Japanroids: "If we did walk away there wouldn’t be any regrets"

The Japandroids story very quickly went from one about the power of Pitchfork to one about the power of a live show. When Vancouver duo Brian King and David Prowse’s debut album Post-Nothing was identified by the US tastemaker music website as a highlight of 2009, hardly anybody had heard of them, let alone caught a Japandroids gig. 

Now, it’s what they’re known for. So much so that for much of the last three years Japandroids have been on the road, excited chatter across the blogosphere turning into a snowball of hype. Demand for the band even stopped King and Prowse from getting back into the studio to record their follow-up album, Celebration Rock, which finally received a release in June this year.

Talking to King, though, you get the impression that he and Prowse weren’t overly bothered by the delay. Japandroids always was and remains a month-by-month proposition; any show seemingly might be their last.

Perhaps that’s why Jerome Borazio and Danny Rogers worked hard to get them down to Australia for this summer’s Laneway Festival. In anticipation, TheVine dialled international and chatted to King about life on the road, the changing value of recorded music, and working to maintain a 13-year friendship with Prowse within the paradigm of a globe-trotting, all-conquering indie rock band.

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You said after Celebration Rock that essentially it was a wait-and-see proposition for Japandroids. A few years, an album and half a tour later, is that still the case? Does this feel any more solid to you now?

Nope [laughs]. To be perfectly blunt, it does not. We’ve never been the kind of band that can have any kind of long-term plan. Everything we ever talk about is all very, very short term and very, very in the moment. Even with Celebration Rock: we didn’t decide to make that record until we had finished all the touring for Post-Nothing and then we were like, “What are we gonna do now?” That just happens to be the way we’ve operated for a long time. Despite the encouragement of other people who work with the band, we’ve never been able to make any kind of plan longer than a few months into the future, and usually that’s only with respect to touring. Because you have to plan for six months in advance. 

That’s life sometimes, though. Everybody tends to see what other people are doing and perceive it as being definitive, and then we look at what we’re doing and it sometimes seems so transient and fragile, like it could blow away at any moment.

Ever since that moment when we’d already essentially broken up at the end of 2008, and it was, “OK, this and this just happened, so why don’t we get back together, do a few shows, or do this or do that and see what happens.” And since then it’s always been just taking on the next most immediate thing and making a decision on the fly as to how we operate. That’s just the way it’s been since that time. There’s never been any sort of, “Oh, maybe this is going to be a long-term thing now. We should decide on this or that or figure these things out.” I dunno – it’s just never happened that way for us.

I remember reading about how you guys were loving touring after the first album. Is it a grind, yet?

Well there’s no question that there are elements of the touring lifestyle that will just always be a grind. I mean that in the sense of having to travel quite a bit and what that does to you physically and mentally, whether it be the diet that exists on tour, whether it be the sleep deprivation that exists on tour, whether it be the long periods of time without seeing your friends or family or [not] being at your home. So there are always elements of it that are inherently a grind and there can never be a point where they go away fully. But having said that, we still love to do it very much. We’re combining our two loves in life – travel and playing music – so we’re quite literally living our dream when we are out here on tour. I mean, we’re in Greece right now: I read about this place in books and saw it on TV, but it never occurred to me a few years ago that I might be in Greece at some time in the near future. So as much of a grind certain elements are, we’re still totally in love with it.

You guys were friends first and bandmates second. Has that made it easier?

Yes and no. I mean, we’re both hyperaware that the adventure we’re on is only a reality if we do it together and we find ways to get along. And also, the general decision-making process in a duo is a lot different to your standard rock band that has four or five people in it. To tell you the truth, we’ve been playing together so long that I don’t remember what it was like when we were just friends. Because we were basically friends, but our topics of conversation would revolve around music or going to shows and things of that nature. So not much has changed except that we spend 24/7 together, more or less. But we’re still talking about the same things, we’re still doing the same things together that we did since we first met. So I don’t even remember what it was like to just be friends back then. The lines have blurred so much.

You’ve talked in the past about wrapping up the band if it starts to ruin your friendship. Do you think that vow to end it all if things start going bad – that uncertain nature of the band – does that give you a certain energy? Like any single show could be your last?

Yeah, it totally does. In fact, Dave and I have known each other for over ten years. And all our friends at home are the same friends. So it was just one of those things where if it ever got to the point where we were like, “Fuck you!” “No, Fuck you. I’m gonna kill you,” or whatever, we’d just be like, “Well, there’s no point, really. We can always play in another band together or separate or something.” Our lives are too interconnected now to let something like that affect us. That’s been a topic of conversation a few times in the history of the band – especially if it was a particularly dark time when we were not getting along – where we’ve thought, “Well, is there really any point? Let’s just stop and go back to being friends and this can just be a cool thing that we did at this point in our lives.”

So yeah: we still tour and write and record under the pretext that the band could stop very quickly. It doesn’t just affect the shows and the performances -- that was a motivating factor behind the record we just did. On the chance that we don’t do the next record – which after Post-Nothing was a very realistic possibility – let’s make sure that we’re ending on a high note. That this is the best record out of all the records that we did. So we can feel like from beginning to end we just got better and we just got prouder of what we’ve done. But if we did walk away there wouldn’t be any regrets.

Talking about Celebration Rock: it really felt like it was written for an audience, as opposed to your first record. Do you think you could exist without that communion with your audience? Is that now an elemental part of the band?

Oh yeah, definitely. The simple fact is that we didn’t have an audience when we wrote Post-Nothing, and we had an audience when we wrote Celebration Rock, so the difference in those circumstances is the primary difference between those two records and how they came about, and what they’re about and how they sound. At least for Celebration Rock, I consider that change in dynamic of the band to be an integral part of how that record came to be and how we’re performing it now every night on tour.

If these songs are made for an audience, surely you must only know what they’re truly like after they’ve been played in front of an audience. How’s Celebration Rock holding up after months on the road? Have these songs flowered live like you hoped or expected?

More or less, yes. It wasn’t instantaneous and you can see it getting better as the months progress. This year, we’ve been touring since about March, and as the year’s progressed you can see the transition taking place, where the new songs are taking on a life of their own and becoming that thing that you hoped they would and replacing the old songs in what really gets people excited and causes them to move or sing or really let it all out.

It’s funny, because the covers of the two albums – Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock­ – are quite similar – and I know you worked with Jesse Gander on production again – but the circumstances or context behind how they were made were very, very different. Was it a conscious thing to try to wrestle that change under control, so to speak?

 Yeah. We’ve recorded everything we’ve done with Jesse. He’s a friend of ours, so whenever it’s time to record anything you just pick up the phone and it’s almost like a default that he’s going to do it. There was obviously some debate when it came time to do Celebration Rock, because that was the first opportunity we had where we didn’t have to go to Jesse. But in the past it was like, “Jesse’s a friend of ours, he’s played in a tonne of local bands,” and he was an inspiring local figure for us when we first started – because he played in all these great bands that we’d gone to see a lot and he was an actual recording engineer in Vancouver, but still kind of like a punk, so he was affordable and we had similar music tastes. It was just a no-brainer that he would record us when we first starting out, and then once we signed to Polyvinyl and Post-Nothing took off, there was very much this idea that now you could almost go anywhere you wanted and maybe work with a “producer”, and go to a fancier studio or something like that, so we had options that were never previously available to us.

 So that was something we talked about, and Jesse was the first person I asked: “Hey, so we are going to do another record. What’s your opinion on this?” And one of the things that the three of us together agreed upon was that between the time that we had written and recorded Post-Nothing a couple of years had gone by – Dave and I had played a couple of hundred shows together and Jesse himself had recorded a tonne of new records. So not only did Dave and I feel like we had inherently gotten much better at playing together and also playing our instruments, my confidence in songwriting had increased, Jesse’s recording talents had increased in that time, and we thought that if the three of us just got back into the same room and did the same thing we’d inherently make a better album than we had before – because we’d just all gotten better at the stuff from when we did it on Post-Nothing.

 I think you hear that across the board: the musicianship is better, the takes that we got are tighter, the songwriting has improved, and I think from Jesse’s perspective the recording and the mixing and the production are all better than they are on Post-Nothing. So we did that at the same studio with the same guy using exactly the same method. Technically, there’s nothing different about the two records.

There seems to be an increasing tension now: albums are seen to be one step removed from simply being ammunition for live performances, but bands are touring so frequently and so widely that it’s hard to actually get around to writing an album. Is that a fair comment?

That’s definitely true. There’s no question now that you’re seeing bands taking longer between records than ever before. That era of your favourite band having a new record every year, it just doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure there are bands that can still do that, but in general you’re seeing a decline in the size of bands’ discographies relative to the amount of time that the band has been together. And that’s exactly the reason. When we were about to release Celebration Rock we were talking about it: “Well, if we released Post-Nothing in 2009 and then toured a lot, and then we release Celebration Rock in 2012 and tour a lot, it’s going to be 2015 before the next Japandroids album.” At that point you’re only doing three records in the time that a lot of well-known bands have done ten records and had their whole career. But then you start to think about some of these really prominent bands that have come up. Say, Arcade Fire – they’ve been together for ten years and they’ve got three records and they’re one of the biggest bands in the world. They got to be one of the biggest bands in the world with a pretty small catalogue of music, but a tonne of touring in between each one of them. So, there it is.

Getting down to Australia for Laneway: I imagine it must feel overdue to you guys.

It feels very overdue, actually. We tried to come a few times on Post-Nothing and every time it just fell through for one reason or another. It wasn’t like we didn’t want to come – anybody who saw a tour schedule back then would know we were trying to play in as many places as we could. But I’m excited to come; we’ve finally got our shit together and we’re on our way. I think doing the Laneway Festival is only the first part of the plan. We’re already looking at when we could come and do our own tour and play our own shows. So we’re going to make up for not coming at all on Post-Nothing by coming at least a couple of times on Celebration Rock.

You went for two years on 35 minutes of a-sides on Post-Nothing. Does it feel good to now have over an hour of a-side material to draw from?

Yeah. The one downside of being the band that tours so much and plays so many shows and loves to play is that model of making a record and then touring for two years doesn’t leave a band like us with very much material. So we’ve been having this discussion about set lists and that sort of thing and we really just don’t have that many songs to play. At least on this record, we’ve added another stack. But it was hard on Post-Nothing, trying to tour for two years on an album that has eight songs on it, but wanting to play for a long time and give people their money. So it’s better now.

The Australian release of Celebration Rock includes a bunch of rarities – do you tend to touch on that stuff in the live show?

Some of them. A lot of that stuff actually came out in the previous few years in North America. There was a time in 2009 and 2010 when we were playing some of those songs every night on tour. It just became standard. But as time has gone on we’ve shifted more towards the songs off Celebration Rock, and of course the tricky thing we’ve noticed a lot when touring this record is that there are so many people who have discovered the band through Celebration Rock, and they don’t know anything else. So it’s been a whole new experience, having to get the most out of crowds where different people are there to hear different sides of the band. That never happened at all when we were touring a couple of years ago.

Matt Shea (follow @mrmatches)

JAPANDROIDS TOUR DATES 2013:

 FRIDAY 1 FEBRUARY – LANEWAY FESTIVAL, BRISBANE

SATURDAY 2 FEBRUARY – LANEWAY FESTIVAL, SYDNEY

SUNDAY 3 FEBRUARY – LANEWAY FESTIVAL, MELBOURNE

FRIDAY 8 FEBRUARY – LANEWAY FESTIVAL, ADELAIDE

SATURDAY 9 FEBRUARY – LANEWAY FESTIVAL, PERTH

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