A conversation with Japandroids

Mark Matousek | Cadenza Writer

Four years ago, Vancouver-based noise-rock duo Japandroids was ready to call it quits. After failing to gain traction with fans or label executives, drummer David Prowse and guitarist Brian King felt like they had hit a wall. But after playing the 2009 Pop Montreal music festival, the band landed a record deal and put out its debut LP “Post-Nothing,” which received the highly coveted “Best New Music” designation from influential indie blog Pitchfork, increasing the band’s exposure and popularity exponentially. Three years and more than 200 shows later, Japandroids returned with “Celebration Rock,” which has been lauded as one of the year’s best records. Breathless and triumphant, “Celebration Rock” is an aural adrenaline shot, the perfect soundtrack for a night of reckless debauchery. In anticipation of the band’s show on Tuesday at the Firebird, Cadenza talked with Prowse about the album and his hopes for the band’s future.

Student Life (SL): You mentioned that you wanted to make “Celebration Rock” more reflective of your live show. How did you go about doing that?

David Prowse (DP): Well, I think we did that in a few ways. I think in general the way we’ve always wanted to record was to make really simple, direct recordings that try to capture the band’s live energy. So we’ve always recorded live off the floor, there’s very, very minimal overdubs, and most of the time we’re just trying to emphasize takes that have a lot of energy to them, rather than necessarily worrying about them being technically perfect. And then I think in terms of the songwriting, I think there are certain moments of our live show that we felt like were the highlights, and for the last couple of years while we were touring on “Post-Nothing,” so we really tried to make “Celebration Rock” have a few more of those moments. I think we basically tried to make every single song as anthemic as songs like “Wet Hair” and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” were on “Post-Nothing,” and that’s the song we enjoy playing the most, or those kinds of songs at least, so we just wanted to have an album full of those kinds of songs and to have a live set full of those kinds of moments.

SL: Your songs, especially on “Celebration Rock”, definitely sound big enough to fill arenas. Do you have any arena-rock aspirations, or do you prefer the intimacy of club shows?

DP: I think on this tour we’re starting to play nothing close to arenas obviously, but we’re playing some venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco, the Metro in Chicago, the Black Cat in Washington D.C., The Fonda in L.A. They’re rooms that are definitely a step bigger than what we’ve been used to playing for quite a while and we played quite a few of those rooms a couple of years ago when we did a tour opening for The Walkmen, and I think one thing that I’ve noticed so far, at least, is going back to these big rooms, they don’t feel nearly as big as I remember them being. We went there two years ago to play those shows opening for The Walkmen, those rooms seemed so gigantic and cavernous, and it was so intimidating. I mean, it was really exciting for us, but it was certainly pretty intimidating and a bit nerve-wracking playing those rooms and then coming back a couple of years later after you’ve played so many festival stages and you’ve played a lot of bigger rooms, all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, OK, this is a bit bigger than what we normally play, but it’s not as gigantic as I remember it being.” So I think to some extent the idea of doing a tour where we would open for some band playing arenas or something; that sounds so preposterous to me right now; that just sounds ridiculous. But at the same time, I figure as you keep going and as you start playing bigger and bigger venues, those things start to feel a bit more normal so you never know. But right now it does sound a bit ridiculous to me to imagine us playing arenas or something like that.

SL: What’s the best concert you’ve played/attended?

DP: I’d say probably my favorite all-time show we’ve ever played is Primavera in 2010. At the time that was the biggest audience we’d ever played in front of, and it’s still up there, it might still be the biggest audience we’ve played in front of, and that was just a very nerve-wracking kind of moment, looking out and seeing how many people were showing up to your stage to watch you play at that moment. And then there was just a really special kind of moment where, it happens at most shows, certainly at festival shows, where you’re kind of a little bit frightened at first, and then you realize that, as stupid as this sounds, you realize that the people watching you are on your side, and you don’t have to impress them, they’re there because they like your band and they know your songs, and you have this immediate switch where, instead of being kind of deathly afraid of that crowd in front of you, instead you feel like you have all of those people behind you in the show and with you, and it’s a pretty special thing to have. I mean having any audience singing along with your music is an incredible feeling, but that one just sticks out as kind of a really special one. As far as what’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my entire life, I mean I’d say Bruce Springsteen, but that’s just not fair because it’s Bruce Springsteen so of course it’s going to be the greatest I’ve seen. I think probably one of the most surprising and inspiring shows I saw that I can remember from when I was a bit younger, when Japandroids was first starting out was the first time I saw Les Savy Fav play. I’d listened to their records before, but I had no idea the kind of show they’d put on, and that was an amazing thing to see live, what a great live band. Seeing them live is just this whole other spectacle, and that stands out as one of my favorite concerts of all time seeing them play at the now-defunct Richard’s on Richards [in Vancouver], which is a venue that used to exist. I probably saw a hundred concerts there and now it’s a condo development.

SL: I’ve noticed that you’re selling cassettes of “Celebration Rock.” Was that your decision or Polyvinyl’s? Do you have a particular affinity for cassettes?

DP: Polyvinyl asked us if we were interested in doing that. I don’t think was something that really crossed either of our minds. Basically, I think it’s basically one dude, his label is called Joyful Noise, and they do a lot of this stuff with Polyvinyl bands for cassette releases, so he approached Polyvinyl about doing a cassette run, and then they asked us if we were interested and we were game. But this whole cassette phenomenon, I’m kind of starting to understand it, but it is a bit strange to me, because I do remember a lot of the first albums I ever owned were on cassette tapes. I remember, like I still have a giant box of cassette tapes somewhere in my parents’ basement, I think. So it’s pretty funny, we actually just got them on tour a couple of days ago in San Francisco, and it was pretty funny to see a Japandroids cassette tape. It was pretty nostalgic actually to have my own band on a cassette tape. I know tons of bands that have been doing that and everything, I know it’s this thing, but it’s kind of always a bit like, too weird that people are buying cassette tapes. I kind of understand why, there is a nostalgia factor. I think it means something different to me than to kids who are like twenty years old who are just a bit too young to even remember having cassette tapes or buying cassette tapes. But, yeah, it’s a funny, nostalgic, weird thing, and it was fun to see a Japandroids record on a cassette tape.”

SL: On your website, Brian mentioned that Polyvinyl wanted you to change the title of “Celebration Rock”? Why did they object to it, and how did you convince them to let you keep it?

DP: Poor Polyvinyl. OK, so to preface that, Polyvinyl never asked to hear demos, never asked to hear mixes, never asked to hear anything with regards to the album. They just said, “We want to put out your next record; we love ‘Post-Nothing,’” and we developed a relationship with them. I mean, they were friends of ours by the time we were making “Celebration Rock.” Polyvinyl’s a small label; there’s not that many people who work there so we personally knew everybody who worked at Polyvinyl by that time. And they wanted to put out the next record, but they were very hands-off, they just said, basically, “Work on the record, and whenever you feel comfortable showing us whatever you want to show us, go ahead, but we’re not really interested in hearing rough mixes and stuff like that. We’d rather just let you keep going and finish the record and then show it to us when it’s done.” There wasn’t any fear that they wouldn’t approve of the record or something like that; there’s a great trust between us and them. So, with that said, before they’d heard any of the songs, we gave them a track-listing and an album title, because the album was basically done, it was being mastered, and for the mastering you submit all of the song titles and the album title for the masters, and they were starting to kind of get all that kind of promo stuff ready, where you have that information ready for people, blah blah blah. And that’s when they found out that the album was going to be called “Celebration Rock,” and I think they just got cold feet a bit about that because they also didn’t have any context for it, they hadn’t heard the songs, you know they didn’t say like, “You can’t put out the record under that title,” I mean, we did put out the record under that title, so it was just kind of like, ‘Are you sure you want to make it called “Celebration Rock”? That kind of sounds like a U2 album or something like that. Is that what you guys are going for now?’ And we just kind of said, ‘Listen to the record. It’s called “Celebration Rock.” Once you hear it, it’ll probably make more sense,’ and they did, and then they later realized that it was a very fitting title. So, yeah, they came around. They’re very understanding, they’re very open to discussion at Polyvinyl Records, but they were a little frightened, they were certainly a little frightened, we got a couple of skittish emails when we first told them we were going to call it “Celebration Rock.”

SL: In your early interviews you often discussed your disappointment with the Vancouver music scene. Have you seen an improvement in the Vancouver music scene and how it’s been covered since you broke out?

DP: Well, I should preface by saying, I don’t feel the same connection to the Vancouver music scene that I once did. We’re just not really a Vancouver band anymore. I mean we still live in Vancouver, but we just hardly ever spend any time there, so for me to pretend that I have my finger on the pulse of the Vancouver music scene, I would be lying to you. That said, I have noticed that it does seem like there are a few bands from Vancouver that have done quite well for themselves in the last couple of years. And it still seems kind of like the same struggle there always is in Vancouver, where venues are closing down, and new ones are opening up, and there’s kind of this whole thing where it kind of has this balance, but there’s an ebb and flow where for a second there’s just no music news, and then there’s a couple new ones that pop up, and battles back out again kind of thing. But there’s certainly some bands from Vancouver that seem to be doing very well for themselves from what I can tell, bands like White Lung and New Sensei, that seem to be doing a lot of touring and achieving some success on that side of Vancouver. So, I mean it seems like some bands are doing really well there and it seems like the scene is kind of the same as it ever was. I think there’s a resilience there, and I think there’s a lot of bands that exist in Vancouver that love to make music, and no, it’s not necessarily the most commercially lucrative city in Canada, let alone North America, to be making music in a band, but still, there’s a lot of great bands doing that, and it’s certainly not impossible. I mean, we have achieved success coming from Vancouver and lots of other bands have as well. So I think it’s kind of the same as it was. I’m not as bitter about it as I used to be, but I’m also just not as connected to it as I used to be.

SL: What bands were most important to you in college?

DP: One band that really stands out above all the rest is a band called Constantine, a Canadian band based out of Toronto for most of their life. They’re sadly no longer a band, but they’re a band that both Brian and I saw countless times, a really, really great live band that made four outstanding records, and I think they achieved a balance between kind of anthemic rock songs and kind of like a high energy kind of noise and punk aesthetic. That was something that we really tried to kind of capture as well. I think people like to compare us, certainly when we started out, people liked to compare us to bands like Death From Above 1979 or No Age, or whatever other two-piece band was making music at that moment. But, honestly I think, especially as time goes on it’s more and more obvious that we’re ripping off the Constantines more than we’re ripping off anybody else. So I think that was a band that we both really loved at that time and still really love, but certainly that band kind of came out right when we started college and we were fans of them throughout their history and when both Brian and I were in college we saw that band many, many times. I think a really big inspiration for me in just wanting to make music was just seeing local bands in the Victoria music scene, bands like Frog Eyes, who are still a band now and still tour, we were lucky enough to get to tour with them back in 2010. Bands like Chet, bands like Run Chico Run, who we were lucky enough to record with. We recorded at their home studio for our first two EPs, which was really at the time a really amazing thing for us, because that was a band that I, both Brian and I, had seen countless times in Victoria and who we looked up to, so getting to kind of record with them, and just talk to them about music and about recording was a really important experience for us. And then lastly of the Victoria local music scene bands, I would just say Atlas Strategic was an incredible influence on me specifically, and Atlas Strategic is Dan Boeckner’s, one of his first bands. In Victoria, Dan Boeckner, who later went on to play in Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade, and now he’s playing in a band called Divine Fits. Yeah, he’s a Victoria guy and he had a band called Atlas Strategic, and they had this, well they had a couple of records that they put out, and I listened to this one record called “That’s Familiar!” so much when it came out and it was right around that time when I was watching all those Victoria bands that I picked up the drums and started playing them, because I think seeing local Victoria bands, seeing people that I could relate to a bit more, regular people who were making really great music that I loved, I think that was a really important moment for me and inspiring me to start playing in bands because I think it helped me realize that it wasn’t just like these kind of mythical figures from faraway cities coming to my town to play shows, there were people who would take the bus with me who were writing good songs and making great albums. So I think that was a huge, huge influence on me as a musician and just a huge influence on my life.

SL: When talking about your cover of [Nick Cave’s] “Jack the Ripper,” you guys have said that you can’t write that type of song. What exactly does that mean, and do you ever see yourself getting to the point where you can write that type of song?

DP: I think part of being a good musician and a good songwriter is knowing your limits and also constantly testing them, so I think our band is, for example with this new record, I think we’ve become more and more aware of the kinds of songs that we can write, and the kinds of songs that we write and play back, while at the same time I think we really did push ourselves on this record to do stuff that we weren’t really capable of doing three years ago when we made “Post-Nothing” in terms of songwriting, in terms of singing, in terms of being able to play our instruments in a certain way. So there are lots of artists that we admire that aren’t necessarily in the same vein as what we do, and I think that’s the fun part of playing cover songs is that you can kind of escape the conventions of whatever your band is about and kind of adopt a different persona. I mean, I think we’d love to write songs like the Gun Club or Nick Cave or X, but it’s certainly not what comes naturally to us, maybe at some point it’ll feel a bit more natural to write songs that are a bit more like that, but at the same time, all those people I mentioned, these bands and these artists, I think they were following their own intuition and kind of going down this road because that’s what came to them. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that we can’t write songs like that, nor should we just try and be some Nick Cave rip-off band or Gun Club rip-off band. It’s probably better that we just try and be Japandroids.

SL: You guys have talked about the inspiration for [“Celebration Rock” track] “Younger Us” coming from watching your friends live “textbook” lives and your efforts to rebel against that. Do you ever see yourself living a more “conventional” life, or is music something you want to pursue for as long as possible?

DP: That really depends on what day you ask me. I can’t really imagine music not being a part of my life, but at the same time, touring is really fun, it’s really inspiring, it’s also very tiring and also really wreaks havoc on your personal life. It’s pretty hard to have any kind of sense of stability in your life when you’re constantly moving. So, it’s a fun thing to do, and at this moment I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but at the same time, obviously people figure out how to do it in a way that’s a bit more sustainable than what we do. Because I don’t think what we do is necessarily sustainable for ten or fifteen years. But people figure out a way to do it so I think there’s a part of me that definitely wants a bit more of that balance.

Japandroids play the Firebird on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.