“I used to think our DIY tendencies were a product of our environment, but now I’m not so sure. I think we just like being in control of our own destiny.” – Siobhán Kane talks to David Prowse of Japandroids.
Brian King and David Prowse met in 2000 but didn’t start making music together until King moved to Vancouver around 2005; and since then Japandroids have embodied all that is best about the DIY movement, through slowly, steadily doing things their way. Their first two EP’s 2007’s All Lies, and 2008’s Lullaby Death Jams (which were collated later into a compilation – 2010’s No Singles) were noisy, immediate garage rock/pop records, with the more furious elements finding their way into 2009’s Post-Nothing.
The strangest thing is, just as they had become exhausted and disillusioned with things, and had made the decision to dissolve the band, Post-Nothing garnered swathes of critical acclaim, to the point where they felt compelled to continue on, finding an even greater zeal through live performance, a nourishing experience that has fed back into their most recent work, this year’s Celebration Rock – because it was an excuse to go back out to perform live. Celebration Rock is more measured than their previous work, perhaps partly to do with their change in landscape for some of it (Nashville) and their further, more intense exploration of musical form, coupled with a renewed enthusiasm for being in a band again, as David Prowse explains to Siobhán Kane.
Celebration Rock is a wonderful record, it retains the immediacy of Post-Nothing, but seems more ambitious in terms of lyrics, and the soundscapes are more epic. Do you think this is in part because this time around you knew that there was an audience out there, anticipating the record, and willing you on? How would you describe the differences in the two records? A lot of time had passed and we had gone through a lot as a band, and I think we both felt we were capable of something a lot better that Post-Nothing. We wanted to improve upon what we’d done in every way – better lyrics, better melodies, better musicianship, better recordings. Post-Nothing is a fun little mess. The recordings still have an energy I like, and I think there’s a bit of innocence to the whole thing coming from us just being two dudes in a local band cranking out a record over a few days. Pretty much every song has some small mistake in it here or there, which is part of its charm I suppose. With Celebration Rock, we wanted to have the same feeling of a “live” sounding record that had lots of energy, but we were much more methodical about the songwriting and the performance. A lot of the details were ironed out, and it was a much more planned out record, for us at least. I think knowing we had an audience really pushed us to make the best record we could, because we felt a lot of pressure to live up to people’s expectations.
There is even more of an exploration of good and evil on this record – it brings to mind the struggles that are age-old, from the Bible to Batman – and there is a journey there – from ‘Evil’s Sway’ to ‘The House That Heaven Built’ – when did this interest in those concepts begin for you and Brian, and was it important for you somehow to end on a redemptive, hopeful note? I didn’t write the lyrics, but I think that those themes are omnipresent throughout the history of music, so it’s understandable that Brian would foray into that territory. A lot of his favourite artists talk about good and evil pretty regularly – Nick Cave and Jeffrey Lee Pierce, for example. I think our music is pretty positive for the most part, so even though the lyrics occasionally go into slightly darker territory, they usually come back to a pretty upbeat chorus, so I think it’s a pretty natural thing, rather than being a conscious strategy.
A sense of the fleeting nature of time also informs your live performances – which are incendiary – you give so much – it seems that if you could simply play live and not record, that might be a perfect life – what are your thoughts, and who else do you love seeing live? The live setting is still where we feel most at home. I think we both realise how important recordings are, even if recording is the aspect of being in a band that we like the least. In the end, those recordings will outlive the band and the both of us, and that’s how the band will really be remembered. I’ve thought a lot before about just trying to tour all the time and record shows as you go along, but whenever we’ve tried to do live recordings at shows they never can capture the energy of the show. So we always end up going back to the studio.
There are so many great bands out there who I would love to see live night after night. In recent times, the three live acts that have really blown me away are Refused, The Dirty Three and The Sadies. All three of those bands are so powerful live. I will see those bands any chance I get.
Post-Nothing was recorded with Vancouver in mind – and Brian moved there in 2005 to start the band with you, which perhaps somehow seeped into your first record, but some of Celebration Rock was recorded in Nashville – I was wondering if you felt the same thing applied to this record? Nashville seems like an interesting choice, I understand it completely from a musical perspective, because the place breathes music, but you didn’t necessarily click in with the musical community there – and instead moved there for a period of time – was it to regain that feeling you had when you first moved to Vancouver? Do you like that disorientating feeling of being in a new place? I actually grew up in Vancouver, and have lived most of my life there. I think Post-Nothing is definitely a “Vancouver” record, in the sense that we had both been living there and making music there for a while, and a lot of the record is about the desire to escape Vancouver. There are lots of references to that throughout the album. I think Celebration Rock comes more from a perspective of having achieved that escape, and about being on the move. At least to some extent. We recorded both Celebration Rock and Post-Nothing in the same studio in Vancouver – the Hive – with the same engineer – Jesse Gander. But the difference was, that in the months preceding Post-Nothing we were living in Vancouver, and for much of the time between albums we were away from Vancouver, whether it was in Nashville – where we did some writing – or just wherever on tour.
Moving to Nashville was one of the most important moments in 2011 for us. Things were pretty stagnant for a while in Vancouver, and I think we both really missed the movement and the inspiring nature of touring. Nashville was an opportunity to have some time away from everyone we knew and to escape to a place where we could work and play music every day with less distraction, and just focus on music rather than deadlines and money and whatever else. We didn’t really integrate ourselves into the musical community there. Most of the time we were just hanging out at the house we rented and playing music there. We definitely went out and saw stuff, but we didn’t really advertise that we were musicians and just tried to be anonymous and hang out and see cool shit. It’s a great town, and I feel a strong connection to it now after having spent such an important period of my life there.
What is your relationship like to Vancouver now? I was wondering, because the structure in Vancouver seemed closed to you early on, so you then set about the DIY route, organising your own concerts, completely bypassing the “scene” – which is such a horrible word and concept – as it should be about community, but so often isn’t – what are your thoughts? I think Brian and I have very different opinions on Vancouver, its music scene and our relationship with the city and its musicians. We would both agree that we are much more outsiders than we used to be. I think that if you spend enough time away you’re bound to lose touch with the city you used to call home and the people who live there. At the same time, I still feel a very intense loyalty to Vancouver, and I have a lot of friends there still. We both think about leaving that city and moving somewhere else, but at the same time we are so rarely home that it probably wouldn’t make much sense to move anywhere else.
It’s hard to know how the band would have evolved if we had been based in Toronto, or Montreal or New York. I have a feeling we would have gone about things in a very similar way wherever we lived. I used to think our DIY tendencies were a product of our environment, but now I’m not so sure. I think we just like being in control of our own destiny.
Because you have toured exhaustively, and it has framed a huge part of your life, do you find that is has impacted on the way you view home now? Has something shifted? Our lives are completely different from what they were four years ago, and the biggest difference is that we no longer really live in Vancouver and instead we live everywhere and nowhere. When we toured on Post-Nothing it was incredibly exciting but eventually I felt an urge to have a home base again and spend more time at home. Funnily enough, when we did go home to work on the new record, it proved to be much more difficult to adjust than I ever thought. It made me acutely aware that I idealised Vancouver after I had been away, and it also made me realise how different I am now, and how differently I view the city. These days it feels a little too small, a little too comfortable, and frankly, a little boring. But at the same time, I love it, and I love so many people there, even if I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I would like.
These days, some of my closest friends are in many other cities – LA, New York, London, Toronto. So things change, people move on, and you can’t expect to come back to the same town years later and have it be the same as when you left. Brian and I both talk and think about moving a lot, and not necessarily to the same place. I think we both feel like Vancouver feels a bit like a step back these days, almost like a time warp or something.
Your sound is also distinctly linked to your approach to things, you are both so honest, and it feels like you are forever the teenage fans, so excited to be creating music. Because of this, it must have been a really low time around 2008 when you had essentially decided to finish the band. Was it just exhausting? The thing that really kills bands is the administration of creativity – the creativity never goes away, but it can be everything surrounding it, what do you think? I think creativity is a pretty mysterious thing, and the reasons for its ebb and flow are too numerous to really find concrete patterns. We weren’t going to break up because of a lack of creativity, but we were both frustrated by a lack of progress for the band, and it was taking a toll on us and our personal relationships with each other, and other people as well. Making music is a really exciting thing, but if you’re not careful, it can start to feel like work and you can take what you do for granted. So ever since we almost broke up, we just decide whether to continue with the band on a very short term basis. We only want to continue if we’re excited about what we’re doing and we’re living up to our own expectations for ourselves and our band.
I have heard you reference bands like The Replacements in previous interviews, and you seem to admire their workmanlike attitude to creativity and making music, because they got on with it through graft- what do they represent to you? I think they’re one of the strongest influences on us, not only because we love their music, but because like you said, we can relate to them. I don’t think either Brian or I have any illusions that we are musical geniuses, and The Replacements seem similar to us in the sense that they were regular guys who loved music and worked at it to make great records.
You cover Gun Club’s ‘For the love of Ivy’ on this record, that was pleasantly surprising – first, because you are introducing a band to your audience who might not necessarily know them, and because that particular song is so intense, did you choose it because you wanted it to lift and propel you on to the end of the record, and almost raise the bar even further? Yeah, we picked a song that we loved and that we didn’t think we were capable of writing! Cover songs are fun to play, but we feel it’s important to pick ones that we find challenging to play, and we want to have our cover song have its own identity. So we take a lot of time in picking out cover songs that fit all those criteria, and hopefully if we play it well, it will expose a band we love to a whole new group of fans.
Japandroids seems more about friendship than anything else, and you were friends for a long time before starting the band, which forms part of the specialness of the music, it goes beyond making music, somehow. I think what separates Brian and I from a lot of other bands is that we are still pretty idealistic about our music and how our band operates and is represented, and we would rather stop the band than make decisions which we felt damaged the band’s legacy. Maybe that comes from the fact that we were friends to begin with. At the very least, we were like-minded enough to be friends before we became bandmates, and we talked a lot about the kind of band we wanted to be before we started playing music together. Music is something that is so special to us, so we take it very seriously. It’s really sad when you see bands that don’t seem to have the same passion for their music. I hope we never get like that…