Since releasing their debut album, Wormfood, just over two years ago, the Detroit-based band Jamaican Queens have earned critical acclaim and become Motor City music royalty. But the group appears unbounded – either by city limits or stylistic conventions.
Despite the title of their recently released single, “Bored + Lazy,” Jamaican Queens are best characterized by restlessness rather than torpor. In person, the trio demonstrate this trait in different ways. Frontman Ryan Spencer is expressive and unreserved, with a voluble quality that’s more gregarious than it is garrulous. Adam Pressley acts as a suitable foil, throwing Spencer’s open-armed vibe into sharp relief with an off-kilter sense of humor and penchant for left-of-center interests. And though Ryan Clancy may be quieter than the others, his pensive demeanor reveals an active and inquisitive mind.
Wormfood didn’t fit easily into the readymade narrative of the Detroit music scene by trading in white-hot, White Stripes-esque garage rock for the starry-eyed shimmer of British indie pop and the slow-burning smolder of Southern hip-hop. With a new album on the horizon, the band are pushing their sound into new directions.
Detroit Music Magazine caught up with Jamaican Queens at Pressley’s and Clancy’s house, where they were preparing for an extensive tour. As the strains of a certain Teutonic group emanated from the basement, it became clear that while we may just be Wormfood, we’re also getting closer to becoming man-machines.
We just heard you rehearsing a Kraftwerk cover. Was that informed at all by your recent tours to Europe?
Adam Pressley: It’s a Halloween thing, actually. We were like, “What’s an easy costume for a band to pull off?” [Snaps finger.] “Kraftwerk.” I think that was what the thinking was behind it.
Ryan Spencer: Yeah, we’re playing in Chicago on Halloween, and we were like, “You gotta dress up on Halloween.” So we were thinking, “Let’s dress up as a band.”
So is this a one-off?
RS: Yeah, but we’ll probably play it some other times, though.
AP: This is our first time playing a cover, actually. I thought we were going to go forever without playing one.
Will you think about performing more covers if this one’s successful?
RS: Probably not. We’ve got to learn how to play all the songs off our new record live.
Speaking of the new record, we’ve already heard “Bored + Lazy” – or do you refer to it as “Bored and Lazy”?
AP: “Bored and Lazy.”
RS: But it’s spelled with a plus. You even mentioned that in the review you wrote the other day. We’ve always been adamant about changing the press release to make sure it’s a plus, not an “and.”
Is this an advance single from your new record, or is it a non-album single?
RS: This song is going to be on the record, but yeah, we’re just releasing it as a single for now. We’re going to release it on vinyl, actually, in a couple of months. It’s going to be a 12” with just that song on really good quality vinyl, and on the flipside there’s going to be a remix by Kevin Saunderson.
How did that come about?
RS: Our manager’s kids go to school with his kids, and they met that way, or something like that.
Have you started working on the remix?
RS: Well, Kevin is. We don’t even have a hand in it. We just gave him the song. Adam met up with him for, like, ice cream.
AP: Thai. [Laughs] The ice cream was a joke. It was a Thai restaurant in Novi, I think. It was near Novi, I know that.
RS: Kevin Saunderson’s so Detroit, he eats ice cream in Novi.
In an interview once, you said something to the effect of most Detroit bands really just being from the suburbs. How do you feel now having gone on all these tours nationally and internationally? I imagine you must field a lot of questions about Detroit. Do you feel a drive to represent the city?
RS: I don’t think we feel representative of Detroit, at all. I mean, Adam’s from Illinois, and we’re [gestures to himself and Ryan Clancy] from the suburbs. So our past is suburban, you know? Even though we’ve lived in the city for a few years, I don’t think that makes us representative. Though we live here, and we’re amongst other bands in Detroit, I would say the majority of bands that get attention from here – even if they do live in the city, and most of them don’t – but even if they do, most of them weren’t born and raised here. We were still afforded the amenities of the suburbs before moving down – with college educations – to the city. I’m still proud to represent Detroit. It’s my favorite city in the country, and I’m lucky to live here, you know? But I don’t think we feel like flag bearers or something.
AP: I don’t even know any bands that were all born and raised in Detroit. I imagine some jazz band or some techno artists are probably born and raised in Detroit. [Looks to bandmates] Are the Belleville Three from Detroit?
AP: That’s a neighborhood in Detroit.
RS: Belleville’s a city that’s near Ann Arbor.
AP: Oh, really?
RS: But they moved down here in their college years and made renegade techno in the city when it was at its most dangerous point.
AP: That’s kind of similar to what we did, too. I mean, we’re living in Detroit.
RS: Yeah, because it’s an exciting and amazing place to live. We’re lucky to come from here, and we’re proud of it, so we’re not shy when people ask questions about Detroit. But we could never even start to understand or begin to relate to the people that were really born and raised here, because, you know, we never had to deal with water shutoffs. Even now, when the water’s being shut off in different neighborhoods, we’re unaffected, virtually, because we still have, like, hipster jobs in coffeeshops and shit. We’re white; it’s easier for us to get jobs.
AP: People cut us a lot more slack than a lot of – the majority of – the population in Detroit.
RS: Yeah, unfortunately, that’s the truth.
You mentioned working jobs, but have you felt any sense of the acclaim or renown or name recognition that’s come since the release of Wormfood and going on tour? Do you foresee a time in the future when you won’t have to work a day job?
Ryan Clancy: It’s a cool hope, right? To not have a job besides making art. That’s a cool hope.
RS: Technically, I don’t really have a job. I haven’t had a job in, like, a year and a half. But I do have to do so many side-hustle things to make money. So many random things. Like I clean this Airbnb and babysit. I would be so cool not to have to do either. I don’t even like kids at all.
AP: But we pursue this so obsessively that I think all of us would be so stoked to be able to say we make enough money off of what we do musically to not have to do that other kind of stuff.
RS: If that happened, we’d also be a lot bigger, so our whole lives would probably change. We’d be making money. It would be crazy to be able to afford to go out to eat at a restaurant, you know?
The songs on Wormfood were written about your lives or those of people you know. What about “Bored + Lazy”? Was that, too, driven by personal experience?
RS: The chorus came first, before any other part of that song, and the chorus was originally going to be used on a different song on the record. I think it was going to be on “Joe.”
AP: Oh, you know what? I think I remember that it was the pre-chorus to something else that you wrote, but then it ended up becoming the chorus. I don’t remember if you made the chorus, or if I made the beat, or which came first. But I do remember that we had that chorus forever ago.
RS: Yeah, the chorus was completely done, even with the Vocoder. I don’t even remember what I wrote that about, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. Oh, wait! That was about me and my ex-girlfriend’s first date. She almost OD’d on this fake Ecstasy that I bought from somebody, and she spent the whole evening… Well, it wasn’t even a date. She had a boyfriend, but I was, like, in love with this girl. We went to a house party, and I got us some Ecstasy pills – like, pressed pills. Nobody takes that shit anymore. We each took one, and nothing really happened, so we each took another one – a second one – and then she told me that the party sucked and went home. I became really depressed because I was, like, in love with her, and she left, you know? The Ecstasy didn’t work, but it almost killed her. She was throwing up and violently sick. So that was what that was about. The other lyrics to the song are just abstract writing that I was doing while we were on tour, and they have nothing to do with that situation at all.
How did the new album come together? Were most of the songs written on tour? Did you convene at a studio in between dates?
AP: Our studio is just wherever my computer is. We mix at a nice professional studio, but recording and writing and everything else is all done either at home or on tour. I think it was probably a really close mix of 50/50 of on tour and at home.
RS: We’ve been working for so long on stuff for this new record, pretty much since the last one came out. And yeah, we’ve been all over the place in that time.
AP: We did a lot of it in France, did a lot of it in Woodbridge – at my house that I lived at.
RS: I write at home just whenever I’m inspired to write, you know? I feel like the beginning, the outline of a song, is all done separately, so it’s like someone’s always working on something.
Have you premiered any of the new songs live yet?
RS: I think we’ve pretty much just started learning the new songs. Well, we were kind of learning the new songs before, a little bit.
RC: Yeah, “Joe” has evolved a little bit.
RS: “Joe” had that really crazy disco breakdown at the end, remember?
AP: [Laughs] Oh yeah, I wish I could still hear that. It’s probably still in an e-mail somewhere.
RS: And it had that pitch-shifted, that [makes booming noise] note.
AP: I miss that. R.I.P.
RS: That’s the one that should come out on tour. The disco version.
AP: Was the only difference that it had an extended ending? I mean, that’s just gone.
RS: And that [makes siren-like noise]. But it’s slowed down, remember? Or, like, everything went to half time. Disintegrated.
Electronic and dance music were touchstones on Wormfood – but between the Kraftwerk cover, the Kevin Saunderson remix, and the disco version you just mentioned – it sounds as if you’re leaning much more heavily on these styles with the new record.
RS: I think with the last record we were way more into hip-hop production, and I think this time around [looks at Adam Pressley] you’re really into Kraftwerk, and so is Clancy. That’s what influenced us: techno, electronic music, Kraftwerk. And then I’m really into dance music, more so than these guys.
AP: I feel like Ryan [Spencer] and I are both super into electronic music, but sometimes different kinds. Like we have overlapping – what is that called?
RC: The Venn diagram.
AP: Venn diagram. Like we’re really big in the middle, but he also has the techno. Actually, it’s mostly together.
RS: Yeah, but there’s stuff that you like that you’re always showing me – like Cibo Matto and stuff. The production there is weird.
AP: I like weird pop music. I think if there’s a genre of music I like, that’s what I like the most.
What other styles of music were you listening to that made their way into the new record?
RS: Other than what we mentioned before, mostly what we listened to on tour was…
AP: Marc Maron podcasts. [Laughs]
RS: I always listen to all sorts of different things. I don’t know. There weren’t that many other influences, but that Kanye West record, Yeezus, was, like, huge.
I know you’re a huge fan of dancehall.
RS: Yeah, I’ve always loved dancehall. It’s been something that I listen to less, recently, just because you go in waves with everything. Like all I’m listening to right now is Sun Kil Moon.
What do you think of the recent controversy surrounding Mark Kozelek?
RS: It is really interesting to read about. What’s crazy, though, is that I got that record, Benji, three days before I heard about all that. I was like, “Whoa, man, this is so cool.” And then that started happening, and he became way more famous instantly right around when I started liking Benji.
RC: You jumped on the bandwagon.
RS: No, but that’s what I’m saying. I’m kind of glad that happened because he’s in the press so much, that it’s a constant reminder.
AP: Did either of you guys read that Perfect Pussy article about him? I thought that was pretty good. It totally made me realize that I’m accidentally kind of sexist, ‘cause I didn’t even think about, like, the bullying. I had just thought it was kind of funny. Did you read that?
AP: It just talks about how [Kozelek] has this song that bullies [The War on Drugs] by saying “Suck my dick!” He wants them to submit to him. I don’t know, it was a little bit of a stretch, but in a way, I could see that.
RS: Yeah, I mean definitely when that song came out – or when that first headline came out – and they talked about him being sexist, I instantly felt like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” I was surprised everyone wasn’t tearing him apart for saying “Suck my dick,” ‘cause it’s, like, rape-y and sexist.
AP: Homophobic and sexist.
RS: Everything about it, yeah. But then I heard the rest of it, and I just thought he’s a super crass dude who’s, like, fearless in his delivery and kind of doesn’t give a fuck. It’s a little different.
AP: And kind of old-timey, also. He’s not down with the modern, PC-like ways of the kids.
RS: He’s totally like you say, just like Chris Koltay.
AP: Yeah, totally.
RC: I bet they would get along great.
You worked with Chris Koltay on Wormfood, and you’re working with him on the upcoming record, too. How is that progressing?
AP: It’s almost done. [Laughs]
RS: [Laughs] It is almost done.
Wormfood ended with “Caitlin,” about the murder of your friend Caitlin’s grandmother. Does the new record explore darker material in the same vein?
RS: It is definitely a much darker record, and maybe more personal – less about, like, my friends, I guess? But the way that I write, there’s always a stream of consciousness, so there are things that I pulled from different times. We also chopped up songs a lot and pasted choruses from different songs, so it’s probably harder to follow, you know? It’s definitely self-absorbed, but there’s things from different songs that might not have been about the same shit.
Wormfood also had a lot of great videos that drew from local talent. Are you planning to do the same thing with the new album?
AP: Yeah, just like the last album, where we did a video for almost every song, we’re doing the same thing with this one. We’re doing a video for almost every song. We’ve got all the directors picked out, and I think they’re all local. We’re even doing a video game.
What can fans expect from your upcoming tour?
RS: I think our set now is divided about half and half between old songs and new, because anyone that’s coming to our shows has probably just heard about us in the last year or so, and they’re probably just getting used to our music. So we’ve got to play those songs that people know. We keep our sets short; we never play more than seven songs per night when we’re on the road. So it’s gonna be, like, three or four new songs. We’ve got to work on the new stuff a lot more.
AP: I really want to get a keyboard onstage. So we’re probably going to get a fourth member for live shows to do that.
RS: There’s more electronics. There’s a lot of electric guitar on the new record – far more than any acoustic guitar. So we’re probably gonna have to switch. There’s just going to be some different stuff.
During the promotion for Wormfood, you often said that your next record would be called Wet Pussies from Planet Neptune. Is that still the case?
AP: No. [Laughs]
Can you tell us what it will be called?
AP: Yeah, sure.
RS: It’s called Downers.