Japandroids Are Releasing a 'Different Kind of Record,' But Not Adding a Third Member: Interview
Japandroids have just played Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, and the fans who've managed to get into the tightly packed undersell show are yelling for more. Specifically, they want “Younger Us,” a live staple from the anthemic Vancouver indie-punk duo’s 2012 album Celebration Rock. Much of the crowd knows Japandroids don’t do encores, but this is a very specific request, and singer-guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse do indeed reemerge. “[Encores] are for corporate bullshit rock bands,” King asserts, before admitting they did genuinely forget to play the song the crowd’s been yelling for.
“Younger Us” is busted out, but that’s not all; submitting to the true encore spirit, exuberant Celebration opener “The Nights of Wine and Roses” follows to close the set. It’s especially familiar because they already played it once before that night, a fact that the band acknowledges but ultimately chooses to ignore, much to the delight of the delirious crowd. It's take two of a song that opens with a line about being "lit up tonight, and still drinking" to end the night; with crowdsurfers cycling towards King and Prowse, you can imagine how this goes over a few minutes before midnight.
So that’s Japandroids -- they’re old souls for sure, but clever enough to side-step tired tropes without succumbing to crippling rock traditionalism. Past or present, stadium or D.I.Y., bands coming out for obligatory encores on queue are exceedingly boring. King and Prowse are similarly staunch in their aversion to social media. Japandroids’ official Twitter account has tweeted a grand total of one time and their other platforms have scarcely been touched since they wrapped up promotion for Celebration Rock. But really -- how much would you miss publicists tweeting about pre-sale bundles on their artist's behalf? When was the last time a staged studio shot posted on an artist's Instagram really got you going? And -- be honest -- how many people from bands are actually funny on Twitter? At that Knitting Factory show Saturday night (Oct. 29), fans knew a new tour, a new album -- a new something -- was brewing, but more from the fact Japandroids were proving their IRL existence in front of them than from anything they could find online.
Back-in-the-day browbeating isn’t Japandroids’ game either, though. These days, rock bands have to work hard to stand out and by convincing fans the life-affirming racket the two of them make together is worth attaching hopes and dreams to, Japandroids have done just that. Their new album is good -- really, really good -- so much, that it’s hard to imagine anyone who hopped on board for the triumphant Celebration Rock or 2009’s bare-bones debut LP Post-Nothing losing interest in the direction they’ve pushed themselves this time. What makes an album of eight rock songs worth waiting five years to hear? How did synthesizer finally make its way onto a Japandroids record? With their sound pushing from punk to arena rock, what do they think about playing actual arenas?
Billboard spoke with Japandroids about new album Near to the Wild Heart of Life, due out Jan. 27.
What was your creative process like? How did you make songs together this time around?
David Prowse: Traditionally we’d work on a song instrumentally -- start with a guitar riff Brian would have and then start laying down drums, piecing the songs together instrumentally. Then the vocals would come last. The lyrics and melodies would come after the songs were written in their entirety, instrumentally. This time, a lot of the songs were written in all different ways. Part of that was the fact we were trying to make a different kind of record… Each song has a different story of how it came about, actually, whereas in the past, it was kind of the same method or strategy.
Brian King: This was also the first record we wrote while living in different cities. It was inherent from the start that the way we wrote our previous records wasn’t going to work this time.
What are the two cities?
BK: It’s actually three! Dave lives in Vancouver; that’s where the band is from and that’s like our home base. But I live Toronto and my girlfriend lives in Mexico City. So I spend a lot of time going back and forth between Toronto and Mexico City. And with the band, Vancouver is also in the mix, so we have this crazy triangle of North America.
Check out the first single from the new album:
On the second track, “North East South West," you call out Vancouver by name. Was that meant to be a rallying cry for your own city?
BK: In a way… and to build up the home city. But also, one of the things I didn’t want to do on this record was write all of the songs about the past, which is kind of what we did for a lot of our older songs. I wanted this one to be in the present. But at the same time, so much stuff has happened. Since we released [2012’s Celebration Rock], we toured around the world for 18 months. You could spend the rest of your life writing about those 18 months -- the places you went, the people you met, the experiences you had. So that song was an attempt to condense all of this time and experience into one song and say, the rest of the record is about the present, here’s one about the past.
There’s synthesizer on the album; I think that’s the first time you’ve used it?
BK: Yeah, there’s some. This is the first time we used a lot of different things. The first records were basically drums, guitar and vocals -- trying to replicate the sound of a great show in a studio. It was the first time we tried to expand on that and use the studio for what it was intended for. It’s where you incorporate instruments and techniques that make the song better, no longer limited by rules or regulations.
DP: We had a lot more time in the studio writing this record and intentionally focused on the record and worrying on touring, etcetera afterwards. While we were in there, it was fun to create a mood, a little sonic world for each song.
And with all these different elements in the sound, are you still committed to keeping it as you two live?
In unison: Mmhmm.
BK: It’s posing some interesting challenges… This is the first tour where we’re playing some of these new songs, so it’s a bit of trial and error figuring it out. For some things, it’s kind of obvious how we adapt them to the stage, and then other things, we don’t really know. We’re just trying slightly different things -- almost every night -- on the same songs. It’s also what makes this tour (and the ones we’re going to next year) exciting. We’re pushing ourselves out of that comfort zone and what we already know how to do. There’s an excitement to that that’s kind of like when you first start a band… it’s one thing to put it all together in a rehearsal space when nobody’s watching; it’s another thing to put it all together in front of people. It’s pretty cool to have that feeling again ten years after you start a band.
It sounds like this album could find you playing bigger and bigger spaces. Have you thought about that? Like, if the opportunity to play an arena show came up.
DP: On some level we always want to play to more and more people. But I don’t think we ever thought as we were writing a song, this is the one that’s going to get us on that arena tour! That level of touring does seem surreal. I’m not really sure what we’d do if we had that presented to us, but that would be a pretty good problem to have.
BK: We’re at that stage where we have the luxury of being able to pick and choose how we do that. In the next year we’re going to be doing a lot of touring and in the States, we’re going to be playing a lot of rooms that are pretty big for us. But instead of playing the next level up, we’re going to do two nights on a lot of the tour. You put a lot of thought into that, at least at our level -- how many people you play for, what kind of show you can put on in that size of room.
There aren’t too many two-person rock bands that’ve set the precedent for that. The White Stripes are an obvious one. The Black Keys are also massive, but they added more people to their show. I wouldn’t say it’s uncharted territory, but it’s pretty rare for a two-person rock band to get to that size.
There aren’t that many new rock bands getting to that level today in the first place.
BK: I think that’s a huge problem on the festival circuit. There’s only like, 30 or 40 rock bands that are big enough to headline a festival and the new, young ones don’t really seem to. Very rarely can they get to the same level as the bands that have been around since the 80s or the 90s. It’s like, when U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Foo Fighters retire, I don’t know what new bands could possibly replace them.
Why do you think that is?
BK: Probably because rock and roll music in general has started to fade from the limelight a bit. There’s no shortage of people big enough to play arenas; they’re just typically not bands anymore: pop stars, rappers, R&B singers, DJs. Peoples' music tastes are changing... or maybe there’s just not a lot of good ones. [Laughs.]
I don’t know. I think if there were a lot of people in North America who loved rock and roll music -- if a really good one came along -- I’m sure at one point it’d be popular. We’re just kind of waiting for the next one.
Are you still with Polyvinyl?
DP: No, we signed with Anti- Records for the new record and then Arts & Crafts is putting it out in Canada and Mexico. I guess you want to know why… We love Polyvinyl and we feel a very strong loyalty to them, but when Tom Waits’ record label says it wants to sign you, it’s pretty hard to say no. You look at the kind of artists that have had long careers putting out records on Anti- -- those are the sort of careers we aspire to have.
Are you going to do social media at any point? Or is that just something that’s not gonna happen?
BK: Well now we have a new record out, so we’ll have lots of stuff to report, like tour dates, blah blah. We’ll be using it to some extent, but I don’t think we’ll ever be active on it in the way that has become commonplace. If I had my choice, I’d love to just not have that at all. It’s becoming something that people know us for and most people really seem to like it -- that element of mystery.
We’re old enough to have grown up in the pre-Internet age, so we were music fans before that even existed. The formative years of my music listening was largely filling in the gaps with my own imagination. If the music video was on TV, hearing it on the radio I guess, maybe if the band was big enough to be in a magazine -- there were only so many places to learn about bands. Mostly where I learned it from was the actual [CD or album] booklets. We didn’t even get that many bands traveling through to play. In the social media age, people don’t need to use their imaginations at all for anything anymore when it comes to the music they listen to.
I think the relationship people have with artists they like has totally changed, and not necessarily for the better. So it’s just trying to ride that line between living in the modern age but also preserving this lost relationship you used to be able to have with an artist.
That probably makes it easier for you to go away and make music on your own terms.
BK: That’s one great thing about not engaging. When we come back after all this time, people have been wondering: What are you guys doing? Are they still together? Are they just on a hiatus? Are they working on a new record? When you come back, it’s a genuine surprise. And because we haven’t been telling anyone what we’re doing, it’s like, "Oh we’re back and by the way, we have a new record, it’s done, and you’re gonna hear it really soon."
Below, find the cover artwork for Near to the Wild Heart of Life, followed by its track listing:
1. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
2. North East South West
3. True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will
4. I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)
5. Arc Of Bar
6. Midnight To Morning
7. No Known Drink Or Drug
8. In A Body Like A Grave