Junior Boys: Out to Sea
- Words: Ben Rayner
Six years ago, Hamilton, Ontario’s Junior Boys swiftly and wholly unintentionally ascended to near-fame on the back of a couple of singles (“Birthday,” “High Come Down”) lovingly circulated throughout the web. Back then, there was nary a hint of the influence that ’70s crooner Boz Scaggs and government-backed animation would eventually have on the duo’s soulful, broken two-step pop stunners.
Riding a wave of popularity right on through 2007’s Grammy-nominated Carl Craig remix of “Like a Child,” the Boys became even more techno-fabulous when newly married member Matt Didemus relocated to Berlin a year-and-a-half ago. But instead of mining that au courant geographic and cultural connection for their new album, Begone Dull Care, the pair dug deep, seeking inspiration in a dusty corner of the Canadian National Film Board’s vast archives and the work of an unsung soft-rock session drummer.
“We’ve always worn on our sleeves what we’re interested in and what we’re listening to,” divulges the duo’s Jeremy Greenspan, while working his way through an enormous, overpriced breakfast plate at a faux-greasy spoon in downtown Toronto’s hip West End (about 40 minutes from his hometown on a good-traffic day). “While we were making this album, I was listening to a lot of ’70s MOR [middle-of-the-road soft rock]—Steely Dan, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Carole King—and a lot of that had to do with me getting really into this drummer, Jeff Porcaro.
“I got so into Jeff Porcaro that I was basically saying, ‘This is how the entire rhythmic structure of the album should work. It should all be referencing Jeff Porcaro in some way.’ I went so far as to buy his instructional drum DVDs. And I’m not a drummer.”
For the unschooled, the late Porcaro’s enviable resume included stints backing Sonny and Cher, Boz Scaggs, and Steely Dan, along with innumerable for-hire gigs that had him in the studio with everyone from Miles Davis to Madonna to Michael Jackson, for whom he kept the beat on Thriller.
Greenspan came to the man via a tune that will be completely alien to anyone who’s never endured heavily regulated Canadian radio: an adult-contemporary chestnut by Marc Jordan called “Living in Marina Del Rey,” an ode to the SoCal hotspot—“yacht rock” ground zero.
“Listening to it, I was, like, ‘Man, this drummer is fucking fantastic. Who was the drummer on this record?’” he enthuses. “On some nerd level, I just had to find out. And this is the genius of Discogs.com: I went on and started looking around at Jeff Porcaro and everything he played on, and it was like, ‘This guy is the greatest drummer who ever lived.’”
Worry not. The Junior Boys haven’t gone totally Captain and Tennille on Begone Dull Care, their third full-length. But they have clearly learned a thing or two about how to bring a slick, subtle funk backbeat to well-heeled electronic music that is truly adult and contemporary. That rarified, Porcaro-fied style looms large on “Bits and Pieces,” for instance, which whips past like a choice piece of late-’70s smooth rock flirting with R&B.
Yet while the tone of the tunes is generally the Boys’ mellowest and most mature yet, their electronic roots are never far from the surface. On percolating softies like “The Animator” and “What It’s For,” you can hear Junior Boys’ shared passion for vintage synthesizer music; Greenspan namechecks committed experimentalists Laurie Spiegel and Max Matthews, as well as “really bizarre, avant-garde synth music in the pop realm” (Yellow Magic Orchestra, Chas Jankel, Bill Nelson). Classic Chicago acid house is the backbone for the magnificent mid-tempo club cut “Work.”
The result is a warm, breathy, and highly refined electro-pop brew that recognizes and embraces Hall & Oates, Larry Heard, and modular-synth twiddling as products of the same culture, while winkingly acknowledging the fetish for high-end production shared by electronic music and pristine ’70s studio fare. Begone Dull Care sounds positively sumptuous from the moment the gleaming first notes of “Parallel Lines” waft out of your headphones, yet Greenspan and Didemus left the mixes remarkably uncluttered, resisting their urge to make it “the Steve Vai of production records.”
A Dull Roar
The Junior Boys’ influences were not strictly musical—a guiding light also came in the form of Canadian National Film Board animator Norman McLaren.
Begone Dull Care is named for one of the many visionary films the acclaimed McLaren produced during a long tenure at the NFB that began in the early 1940s (he earned an Oscar in 1952 for the brilliant stop-motion short Neighbours). Greenspan concedes a mild obsession with the man’s work, and not just because of his visual daring—McLaren also composed his own burbling electronic soundtracks by physically drawing waveforms onto the tape reels that accompanied his films. Later, he would use a complicated system of tones and pitches inscribed onto cards to concoct futuristic, jumbled soundscapes.
As Greenspan cast about for a unifying model around which to structure the new album, he realized he shared an abiding artistic kinship with McLaren.
“All these coordinates of my own interests and my own ideas were converging at Norm McLaren, for some reason. I was listening to all this experimental synthesizer music and McLaren himself was a total innovator, doing this kind of synthesis that no one had ever done before and no one has really done since,” he says.
“I wanted to use him as the analogy for everything I wanted to be as an artist, everything I thought was important,” he continues. “No one could question how avant-garde and advanced his techniques were. They were probably some of the best in the world. But he wasn’t elitist. He was a populist. He wanted to make films that any child, any person, could watch and understand and relate to and, for me, that’s always been really important—to make electronic music that had the potential to be popular. Sometimes we’re not as popular as I might have hoped, but I try to make music that could be on the radio.”
High Come Down
The band, of course, never actively sought out the comfortable level of popularity it now enjoys. While studying comparative literature at Hamilton’s McMaster University, Greenspan began making music for kicks with co-founding member Johnny Dark (who left the band shortly after their first EP, and is now exploring a comparably fey synth-pop vibe with San Serac as Stereo Image).
Almost accidentally, some of the duo’s early demos—bracing collisions of high-tech R&B rhythms and wounded sissy-boy vocals—found their way to Britain’s KIN Records, a small imprint with Warp connections. The lovely “Birthday,” in particular, was rabidly championed by the nascent blog nation, and suddenly the Junior Boys had a deal with Domino Records for their debut album, Last Exit, and touring commitments to honor on a couple of continents.
Didemus’ departure for Berlin shortly after the release of 2006’s So This Is Goodbye could have spelled the duo’s demise, but in the end, says Greenspan, the only challenge of being an ocean away from his creative partner was “coming up with a methodology” that allowed them to continue writing songs together.
Much “jet-setting” ensued, as both parties strongly believe that their collaborative dynamic demands “two people being in the same place.” Between flights, Greenspan did wind up doing some of the work on Begone Dull Care by himself, but it doesn’t appear to have caused a rift. “Ultimately, I didn’t feel as though Matt wasn’t there enough not to call it a Junior Boys record,” he says.
“The distance thing was little strange at first, but I think we figured it out along the way,” says Didemus from Berlin. “It involved several transatlantic flights and lots of waiting for FTP nonsense. But we have studios in both Berlin and Hamilton, so it’s really not that bad. Plus, after enough traveling, a seven-hour flight isn’t really a big deal.”
That said, the plan for the next album is to do the recording exclusively in Berlin, which raises the spectre of Junior Boys going minimal on us the next time out (remixes by Alex Smoke, Chloe, and Fennesz notwithstanding). Whatever results, Greenspan hopes it will be received with genuine enthusiasm, rather than simple hype.
“The really fun thing about making this record is that we’ve been able to move beyond buzz,” says Greenspan. “When we started off, I was super-glad that people were excited about us—no question. But there was that quality to us when we started that it was kind of a ‘buzz’ thing. Some people were really into it and then other people would just talk about it.
“Now, the people who like us, like us. Hopefully, more people will hear it and like it. But the people who don’t like it maybe won’t have to talk about how they don’t like it so much. I don’t think it’s any longer particularly ‘cool’ to be into us. No one has to fight to be the first person to like the band.”
Junior Boys’ Begone Dull Care is out April 7 on Domino.
Jeremy Greenspan's Making Begone Dull Care Mixtape
1. Theo Parrish “Going Downstairs”
We had this night in London where a whole bunch of people went out to see Theo Parrish, and he dropped this track and everybody just sorta lost it and agreed that this guy was saving dance music.
2. Chaz Jankel “Without You”
I used to always play 3,000,000 synths out when I was DJing, but I became a total believer in Chaz Jankel as a songwriter, and true innovator... Oh, and The Blockheads were pretty much the best rhythm section in music for a decade or so.
3. Kelley Polar “Satellites”
By far, my favorite album of last year. I can’t say enough good things about Kelley Polar. I can’t wait till he writes a full-on opera and becomes our generation’s Stephen Sondheim. Energy!
4. Toto “Georgy Porgy”
As you already know, I became totally obsessed with Jeff Porcaro, who is without question my favorite drummer of all time. He played on everything, and steals the show without trying every single time. I tried to translate his drumming style into the rhythm tracks whenever I could.
5. Yellow Magic Orchestra “Light in Darkness”
Was stuff this weird ever actually popular? I don’t know for sure, but I would totally kill to live in a universe where it was.
6. Bill Nelson “Flaming Desire”
See YMO comment.
7. Steely Dan “Your Gold Teeth II”
I’m Fagen for life. And again, Porcaro is totally killing it on this track. There’s a YouTube clip of a nerdy teenage kid covering this on his lame keyboard, and he’s kinda awesome.
8. Laurie Spiegel “Appalachian Grove”
Laurie Spiegel is one of my favorite of the early electronic music composers. Along with people like Jean-Claude Risset, Alvin Lucier, Delia Derbyshire, Todd Dockstader, and of course Norman McLaren. I’m always amazed at how ‘listenable’ all that stuff is. Spiegel’s stuff, in particular, is amazingly musical and often really beautiful and haunting.
9. Steve Reich “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ”
Yeah, nobody could escape the love-in for Steve Reich during his 70th birthday year. “An entire career built on one simple idea...” He always inspires me to throw in just one more arpeggio.
10. Max Tundra “Which Song?”
I was played this at the Domino office a few months ago, and I totally flipped out. We are really excited to do some shows with him—should be a blast.
Junior Boys' Inspirations for Begone Dull Care
Begone Dull Care is probably The Junior Boys' most influence-laden album to date. It even takes its name from a Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart short film. Check out a few clips that impacted the boys on their latest record.
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