By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
He didn't veer as far as he thinks: Greenspan and bandmate Matt Didemus make sleek, shiny synth-pop loaded equally with micromanaged ProTools texture, delicate blue-eyed-soul melody and a sensitive, nuanced lyricism. Last Exit, their album, is a small wonder of warm electronic pop, its songs as satisfying on a car stereo as its details are through a pair of headphones. It's the sort of thing you'd figure astronauts might listen to when they get homesick, and if anyone's made a record this year that better marks out the midpoint between computer sciences and comparative literature, Google's not sharing the secret.
Still, if the Junior Boys' music has earned the approval of Greenspan's family of scholars ("Everyone's really excited," he says, "and the cool thing about an academic career is that you can go back to it whenever you want"), the band, currently in the middle of a month-long American tour with German glitch goofballs Mouse on Mars, is unquestionably monopolizing the singer's time these days.
The Junior Boys perform with Mouse on Mars and ratatat on Monday, October 11, at Gypsy Tea Room.
It didn't always. Greenspan formed the Junior Boys in 1999 with his pal Johnny Dark "for fun, really. We were doing songs together like any band and didn't have any particular direction or reason for doing it." Stylistically, their aim was crossing the sounds of U.K. garage--the English electronic-R&B scene that eventually birthed Craig David--with those of vintage new wave. "We did a couple of tracks together, and we sent them to a couple of record labels, and there wasn't much interest or anything like that."
Then Greenspan took a year off high school ("I wasn't liking it very much") and went to live in England, where his sister was. "It was very much a whim. I just decided to go," he says. "And I got a job at a recording studio there. And that's kind of where I learned a little bit about how to record music and do those sorts of things." He also made some friends in the world of music and music journalism, including the bloke who runs the online electronic-music zine Hyperdub. "He decided to put up some of our songs on his Web site, and what started happening was there was a group of journalists who started picking up on these online things and started asking me to send them demos. And so I did, and there was a funny little community who started writing about this demo that nobody else had heard."
When Greenspan returned to Canada, Dark moved out of town for work and left the group. "And so the band ended," Greenspan says, "and I didn't think much of it until a couple weeks later, when I got some interest from record labels, including this one KIN, in England, who wanted to put out some of the songs that me and John had done as EPs. We set that in motion, and that started happening. And then the label said, 'Let's make an album.' So I decided 'OK, I'll try and finish an album.'"
By that time paired up with Didemus, who'd originally helped out the singer as an engineer before filling Dark's spot, Greenspan says that his real passion as a musician is for that kind of recording. "I spoke to the head of Domino Records," he says of the hip indie label that's distributing Last Exit in North America. "Their big success story is Franz Ferdinand, and I asked him, 'Are you surprised by how well they're doing?' He said, 'You can't imagine how hard these guys work.' I've seen that they've played Toronto in the past year, like, five times. I think of myself a little differently; I feel like we wanna work really hard, but I think our path lies more in working hard in the studio than working hard by touring our asses off."
Appropriately, Last Exit sounds worked on. The detailed soundscapes underpinning "Teach Me How to Fight" and "Birthday" are carefully composed of layers of tinkling keyboards, skittering drum-machine beats and ghostly echoes of echoes of sounds you never actually hear. Greenspan's vocals, too, seem like the product of many hours spent recording and re-recording in a darkened bedroom closet; their breathy closeness creates a tasty friction with the music's smooth surface.
"ProTools allows for the minute correction of details, particularly on the voice," Greenspan says. "Basically you can correct it to the point where you can't hear any vocal errors or mistakes. We very purposefully didn't use any of those techniques. I have a quiet voice, and when you're singing quietly there's all sorts of things that a microphone picks up: breaths and hisses and vocal mistakes. Ordinarily, people would correct all those sort of things. We didn't do that." He names singers like Chet Baker, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk and Neil Young as inspirations in this regard, and mentions New Order when explaining why the Junior Boys don't cling to the "revivalist notion in electronic music of '80s music that's about being very angular and dispassionate."