worthy of the place. It was an amazing experience.
Martyrdom took a minute to sink in; much of the press and accolades came in some months after the album’s late 2009 release. Did you ever worry that it wouldn’t catch on?
Martinez: Not really, but it’s not really “catching on” either… I guess that’s a relative question. We’re very happy with this album, and if anything positive comes our way because of it, then great, but we try to keep our expectations very low.
Repasch-Nieves: Yeah, a lot of that also has to do with the fact that we released it on a relatively small independent label (The Mylene Sheath) and there was never a big marketing campaign or something, like when a Coldplay album comes out and it’s immediately all over the place, on the cover of every magazine, on every music site, on TV, etc. The positive side of that is that our music has spread out in a pretty organic fashion: one person tells another person and so on… I kind of like it that way since that’s how I usually find out about the bands/albums I end up loving the most. The only frustrating part is knowing that there might be a lot of people out there who are into the same kind of stuff we’re into and would like our music if they heard it, but they just haven’t—yet. But I’d rather it be like that than be shoved down people’s throats, I suppose.
“Elisheva, I Love You” is featured in Rock Band. How does it feel to have kids the world over pantomiming to your songs? Whose part is the most difficult?
Martinez: Ha! Mine! I think the vocals are the most difficult out of all the other parts. That song is a killer for me live. I’m totally into people playing and singing that song, though, they’ll probably get sick of it pretty quick.
Repasch-Nieves: Well, according to the game itself, the drums are the hardest part, and I think the vocals are second hardest. I’m not really sure if kids “the world over” are playing our song, but there are some YouTube videos of people scoring 99-100% on drums on expert difficulty which is pretty funny/cool to see. I still haven’t even played it yet. I think the only one of us who has is Dana (our drummer), and he failed it on his first try.
You’ve toured extensively since Martyrdom’s release. Any good stories? Any favorite cities?
Martinez: Europe is always a good time, can’t really think of any stories of the top of my head right now.
Repasch-Nieves: Yeah, pretty much every city in Europe. Barcelona, Prague, Lisbon, Edinburgh, Cologne, Vienna… I pretty much have my mind blown on a daily basis while we’re on tour in Europe by the beauty and history that’s around every corner. In the US, we always have a blast in NYC, LA, Austin, Chicago… Man, we pretty much have had great experiences in so many of the places we’ve been that it’s hard to even say. As far as good stories? Well, there was this time a few of the dudes got confronted by a gang of prostitutes while trying to find their way to the hostel in Berlin on our first European tour… I wasn’t there for that one (slept in the van that night), but it was certainly hilarious to hear the story in the morning.
What’s on the horizon?
Martinez: Writing another album. that’s all i can think about.
Repasch-Nieves: We’re covering a Hum song for this upcoming tribute album which we’re pretty excited about. Also doing a split with Rosetta that should be out this year. Aside from that, taking some time to write the next record. No specific touring plans coming up, but that could change at any moment.