Standing on a rain-soaked sidewalk in Manhattan’s East Village, there’s little to distinguish Brian King and Dave Prowse of the rock duo Japandroids from any number of bartenders, baristas, or otherwise starving artists who’ve called the neighborhood home. Tall and lean in a black motorcycle jacket, King is the more glamorous of the two, blessed with the quiet, prowling confidence of someone with a steady girlfriend and a well-loved Lust for Life LP waiting for him back at home. Prowse, who prefers wool sweaters to leather jackets and ends most of his thoughts with an ingratiating shrug, doesn’t wear the rock star aura quite so comfortably. But it’s not as if strangers are lining up on the street to take selfies with King, either.
Though they’ve been bandmates for over a decade and friends for even longer, it’s tempting to view King and Prowse as a sort of rock ‘n’ roll odd couple. In both appearance and demeanor, they represent two very distinct, even diametrically opposed, eras of rock music. With his natural swagger, King is a callback to punk’s late ‘70s marriage of loud guitars and leather while Prowse seems more a product of rock’s post-college years, in which modesty and sincerity became the genre’s more reliable calling cards. Both strains are baked into Japandroids’ DNA and help to explain why, in just over 24 hours, the duo will preside over a small but sweat-soaked congregation of fans screaming their songs back at them as if their lives depended on it.
Nearly five years after its release, the duo’s aptly titled sophomore effort, Celebration Rock, remains one of rock’s last truly invigorating records. It’s a hair-raising, beer-can-smashing synthesis of everything that made the genre sound vital at every stage of its development. Few albums better capture the self-mythologizing power of guitar music, which works by jettisoning life’s dark side and injecting the void with arena-sized choruses, triumphant riffs, and a wide-eyed sense that everything is possible all at once. “There’s enough sadness in the world,” King remembers thinking while he wrote the songs on Celebration Rock, “so let’s focus on the glory instead.”
In the years separating Celebration Rock from Japandroids’ third and latest effort, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, King and Prowse have had much to feel glorious about. They spent the better part of two years in a mad dash across the globe, performing over 200 shows in more than 40 countries and graduating from a beat-up Ford Explorer to a Sprinter van to a BandWagon (“somewhere in between a bus and a motorhome,” King explains) to a proper bus. After a while, they also quit crashing on friends’ floors, as I learn when they lead me up from the street and into the spacious third-story Airbnb they’ve booked for their stay in New York.
“You wanna know when we became an Airbnb band?” Prowse jokes, as if it’s absurd for any rock band to indulge in such a modest form of luxury. There’s a slightly sharp edge to his comment, however — a tacit admission that, no, he and King will never be celebrities in the true and proper sense. They’ll also never be rock stars, not for lack of leaving it all out there on the stage every night, but because such a thing hardly exists anymore. Indeed, the rise of Japandroids happens to have coincided with an opposite trend in their genre as a whole: In the time since their last album, rock has been busy dying a slow commercial death.
While the critical narrative of Near to the Wild Heart of Life will inevitably coalesce around the fact that the duo are now willing to let the sadness in, the bigger and more existential truth is that the state of rock music in general has shifted closer to sadness than glory. If Celebration Rock once seemed like a watershed moment in the rise of a new and powerful brand of guitar-based indie rock, Near to the Wild Heart of Life arrives at a time when that brand’s cultural impact is lower than it’s been in years.