It begins with firecrackers.
Then the drums start building. Finally, a set of totally uncompromising guitar chords kick in and you realize you’re in the midst of the kind of anthem that makes you simultaneously anxious and nostalgic about what the night/summer/your whole life will bring though you have no idea what that will be. All you know is that a drink sounds good and that you suddenly need a road trip to someplace where nobody knows your name.
Welcome to your perfect summer album to melt the winter blues away.
“Don’t we have anything to live for?/Well, of course we do, but ‘til they come true/We’re drinking and we’re still smoking,” Japandroids guitarist Brian King exclaims in “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” the first track off their latest album, Celebration Rock. This isn’t an album that asks you to consider its deep, cryptic meanings, but, rather, pushes you into a this-night-will-never-end, Springsteen-esque simplicity, complete with sing-alongs and more “oh- oh-ohs” than you can keep up with.
I consider this lack of pretension as I scurry to meet King and drummer David Prowse at a tiny cafe in East Vancouver. I’m late but they don’t seem to mind — King is busy telling a story about a fire in his building during the night before that kept him locked out for so long he went to the bar. I will come to learn that he adapts well.
These sorts of issues don’t faze Japandroids. They have that familiar Vancouver vibe that makes them laid-back, but still tenacious. Which is funny, because they no longer consider themselves a Vancouver band. They’ve now found success and notoriety across North America and beyond, but they are the first to admit that it has taken a long time to get here.
“Despite what people will interpret from the Internet, it’s been a fairly slow and steady thing. This is our seventh year: we’ve followed the traditional, organic route of being a band,” King explains from our perch on a grassy hill where we watch dogs chasing each other on a field below. He lights a cigarette.
They’re not exactly renouncing their roots, though. While Vancouver will “always be home,” Prowse explains, they’ve just grown accustomed to their nomadic life. You might even say they like it, especially when you consider that the tour for their first album, Post-Nothing, contained seven legs and over 200 shows. They simply did not want to stop.
But before they were city hopping and making a name for themselves, they were just Dave and Brian, two students at the University of Victoria. They met in 2000, when Napster had just broken the Internet with its massively influential peer-to-peer music sharing platform that offered far greater accessibility to huge amounts of music. This meant that they soon developed a mutual love of discovering all the music to which King, a Nanaimo native, had never been exposed and that Prowse, a self-professed “mainstream radio music” kind of kid, had never really explored. Technically, it was a mutual love of both music and drinking. “Still our twin passions!” Prowse points out as King tells me the story of their origins. Japandroids, a name they explain as “arbitrary,” wouldn’t officially be born until Prowse moved back home to Vancouver after graduation and King eventually followed, at which point they knew they needed to embrace that final frontier.
“It gets to a point in your music fandom where the next step — besides listening to music, collecting records, going to shows and festivals — is to actually be in a band,” King says, emphasizing the last part in a way that reveals its obviousness.
Their long-awaited start finally happened, but it was about to get worse before it got better. The duo self-released two EPs, All Lies in 2007 and Lullaby Death Jams in 2008, to mild effect. They struggled with carving a spot for themselves with their fuzzy, brash, punk-infused rock songs and began to grow frustrated by the cold reception that Vancouver provided. They decided to cut their losses and release their first full-length album, Post-Nothing, on their own in 2009 with a limited number of copies, just to complete the process. There was was no use in fighting what was becoming a disheartening reality: King and Prowse stopped playing music together and accepted Japandroids’ fate.
But then the unexpected happened and changed everything. Pitchfork named Post-Nothing’s “Young Hearts Spark Fire” a Best New Track and, practically overnight, the album was a hot commodity. The subsequent exposure led to huge amounts of new fans and helped Post-Nothing find a spot on prominent year-end lists in both Canada and the US. Japandroids had finally gotten what they wanted: the opportunity to set out on their first full-scale North American and European tour. After performing just one show, though, King was forced to undergo emergency surgery in Calgary for a perforated ulcer.
Much to everyone’s relief, King made a full recovery. Japandroids finally embarked on their tour and didn’t stop until over a year later, at which point it was finally time to return home and begin work on whatever was coming next. But as they would soon find out, that process would pose even more challenges to them.
As King explains, “One of the problems with spending so long touring is that when you do finally come home, it feels a little like it’s all over, like your ride has ended. You’ve returned to your old life. It’s deflating. It’s hard to find the inspiration and energy to write a whole new album of music when you feel like you’ve gotten off the ride, in a way.”
Naturally, they decided to leave town again. This time, however, they headed to Nashville and stayed put for a whole month. King tells it like it was just the other day: “Let’s just go rent a house in a city far away from here that allows us to continue that feeling of being out there… somewhere where we can’t go home on the weekends, somewhere where we don’t know anyone, where the city feels like it’s ours to discover.”
After finishing up back home, the band had a new album with eight jam-packed tracks, full of a more mature pop punk sensibility and distinct harmonies — a change from the heavily hidden and distorted vocals of part releases. Thankfully, Celebration Rock is still steeped in their early ’90s roots and the teenage restlessness from Post-Nothing. On this release, though, Japandroids channeled that into a near-seamless cover of The Gun Club’s “For The Love of Ivy” that sounds as though they could have written it themselves if they had been born just a little earlier.
It may have taken them a few years and a number of setbacks to get here, but Prowse and King now seem to be enjoying themselves from the sounds of Celebration Rock and one of its closing tracks, “The House That Heaven Built”:
“And if they try to slow you down/Tell ‘em all to go to hell.”
These are words to live by and it’s clear that Japandroids do just that.
Welcome winter by catching a taste of summer with Japandroids at Republik on December 20.
By Jacquelyn Burke