Within the first 45 seconds of Jamaican Queens’ debut, a precedent is established. One which embraces the folds of generational ambiguity. A junction of sounds past and present devoid of cliché. Contemporary pop ideology nourished by the horrors of faculty and facility. The juxtaposition of mind and body as both boon and burden. A precedent not only responsible for itself, but consciously aware of its dependence upon its surroundings. Within the first 45 seconds of Wormfood, Jamaican Queens lets you know: this ain’t our first rodeo.
JQ have adopted and adapted the language of so many before them. A Motor City trio partially gassed on Adderall and a van full of broken equipment, reporting through a filter of what they refer to as Detroit trap pop. Forging and brandishing a style unique to their education and talents only hinted at in contributions to their former bands Ohtis and Prussia are Ryan Spencer (vocals/guitar/sampler), Adam Pressley (vocals/bass/guitar/sampler), and Ryan Clancy (drums). Spencer, JQ's potent lead, takes the helm over a Frankenstein bedding of hyphy 808 snare taps, pitchy synth bends, and fuzzy bass. He has the ability to morph his voice on a dime, and there’s nothing quite like the creepy thrill of hearing Spencer wrap his neck and face around the mic when he jumps into falsetto-mode. These arrangements consider contemporaries like progressive mod-poppers the Flaming Lips, MGMT, and Yeasayer, however deflect such prosaic parallels with their leanings toward the bleak and druggy side of modern hip-hop. For the casual, sure: Jamaican Queens is Detroit trap pop. But, for those diggers out there, Jamaican Queens is much more than a free mp3 on the next nouveau mix.
Flashes of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”, Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills”, Sublime’s “Badfish,” and Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” are all laced into that first build and drop on album opener “Water.” “I can pick what I tried to copy on every song,” says Ryan Spencer. “If there’s something that I think is really awesome, I’ll try as hard as I can to bite it.”
He and Adam Pressley, a former bandmate of Spencer’s in the now defunct Detroit neofolk band Prussia, began to develop what is now Jamaican Queens back in 2011 while recording Prussia’s final album, Poor English, with Prussia Goes to the Disco: A Summer Mixtape. “Adam has always made rap beats that are really, really awesome,” says Spencer. “And we started living together. I remember one time driving he showed me some beats and I was like, ‘Dude, I just want to write stuff over this.’ So while Prussia was making Poor English, we actually made [Prussia Goes to the Disco]. Like hip-hop pop, like what we’re doing now. We were gonna call it Ryan Adams and release it for free.” Pressley follows up, helping out with the process of unforgetting. “We just did it as a way to get people to come to the [Prussia] shows. We were just too focused on the Prussia thing to even take it seriously. And as we were realizing that everyone else [in the band] had lives, we were just like, ‘Let’s do that.’”
They coined the term Detroit trap pop which makes it seem like somewhat of a lure–an artifice to attract those swayed by “trending” culture. While the term is satisfied by the heavy dosage of Ableton-enabled 808 drum samples and the horrific imagery prevalent throughout Wormfood, it seems predicated on JQ's intuitive and cynical humor; the makeup of which is scrawled in the title of the album. A ruse only skin-deep. Oh pop, what are you really talking about?
“You took my heart, and I just sat there drinking water,” croons Spencer in his best Eno coat during the first lines of “Water.” According to an interview with IFC, “Water” is loosely based on a tenuous, drug-induced romance at a festival. But Spencer isn’t about the mundane; he’s way too clever and open for that shit. He’s a man willing to divulge his feelings in a clever and concise manor. A manor which delivers the psychological basis for his role as an empathetic, self-deprecating romancer.
“A lot of it’s relationship stuff, or lovelessness,” says Spencer. “This feeling that I don’t know if I have real emotional love in me, because maybe I do, I think. I think I do because I feel love. But, I haven’t found it. And I’ve made up this fairy tale of what love is supposed to be and because [I haven’t found it] it torments me a little bit. So, most of our songs are a combination of that and whatever is going on in my life at the time.”
Before their show at Glasslands back in January, the troupe sits around Abby Fiscus’ Bushwick apartment. Fiscus, a former resident of Detroit, is not only the face of Wormfood, but also contributed vocals to the album–and supplied the photos and artwork for JQ's two previous singles. “Every time you’re lonely, Every time you’re blue just remember we’re all wormfood,” sings Fiscus on the album’s eponymous track. Her young, pail, bloodied face on the cover coupled with her numb, flat vocals contributes to the notion that JQ is the product of tainted youth. An emotionally detached disposition fostered by lovelessness in a city feared by it residents is the overarching theme of Wormfood, which covers topics ranging from unfulfilling relationships to the atrocities of gang rites.
The album’s lead single “Kids Get Away,” which lends itself to a true story, eludes to the idea that continued communal indifference to petty crimes like tire slashing naturally elevates to greater malicious behavior. “She drove home [from a bar] and was getting into her house, and these kids–who were probably waiting in the bushes or something–came up to jump them and take their money. They had a knife and cut her face, and sliced down her eye and shit. They maced her boyfriend and took all their shit. But, I think she’s totally fine now, she just has a gnarly scar,” relays Spencer hunched over his crossed leg. “One of my friends, Mike…” continues Spencer. “He got his skull smashed in, right?” interrupts Fiscus while readying herself for the show. “Completely. They took his unopened bottle of wine and smashed it into his head. His whole skull shattered. It’s all fake now. At the ER they had to take his entire face off.”
“I live in Detroit and I’m scared, really scared of something like that happening to me because I’m the same way; negligent. I go out all the time and party like crazy and ride my bike home at like four in the morning. So, it’s like I don’t want to be riding my bike home wasted and have somebody fucking kill me,” says Spencer with a blink-less stare. “A lot of people get messed up and then they move to the suburbs. My parents hate that I live in Detroit,” adds Spencer. “I inherited a Rolex from my grandfather; my dead grandfather. It’s like a seven thousand dollar watch that he had his whole life. It’s really sweet, and I want to wear it all the time, but my dad will not let me have it. It’s like I can’t have it until I move somewhere else.” Ryan Spencer is 27 years old, pays around 200 dollars a month for rent and laughs about working a part-time job 12 hours a week. “If I worked any less I wouldn’t have a job. It’s the best job ever, and I still complain about it.” Despite the intermittent job and cheap rent, Spencer is about being able to afford what he really wants to do. And that’s why he’s there, in Detroit, and subsequently here in Brooklyn; without the fucking Rolex. Not for that nameless, menial part-time, but for his passion. One which happens to be rooted in a city which mauls its inhabitants
Jamaican Queens' Wormfood CD is sold out. Cassettes are available via Magic Death Sounds.