In the wake of the Canadian electronic duo Junior Boys’ misunderstood third album Begone Dull Care, Jeremy Greenspan turned to a city he didn’t know and a dead filmmaker.
Begone Dull Care was actually also inspired by film: notably, the Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren whose work for the National Film Board of Canada has also had a less than insignificant effect on other electronic musicians. McLaren joined the NFBC in 1941 and became a pioneer in visual music, graphical sound, and invented a strange new technique for drawing on film. “His whole thing was doing this really intricate work and I wanted to do the same thing in music,” says Greenspan.
But Begone Dull Care was a harsher and darker record than 2006’s sunnier So This Is Goodbye, which is still the duo’s best-selling album. Greenspan says when the record leaked early and people started forming an impression of it before it was even officially released, it seemed greatly at odds with the methodical way in which the band had written and recorded it. “It’s such a deflating experience,” he says of the premature reviews. “It affected me quite personally. I went into a dark place.”
Greenspan was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but as teenager moved to Birmingham, England, where he became friends with Steve Goodman, the Glaswegian producer who as Kode9 founded the Hyperdub label that helped usher in the dubstep era. “I got a lot of what I am as a musician from England,” says Greenspan, though he says Hamilton’s creative community and proximity to Detroit’s techno played an equal influence in his formative years.
Those early years were spent studying dance records, but, uniquely within the genre, Greenspan decided to become a songwriter. “The idea of trying to write songs seemed supremely uncool,” he says. “But I couldn’t deny the fact that I wasn’t that good at making track-y dance music, and I had a natural predilection to want to write songs.”
Becoming interested in New Wave artists like John Foxx and Japan helped galvanize Greenspan’s concept for a type of dance music built around traditional song structures and lyrics. “[Junior Boys’] writing process is very similar to what it’s like to write dance music,” he says. “I think that’s what we took from dance music. That’s what made us unique, maybe. There were these really melodic dance music people like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, where there really were chord structures, harmonies, and melodies. I often was drawn towards those.”
Greenspan could also be talking about his own music when he describes Heard or Craig. Maybe his interest in story arcs and lyrical narrative — in a genre dominated by sound creators not songwriters — is what concurrently draws him to filmmakers. For the group’s most recent album, It’s All True, released this past summer, Greenspan became fixated on Orson Welles. “Musicians rarely comment on their own obsessions with their own careers,” he says. “No one talks about the anxieties of losing all your confidence.” But yet, here was an artist like Orson Welles, whose films deal with “the pitfalls of aging, losing your confidence, and losing your confidence as a result of submitting to falsehoods and forgery instead of authenticity.”
In 2010, after finishing mixing projects for Caribou’s Swim and Kode9’s Black Sun, Greenspan went to China, where he worked on the songs that would become It’s All True and in the process recorded Chinese traditional musicians over his electronic foundations. He says being out of his comfort zone helped him to move past the negativity he felt after Begone Dull Care. “China is growing at an exponential rate. You go to Shanghai now and it must be the same feeling as being in New York City in 1903. Civilization on the verge of world dominance. And it feels like that.” He says being in China was “dizzying and humbling,” and put his fears about his music career into perspective. “[People in China] don’t care. They’ve probably barely heard of Bruce Springsteen.” Plus, he adds, artists who came out of the cultural revolution in China are making art less for a commercial purpose and more because they’re utterly compelled to create.
And that’s the place from which It’s All True comes. It’s the intricate and impeccable production of two obsessive engineers (Greenspan records and performs as Junior Boys with Matt Didemus) who share a love for the recording studio and R&B vocals.
From the opening track “Itchy Fingers,” the album seems to be about the struggle to make art in the face of rejection. “You’re like a little fly stuck inside the window dying to get inside,” Greenspan sings. “They’ll crush you with a paper folded just to see you die.” The fly metaphor seems an easy analogy for the way the music press swats at records, but the lyrics could just as easily describe a failed relationship. Over gorgeously programmed beats and a supple bass line, a traditional Chinese instrument emerges towards the song’s end. It’s a lovely and not in the least kitchsy bit. Something akin perhaps to how others like Dan Snaith from Caribou have found ways to incorporate “exotic” sounds into their music.
Other songs on It’s All True are slow-motion dirges. The mournful keyboard chords from “Playtime” and the ominous tone of “You’ll Improve Me” soundtrack a film that maybe only exists in Greenspan’s head.
On “Second Chance,” Greenspan sings about “a burned-out raver” who falls into the water drowning in Brazil, “but no one really bothered.” If the person dies, Greenspan says, “what’s really tragic is that you’ll miss the shot to get what you’re really after.” But, the character in the song is given a second chance.
That lesson of “getting what you’re really after” seems to resonate with Junior Boys, who toured the U.S. behind It’s All True this summer and will head back to Europe for the rest of the year. Greenspan describes the recent tour as “epic.” “The shows have been some of the best we’ve ever played,” he says. On December 11, Junior Boys will play the Caribou-curated third day at All Tomorrow’s Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival in Minehead, England.
Looks like Greenspan is getting that “second chance” too.