by carl wilson

Jeremy Greenspan: The World Is Not a Fuckin' Subway

Here's the full text of my interview with Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan. It's unusual to talk to a musician who so clearly engages with music on the sort of fan-critic level, willing to apply that mode of analysis to his own music. I thought he was a terrifically likeable guy, and we had a great conversation, but then I stop and think about the soulful, detailed music Junior Boys make and am all the more impressed that it all flows out of the hyper, self-effacing kid I was chatting with on Tuesday. I think the transcript makes a respectable contribution to the general, amusingly burgeoning body of Junior Boys scholarship.

You're back in Hamilton? I thought you'd moved to Toronto.
I lived in Toronto for a couple of months. I went to McMaster - I did a double major - multimedia, computer programming for the humanities, and then comp. lit.

When I think of Hamilton, I think of a rock'n'roll kind of place. How did you get into dance and techno?
There's a long history of electronic music in Hamilton. I guess because of the proximity to Windsor - at least closer than Toronto is. There used to be a record label here called Steel City that was part of Plus8. They used to do parties in Hamilton when I was just a kid - and all the big DJs from Detroit would come up to that. But I got into electronic music as a teenager, listening to a lot of sort of experimental industrial things - Coil, Thirlwell and that sort of stuff. Hamilton's not that rock and roll, not really.

Where did you learn to program beats? [...]

I always liked synthesizers even as a kid. I started doing this kind of music probably when I was, again, a teenager. I had studied music as a kid, playing piano and guitar, and when I first went to high school we did a little bit of things with - back then, we had really crappy synthesizers, and an Atari computer to program them. I learned little tiny bits about how to work a studio and do engineering when I was a little bit younger from going to friends' places and seeing how it was done. But the main thing was that I moved to England when I was 17 and got a job at a recording studio.

When we were first doing music on the computer it was a very different thing. The software options were not nearly as easy to deal with as they are now. It was basically using wave editors, sound editors and literally trying to paste things on top of each other and it was really hard. You had to figure it out mathematically - take a tempo and figure out where to position different drum hits.

What were you doing in England? Was this after high school?
I was in England for a year. It was during high school. I took some time off, and worked for a recording studio in Birmingham. Mainly I did "demo deals," bands would come in off the street to make a three-track demo and I'd do that. But the studio mostly did Muzak, like elevator music.

I guess for that they'd have to be fairly well equipped.
It was a fairly good learning experience. I lied to get it. It was pretty funny. I looked a lot older than I was and had a fake resume and all this stuff.

How did the Junior Boys get started?
I started it with my friend John. [Credited as "Johnny Dark."] At the time I was listening to a lot of R&B; and UK garage, and I was also listening to a lot of New Wave.

How did you get into that?
I started listening to it in England because the guy I was living with was kind of a crazed fan - it was before it had its revival - he was a real ardent fan. He was about 10 years older. He played me stuff - he was a big fan of John Foxx and Gary Numan and stuff like that. And I didn't know it really. I was born in 1979. I wasn't old enough to remember it. So I heard it for the first time at 17.

But I was also listening to a lot of current dance music. UK Garage, and along with that a lot of the elements of R&B.; So I had this idea of making garage songs that incorporated elements of new wave, a colder and more synth-heavy aesthetic. So we did a couple of songs like that together that were more dance songs. Then I got more interested in structuring things less like dance music and more like real songs.

Why was that?
It was the influence of new wave and synth pop. I think there was a period perhaps where people were afraid of songwriting because the whole energy and philosophy of the dance music movement was based on mixing records and on DJ shows, and so much of that is about building on loops, and a minimal approach to writing music in which you have these songs that are really malleable and don't have to be played from start to finish. People really got off on the energy of that. Songwriting was a bit taboo at the time I started thinking of doing it. Ultimately I thought it was what I was kinda good at, that I had an aptitude for songwriting and that I should go with that, thought I could do more interesting things. It seemed fresh and exciting.

I've always loved pop music. The energy I got from 80s new wave was the idea of doing pop music that incorporated all the latest technologies and the most avant-garde appraoches to doing sound and I thought that was kind of lost in pop music.

It's pretty common in hip-hop and R&B;, though.
I don't rate R&B; as highly as I did in the late 90s - at the time I thought R&B; was doing all the interesting things in terms of writing songs that I felt reflected the moment in history. On the radio you could hear rock bands doing music that I thought could come from any era.

I'm much more excited in doing stuff that is rooted in the moment and could only be made now. That's why I get turned off when people say I'm doing something retro, because what was exciting about the 80s was how forward-looking it was. I'm very dedicated to using tools that are available at the time they're available.

So much of songwriting has to do with the things that you're using. The machine writes half of the thing --

Sure, even if the machine is a piano.
Right, even if it's a piano, the machine writes half the thing for you. And anyone who says it's not is lying. The tools that you decide to use dictate in so many ways the song you're going to write. Especially with computers. Often you're just facilitating something to happen that you never would have anticipated, some chance happening, some glitch in the design - software writers are as much songwriters as anyone.

Do you think this interest in songs specifically is a cultural thing, that because you're a white Canadian, even with all that dance-music experience, the Song retains a kind of cultural pull?
There's a hunger always for songwriting. I think there was a naivete to thinking that songwriting would somehow go away, that you could build a culture that was only going to be programming loops and DJs performing. Even when I was a DJ, buying records - what you're really listening for are hooks. I also think that in dance music a lot of the energy that was there that slipped away, people might be looking for something new.

The return to songwriting ... I think it's important that there are people who are doing songwriting that's using what's available. We can't let the radio songwriting be there for people who just use the same old structures, the same old formulas.

Definitely I come from the world of dance music. It's funny for me because since the record came out a lot of the reviews and the people who've been interested are from the world of indie rock, which is a world I know nothing about. People will say things about bands - it sounds like this band - and I don't know, I've never heard it. I don't mind because those bands sell more records than electronic records. But the energy and attitudes are ingrained to me. How old are you?

About 10 years older than you, so I heard all the new-wave synth stuff when it was new.
Right, but when I was a teenager that was the real prime rave era of the early 90s. Whereas I think some people who've been influenced by that kind of thing may have come from the world of indie rock and been influenced by that stuff. I come at it the other way around.

So - what happened next?
[John and I] did these songs together - the first ones don't appear on the album - and he also ended up cowriting a bunch of songs that do appear on it. I'm talking basically four years ago, late 90s, turn of the century. We had done these songs and I had decided I should try some different labels and see if they're interested. I did what most people do, send a bunch of unsolicited CDs to labels and got no response.

What I did get was discouraging. A lot of people didn't like it at all. I would send it to labels that I thought were interested in new wave, the electroclash thing - one response said "we don't put out R&B;" or something like that. And others would say, "This is too 80s." So I was at school and I figured I should just get prepared to go to grad school - which I'm still hoping to do someday - so we gave up.

But meanwhile a friend of mine in England, who I met when I was there, put the songs up on a website - - and I started getting these bizarre emails from journalists who wanted to hear the demo. I sent one to this guy in Australia, to pretty famous journalists - people definitely important in my world, like Simon Reynolds and Kodwo Eshun, I knew who these people are - and what happened was that we got this weird response on on-line blogs.

John had moved to a different city - he's got a career in the video-game world - I think he's moving back to Oakville now - and I got this call from Warp Records: "Who are you? We're interested in putting things out." I called John but he wasn't interested. The guy from Warp was Nick Kilroy who now runs Kin - he said, "I want it to be on my own label." So I basically had to start the band as myself and write an album. With John we only had about four songs. So I did, either by myself or with my friend Matt [Didemus], who had engineered the tracks I did with John, so he knew them.

When you say you write together, does that mean you brought the basic music and lyrics and then you arranged them together, or the whole thing together?
It depends on the song. I really do like co-writing songs. So I really do think the songs I've done with Matt and the songs with John are different from each other.

Can you give me an example?
Well... a song that I wrote with Matt. Under the Sun has a real Matt influence, a real lush and dense kind of feel - that's the direction I'm moving towards myself now. Whereas with John, that stuff had a more sparse electro feel, like High Come Down. I guess I am the principal songwriter - if you were to strip them down to melody, chord changes, I do most of that. But beyond that point it's very collaborative. It's almost impossible for me to say "that bass part is mine, that high hat's his," that sort of thing.

When did you realize that people were talking about you all over the Internet? How did you react to that as it developed?
The whole thing happened rather slowly. When I first heard from Warp I thought that's amazing. It took a really long time for our first EP to come out. Things moved slowly and steadily. The most shocked I've been is probably right now - things are really fast and weird.

Weird how?
Weird like I've got to do three interviews today. Earlier today I had to record myself saying hello for Spanish radio: Hola!. [Laughs.] That's pretty high up on my weird-o-meter. But most of the time it's been, every so often, every couple of months, something crazy will happen, and I'll kind of get used to it and then something else completely crazy will happen.

Do you have a sense, a theory of what it was people grabbed onto so much about the music?
Well, anybody who makes music intrinsically likes what they do, or at least I hope so. I think most people like what they do. But I think I had a really positive feeling about what I was doing. That it was really different. It's everybody's hope that they can do something - it's kind of less about being creative than it is sort of about discovering something.

You don't create it, it wasn't all formed in my head, you just kind of luckily fall upon different combinations of things. I knew the whole thing took on its own shape and sound, that it was no longer garage tracks - and I was really excited about it, because this is something I've been looking for too, it filled a gap that in my own mind I would like filled. I think I would be excited about it if I heard it.

It's hard to talk about these things because you feel like a bit of an ass. I kind of knew that on some level that there was a mathematical equation it was fitting into, breakbeats plus synthesizers plus this equals good. It's timing, I guess. I don't rate the record as highly as a lot of people do. I wasn't surprised people liked it, but I was truly surprised by the reception it's getting.

Now, it's already out in England, but not domestically, right?
It's been kind of embarrassing, the fact that it's just not out in Canada. The majority of the country can't get the record. I don't even own a copy of it.

Do you have a sense of how it is selling over there?
I think the copies that have been made are selling fine. But this is a start-up label. I don't think he ever anticipated the kind of response that we got. When we first discussed doing a record the numbers we were talking about are a fraction of what, now, everybody hopes to sell. It would have been nice to have released everything at the same time. A lot of people complain the distribution isn't good, but we never anticipated it. Our North American distributor at the moment is a very niche market distributor - Forced Exposure - a good distributor but, you know, they put out Venezuelan foot drummers.

Do you entertain fantasies of this becoming something played on pop radio?
Yeah, but - some people say this but I mean it - I don't relish the idea of being successful in those celebrity kind of terms. I don't think I'm the kind of person who could deal with that. So we try to distance me the person from it - but if we could do the kind of numbers that means, without all that, it would be great. I don't think it's something that couldn't be on the radio. I don't make anything so abstract and weird that average people ca't listen to it and understand it.

But then the guy who runs Kin recently had a weird run-in with a major label, and the guy said "Nick, this thing is going to be huge but get the boys to re-record everything and take out all the weird stuff and clean up the vocals." A lot of choices I made in recording this, I made a lot of specific choices about how it was recorded - partly with the vocals - where I knew that a major record label wouldn't do that. Things like gating the vocals and doing autocorrection of the tuning, I'm perfectly capable of as an engineer, but didn't want to do.

I liked that kind of humanity in the vocals - you can hear the breaths and the fact that I had a cold. Most of the vocals were done in very few takes. We used really high-end microphones but didn't use the approach to recording vocals that a slick production job would have done - we didn't autotune, we didn't filter and gate the vocals so that you wouldn't hear the sybillants and breathing. My favourite singers are people like Neil Young and Mark Hollis [of Talk Talk] that you can hear every mistake they make.

It's a soul thing, it's a kind of humanity thing - and I like the contrast. For the most part we don't use any organic instruments, and those we do are filtered through software - I wasn't interested in doing this thing where you write songs and put a vocoder on and sing about really inhuman things, being a robot and drinking martinis. I wanted them to have real feeling to them, a really human sense.

Are these "singer-songwriter" songs, personal in the way of that tradition, or is it something else?
I don't emotionally identify with the songs, with the lyrics. For me songwriting is primarily about music. Vocals are not an afterthought, not at all. But the lyrics and the vocal performance have to adhere to the rules of the song, to emphasize what's going on musically. It's not a purely aesthetic choice - I don't want it to seem like they're phony but they're not coming from some ... a lot of the songs are kind of pathetic, sad and pathetic and lonely, and it's more that I feel something from that kind of lyrics, they resonate with me, so I make the choice to write them. It's not like I'm heartbroken and I let it all out in a song.

I've been thinking about that, in terms of genuineness. I'm listening to a lot of seventies, MOR kind of music, and I was listening to the Band - they sing about the South, and that's stuff they haven't really experienced, but it's not like it's not genuine. It's something that you think will resonate with people. I wanted to write pop songs, songs that were about emotion, but I didn't want them to be cliched. There are two things I really hate in lyric writing - the first is cliche, and if you write love songs that are off kilter, that are about someone who is paranoid, or pathological, or a stalker then you can avoid cliche.

The other thing I hate in lyrics is lyrics that are just a string of nonsense, abstract words. You hear a rock band on the radio like Our Lady Peace - they have this song about Superman, and it ends with him repeating "the world is a subway." What the fuck does that mean, the world is a subway? If you can't say in one sentence what you're song is about there's a problem.

Or at least it is if what you're thinking about is the pop-song tradition.
Yes, and one of the tricks people in rock music have done is to write songs that avoid being about anything, these philosophical bullshit songs that, if you listen to the radio, they are about nothing. But if you're not going to do that you have the problem of writing from experience - which I didn't want to do because I am too boring. Or you can just write a love song, which firstly is kind of boring to do, and secondly is incredibly difficult to pull off and not feel like an ass, I don't know how people do it.

So this was my option. I have fun with them. They're not tongue in cheek, but - well, Birthday for example was written as a joke, and even now to myself I find it ridiculously funny. I think most songwriters probably have their own takes on their songs that may be different than what anyone else gets from it.

Has it been difficult to develop a live performance? What's your approach to that - do you have any models?
I resisted at first. I'm not going to lie, the reason we are doing it is to sell records. Everyone agrees that the best way to promote a record is to play live shows. Outside of a select number of people that hasn't changed much in the music business. At first I felt it was a real bummer. I thought, "I'm not a band, we don't have any way of doing it." But surprisingly we've had a lot of fun. It's been fun and been a real challenge to do the songs live. Some of them sound quite a bit like the record and some have been completely reworked. It sounds a little different. We did a lot of subtle things in these recordings that are lost when you're doing live shows, but it's okay.

We didn't have any models. I saw how my friend Dan Snaith, Manitoba, performs live - our show is a lot different than his, but some of the ways he technologically went about doing it - putting some of his songs together as a live thing - we looked at. But he's got two drummers, we don't have any drummers. We also took some influence from really early performances of New Order. They were playing live instruments with sequencers and that's how we did it.

Do you do anything performance-wise to stage it, or just whatever comes?
It is very much about what comes naturally. There's no affectation in terms of stage presence. We are putting together some sort of video background kind of thing. I'm glad to say - I'm a kind of person who's grown up with an abnormally large amount of phobias and I'm glad to say playing live so far has not been one of them. I feel very comfortable.

Is this a full-time thing for you now?
Well, I don't know how long this thing is going to last. I'm not making very much money at it, and my intuition is I probably won't for the next year or so. I'm convinced the second album will be panned and that will be it and I'll go take my GRE exam. But who knows - maybe I'll have six albums or ten albums.

Well, what's coming up just in the next year?
In September we have the CD release, and we're going on our first tour of the United States - a CD release party, and then we're going on tour. Oh, and we're going to Brazil to play a festival. So it's live concerts. It's a bit of a bummer in that if I had my way I'd probably have the second album done now.

So will you not get back to the studio this year?
Oh, no, not that. I would like to have a second record out early next year.

Since you're so aware of how this particular music was what was wanted at the moment, do you worry that if things are delayed, the material will get dated?
No, the stuff that's already done, I don't worry about it dating... I think that - this might be a particularly Canadian thing - I have the luxury of not being pressured as part of a scene, especially in dance music where there's so many niche things, so many microthings and so many rules. And I don't have to be part of that. In that sense I don't worry that much.

But I truly believe every musician has a shelf life and I want to get on with it. I know every band has only so many albums before they start to suck, and I fully intend on sucking at some point. You'll know once I start bringing in the Celtic band and the children's choir.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 09 at 12:28 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



no it is not!!!

Posted by wrapped up like a douche on September 5, 2004 2:17 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson