Japandroids On The Road: The House That They Call Heaven

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Japandroids On The Road: The House That They Call Heaven

Moments before Japandroids are scheduled to appear in front of an Atlanta audience for the first time in three years, Brian King paces back and forth across the length of Terminal West’s green room, gargling water he heated through a Keurig coffee maker. He’s been drinking Red Bulls, which constricts his vocal chords—it’s the sugar, he explains—and the hot water helps to loosen them back up. He is wearing a small black T-shirt, impossibly tight black jeans and a star-of-Texas belt buckle. Somehow, his hair is wet. In these final minutes leading up to the show, he’s adopted an almost intimidating air of focus. He still engages with the rest of the room—which includes his sole bandmate, drummer David Prowse, casually nursing his own cup of hot water—but his mind is partially elsewhere. He gargles, sips, goes to the bathroom, comes back, gargles some more, goes to the bathroom again, comes back. A stagehand pops his head in to let the room know that the venue has reached capacity. King runs a hand through his hair one last time and comes over to where I’m standing. He puts a hand on my shoulder and lowers his head to my ear.

“If I don’t make it,” he whispers, “see that my grave is kept clean.”

Before I can react he’s already turned his back and left the room with Prowse. Seconds later I hear the crowd erupt at the sight of the hard-rocking duo from Vancouver whose appearance they’ve been eagerly awaiting, some for three years, some only since they heard Japandroids’ incendiary, breakout sophomore album Celebration Rock, released earlier this year. With the first emphatic strum of his Telecaster Deluxe, King will grant all in attendance permission to shed their inhibitions, throw their fists in the air, lean their heads back and howl to the rafters. The room is full of the joy of simply being alive in the here and now, something Japandroids knows not to take for granted. The duo has been leading similar prolonged exultations across Europe and North America five nights a week for the past four months straight, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

After their show at Terminal West (their bus is scheduled to leave at 3 a.m.), they’ll make their way north through Asheville, N.C., to New York, where they’ll play a pair of shows at Webster Hall. From there they’ll play a few more U.S. dates before traversing the western half of their home country on the way back home to Vancouver, wrapping things up at the Rickshaw Theatre a few days before Christmas. Tours of southeast Asia and Australia have already been scheduled for January and Feburary, and before loading their gear into the venue earlier in the day, King spent almost an hour on the phone working out the logistics of a run of dates next spring.

Japandroids  is, above all else, a live band, and as long as King and Prowse have the opportunity to tour and play music every night, that’s what they’re going to do. It’s what they did for a year and a half after their full-length debut Post-Nothing unexpectedly caught on with critics, and it’s what they’ve been doing since the release of Celebration Rock. Japandroids’ second record has been widely hailed as one of the year’s best; but, just as importantly, it’s given the band a wider audience—and an excuse to stay on the road.

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Brian King’s pre-show request that I keep his grave clean if, God forbid, he didn’t make it isn’t conjured out of thin air. Before the show, he, Prowse and I wander through a Civil War cemetery that happens to abut the restaurant in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown district where we’ve just eaten lunch. The sky is overcast and the solemn tableaus of weathered gravestones couldn’t be a farther cry from the communal, life-affirming celebration King and Prowse will later orchestrate at Terminal West.

It’s at Prowse’s insistence that we check out the graveyard before heading to the venue; he finds cemeteries fascinating and visits them wherever he can when on tour (New Orleans is a particular favorite stop). King isn’t as big of a fan. “Dave sees it as a recreation thing,” he says. “I’ve been to some for other reasons, and I can’t see any recreation in it anymore. It reminds me of things I don’t want to be reminded of.”

As Prowse breaks off to read plaques and study headstone inscriptions, King meanders absently. When the subject is Japandroids, the two members seem to speak from the same mind, coloring one another’s ruminations on their career and music in general. Here in the cemetery, their personalities couldn’t be more divergent. “Brian and I don’t agree on everything,” Prowse says. “But we agree on most things.” When two people’s lives are tied together in such a profound and intimate way, traveling in the same confined space for months on end and sharing an equal stake in the same all-consuming artistic endeavor, “agreeing on most things” is probably as good as can be hoped for.

Prowse is almost out of sight when it’s time to leave, emerging from the distant visitor’s center with some literature in hand. King and I are near the entrance when he calls me over to look at something. But instead of a poetic headstone inscription, he just smiles and points out a squirrel nibbling on something at the base of a magnolia tree.

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King and Prowse met in college in Victoria, British Columbia, on the picturesque southern end of Vancouver Island. Neither of them had played in a band before and Prowse didn’t even learn to play drums until his third year at university. They connected over a passion for music, though, and after graduating they reconvened in Vancouver with the intention of starting a band, initially planning to bring on a third member to sing so they could focus on jamming as hard as possible on their respective instruments. They never found a third member, but went ahead and put out two EPs with King on lead vocals. Neither gained any traction outside of Vancouver (the EPs were released together in 2010 as No Singles). “There was definitely a sense that Vancouver was largely ignored as far as where music comes from,” Prowse recalls. “It kind of felt like you were forever going to be an obscure band if you continued to be a band in Vancouver.”

Because of the lack of attention, King and Prowse decided that their first full-length album, Post-Nothing, would be the last thing they recorded. Then, during what they thought would be one of their last shows at Pop Montreal in October of 2008 they caught the ear of Canada’s Unfamiliar Records, which agreed to distribute Post-Nothing.

After Post-Nothing’s release in early 2009, positive press began to roll in, including a coveted “Best New Music” distinction from Pitchfork. They decided to ride out their newfound success for as long as they could, touring for the rest of 2009 and all of 2010 with few breaks. “That year and a half really flew by,” Prowse says. “There wasn’t a lot of time to pause and reflect on what you were doing. You just kept rolling with it.”

Post-Nothing is an album defined by the raw energy. The lyrics are spare and carefree, centering primarily around girls and drinking but doing so within the context of larger issues like big dreams, warding off old age through rock ‘n’ roll and the struggle to break free of the suffocating clutches of one’s hometown. “I don’t want to worry about dying, I just want to worry about those sunshine girls,” King sings on “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” the album’s most popular track.

Post-Nothing was written and recorded with no touring experience and no real expectations that anyone outside of Vancouver would even hear it. As they approached their second album, King and Prowse knew what to expect from live audiences, they knew what worked and what didn’t, and they were infinitely more familiar with each other’s strengths and limitations as musicians. In their minds, they were writing and recording a record to take back out on the road. Celebration Rock was not so much meant to be dissected through headphones as it was to exemplify the most optimal confluence of riffs, hooks and “whoa, oh, ohs” to bang one’s head along with and whip one’s sweat-drenched hair around to.

This isn’t to say it came easy. Celebration Rock’s composition was an “incredibly stressful” year-long ordeal comprised of stopping and starting, struggling to find inspiration and, eventually, a decision to wrest themselves from their creative paralysis by packing up and hitting the road.

“I don’t like being in the studio at all and I don’t think Brian likes it much more than I do,” Prowse confesses. “It’s a necessary evil. It’s just a really stifling atmosphere. It’s not as inspiring as playing in front of a group of people. It’s a lot of time to worry about what you’re doing and over think things, whereas when you’re playing a show you don’t have to think very much. You can just embrace the moment you’re in and go with it.”

The pressure of knowing an entire fan base is waiting to hear what you put out next didn’t help either, and King and Prowse spent most of 2011 spinning their tires in Vancouver, trying to force a creative spark whenever they were able to schedule time at a practice space. In the fall they decided to do what they sang about doing on Post-Nothing: they left Vancouver. After a cathartic cross-country road trip, they wound up in Nashville, where they rented a house.

“When you live in a house, your living room is your practice space,” King says. “It’s just 24/7. When something comes you can just be like ‘Hey, let’s just work on this. Let’s do this.’ You have a lot of freedom to just let it come out. We had a deck, we could get outside, get some fresh air. We could get a beer, come back, go get some food, come back, watch a movie, start again. It makes the creative process a more continual, every day, all-the-time thing, instead of limiting it to regimented blocks.”

The first song they wrote in Nashville was “The House That Heaven Built,” Celebration Rock’s anthemic single and Paste’s pick for Song of the Year. Propelled by Prowse’s churning, piston-like drums and one uplifting guiar riff after another, King calls on elemental, heaven-and-hell imagery to elevate his message to Biblical proportions. His voice strained nearly to its breaking point, he preaches “It’s a lifeless life with no fixed address to give, but you’re not mine to die for anymore, so I must live!” as if his life depends on it. More than anything else they’ve written, the song encapsulates Japandroids’ ethos of celebrating life’s most passionate moments and throwing a middle finger to anyone and anything that tries to get in the way. “If they try to hold you down,” King howls. “Tell ‘em all to go to hell.”

After putting the rest of the album’s songs together in Nashville, they returned to Vancouver to record with Jesse Gander, whom they also worked with on Post-Nothing, and emerged with an eight-track, 35-minute tour de force that addresses the familiar topic of mining life’s highest highs for all they’re worth, but does so on a much larger scale and with far more at stake. It’s an album that sees Japandroids out from under the shroud of Vancouver’s drizzling skies, turned loose on the road in a wild mission to set the world on fire. And more so than on Post-Nothing, on Celebration Rock they’ve extended a hand for listeners to join them.

Despite the struggles of writing and recording Celebration Rock, King is optimistic about their next venture into the studio, whenever that may be. Which isn’t to say he has any clue now as to what could possibly be done to set a prospective third album apart from Celebration Rock. “Does it need the London Symphony Orchestra to come and play a fucking thing over it?,” he says. “I don’t know.”

Japandroids  will, however, have more resources at their disposal, more experience to draw from and less pressure to prove themselves. “The second album is your make it or break it kind of thing, proving the first one wasn’t a fluke,” King tells me. “The old cliché of the sophomore slump. There’s an infinite amount of pressure on the second to prove you are worthy of all the attention you received on the first. On the third record, I feel, you have less to prove. You can breathe a little bit easier. But third records, more often than not, are the big ones. People think it’s the first records, but they’re wrong. It’s the third ones. OK Computer, third record.”

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After all of the gear has been loaded into the venue and the sound has been checked and checked again, there’s nothing left to do but wait until the doors open. While King irons a shirt on a bath towel he laid over a countertop (“How about this for rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle,” he quips), Prowse and I sit outside drinking whiskey chilled with ice popped from a rubber Millennium Falcon novelty tray. As the details of Han Solo’s ship begin to melt away, we speak about the band’s future touring plans and of stories from tours past. Philadelphia-based indie group Swearin’, who released their own excellent debut earlier this year, are about to come on and groups of fans start to pass us intermittently on their way to the venue. A group of guys walk by and one of them points at Prowse and lets out a “Yeah!” of recognition.

After finishing our drinks we decide to catch the last half of Swearin’s set. Prowse saddens at the realization that the next night’s show in Asheville will be their last together. We stand up to go and King appears briefly in the trailer door with a towel on. “He took a shower?” Prowse asks incredulously before rolling his eyes.

Two years ago, Prowse and King probably wouldn’t have been recognized anywhere other than their parents’ houses. Now, after the magnitude of Celebration Rock’s success, they’re fully conscious of their heightened media presence and the now potentially historical context of their music. As “reference material” on the official Japandroids website they list other classic, eight-song albums (Raw Power, Born to Run and Led Zeppelin’s IV) as well as other classic 35-minute albums (The Replacements’ Let It Be, Revolver and Pet Sounds). Whether they were posted with tongues in cheek or not, some of the lofty distinctions that have been leveled on Celebration Rock make the comparisons less of a half-joke and more of a legitimate question of rock ‘n’ roll lineage. It’s at least something to consider on this second go-round for Japandroids, where issues of context and their identity as an established, lasting band have supplanted the often-fleeting narrative of a couple of kids riding out a golden opportunity to tour the world and play music every night.

“I think it takes a while to find your identity,” King tells me at lunch. “When you think of what your favorite bands are, those bands probably stand out to you because of some kind of particular thing about them that differentiates them from other bands. I think that process is still ongoing for us. We’ve figured out some parts of it, and there are some parts where there are still a lot of question marks. We’ve been a band for quite a long time now but I still feel that maybe we’ve only got 50 percent of it figured out, and the other half we’re still making up as we go along.”

And which bands do have it figured out? King mentions The White Stripes and Fugazi as bands that had their image, sound and “whole schtick,” as King puts it, locked down, but goes on to make the important distinction that just because a band appears to have it all together, doesn’t mean they actually do.

“I don’t know if these bands actually have it figured out,” he says. “That’s just my perception. You say one word: Fugazi, and you know all of this. Questions? None. I say White Stripes. Bam. No questions. It’s not just their songs, you know exactly their sound. You know the way they like to record. You know their aesthetic. You know their background. They figured something out in their little slice of the rock ‘n’ roll pie, but most bands don’t have that thing yet that solidifies them. They’re still trying to figure it out.”

Later our waitress comes by to ask King how his pancakes were. He’d ordered them on the side specifically because the menu featured a quote from the New York Times claiming they were the world’s best. “Not as good as Mom’s,” he says.

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As with most of their shows, Japandroids’ most ardent supporters are packed tightly up to the edge of the stage at Terminal West, waiting for King to strum that opening chord on his red Telecaster Deluxe.

“My name’s Brian, this is Dave and we’re Japandroids from British Columbia, Canada,” King announces triumphantly before launching into “Adrenaline Nightshift,” with Prowse coming in on the drums seconds later.

If their music provides an escape from whatever pressures the audience might’ve been feeling that day, it works for King and Prowse as well. All the talk of recording struggles, their identity as a band and a potential third album is just that: something to talk about. Their thoughts rarely extend beyond the next night’s show. When they’re touring everything leading up to and following the one to two blissful hours they’re on stage any given night is extraneous, necessary ephemera that only serves to make their time playing music on stage in front of their fans possible. They love all of the ephemera, too, but it’s the time on stage that keeps them going.

For how hard they rock, for how heavy King’s riffs are and for how ferociously Prowse attacks his drum kit—which he sets up facing King, perpendicular to the audience—it’s surprising how little moshing takes place at Japandroids’ shows. Elbows are rarely thrown, and the only people that end up on the ground are crowd surfers who accidentally slip through through the outstretched arms of their tacit support system. Their music isn’t about letting out aggression as much as it’s about rejoicing to the heavens and the celebratory communion that takes place between performer and audience, who King and Prowse consider the third member of the band—the singer they were never able to find when they first decided to play music together.

“I think having that interaction with the crowd is the most inspiring part of being in a band,” Prowse says. “Having those moments where the crowd is singing along with you…that’s the reason I’m doing this. It’s just an amazing feeling. You get a very, very nasty addiction to it.”

The crowd harmonizing along to songs like “The House That Heaven Built”; the band’s infectious stage presence; playing every show like it’s their last; the genuine, inimitable bond King and Prowse share; the uniform black-and-white record covers; those records’ anthemic, jubilant riffs—it’s all part of what make Japandroids Japandroids. And if you mentioned the band’s name to anyone to any one of the fist-pumping fans pressed up against the stage, they’d have pretty good idea of exactly what you’re talking about—their sound, their background, their aesthetic, their whole schtick.

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