Japandroids Aren't Here to Change the World, but They Might Just Change Your Heart
Basically every musician, ever, will tell you they don't want to be pigeonholed. But they're usually talking about limiting themselves to the confines of one hit song, or the sonic signifiers of one genre. Going hard against type can look risky, but rarely does it ever appear complicated. Kanye West didn't feel like rapping so much on 808s & Heartbreak. Lou Reed cast aside the traditional definition of "songwriter" as "a person who writes songs" with Metal Machine Music. Miley Cyrus did her best work after she murdered Hannah Montana. The list of examples could go on for a million years.
For Japandroids, the conflict between perceived audience expectations and aspirations toward honest art presents obstacles unique to the onetime Vancouver-based garage duo.
Since a surprise audience coalesced around 2009's Post-Nothing and their follow-up Celebration Rock mushroomed into the quintessential indie rock record of 2012, Brian King and David Prowse haven't been boxed into a style or one or two emblematic tracks. Instead, they've been pigeonholed into memories, and not necessarily their own.
Fans should be forgiven, if not commended, if they rely on the ramshackle exuberance of "Young Hearts Spark Fire" from Post-Nothing to recall carefree-ish, optimistic-ish bygone sections of their lifetime. Ditto for Celebration's "Younger Us," and a fistful of others. As for Japandroids themselves, they're not in the business of living up to other people's ghosts.
"There was a time when the band was given this label that had a lot to do with nostalgia that we never intended," King clarifies amid a day navigating media obligations at Chinatown's Wyndham Garden. Indulging my curiosity, the singer-guitarist habitually pounds the hotel restaurant table—off of which drummer Prowse munches a plate of tacos—with a casualness implying unconscious reflex rather than emphasis on whatever point he's making at a given moment. It's as if there's a metronome in his brain that's struggling to power down.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life's mood proceeds down a road more tender than Japandroids have most famously traversed.
"I think when Celebration Rock came out, we got painted as that kind of band who wrote that kind of song and evoked that kind of feeling," King says. "And for a lot of people out there, that really speaks to them. They feel the way that I suppose they think we felt when we wrote those songs, or feel a kinship with those ideas. But I've never really read or heard anyone interpret a lot of those songs the way I did in my head when I wrote them."
Near to the Wild Heart of Life—out today—picks up with a beaming salvo that, in the alternate reality where Japandroids wrote it years earlier, fits quite snugly amongst the rest of Celebration Rock. While they obviously haven't abandoned that kind of song, Near to the Wild Heart of Life's mood proceeds down a road more tender than the band has most famously traversed. King's not the sort of lyricist who directly names his own muses. But since we're forced to offer a speculative summary, let's say that whereas Japandroids used to sing mostly about drinking, their third album is mostly songs about love ("True Love and a Free Life of Free Will," "North East South West," and the smoldering second single "No Known Drink or Drug") with some songs about drinking (the seven-minute centerpiece "Arc of Bar"), and a few that are about both (such as the wistfully rigorous "In a Body Like a Grave").
Critics and commentators following their natural inclinations may discuss Near to the Wild Heart of Life as Japandroids' most accessible effort. The work stands as their most restrained and least "punk"—in the sense that they have yet to determine how much they can replicate the intricacies of each track's production during a strictly two-man live performance. But technically, Japandroids already crossed the threshold into broadest possible appeal five years ago with "The House That Heaven Built" off Celebration Rock. King and Prowse have heard the relevance of guitar music called into question on a routine basis since they officially joined forces a decade ago.
But it's not as if the demand for an objectively flawless rock 'n' roll song ever grew terribly selective. The timeless, or at least trend-proof, mindset extends beyond the genre's durability. King draws a line connecting Delta blues legend John Lee Hooker influencing Nick Cave influencing himself to explain his frequent lyrical allusions to the Devil, Heaven, and Hell—three symbols that can summon entirely different meanings for each individual listener.
Of course, "accessibility" itself all depends on perspective. As the first record Japandroids found themselves unable to construct solely in Vancouver, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is the most inconveniently conceived gathering of eight Japandroids tracks in history. King fled the band's original homebase for Toronto in the aftermath of the triumphant yet exhausting two years touring behind Celebration Rock, and he has since relocated again to Mexico City. Prowse remains in Vancouver, but the pair commandeered a space in New Orleans for writing and rehearsing purposes back in 2014. Geographic constraints mandated a lengthier process for what even its press release describes as a "difficult third record" while annihilating any possibility of inadvertently dialing it in.
"I think if we'd both been living in Vancouver and going down to the jam space a few blocks away, that would've been less exciting," Prowse says. "It might've been faster, maybe, than having to take forced breaks to go back to our individual homes and lives now and again. But I think we figured out a nice rhythm: spend a month together, feel very excited and motivated, work on a bunch of ideas, take a break for a bit, listen back to what we were doing, and then do it again."
"I read this one thing about us, and it said something along the lines of, 'It's really hard to believe Japandroids made this album, because it's so tone-deaf in the current political climate,'" King recalls. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Maybe this person doesn't realize we're not American, or that we wrote this entire record before Trump announced he was running for president?"
Although apolitical on the surface, Japandroids' music offers a nationless general advisement against letting the bastards hold you down. That is not the thing America needs right now, but maybe it is one of the things?
"With music like ours, you're not trying to affect policy—you're trying to affect values, not that I think our music could affect any policy anyway," King explains. "If it's going to have any impact, that's where it's going to be, and at the end of the day, in terms of society and culture, that can have even more of a ripple effect."
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.