Inside the making of Japandroids' third and most eclectic album yet
Most know Vancouver indie-rock duo Japandroids as purveyors of scuzzy riffs and sweaty gigs, but on a chilly October afternoon in Manhattan, guitarist Brian King and drummer Dave Prowse are just two dudes figuring out how to drink fancy tea.
“This s–t’s dope — genmaicha,” Prowse says when teabags and two bulbs of piping hot water arrive on the table at an East Village cafe. “It’s green tea, but it’s with roasted rice as well.” King quizzically looks on at Prowse, who reassuringly adds, “You can’t do it wrong, really.”
“Is that a challenge?” King retorts. “Well, I mean, don’t try to find ways to do it wrong,” Prowse admonishes with a smile, just as King successfully navigates the tea setup.
There’s a brotherly chemistry between King and Prowse that’s helped them cultivate one of rock’s most passionate cult followings since they debuted with 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s sweeping sequel Celebration Rock. An earnest, giddy energy permeates their relationship and music, and that spirit crops up once again on their third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, which arrives Jan. 27. (Hear the project’s title track below.)
While Life is still unmistakably a Japandroids record, the duo also dabbled with acoustic guitars and loop pedals for their most diverse record yet. “We could probably make another Celebration Rock three or four times, keep touring it,” King says. “We just decided that that wasn’t what we really wanted to do and that we would just follow our instincts. Following our instincts led us to create the record that everybody loved, so there’s no reason to think that following our instincts isn’t the right thing for us to do.” As Prowse puts it, “If everybody else hates it, at least we can stand behind it and say, ‘Well, this is what we wanted to do.'”
After a necessary break following Celebration Rock‘s grueling world tour — “It kind of pushed the body about as far as one can push it before getting really ill,” King notes — Japandroids began working on new music in late 2014. Prowse still lived in Vancouver, but King had moved to Toronto and his girlfriend lived in Mexico City, creating a “crazy triangle of North America” that presented some logistical challenges (and partly inspired Life‘s worldly “North East South West”). Because Celebration Rock coalesced when the duo rented a house in Nashville to record, Prowse and King decided to try a similar strategy, but with New Orleans.
“You can’t escape music there,” says Prowse, after explaining how the musician they rented from encouraged them to make a ruckus at any hour. “We’d be jamming sometimes and then we’d take a break and we’d hear music and there was a parade going down the street with a big brass band.”
One of the first tracks Japandroids worked on in New Orleans was Life‘s 7-minute centerpiece, “Arc of Bar,” which is built on a guitar loop unlike anything else in their catalog. “Our old strategy was trying to basically create a really great live record in the studio,” King says. “Not being afraid of using the studio for what it’s capable of is not necessarily a strategy, per se, but it does kind of open the door to infinite possibilities that I don’t think we ever really considered before this album.”
In keeping with that approach, Japandroids turned to Peter Katis, a longtime associate of the National, to mix the record at Connecticut’s Tarquin Studios, where he performed the same task for classic National albums including Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet. “We just love the sounds of those records,” King says. “If you listen to a National record — one of the ones that Peter did — and then you listen to ours, you will hear similarities in the way he mixes and the way he puts things in the mix and how he likes to make a rock song feel or sound in your headphones.”
But the changes on Life aren’t solely musical. “I used to take whatever the story was for the song and get rid of all the negative parts,” says King, who cites the narrative lyrical style of Tom Waits and Townes van Zandt as influential for Life. “I would just focus on the positive part. This record, I wanted to get away from that and show both sides of the story. You know, kind of show the darkness or the other side that goes along with the really positive aspects.”
Rock isn’t the cultural monolith it once was, but Japandroids see themselves as continuing a vaunted lineage. As they finish their tea, the St. Mark’s Place facade captured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti is visible through the window, and King mentions how their own three albums contain eight songs apiece, like classics from the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed to Television’s Marquee Moon. “Celebration Rock is closer to [Metallica’s] Master of Puppets, in the sense that you just hit everybody hard the whole time,” says King, while Life‘s structure more closely resembles Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or Patti Smith’s Horses. “Those are what I would consider to be very complete albums,” he explains. “There’s so many moods and so many characters, you really go on a journey, beginning to end. That’s what we were trying to do, certainly on this record.”
As for their own legacy — and why it sparked impassioned pleas for Celebration Rock‘s follow-up — Japandroids are less certain. “Anytime you make a record that’s successful, that people really like, there’s always pressure on you to live up to the expectations on the next record,” Prowse says. Life takes a different route because, as King observes, there’s no magic bullet. “I’m not sure any two people would give you the exact same answer as to why [our music] is important to them,” he says “I think if it was easy to determine, a lot of bands would continue doing it — or we would have been doing it from the very beginning.”