Jamaican Queens just dropped Downers, the follow-up to Wormfood, their 2013 debut. Recorded off and on over the past two years, Downers is an intense mashup of Motown, MGMT, and acid house that has to be heard to be believed. We sat down with JQ frontman and primary songwriter Ryan Spencer before the band (which is rounded out by Adam Pressley, Ryan Clancy, and Charles Trees) heads out on an East Coast tour — here's a track-by-track analysis of "how the sausage was made," as it were.
"You Can Fall in Love with Anyone": This one starts with the beat of David Bowie's "Five Years." My biggest influence in writing is like, doo-wop, obscure pop, girl-group stuff. We just wanted to do a more modern take on that. There's a sample of the Ronettes in there. The "strings" sound, that's a mellotron. Adam played that. A mellotron is a tape recording of string samples — it's basically like a sampler, when they came out. Usually our songs start out as an acoustic guitar and vocals, and then Adam will try and put together a beat. Sometimes I'll start with a beat first.
"Never Felt Love": This beat is actually breaking glass. We recorded that in a studio in Chicago, with Brian Deck, who produced a lot of Modest Mouse's albums. He wanted to do a couple songs for free for us. We didn't keep any of them, but we kept that glass-breaking sound. We smashed a glass into a garbage can. We recorded all over the place — mostly in our bedrooms, but when we were on tour in Europe we had a week off in France. Having a week off — especially there, where there were no distractions, because we didn't know anyone — was amazing. We could just work on it all the time.
This was actually the first track that we started working on for this album, back when Adam and I lived together, like five years ago. Originally, this was like a folk song. We had a guitar line that kind of sounded like "These Days" by Nico. Adam gave me the guitar line, and I wrote the song over it about my girlfriend at that time. We were in a different band, Prussia, then, and we were kind of focused on that. Even when we wrote the first Jamaican Queens album, we didn't really bring this back out at all. As we began working on this album, we completely ditched the guitar line and made that really abrasive synth sound, which became kind of a staple of this album — that really fuzzy, bass-heavy synth. It just kind of came to life after that.
"Love Is Impossible": I think the production is the most scatterbrained on the album here. We were trying to do that the whole time we were working on it — make something where, like, nothing felt like the tracks before. This was the first song I wrote finally feeling like I was over my ex-girlfriend last spring. It was a really hard breakup. I remember finally thinking I would be OK. I thought I would not survive — obviously, everybody thinks that when they go through a bad breakup. It was the first moment I realized things weren't as bad as I thought they would be. I don't think that love actually is impossible, but maybe my idea of "fairy tale" love is probably one that's not going to sustain throughout your entire life. You change and things change.
"Bored + Lazy": This song begins on the same note that the last one ended on. We really made an effort to use the same synth sounds, so it's cohesive, rather than being completely scattered. When we were done with some tracks we would take the exact same synth sounds and use them again, especially to make it easy to replicate live. We don't care about singles. I listen to albums. It's the sum of all the parts. Each song isn't necessarily important as the statement. Like an album like What's Going On by Marvin Gaye — I think that's maybe my favorite record. There's not really a "single." It flows together, it sounds the same. Sometimes you don't even know which song you're on.
Adam produced this beat, I think trying as hard as he could to make something that sounds like Timbaland, who is one of his biggest influences. At first it was really stripped down, and it was like a harpsichord doing those big bass blasts. Our friend Izaak Schlossman, who makes a lot of electronic music, he helped us beef up a lot of those synth sounds. Once we blew it out, it sounded more like what we wanted. That high-pitched sample is actually a really low-voiced man singing something. This synth line is definitely a West Coast hip-hop homage.
"Anna": This song, I wrote in Florida. We were on a long tour, and I was one of the happiest I've ever been in my entire life. I wanted to write a disco song. Shigeto plays keys on this; he's my roommate. He just happened to be home one day when we were recording. We were trying to play rhodes, but he's just a better key player than we are.
I use the name "Anna" almost exclusively when I'm talking about girls that I dated. I've never dated anyone named Anna, so no one will ever be slandered by my inclusion of their name.
For this album, we wanted to make it sound modern, but not like how modern pop music sounds. We wanted to make it sound like we were living in the future. Music shouldn't sound like it was made in, like, the '70s. We wanted to make it sound new.
"Jaime (Don't Call Me Up)": For this, I tried to write a song like "You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes. That's my favorite song of all time. I wanted to try and replicate that — but with a 303 synth and like, acid house. This guitar line, Adam really took from Johnny Marr from the Smiths. It's an homage. We try not to sample if we can get around it. Like with that whole Sam Smith vs. Tom Petty thing — I was like, whatever. That guy's going to be fine. And Tom Petty's going to be fine. It's just a bunch of rich people demanding money from other rich people.
"Joe": I wrote this beat once I started getting into dance music. I started getting more and more into it since recording this album. I feel like maybe the music I write in the future might not even be pop music or even have vocals. I've just been more interested into more obscure music that doesn't fit the contemporary pop formula.
The subject matter of this song was me losing my last job. Jamaican Queens were starting to tour a lot, and it was just hard for me to keep this job. When I got fired, it really made me depressed — it made me feel disconnected from all my friends who had jobs. I just called it "Joe" — I like the sexual ambiguity of that. All the other songs are about love, and people might think this song is about love, or about a man. I wanted to get people thinking.
"Emo + Poor": I wanted this song to be a little more industrial. The synths in the center section are especially a reference to acid house. Then there's a doo-wop part in this song. It's not a sample — we did it. We did it with a lot of tapes so it would sound grainy and old. We wanted it to sound like two different songs. This end part, we wanted it to sound like a Morrissey lyric mixed with industrial music, an overdramatic thing.
"If You Really Love Me": We wanted this song to sound like Silence of the Lambs. We had Eddie Logix's girlfriend scream into a microphone for a half-hour, and then we cut that up and pieced it together. I think this is my favorite song on the record. I was so depressed when I wrote this song. I still love pop music — even when I'm feeling really dark.
"Cold Babe": This starts with an omnichord — it's an electronic instrument that replicates a harp, but it doesn't sound like one. It kind of sounds like an organ to me. We're all about working in the studio and producing. That's our main thing. That's how these songs all came to be. They start simple, but then we add all this other orchestration over the top.
I think anytime you look back at an album, you think of how you could have done things differently. I'm glad this part of my life is behind me — but I'm proud of the songs.
Jamaican Queens play with headliners Valley Hush at the Majestic Cafe on Saturday, June 6. The show starts at 8 p.m.; 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com; Tickets are $8 advance, $10 day of show.