Bay Guardian contributor Chris Sabbath recently talked to Junior Boys in anticipation of their Sept. 26 show at Bottom of the Hill.
So This Is Goodbye (Domino), the new album from Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus of the Junior Boys, finds the duo getting their signature blend of seductive pop and bubbling electronica that started on 2004’s Last Exit (Domino) down to a science. The pair seem more focused on this album, and the music is more simplistic in nature than Exit's. Complicated drum rhythms and mathy tempos reigned supreme on the last album, but Goodbye is a lot more stripped down. Greenspan and Didemus subtly find a dense rhythm or beat and build from the ground up with Casio-inspired emanation, gloomy ambience, and provocative vocals that recalls the synth-pop of bands like Depeche Mode and New Order.
I recently had the pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Didemus while he was on a tour stop in New Orleans.
Bay Guardian: After the success of your last record, did you find the songwriting approach somewhat more challenging for the new album?
Matt Didemus: Yeah, well, the last record was recorded in a strange way. It was recorded over a period of like three or four years and different people were involved. In the very beginning I wasn’t actually even in the band properly -- I was just mixing their stuff. There was Jeremy and John, this other guy who left before Last Exit even came out.
Yeah, but the recording process was different because it was done in a much shorter amount of time. I think that definitely affected the way the record sounded. It’s probably a more coherent record than the first album.
BG: What sort of instrumentation went into the new album in contrast to the last one, and how do you feel the overall sound has evolved?
MD: We definitely used more analog synthesizers on the second record. We did use some on the first, but we were generally more getting into using actual equipment as opposed to just doing stuff entirely and internally in the computer. We had a bit more money to buy some more equipment so maybe that affected the writing process as well. But there were some conscious decisions to change things about the sound for the second record. We definitely didn’t use as many complicated rhythmic things -- less staccato-type rhythms and more of a steady pulse rhythm.
BG: I read in an interview that you guys find it hard to overcome your reputation of being a “studio band.” What challenges have you overcome in transmitting the music to a live audience?
MD: That’s a good question. The problem is that we are essentially a studio band. When we did our first tour we had no idea how to do the live show. Obviously we’ve seen lot of electronic live shows, but we didn’t want to go up there and just have a laptop and have Jeremy sing over it. We tried to do something a bit more elaborate then that, but because of the way the first album had been written, we really didn’t have a way of going back and redoing those tracks for live shows. Some of the parts had been lost for some of the songs so we didn’t really have any idea or even the means to do an interesting live show when we first started.
It was definitely a challenge. We definitely felt that initially that it wasn’t all that it could be. But for the new record, we were fortunate enough to have the ability to think: “OK, we are going to have to tour for this record.” So I think when we were in the writing process, we wrote it in such a way that we tried to think the fact that we would have to be playing [the album] live.
BG: Have you been pretty satisfied with the live performance?
MD: Yeah, for this tour I think it’s the first time both Jeremy and I felt it’s actually something interesting to watch. We sort of arranged it such that it’s close to the record but not like us just playing a sequence. The live show always felt like we were karoke-ing. Now we try to do the arrangements so they’re slightly different live, and having a live drummer is a huge difference because a lot of the presequenced drums have been taken out and he plays them live. It adds a whole different energy to the show, and it’s a lot more fun to watch than watching a laptop.
BG: What differences do you see in the Canadian electronic scene with comparison to the US scene, as well as differences in crowd reaction to your music?
MD: There really isn’t a Canadian electronic scene going on right now. There are a few people making music with samplers and synthesizers in Canada that we know like Caribou or the Russian Futurists, but I don’t feel like you can necessarily call them electronic music. But there are people that use technology to write their tracks. There’s this sort of old '90s scene of house music and techno and drum 'n’ bass that’s been washed up. As for us, we’re in Hamilton, Ontario, and there’s really no scene for anything. As far as the crowds go, I think different cities are different everywhere. I wouldn’t say the US differs much from Canada, but as Junior Boys, we're playing more indie venues than dance clubs. We’re working within that indie circuit.
BG: Do you feel there’s a sense of pretension in or a negative connotation to electronic music today?
MD: There’s definitely hues to electronic music. There’s definitely weird IDM or then there’s stuff that’s not even dance music, but it’s just like sort of smarty-pants electronic stuff. And that stuff, yeah, it can be really pretentious.
BG: Is there anything you’re trying to avoid in your songwriting to stay away from redundancy or comparisons to other artists?
MD: Yeah, there are definitely things we want to avoid and that is definitely one of them. The first thing we are trying to avoid is that we don’t want to come across as one of those “ironic” electronic bands, which seems to be something a lot of people associate electronic music with, especially electronic pop music. We don’t want to sound like what they were calling electroclash or whatever a few years ago, or a band where it’s supposed to be this “disinfected, hip sound.” Like you were saying before, we don’t want to come across as this “pretentious” band within that sort of Intelligent Dance Music world. Like specialty electronic music where it’s really hard to listen to.
I think what we want to do essentially is to try to make music that’s electronic in a sort of pop framework. Music we would actually like to listen to that’s not retro, but trying to use interesting equipment to do things we think are modern but without being over-the-top pretentious or having to use some crazy computer patch in order to do it. Basically we’re trying to make electronic pop music earnestly.
BG: Is there any imagery that comes up in the new songs or any images that are helping the songwriting process?
MD: For Jeremy’s lyrics, I think he was trying to convey this sense of agoraphobia or this weird feeling of openness. It’s a better question for Jeremy to answer because I didn’t write the lyrics.
BG: Since founding member Johnny Dark’s departure from Junior Boys and your entrance, has the band has changed in terms of songwriting?
MD: I think when [Greenspan and Dark] first started in ‘99, it was like they weren’t trying to do actual songs at that point. They were trying to do sort of 2-step UK garage stuff. But it was sort of chopped up with weird odd rhythms, cut-up vocals. Dance music essentially. They started trying to do that stuff but then quickly I think they realized it seemed kind of stupid to be two Canadian guys near Toronto trying to make music that you pretty much had to be in London in that scene. I just don’t think it was natural for them to be doing those kind of tracks. So from that they decided to do something that was maybe a bit more like a song and essentially Jeremy just sang out of necessity. At that point he wasn’t even a singer really and he just tried to sing on the tracks in order to facilitate them being actual songs. At the time I think they were really into choppy, syncopated garage stuff. John is an excellent, really complicated drum programmer, so I think that was really the sound of them working together at that time based on what they were listening to.
I like that kind of music too, but I personally am maybe more rooted in techno, house, or electronic pop from the '80s. Jeremy’s tastes have changed over time, so in that sense, he doesn’t listen to the same things he listened to six years ago. If anything, the biggest change is that both of us always listen to so much different stuff, but I don’t think we could probably sound the same for that long. Our attention spans are too short to stick with the same sound.
BG: So when you go in the studio do you come up with the instrumentation first or are you writing music to Jeremy’s lyrics?
MD: Usually the music comes first. There’s two ways we work -- sometimes we write songs in a more traditional way where you come up with a chord progression or something like that and then map it out on a synthesizer. But then other times, we’re just piss around on a synthesizer to see what we come up with. We don’t record in a way a band does where one of us is playing bass and the other one is playing drums -- it’s all really heavily studio driven. It’s usually us sitting at the computer where someone records something into it and sees if it’s any good or sometimes we merge two songs together. The writing process is very editing- and computer- and studio-driven. It is really collaborative.