Towards the end of 2013, Japandroids performed a vanishing act. It was a jarring turn of events for a few reasons. First off, they were at a point in time at which they’d never had more momentum; their second LP, Celebration Rock, had met with rave reviews and the duo had toured the world in support of it – it felt like they were finally at the point that they’d been building to, after a couple of well-received EPs and a debut record, Post-Nothing, that was already a classic in the mind of their fanbase. The fact that they’d overcome a wave of initial indifference and serious medical problems to get to where they now were seemed only to further the strangeness of the timing of their disappearance; a planned string of farewell shows in 2008 ended up turning into a fresh start, one that was swiftly threatened by singer and guitarist Brian King’s hospitalisation with a perforated stomach ulcer.
Plus, slowing down and stopping just naturally feels like anathema to a band like Japandroids; they’re not usually ones for anything other than breakneck pace, whether on their scorchingly-fast records, equal parts fizzing punk and fist-punching classic rock, or on stage, where their shows burn with a visceral intensity. They didn’t seem like a group who had the capacity to power down for a while, even if they wanted to.
Eighteen months after Celebration Rock was released, though, and with 2014 fast approaching, an extensive touring schedule finally began to take its toll, and the pair, quietly, decided to take a break. There was no announcement, no use of the word ‘hiatus’, and once they’d wrapped their last gigs, they retreated for a little while. An old-school aesthetic has always been a big part of the band’s DNA and they’ve never been especially predisposed to the use of social media; in other words, there was no real way to know where they’d gone. Fans wondered aloud, but no reassurance that King and drummer David Prowse were going to return was forthcoming – at least, not until late last year, when the pair chose to drop all of their news at once.
In October, they announced Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, their third full-length and the first to be released on iconic punk imprint ANTI-. It’s an album that both speaks to the time spent away – more considered in places, and certainly the most ambitious of the band’s records to date – and yet feels like Japandroids taken to their logical conclusion elsewhere, with the likes of ‘In A Body Like A Grave’ and particularly album centrepiece ‘Arc Of Bar’ taking the anthemic blueprint set out on Celebration Rock and turning it into something positively cinematic. Just before Christmas, King spoke with DiS from his native Canada on the story of the record’s gestation, the evolution of the band’s aesthetic, and why their live shows might never be the same again.
DiS: Is there a simple answer as to why it’s been nearly five years since Celebration Rock?
Brian King: There actually is, yeah. For a start, I think that gap can mislead people a little; it’s easy to look at ‘2012’ as the year that Celebration Rock came out and ‘2017’ as the release year for the new album, and suddenly think: “What the hell have these guys been doing all that time?” From our perspective, though, we’ve been very busy all that time. After we released Celebration Rock, we toured for almost two full years and played hundreds of shows all around the world. By the time we actually finished touring that record, we’d gotten to the point where we needed a break – where we just couldn’t carry on, physically or mentally. We knew we’d eventually want to make more music, but we’d gone as far as we could, so we took about six months off – the first half of 2014. It was just to recuperate from all that time on the road, really, and to get to the point where we were excited about playing in the band again. By the summer of 2014, we’d started writing, and we were recording by the fall of 2015 and mixed and mastering earlier in 2016, so when you add all of that up, it’s actually been a really busy time for us.
What exactly were you up to during that six-month break? Did you completely cut yourself off from music?
It was more a case of just taking time away from Japandroids. When we first started, we recorded and released Post-Nothing, toured for two years, then came home and immediately started on Celebration Rock. We got that out as quick as we could, and then we were back on the road again. It meant that, by the time we took that break, we hadn’t really stopped in five years – between writing, recording and touring, everything was Japandroids, every day. We were at the point where everything was going really well, and we’d been around the world countless times, and we had two records that people seemed to really love, but we were burned out – we knew we weren’t in the right headspace to just jump straight in again. We had the luxury, this time, of not necessarily needing to do that, either, and the great thing with taking a few months off is that you genuinely get to the place of really wanting to get together and play again. That wouldn’t happen if we’d just taken the weekend off and started again on Monday.
At what point did things start to properly whir back into motion?
I mean, we were never out of touch. Dave and I have been friends for a really long time, like long before we started the band, so it wasn’t like we stopped talking or seeing each other - it was more that we went back to being friends for a while, where every conversation doesn’t have to be about the band and every weekend doesn’t need to be practice. We could go get dinner, go to a show, just do something fun. There definitely gets to be a point where you’re recovering and then things start up again organically; I’ll start writing and then, after a while, you’ve got some bits and pieces and then, eventually, enough for a few new songs. Honestly, it didn’t take long for us to really miss working together. It wasn’t like we had to have the conversation about: “When are we going to start on something?” Instead, we just got together when we had stuff we could work on. I think people forget that, just because we’re in a band together, there’s a lot more to my relationship with Dave than just the professional side.
There’s been a geographical change between the two of you, though...
That’s probably the biggest difference between the way we wrote and recorded this album, compared to how we’d done it in the past. During the break I told you about, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto – so, in other words, from one side of Canada to the other. That’s a lot different to just being on the other side of town from Dave. Also, not long after that, I started dating my girlfriend, and she actually lives in Mexico City, so my personal life during that break became a little chaotic. I was travelling around between those three cities. The nice thing about being a duo is that it only means one person has to get on a plane; it’s not like there’s five of us all in different places, where it’d become a real headache to organise getting together.
Obviously, it was a big change; the old way we used to write songs is that we lived down the street from each other, so it was just a case of making plans to meet up at our practice space, Monday to Friday or whatever. That wasn’t possible anymore, so we actually decided to meet up in New Orleans at the end of 2014 and after that, it was a case of maybe spending a month or six weeks apart, and then picking a city and getting together to run through all of our ideas. It became this cycle of long periods on your own, followed by short bursts of being together, and I think that’s really reflected on the record – that theme of movement and travel keeps coming up, and that’s actually how it was, as we changed cities and kept uprooting ourselves.
Near To The Wild Heart of Life seems like far and away the most experimental record you’ve made to date, in terms of the instrumentation and composition. How did it end up developing that way?
On the first two records and the EPs, we had a very clear idea of what we were trying to do – to make a live record in the studio, basically. We were really into the concept of capturing the energy, rawness, and directness of a great gig, so everything we did in the studio went into that, which kind of meant that we weren’t really using the studio for what it’s designed for. The live factor was always the main thing on our minds, and when we finished Celebration Rock, we actually felt really strongly that we’d achieved what we set out to achieve from the very beginning; we’d spent our whole career refining that formula, and that record was the culmination of it all. We didn’t really know what we could do to make a better version of Celebration Rock - I don’t think we could have made it more intense, or written better live songs. So, that left us with two options; try to make the best possible copy of it, or set out and try to do something else. We made that decision very early.
To aim for something different?
Totally, yeah. Instead of setting out to make another live-sounding record with that looseness, we wanted to actually go in to make more of a proper studio album, and one that wasn’t necessarily meant to sound live. What we came to realise was that we’d been placing all these rules on ourselves; we wouldn’t use instruments that we couldn’t play live, and we wouldn’t track the instruments separately and then layer them - we’d just cut it all live off the floor. Once you remove those rules, you open up a whole new world. It kind of blew the doors wide open in terms of what a Japandroids song could sound like, and it reminded me of making our first EP in that it was the first time we were trying this new approach.
Is that why you chose to bring in Peter Katiss to help mix the record?
Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t a totally clean break in that respect, because we still recorded the songs with Jesse Gander, who worked on Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock. We were really comfortable with him, and we knew that he’d be able to get the best performances out of us in the studio, but taking the tracks to Peter was an incredible experience because he changed the way we viewed our own music. He’s made some fantastic-sounding records with bands like The National and Interpol, so we knew his pedigree, but the way in which he helped us to expand what we were capable of sonically was huge. He was a big part of being able to step away from trying to just nail the best possible live track, and seeing as the big overarching theme of the writing and recording was throwing out the rulebook and trying to do something new, it really suited us to have him on board.
Did you totally disregard any difficulties you might have down the line with making the songs work live, or were you mindful of trying to balance the studio aspect with being able to play these tracks on stage?
Well, one of those rules that we had on previous records was that everything was basically guitar, drums, and vocals. We didn’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t see or hear if you came to the show. This time, we definitely did say: “Let’s not worry about the performance, let’s focus on what sounds good or cool, and think about that later.” Obviously, you still have moments where you wonder if you’re doing the right thing, and I think what we found is that there’s a difference between “How are we gonna do this live?” and “How the hell are we gonna do this live?” It’s one thing to tuck in some textural guitar stuff or double up on the vocals – that’s not going to make or break a show – but some of the really experimental sides of this record was always going to be a big challenge to translate to the stage. It’s been really exciting, though, and I genuinely think it’s rejuvenated us as a live band. It’s just a case of accepting that you have to figure out the best live version, rather than just come up with a carbon copy of the one that’s on the album.
Do you think that’s going to profoundly change the live show going forwards?
For sure, yeah. Dave and I have been playing in this band for ten years, and played five hundred shows in something like fifty countries. Nearly all of those shows have been kind of the same thing, and now it feels like we’re back to how it was when we first started out, where everything’s new again, and we have to work at it. I remember reading an interview with Thom Yorke about Kid A and Amnesiac, and how they never thought during the making of them about the live versions. When they got into rehearsals, they realised they had to find a role for five people on songs that only had two musicians on the record, and that it basically forced them to create a new band. That’s how this had felt, and that means that there’s still going to be an element of chaos and uncertainty night after night. You’re not going to be getting the same cookie cutter performance every time – we’ll be trying new things and seeing what happens.
One thing that has stayed the same is the aesthetic with the album artwork; again, it’s a black-and-white photograph of the two of you. What’s the thinking behind that consistency? I’m old enough to remember what it was like to be a music fan pre-internet, so I had records and CDs and the visual presentation of a band was something I always thought was really cool. I loved that idea, especially from punk rock and post-punk, where the bands and their albums would come with a very striking aesthetic, so much so that you could recognise their records from across the room because they’d come up with a visual identity that was aligned with the music. I’m talking about bands like New Order, where with each album of theirs, you felt like you were collecting pieces of something bigger.
Or Bob Dylan, he’s another good example – so many of his records have a picture of him on the front, and that means that if you own them all, you can see him age as you flip through them, not just in terms of the years passing but the changes in his personal style, how his clothes changed as he became a bigger deal. I like the idea that somebody could go into a record store and grab all of our albums without having to consult the internet because they’re so clearly Japandroids albums, but at the same time, you can see some of how we’ve changed as people from the photographs. That’s especially nice in the digital age, where a lot of the visual side of music seems to have become less important.
The fact that you guys aren’t really into social media seems like a throwback to that era as well, especially in terms of how it kept people guessing while you were away. Was there ever a point at which you felt like people might forget about you if you weren’t constantly providing updates on what was going on?
We discussed that early on, but I mean, again, I remember what it was like to grow up in a small town before the internet. There weren’t too many avenues outside of the records themselves to find out about a band; maybe music magazines, or things on the TV or radio from time to time, but really you had to use your imagination. I didn’t know what my favourite bands were doing every day, so I created my own idea of who they were, and what they used to get up to. Things like Instagram and Facebook have removed a lot of the mystique because bands are letting you know what they’re having for breakfast and where they’re playing tonight.
I think we’ve tried to do everything we could to avoid social media-ing people to death, and just to let them wonder a little bit. It wasn’t like we were trying to keep anything secret, but we were also never going to be, like, “Writing demos!” or “In the studio! New record soon!” all the time. You don’t want to end up like Frank Ocean, where his album didn’t come out until eighteen months after he’d effectively announced it, and people start questioning whether it’s ever going to come out – I think that saps some of the excitement. Instead, we liked the idea that there might be a little bit of speculation about where we’d gone, and that when we had something to announce, we’d have a firm release date, some shows lined up, and new music within a few days. We thought: “Let’s hit people out of the blue, so they’ll be like: ‘Oh, they’re back!’” And now we are.
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is out via ANTI- on Friday 27 January. For more information on the band, including upcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.