Love Is Impossible: Jamaican Queens on Detroit, Yeezus, and Dying Alone

Photo by Katie Chow

These days, it’s boring to be a purist — few bands sum that up better than Jamaican Queens. The Detroit genre-busters first became critically acclaimed and criminally underrated on their 2013 debut album Wormfood, which placed spine-tingling storytelling against a backdrop of everything from baroque pop to electro-rock to hip-hop production. This week, they’re following it up with Downers, a further encapsulation of modern malaise that creates light out of darkness. It’s a remarkably diverse record that draws from 60s pop, the Smiths, and Yeezus in turn, loaded with songs that are as unpredictable as they are catchy. Early single “Joe” chronicles a crush in a way that’s obsession-worthy itself, led by gritty synths that dig in and don’t let go, shuddering under the weight they carry. “If You Really Love Me” seamlessly flirts with both blues and reggae, while “Love Is Impossible” underpins a lighthearted first impression with a steamroller bass wobble and a distinct morbid streak.

Downers sums up the contradictions of being both a cynic and a romantic, the anxiety of desire, and trying to figure out if your friends are more or less messed up than you. If you feel weird all the time, this record’s for you — and even if you don’t, there’s something for everyone.

Back at SXSW in March, I spoke to band members Ryan Spencer, Adam Pressley, and Charles Trees about the making of the album, the legacy of Detroit music, being obsessed with death, and more. Downers is out now on Freakish Pleasures. Follow Jamaican Queens on Facebook and Twitter for more.

The first thing that I noticed about Downers was that on the opening track, you continued the theme from the last song on the first album. It goes from “I’ve begun to think of love as an impossibility” to “You can fall in love with anyone.”

Ryan Spencer: I guess I’d gone through a really bad breakup while writing these albums. A lot of the songs we had just worked on for a really long time, but the lyrical content was still very much like, I was in the relationship when we wrote the first album, and then we broke up. There are similar themes. They’re not all about the same person, and some are not as autobiographical as they might sound, but it’s kind of a breakup album.

There’s still a fascination with death, too.

RS: Yeah, it’s kind of an obsession of mine. It’s a fear, you know? Dying and religion and love, the things that take over our everyday thought patterns, it’s something I’m obsessed with.

On a scale of one to 10, how obsessed with death are you?

RS: I would say three. I’m scared of more like, dying in loneliness and being alone, to be honest.

You were saying it’s not all about one person, but you do have a number of tracks named after different people, like “Jaime (Don’t Call Me Up)” and “Anna” on this one.

RS: I used to always use the name Anna or Annie when I writing about this one certain girl whose real name is Suki. I used Anna because I didn’t know anyone named Anna, and thought that way no one would care or think it’s about them. But then recently, I actually went on a couple dates with a girl named Anna. This new record’s going to come out, and she’ll probably think that song’s about her, but it’s not. Actually, “Jaime,” that’s about a girl named Jaime who really did owe me money. The other names are changed.

I really like “Jaime (Don’t Call Me Up)” and the kind of “This Charming Man” thing it has going on.

Adam Pressley: Yeah, which is funny, because I hardly know any Smiths music. I know that song, and I know “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” and maybe five or six others. I was thinking more about the song “Holiday Road” by Lindsey Buckingham. Then we kind of realized right after that there are like a million songs with that beat. We started thinking about all the millions of other songs, like “Last Nite” by the Strokes or the Tom Petty song that the Strokes ripped off, or the Temptations have one. It’s that same beat, to the point where people who have heard that song are starting to tell us like, “Hey, you guys are probably going to get sued, so you should be careful, because this song uses that.” Then we’re like, “Actually, every song uses that beat.”

RS: I was thinking about “Can’t Hurry Love.”

Did you approach recording in a different way from the first album?

RS: Yeah, we tried to use more real instrumentation in this one, and I think we tried to make it more like our live show. On the last one, we were just a two piece, it was just me and Adam. [Ryan] Clancy is in the band now, and he was in the band for the recording of this record.

That’s interesting that you say that, because my first impression was that the electronic element was brought out more on some of these songs.

RS: That’s another thing, I got really into techno in the past couple years, like obsessed with it. Whenever I was producing, I’d come from a dance music side, and Adam was really into [the Kanye West album] Yeezus. I think some of the industrial elements he was bringing, so the combination of those really abrasive synth sounds, and me being more into four on the floor house and techno kind of made it like that, with real drums on top.

And there’s this strong electronic tradition in Detroit.

RS: Techno was invented there, house was in Chicago. Techno was started in Detroit by Derrick May. I think there was a lot of cross-breeding of genres with house music, because the cities are so close together.

Another theme I’ve noticed is that you talk a lot about “my friends” and “your friends” in your songs.

RS: I feel like our friend group is a really close-knit thing in Detroit and we all kind of act as each others’ therapists. I think that we all just share a lot of our darkest insecurities with one another, and because of that, it’s part of my constant thought pattern. So it seeps into a lot of what I write about, because it’s something I focus on. I do write about love and death and insecurity and depressing stuff a lot. These are the things that consume my time or my thought pattern when I’m writing, when I’m in distress, especially. It’s usually one of those things. Loneliness is a big part of it, but my friends are as well.

What would you say is the most distressed song on this album?

RS: I would say for the last album it was “Caitlin.” For this one, “Love Is Impossible” is probably the most groundbreaking and I think hopeful song. I think the one that was darkest for me to write was “If You Really Love Me,” the one that’s kind of like “Lover’s Rock” [by the Clash], like reggae a little bit. That song, that was the most depressed I’d been all winter. I was going through a really tough time, and I was trying to make a really happy pop song and have it be juxtaposed with the darkest lyrical imagery on the album. It definitely has the most content about suicide.

A lot of music from cold and desolate places seems to come from a similar place.

RS: Most of the songs are written during wintertime because we tour a lot in the summer. When I’m writing, it is desperate in Detroit in the winter. It’s hard to go out, it’s hard to do anything because it’s so cold. Seasonal affective disorder definitely plays a big part in the darkness of the lyrics.

About how long did it take for this album to come together?

RS: Off and on. Actually, two of the songs on it are older than any of the songs on Wormfood. A lot of our songs, we start working on, and nothing’s happening production-wise, then we write other songs and they fly out. “Never Felt Love,” the second track, since the beginning of this band, that was one of the first songs we ever worked on. We’ve recorded it so many times and it’s gone through so many changes.

AP: I wrote the chord structure for it like a year before I moved to Detroit. That was like 2009.

RS: That was something you were always keeping in your back pocket. It was like a full guitar line, and what it became was abrasive synths and completely different.

What’s the other oldest song on the album?

RS: “Cold Babe,” the last track on the record. That was kind of the same thing, I wrote the song with an omnichord when we were living together and in a different band. We were going to use it for that band, but then the band kind of disintegrated, and then we never messed with the song again until after Wormfood and brought it back to life. We were like, “This would probably work good as an ending track!” We recorded it with Brian Deck who recorded a lot of Modest Mouse’s records, and then we weren’t satisfied with how it turned out, so we re-recorded it ourselves and mixed it with someone else also.

There was this venue in Brooklyn called the Galapagos Art Space, which is relocating to Detroit. There was an interview with the director of the space where he said “Detroit is about everything old being new again.” What’s your take on that?

Charles Trees: I would say at least that a lot of older spaces in Detroit are being repurposed, so that part of the statement is definitely true. I think it’s interesting that they’re taking an existing institution from New York and moving it to Detroit. I’m not sure how involved they are with Detroit artists, but I’m interested to see how that turns out. That’s just a mile from where we live.

RS: I would say that these important art spaces, which have been so popular and already celebrated in New York, they don’t exist in Detroit. There’s not another place like Galapagos in Detroit, so it’s a new thing. They’re bringing it to a city that’s never experienced anything like that. It’s a new phenomenon for them. It’s kind of antiquated systems. We don’t have a subway or anything, you know? All the amenities of larger cities, we just don’t have any of them.

Anything else you want to make sure people know?

AP: Love one another.

RS: Spread the jxxky. Love yourself.

What is jxxky? I’ve seen you say that on Twitter a bunch.

RS: You know who Danny Brown is? He’s part of a rap group that’s pretty much unknown outside of Detroit, but they’re really popular in Detroit. It’s called Bruiser Brigade. One of the main members who’s also on a lot of Danny Brown songs, his name is Dopehead. He’s Danny’s cousin, we worked with him [on the Nick Speed remix of “Bored + Lazy”]. He says jxxky all the time, he calls himself King Jxxky. Jxxky means cool, kind of. We just say it, too.

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