“What if I sat here complimenting you? Something like – John, everything about you is perfect,” says Brian King of Japandroids to The Line of Best Fit. Sadly, he’s not being entirely serious and is merely responding to some fawning comments about their new album, Celebration Rock. “Being complimented never gets not weird.”
Maybe The Line of Best Fit should have lied and spoken of our disbelief at the utter shitness of the duo’s third album. King’s ears prick up: “That would be refreshing – ‘so, just how did your new album go so wrong?’”
King and fellow Japandroid David Prowse are relaxing backstage ahead of a show at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen. They are on a short promotional tour to flex their muscular new songs ahead of the album’s release and the pair seem in a buoyant mood. And so they should be: Celebration Rock is a stone-cold corker.
“Originally, we talked about doing something totally different to [2009’s] Post-Nothing,” reveals King, when we ask about the initial thoughts on how to follow their ‘breakthrough’ album. “Instead of having eight songs that were all four or five minutes, we were going to have 20 songs that were all going to be two minutes long – really short bursts, like Pink Flag by Wire. Celebration Rock contains eight songs all clocking in at four of five minutes. “Yeah,” laughs King. “We completely and utterly failed in that musical vision and ended up making a record that was very similar to Post-Nothing.”
In truth, Celebration Rock covers little new sonic territory for Japandroids. But it does take their blistering assault on a smorgasbord of guitar music to a new level. Celebration Rock is more of the same – but better.
“Basically, we have always done the same thing,” Brian admits, as he launches into a lengthy monologue about the genesis of Celebration Rock. “It took a little while to discover what our sound was going to be, and since we settled on that, all we ever tried to do with writing or recording was to get better at what we do. If you listen to [the 2010 retrospective] No Singles, which is basically all the first recordings that we did, and then you listen to Post-Nothing, you hear a band that has refined its sound. No Singles has a lot of different kinds of songs and it is a band who doesn’t really know what it wants to sound like and is trying to figure it out. On Post-Nothing, we had refined that a little bit to the songs we liked to play live and figured out what worked and what didn’t. You hear a band that is getting better at knowing their sound. With this new record, it is taking that even further – as far as we could possibly take it. The record wasn’t done until we felt we had accomplished something that was greater than we had done on Post-Nothing.”
King is a model interviewee. He’s amiable and animated and does the magical thing that all journalists crave – he talks. And then talks some more. The Line of Best Fit has a dozen questions about the new album and he’s answered half of them within his very first response. “So, we are a different band writing and recording this record – we played 200 shows in between recording the two albums – so inherently we just got better at playing,” he continues, second-guessing a question on just why Celebration Rock kicks all sort of ass. “David got better at playing drums; I got better at playing guitar. We got better at playing together and knowing what we liked to play and that was transferred to the writing. The engineer that always records us, Jesse Gander, had a few more years of recording experience and was just a better engineer. So, you put all those people back in the same room together a few years later and you get a better album without changing much. We pushed it until we got the magic takes, with us playing at our very best.”
In essence, Japandroids is a touring band that exists to play shows. The duo admits that they primarily record music in order to have a product to be able to perform live. They are not technical geeks who dream of crafting intricate soundscapes in state-of-the-art studios. “The difference between how we recorded our first ever song and the last song on Celebration Rock is basically nothing,” Brian states. “The studio is a very unnatural environment for us.”
For a pair of musicians who thrive on playing their instruments to an audience and engaging in the dynamic feedback of a show, the recording process becomes an artificial and difficult situation. “The stress is that what we are essentially trying to capture on the album is the best show,” Brian explains. “The songs are written to be played live and so we are trying to capture a feeling that is very hard to manufacture. It’s hard to set out to make a ‘fake’ live record. There is no audience – there is the two of us in a room and our friend Jesse on the other side of a wall pressing ‘record’. The expectations of what the song could sound like come from those great shows, so it is very stressful.”
Finally, the mild-mannered Prowse manages to get a foothold into the conversation, “We play with passion and energy and it is easier to convey when people are watching you. You have this connection and it is easier for them to recognise that you are playing as hard as you can. If you miss a note here or there, it doesn’t really matter. In the studio, everything is under a microscope.”
Later that evening, King and Prowse blast their way through a breathtaking set to a sell-out crowd. It’s one of those shows in which a band is premiering a number of new songs from an album that hasn’t yet been released, but it quickly becomes apparent that the tracks showcased from Celebration Rock are a significant step up in craftsmanship – ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’ and ‘The Nights Of Wine And Roses’ are particularly visceral. The energy at a Japandroids’ show is scintillating – their set is an hour of riotous joy set to gigantic, caustic guitar songs. There is a huge amount of goodwill in the room – King and Prowse are inherently likeable. The pair set out to entertain their fans and both are charming, funny and humble between songs.
And this is a band that has paid its dues. Japandroids formed in 2006 and spent three years struggling in their hometown of Vancouver. Fed up with their lack of success, but with a debut album written, they came close to quitting before playing a show at CMJ in New York in late 2008. Suddenly, the world went Japandroids crazy and they spent the next 18 months touring the Post-Nothing album.
Time is the ultimate healer and the friends seem relatively sanguine about their slow burn. “It was – what’s the right word? – annoying that we spent time playing in a band in Vancouver,” says King. “It seemed that so much happened to us, so quickly, from getting out of there and playing one show in one other city. If we’d known what was possible, we would have fucking moved [away from Vancouver] three years earlier.”
As we’re glass-half-full kind of guys, we ask whether there were any benefits of wasting so much time going unnoticed in British Columbia. Cue another magnificently expansive response from Brian, “Well, there are bands in North America who get national exposure and have only played ten shows.” We tell him that there are bands in the UK who have got national exposure from playing even less than ten shows. “Yeah, indeed. These bands could be very good and they may not need 100 shows, but the majority of bands do. There are a lot of bands that have been exposed too quickly and don’t have a chance to be as good as they need and are expected to be. One advantage that we had, or one positive outlier of our back story, was that having been a band for a few years before anyone knew about us. By the time the first people outside our local music community started to hear about us, we could already walk into a room and just totally slay. We had shows on our first North American tour that were really good; we played well and delivered great moments. I don’t know if we could have done that if we hadn’t been a band all those years and grinded for so long and played so many shitholes.”
David is in agreement with his bandmate. “Considering how quickly everything took off for us, we were relatively prepared, to some extent at least. Also, we were very aware of how special the opportunity was because we had been playing to nobody for a long time. We made damn sure that we were going to try and get the most out of it we could and even with this new record, neither of us took for granted that we would be super-well reviewed. We are really happy and proud of it but times change.”
In talking to Prowse and King it quickly becomes apparent how determined they are to build on the success they have worked so hard to achieve. Theirs is an unusual history – three years of getting nowhere before becoming everyone’s favourite band overnight. They display an eminently sensible pragmatism (“we are aware of how fleeting popularity can be,” King tells us at one point) and have made an album which appeals to hearts as well as minds.
Indeed, Japandroids are self-aware enough to know that Celebration Rock had to be brilliant. “At the time of Post-Nothing we had the single ‘Young Hearts Sparks Fire’ which everyone loved,” Brian explains. “We could have become one of those bands that have one song from their first album that everyone loves and you spend your whole career never creating a song that people liked as much. That’s a real thing – we like lots of bands where it is their first album which is the magic record. It’s not uncommon. So, approaching this record was about how we would do something better than something everyone already loves.”
That sounds like a tall order, but Japandroids had a bold approach – they wouldn’t settle for anything other than perfection. “On Post-Nothing compromise was inherent, due to the fact we had little time or money,” Brian explains. “With this one, the attitude was that there was no compromise – we are going to play until we get one where we’ve fucking nailed it. Every minute of every song was going to be as intense as we could have possibly made it.”
As for the album’s title, Celebration Rock is a simple statement of intent, their raison d’être and the blueprint for the sonic blood that flows through Japandroids’ veins. “We are a rock and roll band,” Brian asserts. “We are a weird mixture of punk, garage rock, very traditional rock and roll, blues, grunge and classic rock. We listen to all of that stuff. You can hear the mixture in different songs. We wanted all that shit in the same band. And, yes, we are on the celebratory side of the rock and roll scale.”
Celebration Rock is out now via Polyvinyl.