Passion and Pure Provocation
Japandroids aren’t a band to do things by halves. Their second album, Celebration Rock, was a collection of eight piledriving anthems, bookended by the sound of fireworks, with songs called things like “Adrenaline Nightshift”, “Continuous Thunder” and “Evil’s Sway”. The Japandroids blitzkrieg seemed incapable of stopping. Until, nearly 250 shows later, it did.
Clad in his uniform leather jacket, tight black jeans and white t-shirt, Japandroids vocalist and guitarist Brian King is in town for a brief promo tour and an instantly sold out London show, telling me of the motivation behind their three-year social media blackout. He’s affable and talkative, too darn Canadian in temperament to seem like he’s dominating the conversation. Of course, he’s also somewhere in the middle of his second double espresso of our forty-five minute conversation.
“I think when we were touring on that last record, everything goes by so fast…like, you’re constantly moving,” he begins. “I don’t think you have an understanding of what you’re doing, what you’ve done until you’ve actually finished it. And then of course, when you actually finish it, you’re looking forward – the conversation becomes “OK, are we going to make another record? When are we going to make that?””
This was a conversation that happened very much in private. Once the Celebration Rock tour was over, the band made a valedictory Facebook post entitled “///// SLEEP ///// FOREVER /////” and simply disappeared.
“I’m pretty interested in trying to preserve some of that sense of mystery.” King explains. “We’ve been gone for a while, and you don’t really know what we’ve been doing – did we break up? Did we just go on a hiatus? Are we working on a new record? What are we doing? – and you have to use your imagination.”
In that time away, there seemed to be a vacuum created in Japandroids’ absence, as rock continued to become side-lined in music culture - in its traditional guitars-and-drums form, anyway. Bands like Beach Slang and PUP, who sounded strangely indebted to the Canadian duo’s wide-eyed howls into the void, only served as reminders that there was a brief, weird window where two hard-drinking Canadians were single-handedly saving rock and roll.
That narrow landscape of “rock music” in 2017 remains, while the unique expectation being heaped on new Japandroids material puts the band in a difficult position; as writer Ian Cohen recently tweeted, “Run The Jewels, The xx and Japandroids made the same "stadium status 3rd LP" relative to their previous two. Their reception feels like a referendum on genre.”
That “stadium status 3rd LP” album is called Near to the Wild Heart of Life. The title is lifted from James Joyce (“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life”) by way of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s first novel. The literary aspirations of that wordier title is the first sign that this record is something of a conscious departure (of sorts) for the band. Those who love it will treat it like the ultimate go-for-broke third album Born to Run; full of classic rock signifiers and all-or-nothing imagery, it’s an expanded version of everything you knew the band were capable of, but didn’t quite know how to do yet.
“You want to grow as a band and do things that you find interesting, but you also want your fans to continue to come with you.”
King concurs. “By the time we made the last record, we’d figured out the kind of song that we’re really good at writing and playing, and to some extent, Celebration Rock is just a bunch of those kind of songs. So when we actually consciously decided we wanted to do something else, you know you want to break the formula, but you don’t really know what the new formula is. Or maybe you want every song to be their own formula instead. So it just takes a little bit of time to figure that out – it’s more like starting a band again for the first time.”
That new formula would be nothing too drastic for most groups, but to a band whose “thing” has been so rigidly defined for its first eight years, even a subtle shift is seismic. Even so, the opening title track is a righteous blast of everything we know Japandroids can do, and the band know it. “I love [that song],” notes King, “but I don’t think we necessarily surprised ourselves when we created that.” What follows is Japandroids with their horizons broadened far beyond “Fire’s Highway”; the singing is less throat-shredding, the tempo slower, the arrangements more considered.
“This record’s not Kid A.” King says by way of reassurance. “You want to grow as a band and do things that you find interesting, but you also want your fans to continue to come with you.”
The journey of the album began with the band holed up in New Orleans near the end of 2014 to write new material. “We wanted to go somewhere where we didn’t really know anyone,” says drummer and vocalist David Prowse, matching King coffee for coffee, but keeping a little calmer than his comrade, “but somewhere we would also find pretty inspiring creatively. We got this great house with this really awesome jazz musician – it was two houses with this shared courtyard - so we could just set up our gear in this one house in this two bedroom shack, gear in the living room, so we could just play every day.”
So King isn’t kidding when he sings “Started this song in the Southern states” on the triumphant “North East South West”, later tipping his hat to “NOLA, USA”. “NOLA is short for New Orleans, Louisiana.” he explains. “I’m not sure how many people that’s going to occur to.”
For a band who are so consumed by everything they do, Japandroids describe themselves as “pretty black and white” when it comes to how they operate as a band between recording and touring. “We started from scratch.” says Prowse. “It’s not like had a few songs in the bag when we finished touring or anything like that. We didn’t do one of those road-testing the songs in the middle of recording kind of tours. For better or worse, that’s how it’s always been with us. We’re always in one mindset or the other, and never both at the same time.”
“Other bands somehow actually can,” King adds in disbelief. “Like ‘we wrote this on tour, we came up with this in soundcheck,’ and it actually comes out sounding like an incredible record. You’re like ‘How did you come up with this when you’re touring, and you’re tired, and you’re playing shows, how did you find the brainpower to record it in these gaps?’”
You get the sense that Japandroids are avoiding the obvious on this album; “No Known Drink or Drug” sounds like it should kick into gear at any point during its three minutes, but never quite takes off like you want it to. Meanwhile, the subdued “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” might just be the most affecting song the band have yet penned, a ferocious ballad with exposed lyrics that almost rival John Darnielle at his most heartfelt.
The album’s biggest outlier is the seven-and-a-half minute “Arc of Bar”, the synth-led stomper which opens side two of the album. “I think of all the songs on the new record, it’s the one we’re most proud of,” says King. “Until it was done, we didn’t really know what we were working on.”
The mystical-sounding title in fact describes something surprisingly mundane, albeit loaded with meaning for the frontman: “You know if you walk into a bar, the actual bar itself is usually a straight line. This particular bar that I was talking about is not in a line, it’s curved. So it’s an arc. That’s all it means. I hope that doesn’t ruin it for you. My bar for example, this is going to sound really pretentious – it’s symbolically different. It’s special, it’s different from the average one you might walk into. The world you’re trying to invoke with that song is like, there are bars, and then there’s this one.”
The duo were so proud of the track, they chose it to open a hometown show in Vancouver last October, their first gig in three years. “We thought we were going to be so bold by doing that,” chuckles Prowse, not a little ruefully.
“It didn’t occur to either of us at the time that people would be taping the songs and putting them on the internet the next morning,” adds King. “So you wake up, and the first song of the first show after three years is new and long and weird and different, and that’s the new song that’s on the internet. I totally underestimated how nervous I was going to be before I went on, and in retrospect we probably should have eased in with something we were a little bit more comfortable with playing.”
Still, in other respects, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is unmistakably a Japandroids album. Even the eight-song tracklist is consistent with their previous LPs. “It wasn’t conscious in the beginning – there was no ‘we need eight songs and then we’ve got a record.’” King tells me. “We recorded ten, and at the eleventh hour, we pulled two off and realised the record was stronger, start-to-finish, if we just took these ones off. In the old days, that felt like a total failure, something like that – that an album is supposed to be ten, and now it’s eight, and people are going to say that’s not enough. And now it’s like this makes a great record and it flows well and we’re happy with it. It’s accidentally become our thing, and it just works for us.”
It’s also Japandroids’ first record after leaving Polyvinyl Records, their home for the past eight years. The band are newly signed to ANTI, a much larger label which, as it turns out, had no impact on the album’s grander aspirations at all. “They didn’t hear a single peep from us until the record was done.” Prowse tells me. “Polyvinyl was the same way. Until the record’s done, nobody hears anything besides the people working on it.”
“The decision to leave Polyvinyl was a very difficult one,” he continues. “The decision to sign with ANTI was a very easy one. Right up until we decided to sign with ANTI, I found it very hard personally to let Polyvinyl know that we were moving on. And I think the way I tend to look at it with ANTI is that they represent all the same ideas that I like about Polyvinyl, but bigger. You’ve got Tom Waits on there! Neko Case, Nick Cave…If we’re going to make any kind of move like this, this is the label to do it with, because people who go on this label seem to be very happy with it and have very long careers that they can have on their own terms.”
It’s slightly odd hearing the band talk like this, but it makes sense. For all their reckless attitude and hard living, it’s easy to forget that Japandroids are two guys who make their life playing rock music, and want to keep doing it until they can’t anymore. Sure, it’s hard to imagine what a Japandroids record will sound like when the band enter their forties, let alone their sixties, but they’re conscious of the need to be with a label who can support them when they do make it that far.
Now that Japandroids are back, they finally do have time to look back on what they’ve done, in no small part in an effort to remember quite how they managed to do it in the first place. “I think there’s been a bit of shaking off the rust and just getting back to that same level that we had before.” Prowse says, halfway through a two-month tour that is, by their standards, relatively subdued, even if it does take in four continents. “It’s been a bit of a learning process – learning how to be that band again, that live band we were.”
“Your body’s not conditioned for it anymore,” King adds. “It’s like you’re doing it again for the first time. That’s when you actually reflect back, and you think ‘Holy shit, we’re feeling this way after a couple of weeks? How did we do this for a couple of years straight?’”
You could see the rust slowly being shaken off at the London show; one tenth as big as the venue they’re due to play on their return, Birthdays is more a fire hazard than a nightclub, but it’s exactly sort of venue that suits them best. But even here, the opening salvos of “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “Fire’s Highway” sound oddly tentative; the unavoidable interaction of the front row’s beer with Brian’s pedals also means that “Arc of Bar” doesn’t receive its first European outing. It’s only when they break into “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”—the prospect of new material still being, at this point, an open secret—that the set springs into action.
But the band are seasoned pros at this point, bordering on the status of being once described by Spoon’s Britt Daniel of being “rock dudes”. The pair still seem in awe of the things that being in Japandroids has already afforded them, not least getting to see the world in their capacity as indie rock missionaries.
“On our first record, we’d gone to all these places that we’d never been before,” King explains. “And it never occurs to you that rock and roll can take you there. And that map continued to expand on the last record. I think when you’re in a band, you hope that map continues to expand indefinitely. I don’t know if there is such a thing as playing enough places or playing to enough people.”
Prowse elaborates: “Obviously, we’re there with a purpose, and we’re not there on vacation. Just by virtue of the fact that you’re playing in a band, you get to sort of have this brief window into what it would be like to be living in one of places like Beijing or Buenos Aires or Mexico City or wherever. If we were living in those same spaces, we’d probably be going to shows in those same clubs and hanging out with those same people you’d probably be hanging out with if you actually lived there. You have 24 hours, and you go to the cool punk bar and the cool record store and then you play a show at the same rock club…”
“It’s been a bit of a learning process – learning how to be that band again, that live band we were.”
“With, probably, the local rock or punk band.” chimes in Brian.
“So that’s been a really fascinating part of this whole thing.” the drummer continues. “Some places you get just a quick snapshot, other places we’ve been fortunate that, either it’s the beginning of the tour or the end of the tour, and we have a few extra days, and get to spend some extra time there. But that’s part of the fun too. It’s not like ‘Oh we’ve played Beijing, been there done that and we’d never go back again in our lives.’ It’s more like, Oh wow, we’ve played Beijing, we were there for 24 hours. Maybe next time when we go back we can play a couple more cities in China and see even more of that country.”
Prowse pauses, and smiles, as if reflecting over that 229-show itinerary, the eighteen month tour that took the band around the world, from Houston to Ho Chi Minh, from Munich to Manilla, from Santiago to Skipton.
“You only wanna play more places.”