Japandroids may have always inspired a special kind of fervour in their fans, but even they didn’t quite expect the rapturous response their delayed return to the live circuit and announcement of a new album would elicit. “The reception has just been incredible!” drummer David Prowse explains to me, “the crowds have been so loud and we’ve had people flying into shows from all kinds of different countries.” Preserving the Canadian reputation for modesty he admits that him and frontman Brian King thought “well, it’s been a while... Have people forgotten about us? Are people still waiting for this record or have they given up on the idea?”
There was no need to worry; Japandroids distinctive brand of heartland rock is hard to forget. New album ‘Near To The Wild Heart Of Life’ ripples with the kinetic euphoria that marked out past albums ‘Post-Nothing’, ‘No Singles’ and ‘Celebration Rock’ from the glut of releases from ambitious two-piece acts. The band have always faithfully adhered to their home-grown style of optimistic, major-key rock and roll in a scene that tends to reward righteous anger and nihilism.
But this hasn’t prevented them from pushing their unique envelope as far as they can, especially where their lyrics are concerned. “Brian wanted to push the element of storytelling as far as it could go,” explains David, “he actually wrote a lot of the lyrics before putting music to it.” While this poetic writing style (informed by Brian’s admiration for artists such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave) has always been an essential part of Japandroids’ identity, ‘Life’ sees their tales of hope, faith and mortality elevated to new levels of grandiosity.
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There’s a time capsule element that we really like...
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The most obvious example of this progression is the epic ‘Arc Of Bar’. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, it’s the longest, and certainly most wordy, song they have ever written and has been going down a storm at their live shows (although apparently when they went for the ‘”badass” move of opening their first show with it went down more like a lead balloon). According to David it’s also the song that the pair are most excited about revealing to the world, “Some of the other songs such as the title track feel more in our wheelhouse, so if people liked ‘Celebration Rock’ then it’s not gonna be too much of a leap for them to like that song. Then ‘Arc Of Bar’ was this weird adventure we went on while trying to write a song with six verses containing far lot of darker subject matter.”
“We focused on how we could reflect that musically and still make it an exciting and compelling listen from start to finish. Listening back to it in the studio we were quite surprised by what we’d stumbled upon. We were like ‘Holy shit, this is a pretty crazy song!’”
Like its predecessors, ‘Life’ eschews bells and whistles in favour of directness and honesty. Once again the album is a simple black and white shot of the band, a consistent approach informed by Japandroids’ desire to emulate “those classic album covers where, if you line them up in a room, you can kind of see the different stages in their lives, like Bowie or Springsteen or whoever. There’s a time capsule element that we really like.”
From their first release the band felt it would be dishonest to use a random photo or abstract painting, “That’s something we don’t really relate to. It’s hard to feel how that adds some meaning to the record.” This line of thought is also why you won’t see a music video for new release ‘No Known Drink Or Drug’ coming out any time soon. “When we started getting attention we received all these pitches from directors sending us treatments for ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ with weird narratives that had nothing to do with us,” David remembers, “It just seemed like a distraction rather than anything that would enhance the meaning of the song and kind of scared us away.”
“We like to have a documentary-style to the way our music is presented (as is evident on their sole tour video for ‘The House That Heaven Built), recording a specific time and place for our band. That’s part of why we’ve never licensed our music, it would be weird to have a song like 'The House That Heaven Built' and link it to a car advert in your mind”.
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Also true to form is the band’s decision to make the album exactly eight songs long. “A lot of our favourite records have eight songs,” David reasons, “It’s just this sort of inescapable gravitational pull we feel. We bring in a whole collection of songs, then we edit down and it’s always back to eight again. We dropped two of ‘Post Nothing’s ten songs late in the game and it felt very short for a record. But then we started thinking about eight track albums a lot and going through our record collections and being like ‘Wait a second. ‘Born To Run’ has eight songs, ‘Black Sabbath’ has eight songs, and so do ‘Marquee Moon’ and ‘Horses’, so all of a sudden we realised that this is totally normal in the grander scope of rock music.”
Japandroids claim to belong to the grander scope of rock music is completely deserved, and nowhere is it more evident than on their magnificent song titles. "Brian always likes to make a statement with our song titles, which suits our music,” David reasons, “I think there’s a lot of merit in having a song title that is unique to itself. The chorus to ‘Midnight to Morning’ repeats the phrase “back home to you”. There must be a million songs called ‘Back Home To You’! Rarely is there any subtlety in our music... subtlety is not our strong suit. So I think having these provocative titles plays into that quite a bit.”
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Rarely is there any subtlety in our music... subtlety is not our strong suit.
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For a Canadian band, Japandroids’ music has an unusually strong core of Americana. Songs such as ‘North East South West’ and ‘True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will’ (see, magnificent song titles) command the same grasp of the smalltown American dream as their hero Bruce Springsteen, who acts as both an inspiration for and a constant critical comparison of the band. “Our relationship with the United States is pretty different to most Canadian bands,” David explains, “maybe it’s because our band started to get attention in America before we did at home so when opportunities came our way we just rolled with it. Even today we still have a tendency to play a lot more in America than we do in Canada. We strongly identify as part of North America.”
That is not to say that the duo value their audience in the USA over their dedicated global fanbase. Speaking to David I am struck by his ability to remember seemingly every tour and show his band has ever played, from Melbourne to Mexico City and everywhere inbetween. Their exhaustive schedule obviously took its toll on the tail end of their ‘Celebration Rock’ tour, something that they are (possibly) hoping to avoid this time round. “We’ve been talking about trying to have a more sustained approach to touring, but we actually did the same thing before ‘Celebration Rock’ came out,” David explains with a wry laugh, “The longest stretch we had done (prior to their last tour) was three months, and we said we were not going to do something like that again. But then straight after the next album we did four months straight away!”
For Japandroids the desire to reach as many of their audience in person as they are able is a core animating factor, “We talk about dialling it back, but it’s very hard to say no to an opportunity. Are we not going to go and play Australia? Are we not going to tour Japan or South America or Eastern Europe? When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it it’s hard to say no to these opportunities.” Hopefully their next wave of shows won’t leave them as drained as the last though, “I think we’re trying to be saner and more aware of our physical limitations. That tour after ‘Celebration Rock’ was definitely a backbreaker by the end.”
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I think we’re trying to be saner and more aware of our physical limitations.
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But no matter how broken they might feel, David is adamant that Japandroids never worry about phoning in a performance thanks to the ecstasy their music inspires, “There’s something pretty magical about playing somewhere so far from home and having the kind of visceral response that we get.” David seems almost overwhelmed when he recollects the last time they played Buenos Aires, “People who don’t even speak English as a first language know all the words and are not just singing but raging along to you. You feed off that energy. I don’t feel like we have ever performed without intensity or passion. When a whole room is giving you a visceral reaction it really lifts your wings. If we were playing a super bummer tour we’d have stopped a lot earlier,” he admits, “but we fed off and relied on that audience participation to keep us going.”
No doubt there are many bands who would say the same thing. But with Japandroids there seems to be no hint of boastfulness in their claims. No matter where they play in the world they seem to get a intensity of response usually reserved for stadium-sized acts. This is something the pair have become aware of themselves when attending shows themselves, “Even with a lot of bands that I love you don’t see that reaction from their fans. It’s a very, very small group of artists that have that sort of response at their shows. So we’re very fortunate in that sense.”
When asked if this intense band-fan relationship might have something to do with the uplifting style of music the band create, David’s response is hesitant, “We’re not a cynical band in any way,” he muses, “and the world we live in is pretty cynical. But I think we’ve just made music that spoke to us and somewhere along the way inadvertently stumbled upon this... thing where people react to our music in a certain way.”
“I think certainly the kind of music we play is very heart on sleeve, it’s very intense emotionally, very joyous. Fortunately people really respond to that in a way that only adds to the excitement when we play. I don’t spend too much time dwelling on it, I’m just thankful for it.”
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Words: Josh Gray
'Near To The Wild Heart Of Life' will be released on January 27th.