Siobhán Kane talks with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys who play The Twisted Pepper this Saturday.
Since 1999 Junior Boys have been making subtle, romantic and melancholic dance music; although their work defies genres, taking in indie pop, elements of techno, and electronica along the way. Initially taking life as a project between Jeremy Greenspan and Johnny Dark; after many demos, Dark left, and Greenspan continued on in a new incarnation with Matt Didemus. Their partnership has culminated in four modern classics of records Last Exit (2004), So This is Goodbye (2006), Begone Dull Care (2009) and this year’s It’s All True, with the last two albums being somewhat concept driven, taking filmmakers as a creative touchstone.
However, all of their records have a kind of heartbreak as another theme, romantic, professional, philosophical – it is easy to see why they have synonymous with a kind of melancholy state. Yet their music is also uplifting, nourishing, playful and brilliant – even when exploring deeply distressing terrain, with So This is Goodbye as a particularly moving yet tormented record about broken, romantic love.
Part of their beauty is not only in their inventive electronic palette, but in Greenspan’s vocal, which is disarming in its confiding and intimate nature, and listening to it you feel that he is right beside you, breathing pleasingly in your ear. As part of a very supportive community of Canadian musicians such as Caribou (they will be performing at the Caribou-co-curated ATP the day after their Dublin show) and Miracle Fortress (who supported them on their recent North American tour), Junior Boys have become something akin to Great Uncle’s, lending support and production work where possible, and from championing other talent such as the brilliant Mantler, Greenspan is as generous to other musicians as he is to his audience, Siobhán Kane talks to him.
Just as with all your records, It’s All True took some time complete, but the equipment was quite different on this one, which really has affected the sound of the record, was that in part to enact some other change in you? There being new equipment is a result of a personal sickness, which is an insatiable need for more and more equipment all time. If I have an addictive element in my personality, that is it. I have a good relationship with the biggest music store in the area, in Hamilton, and we do all of our rentals and everything through them, so we spend a lot of money there, and the guy who runs the recording and synthesizer department is a good old friend of ours, so when they get a new piece of vintage equipment or a synthesizer that has been used, I get the first phonecall, it is something I really covet, and the idea of someone else having it is impossible for me to deal with [laughs] and they have this leasing agreement you can do, so it is almost like maxing out a credit card, you could any given time be carrying around thousands in a balance that you are paying interest, so it gets to a head and you have to sell other equipment to get other equipment. I don’t consciously do it, it is a necessary evil, it is how I write music, tinkering around with things, if the equipment is too familiar to me, I feel I have exhausted the surplus value of the thing, and need something else to be able to write music.
Is there any particular piece of equipment that you covet, that haunts your dreams? There are certain synthesizers that are like that, that are impossible to own, like a Yamaha CS80, which is a five hundred pound synthesizer that cost 30,000 dollars, and the ARP 2600 that they use for R2D2, or the old British EMS synthesizers that Brian Eno and Pink Floyd used in the early seventies that sound really beautiful. There are also reverb units I really covet, and mixing consoles, everyone who is into recording suffers from this sickness [laughs].
That documentary about Schneiders Bureau-Totally Wired seems to suggest something like that. When they interviewed us for the documentary it was quite funny. Matt does more shopping at Schneiders Bureau as he lives in Berlin, but most of the modular stuff I buy is not from there, but it is a great, cool store, and that whole world of modular synthesizers is a nerdy world that I am only on the periphery of.
Was your use of Orson Welles as an inspirational touchstone for this record partly because he was in constant crisis, and you could relate to that, and in some ways using him gave you a platform to discuss that very subject? Definitely. The last two records have been somewhat informed by filmmakers. Begone Dull Care looked at Norman McLaren who was this perfect artist who wasn’t concerned with commercial success, but Welles was completely different. With self-doubt, I have often wondered how to formulate something, how to think about it – if you have someone there who has explored of all this before, it helps. But of course the album has lots of stuff about personal relationships as well, but a lot of the lyrics are anxieties about working. And I sort of thought that when you are doing art of any kind people expect you to be honest all the time. If you actually take a look at art, very little of it deals with people thinking about their own careers, which to me seems a little odd, because for any normal artist, it occupies a lot of your mental energy, you are thinking about your place as a musician, the successes and failures and anxiety, and it fuels so much of your mental life, it seems strange to me that so few people talk about it.
Welles is such an interesting figure, because this exploration of art and honesty and trying to live in the world informed all of his work, all the way along, it is not something that goes away. It was important for me to use him, as it gave me a licence, because what I had bought into was a state of anxiety, thinking about my own career and own place as a working musician. The problem is that it seems self-indulgent and scary to think that way, or open up. The irony about Orson Welles as an artist is that he was heavily invested in his own biography. To put meaning on his artwork there is a theme, a strange reading of his life, where you could see it as performance art, because he makes these movies in his early twenties, Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons – great studio films, about someone who has great confidence and promise in their youth, whose confidence is eroded through time through the soul defeating process of trying to maintain that confidence or success, and the irony of that is it is exactly how his life played out. He was a huge success as a teenager, directing in Broadway, and was the highest paid director ever with Citizen Kane and he never matched it. Also, he was a trained illusionist, and made a living out of it for a long time, just travelling around doing magic shows and illusion tricks, and you almost get the feeling that his whole life was that story – was his life an illusion, a piece of art that he orchestrated, is it all kind of an art piece?
Then you wonder if he was ever truly happy or dying inside. He had such passion for creating art, but if you invest so much of yourself in it, can you then withstand the disappointments? It is hard to know, because he complained all the time. His greatest anxiety was how hard it was to make the movies he wanted to make,but the reality is he always made them. His latest movies like The Trial were funded by weird Russian oligarchs, but he doesn’t strike me as a guy who didn’t have a lot of fun, he was a total glutton, he died because he was like 400 lbs! [laughs] He basically spent his life sleeping with every beautiful woman in Hollywood! I think he liked to think of himself as a starving artist archetype but that was not what his life was about, it was about hanging out with Frank Sinatra and getting laid every night, and eating triple lobsters!
It’s strange, because like him you also have these interesting relationships with other countries, spending huge periods of time elsewhere, in places like England which you credit with helping you later when you started making music, in terms of the connections you made. You might be following in Welles’ footsteps to an extent. Hmmm, well I have definitely found myself getting fatter over the years! [Laughs] Welles does have that weird Irish history. He lived in Ireland when he was sixteen selling paintings, then directed in Irish theatre at seventeen, but then In The Lady From Shanghai he effects a pretty unconvincing Irish accent [laughs]. You know he has another history with China, which I found out about when I was there.