Post-Nothing Turns 10
The drive to turn every element of sports’ human drama into a quantifiable, predictable metric has resulted in Win Probability Charts becoming a mainstay of box scores. “A statistical tool which suggests a sports team’s chances of winning at any given point in a game, based on the performance of historical teams in the same situation,” these line graphs are only interesting when an improbable, late-game outcome flips the script to where it resembles a heart monitor after someone’s given an AED — a completed Hail Mary, a 10-run ninth-inning comeback or basically anything that happened in the last three games of Virginia’s national championship run. If there was any way to recreate a Win Probability Chart for a band’s career trajectory, I’d love to see Japandroids’ as of April 2009: i.e., on the release date of their debut LP, Post-Nothing, which turns 10 this weekend. In 99.9% of simulated realities, there is no “Younger Us,” there is definitely no Celebration Rock, or even a second Japandroids album of any kind. This band probably doesn’t even make it to June.
As legend has it, Brian King and David Prowse made Post-Nothing with the intention of it being the first and last Japandroids album. Not because they had any sort of pretensions of being the kind of band that makes one record as a monolithic statement of intent, so fully realized that it renders any future work redundant. Japandroids were going to end for the same reason most bands do. Just try to fathom the effort that goes into hustling your friends to see you play the same set for the 20th time, all the writing and recording that goes into an album that will likely get no press whatsoever, playing for the guys in the other bands and maybe a few bartenders whenever you’re outside of your hometown.
Being in a band is an insane amount of work for frequently very little reward, and it’s catastrophically demoralizing for anyone who isn’t completed invested in it. Ironically, for a couple of guys who’ve made a classic record entirely about the redemptive, restorative power of rock music, Japandroids were perfectly fine with leaving rock alone if the game didn’t need them — King majored in geology at the University Of Victoria, meaning it was far more likely that he’d be studying rock than playing it by 2010.
In a revealing Pitchfork interview prior to the release of Celebration Rock, King admitted that he doesn’t consider himself to be a creative person — dude was sitting on the most life-affirming rock album of the 21st century, so this would be an obnoxious humblebrag if reality didn’t bear this out. They were comparing themselves to guys like Jack White and Ty Segall, dudes who you can “lock…in a room with an acoustic guitar [and] he’s gonna come up with something great.” Meanwhile, Japandroids have made only two albums in the 10 years since Post-Nothing, 16 total songs that amount to a little over an hour of new music.
Even before Post-Nothing, everything about Japandroids was a byproduct of grudging concessions dictated by a creative roadblock. There’s a sector of listeners who will never forgive their band name, which is actually a compromise based on even worse ones — King and Prowse respectively considered Japanese Scream and Pleasure Droids as options. While it’s fun to call King “Three Stacks” for the undeniably awesome sight of him playing a single guitar through a triumvirate of amps, the overdriven and muddy guitar tone on Post-Nothing was born of an inability or unwillingness to find a bassist.
“Neither one of us really wanted to be the lead singer, so we tried to think of how we could do things 50/50 — just sing back and forth at each other, instead of trying to be a lead singer,” King explained in a 2009 interview. “But we didn’t really know anything about writing lyrics or writing melodies. We were really good at rocking out, but that was about it.” They were forced into this arrangement because they couldn’t follow through on their initial conception of a Yeah Yeahs Yeahs-styled band. “If we could get a hot girl to sing up front there would be nothing to stop us,” King said during a much less self-aware time, “but they didn’t want to spend any time with us.” Maybe there is an alternate history where King and Prowse spend the past decade as the “other dudes” in a wildly successful art-rock band, but of all of the compromises Japandroids needed to make in their early days, this was probably the most serendipitous — every great song on Post-Nothing is in some way about being in awe of girls who don’t want to hang out with them, and just about every song on Post-Nothing is great.
When the success of Post-Nothing led to a consolidated reissue of their out-of-print EPs (2007’s All Lies, 2008’s Lullaby Death Jams) as No Singles in 2010, it mostly served to demonstrate the astounding and improbable leap required just to get to that point. They were not Vancouver’s best kept secret in 2009, just a band of punk fanatics who hadn’t figured out how to tease out their own perspective on the music they loved — at points, there were echoes of the Constantines’ heartland yearning, but not the lyrical acuity. They brought the primitivism of the Stooges and Wire, but they didn’t deconstruct or subvert rock tropes. Despite their lineup, they weren’t minimalists either. Japandroids songs are simple — many of them have no more than two lines — but they’re usually pretty damn long. “Darkness On The Edge Of Gastown” is their definitive pre-Post Nothing composition, a Bruce Springsteen homage that bludgeoned one chord and lacked any kind of hook or release. They really did sound like a band who learned how to write pop songs by studying Mclusky — their cover of “To Hell With Good Intentions” was by far the best thing on No Singles and just about the only one that has any chance of making their live set these days.
Post-Nothing is recognizable as the work of the same band that made “Sexual Aerosol,” but they only found a greater purpose once they realized the likely futility of dedicating one’s life to songs titled “Sexual Aerosol.” This isn’t a sob story concept record like Local H’s As Good As Dead or the Wrens’ The Meadowlands, filled with specifics about every terrible show, every hungover morning, and every disappointed girlfriend. This is a record about being in your mid-20s, realizing that maybe this whole band thing isn’t going to work out for you and now you’re stuck in a city that once held infinite promise and now reminds you of your every failure. Some might call it a quarter-life crisis.
After meeting at the University Of Victoria, the duo moved from the capital of British Columbia to Vancouver, and while I can’t speak for the culture shock, the population ratio makes it comparable to relocating from Sacramento to Los Angeles. For at least five minutes, Japandroids can remember the excitement of getting out of a mid-size city with vaguely defined ambitions, youthful vigor, and no real forethought or backup plan. Hence, “The Boys Are Leaving Town,” the Post-Nothing introductory salvo whose sole verse lyric is “the boys are leaving town.” The introductory guitar riff is a beginner’s warmup — playing an open E string in straight 16th-notes. Then Prowse barges in, doing that thing where he puts the mid-song drum solo at the beginning, while King adds a E chord that races ever upward on the fretboard. The chorus has King singing the other line in the song — “Will we find our way back home?,” garbling his response, “I don’t know.” Or maybe he just doesn’t care. “The Boys Are Leaving Town” is all forward momentum, with only an occasional glance in the rearview or side mirrors — a recreation of the car ride to Vegas in Swingers when everyone is still jacked up (alternate title: Vancouver, Baby!).
If “The Boys Are Leaving Town” are Japandroids in their fevered, post-grad enthusiasm, they immediately age three years that feel like 30 by the next song. Maybe you know the feeling of moving to the Big City after college and life hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would after a few years — you start seeing the same people at every show, you’ve been to every bar, the dating apps are filled with people you’ve already went out with. “We used to go out/ get drunk and get sad/ but this scene and this town has gone bad,” Prowse yells on “Rockers East Vancouver” — note that getting drunk and sad were the good times. In all likelihood, the narrators on Post-Nothing will continue to get drunk and sad, and it will probably be at home. And it starts to feel like this is going to be the rest of your life and shit, is it time to move again? Do you have another one in you? Will anything be different?
In this sense, Post-Nothing is the photo negative of Celebration Rock — the Canadian “We’re An American Band,” a veneration of rock ‘n’ roll nomadism by one of the only contemporary bands that loves endless touring more than any other part of being a musician. But to paraphrase Bill Callahan, “leaving is easy when you’ve got somewhere you need to be.” And on Post-Nothing, Japandroids were going nowhere in particular, all of the songs here powered by an impotent longing for something to change — driving past your office and for a split second, exploring the possibility of blowing right past it before inevitably pulling into the parking lot. Being two beers in, watching a meaningless baseball game, debating whether to go to the same damn bar because maybe tonight, a beautiful stranger will come and make everything different. It’s inexhaustibly propulsive while also bearing the weight of negative experience — clinging to the belief that anything can happen even though nothing ever really does.
Understandably, Japandroids responded to this malaise by reverting to a simpler, almost pubescent state of mind — both musically and thematically, Post-Nothing’s endearingly awkward wordplay and irrepressible hooksevoked the crushed-out pop-punk and landlocked blues of late-90s Midwestern emo, the kind found on Vagrant, Jade Tree, and Polyvinyl, the home of Braid, American Football, and Rainer Maria that would eventually sign them. Similar to the Promise Ring’s “Is This Thing On?”, “Wet Hair” is comically linear, yelling one line on the verse and doing the same thing on the chorus except faster and with more distortion. Spin’s Jeremy Gordon described Japandroids’ view on the opposite sex as “Manichean…where the girls were mostly good but sometimes very bad,” though I’d say on Post-Nothing, they were beheld as mythic beings, both awesome and unknowable — King and Prowse daydream about the Toronto Sun’s Sunshine Girls, French kissing French girls, the ice queens that make their hearts sweat, the ones who are willing to run away on a moment’s notice and the ones who are so pure of heart, they’ll make you write a love song addressed the rest of the world called “I Quit Girls.”
This gets to the one criticism that will forever dog Japandroids, even when they’ve gotten their own girlfriends to do backup vocals — that they’re a dude band playing dude music about being dudes for dudes. You could point to one line in “Wet Hair” as kind of a gotcha moment — “these girls are all Bikini Kill/we need to run to Bikini Island. Based on their overtly acknowledged influences, I imagine they actually like Bikini Kill and Bikini Island isn’t a tropical paradise, but rather an atoll used for nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s (its residents were relocated to…Kili Islands, but I’m gonna assume Japandroids weren’t going for a triple-word score pun there). It’s probably a silly piece of wordplay, or at least the kind of vaguely problematic joke that turns up on just about any comedian’s Twitter account if they were around in 2009, workshopping one-liners without any idea that someone might be reading. I get it, even if it’s indicative of the reductive, fairly useless critical mode that assumes there’s a 1:1 equivalence between the people on stage and the people in the audience; when I go to Japandroids shows these days, they mostly look like date nights for anyone over the age of 30.
Of course, none of Japandroids’ primal urges or rudimentary riffs would be subject to such deep analysis ten years or even ten days later if it wasn’t for “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” It’s a song whose title could easily be co-opted by Meghan Trainor or Katy Perry or anyone else trafficking in empowerment-pop; it’s also the first time that Japandroids were truly able to honor their debt to Paul Westerberg by adding to his legacy, making abject loserdom sound triumphant. It took me years to actually sit down and read the lyrics of “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and after seeing, “we finished our old lives/like we finished off the wine/now we’re used to staying up all night,” I’m kinda embarrassed that I assumed, “you can keep tomorrow, after tonight we’re not gonna need it,” was meant as a boast or even a toast. It sounds like the sort of line that could grace a high school yearbook without any kind of scrutiny, but it voices the sort of desperation I remember during the last semester of college, when the impending obligations of jobs, rent and adulthood drive many to spiraling substance abuse, grad school applications or both. It’s standing kegside, putting your arm around your best friend and saying, “it can’t get any better than this.” And the fact that it might be true is the saddest fucking thing imaginable.
It’s an extremely depressing song when I really stop and think about it, but that’s why it’s not meant to be thought about. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is an expression of a visceral experience, of being “beat up, beat down, too drunk to feel it,” doing the thing that matters the most to you when nobody cares. What Japandroids did here is impossible to fake, playing with life-or-death urgency and also a total lack of self-awareness; they’re ready to pack it in or take on the world if they could just catch a break. Which is exactly what happened.
At the risk of playing a little too much inside baseball, when we first caught wind of “Young Hearts Spark Fire” over at Pitchfork, its earliest advocate was Stuart Berman, a Canadian writer whose band Two Koreas shared the same small label as Japandroids. It’s easy to imagine Japandroids slipping through the cracks if either of those last two facts weren’t true. Anthemic punk-rock is always viewed with skepticism by the vast majority of music critics and the dominant modes of indie rock in 2009 — chillwave, shitgaze, folk-rock — were defined by a restraint and/or obfuscation diametrically opposed to Japandroids’ entire ethos. This invariably helped Japandroids, but only after they were discovered, galvanizing the movement.
And as these things generally went in 2009, “Young Hearts Spark Fire” got a Best New Track at Pitchfork, which subsequently led to Post-Nothing being given Best New Music, which lead to a wave of press coverage predicated on the prior two events, before they got snapped up by Polyvinyl and opened for extremely 2009 it-bands like A Place To Bury Strangers and HEALTH (the first time I saw them live, they opened for Andy Falkous’ post-Mclusky project Future Of The Left and were extremely drunk). But a band that worships the Replacements and their hard luck history needs to be careful what they wish for — their first major tour was postponed because King suffered a perforated ulcer after the very first show and Celebration Rock’s three-year incubation period plagued by writer’s block, an incomprehensible stumbling point for a record stereotyped as speaking entirely in WHOAs and YEAHs.
I will never suggest that Post-Nothing is a better record than Celebration Rock — every time I listen to the latter, I’m convinced it’s my favorite album of all time (and when I’m not, it’s in the top 10). I also acknowledged it’s specifically designed as a Greatest Rock Record Ever, as they’ve mentioned Born To Run and Raw Power as their models (eight songs, deliberate Side A/Side B splits). Having endured a literal and metaphorical near-death experience, King and Prowse weren’t going to leave anything to chance the second time around, as much as I enjoy the tossed-off Black Mountain stomp of “Crazy/Forever” or the doofy jokes of “Heart Sweats,” Japandroids recognized their limited appeal outside of their own practice space.
If Celebration Rock was their debut, I don’t know if I’d trust it as much; nor do I think I’d still love Post-Nothing quite the same right now if Japandroids hadn’t made good on their second chance at modest rock stardom. In writing about Celebration Rock at Grantland, Steven Hyden (who hosts a podcast called Celebration Rock) surmised that “they seemed like a better-than-average indie band that might squeeze out another record that wasn’t as good as Post-Nothing and then reappear in 2022 as part of the third wave of ’10s rock reunion tours, perhaps in a package with Cold War Kids and Avi Buffalo.”
If not pandering, Celebration Rock is undeniably fan service on some level — King admitted, “On a lot of this new record, we actually tried to simulate the sound of what we thought the crowd would do during the songs,” and it turns out they imagined a lot of OH YEAH and ALRIGHT. And he ultimately came to understand that bands like his offer a kind of wish fulfillment for people who maybe gave that band thing a go for a few years or never really followed through — “There’s a difference between people who are born with that special thing and people who love the people who are born with that special thing so much that they want to try their best to get as close as they can to it,” King mused, completely understanding how they’re chosen to be seen — they don’t have that special thing themselves, they’re guides towards it, which is why the songs on Celebration Rock take on mythical proportions. They’re not singing about the BC-7 or an average night at the local dive bar or a French kiss. We’re barrelling down “Fire’s Highway,” working the “Adrenaline Nightshift,” sharing a Roman candle kiss and a love that echoes “Continuous Thunder.” Hence the title Celebration Rock: the stakes were monumentally higher but the outcome never in doubt. Imagine the Win Probability Chart when Charlie Brown actually gets to kick the football — that’s Post-Nothing.