Japandroids suck at pinball. Like, they're really bad. I've brought Brian King and Dave Prowse to Get Well , a bar in Toronto that specializes in vintage pinball machines and arcade games thinking they might get some kicks from all of the retro junk before we sit down and chat, but it's not working. They're nice enough to play along, however, they can barely keep a ball in play.
Although they may still feel like they're on Pacific Standard Time, after arriving here earlier in the day from Los Angeles, I don't think exhaustion is to blame. Neither is the distracting illustration of a voluptuous Dolly Parton on the glass in front of them we were admiring before they began playing. No, the way they go through the stack of quarters in no time, consistently hitting only a few targets before the ball sinks down the drain is a sure sign that they just stink at it. As a music writer who failed to fulfill a dream of becoming a musician like these guys, it's a little inspiring to know that by comparison, I am a pinball wizard.
"Who's the worst between the two of you?" I ask.
They both raise their hands with more competitive spirit than anything they've shown playing the machine and try to claim the honor of who sucks harder. Prowse seems to take it, however.
"That doesn't say much, though," chimes King.
The guys are in Toronto—where King now lives part-time—for a show the next day at the Horseshoe Tavern, a small-ish venue they previously played when they were touring their first album, 2009's Post-Nothing. The stop is part of a mini-tour they've booked to play key markets to get the word out that, hey, after nearly five years since their last album, 2012's Celebration Rock, they will finally be releasing an album in January. "It's a nice way for us to get our feet wet to play these smaller rooms. We haven't played shows in three years," says Prowse over top of the noisy fourth-graders slapping The Simpsons beat 'em game behind us. "A lot of these new songs were built in the studio, and we didn't think about how to play them live, so figuring all of that stuff out felt a lot less daunting getting to play small rooms that we knew were going to be packed and super fun, and a little more casual."
At this point, the album, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, is still top secret, but after the band's first of four consecutive comeback shows in Vancouver, word of new music along with shitty quality YouTube clips of them performing it spread like an airborne virus. People just can't keep those exclusive moments to themselves. Naturally, they aren't fond of iPhone-shot footage being any kind of introduction for new material.
"As a person in the band, yeah, that's not how I want you to hear songs for the first time. Especially at these first shows where we are still learning how to play them," King says. "I know some people are excited to hear new music, but when we're performing it for the first time, and you're hearing it on YouTube, I literally do not think it could ever sound worse. But at the same time, when you decide to book a tour and try out new songs you sign up for this and there is no real way around it. Nature of the beast, I guess."
King and Prowse are aware of the anticipation for the new album, but what they might not fully understand is just how badly their fans have needed it. They aren't exactly social media savvy, and they mostly connect with fans via the band's Facebook's page, where King posts announcements. Otherwise it's in person before or after gigs. Since the end of 2013, there have been no gigs, no social media updates, nothing, so trying to communicate with them has been near impossible. And that kind of radio silence has left the fans, not to mention the press, both impatient and dreading the worst. I can't help but paraphrase a Noisey article from last year: "Yo, Japandroids, where you dawgs been at?"
"I'm familiar with that article," King says with a forced smile. "A few years ago we decided to make this record in secret, or without publicly saying, 'Hey, we're together making a new record.' I think that's one great thing about dropping off the face of the Earth. We know we're making a record, but it leaves that sense of uncertainty: 'Did they break up?' 'Are they working on a new record?' 'Are they on a hiatus?' And then when you drop the news that you're releasing a new album it's the best."
I think that's one great thing about dropping off the face of the Earth. We know we're making a record, but it leaves that sense of uncertainty: 'Did they break up?'
Unlike artists like Drake, Rihanna and Frank Ocean, who teased their new albums a good year in advance and let their fans stew in expectation, Japandroids felt vanishing Dave Chappelle-style was the best way to go about business. Why promise something or even acknowledge it when you have no idea when it will be available?
"Looking back on it now, and using Frank Ocean as the other path that we could have taken, I'm really glad we decided to do it the way we did," King says. "He announced it and a year goes by, so how can he possibly deliver the album with the same excitement. At some point everyone questioned, 'Is this ever coming out?' From when people hear this news to the time that the album comes out, it's right afterwards. You're gonna get the album when the excitement is still at maximum."
The fact of the matter is Japandroids were in no rush to make album number three. Unlike Celebration Rock, which was made much quicker because they needed to get back on the road to make money, this time around they could take their sweet ass time – and they did. But anyone in their position would do the same.
"We eventually we ran out of time making Celebration Rock, and that changed our mentality about what is really important. So we had that mentality right off the bat with this record," Prowse explains. "So when we started working on this record it was just gonna take as long as it was gonna take. As Brian said, it turned out to be a wise move on our part for a number of reasons – even ones we never thought of. We put enough pressure on ourselves to put out something we're proud of, so there's no need to also put deadline stress to make sure it's ready for this tour or that festival."
Obviously, Japandroids are not the kind of band that can throw an album up on Bandcamp whenever they feel like it. But there's a reason for that. They don't want to give us some album they knocked out in a weekend. And we shouldn't want that.
"It's very easy in the modern age for making the best record the band can possibly make to not be the most significant factor in the process," King says. "We wanted to make sure that we felt like we made not only the best thing we could make but the best thing we've ever made and something that we were really proud of. And we were just lucky that this time we had the luxury to do that."
Since 2006, Japandroids have called Vancouver home. They came up out of the city's DIY scene and in those first couple of years rarely played shows outside of the city. When their debut album, Post-Nothing, dropped in 2009, home quickly became wherever they woke up the next morning. This nomadic lifestyle only increased with the massive success of their sophomore album, Celebration Rock. For the past seven years they've lived the lyrics to their song "The Boys Are Leaving Town" ("The boys are leaving town / Will we find our way back home?"). After finishing up the touring for Celebration Rock, King moved from the band's home base of Vancouver to Toronto, and eventually ended up in Mexico City, where his girlfriend lives. He has split his time between the two cities, as well as Vancouver where Prowse continues to live. They wrote in each of those cities, as well as New Orleans, and this sense that home didn't have to be one particular place became a theme for Near To The Wild Heart Of Life.
"As far as being a band that is drums, guitars, and vocals, who's energetic and recorded in a very simplistic way it's hard for either of us to imagine being able to do that better than we did on 'Celebration Rock.'"
"Home now doesn't refer to a specific city," says King. "I think the most obvious thing about changing locations was that there was a certain excitement to it. We might start working on a song in one city, and then we might finish that song in another city. At the end of the day it's making music in the band together that allowed us to do that. If you're inspired by your surroundings, how is it not going to make your music better? Trying to make an album where you're just uninspired by your surroundings can't possibly result in a good album. I mean, maybe Sun Kil Moon could make a great record that way, but not Japandroids, I don't think."
Being a duo definitely proved beneficial. Unlike, say fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene, who operate as a multi-person collective, making decisions between two people allowed them to met up wherever, whenever as they pleased.
"Being in a two-piece band can make a transition like this a lot smoother," says King. "All we have to do is call the other person, make a plan to meet and the band is together."
"That said," adds Prowse, "We didn't know how smooth it would be. I mean, we're bandmates but we're also friends. If he needs to live somewhere else to be a happier person I'm not going to get in his way. We can figure it out. We're grown ups. And it turned out to be a very positive thing for both of us. You can fall into a pattern of going to the jam space every day and try to grind it out. Because we were living in two different places, I could go visit Brian in Toronto or Mexico City, or he would come to Vancouver, and we would have this intense period of writing and rehearsing together. And then we'd take a break, and a step back and reflect on what we'd done. It was more fun to come up, take a breath and then dive back in. I think it really worked well for this record. We wouldn't have the same record had we done it differently, that's for sure."
"Not only did it have a dramatic effect on the record, it re-energized the band in a way that was entirely positive," says King.
The more you listen to Near To The Wild Heart Of Life the more it sounds like a next chapter-type record for Japandroids. They knew this was coming from the outset, but they didn't know what to do or how to do it.
"As far as being a band that is drums, guitars, and vocals, who's energetic and recorded in a very simplistic way that sounds like a great live recording, it's hard for either of us to imagine being able to do that better than we did on Celebration Rock," says Prowse. "We'd kind of put together a formula by that point, but it just wasn't interesting or inspiring for us to make another record by cranking the amps up, bashing away on the drums and doing a whole bunch of full-blown rockers all the way through, with maybe a slightly slower song at the end. So we really wanted to experiment with different ways of writing songs, and what we can pull off as a two-piece."
Don't take that word "experiment" the wrong way: Japandroids are still a full-on rock'n'roll band. But Prowse is right in that Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is not an album of adrenaline-boosting rockers. Where it was always about keeping things lit, the band have toned things down, added acoustic guitars in spots and even written a seven-minute opus called "Arc of Bar," which taken out of context, sounds like a completely different band. This album was a chance for King and Prowse to prove to themselves more than anyone that they could break out of any confines they were feeling.
"I think on the new record there is a balance of songs that do sound somewhat like they could be a natural evolution from Celebration Rock. And then there are a bunch of other songs that to me are big-time left turns," Prowse says. "I don't think even we could have predicted some of the songs that came out of this record back in 2013. I don't think in 2013 we would think of writing a song like 'Arc of Bar.' That took a lot of exploring and working to get there, which was a really fun process."
If you're worrying about the anthems, don't: Japandroids still love the rock anthems as much as anyone. "No Known Drink Or Drug," for example, feels like an older, more responsible companion to unruly fan favorites like "Young Hearts Spark Fire" and "The House That Heaven Built." And the title track, "Near To The Wild Heart Of Life," is likely the closest thing to Celebration Rock; it moves at a frantic pace and contains the "ohhh-ohhh" chants you and everyone love to shout along to at gigs. The most important thing to King, however, was to make Near To The Wild Heart Of Life as fulfilling as the records that influenced him. "I definitely think there was a concerted effort this time to try and write a more complete album," he says. "I think that most of my favourite rock albums are not just the same thing ten times. There are a lot of different kinds of songs and themes, and over the course of the record you take a journey. It offers you a bit of everything. To me that's not what Celebration Rock was. That was closer to one thing hitting you hard the whole time. And this record is at least trying to give you a complete experience. The amps are not always up to 11 this time around."
In adopting a new philosophy, Japandroids felt they needed to be adopted by a new label to help them grow. After releasing their first two albums, as well as the 2010 compilation No Singles, on Polyvinyl Records, the band found new homes on Anti- (Worldwide) and Arts & Crafts (Canada). "This record we were looking to grow as a band, and a record label we could keep growing with," says King. "For the first two albums, Polyvinyl were the ideal label to be on because they just believed in our vision and gave us our artistic freedom. So to go to Anti-, a label that could help us grow but maintain that same kind of personal relationship based on respect, trust and artistic freedom that was asking a lot, but we got very lucky. Plus, I don't know if there's anything cooler than being labelmates with Tom Waits. It's pretty damn cool." "And with Arts & Crafts, we've known Cam [Reed, label manager] since the beginning," adds Prowse. "He put on some of the first Japandroids shows. So it just made sense to go with them. We knew we could trust someone like him."
We've been working on these songs for so long and I'm just very proud of them and excited to share them with the world.
The next night at the Horseshoe, the venue is undoubtedly beyond capacity. Sightlines are pretty nonexistent, and I can barely see Prowse seated at his kit, singing his heart out in response to King's lead. When King promises that we'll "fucking love" new song "North East South West" because there is a Toronto reference in it, the crowd eats it up like candy. With the new song behind them, they leave the second half of the show for the big songs: "Younger Us," "For The Love Of Ivy," and of course, "The House That Heaven Built" all induce pandemonium. The gig turns out to be just what they'd hoped for the night before.
As the crowd thins out once the house lights turn on, Prowse comes over to have a quick post-gig chat. I tell him the band was awesome, and that the new songs sounded great. They have nothing to worry about. I also express surprise in not realizing he sings a song on the new record called "Midnight To Morning" until he performed it live.
"It was a bit scary jumping back on stage but I missed it. I missed it a lot personally," Prowse says. "We've been working on these songs for so long and I'm just very proud of them and excited to share them with the world. There is some stress involved in putting on the best show you can. Just getting to see those people in the crowd singing our songs and getting to reconnect with them after being gone for a while has been special for me. After disappearing for a few years people still remember us." And then we're interrupted by a wide-eyed fan who looks like he's about to explode. "I just wanna say thank you for giving us the best night of our lives," he manages to blurt. Prowse smiles and thanks him for coming.
Maybe that's why Japandroids don't have the time or care to brush up on their pinball skills. They're too busy giving fans the best nights of their lives. Cam's first rap group also happens to be named 'Arc of Bar.' Follow him on Twitter. Illustration by John Garrison