Upstairs At Eric’s is an apartment and photo studio in midtown Manhattan owned by photographer Eric Johnson. It’s not necessarily named for the Yazoo album; Johnson just liked the name. There are platinum album plaques for Lauryn Hill and Maxwell scattered about, industrial lights in the corner and a gray Bengal house cat named Cooley wandering about where he pleases. As soon as Japandroids’ Brian King gets to the studio, he starts playing with the cat, and in-between getting his photo taken, he’ll repeatedly walk over to Cooley, lounging in a director’s chair and stroke his fur. King is wearing black pants and a black T-shirt, and shortly after he arrives and pets Cooley, he changes into even tighter black jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt. Aesthetics are very important to him and his band, as anyone who’s glanced at his album covers can attest. The Japandroids singer and guitarist says that for the past decade, he’s only worn and purchased black and white clothing. His bandmate, drummer, and singer David Prowse, isn’t quite as relentlessly committed to the band’s signature black and white look. He also owns a few gray items.
That devotion to brand maintenance is readily apparent on the Canadian group’s new album Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, which will be released next year on 1/27. Just as with their 2009 debut Post-Nothing, and the 2012 follow-up Celebration Rock, there are just eight songs, the cover shot is a black and white portrait of the two, and the group again produced the album themselves. And just like with those albums, the songs are life-affirming shots of anthemic rock ‘n’ roll, bolstered with sky-cracking choruses and glistening guitar fuzz. If you need a pick me up after this brutal year, know that our Canadian brothers have heard your call and are on their way. But Near To The Wild Heart Of Life also sees the band pushing themselves past any pre-conceived limitations, incorporating new instrumentation and songwriting techniques, making their version of progressive rock on the nearly eight-minute epic “Arc Of Bar” and approaching Arcade Fire-levels of grandeur on closer “In A Body Like A Grave,” but also embracing a pastoral, almost folk-rock sweetness on “Midnight To Morning.” Those aren’t the only changes; after releasing their first two albums with the Illinois label Polyvinyl, the band has signed with Epitaph Records’ prestigious sister label Anti, and recruited mixer Peter Katis, best known for his work with the National and Interpol, to lend his cinematic aesthetic to the release.
It’s been five years since the band gave us Celebration Rock, one of the most beloved albums of this decade, and home to the world-beating single “The House That Heaven Built.” There’s been near-total radio silence from the group after their 2013 tour wound down; they didn’t give any interviews or updates about a new album, and social media is pointedly not part of their brand. Part of the delay was that they needed to rest and are simply not fast writers, and part of it was logistical. While Prowse continues to live in Vancouver, King moved to Toronto, and now also spends part of his time in Mexico City as well. Starting with a 2014 writing session in New Orleans, the two would periodically get together to work on the album until recording began in earnest in 2015. The two both say the new arrangement helped them avoid repeating themselves, and they’re both excited for their fans to hear the new results. They’re also just plain excitable people. Over lunch and day beers at the midtown pub Coopers, we talked about songwriting and friendship, and when Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” started playing on the stereo, King couldn’t prevent himself from singing every single lyric inches away from Prowse’s face until his bandmate finally stopped answering one of my questions and started laughing. No matter how much time they take off or how far apart they may be from one another, these two always find their way back home. Read our interview — and hear the album’s title track — below.
STEREOGUM: Your new album again has eight songs and the cover art is, again, a black and white portrait of the two of you. How important is branding to Japandroids?
BRIAN KING: I think it’s really important. That’s something that we thought about pretty early on when we started the band. It was something that I really wanted to try and preserve from a bygone era. A lot of my favorite records and artists, I associate them with very specific or iconic images and colors and locations. I just really wanted to try and preserve that kind of thing with our band somehow. You know when you think about the Ramones… I think of a very specific image of them. What they’re wearing. How they’re standing. How they look. Not a lot of color and not a lot of, for lack of a better word, not a lot of artistry. It’s not a painting as an album cover. It’s a very stark, simple photograph of the band. We wanted to try and preserve something like that for our band. Of course, for the first record Post-Nothing, Television’s Marquee Moon was the obvious influence on the album cover.
Then for the eight songs thing, that was less planned. Our first record, originally, was supposed to be ten songs. We recorded ten songs, and at the very last minute we cut two of them off there, and I think we were actually really worried about that when we first did it. “Oh, the album was supposed to be ten songs. We planned it out with ten. We recorded ten. Now it’s eight songs. It’s shorter. Maybe it’s not enough. There are bands with EPs that are almost that long.” But it worked for us on the first record, and when we were making the second record it was a much easier decision to make. You know, it works for us and our music and our kind of songs. We did actually try to do more songs this time. It wasn’t like “oh we’ll just do eight again.” We wrote more songs and recorded more songs, and when it came down to putting it together again, it was just kind of the same thing. You take one off there and another one off there and it just kind of glues itself together in a way where it is just a better listen start to finish. Technically it’s our longest record. It’s actually longer than our first two records. Somehow the eight song formula just kind of worked for us.
STEREOGUM: Are the standards for what makes the album really high?
DAVE PROWSE: I think one thing that we have always done is that we’ve edited ourselves a great deal, so part of that eight song record thing is just… it’s not so much that we’re dogmatic about needing it to be eight songs. But we’re not going to put on songs that we don’t think are good enough to be on the record for the sake of having a ten-song record.
KING: When we made our first record Post-Nothing, I was really worried that we only had eight songs on it. So, I was researching. “I gotta find some eight-song albums out there that I love so I know that, okay, this can work.” Once I started doing that, I started to realize that some of my favorite records like Raw Power or Born To Run or Horses all have eight songs. Then suddenly you feel like “oh, this isn’t a crazy idea.” I think that played a really important role in cementing the idea of the eight song album to us. Just because it was eight, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be like a classic album that covered a lot of ground musically or emotionally.
STEREOGUM: The album is going to be out in January. It’s been five years since Celebration Rock. Some artists will complain that fans and listeners are fickle these days, and if you are not constantly in their face with new material or if you’re not the current hot sound, they’ll forget about you. But just from what I’ve seen on social media, it seems that a lot of people are very, very curious about when this is album will be out. Your shows sold out immediately, and there were videos of new songs from your first show online almost as soon as you played them. Where are your heads at?
PROWSE: I think those concerns about being forgotten or losing momentum… those are concerns that we felt much more between Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock. I think that actually contributed to the recording of Celebration Rock being a much more stressful process. Constantly feeling like we needed to write quickly and record quickly and get it done and get back out on the road.
KING: Keep the momentum going.
PROWSE: “We can’t let this fade away.” And at a certain point, when we were working on Celebration Rock, we had this moment where we were like “okay, we need to forget about all that stuff, because that’s not helping us right now and we need to just focus on getting the record to a place where we’re happy with it and we’ll see the lay of the land after that’s done. We just need to focus.” And obviously, that felt like a pretty big gamble, but that’s what we felt was necessary, and it obviously worked out very well for us. I think we were less intimidated by that whole pressure of worrying about losing momentum etc. this time around. So right off the bat when when we finished touring Celebration Rock… I mean first of all we said we need to take a break for a bit.
STEREOGUM: Were you guys just exhausted?
PROWSE: Yeah, you know just super burnt out, just said yes to a few too many tours. I don’t think the shows suffered, but we were just really worn out by the end of it.
KING: It became harder and harder over time to put on the same kind of show for us.
STEREOGUM: Because it looks like you left the stage exhausted every time you played.
PROWSE: Yeah, we definitely did. I mean, we take what we do very seriously. It’s a lot of fun, but those shows… we want to play with the most intensity we can give. So we got physically and mentally drained by the time we finished all those shows. So it’s not like we had decided “okay, it’s November 2013, so let’s take a few months off and then start at this date and then we’ll have a record out by 2017.” The idea was just let’s just do what we need to do to be able to come back and be excited and start writing and we’re gonna write and we’re gonna record and it’s gonna take however long it’s gonna take until we’re happy with it, and then we can figure out everything else beyond that once the record is done.
KING: If you’re exhausted and beat both mentally and physically and you’re going to attempt to express yourself in a song, it’s probably not going to be as good as if you’re feeling really good about yourself, feeling like “I have this and I’m excited to get back into it.” So I think the songs greatly benefitted from that break, because when we started working on them there was a real sense of excitement. “I miss doing this. I miss playing.”
STEREOGUM: When did you first start to get together and write again?
PROWSE: We met up and hung out in Toronto in spring of 2014 and we kind of jammed a bit. We jumped on stage and played with Dan (Boeckner) from Operators at that time. That was kind of the first time that I think anybody had really seen or heard from us in a few months. So around that time we did jam a little bit, but things really got going for real in the fall of 2014, which was when we rented a house in New Orleans and we spent about five weeks in this house with all the gear in the living room and just played every day. We hadn’t written in a long time, and it took a minute to just get the ball rolling again. It was kind of a state of inertia that you had to push yourself out of. The hardest part of writing a record is the beginning, just like with anything. Once you feel the momentum building, ideas start to flow more freely, but that initial moment of kind of where do we even start…
KING: What kind of record do we even want to make?
PROWSE: In that first half of the year where we were living separately and not really playing together… that trip was really the first time where we got together and were like “let’s put all these ideas on the table and start going through them and start to make songs out of them.” When I listen to the record and I hear those things that we worked on in New Orleans, that’s kind of where I see it starting, in a way.
STEREOGUM: Did you do the modern thing where you email each other mp3s or Dropbox an idea?
PROWSE: Oh, yeah.
KING: This was the first time that we had written that way. For the first seven or eight years or the band we had always lived in the same city, so there was no need. We can just call each other up and go “let’s meet on Saturday and play.” It was a pretty profound change for both of us and the band was just basically forced to figure out a new way of writing and that is how it kind of started. We planned this trip and we knew we were gonna be getting together. So it begins with sending things back and forth leading up to that, so to some extent each one of us is familiar with what the other person is doing. Then that would continue until basically the record was done. We would spend time apart and be communicating via email and stuff like that, then meeting in whatever city we decided to work on it and put it together. A very, very different writing style than our first two records.
STEREOGUM: David, when Brian first said he wanted to move, what did you think? Were you nervous at all how this would affect the writing or affect the band?
PROWSE: No. I think one philosophy that we try to have with this band is on some level the happier each of us are in our own personal lives, the better it is for the band and beyond that. I’ve known Brian for a lot longer than just being bandmates. And Toronto was a very logical thing.
KING: I basically chose what was already kind of like our second home.
PROWSE: Toronto was pretty easy. As much as Vancouver is home for me, I would rather Brian be happy. There are worse places to go than Toronto every once in awhile. It was pretty easy. I didn’t really have to think too much about it. I think Brian was a little perhaps… [Prowse turns to Brian] maybe you were a little worried about what I had to think about it… but it didn’t really have to be much a discussion.
KING: That’s also one of the benefits of being in a two-person band. I just have to pick up the phone and it’s one conversation. It would be a whole different story if we were in a five-person band and everyone was trying to live in different cities or move away from each other. Really just one person has to get on a plane and then we’re back.
STEREOGUM: What made you decide to move to Toronto?
KING: Well, I grew up in a really small town on the west coast on Vancouver Island. When you grow up in a really small town, you’re just constantly looking outward, whether it’s out at the rest of the world or the big city. I think it’s just a common feeling of people that grow up in a small town, not just a small town but a small town on an island. Even more isolated than just your average small town. There was a ferry between the island and Vancouver than ran from the morning to the evening, but for however many hours at night it didn’t run. Even in a small town on the continent there is this feeling that at any second I can get in my car and drive and I’m out of here. But it wasn’t like that where I grew up. We got to wait for the ferry in the morning before I can get out of here. Just the whole time growing up, I was just one of those people that always looked out and dreamed about going out. Not even to Vancouver, which is a metropolis when you grow up where I grew up. It has tall buildings. It has millions of people. It’s unfathomable in a way.
When I graduated from high school I moved to Victoria, which is the largest city on the island, which is where I went to school and were Dave went to school and where we met. I was 17, that was like moving to the big city. When I graduated from school I moved to Vancouver, which is where Dave and I started the band. I lived there for about ten years, basically my twenties. Even when I moved to Vancouver for the first time I was very intimidated by it. When it came time to pick a new place to live, Toronto is much further away, of course, but it’s just like the next natural step. It’s like exploring the moon and then, once you conquered that, deciding to go to Mars. It’s next. It’s a very logical, I mean you have two options. You have Toronto or Montreal. I don’t speak French. We had spent a lot of time in Toronto and really liked it there. We had a lot of friends that lived there. Our manager lived there. It’s still very intimidating moving across the country, but I felt I’m ready, Vancouver was the city for my twenties and Toronto will be the city for my thirties or something like that.
STEREOGUM: The narrative around you is that you were a struggling band and it was tough for you to get traction outside of your hometown, and you were about to give up and then “Young Hearts Spark Fires” catches on online and you’re able to go on tour, and your debut Post-Nothing did pretty well for you. Do you feel that it was a gradual progression with Celebration Rock? “The House That Heaven Built” was a pretty big song, at least in internet music circles.
PROWSE: I think there was a pretty clear jump that happened with Celebration Rock where we actually started touring before the record came out. We did a run in the UK. That felt sort of like us picking up where we left off, more or less. Then when we came to North America right after that and started touring… where all of a sudden everybody knew all the words to those songs overnight and the rooms were packed out and getting bigger and bigger very quickly. I think there was a pretty clear jump with Celebration Rock. Whereas with Post-Nothing it felt like… not a slow climb, we got that initial spark, which was an incredible thing that happened but then we just kept touring and playing bigger rooms every time we came back and then kind of hit this top level and that was the end of the tour cycle and it started there with Celebration Rock, but then it just jumped up again very quickly. At the end of 2010, we did a tour opening for the Walkmen on Post-Nothing and then we were playing all those rooms for Celebration Rock. Those rooms seemed gigantic when we opened for the Walkmen. All of a sudden we were playing those rooms and selling out. It was a pretty, pretty big jump for us for sure.
STEREOGUM: Dave, you had a job as a social worker, I believe, when you weren’t on tour. Brian, did you have a day job at all during the downtime?
KING: I didn’t have a job. I quit my job to go on tour for Post-Nothing and I haven’t had a real job since.
STEREOGUM: And you were a geologist?
KING: More or less.
STEREOGUM: David, how about you? Did you do anything when the tour was over?
PROWSE: Yeah, I did for a while. I’m done now. This time it just made less sense, so I was just doing it less and less. After a while, I should just hang up my spurs, you know? But when we first came back from Celebration Rock tour I was working quite a bit in that time. When we were off I went back and started working again.
STEREOGUM: As a social worker?
PROWSE: Yeah, as a housing support worker, is the official position. It’s like outreach. But it’s in a social work field. A social worker usually has a degree or diploma or something. I was just somebody who was willing to get paid 20 bucks an hour to work in that field without really much prior qualifications. It’s quite a booming business in Vancouver.
STEREOGUM: So now the band gets together for a period of time to write songs in the same city. How does that focused energy affect the way that songs go? You get together, at least one of you has to fly out and you don’t have time to watch TV or shoot the shit. Time is money. You have to write songs.
KING: Yeah, you’re definitely aware that if you’re getting together for two or three weeks that this is your chance to work on stuff together and you have to make the most of it. So I think that we were always very conscious of the fact that there was a purpose behind us getting together. And of course it costs money. Someone is getting on a plane or you both have to get on a plane or you have to rent a place to play. Sometimes you have to buy gear. It’s not as easy as meeting up. I think that we took that time pretty seriously. Especially as time went on, I think we were trying to squeeze more and more writing into each time we got together. Then, of course, in between those times, especially as the year went on we were trying to accumulate more and more things, so that when you did get together it’s better to have too much stuff to work on than not enough stuff to work on.
STEREOGUM: The band has been together for quite a while, and working together very closely.
KING: Ten years.
STEREOGUM: Do you need your space, or do you miss each other a lot when you’re not together?
KING: I think that’s one of the reasons that this writing style works so well for this record, because when you have, say, a month or six weeks apart, by the time you get together you’re excited to play and you’re excited to be together. It’s like “look at all this stuff I got” and then of course when you’re grinding away working on the songs all day long, everyday for a couple of weeks and you’re starting to like “ahhh!!!!” you go your separate ways again and get your space. It’s like a really nice balance. The old days worked very well for us. We made two records that people really like, but it is definitely a lot different than meeting up everyday in the same place, in the same city and grinding away that way. Having these intense times of working alone, working together, working alone, working together… I think not only did it work really well for this record but I think we’ve discovered a better way of working together. We didn’t really have any choice and that is just how we did it. But doing this, we’ve discovered that I think we can produce more stuff, better stuff and have more fun doing it this way. It’s like a win across the board in a way.
STEREOGUM: Would you guys say you’re slow writers?
STEREOGUM: I can see someone looking at it from the outside, looking at your band and saying “their albums are eight songs long. It’s just guitar and drums. They’re not Radiohead songs, why does it take five years to do stuff?”
PROWSE: The short answer is we don’t write when we’re touring. We started when we got back together in 2014. It’s not five years.
KING: People say it took five years to write the album, but, well, two of those years were on tour.
PROWSE: But that’s still a long time. Even acknowledging that… that’s still a long time and most bands do it in a quarter of that time. I think it just is what it is. It’s how we operate. It’s not worth trying to rush it for the sake of meeting a deadline.
KING: We started that New Orleans trip we were talking about in the fall of 2014. By the fall of 2015, we were recording it. It basically took us one year to write this record. I think maybe if you’re a fan and you start subtracting the years you can start to see it that way. A year is still a very long time, but it’s one year of working on this record specifically.
STEREOGUM: Did you go in with an idea for the direction you wanted to go in, or did you just decide to see whatever happens?
PROWSE: More accurately, it was like we don’t want to go in this direction, rather than knowing what the direction we did want to go in was. There’s a lot of talk about having more of a dynamic range within the album, like quieter parts and louder parts, rather than just plugging in and letting it rip at 10 the entire time. Same thing with tempos, having some songs that were a little slower, not just balls to the wall the entire time. Then the other big thing was that we wanted to make a more sonically diverse record as well. Exploring different sounds and not having it just be, like, okay Brian sets up his pedals in exactly this way, plugs in and the guitar sound is static and all those things that we’ve done in the past. We were very interested in doing something different, but at the same time we didn’t have a clear idea of how we were going to do that. And that’s part of what took time.
KING: We had a pretty clear vision since we started the band about what we were trying to create. We’re basically trying to make a great live-sounding record in the studio. You think about the songwriting and you think about the recording pretty much in terms of performing. Is this song going to be good live? So you’re using the studio mostly as a tool to document your live show in a way. When we finished Celebration Rock, to some extent I felt we’d achieved that. We looked at that record and thought “I don’t know if we could refine this into a better version of this in any other way.” It’s kind of like we’ve done that, and now we’re going to have a new idea and do that. This record will be closer to our first EP, in that way. It’s a first attempt at something we’ve never done before. But like Dave was saying, there was no clear idea of what that was. I think the only thing was let’s throw out the rules that resulted in that. There’s no more rules. We don’t have to worry about making it sound live or you’re only going to record what you play onstage and you’re not gonna add any instruments and no overdubs, just get rid of all those rules. Then we’ll just try using the studio for what it was meant to be used for at least post-Beatles. In a lot of ways, it feels like making your first record. You’re doing on record three what a lot of bands do on record one. It’s like a kid in a candy store. “I don’t know how any of this works and I don’t know if this will sound cool on the song or not but let’s just try everything.” It’s very reminiscent of being in the studio for the first time. Where you’re still kind of like “whoa, I didn’t know this was even possible.”
STEREOGUM: “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” and “Arc Of Bar” have some new-wave style keyboard parts, and there are some jangly, almost R.E.M.-ish type guitar parts on “Midnight To Morning” that are more simple and pop than you’ve done before. The mix is much lusher and full. There are a lot of new elements in play.
KING: There’s new elements in the actual recording, in the sense that we used a lot of things that we had never used before. We use some synthesizers and some bass, some acoustic guitar.
STEREOGUM: [Makes a mock horror face] Some bass!?
KING: Some bass. I used a lot of guitar pedals to create a lot of textural stuff and sounds that we never had even contemplated doing before, like loops. I mean just a ton of stuff. Not overkill I think, but even if it was just used subtly in some places, that’s still kind of like a pretty big difference from our records. So that’s in the recording phase, and then in the mixing phase we asked Peter [Katis] to mix the record, so when you do that, you are inherently kind of embracing a certain sound. We love the National records. We love the way they sound. So we picked Peter, and you just kind of go “okay we’re embracing a new kind of sonic thing, however this album comes out sounding, it is going to be different.” That’s what happens when you throw out the rule book. Everything becomes possible all of a sudden.
STEREOGUM: Have you been contemplating new live members?
PROWSE: No. I mean, part of what Brian was talking about with the whole concept of feeling a bit like a new band or some sense of a rebirth or a next chapter, I think the same thing can be said of with the live act. But with that, we’re looking at incorporating other members but more just like figuring out what else we can do with just the two of us from what we’ve done in the past. A big part of it is obviously that there are these other sonic elements on the record. While we were recording, we were like “we’re not going to think about how we’re gonna do this live, we’re gonna figure that out later” and now it’s later and we have to figure it out. The idea of having other members, I don’t think we’re dogmatic about it always being the two of us. Maybe one day, maybe. For now, I think we’re just much more curious about what we can do with just the two of us to expand on what we’ve done in the past. It’s pretty fun. It’s a little bit scary, but in a good way.
STEREOGUM: Are you using samples, drumpads, triggers, and things like that?
PROWSE: We’re just exploring that. Right now, we’re just dipping our toes in the shallow end of the pool. There’s also… in the past Brian’s guitars have been pretty static. We’re exploring how to have the same dynamic shifts live that we have on the record and how to represent those. The sampler we’re just using right now on “Arc Of Bar,” since obviously there’s that one loop and that arpeggiated guitar… it would be pretty hard to play the song without it. We’re just kind of exploring now how true do we have to be with the record with the live songs and how do we want to portray some of these song live. It’s pretty fun.
KING: I’m learning how to step on guitar pedals for the first time in the middle of the song while I’m playing.
PROWSE: Sometimes he nails it and sometimes not so much.
STEREOGUM: “Arc Of Bar” was the first live video of new material that people saw, and even on the live version you could see that it’s very different for you guys. I think it’s the longest song you’ve ever done. As a lyricist, it’s a very panoramic look at this tense situation. It goes through a lot of different structural changes. How did the song come about?
KING: It’s actually a pretty unique song in our catalogue, because it’s actually the first song, even for this record, where I wrote all of the lyrics first. Typically in the past, we would do the music first. We would build an instrumental song that was pretty kickass, just fun to play on guitar and drums and then just add the vocals and the lyrics and stuff after. That’s typically our formula. I was reading a lot and thinking about “Sympathy For The Devil” by the Rolling Stones. Because I was thinking, this song is so different from the other songs that they were known for at the time and what you think about as an alpha Stones song is usually quite short. It’s quite catchy. A riff that everyone knows and the verses are short and that’s what they’re kind of most famous for. How did they end up with this long epic, story-like song with all this different instrumentation? I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary about the making of the song…
KING: It starts off as this very plain three chord blues song, but there is so many lyrics and a story attached to it that they couldn’t just do a really simple bluesy thing underneath. It’s too long. They had to figure out how to create something that was more epic and had more of a build and just was more interesting to do justice to the lyrics. I’m not positive, but I believe Jagger wrote all the lyrics first, so I was thinking about this and I thought “it must have been so crazy to have been a Stones fan when they were around and be used to all these Stones singles and then for them to change it up on you. What is this?” It’s three times as long as “Satisfaction” or whatever. It’s just got this whole story and character. It’s like six verses. It’s closer to a Bob Dylan song than it is to a Stones song. I’d lump it in with “Like A Rolling Stone” or something. So I was just thinking about this and decided I’m going to try and do this. I am going to use the same method and I am going to try to write our “Sympathy For The Devil” in a way. Of course not trying to mimic the song musically, but just use this idea. So I was like I’m going to write a long song with a lot of verses that kind of has a story in it. I’ve never tried to do it before, so I did. That’s something I did in 2014, and I came to New Orleans and when we were doing that “let’s see what you got, let’s see what you got” kind of thing I just slapped it down. “Okay Dave here’s a new song. It’s called ‘Arc Of Bar.’ There’s six or seven verses or whatever. I don’t have any music for it. I don’t know how it’s supposed to go. Just in doing that, I knew we would kind of end up with something really different for us.
I wouldn’t say that we have a formula, but by the time that we made Celebration Rock we were kind of figuring out how to do a very specific kind of song. It was pretty easy to just keep doing that. It would have been really easy to just do that again 10 times. I just knew that this was going to be different. It’s got three times as many lyrics as most of our songs. We’re just going to figure out something and we did. There’s a bit of trial and error in that. We had to fail a bunch of times before you succeed.
STEREOGUM: As far as the lyrics on this album go, this seems like a travelogue of what you’ve been doing. There’s a lot of songs about missing home and being gone.
KING: This time, I felt it was much easier to write the lyrics than it was to write the music. In the old days, at the beginning of the band, I didn’t want to write the lyrics. I didn’t want to sing. I was only interested in playing guitar. That’s what I like to do. In the very beginning it was really hard to write the lyrics. I didn’t know how to do it. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing it. It was kind of a necessary evil. Over the years I kind of became more comfortable and confident in doing it. I think in the old days I was writing the minimal amount of lyrics that would make a song. Then Celebration Rock came around and I was like “okay I’m going to try and make an effort to expand on this.” I was beginning to enjoy it more. By the time that we got to this record when we started writing I found, thinking up things to say was becoming very easy. At one point I would struggle to write one or two lines, but now I am writing as many lines I could ever get into on the songs, and it’s not even necessarily that these songs were all great but they were flowing and I figured out a style that worked for me.
When I started examining all of the things that I had written and covered, I realized a lot of the stuff that I had written was similar to stuff I had written in the past, which was kind of looking back on something. You’re writing about something that had already happened. You’re telling the story about it. That can be interpreted as nostalgia or whatever, but the song is about something that already happened and you’re recapping it in some way. I was thinking very consciously that I was not going to do that this time. I wanted to write about the present. Then I immediately had to get rid of all this stuff. Once I had this idea in mind to write about the present, things just started to focus and narrow. I actually took a lot of that stuff that I disregarded in the past and later wrote one song where I tried to condense all of these ideas where it would have been ten songs into one song.
STEREOGUM: What song is that?
KING: That’s “North East South West.” Between those four years on Celebration Rock we traveled the world. We went to a lot of places. We met a lot of people. We had a lot of experiences. Instead of making an album about that, which I kind of did on Celebration Rock, I thought I’m just going to condense it all as best I can into one song. That’s what that song is. It’s almost getting that part of my writing out of that way. The rest of the album is based in the present. That is the big difference that I see when I was trying to write those.
STEREOGUM: I see that approach on the last song of the album, “In A Body Like A Grave.” It reminds me of the Neil Gaiman line: “You get what everybody gets. You get a lifetime.”
KING: That’s another example of me trying to break my own habit of writing, because when I look back on a lot of the songs that we have, you can see that I typically write about my own experience from my own point of view where I am the character, and trying to do it in a way that I hope people identify with. There’s a certain sense of inclusiveness in great songwriting, particularly in rock music. There’s a sense of all of us in this together. I never felt like I could really capture that. It was always still a bit too about me. The idea in my head was trying to picture myself at one of our shows with the two of us and all these people that love the band and all these people are in it together, not necessarily fans but my family or friends or everyone we know, kind of like more of a big group of people and trying to kind of write something from that perspective. Something that is very inclusive about a group of people, instead of a story about myself. That’s a pretty hard thing to do.
STEREOGUM: A larger philosophy.
KING: Yeah, exactly. That’s song is not a story about something that happened to me, which the song before it very much is. It’s more general. I think the advantage with that is the more general you go, the more inclusive you can be. The more people you can relate to or represent. It’s pretty hard to do that and not come off preachy or pretentious. There’s a very fine line between doing that right and not doing that right. That was my attempt to do a song like that and be on the right side of the line.
STEREOGUM: On the alternate end of the spectrum, you have “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” this really direct, vulnerable, almost small thing. How did it feel to put that on the record and be exposed like that?
KING: That’s one of the last one’s that we did. That one and the second to last song were the two that we did closer towards the end. I think at that point, when you’ve got six or seven songs done, you can see what your album is. You’re able to see what you’ve got and think “Now what’s missing from this? What would I like that I don’t have? What kind of feeling is missing?” I mean when we first talked about that song… it wasn’t even meant to be a song. It was more like an interlude, or I don’t know what you call those things, like the very short two-minute piece sandwiched between the longer piece. It was just a bridge or breather on the album. That’s what it was meant to be, which was why it was built around an alternating guitar part, one set of lyrics, and one simple theme. When Dave added the drums, it kind of began to take on like a new life. It was like “oh this is more than a catching your breath moment” or something like that. It was just what the album needed towards the end. It was the missing piece, I guess. Typically we would put that kind of song last. We decided to kind of mix it up by putting it earlier in the record. Let’s get this kind of softer, more tender kind of thing, let’s not just save it for the end after you’ve been hit in the face for 35 minutes. Let’s get this mood happen sooner.
There’s a certain sense of inclusiveness in great songwriting, particularly in rock music. There’s a sense of all of us in this together.
STEREOGUM: I know your publicist wishes you guys would do social media, or at least occasionally tweet and let people know that you’re working on a new album. I know from watching Twitter, a big chunk of your fans had no idea you were even still around and thought you had just broken up.
KING: I think we’re actually going to break some hearts when we come back, because I think there’s a lot of Japandroids fans who kind of like hope that we’re done and hope that we end on what they think is our a work that we can never top. “They just knew that they made this and they can never top it and they knew it was the right thing to do going out on top.” Gonna break some hearts when we announce our new record.
STEREOGUM: You don’t use social media whatsoever.
KING: I hate social media.
STEREOGUM: Your band seems to live outside trends. You don’t have to have a Twitter account to remind people you’re still active. Whatever is du jour and the hot indie thing just seems to pass you by. Do you think at all about where you fit into the music scene these days or would you rather remain oblivious?
KING: I don’t think, even in the early days when we started the band, that we ever considered ourselves part of the scene or a part of anything. We always considered ourselves outliers or just doing our own thing. I mean, I certainly never felt connected to a particular scene or sound or something like that. I think that it is kind of an extension of that. We don’t think of ourselves in those terms. It might be a totally different story if we were a band from Brooklyn in the early 2000s and played a certain kind of music and were always playing with the same bands and in the same places and had an actual sense of community that you built upon as you got bigger and bigger. Never having that, you always have a little bit of a lone wolf kind of outlook on the band and music or something like that.
STEREOGUM: I read some old interviews where you talked about how you were worried you would never make it our of Vancouver unless you worked really, really hard. You were always worried about being too old or missing your break. Do you ever feel like “we’ve done it. We have fans. We don’t need to worry about it quite so hard.”
PROWSE: I think we’re still driven in the same way, it’s just instead of being driven because we’re trying to prove ourselves, the main thing that drives us now is a sense of duty and gratitude to our fans.
KING: We haven’t got bored of trying to outdo ourselves.
PROWSE: That’s very true.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up on Anti for this album?
PROWSE: It came about in a pretty roundabout way. We actually met a staff member of Anti when we were in New Orleans just randomly. Unless she was a plant as part of some elaborate plan.
KING: It might have been. She might have been a plant.
PROWSE: I don’t think that’s how it worked, but it was kind of on our radar at that point. We really love Polyvinyl and they were very, very good to us. That was a very hard decision to make to move to Anti or not so much move to Anti but to not be with Polyvinyl anymore. When the opportunity arose to be on a label like Anti, you just look at the roster they have and the length of time that artists stay on that label, and all the success that the artists have had… you look at Tom Waits or Neko Case or you know Nick Cave was on it at one time, etc. etc. etc. It’s just really hard to say no to that. It was very exciting for us. They’re the biggest label we’ve been on by far. They seem to share the kind of philosophy about how to negotiate art and commerce in a way that we can understand and agree with and still have complete creative control. They didn’t hear a note until we were done and handed them the master. That’s the way they wanted it. It was very exciting.
STEREOGUM: They’ve been signing so many cool bands lately. Touché Amoré, Joyce Manor, Title Fight…
STEREOGUM: Did you consider any major labels? Did you have a lot of offers?
PROWSE: Yeah, I mean, when the word is out that your contract is up with a label and you’ve had some success… definitely we started having conversations with different people. No major labels really, but lots of different labels. It’s a weird thing. We’re not exposed to that world very much. We just had this one home for our records for the last however many years, five or six years. To us that is the big time now. Anti seems like a really huge label that still has all the things that we want from a label but is bigger and kind of will do more for us.
STEREOGUM: How’s your health these days? Are you feeling okay?
KING: Yeah more or less.
STEREOGUM: I know in the past you’ve talked about having often very bad problems with stomach ulcers.
KING: Oh yeah, I’m taking care of myself. But thanks for asking.
STEREOGUM: Since your fans had no idea what was going on, I’d seen some people online who were worried.
KING: Oh yeah, our managers sent me a couple things where it was a bunch of guys, I can’t remember if it was in Reddit or something like that, where they’re like “oh I know what’s going on with him” and then there were a couple guys of like “oh no no it’s this, it’s this. I think they split up and they’re doing this.” You really start to realize that when you don’t say anything, the rumors run totally wild. I think it’s pretty funny, considering I think we’ve actually been doing the thing that all those fans in their hearts wish we were doing. We’re actually doing the one thing that they didn’t consider because I guess it would be too good to be true. They want to prepare themselves for something negative, justifying why it’s okay if we broke up because we’ll never top Celebration Rock and we were cool and smart enough to know that that preserved our legacy.
STEREOGUM: Was topping it something you were worried about?
KING: Well, no, because like what we talked about earlier, we weren’t trying to top that. When we made Celebration Rock we were trying to top Post-Nothing by doing basically the same thing, following the same formula, and trying to do it better. This time we were trying to do something different. We feel that we topped it and we feel that this is our best record. We’re real proud of and worked hard on it. Whether or not everyone else thinks that, who the hell knows. But we think that, which is the important thing. We made Celebration Rock with those same instincts. Hopefully we made this one with the same instincts again so.
STEREOGUM: How many of the songs that you wrote in the past were about your friendship and encouraging each other to keep going?
KING: It’s a hard thing for me to answer, because at least for me I don’t think the meaning behind the songs are that direct or that simple. You’re incorporating… it’s like you’re taking a lot of people and a lot of experiences and a lot of places and you’re trying to sum it up in a three- minute song. It’s very rarely about one simple and direct thing. It’s funneling it all into this blender and trying to take the best parts out of it and put it together. If it was too much about us and our struggle, I don’t know that many people would identify with that. I think that’s something that we learned as we went on. Because when you’re first learning how to write songs, that is the most obvious place you go.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been to your shows and there’s been times I’ve ended up throwing my arm around my friend who is there with me and screaming your lyrics at him. In our culture, there’s ideas about toxic masculinity and you don’t show your feelings if you’re a man and don’t let your friends know how much you care about them. There’s a lot of pure sweetness and love for your friend at your shows, especially between guys. I wonder if the audience is mirroring you two. It’s almost like a safe space. Is that something that you’re aware or is that kind of a happy accident?
KING: I think that is just a happy accident. I think that that is just what comes naturally to us in a way that an opposite comes naturally to Morrissey. It’s not attempting to be something. It’s just a natural thing based on your personalities and you influences and what just feels good to play.
PROWSE: You’re right, though. It is a very unique thing at our shows. I don’t see it at other shows. There’s like strangers hugging each other and yelling our song lyrics to each other. It’s a pretty incredible thing that we have on some level stumbled upon without really trying to, like we were trying to write great songs but we weren’t going for this intense dynamic. It’s just something that happened.
STEREOGUM: You provided an outlet that people didn’t know they needed.
KING: There’s a weird X factor there that we certainly can’t explain.
PROWSE: I’ll just tell you a quick anecdote. Have you heard Constantines?
PROWSE: They did some reunion shows in 2014 and 2015, I think, and we saw them in a bunch of different places. That was kind of a band that as fans that we gravitated to, especially at the years leading up to Japandroids starting. I saw them in Vancouver and I was hugging stranger and yelling Constantine lyrics at them, you know? That was the band for me that does that and I did it again on those reunion shows. That’s kind of how it used to be back in the day too, and it’s pretty incredible to be on the other side of that and you get to be that band for so many people. And after taking such a long break and coming back to that and seeing people respond like that and meeting people who flew from all over the place to come to those first shows in Vancouver because they just wanted to be at the first Japandroids show when we got back, what an incredible thing and how lucky can we be to have something like that?
STEREOGUM: To have people project their friendships onto you guys.
PROWSE: Yeah, I guess so! To be the soundtrack to so much friendship.
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is out 1/27 via Anti-. A 7″ of the new single will feature a cover of Talking Heads’ “Love ? Building On Fire” as the b-side.
Here’s the album tracklist:
01 “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”
02 “North East South West”
03 “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”
04 “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”
05 “Arc Of Bar”
06 “Midnight To Morning”
07 “No Known Drink Or Drug”
08 “In A Body Like A Grave”