INTERVIEW: For Japandroids, success is a moving target

Vancouver Weekly speaks with Japandroids drummer David Prowse

Photo by Camilo Christen
Photo by Camilo Christen

When Japandroids announced their four-night residency at The Cobalt last October, it was nearly three years since anyone had heard from the band. The Vancouver punk rock duo played more than 200 shows in support of their critical breakthrough Celebration Rock before falling suddenly silent, leaving many people wondering if they had heard the last of Japandroids. It was tempting to read a little too much into the crackling fireworks that opened and closed their 2012 LP, that perhaps the band had torn a page from Neil Young’s song book. Then again, Neil himself wasn’t quite ready to just burn out, either. 

The small club shows felt like a gift to devoted hometown fans who greeted Japandroids return with a heroes’ welcome. But there was more to come. Footage of new songs cropped up online and soon after, the band announced a long-awaited third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. With the group’s Vancouver show at the Commodore Ballroom coming up on March 20th, Vancouver Weekly spoke with drummer David Prowse to discuss Japandroids’ next chapter:

Q: How’s the tour going so far? 

A: I’m becoming painfully aware that I’m three years older than I was the last time we did this level of touring. But the shows have been great. We’ve been working on this record more or less in secret for quite some time and now we get to see how the record is reaching more and more people every day. You’re already seeing this transformation where there’s a bunch of people who don’t know “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” but they know all the songs on the new record, which is a very backwards thing for me to compute, but it’s really exciting. 

Q: There is a lot of energy at your shows. What is it that makes a Japandroids show so different from most shows where people stand nodding their heads with their arms crossed? 

A: I go to a lot of shows and you’re right, you don’t see that level of participation very often. The thing that is really, I guess, heartwarming is seeing how excited people are. You could see how crowd surfing and high energy music could take this more aggressive or, dare I say violent, path. But our shows don’t get like that. Everyone’s still looking after each other. 

I can’t really tell you exactly why that is. It’s some sort of magic formula we stumbled upon. That’s something we weren’t even necessarily aware of until we were touring for Post-Nothing and we started to see that there are certain moments where people latch on and really start to sing along. And we made Celebration Rock with a live show in mind. One thing that’s a little weird about this new record is that we didn’t do that. It has a very different mood. I think that was the big challenge for us: how do we make a record that still feels like us but do something that doesn’t feel redundant or like a version of something we’ve already done before? I feel like we’ve succeeded on that level. 

Q: Sometimes special moments happen spontaneously too. I remember at your Sasquatch set in 2013 you were playing “Continuous Thunder” and it started to rain. It was kind of perfect. 

A: Totally. It’s cool when those forces kind of align to create something. I guess it’s coincidence or fate, but those little things make a moment feel that much more unique. When you leave bit more room for spontaneity it feels more fresh for us and that translates into the way the crowd perceives the show. You have this sort of balancing act where you want to deliver the show you think people want, but you also don’t want it to feel robotic in any way. You don’t want it to feel like you’re just a human jukebox. We now have a pretty large catalog to choose from. It’s been cool to have a bit more of a chance to shake things up and choose what sort of environment we want to create. 

Q: Japandroids have cultivated a distinctive aesthetic: the black and white portraits on the album cover, the eight-song records–and previously–really sparse instrumentation. When you were working on this record and incorporating new elements, how did you decide which ones fit with Japandroids

A: When you want to take your music in a different direction, a natural starting point is to embrace different ways of writing. Once you open those doors, there’s a million different directions to go in. For example, on “Arc of Bar,” Brian [King] wrote those lyrics first, which is completely unique in the entire catalog of Japandroids. If we’d written “Arc of Bar” in a standard Japandroids template for how to write a song, I don’t think there’s any way we would have written a song like that. It took us to a very different place. That song is the one we’re most excited about on the new record because it feels like the furthest departure from what we’ve done in the past. When you’ve been in a band for ten years and you’re finding ways to surprise yourself and push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of doing within that band, [it’s pretty cool]. We’re very fortunate to have moments like that.

Q: What has it been like touring with Craig Finn? 

A: It’s a dream come true. The only negative thing I can say is that its pretty weird to have someone you look up to so much opening for your band. It seems kind of absurd on that level. You see him perform and not only is he an incredibly talented songwriter and storyteller, he’s also an outstanding front man. It’s pretty cool to have someone we respect so much, who’s been around the block, be there for this interesting time for our band. We played Terminal Five in New York and there was almost 3000 people there. When you’re at The Cobalt, there’s a certain amount of energy from being in a tightly packed room like that. Now there’s going to be people that are a couple of hundred feet from the stage who can hear the music but they’re not going to get the same vibe from being in the thick of things. It’s nice to have a steady hand, someone you can talk to who’s been through all that before and lived to tell the tale. We’re navigating some new territory, maybe entering more mainstream popularity; not being just a Pitchfork indie rock band. We’re getting into that world where much larger groups of people are becoming aware of our music. 

Q: What are your feelings on performing in Vancouver next week? 

A: The fact that we’re going to play The Commodore in a week is still pretty surreal to me. Brian and I both spent the majority of our twenties living in Vancouver before the band really took off going to tons and tons of shows. And The Commodore was where big shots go to play. The fact that we’re getting to play there and it’s sold out feels like a big milestone for us. There’s a symbolic power to playing that one because you’re a little more aware of what it means.