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Interviews

Junior Boys

Songs in the Key of Hamilton

Jr Boys Of all the emotions which pop music can convey, the most difficult to mine is melancholy. You can get away with it for a song or two, but aim for more, and you risk becoming maudlin or outright silly. Occasionally, an exception comes along to prove the rule: such is the Junior Boys’ new album, So This Is Goodbye.

One might suspect, given such an exquisitely crafted monument to melancholy, the critically-lauded synth-pop duo has spent most of their lives reading Emily Dickinson and staring longingly out of rain-splattered windows. Not so — they simply grew up in Hamilton.

Over lunch at The Rivoli in nearby Toronto, singer/producer Jeremy Greenspan enthuses about the importance of his hometown to his psyche.

“There’s a lot of incredible pieces of 19th century architecture that are all decayed and ‘bombed out,’” he says.

“It’s sort of like living in a Tarkovsky movie,” chimes in fellow producer Matt Didemus. One of the Russian director’s best known films is Nostalghia — this, in turn, is an emotion that the duo exploit in their particular Hamiltonian way.

“We’re inundated with the periphery of city experience, like strip malls and highways,” says Greenspan. “It becomes emotionally powerful, because you’re like, ‘That’s the mall where I had my first kiss.’”

Indeed, on the track “Count Souvenirs,” he sings with understated emotion about “empty stalls and shopping malls that we’ll never see again.” The atmosphere is strangely affecting, as it is on the other nine songs on the Boys’ sophomore disc, including ‘When No One Cares,” a cover of a 1959 Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song written for Ol’ Blue Eyes.

“A lot of what I enjoy about Frank Sinatra,” says Greenspan, “is the fact that his songs are often ‘metaphoring’ love through his relationships with objects and places.”

The Junior Boys’ own melancholy vignettes emerge not just through a lyrical fascination with objects, but also through their use of machines to convey emotion. Their debut album, Last Exit (2004) became an internet phenomenon as writers on music blogs were entranced by their seemingly having created a whole new sound: they brought together unpredictable breakbeats suggesting hip-hop producer Timbaland with synthesizer sounds associated with ‘80s electro.

Nowadays, it seems Timbaland has cottoned on to the Junior Boys’ vibe — witness his use of cool, minor-key synths on the ‘80s-influenced production for Nelly Furtado’s Loose. But the Boys themselves have moved on: So This Is Goodbye is in every way an improvement over its predecessor, with stronger songs, much cleaner production, and a greater emphasis on Greenspan’s voice. It’s also a more accessible album which may indeed propel them into the mainstream.

Arguably, by simplifying their beats, they’ve come closer to a moody template which has been used before by bands such as Depeche Mode, New Order, OMD, and the Pet Shop Boys. “In some ways,” acknowledges Greenspan, “there is a retro element to the sound, because while I don’t want to make nostalgic music, I do like to make music that evokes nostalgia. Even though we don’t use samplers that much, we are sampling from the past.”

The Boys don’t want to be seen as a “retro” band; they reject the notion that making pop music with synthesizers, in and of itself, should be “historically encapsulated” as belonging to the ‘80s. Greenspan argues, “How come making pop music with guitars isn’t considered ‘60s and ‘70s?”

Greenspan himself has been known to wield a guitar during live performances. “I always find it mildly embarrassing,” he admits. “If you are a guitar group, it’s like what your parents would have done, and you should be working extra-hard to make sure it sounds genuinely new.”

On stage, Greenspan drenches his guitar sound in textured effects, and the hushed-voiced, dress shirt-and-jacket-sporting singer is the antithesis of the sexed-up, aggressive rock frontman. But when Didemus cranks up the synth loops and stage drummer Dave Foster digs into the groove, they offer glimpses of how their melancholy songs could evolve into arena-sized anthems. As if slightly ashamed, they almost always pull back.

“If we have this really funked-out track,” offers Didemus, “we’ll have to put some lazy drone over it and kill its buzz.”

“We have to make [our music] club-worthy,” says Greenspan of live performances, “but we’re never going to be a high-adrenaline kind of group.” He recalls a show in Spain “where we came on after this super-high-energy House DJ at 3 in the morning. The kids were buzzed out on God-knows-what, and we bombed, because that is not the headspace that people should bring in.”

Part of the Junior Boys’ appeal, and doubtless one reason why they’ve been celebrated by so many music critics, lies in their embracing of self-consciousness — not necessarily painfully, but leavened by irony. Their name itself is the result of flipping through a high school yearbook with former member (and now solo artist) Johnny Dark and giving in to an “ongoing joke of having a boy-band name,” says Greenspan

It’s fine for a joke when you’re 27, but how will the name sound, say, 30 years down the line?

“It would be funny,” says Didemus.

And for Greenspan?

“God help me if I’m making Junior Boys records in 30 years.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Oct. 4, 2006

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