For a while, Canadian duo Japandroids looked destined to remain a local band that never quite broke out, thrashing it out in basement sweatboxes, unleashing their ferocious guitar and drums combo that takes the melodic craft of classic rock with the speed and intensity of punk.
Convinced of the band’s predestined route to nowhere, the pair - Brian King and David Prowse - decided to call it quits. Some life after their death resulted in them begrudgingly continuing until reviews on sites like Pitchfork gave the group a wider audience and further sense of momentum.
Three albums down the line and the group are one of the most acclaimed contemporary indie-rock bands, specifically with their second album Celebration Rock being widely celebrated as a hurricane release of a record.
Such was the success of their first two albums, driven by extensive touring, the group ended up signing to a major label for their third album released earlier this year, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. In the middle of their current tour Prowse takes a breather to reflect on where the band currently are.
You guys have been together for over 10 years. You've toured the world and no doubt spent a lot of time together. How is your relationship after all of that, do you just become closer or can that continued proximity place a strain on personal relations?
I think the process of having some time out of the spotlight and living in different places helped to strengthen our friendship. There is definitely a part of my personality that finds it very hard to be in close quarters with anyone for prolonged amounts of time, and I think having a bit of space and some time to reflect on all the things we accomplished was really helpful.
When we would meet up, it was nice to have some time where we worked on music together, but we also just hung out as friends, rather than as bandmates or co-workers or whatever. There's a very strong bond between us after all we've seen and done, but it's also nice to hang out and remember why you were friends in the first place, way before all the craziness happened.
How important has it become for you to look after your health when on tour now? You're still giving it your all but you're a little bit older now, it must take its toll sometimes?
Yeah, I feel about a million years older this time around. I think we're still playing at a really high level, and are probably tighter than we ever were during Celebration Rock. Looking back at how much I would drink and smoke, and the stupid things I did and how little I would sleep for months and months… yikes. How the hell did I survive all that?
These days the shows are just as wild, but back in the day, our nights seemed to start when the show ended, whereas things after the show (for the most part) are much tamer. We're not angels by any means, but I'm trying to be less of a dummy and look after myself a little more.
How have your experiences of moving onto a major record label been? Have there been any notable changes to the way you operate or work?
I think the most notable difference is just that it operates on a larger scale and is more of a worldwide label. When we were discussing moving to a new label, it was important to us that we find a similar environment as what we had at Polyvinyl - where we had complete artistic freedom and felt like we had a really transparent relationship and there was a lot of trust.
It wasn't worth moving to a larger label if we didn't still have those things as part of the deal. So far it feels like we still have a lot of the things we loved about Polyvinyl while having the extra push of a label like Anti/Epitaph, which has a multiple offices around the world and seems to have a bit more muscle in terms of being able to promote and distribute our records on a larger scale. So far so good!
In the build up to your last album did you feel a sense of pressure at all given the success of the previous one? It featured very high in a staggering number of end of year lists etc - does that sort of widespread acclaim ever creep into your mind when making new music?
I think writing and working more or less in isolation helped us block out the distraction of people's expectations to some degree, but it's impossible to ignore that completely. The success of the last couple records completely changed our lives and opened a million doors, so on some level, your entire life is riding on whether the next record has the same appeal.
Of course, worrying about living up to your last record, or attempting to give people exactly what you think they want is a pretty toxic process. We tried to focus on writing and recording songs that we found personally exciting and hoped that if we liked them then people who like our band would find them interesting as well. If the record totally failed, at least we made the record we wanted to make.
You've said frequently this new album was the first attempt at a proper studio album. What were your experiences of trying to use the studio as an instrument? Did it come naturally and what were some the advantages or drawbacks of taking this approach?
We learned a lot about the studio during the recording and mixing of this record, and having the time and freedom to experiment a bit more in the studio was very freeing for us creatively. We had been somewhat wary of the studio in the past, and always wanted to get in and get out of there as quickly as possible. This was the first time I really remember feeling somewhat comfortable in the studio, and feeling comfortable with the idea that a song wasn't completely finished before recording had begun.
A big part of that was giving ourselves enough time to try things out and know that we had time to make mistakes and try out different ideas. We wouldn't make the same record in the exact same way again if we went into the studio tomorrow. But I think we learned a lot about all the options and opportunities available in the studio and how much fun it can be to record.
How have you found taking the new material on the road given there are some more fuller productions on the album - particularly on 'Arc of Bar', do you bring a backing track for the electronics on that? If so, how has integrating this new process been for you?
Yeah there are some challenges. Right now I think 'Arc of Bar' doesn't really blend in with the rest of the set but we love playing it and people seem to really respond to it. So far that's the only song incorporating any sort loops or addition instrumentation beyond the basic guitar/drums/vox set up, so it can't help but have a bit of a different vibe. I think we may begin to involve loops more, but we would like to be very specific about how and when to do stuff like that.
We don't want to jump into the deep end, but we are interested in seeing how to expand sonically and reflect some of the new sonic ideas from this record in the live setting while still just having the two of us on stage. I like the idea of having a chance to continually expand our sound while we tour this record, and continue to develop our live sound and experiment with ideas as we tour, rather than just giving people the same show night after night for two years in a row.
Can you tell us a little bit about the continuity of releasing albums with eight tracks on them and a similar black and white aesthetic to the artwork? What's the significance?
I think we both just like the aesthetic and simplicity of black and white portrait based album covers. I like how they feel somewhat timeless, but also how the album covers and artwork tell a story about the band when you stack them together. You see us getting older and changing over time. A lot of our favourite records have that very simple imagery and we've always just liked that aesthetic.
The eight song thing is just…. some sort of strange gravitational pull. We keep trying to write longer albums with more songs but for whatever reason 8 is the magic number and always just feels right. It's not really some sort of rigid rule, it just keeps happening for whatever reason.
Are you guys still anti-social media? If so, what advantages/disadvantages has that created over the years? How do you feel about the shift in things moving so heavily towards that in recent years?
It seems like social media is an inescapable part of being an artist these days. We're still trying to be pretty minimalist about it, and we let our label handle taking care of it for the most part. Brian doesn't have any personal social media accounts, and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with that world.
Still, we understand that this is a popular way for people to consume information, and we want people to know about our tours, our albums, our singles, etc. So I suppose we view it as a somewhat necessary evil and try to use it the minimum amount we need to ensure that people can be aware of what's going on with the band.
Whether they are correct or not I don't know but people have a tendency to compare you with a lot of old-time classic rock/punk bands but I wondered who some of your favourite and most inspiring contemporary artists are?
We just did a tour of North America with Craig Finn, which was an incredibly inspiring experience. It was amazing getting to watch him play every night and talk to him about life, about touring and about music. We're both big fans of his songwriting and he's such a great frontman and beyond all that he's just a great person and great friend.
You've had a few literary references and inspirations present in your albums over the years, what books have been getting you excited or inspired of late?
Brian says that his favourite read of the past year or so is the four part series the 'Alexandria Quartet' by Lawrence Durrell. He said it was so good that as soon as he finished it he immediately wanted to start reading it again. For me, the most fascinating read I've had in the last while was Bruce Springsteen's autobiography 'Born to Run'.
He's obviously a very important musical influence, and I loved how open and honest he was about his life, and how much his voice came through in the book. It felt like you were sitting next to him at a bar and he just started telling you his entire life story right then and there.