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By Stephanie March
By Tom Murphy
At first, Westword's music editor didn't want you to see this article. He felt the quality of Junior Senior, a Danish duo that recently hit in Europe and beyond with the boogie manifesto "Move Your Feet," couldn't justify the cost of the ink required to print a profile. Most of the group's songs struck him as slight and flimsy -- in a phrase, "stupid novelty bullshit."
There's something to his argument. After all, the team of Jesper Mortensen (Junior) and Jeppe Breum Laursen (Senior) unabashedly specializes in shtick. On their debut album, D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat, Junior, who's straight, and Senior, who's gay, goofily rib each other about their sexuality -- and plenty more -- over relentlessly high-spirited beats. Stupid? Sometimes. Novelty? In a way. Bullshit? Could be.
Then again, stupid novelty bullshit has played an extremely undervalued role in the annals of pop-music history. Over the years, the label has been slapped on work that turned out to be much more significant than many recognized at the time, including the early rock and roll of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and so on. And despite the supposed ephemeral nature of the music in the category, it often lasts longer than higher-toned stuff. Consider that Randy Newman, Warren Zevon and Loudon Wainwright III have reputations as great songwriters, but their only genuine hits were compositional jokes ("Short People," "Werewolves of London" and "Dead Skunk," respectively). Idiotic ditties, from "Monster Mash" and "Purple People Eater" to "Macarena" and "Cameltoe," are capable of burrowing into the collective cranium and not letting go, even when we desperately wish they would. In addition, those one-shots that fall as quickly as they rise can still brighten the musical panorama, if only for a moment. Such is the power of stupid novelty bullshit.
There's no telling whether this argument swayed the editor or if he simply suffered an attack of temporary insanity. Ultimately, though, the assignment was approved, providing an opportunity to ask designated interviewee Mortensen some weighty questions. To wit: Is Junior Senior's music stupid novelty bullshit? If not, why not? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
Clearly, these were not queries that Mortensen, speaking from a hotel room in Chicago, was accustomed to hearing. "I'll have to brain on that one for a while," he said -- an example of his serviceable but occasionally idiosyncratic English. Then, rather than answering directly, he began to tell Junior Senior's story, confident that the motivation behind the decisions he and Laursen made over the years would effectively refute the stupid-novelty-bullshit accusation. His basic argument was that the band isn't simply a lark, but, in a strange way, an act of rebellion.
"We tried not to think, ŒA record has to sound this way to be indie, and it has to sound this way to be chart music, and you have to do one or the other,'" Mortensen declared. "We just tried to do it our way."
His homeland didn't provide him with many role models. Mortensen and Laursen grew up an hour away from each other in Jutland, a mostly rural section of western Denmark that's left few lasting marks on the global soundscape. According to Mortensen, the same is true of the country as a whole. "Sweden has always been kind of the big-brother country of Scandinavia with most things, and especially music," he said. "They've always had a really, really big indie scene and really big pop bands that have made it around the world. Everyone knows ABBA." On the other hand, "the Danish music scene isn't that good, actually. It's very small, and a lot of the music is kind of a pale version of bands from England or America. We've tried to break the Danish spell -- to not sound too Danish and to not sound like a bad version of a good foreign band."
While in high school, Laursen made his initial attempt to form a worthy combo, dubbing it Ludo X; Mortensen, who's a year younger than his partner (hence his "Junior" designation), joined the act after catching it in concert. He soon discovered that he and Laursen shared similar sensibilities. "We came from an indie-type background and listened to a lot of indie music," he recalled. "And that was liberating. We felt that it was definitely different from the kind of chart music that we were exposed to, which was really, really cool in the beginning. As a teenager, you're looking for your own identity and stuff, so that was perfect, you know?"
After five years or so in this environment, however, Mortensen began to realize that indie music has more in common with overtly commercial music than its aficionados might care to admit.
"It became a different kind of conformity," he said. "It was stereotypical, because if you wanted to be indie, there was a certain way to be indie. You had to do everything right. You had to have the right heroes, so to speak, and you had to have a certain attitude. Compared to what was popular and selling, you had to do the opposite to be true and to be real. And after a while it began to be one big trap. I saw that this was just another set of rules, which kind of annoyed me."
Mortensen's never been particularly good at toeing the line; bad behavior even got him chucked out of Ludo X. Nevertheless, he and Laursen stayed close, and together they committed acts of indie apostasy. "We were very much into Kraftwerk and early Human League and Depeche Mode, which weren't very indie. This was in, like, '94, '95, and it was considered really uncool." Next, the pair started grooving to "fun kind of dancey stuff. Old disco, old rock-and-roll stuff with a good beat to it -- '50s, '60s, '70s stuff. Plus black music that was very far away from the indie spirit. Like Motown records, where the boss would tell you, ŒI want a song that sounds like this,' and it was kind of an assembly line, where the singer didn't have anything to do with the song. But it sounded so good."
Laursen and Mortensen didn't know if influences like these could co-exist with an underground sensibility, but when Ludo X fell apart, they were determined to find out. They borrowed their DIY ethic from the indie universe: "We really wanted to be in control of our own thing and do what we wanted to do, without compromising," Mortensen said. At the same time, they were eager to break all the indie regulations they'd previously felt pressured to follow, beginning with their choice of a moniker and extending to marketing considerations. In Mortensen's view, "ŒJunior Senior' is a kind of anti-indie name. It's a bit of a concept, but it's a really weird one. We just wanted something that was stupid and unpretentious and in some ways didn't sound cool like all the other bands. A lot of indie bands have names with a sort of pseudo-intellectual ring that make them seem better than they actually are, and we wanted to go for the opposite of that. And with press photos, we didn't want to have the kind where you try to look pretty and really cool to get girls or whatever. That wasn't where we were heading."
Musically, their destination was just as far afield. To Mortensen, current indie bands "all take themselves so seriously," but he knew this wasn't always so. Back in the day, alterna-outfits such as the B-52's and the Cramps came across as nutty and outrageous without being called heretics, and he and Laursen were determined to forge a similar path. "We wanted to make music that people could dance to," Mortensen said. "We wanted it to be kind of edgy and to let us take the piss out of ourselves and have some fun."
To that end, they turned their disparate sexual predilections into a running gag custom made for the Will & Grace generation. "We make jokes about it all the time," Mortensen noted. "We tease each other, like, ŒWhat the hell is up with girls?' and have a lot of fun with it instead of turning it into some weird taboo thing. And that helps our music. We're not afraid of girlie things. I don't have to be overly masculine or try to do anything that's really manly, because I'm glad to be in the band with a gay guy. I think it's a lot more fun than to have another straight counterpart."
The combination of overt humor and get-down rhythms promptly differentiated Junior Senior from generic punk rockers and interchangeable mopers who are in such abundant supply, and it also opened the possibility of a dance-club crossover. Recognizing this potential, Crunchy Frog, a Danish imprint, quickly signed the twosome. A subsequent distribution agreement with Mercury Records spread the word throughout Europe, after which Atlantic Records jumped on board in the States, unleashing D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat.
Predictably, the highlight of the disc is "Move Your Feet," a podiatry anthem so infectious that the Centers for Disease Control should launch an investigation. Lyrically profound, it ain't: The chorus, wailed by Mortensen, declares, "Everybody move your feet and feel united," while the Laursen-delivered verses contain wisdom such as "P-p-put my record on/And all your troubles are dead and gone." But its canny amalgamation of faux horn splats, strummy guitars, percussion workouts and robotic exhortations about "dance energy" is absolutely undeniable, providing precisely three minutes of mindless bliss.
The rest of Beat may not be as instantly memorable as its single, which has sold well over 200,000 units in the United Kingdom alone, but it is similarly ebullient. "Go Junior, Go Senior" is built upon chants like "Do the kids dig what we do? Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"; "Rhythm Bandits" gives surf music a blast of nitrous oxide; "Shake Me Baby" offers up finger-snapping Nordic soul; and "Dynamite" juxtaposes "Twist and Shout" vocals and neo-rockabilly guitar. As for "Chicks and Dicks," its title is a case of truth in advertising. The chorus asks, "Who ya gonna do-do after dark?" -- prompting Mortensen to respond, "Gimme girls, girls, girls!" and Laursen to counter, "Gimme boy-boy-b-b-boys!"
The cumulative effect of this much glee will strike some folks as a wonderful corrective to indie glumness, but others may suffer a happiness overdose. Either way, Mortensen understands. "I really appreciate sad music and listen to that a lot," he said. "But what we do, I think of it as a celebration of the good times. We want to celebrate the good things and talk about the good things and let other people talk about the bad things. You need a bit of everything, I think. We're just trying to fill out a little bit of the space -- and I think most people want to have fun."
Indeed, Mortensen views the success of "Shake Ya Tailfeather," by Nelly, P. Diddy and Murphy Lee, "Damn!" by the Youngbloodz, and the other booty-friendly hip-hop salvos currently dominating the Billboard singles charts as proof that the average pop-music fan prefers sheer entertainment to deep thoughts. "Hip-hop started as party music," he stated, "because at parties, they'd take records and rap things like ŒGet down on the floor! Drink some beers! This is the best party of the year!' It was good-time music with a dancey vibe to it. We don't make hip-hop, but our music is kind of like that, too, and I think that's cool."
Even so, Mortensen concedes that he wouldn't mind being known for more than "Move Your Feet."
"I'm really happy that we actually had a hit song," he declared. "It's great that people really liked my little pet song, and that it went so much further than we ever thought it would. It definitely opened a lot of doors for us. We can actually tour the U.S. now, and we probably couldn't have done that if we hadn't had a hit. But now I want to come up with something new -- a new formula. I'm kind of ambitious, actually, even though maybe our album doesn't sound that ambitious, and I'm going to try to do something that challenges what we're doing right now. I don't want to do what other people are doing at the moment or even what we've already done. I want to go into new territories."
With that, Mortensen paused, seemingly aware that he may have already strayed a bit too far afield. "I'm definitely not going to do an album with nothing but ballads on there," he stressed. "I want it to be exciting; I want it to be fun. I have some more tricks up my sleeve."
Sounds like a recipe for more stupid novelty bullshit. Thank goodness.
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