Japandroids are two guys who came out of Vancouver and wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll music for people. In pure frankness, they admit the music they played wasn’t even paramount―that it would come second to their live show. And what a live show it is. You can be shocked by how much fervor two people can create.
And somehow, they’re able to capture it on record. When Brian King and David Prowse finally forced themselves back into the studio to record their follow-up to 2009’s raucous Post-Nothing―for the simple sake of having something new to offer on tour―they struggled through self-proclaimed songwriting shortcomings to make an album that is of both name and essence “Celebration Rock.”
Brian recently woke up to a phone call from me to chat about how it all came about.
So you’ve been talking a lot in interviews lately how you guys never really considered making another album.
It wasn’t until we had finished all the touring for our first record that we even started talking about doing another record. And even at that point, it was only because we wanted to keep touring, and we had sort of exhausted what we could do with the first record. You can only tour for so long on the same record before, you know, people want to see you play new songs. It wasn’t until we realized that that we actually started talking about even doing one, because previous to that, the only thing we ever talked about was ‘Are we going to do this tour? Are we going to play this show? Are we going to play this festival?’ We never got as far as ‘What are we going to do when the tours and festivals are over?’
What is it about touring that you love so much?
Some people who have never been on tour can have a kind of more romantic idea of what it’s actually like, but it’s actually lot of times quite difficult, both physically and emotionally. It’s not easy, but at the same time, playing live shows is the part of it that we’re really passionate about. When we were starting the band, we never talked about getting rich and famous or even getting on a record label or something like that. We always just talked about playing shows and going on tour. I mean, we don’t even like writing and recording records that much. We probably wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a sort of necessary part of being in a band.
How different was the album-making process this time around?
When we recorded our first album, we were just a local band in Vancouver, playing shows around Vancouver for fun. We didn’t have any fans; we didn’t have an audience; we didn’t have a record label―nobody cared who we were or cared about the band at all. So when we did that record and we were writing those songs, we were doing it strictly for ourselves. It was strictly for fun. There was no pressure or expectation other than that that we put on ourselves. Whereas, by the time we sat down to start writing songs for the second album, everything had changed for us. It was a totally, totally different―psychologically, mentally―thing to work on songs when you know you’re actually sort of in a band that’s a real thing that you do, that you have fans and you have an audience and you have a record label. So you just have all these other things that are going through your head.
The old cliche of second album sucking or second album being difficult or sophomore slump or whatever you want to call it―there is a reason that that cliche exists. We lived it. To pluck a band out of obscurity and give them a chance to be a real band, then have them turn around and succeed again, a second time, or exceed whatever they’d done previously, is no small feat. If that’s how we were feeling when I was doing our record―we’re not even that big of a band―I can’t imagine what the Arcade Fires of the world, or the Strokes, were doing when they had to write their second record, you know?
So how did it go?
We spent most of 2011 working on the new record. We spent the first six months or so up until the summer in Vancouver working on it, but it was going a lot slower than we had hoped. We weren’t getting as much done as we thought we could or were supposed to get done. Dave and I, we’re not songwriters, and we’re not even particularly artistic or creative people at all. So writing a whole album is no easy task for the two of us. It takes us a lot longer and with much, much greater effort. Much, much more of a grind than for a lot of other contemporary bands like us.
So we ended up renting a house, Dave and I, in Nashville, Tennessee. For about six weeks in the fall of 2011, we just loaded up all of our gear and drove to Nashville from Vancouver. We lived in this house together, set up all our gear in the living room, went to Home Depot and bought some shitty sound-proofing to try and sound-proof the house―not that that did much good. And then we worked on the rest of the record there and managed to write a few more songs within about a month or so that made up the second half of the record, including our single, “The House that Heaven Built.” That was the first one we did when we were there. So that change of pace and scenery from Vancouver was sort of a lifesaver for us.
We wanted to go somewhere that was far enough from home that it felt like you were really like far away. We didn’t want to go somewhere where we could go home on the weekends. We wanted to go somewhere where everything was different and that was exciting. Both Dave and I, we love the South. We’d been to Nashville on tour, and the whole city artistically and culturally revolves around music in every aspect. It’s at the forefront of the city’s identity. We didn’t know anyone there―that was an important thing. We had to discover the city entirely on our own.
When you’ve lived in Vancouver for a long time, it’s not necessarily the most inspiring thing to wake up everyday and just go outside, when you’re just in the same neighborhood and you’re doing the same routine. Part of what was so exciting about Vancouver a few years ago is that when I moved over here and Dave and I started the band, and when we were working on the first record, Vancouver was still a reasonably new city to me. It was the biggest place I’d ever lived, I was still discovering all the neighborhoods and all the places to go. Everything was still kind of new and exciting. That transferred onto the album, which has a lot of Vancouver references. To me, it’s a very Vancouver record. We were just looking for that experience again.
What would you say are the themes for Celebration Rock?
It kind of goes back to what I was talking about, where a few years ago, when we wrote the first album, we were just a local band. So that record is a very Vancouver record. But in between releasing that record and writing this one, so many things had happened to us. You just have so much more life experience to write about. It’s reflective on this record in the sense that there’s way, way more lyrics on this record than there were on the first record. The first time I showed Dave the lyrics to the song “Evil’s Sway,” he was like, ‘Holy shit, there’s more lyrics on this one song than there was on our whole first record.’
These experiences from the last few years that are the basis for this record, they happened in 100 or 200 different cities literally, because we’ve just been on the move for so long. So it’s a much more―for lack of a better word―nomadic kind of theme. Just a lot more about movement, about not being so stationary, because we weren’t. So you can say the general theme of our first record was being stuck in one place and wanting to get out, and the general theme of the second one was we got out, and it’s great, and you should get out too.
Did you always envision the new record to only have eight songs, and only last 35 minutes?
We’ve always acknowledged that the band is best served in short doses. So Japandroids is not the kind of music you want to listen to for 70 or 80 minutes straight. It’s the kind of music that when its time and place comes around, it’s best served in a short, really energetic kind of burst. We had that opinion coming into the first record, and things have worked out for us.
I noticed that at the end of the band’s bio, which you wrote, you make a point of naming other albums that only have eight songs or last 35 minutes―you’ve got Born to Run on there, Pet Sounds.
What I was trying to say with that was that you know, just because the record only has eight songs on it or is only 35 minutes, it’s inconsequential into the power of the record. Born to Run is a perfect album, and it only has eight songs on it. I can’t imagine what more you could want than what you already get in eight songs. So I was just trying to say in a cheeky way that if you think that it should be longer or have more songs, you’re wrong. And I play in the band, so I’m the most qualified to tell you. I know you might think you want an hour-long record from Japandroids, but you don’t. If you think you do, listen to it twice.
What’s up with the title of the album, Celebration Rock?
To tell you the truth, I think it’s pretty straightforward. I think that we play rock ‘n’ roll music and the rock ‘n’ roll music that we play is pretty celebratory. I wanted to go for something that was fairly simple and just summed up the record in an obvious way. I think that’s what Celebration Rock does. Everybody hated that title. Our previous records had kind of cheekier titles, and maybe that’s what they were expecting. So when I said ‘I want to call the record Celebration Rock,’ everyone was like, that’s terrible, that sucks. No one liked it except me.
I actually really like it. And it’s still pretty cheeky, in being so straightforward.
Once I came up with it, I couldn’t even conceive of the record being called anything else. Everyone at Polyvinyl―even Dave, he said, ‘I don’t want the record to be called that,’ and I said, ‘Well you tell me what you think better describes the sound of our band and our album and we’ll put that into the mix.’ And yeah, of course, it was just silence across the board. Not that I’m bitter, I’m just saying―everyone hated it.
Well, you got your way.
I got my way. And the fans seem to not hate it, which is the most important thing.
You guys do a cover of Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” right smack in the middle of the new album. I’m actually not familiar with the song.
You’re not familiar with it? Well see, there’s one of the most important reasons for us putting a cover on our album. The story behind why it was that particular song was I wanted to sequence the album in a way that the first half of the album, it was building towards sort of a peak, and then the second half of the album, it kind of descended from the peak. So listening to it on a vinyl record, you put on Side A, it just builds and builds and builds every song until you have to flip it over, and when you flip it over, it’s already at the top, and you kind of cool down over Side B. And even the most intense, rocking song that we’re capable of writing was still not quite intense for this peak that I wanted on the record. I mean, at some point, you just can’t use one of your own songs, because not everybody can write every kind of song. Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the singer of Gun Club, he could write a type of song that I could never write in a million years. I just know no matter how hard I try, I just can’t write a song like that. It just has an intensity and expression in it that I’m not capable―at least right now―of being able to do. But when I perform his song, I can get something more intense out of the band, out of myself, than I can of anything that I am capable of writing for myself.
A lot of people have been asking us: Why, when you have a record that’s only eight songs and so short, throw a cover on there? And that’s because a really important thing for our band is continuing the lineage of not only paying respect to those who came before you and influenced you, but helping to carry on their legacy by introducing them to our audience. I discovered the Pixies because when I was a kid I was really into Nirvana, and Nirvana used to talk about the Pixies in every interview they ever did. So when you’re a kid and you don’t have an older brother or something to introduce you to music, that’s how I would be, ‘Oh, the Pixies, I’m going to check this out.’ And then the Pixies covered the Jesus and Mary Chain on their fourth record, and then the Jesus and Mary Chain had covered everyone from Leonard Cohen to Bo Diddley on their records. So that was an important part of musical discovery for both Dave and I from when we were younger. We do our fair share of covers ourselves to continue that lineage. I’m willing to bet that the majority of Japandroids fans have never heard of the Gun Club, they don’t have any of their records. But they’re one of our favorite bands, and they’ve done considerably more to influence the band and turned us into what we are than people realize.
So I’m just going to throw this out there―a third album?
What are you talking about―our second album’s not even out yet! But actually, we’ve talked about it a little bit, only in the sense that we signed a record contract two years ago with Polyvinyl and now our record contract with the completion of this record is up. We’re kind of free, if you want to use that term. But I think we’re still getting over the making of this one to really think seriously about working on a third one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets all the way to the end of touring on this one before we say, ‘Oh do you want to make another one or stop?’ There’s a 99 percent chance that’s how it’s going to play out. So time will tell.