Tom Weatherill

How Small-Town Drunks and Techno Nostalgia Inspired Junior Boys' Comeback Album

Big Black Coat is the Canadian electro-pop duo's first record in five years.

Jan 27 2016, 5:18pm

Tom Weatherill

There aren't many artists from Hamilton, Ontario, whose first two albums averaged a 9.0 rating from Pitchfork. In fact, Junior Boys are likely the only act to ever pull it off.

Hamilton is less than an hour away from the overshadowing metropolis of Toronto, but the two cities couldn't be any more different. An industrial town with just over half a million residents, the former's better known as the birthplace of Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons than the meeting place of one of the country's most successful electro-pop duos.

Only one half of Junior Boys, Jeremy Greenspan, still calls Hamilton home today, while Matthew Didemus resides in Berlin.

Needless to say, the city has always played a major role in the duo's music, yet never as much as on their fifth album (and first in five years) Big Black Coat. Inspired by Detroit techno, proto-house, and R&B (including a cover of Bobby Caldwell's 1978 single "What You Won't Do For Love"), it feels lighter than previous efforts, as if both men have been unburdened from public expectations.

We recently sat down with Greenspan at The Brain—the bar he co-owns, which also doubles as a cafe and arts space—to talk to him about the band's hiatus, and learn about his complex relationship with his hometown.

THUMP: Why did it take you five years to put out a new record?

Jeremy Greenspan: When we finished touring the last record we started making a new record soon after. What ended up happening was that a whole bunch of songs were written and got pretty far along, and then got scrapped. We were also out of our contract with our label, Domino, signed for four albums. If we were still under contract with Domino, chances are a shitty Junior Boys album would have come out two or three years ago. There was no pressure though to do anything.

After the last Junior Boys album, I had already started working with Jessy Lanza. So I was doing both the Junior Boys and Jessy Lanza albums. And I had this Junior Boys album that was not inspiring me, but also this Jessy album that was totally inspiring me, and had all of my creative energy going into it. I used to think of my whole career as just Junior Boys and then all of a sudden I had this other career.

Was there a moment where you thought, "Maybe I don't need to do Junior Boys at all?"
Totally! My bills were getting paid, the Jessy record was doing crazy great, I didn't have to go out and tour. In fact, that's why the record was named after Jessy Lanza instead of us giving it a band name. I didn't want people to think of it as a Junior Boys side project. I thought that would downsize her contribution and have people think she was a hired singer.

After her success, a total creative flurry of music came out of me.It was this totally crazy, creative time where everything was cross-pollinating everything. It was the most exciting time to be working on a new Junior Boys album since the second one.

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So the "I don't give a shit approach" really inspired what you do now?
Absolutely. The whole new album, this new philosophy is to do as much stuff as possible and throw out what doesn't work and do stuff quickly with a renewed sense of energy. I approached it the way I approached the solo techno tracks.

Almost every vocal on the record is a demo take that I did just sitting around. Everything was done so quickly and just off the desk, and then mixed. That's the kind of energy I want to bring. That's how I want to work.

How did making this album work with Matt over in Berlin and you in Hamilton?
For this new album, 50 per cent of the songs I did by myself here in Hamilton. And then 50 per cent of the songs I did with Matt when he came over. But the 50 per cent I did with Matt, he started most of those songs by himself in Berlin. He's this obsessive guy, so we work at different paces, and that's why the album is a little lopsided. Matt is way more methodical, slower and obsessive than I am. The reason why it works is because I always view the music we did together as the better stuff.

I read that the song "Over It" is about a local eccentric who frequents The Brain.
I would say there is an 80 per cent chance that the guy who inspired "Over It" is going to walk through that door in the next 20 minutes. I bet you every songwriter in Hamilton has written a song about him. There's a bar scene here, and bars tend to be filled with similar types of people. Bar regulars tend to be alcoholics and they tend to have an aura of tragedy around them all the time.

So all of the people that I meet here, I'm inspired to sing a little in their voice, especially on this new album where a lot of the songs are not about me.

So you had individual people in mind that you used as characters?
It's one of these things where I didn't realize I was even doing it. The label [City Slang] said to me, "Can you write all of the lyrics out for the album?" And I agreed because I was tired of music writers getting my words wrong because they didn't have that information.

They were all kind of about these guys who were pathetic and emotionally stunted. There is this weird thread of mild misogyny that moves throughout the album. They're super confused by their own emotions and lash out. So I just realized that they're about these guys in Hamilton that I see all the time and wonder what their emotional life is like.

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It's kind of like an accidental concept album about Hamilton.
I think that's right. So the album had this different title, and then I decided to call it Big Black Coat, because the coat became this metaphor for insulating yourself against the harshness of winter. And then I also just associated all of my earlier tastes in music, like I grew up listening to industrial and techno, where it was all about bomber jackets and trench coats.

What has kept you in Hamilton all these years? You've achieved international success. Why stay?
Well, I stayed here for two different reasons. Nobody can ever say I don't belong here. A lot of my motivation feeds on nostalgia. In Hamilton, every part of the city radiates with meaning for me. As you grow older that becomes more intense. The other reason has to do with just the nature of being a musician and the kind of lifestyle you lead as a musician. I didn't want to be surrounded by musicians or people in the music industry. Hamilton is an extremely insular place. There isn't much of a sense of the outside world.

Big Black Coat is out Feb. 5 on City Slang and Geej Recordings.

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