Taking a few detours into solo work, producing and collaborations, Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus of Junior Boys found themselves reinvigorated when it came time to make a new record.
Between 2004 and 2011, the Canadian duo released four albums of widely praised electronic rock, producing the sort of R&B- and disco-influenced, synth-heavy music that became significantly more popular during the Junior Boys' extended absence.
With the releases of Big Black Coat, out Feb. 5 on Berlin-based City Slang, the band has reclaimed their spot on the electronic scene's leading edge. Greenspan credits much of the new record's success to time and effort he and Didemus put into their own musical explorations outside the Junior Boys' realm.
"I was working more steadily than I ever have," Greenspan says. "I'm a kind of regimented guy. I work at my studio most days. I don't work the hours of 9 to 5 but I keep a 9-to-5 kind of attitude about working on music. I don't take extended breaks. I'm always working on something, but at various times I'm working on various projects."
Those projects for Greenspan included two solo singles and a collaborative EP with Dan Snaith of Caribou, co-writing and producing 2013's Pull My Hair Back from singer-producer Jessy Lanza and collaborating again on Lanza's follow up Oh No, to be released in May. Didemus relocated to Berlin, launced his own label, Obsession, and started releasing solo tracks under a new project named Diva.
All of that other creative work was liberating Greenspan and Didemus and flooded the Junior Boys with new musical ideas, which made for a more expansive record on Big Black Coat that showcases a band that's both more mature and more daring.
"We're kind of a studio band and definitely working on all the other things shows up in our stuff in terms of me being influenced by other people I work with," he says. "That's, to me, what making music is all about. It's being influenced and trying to incorporate other people's ideas into what you do."
Piecing together Big Black Coat also took longer to make than the Junior Boys' other records because Greenspan set a higher bar for the album from the start.
"There was a lot of material that got thrown out, a lot of material that I was working on for Junior Boys the whole time that didn't quite work," he says. "Generally speaking I always have different material going. But there's never a time I don't have some Junior Boys material going. It took a long time because I wanted the album to be good and I didn't have a lot of pressure to make sure that it came out really fast. I decided to make sure I was really happy with the album."
With Junior Boys, the process usually starts by taking a musical idea and building that into something that resembles a song, Greenspan says. For Big Black Coat, one particular song, "Come On Baby," made things click.
"Sometimes when you write a song, you feel very good about and that sort of becomes the anchor. Writing a song you're really happy with feels like it's sort of a blueprint song," he says. "That one was important because it was the first I wrote for the record that I did like, after all the songs I'd gotten rid of. It was a feeling of liking how different this one song was from some of the stuff from our previous records."
Despite reaching in some new directions, Big Black Coat retains what Greenspan considers the essential qualities of Junior Boys.
"What I've learned about myself is that I have this kind of sound that happens naturally. No matter what I try to sound like, I tend to sound like this one thing," he says. "Because of that, I feel I can be much more daring than I used to think I could in terms of trying different things."
Most of the songs that make up Big Black Coat came from a burst of songwriting over the winter months in Greenspan's home of Hamilton, Ontario, an industrial city on the western edge of Lake Ontario, about 45 miles from the much larger Toronto.
"The album came out of working in a Canadian winter. It's a world away from Tucson, that's for sure, the kind of slog of getting through a brutal winter," Greenspan says. "Hamilton is a funny city. First of all, it has very extreme weather, and it's an extreme city in terms of one part is very, very industrial and there's another whole area that is really lush and green. A lot of rust belt cities are like that."
The title track helped focus Greenspan's ideas for the record, connecting him with some moments from the past.
"The song was written literally about buying a coat. The album was a lot about a certain nostalgia for my own personal history, that had to do with my interests in techno and industrial music from where I'm from, and I associate it with people wearing these kinds of coats," he says.
The time between albums also created an opportunity for Junior Boys to focus on bringing more to their live performances.
"It had been a long time and I was kind of nervous about it and I wasn't sure how to approach things. But it's been fun and we feel really confident about how we're playing now," Greenspan says.