Space is always an issue when living in London. You particularly feel it when you are used to the wide-open spaces and clean air of Denmark. This is the situation Jesper Mortensen — better known as Junior, and one half of Junior Senior — found himself in while living in London for the past few years. But on the list of positives, Mortensen did discover a more dynamic music scene than his native town of Jutland was able to offer. Unfortunately, not long after he settled in London, his co-conspirator Jeppe Laursen (aka Senior) moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of his own dynamics — and a slimmer waistline.
In this transatlantic state, the duo proceeded to write its second long-player, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (2007, Ryko), the follow-up to 2003's D-D-Don't Stop the Beat (Atlantic). Keeping the happy, nonsensical, Miami Sound Machine-meets-children's TV theme-show mentality, Junior Senior is not about getting bogged down in the world's dark side. If anything, the duo is doing its best to take your mind away from it.
Giddy with an effervescent mood, Hey Hey fizzles and pops with all the ingredients necessary for a good time. Elementary in its visceral nature, with guest appearances from the B-52s, Le Tigre and Motown legends the Velvelettes, Junior Senior locks down classic, fun-filled pop.
TAKE YOUR SWEET TIME
“[D-D-Don't Stop the Beat] was done in a rush,” says Mortensen, now residing back in Denmark out of homesickness. “It was what we were about at the time. With [Hey Hey My My Yo Yo], we wanted to take our time and see what would come of that. We learned what we did on [D-D-Don't Stop], the rough ideas, worked. We also learned the songs we spent the most time on — going through doing demos, making them right, having them for six months before recording, going back to a demo that you're happy with, refining it over time — were the best ones.” With this mentality, Junior Senior took its time working on Hey Hey, spending months perfecting demos in Mortensen's home studio, sending them back and forth to Laursen for input and taking even longer during the recording process.
It all starts with what Mortensen insists are “crappy” demos done at his home. Adamant in stating he does not have a studio per se — “I just have a place that's really messy with all kinds of music stuff” — Mortensen chooses his equipment based on how it looks and whether or not he can travel with it. The center of his operation for the Hey Hey demos revolved around an Apple PowerBook running Steinberg Cubase circa 2005, Genelec active speakers — chosen for the fact that they don't take up much space — an M-Audio Ozone MIDI keyboard and an analog/digital converter, again picked for its compact size.
“I don't process anything on my demos because I want to see how it works without being totally produced and maximized,” he says. “I always do demos to get ideas for the songs. I don't think that much sonically about how it's going to end up. Fooling around with the demos [too much], you end up with something that's not real anymore. You pump it up so much, it's easy to make it sound good. But if you don't do anything, you get the raw sound, how the song really works. If you make good demos, it's hard to compete with the finished thing. The purpose of my demos is because we don't have a band, and we can't go out and rehearse the stuff and find out how it works.”
But the demos, for all their roughness, contain plenty of sounds and ideas, including a variety of '80s-era synthesizers such as the Roland JX-3P, Yamaha CS10 and Oberheim OB-Xa. His intention is to use as many “hands-on” instruments as possible. That also includes his guitars, specifically a Gibson Melody Maker and Fender Mustang and Musicmaster. Additionally, Mortensen uses percussion instruments such as vintage tambourines and shakers to get that upbeat party feeling for which Junior Senior is famous.
What you won't find Mortensen using is any virtual or plug-in synthesizers (“I hate that,” he says). But to resolve his space-restriction issues, he'll sample his own sounds into the computer and take advantage of having everything in the box. A main source for the drum sounds on the demos is courtesy of a nerdy friend of the duo's who provided Mortensen with 5,000 recorded sounds from '80s drum machines.
“When you work with a computer, it's hard to have an outboard drum machine playing a song — and I don't have all the drum machines — so it's very nice and easy to have it in the computer,” Mortensen says. “[And] I resampled some drum sounds we had on [D-D-Don't Stop]. That's basically my drum archive. On ‘Happy Rap,’ the drums are looped from the outtakes of ‘Can I Get Get Get’ where the drummer went wild. I used that beat, and I played it a little faster. It has more of a high-pitched sound.”
Despite the derisiveness Mortensen has toward his work on the demos, many of those sounds end up on the finished product. Sometimes they act as guides, but mostly they get mixed in, enhancing the “real” recordings. The combination of canned and live was common for Hey Hey. For example, on “We R the Handclaps,” a drummer plays a live kit — recorded at DeltaLab in Copenhagen, Denmark and Gula Studion in Malmö, Sweden — and those tracks were mixed together with the original drum-machine breakdown from the demo.
Also on “Handclaps” are multiple tracks of three people doing handclaps, redubbed many times for a huge sound. And “Hip Hop a Lula” features a breakdown of drum-machine claps blended with the live handclaps. Meanwhile, for the numerous strings on the album, the duo meshed Mellotron strings samples along with real strings.
Then there are some sounds that are misleadingly real-sounding, such as the banjo-esque noise at the start of “Itch U Can't Scratch,” which was actually generated by Mortensen playing around with a Commodore 64 sound from a friend's synthesizer. And some of the album's horns are synthesized sounds from one of his older keyboards.
The balance of plastic and authentic sounds is key for Mortensen. “It makes it sound more interesting to the ear when you can hear that it's not pure old-school; it's mixed with something, so it gives it a new sound,” he says. “Also, I want it to be human and not just a computer playing. Even though you try to play really precise and tight, it still ends up being not 100-percent perfect. I like that you can hear people playing and all the little mistakes. That was a conscious thing.”
After the completion of Hey Hey, Junior Senior reached the exact opposite conclusion to what they had post-D-D-Don't Stop. “We spent too much time on [Hey Hey],” Mortensen says. “We're good at being wild and doing a few takes and that's it. It doesn't get that much better with 50 takes. I'm happy with how it ended, but it could have ended really badly. We wanted to do something more detailed, but working on all the details, I remember losing focus. I wasn't sure what was good about it anymore.”
On the flip side of the coin, Mortensen appreciated approaching this album in a totally new way, even if it was time-consuming and occasionally exhausting: “It would be really horrible if we found a formula that would work and stuck to it.”
Taking It to the Stage
While the creation of Junior Senior songs is mainly a two-man operation, taking it to the stage involves a full band and the help of a seasoned live engineer who understands the group's intentions. Junior Senior's current live engineer, Mads Nørgaard Nielsen, takes Remixthrough the steps.
Studio to Live: “[We bounce down] Three mono mixdowns — one with drums and percussion; one with strings, keys and various samples; and one with a click track for the drummer,” Nielsen says. “We still use a Roland VS-880EX to run tracks from. We carry two identical ones for backup. For this album, what [we decided] to put on the track and what to leave out was all done in production rehearsals. Everything is still in mono, which tends to sound a little cramped. Also, some of the old recordings are very trashy and get really harsh sounding in the high-mid range. I know what to do from song to song and what frequencies to pull, so the balancing between band and tracks is right.”
Live vs. Sampled: All synths and samples you hear live are on track. The drum loops are there to spice up the drum sound and make it sound different from song to song. There are no live horns or strings onstage. Everything is on the HD. It's all a question of knowing the songs, what is on the HD and how to pull or add different frequencies from the tracks in order to get certain things to stand out — and then just play it loud.
Can't Live Without: We've been playing a lot of different venues, from big arenas to very small, sketchy clubs. I have done shows with next to nothing gearwise. That's the beauty of this band. They can play with this setup virtually everywhere. I would say, however, that I can't live without one decent reverb and one delay to do the old-school slap delay on the vocals and guitars. Also, I need one fast compressor to squash the drums in order to blend them in with the backing tracks. And last: a good vocal compressor. I find the dbx 160s best suited to the job. They're fast, easy to use and can go from light to very heavy compression.
A Good Show: Some of the best shows we've played have been in small, dense clubs where people go crazy and dance. It's much more in your face in the smaller clubs. It's very difficult to create that energy on the arena stages.