Japandroid’s singer/guitarist Brian King is taking a rare and much deserved break from the road. The topic of exhaustion has come up a few times in the course of our conversation – in songwriting, in touring, in the limitations of being a guitar-drum duo trying to get maximum sound from minimum instrumentation. King and his partner, drummer David Prowse, have been grinding it out non-stop over the course of the last year in support of their critically-lauded sophomore LP Celebration Rock – the pair had just gotten home from back-to-back 50 date tours that took them across North America and Europe when we spoke – and 2013 will be no different. But don’t worry – the Japandroids aren’t done, they’re just getting started.
“What exact change needs to occur to make sure that the next record continues on that lineage of getting better – because we’d like to think that we keep getting better, make better records – it’s a hard question to answer,” says King. “You’re on the second half of the record cycle, and it’s only now that you’re beginning to start to think about new ideas and new songs and stuff for the next record.”
“That’s what we’ve been thinking about – how do we make this one better than the last one. I think it’s probably going to be time to introduce something or change something to make a different kind of record.”
You can hear in King’s voice that he’s savoring this moment at the crossroads, that the imminent change is not worrisome or threatening, that the need for a new attack plan is not a sign that he’s drained the well of ideas, but rather that he’s a acutely aware of his outfit’s limitations and relishes the challenge of pushing the band beyond itself. It’s been nearly four years since Japandroids were anointed with buzz-band status by the kingmakers at Pitchfork, four years since their cascading, propulsive punk rock anthems began taking festivals and clubs by storm, igniting pogo-pits and stage-diving conflagrations in cities and towns world-wide. It’s been four years that have seen their peers in the buzz-bin explode, implode, or simply just melt down in response to a music industry that is chewing up bands and spitting them out at an unprecedented speed.
What distinguishes the ‘Droids from their flash-in-the-“Best New Music”-pan compatriots, what’s kept them in demand even after their name has drifted off the homepage, is a workman-like devotion to their craft and a consistent desire to improve as players, songwriters and entertainers. Their focus is not on keeping up with the indie-Joneses or staying in lockstep with the latest micro-trends in twee-tronica – there is no acknowledgment of the ephemeral accoutrements of the indie-stry, of market demands and cultural shifts. Japandroids’ sole mission is giving the audience – not their own egos – more of what they came for: more anthems, more energy, more explosive emotional catharsis. It is a rare level of focus for a young band lavished with so much attention, a rare approach in an era when indie bands use the smallest amount of success as an excuse to stock up on shiny lights and stop writing good songs.
“I think it’s really common that a lot of bands now start with their first record and it’s a pretty lo-fi record – cheaply recorded and lo-fi, which is how a lot of bands are introduced to the world these days, just like we were,” says King. “Then when they find some notoriety, when they find some success, some kind of popularity – get signed to a bigger label and people start to know who they are – then when it comes to the next record it’s – boom – into the nice studio with the producer, going from recording your album in a week to recording your album in a couple of months.
“And the change is too drastic, it’s too great. Sometimes it works, don’t get me wrong – Nirvana went from recording Bleach to recording Nevermind and that seemed to work out pretty well for them [laughs]. It can work, and it’s becoming more a more common thing these days. So there has to be some sort of middle ground in there, and that’s kind of what we’re looking for. Whatever that middle ground is.”
That middle ground, between staying true to one’s artistic vision and indulging the indie-media’s vampiric desires for novelty, isn’t going to be found on any map – there’s no fifty-paces-and-X-marks-the-spot. That middle ground is a mystical place, more a fable and a philosophical ideal than a divinable location, a pebble in the rapidly rushing river of the indie-celebrity complex, difficult to spot and even harder to hang on to. And it’s not a recent phenomenon either – the cut-out bins of the world are lousy with overstocked indie darlings that reached for the stars and came up with a fist of over-produced, underdeveloped dirt.
“I don’t think there’s ever been as much pressure on bands to try to penetrate that world and make that jump so quickly as there has been now,” says King. “There are so many bands – the internet has just exploded – and a band’s time in the limelight can be so short-lived. People aren’t selling records so it’s about getting what you can when you can. I watched so many bands that have come up at the same time as us follow that same path – sometimes it’s worked, but a lot of times it hasn’t. We’ve always been very, very fearful and wary of doing that ourselves.”
That devil nipping at their heals – the constant specter of irrelevance, the carcasses of indie bands piling up in the corner – makes Japandroids’ records so intensely immediate. Every guitar riff and drum fill on Celebration Rock feels like it’s going to explode, each note and bar of “The Nights Of Wine And Roses,” “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “The House That Heaven Built” are crammed with so much information and emotion you expect the band to combust at any moment. It’s as if each song could be their last, as if each coda could be their death rattle and they need to let the whole world know, as loud and enthusiastically as possible. In a scene where people change styles and sounds more frequently than they change undergarments, it’s the rare band that sticks to its guns while the vultures try to blow smoke up their collective ass.
“That’s how we’ve kept it in check. You know that’s why we said, after the success of our first record, we don’t need to go spend all this money going to a fancy studio spending six months doing what we can do in ten days,” say King. “And we don’t need to hire a producer to come in and tell us what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t be doing, how we should be doing it or how we shouldn’t be doing it.
“We don’t need to have the most expensive guitar and drum set that you can get and we don’t have to add keyboards because we didn’t have any on the first album or something like that. You know, it’s kinda like,‘We don’t need any of the stuff that’s popped up on our radar.’ We’re just going to keep everything the same which will showcase how our songwriting and our playing have improved.”
This sameness – the same players, the instrumentation, the same studio, the same set up from their earliest self-released singles to their latest album – has been a beneficial structure for the band, affording them an opportunity for exploration that doesn’t set them adrift in a sea of ideas that would dampen their energy. While the form laid out in early tracks like “Coma Complacency” and “ Press Corps” from the All Lies EP – soaring, anthemic punk chant-alongs – remains intact, each new recording builds upon the next, achieving new levels of technical proficiency and songwriting precision.
Where the Japandroids of Lullaby Death Jams – available alongside All Lies on the No Singles comp – are a scrappy outfit pushing their own boundaries and birthing a beautiful complexity almost by accident, the Japandroids of Celebration Rock zero in on the point-of-no return and blast their way through it with a technical prowess reserved for only the most decorated of veterans. By the time King sings “Remember when we had them on the run?” – as Powse’s “woo-ohs” rise up from this amidst a hail of snare-fire, when every upstroke of the guitar feels like it’s tripped a land mine and tom-toms rain down like mortar shells – the battle for rock and roll’s heart and soul has been won.
And as the fireworks explode and the final notes of “Continuous Thunder” – a cloudburst of absolution, baptism of low-note percussion and sweeping, staccatto string-work – close out the album the question arises: Where to next? Do they circle back and entrench the territory they’ve already secured, hiding out in a bunker of familiarity, insulating themselves from the threat of failure? Or do they soldier on and mark out for the unknown and the risk of utter destruction?
There’s no shame in sticking with what works and the process has worked pretty well for the Japandroids, but if there’s anything that’s clear from speaking with King it’s that the risk is the reason. That pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion and then pushing beyond is the very reason Japandroids exist – they do it because it needs to be done. Rock and roll still needs indefatigable heroes, artists willing to use everything in their arsenal to get the job done even if it means breaking with the strategy that got them to this point.
“I think this new record that we did takes that about as far as we’re capable of taking it. I don’t know how it could be better, so we’re at this weird turning point – we did these three records with the same lineage and not changed a thing,” says King. “And now it’s finally time to think about changing something so we can continue that lineage so we feel like we’re moving forward.”