“Give me that night you were already in bed / Said fuck it, and got up to drink with me instead.”
Japandroids make riotous, joyful music: adrenalised blasts of friendship, heartbreak and reminiscence, nights on the tiles and days on the run. They are friends Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals) from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and this year saw them follow up their 2009 debut Post-Nothing with the exhilarating, superb Celebration Rock, an album with a title the band’s label were so concerned about that they repeatedly urged King to reconsider. “They thought it might hurt the record, having a name that was that bad,” he reflects.
It wasn’t just limited to the label – Prowse wasn’t keen either, nor anyone else the band worked with. In fact, the only person who did like the title was longtime studio collaborator Jesse Gander and even then, King isn’t so sure. “I think part of him liked it because after all of the stress of recording it, he was like, ‘I don’t want another argument. Good. I love it. Fine. I don’t care! I love it, I love it!’ I was like, that was pretty easy.” King laughs as he recounts the story.
We’re sitting on the roof out of the back of the Apolo venue in Barcelona as night starts to fall. It’s been a stormy couple of days here, perhaps heralding the sudden onslaught of winter, but having just spent a rare week off exploring the city, King is relaxed and talkative, clad in a worn-out Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, jeans and some suspiciously smart shoes. (Prowse is off doing another interview; King will show me the threadbare trainers he plays in later on.) Apart from support slots and appearances at Primavera Sound – the band rate their 2010 performance as one of their best ever – they have never headlined here, and he is perplexed but not unhappy that this evening they’ll take the stage in the far larger of the venue’s two concert halls. “I don’t think there’s anyone else playing tonight, so they boosted as up to this one,” he surmises.
Formed in 2006, Japandroids spent a few years doing their own thing in Canada before deciding to split up in 2009, their ambitions to get a real tour together remaining unfulfilled. “At some point we thought that if something was going to happen, it probably would have happened,” King explains. “You play in a band for three years, and you never have so much as an email, someone replying to help out, whether it be a label or a booking agent or a promoter or whatever,” he continues, though he is far from bitter. “We were cool with that. Most of our favourite bands, the people that play in those bands, that was not their first band. A lot of times that was their fourth or fifth band. We thought that maybe it would take two or three more tries before we really got there.”
As it happens, though – and in no small part due to the Pitchfork stamp of approval – things finally came together for the pair, and given the chance to tour on Post-Nothing, an album they already had in the bag, they jumped at it. “We pretty much toured [that album] until we couldn’t tour on it anymore,” says King of their hectic schedule, “and that’s when we started working on Celebration Rock.”
King describes their sound as “Fast rock and roll music, with a bit of pop, and a bit of garage rock, a bit of punk rock, a bit of classic rock mixed together,” and though he’s not wrong, they tap into a romantic, widescreen spirit that far transcends their rough-and-ready approach. Later in the evening the audience lights up to the likes of ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’, ‘Fire’s Highway’, ‘Crazy/Forever’ and ‘The Nights of Wine and Roses’, which they dedicate to bearded compatriot Lewis, friend, sound-tech and co-star of their first ever music video, for ‘The House That Heaven Built’ (see above). It is onstage the band feel at home. Celebration Rock was purpose-built to take on the road, as King elucidates: “Our ambition was to tour and play shows. It was like the dual dream of playing music and the travel aspect of it, which is something else we like to do. We used to go on a lot of road trips to see other bands play. We just liked driving and getting out of town, so touring in a van was like our dreams combined.”
The band are roughly two-thirds of the way through a 50-odd date European tour that will be immediately followed by an equally long trek around North America, seeing them wind up in Vancouver just before Christmas (they’ve been out since the beginning of August). I posit that most bands probably prefer spending time in the studio to such lengthy stints away from home, to which King agrees. “Actually having to write music and record music and do the other things that bands do, that was just a secondary component to us.” Expanding further on the band’s penchant for touring, he states: “It’s a challenging lifestyle. I think there’s a lot of bands who would like to write songs, record them, and maybe play shows one month a year or something like that; play festivals here and there. I think they consider themselves more artists, and performing live is maybe a smaller component of what their art is.”
This brings me to something else I’m keen to query King about. On more than one occasion the band have asserted that they don’t consider themselves particularly creative people, which, considering their livelihood – and the evident passion they display, on record and onstage – is, surely, a little misguided. King acknowledges that it might well sound strange coming from someone who makes a living playing in a band, clarifying: “I think there’s been a really natural evolution that’s not an…artistic thing. It’s just from experience. From playing together, from figuring out what works and what doesn’t, from practising a lot and getting better. There’s a lot of American bands, like Thee Oh Sees or someone like Ty Segall, recording like, three albums a year. Those people are natural songwriters. They have more ideas than they can even get out there. Whereas it takes us a month to write a song that we think is really good. We have to struggle.”
He also has a theory on four or five-piece bands, where one person occupies the role of chief songwriter, and the other people in those bands all help their leader come up with the finished product: that Japandroids are a band entirely made up of “the other people.” It chimes with their inception (when the duo abandoned their search for a singer and decided to go it alone) and highlights their remarkably intuitive nature. Although King is nominally the lead, Prowse sings almost as much as he does, something that adds immeasurably to the force of their songs. “When I start playing something fast, David knows just what to do on the drums, and we know how we’re going to sing this,” he tells me, by means of explaining how songs like Celebration Rock’s moody closer ‘Continuous Thunder’ prove more of a challenge than their default “amps-to-eleven” mode.
For ‘Continuous Thunder’ – like ‘I Quit Girls’, Post-Nothing’s similarly brooding finale – is hardly a typical Japandroids tune. Grand and stately, King admits that he and Prowse felt “pretty out of our element” when it came to writing and recording it, though it was born out of a desire to end the album in “an ‘end-of-album’ kind of way.” Asked whether it is a direction he would like to take in the future, he hesitates (something he doesn’t do very often) before answering:
“I would like to try and explore that side of the band more. I think that the downside of it is that it can make for a less devastating live performance. There’s no question that when we perform that song, it’s not quite the same as watching us perform one of the other songs that’s really intense and really fast, but having said that, a lot of people really like that song because it is different, because it is slower and it has a different kind of feel to it. I think that it’s almost like a first step.
“Around the time we were working on the record, which we did in Nashville for most of 2011, one of the more modern bands that I was really into was the National. That song is my attempt to try and write a type of song like the National would write. It’s not slow, but it’s not fast; it has a build element in it; there’s a part when it all comes in. That was my attempt to mimic their kind of songwriting, I guess. Filtered through our own band’s.”
No doubt what has endeared Japandroids’ songs to so many is the manner in which they capture the kind of breathless emotion that most of us have felt at some point in our life, and that most of us associate with being younger: when friends, girls, music and the pursuit of a good time are all that is really important in this world, and the very concept that things might not always be this way is frankly unimaginable. It is not a melancholy kind of nostalgia, though; that line at the top of this interview seems almost naked divorced from the triumphant cries, cascades of distortion and battered drums that surround it on record, and King is quick to dispel any notions of introspection.
“People interpret songs like ‘Younger Us’ as us saying that things were better when we were younger, and we wish they could be like that again…but it’s really not like that at all to me, as the person who wrote it,” he says. “I have the same group of friends that I’ve had for a really long time, since we were kids. We’ve seen each other grow up. So that nostalgia, or looking back at your life, or whatever you want to call it, it’s more of a celebration of certain moments from the past. We’re not lamenting them. None of us want to go back to that time. It’s just about celebrating the times you had that maybe you can’t have in the same way when you’re closer to 30 than you are to 20.”
Nearly ten years ago – when I was closer to 20 than 30 – I met a Canadian girl, on another rooftop on the other side of the planet. It was a fleeting romance, but one that lived on in the various compilation CDs we sent each other for a while. It was an important experience for me in more ways than the obvious: it turned me on to a whole world of music I had never heard, bands like the Weakerthans, Propagandhi and the Be Good Tanyas among countless others.
King is profuse in his admiration of other groups and singers, and when we talk about the Weakerthans he cites them as an example of a band that is big (“indie-big,” albeit) in Canada, but relatively unheard of anywhere else. His relationship with the music scene in his own country is ambivalent; while he enthuses about acts like Ladyhawk and White Lung, the Weakerthans and Constantines (the latter of whom he and Prowse particularly adore) and is thrilled at the plaudits that Toronto’s Purity Ring and Grimes are pulling in (“She’s originally from Vancouver,” he says of the latter, “how could I not love that album?”), he also acknowledges that despite being nominated for this year’s Polaris Prize, “We’re a really rare band in Canada, in that we’re actually bigger in the States, with the exception of maybe Vancouver or Toronto. That’s the place we tour the most, where we spend most of our time. So I identify a lot more with the American music scene and American music culture than I do with the Canadian scene.”
While touring for Post-Nothing King and Prowse felt, in their own words, like they were “living on borrowed time.” Indeed, Celebration Rock was not a record they knew they were going to make beforehand, and this is the way they like it. They are now out of their contract with Polyvinyl so as not to be beholden to deliver anything to anybody, out of a stated aim to look ahead no further than the next few months (“about how long you have to book shows in advance”). Again, it is not a particularly typical mindset for a band to have, but one that King and Prowse staunchly advocate: “For example, we’re in Barcelona right now. When you walk onstage with the impression that it’s quite possible it’s the last time you’re gonna play a show in Barcelona, you better make it pretty fucking good, you know?”
It does, it seems, all come back to playing live and going on tour for the pair. (When I suggest that it must get pretty intense during such lengthy runs, King grins and acknowledges that “It’s best not to make any major life decisions on tour. Or at the very least wait till the next morning.”) In a few hours they’ll bid the animated Barcelona audience a warm goodnight, minus an encore but with a promise to see them “next time.” This does contradict what he had told me earlier, but I don’t think it is intentional or at all disingenuous; my overwhelming impression of King is of a man in love with what he does, partly because he still can’t really believe that this is what he does. That, like he suggests, the band might decide to call it a day once they’re done touring Celebration Rock is something that looks increasingly unlikely in the face of their blistering set, and when he talks about the thrill of life on the road – something that, for Japandroids, absolutely, indelibly remains – it is almost out of the question.
“Every once in a while it’s hard and it sucks and it’s work and shit happens, but most of the time we’re living our dream. I went to Iceland earlier this year, and I was in Eastern Europe a month ago – just that kind of life experience is exciting enough. Playing shows on top of that in those places, it’s just a whole other level of excitement. A couple of weeks ago we went to Budapest for the first time, our first show ever in Hungary, and there were 500 people. 500 people came to see Japandroids play in Budapest! How insane is that?” He pauses, almost imperceptibly. “We were flying high for days.”
Japandroids’ tour reaches the UK this Friday the 26th of October, as below. Celebration Rock is out now on Polyvinyl.
26th Oct – London, Heaven
27th Oct – Manchester, Sound Control
29th Oct – Sheffield, The Harley
30th Oct – Birmingham, Hare & Hounds
Live photo by Maria Soler