Jeremy Greenspan and Johnny Dark in 1999 founded Junior Boys, but Dark left shortly before Matt Didemus joined and hit it off with the feet-tapping 2003 single “Birthday” from the 2004 debut album Last Exit.
The Canadian electronic-pop duo, now comprising just Greenspan and Didemus, released their sixth album Waiting Game last October, which takes on more experimental electronic music with a splash of ambient tone.
You can still hear a tinge of their R&B-infused melodies in this album, but less punchy than before – and that isn’t a bad thing, either.
They went on to release four more albums after that. Still, after their fourth release, It’s All True, they went on to pursue different projects, including Greenspan’s collaborations with Caribou and Jessy Lanza, before the fifth album, Big Black Coat, dropped in 2015.
Despite their absence as a collective, they never lose their incredible soundscapes.
From the first song written, “Must Be All the Wrong Things”, which was recorded as a test to expressing the feeling of anticipating something to happen on the title track, Waiting Game is an album that reflects the beauty of the world.
Here’s the track-by-track guide by Greenspan (in his own words).
‘MUST BE ALL THE WRONG THINGS’
One of those rare occurrences, where the first song on the album is actually the first song written for the album.
The track started simply as a recording test. I had designed a new recording configuration at my studio and needed to test out a series of synthesisers to make sure everything was recording properly.
I kept regarding parts on top of parts and very soon was really excited by what was happening. I ended up with the skeleton of this thing that I didn’t know what to do with.
I figured there is no way this is a Junior Boys song, or something I could pitch to other artists I work with. But then I thought, “Well, what if this is Junior Boys song?”
The excitement of that served as a guiding principle to what the new album could be. I wanted to make an album that the listener really had to lean into.
I also realised pretty early that there was no way that “Must Be All The Wrong Things” would translate to cell phone speakers and kind of just thought oh well maybe this whole album can sound shitty on a laptop and that's ok.
About half of the songs on the album were written with my collaborator Matt Didemus – this is one of them. As I remember it, Matt came up with that awesome bassline and we just recorded it and once I added the ancient drum machine it just came alive.
I kind of thought of it like a blues song or something. It sort of fits a 12-bar pattern in that way, and that is something that I really want to explore going forward.
I also always love songs that evolve out of propulsive slinky basslines, which is something I’ve done a lot with my collabs with Jessy Lanza, but not as much in Junior Boys.
I wanted the same immersive feel as the first track, so I started doing this “peripheral music” thing, where I just started layering tons and tons of material in the background and bringing them so low in the mix that I could barely hear them.
That was the real fun of doing this album; if you write a part, and even if the part didn’t work at all, in the same key or rhythmically, once you lowered them in volume, they just created a kind of uncanny distant world inside of the track – like something reaching out from deep down.
‘IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME’
I don’t even remember how this one happened. I was playing around with a speech synthesiser and this song just came into being. I think the best stuff usually happens when you aren’t even thinking about writing.
I sent a load of demos and material to Dan Snaith when I was starting out and there were lots of more poppy songs that I had started and he was very encouraging about indulging my weirder instincts.
I remember he was very excited about this track, and that enthusiasm for what I thought might be just a bad experiment really helped flesh out the album.
A lot of the tracks on the album end abruptly and I really like that. On our third album Begone Dull Care we kept on wanting to have these long tracks with extra bars in break downs, and I wanted this album to be a concise statement really.
I was aware of the fact that the album is best heard as a whole thing, like old fusion albums where the thing feels like one huge song, so I didn’t want to push ideas beyond their natural course.
‘THINKING ABOUT YOU CALMS ME DOWN’
At my core, I sort of always think of myself as an R&B artist. I’m aware of the fact that I’m not perceived that way, but it's sort of where my head always kind of goes.
I incorporate all kinds of things I love like dance music, new wave, electronic experimental whatever, but really, I like to filter it through this original conceit of Junior Boys as modern R&B act.
All of these tracks play with some level of abstraction of that. some are super abstract and others get back to that core, and this song is about as conventional a love song as I’m likely to write.
But it was important to me that it isn’t simply an effusive love song, but something that commented on the feeling of trepidation that was writing about all over the album.
I wanted to write a love song that was basically about a love that restores a sense of calm, when you need it the most. Love as respite.
There are so many tracks on this track. It reminded me a bit of an older Junior Boys song Banana Ripple, insofar as the mix involved so many moving parts.
The vocal was really unique. It is basically a duet with a very talented singer named Alanna Stuart. I had originally met Alanna when I mixed an album for her group Bonjay several years ago, and we have stayed friends over the years.
I did a lot of effect processing on the last few albums I’ve done and so it doesn’t seem too out of place to have another different vocal sound. Our voices merged pretty well and there is so much else going on, so it's pretty hard to point out where one ends.
Every Junior Boys album needs at least one song about wrestling with self-delusion and this is the one on Waiting Game.
A large number of musical heroes died while I was making the album. And naturally when someone who you admire dies, you invariably think about them and listen to their music and try to let their influence permeate into what you are working on.
I remember listening to a lot of McCoy Tyner, Manu Dibango and Jon Hassell who all died around the time of writing and mixing the album.
Jon Hassell was a very interesting presence also because many of his best and most innovative albums were made with Daniel Lanois a stone's throw away from my studio in Hamilton.
But perhaps the death that affected me the most during this period was Florian Schneider. He is a very difficult person to wrap your head around in terms of grieving, precisely because so much of his professional persona was about himself as a machine.
But I have always found Kraftwerk to be deeply emotional music, filled with melancholic nostalgia.
I listened to Radioactivity a lot while making the album. It seemed to me an album filled with dynamic variation. It has an unforgiving experimental energy which is exactly what I wanted to explore myself.
Dum Audio was my way of honouring him in some weird way. I knew I wanted to write a sort of machinic, medicalised hymn but perform it on a speech synthesiser but had no idea what to write, and I happened to come upon a book of medieval poetry at my house and it had this wonderful Latin poem about grieving amid the coming of spring.
Another song that was written out of a great sonic experiment Matt had started. He had this great patch with a harmonic oscillator and I was sort of stuck on what to do with it for a long time.
I had built this software synth that I wanted to try out and came up with the chiming lines on it, and once we added the saxophone, it really turned from something I thought we would throw on the “shit pile” (the folder of crap songs and experiments that don’t make it to the album) into something I thought really worked.
‘SAMBA ON SAMA’
I think it's probably the best song on the album. I definitely wanted it to evoke this sort of forgotten city at the end of the world energy that I felt when I was walking around Hamilton in the winter of 2020.
I felt bit like Hamilton might be an island, like Manhattan in Escape From New York where only a few people remained in a bubble that has been isolated from the rest of civilisation.
Like how John Foxx describes his Quiet Man who is moving through a world that used to be alive but had turned into something spectral.
When you live in a place that you have never moved away from, it sort of becomes more and more haunted, the older you get. every place evokes some memory, every street produces some specific vision, some feeling and you are increasingly reminded of a world that is gone forever.
I didn’t want to write a Covid album. I’m not a political artist, I didn’t want to add to a sea of voices about processes and problems that I don’t understand and have no solutions for. But it was impossible to be writing stuff in the spring of 2020 without acknowledging the singular strangeness of the moment.
I was aware that there was suffering going on with people who were sick and losing loved ones, but there was another aspect to that time. For some people that early lockdown period had a soft contemplative feeling.
It seemed that the world had quieted down and everybody was in a strange holding pattern, the noise of their lives was temporarily muted. I kind of wanted to explore that feeling.
It was singular also because it was not simply a peaceful interlude to life, but a break that was accompanied by anxiety and some dread.
The song “Waiting Game” is about that, living in the island or bubble that your life is forced into, where you only see one or two people. checking in over telephone or zoom or whatever with the outside world, feeling isolated but kind of enjoying it at the same time, because maybe you will only experience this moment once in a lifetime.
Feeling bad, because you enjoy the quiet when you know that others are in pain. It was a remarkable time that I couldn’t ignore as a writer, but wanted to do what I always do and “keep it local”.
All Images: Tom Weatherill
This feature of Behind the Songs was created with 9PR.
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Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.