Junior Boys twosome Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have been universally acclaimed for their unflappable brand of melancholic, yet accessible, electronic pop.
After a five-year break working on their own projects, a new album, Big Black Coat, hinges on the soulful pop sensibilities that have remained at the core of their sound, while embracing their love of techno and the 'strangeness' of synthpop icons Yellow Magic Orchestra.
With their new-found love of modular gear finding its way deep into the production, and a courageous admittance to using Auto-Tune, Big Black Coat is a lesson in how to allow technology to inspire but not lead the music-making process.
With Didemus now based in Berlin, Greenspan's studio remains lodged within the wintry landscape of his homeland, Hamilton, Ontario – hence the album's dark, somewhat obscure title.
Taking five years to release an album is quite a long time... What was the delay?
Jeremy Greenspan: "Well, we were working on other things mainly. Matt was releasing stuff on the label that he started and I was working on some solo stuff and doing production for Jessy Lanza. Then we did a lot of material and ended up scrapping it, so we had to do a whole bunch more, and I did another album with Jessy that is coming out in May. The whole thing took a long time, but it was mainly because a lot of songs got thrown out."
Is throwing stuff out a normal part of the songwriting process for you?
JG: "No, it's not that typical in fact. Usually we write just enough, but this time we felt we had the luxury of time, and I just didn't want to release anything that I didn't think would be really good. We've been around a long time, so from a career standpoint it was probably in our best interests to take a break, and we didn't have a label so were out of contract too."
I presume that's why you moved from your long association with Domino to Berlin-based City Slang?
JG: "From a business point of view, we'd fulfilled our contract with Domino, so it was like starting something new. I wasn't totally enthusiastic about doing another record with Domino, and I didn't sense they were particularly enthusiastic about the material we were working on. That being said, the main reason was because City Slang were so enthusiastic. I had some interaction with them; I like the guy who owns it and the manager there, so it seemed like a great fit."
What's the inspiration behind the new album? Big Black Coat is a dark title and imagery...
JG: "We have used themes in the past, but not really this time – at least not while it was being made. I felt the album was more techno-oriented than other albums have been, so I wanted something that would reference our techno roots and our own industrial music roots, so a big black coat seemed fitting. I also associated the album as being a winter album. Except for the stuff that Matt started in Berlin, it was more or less done in Hamilton, Ontario. I always think that bands are indicative of the place where they record albums."
Hopefully our show now offers that little bit extra. We can do more improvisational stuff, but it is scary because there are so many points at which the whole show could fall apart with this current set-up."
But it's not a sad album, more melancholic. The tracks are your usual mid-tempo yet upbeat style...
JG: "I basically always think of us as being a pop music band. Obviously, our roots are in dance music, but it's not dance music because we don't make music with the thought that it's going to be played in dance clubs. It's like pop music made by guys who like dance music and have grown up making dance music and obsessing over it."
I've never picked up on Industrial music as a reference point for you. What bands were you into from that era?
JG: "Front 242, Skinny Puppy... Thinking back to that time, my favourite was probably Coil. That was the first music I ever heard that was electronic, other than prog rock that would have had synthesizers in it. Industrial was the first contemporary electronic music that I got into. Sometimes when we're working on stuff, our tracks sound much more aggressive when they're first started and they tend to mellow out as the songwriting happens. So there are a couple of songs on this album, like the title track for example, that Matt more or less started, that sounded pretty aggressive."
Matt Didemus: "I must admit Front 242 kind of lost me, but their early stuff is fantastic. We both have our tendencies, and we might start working on a loop that's very aggressive, but by the time it comes to mixing the vocals and recording around that, it usually ends up pretty mellow. We just throw a couple of minor seven chords over the B flat and it's no longer sounding so heavy."
JG: "I love that kind of sound; the contrast. If you listen to some of the backing tracks of Phil Collins, they almost sound like Nitzer Ebb or something – if you listen to the single Sussudio, the bassline is pretty heavy [laughs]. The thing with industrial is that Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails to some extent, took it into a much more heavy metal place, which I wasn't as interested in."
The album has a consistent-sounding tonal palette. Is that what you were looking for?
JG: "No, it's not something that we were looking to achieve, but it's something, at least for myself, that I've come to accept about the way that I do things – that it kind of sounds like it's coming from one place. I used to be more uptight about trying different genres, because I didn't want our albums to sound too eclectic, but I've realised now that I'm not so good at mimicking the stuff I want to sound like.
"There's probably a bunch of songs where I'm thinking to myself, yeah, this sounds just like fucking Nitzer Ebb, when in fact it just sounds like Junior Boys. So I do think there is this sound palette, which comes entirely from the equipment choices that we make and our workflow."
Will you tend to work from a relatively small palette of sounds?
MD: "We have done, but sometimes we work from a way too big palette of sounds. On this album it's been less huge, because we tend to build and buildand then subtract and build and build, but with Big Black Coat everything was quicker, which is maybe what gives it a cohesive sound."
JG: "It definitely has lower track counts on the mixdown than previous albums. I've always had this fantasy about doing an album like John Foxx's Metamatic, which is one of my favourite albums of all time. When I heard him talk about it, he said that he did it on an 8-track so there was only ever eight sounds per track. He has this thing where he's sort of trying to make everything work with eight sounds, and I've always thought I'd love to make an album that way. But then you start and you're like, errr, I could really do with some more tracks here."
What do you think of 'less is more'?
JG: "In general, I accept that principle, but there are also times when more is more. But to pull it off and make it sound good, we're more likely to make a bad error if we go with more is more. Phil Spectre can pull it off, but not everybody else can."
MD: "I find that a lot of the time, when the track count gets too high or too stacked, a lot of the initial things you wanted, whether it's the sound or the melodies, tend to get buried in the mix."
JG: "The one challenge of less is more is that it's actually more challenging from a mixing point of view because you can't hide mistakes as easily. That's why, in some ways, mixing electronic music is a lot harder than mixing rock music, because you have big drums and cymbals everywhere, so who cares if the vocal sounds shitty?"
It sounds like most of the production is predicated on mostly analogue sounds... Did you lean towards hardware or move into the box?
JG: "We do very little in the box in terms of sound generation. It's almost all done on, not necessarily analogue synthesizers, but definitely hardware outboard synthesizers – a combination of digital synths, analogue synths and samplers. A lot of the drums are edited using software, and for a lot of the mixing I use software compression and EQs, but I don't use a lot of plug-ins for sound generation. All the songs are mixed on an analogue console, so we're much more analogue processed than I think the average electronic pop band would be."
Do you have many hardware synths?
MD: "The Minimoog and a Roland SH-1000 with some mods on it. The thing with Roland gear is that it always sounds good, especially if you use it together. I love the Korg MS- 20M, the tabletop one. I like the added function of the hard sync and the FM stuff; they're really great for doing bleepy, squelchy stuff.
"I have some Eurorack modular too. About ten years ago, we were on our way to play Coachella and stopped at this place called Analogue Haven outside of Los Angeles, with the intention of buying maybe a pedal, and came out with about 6,000 bucks worth of Eurorack."
JG: "My studio is in Canada; we do all the mixing there, so I have an SSL XL-Desk, then I have all my compressors and EQs and a fair amount of hardware reverbs. I don't like using software reverbs much. I just bought this new reverb by a company called Bricasti – the M7 – and the whole EP I'm working on is all about just using that reverb."
So Matt, what's your studio set-up?
MD: "My studio is basically just a lot of synths, a desk, tape machine and a lot of cables hanging around everywhere [laughs]. It used to have the vague scent of cigarette smoke, but I quit that.
"For recording, I'll use either Ableton Live or Logic, but primarily I'll use Ableton Live for composing and writing. I didn't used to, but switched over a couple of years ago. I like the process of coming up with mini arrangements on Ableton, because it's really dynamic for that type of thing, but not great for certain other things. The MIDI is a bit lacking, and as a mixing program it's not the best, but for just getting ideas and wanting to be able to do something quickly, it's really nice."
Which are your go-to synths?
JG: "I love the Oberheim OB-Xa and also use the Roland SH-101 all the time. I also have a Roland Jupiter-6, a Juno-106, which I've used for years now, and a Yamaha DX7 and the DX11. I use Roland gear a lot. I have three cases of modular now, which I use every day. I really like the Synthesis Technology stuff for modular, particularly the E340 Cloud Generator."
Are you using modular to generate ideas?
JG: "Here's the thing. I have a nice big console, and with the console I have a really thorough patchbay, so every part of my studio is patchable. So my modular gear is right beside my patchbay, and in this cool kind of way I sometimes think of mystudio as being like a big modular synth. So, for me, the idea of writing songs is by building a patch on my modular synth, patching it into the console and then patching in the effects. Generally speaking, I don't usually record one thing at a time; I usually set up a patch, sync things together and press play, so there's a cacophony of shit happening and I sit there playing around until something good happens and record it. Once that thing is recorded, you can turn it into a song."
I basically always think of us as being a pop music band. Obviously, our roots are in dance music, but it's not dance music because we don't make music with the thought that it's going to be played in dance clubs. It's like pop music made by guys who like dance music and have grown up making dance music and obsessing over it."
What does that recording chain look like from beginning to end?
JG: "The hardware goes through the outboard into the PC and back out. Because we mix everything in analogue, I don't use the console much for actual tracking because I have a rack of preamps. Basically, what I want to do is get everything talking to each other and, once that happens, I just start to fiddle around.
"Most of the sound generation is coming from the hardware and not a lot of creative stuff happens in the computer, which is mainly used for arrangement. Unlike Matt, I don't use Ableton at all. I only use Logic, although I am thinking about getting the Ableton Push."
What software are you using for the arrangement side of things?
JG: "I use the Waves stuff a lot, just for mixing. I like their H-Delay plug-in, and I sometimes use Native Instruments' Reaktor, but most of the plug-in stuff I use as a mixing utility, so just compressors and EQs. I use Soundtoys plug-ins a lot, especially Decapitator, and on Jessy's album I used Alterboy a lot – it's like a little vocal doubler. Oh, and on this album I used Auto-Tune a lot."
So, are you using Auto-Tune to calibrate your vocal?
JG: "Not to do auto tuning, but there's a couple of songs on the record – the main one being the single Over It – where it sounds like the vocal's pitched down but there's actually a throat control on Auto-Tune that gave it this really weird sound." MD: "I like using an impulse response reverb called the SRI2, which used to be free. It's kind of like Altiverb, but I like the fidelity of it better. I love all hardware reverbs; the Dynacord reverbs are really cool. We both love classic outboard reverbs and delays, no matter how shitty they're perceived. They're infinitely useful in the studio because they all have their own sound and are so much more fun to use."
How much do you play live?
MD: "It depends on the song. Some are quite simple with just a few chord patterns and five or six different synth sounds. But there's one song on the previous record that had something like 141 tracks in it and, when you're trying to figure out how you're going to do that live, it gets really challenging. Otherwise, you just have to come to a compromise and say, well this isn't going to sound exactly like the record."
JG: "There are a couple of things that have been very helpful. First, we have a very gifted front-of-house sound person and the other thing we're doing on this tour is using a Behringer X32 Digital Mixer, which has made it really easy for us as we have everything linked into its data boxes through Ethernet cables. It offers the ability to not have to re-patch everything."
MD: "Before, when we were going into an analogue desk we'd be running 30 ins into a stage box, but now it's all wired in on D-subs. So we go in, clink two D-subs together, clink another couple together, put them on their stands and everything is more or less coming up where it should be. That means you're actually soundchecking instead of troubleshooting where the fuck your cable went. We wanted to have that consistency and a certain amount of reliability when moving from club to club."
JG: "Hopefully our show now offers that little bit extra. We can do more improvisational stuff, but it is scary because there are so many points at which the whole show could fall apart with this current set-up."
Big Black Coat is out now via City Slang. For news and live dates check out the Junior Boys website.