Thrilling third from Canadian duo
Japandroids’ rise through the ranks has coincided with the golden age of the power duo. The Vancouver band, comprising Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals), have come to prominence during a post-White Stripes boom dominated by the likes of The Black Keys, Royal Blood, Shovels & Rope, Drenge and Wye Oak.
Like those pairs, their popularity is rooted in the kind of exhilaratingly raw live performances which offer a corrective to the pre-set, almost-live predictability of so many contemporary rock bands. What makes Japandroids stand out from other duos, however, is the lack of an overt blues base. Essentially a standard four-piece guitar band cleverly compressed into two units, their take on classic ’70s and ’80s rock comes filtered through the stringency of punk and post-punk alternative rock.
That said, the influence of their more abrasive forebears has steadily decreased with time. Whereas on their 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, “Young Hearts Spark Fire” sounded like Dinosaur Jr colliding with Hüsker Dü – all careening melody and upstart lo-fi energy – by 2012’s follow-up, Celebration Rock, Japandroids were more streamlined. Though still anchored in the attack aesthetic of their stage shows, the songs now boasted an unashamed anthemic quality, filtering in overtly mainstream influences. “Fire’s Highway” was equal parts John Mellencamp and Fucked Up. The “Oh yeah, all right” refrain on “Evil’s Sway” nodded to Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. “Adrenaline Nightshift” sounded like The Replacements shot through with a dose of Thin Lizzy. The album title was no empty statement: here was a band who did not regard rock with a capital R as a dirty word.
The blend on Celebration Rock was so effective it was hard to see how it could be improved upon. It turns out that King and Prowse have reached a similar conclusion. Their third album reflects significant changes in the world of the band. Japandroids effectively downed tools following the end of the Celebration Rock tour in the autumn of 2013. The hiatus was followed by a label transfer, from Polyvinyl to ANTI-, while King moved away from Vancouver and settled into a serious relationship, necessitating a shift in working practices. In short, in the five years since their last record, they’ve taken a deep breath and surveyed their options. The result is an expansive record which fizzes with a desire to play around with the possibilities of the studio rather than the stage, shifting the parameters of their music beyond the fast and frantic.
While guitar-pop thrills aren’t exactly absent here – “Midnight To Morning” and “No Known Drink Or Drug” are particularly potent examples – when they do arrive they now come with a crisp, arena-friendly sheen. Elsewhere, a willingness to experiment leads to some surprising results. The album’s seven-minute centrepiece, “Arc Of Bar”, is alternately vastly ambitious, deeply silly and hugely enjoyable. It starts with a skittering electro pulse and a mock-pompous brass flourish, like some big-haired ’80s synth-rock epic. Later there’s a gum-chewing chorus of sing-song female voices and a surfeit of the off-the-peg “woh-oh-oh” background vocals which are scattered across the album. All the while, King colourfully details a nefarious night time scene. It’s a tad histrionic – “For her love I would help the devil/To steal Christ right off the cross” – but its mix of brash bombast and sheer chutzpah is ultimately hard to resist, and stands as a totem for the ambitions of the whole record.
Alongside “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” and “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”, “Arc Of Bar” finds Japandroids staking new ground. Built over a pummelling martial tattoo and a simple, circular chord sequence, the former is the most intense, introverted song in their catalogue. The latter, meanwhile, is a brief, atmospheric interlude which borrows the guitar riff from Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” and features King’s distorted vocal over an array of atmospheric augmentations. Both speak of a new willingness to brood rather than burn.
The lyrics are equally reflective. You wouldn’t call Near To The Wild Heart Of Life a concept album, exactly, but its loose coalition of themes feels like a story unravelling. There’s plenty of God and devil talk, life depicted as a series of choices between good and evil. King returns consistently to the tensions between home and the road, the difficulties in making vital personal connections while living life on the run. In “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” he “plans to settle down/Plans to up and split.” What happens when you want both?
The brace of opening songs set the scene. The title track is a classic rock’n’roll creation story. Sent off with a kiss by the local bar girl – “Give ’em hell for us!” – like some kind of alt.rock Dick Whittington, King recounts his coming-of-age tale with a clumsy, if appealing lack of irony. “It got me all fired up to go far away,” he cries. “I left my home and all I had.” It’s a stadium-sized rabble rouser, urged on by Prowse’s thundering drum artillery. “North East South West” tracks our heroes on the next stage of their quest. Namechecking Texas and Tennessee – “America made a mess of me” – it weighs up success and escape against the siren call of home, via the kind of supercharged chorus specifically designed to cause mayhem at summer festivals.
As the album moves through its eight chapters, King’s commitment to a rooted kind of love becomes stronger, while his attachment to the itinerant life he’s chasing becomes more conflicted. The fantastic “Midnight To Morning” finds him reflecting, “so many miles, so much to lose”. It’s pretty much a perfect guitar song, recalling the fast, flighty urgency of the best of Celebration Rock. Musically and thematically, “No Known Drink Or Drug” nudges things further along. Over a kinetic buzz of noise and melody, King concedes that the vagaries of love trump the more reliable pleasures of intoxication.
The final track offers a reckoning of sorts. The thrilling “In A Body Like A Grave” begins with a Who-ish flourish of acoustic rhythm guitar, while King’s declamatory vocal weighs up the conflicting pressures of church, work, school, small-town ties, love and inevitable compromises: “Age is a traitor/Bit by bit/Less lust for life/More talking shit.” Against it all, he concludes, you do your best and take what you can. It’s an unflinching yet ultimately affirming climax to an album which finds wildness in unexpected places.
After the Celebration Rock tour, you announced you needed “time to disappear into the ether for a while”. How did that pan out?
When we finished touring Celebration Rock we realised we hadn’t really taken any time off the band in five or six years. It was an awesome experience, we did 500 shows all around the world, we made two albums, but physically and mentally we were so burnt out. We’ve always loved what we do, but we just needed a break to get excited about it again. We took about six months off, the first half of 2014, and after that we were dying to get together again, close the door and turn up the amps. By the late summer of 2014, we started working on this record. It seems like we did it in secret, but not really. We’ve been really busy, we just weren’t updating Twitter and Instagram at the end of each day!
Did your working process change after taking that break?
Dave and I have always lived in the same neighbourhood in Vancouver, but when we finished touring I moved to Toronto, which is in the same country but five hours and three time zones away. Not long after that I started dating my girlfriend, who lives in Mexico City. For the first time we had to figure out how to write songs and be a band while straddling multiple time zones. We spent a lot of time apart working on stuff, then getting together for very short, concentrated chunks of time in one of those three cities, and showing each other everything we had done and trying to put it together. It produced a record I don’t think we could have made if we met up every day at three o’clock to jam. It was an attempt at a new way of writing songs.
Were there things you consciously wanted to change?
We felt we had refined our band and our songs to a pretty fine point. To some extent, that’s what our second record is: hitting the nail on the head of a very specific kind of song. I know a lot of people would love us to make that record over and over, but this time we really set out to expand on the kind of songs we wrote. Not every song has to be really fast, or have the energy at ten the whole time. We tried to make an album that was a little more complete, like those great rock’n’roll albums that have a little bit of everything, where you feel you are taken on a journey over 40 minutes. It was a lot of trial and error trying to break out of our comfort zone. There were no rules. Whatever we thought sounded cool, we went with it, and the more different things were from our first two records, the better. We followed our instincts.
Is it still just the two of you in the studio?
It’s just the two of us! We’ve expanded on the instruments that we record, and the way we record, but at the end of the day it’s just the two of us. A couple of friends sang back-up vocals on “Arc Of Bar”, but everything was laid down by either Dave or myself. We made the first two records live in the studio, this is the first record where we decided to throw out that old school rulebook and build and layer. Just trying to use the studio the way it was designed to be used. It’s not just about capturing a show any more.
You’ve suggested the record forms a loose narrative. What story does it tell?
We put a lot of time and a lot of care picking the songs and the order they went in, and trying to tell a story. The songs and the sequencing kind of wrote themselves. [The title track] was always going to be number one. You’ve got this song about being at home, and chasing your dreams and leaving; then “North East South West” is second, about what happens when you actually do that, and being out in the world. It just makes fucking sense! There’s a sense of two very different lifestyles and ideas of how to live clashing on this record: the romantic life of being in a band and travelling, against being with someone you love and building a home, and being old enough to appreciate how important the little things are. There are a lot of different interpretations about what a really wild and romantic life really means. The record is like being pushed and pulled back and forth, trying to pull the best out of both of those things.
All your albums have eight tracks. Why?
We’re in our early thirties, we’re the last generation that grew up listening to albums before the internet, where the album was still the thing. The CD generation was: if you can put 80 minutes on an album you should. Now, there’s a mindset that the more songs you have the better – you get more Spotify streams, more downloads. We always think a record should be a coherent listening experience. With eight songs, four on each side, you can really create something strong. Maybe you have to leave some songs off. That’s okay!
INTERVIEW: GRAEME THOMSON
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