This week, Vancouver art punk duo Japandroids–more specifically, drummer David Prowse and guitarist Brian King-release their second full-length, Celebration Rock. A bombastic, sharply focused effort layered in fuzz, Celebration Rock takes the raucous noise from the band’s debut, Post-Nothing to a bigger, badder plane. Having effectively dissolved their partnership prior to the debut’s release, their unexpected re-discovery at a Canadian rock festival created a fervor that eventually led to the band touring the world for two years in support of the record, during which time King nearly lost his life due to a perforated ulcer. Now, the two have returned with an album they never expected to make.
Consequence of Sound caught up with Prowse to talk about the new album, what went into it, and how the two managed such a new, bold sound despite working with all the same players. Prowse explains the decision behind the band’s breakup, Polyvinyl’s initial hesitation at the title, and about changing controversial lyrics as they did with their cover of the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”.
I gotta ask you this straight off, and I mean no disrespect: How many of your friends know you share your name with Darth Vader?
Oh, everybody knows that. You know, you think that guys in touring bands are really cool, but a lot of the guys in bands we tour with, they’re all secret Star Wars nerds too, and they know that too.
I saw that and thought it was awesome, but I never see anybody mention it, so I just wanted to see if that was anything novel for you, but I guess not. Oh well.
It’s relatively novel in the music world, but every time I’ve ever gone into a video store, pretty much without fail, they call me on that one.
Let’s go back a little bit. I don’t think many people were aware that Japandroids actually broke up before the debut came out. What went into that?
Yeah. We never like…It’s a funny thing. We made plans to break up [starts laughing], but never followed through. Basically, we’d just been kind of…we were very dedicated to the band for a number of years before anything, really, kind of happened. Recording; self-releasing EPs; setting up all our own shows; renting out halls; making and printing our own posters, and postering for every show we played; setting up small little tours, just runs to Seattle and back, and Victoria and back, Calgary and back. That kind of thing. Mailing out to college radio stations, magazines and blogs, and whoever we thought might like our records. Doing all that kind of thing on our own for a number of years.
With Post-Nothing, we thought it was going to be more of the same. There was no inkling that anybody had any interest in putting out our record. Not even locally, not even any local labels. There was zero interest, really. We’d started getting a few cooler opening gigs for bands locally. And we started getting into a few little festivals here and there, but even that had been pretty disheartening, ’cause we went to these festivals [where] nobody knew who we were there, so we were still playing to nobody. So, we kind of hit this point where we just felt like we hit a wall. So, we had kind of made up our minds some. We had a few cool things on the horizon, like we had a gig to open for A Place To Bury Strangers, which we were very excited about, in Vancouver. And then we had gotten into Pop Montreal, and we had also gotten into CMJ. So, we were like, “Let’s do all those things (because those are really exciting for us), but it doesn’t really seem like anything much is going to happen after that. Let’s put out this record and get it out to our friends, and get it out locally, but maybe after that it’s time to kind of just move on and try something else.”
Did you guys keep your day jobs, or was this your life?
We had days jobs, yeah. It was our life, but we had day jobs, if that makes sense. We were losing money on the band; we weren’t making any money, so there’s no way we could not have day jobs. It basically consumed our lives with all the time that we weren’t otherwise employed. When we weren’t working our day jobs, we were doing band stuff. We weren’t really doing anything else. So, we kinda were like, “Maybe it’s time to move on after that.” And then, basically, things started happening for us.
Basically, it can all be traced back to one show at Pop Montreal, because at that one show at there was a writer from Toronto who saw us, and he gave us a really good review. And there was also a guy from a record label based in Toronto called Unfamiliar Records, someone who’s now a good friend of ours, named Greg Ipp. And he was running Unfamiliar with the help of a friend of ours named Edo van Breeman, who plays in a band called Brasstronaut. Basically, those guys were there to see Brasstronaut play, but we just happened to be playing on the same bill as them because we had set up the show with Edo and a few other Vancouver bands. They both saw us, and we got a really good review in a Toronto paper, and it turned out that that guy also contributed to Pitchfork and would later…he was the person at Pitchfork who gravitated, at first. And then Greg wanted to put it out on Unfamiliar, too. So, two things happened at the same time that both kind of led to a lot of other crazy things happening.
We were totally unaware of any of that, really, at the point when it happened. We only could kind of figure that out through retracing our steps. But, basically soon after that, Greg had gotten in touch with us and wanted to hear the record. We were a bit taken aback–well, not taken aback, surprised–because nobody had ever asked [starts laughing], nobody had ever offered to put out anything of ours, so it was the first time that somebody had come out and asked us rather than us naively courting some record label, and them never answering our emails. Things kind of snowballed from that. Not kind of, they completely snowballed– avalanche-sized snowball from that.
You said that your “re-discovery” on the internet was unexpected. I understand that. But did you mean when you said it was also “untimely”?
I think what Brian would have thought by that, the fact that it happened after we had already made a decision that the band was slowing down rather than speeding up. I would think that would be the timing thing. If all that had happened six months before, obviously the conversations would have never really happened, when we would have talked about not being a band anymore. Because the whole idea, to a large extent, the idea of not being in a band anymore was just largely due to a frustration of continued obscurity.
Coming off the success of your first album, you toured for two years in support of it, when for years you struggled daily just to make it. Did you do anything differently when you began to make Celebration Rock?
Yeah. I think it was a pretty different process. We tried to keep…there were a lot of things we wanted to keep the same. It’s the same basic instrumentation; it’s still just guitar, drums, and vocals. It’s recorded in the same place, it’s recorded at the Hive again. And it’s recorded with Jesse Gander again. He’s the same guy who did Post-Nothing; he’s the same guy that did those singles we did between Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock. We were keeping a lot of the things the same, but at the same time we are in a very different space. Psychologically, certainly. You can’t really re-create that same energy that you had when you were purely making music for yourself with no…not even in our wildest dreams did we think that the record Post-Nothing would have gotten out to as many people and as many places as it did. I mean, we were kind of like aspiring to be a band that could tour Canada, maybe tour down the West Coast. Those kind of things–much smaller things now than what we’ve achieved. Those things seemed so huge to us back then. We weren’t even very well known in Vancouver. We had, like, a following in Vancouver, but it was very small. It wasn’t like we were a big deal in Vancouver at all. You can’t recreate that kind of situation, so certainly, you’re in a different head space.
You’re making the record with the realization that a lot of people are going to hear it, and you know what can happen if a lot of people like the record. But, at the same time, we did whatever we could to mitigate that kind of psych-out game and to try and keep it as real and in the moment as we could. It’s still pretty live sounding, pretty raw. We just had more time to get a take we really liked. We’re better musicians now, I think. We’re better singers. We’re also less ashamed of our voices; they’re not drowned in as much distortion and buried as low in the mix. A lot of those things. I think it’s pretty natural, the changes that happened from Post-Nothing to Celebration Rock. We definitely had no aspirations to make some sort of gigantic studio rock record. It’s a little more polished than Post-Nothing is. I think a large part of that, it’s just something you can’t even help to some extent. You can’t play as sloppy as you did a couple years ago when you just weren’t playing as often.
You said the album has a live feel, but that’s pretty much because you recorded the album live, right? I mean, there’s very little overdubbing. You guys pretty much play the songs the way they are, right?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. We tracked it live, so it was still just me and Brian in a room playing and just trying to get a solid take all the way through. There’s a handful of overdubs, if that. Maybe there’s only three guitar overdubs that I can think of. We just got to play them a lot more; we got a lot more takes of each one.
Regarding the overdubs, you guys said that the only reason you did it was because it was just too messy trying to do it all in one take on the guitar…
How is that going to translate to the live setting? Are you not going to worry about it, because it’s going to be so loud and distorted?
There’s three overdubs that I can think of. Two of them, we just play it, and if it gets a little messy, it gets a little messy. And the last overdub is on “Continuous Thunder”. There’s a pretty obvious overdub right near the end that’s just, like, a separate guitar hit. There’s not really any way that Brian can recreate that, so we’re actually messing around with that. I think that song might change a little bit live because that one’s a little bit more of a…it’s just different.
It’s the same thing with “I Quit Girls”. With those slower songs, they sound good recorded, but live it’s hard to get them to match the same energy as those fist pumper anthems that we like to play, so that one might get altered a little bit. We’re kind of tinkering with it. We’ve played it a few times now, but it still feels like it’s evolving a little bit in terms of its live set-up.
That’s pretty exciting. Something to look forward to on the tour.
Were you guys joking when you said that Polyvinyl didn’t like the album name?
[laughs] You gotta ask them. I should preface this by saying…so the record was made in isolation. There wasn’t back and forth between Polyvinyl and us. You know, them wanting to hear rough mixes of songs or something like that. Or them hovering around the studio peering over our shoulders. They basically let us do our thing, which was really cool. They were just, “Do your record, and we’d love to hear it when it’s finished, and we’d love to put it out when it’s finished. We trust you and trust you to do your thing.”
So, when we sent the track listing and album title, they actually still hadn’t even heard the record yet. I think maybe we played one or two of the songs once from a laptop when we ran into them on tour while in the midst of recording. They hadn’t heard any of the record. I mean, obviously they heard “Younger Us”, I suppose. So, they just saw the album title and they just got a little bit of cold feet. But they hadn’t even really heard it. They didn’t have the context of the album. I think once you hear the album, that album title makes a lot more sense. I mean, there’s fireworks that start and end the album; it’s pretty celebratory. Brian just likes to tease them, so he put that into the bio sheet, but yeah, they had cold feet and they were a little bit worried. I think they were worried it was sounding too cocky or something like that, or too big, like we’re a big rock band. So, it just kind of scared them for a second and they sent one sheepish email, and they were something like, “Are you sure this is the album title you want?” or something like that, and we said, “Yeah,” and then they said, “Okay.” [starts laughing]
I am a big supporter of sequencing songs on an album for fluidity. Regarding the album’s sequence, let’s talk about the Gun Club cover, “For the Love of Ivy”. Brian said that that song was chosen because it got you to a peak that you couldn’t get to on your own. Was this song chosen and recorded after the album was completed?
No it wasn’t, actually. It was recorded earlier on. We’ve been stockpiling some covers. On our singles series, we’ve been doing covers as B-sides. Originally, we were thinking that “Evil Sway” and that Gun Club cover were going to be a single, and they were going to be an A-side and B-side. So, we recorded those at the same time in what kind of turned out to be the first session for the record. Originally, we thought it was going to be a session for the 7”, but it ended up being a session for the record. From there, “Evil Sway” mutated into a pretty different song; the choruses stayed the same, but that’s about it. Almost everything else–the verses changed very drastically. I guess the first version still had a drum solo in it too, so I guess it wasn’t that different, but the verses are quite different. It definitely mutated and evolved, but it came from that. We recorded that Gun Club cover around the same time. We talked about having a cover on the record, and we originally were thinking we were going to record something completely different, and we were going to save that Gun Club cover for a later 7”. But, as time went on, it just fit in in a lot of ways.
Like Brian said, I think it occupies a certain territory that’s not really occupied on the album otherwise. It really fit that way, and also, I think recording covers as B-sides is one thing, but including a cover on your album, first of all you gotta make sure it’s a song that you’re gonna want to play every night. People are going to know those songs on the full-length a lot more than they’ll know B-sides and stuff like that. And you’ll also want to make sure it’s a band you feel really strongly about. We feel strongly about all the bands we cover, but certainly on the full-length you really want to make that sure. That was the big reasoning behind that. We talked about covering other bands, and we’d start making different suggestions and stuff, and talked about it for a while. And then it just kind of became more and more obvious that the Gun Club cover was just the one that should go on the record.
When I came in this morning, I went into the stacks and pulled the record out, Fire of Love. I started playing it, and damn if it doesn’t sound like a song that was meant for Japandroids to play. But what I was more blown away by was that your version is a bigger sounding one than Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s version, and they had two guitars and a bass player.
But I also noticed you guys changed the lyrics.
I listened to it like three or four times, your version, just to make sure. Like how you were saying that the lyrics on your earlier material was buried in, and the lyrics on the Gun Club song are certainly a buried form of lyric, but Pierce definitely says that word very clearly. I was trying to see if you were muffling it, but it sounds like you changed it to “hunting for answers”? [the original lyric is “hunting for niggers”]
Answers, yeah. That’s a relatively common practice with covers of that song. The White Stripes covered that song as well at various times, and Jack White would just kind of ad-lib different words to replace that word as well. There’s a little bit of debate covering that song, because it does include a controversial lyric, but at the same time, it’s punk rock and it’s kind of meant to be controversial. But second of all, I think we just thought, like, the intent was not hateful in any way.
If you look back, you’ve got the Gun Club, you have Elvis Costello, you have Dead Kennedys, and they all used that word a lot of times, and all usually to make a point. Since this track is off of Gun Club’s first album, do you prefer the LA material or when he took his Debbie Harry fixation to New York?
I don’t really know where he was living when he made the different records, but the ones I’m really into personally are Fire of Love, Miami, and Las Vegas Story, that kind of 1-2-3. Fire of Love is just the one that’s nearest and dearest to my heart; it’s the first one I really got into. I got into the other ones, or at least those other two records, but that’s kind of my first love with the Gun Club. Your first is always your best, right?
I remember a couple of years ago, Karl Precoda and I were talking about Pierce, and he was saying how they used to rock out together in LA. Pierce had this huge Debbie Harry fixation; he was just in love with Debbie Harry of Blondie, and that’s what prompted him to move to New York.
Well, that’s what Precoda was saying; he may have been embellishing a bit, but I thought it was pretty funny.
That’s a good story.
You said that you found it difficult to write and record a new album while touring, and that’s why you released a series of 7” singles. But some of them, like “Younger Us”, are making appearances on the new album. Are there any plans to compile those singles the way you did your earlier EPs on the No Singles compilation?
Originally, that was something that crossed our minds. It’s getting a little bit more complicated now, just because now “Younger Us” is on the record. Originally, we planned to do five singles, and then as it became time to make the record, it seemed to not make any sense to focus on finishing a singles series when you just had an album to make. But at the same time, I think we both feel like there’s a bit of unfinished business there, so we would like to definitely do a few more singles, and then hopefully if Polyvinyl is willing, we could put those all together so people could get it in one place.
I like the simplicity in your album covers. It takes me back to early punk and post-punk records. Is that the intention with the imagery?
Yeah, definitely. So, Brian designs all the album artwork. That’s kind of his favorite era, especially for the imagery and the look of things. It’s definitely going back to those older Japanese, early ’80s punk rock scene for sure.
You’re touring with Cadence Weapon, a rapper. How did that pairing come about?
Brian and I have both been listening to him for a real long time, and we’re both big fans. It just came about because we found he was available to tour at that time. As with any tour, when you’re headlining, different bands are submitted and as soon as we found out he was available, we were both really excited about that idea. It’s going to be a little weird for Japandroids’ fans because I don’t necessarily know if fans of our band are hip-hop fans. But we’re both really big fans of his music, so we’re really excited to be on tour with him and get to watch him perform every night. As soon as we found out he was available to do it, we asked him to do the UK tour as well as this North American tour because we were both really excited to hang out with him and tour with him.
I loved his album After Party Babies. I thought that was great.
You guys are a bit unusual because you make the records to support your touring rather than touring to support the record. Do you really like being on the road that much or is it more that you just really like playing?
Playing live is my favorite thing in the world to do, period.
I find this really interesting. When I was reading your bios, there is always mention of how you originally wanted to be a three piece but that you gave up the idea because you didn’t want to have a lead singer. What I find interesting is that there seems to be no thought whatsoever of even having a bass player.
Yeah, no, that never really crossed our mind. You can blame it on naivete, but I think when we were just jamming in our jam space we’d be like “oh, this is sounding great”, but neither of us really wanted to sing at the start. A part of that is just being excited about playing and making music with your friend. We were both a little bit more nervous about singing. But we thought, even back then, we were not very good musicians. Not that we’re great musicians now, but even back then when we were much poorer musicians we were like, “Oh, this sounds great; we just need somebody to sing over this.” [starts laughing]
So was it over some beers when you said, “Fuck it, we’ll sing it ourselves”?
Yeah, pretty much. We just hit a certain point. This is awesome, drinking beer, jamming in a jam space three days a week, or whatever, but we could actually probably start playing in front of people. And I don’t know how many two-piece– I mean, there’s a couple two-piece instrumental bands I guess, but we’re no Hella. We’re no Lightning Bolt [laughs]. We’d rather get somebody to sing over this.