Q&A: Japandroids' Brian King on Their Single Series, Disappointing PJ Harvey, and That Siren Festival Rumor
A pair of late bloomers, guitarist/vocalist Brian King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse had never been in a band before they graduated from the University of Victoria and started chaffing against responsible adulthood and career jobs. Which meant that when the Canadian duo formed Japandroids--pride of Vancouver, heroes to those in need of fuzz and euphoria--that they laced their anthems of a life where nothing could ever be more important than friends and feedback with sense that the authors were old enough to know both how childish such ideals really are. And how much they needed to sing about them anyway. Their wry take on heartfelt punk, guitar/drums/back-and-forth vocals approach and waves of blissful last-nights-of-summer guitar gauze turned last year's Post-Nothing and its single "Young Hearts Spark Fire" into Best Of The Year staples.
They've hardly slowed down since. In addition to a year-and-a-half spent mostly touring, the pair started a seven-inch/mp3 singles series with their label Polyvinyl. So far we've seen "Art Czars" (their most bitter song yet) and "Younger Us" (their most earnest song yet) and "Heavenward Grand Prix" (their dreamiest song yet), backed with righteous covers of punk heroes (X's "Sex And Dying In High Society" and Big Black's "Racer X"). A cover of PJ Harvey's acoustic Uh Huh Her deep cut "Shame" is on the way, as well as two more single entrees and, before long, an ambitious second album. The group is wrapping up their endless tour with stops tonight at Death By Audio with friends/co-headliners A Place To Bury Strangers and tomorrow, October 27 at Maxwell's. We recently caught up with guitarist/singer Brian King to talk about cohesive albums and, more importantly, whether or not they did actually vomit before playing Siren Festival in July 2009.
In addition to constantly being on the road, you've stayed busy with your singles series. What was the idea behind this?
There were a couple different motivations. When we recorded our record, we had a bunch of other songs that were at different stages of completion, and we really only had the time and the money to record a chunk of the songs that we wanted to. I really am a fan of very cohesive records, records that sound and feel like a certain time and a certain place, and I didn't want our second album to be made up of songs that we wrote in 2007 through 2009 that didn't make it onto Post-Nothing. I wanted it to be a brand new group of songs that are from now. So if we didn't have them on [either] record, I felt like they were just going to die. And I didn't really want to do that, because we play them in our set and we like them a lot--it was just that we didn't feel that they were quite up to snuff for the [debut] record we wanted to make. So this was a way to put out some of those songs on seven-inches without having them die.
We knew that when we started touring so heavily there was no way we for us to record a second record until we actually came home for a good chunk of time and stopped touring. The more we toured, the more and more opportunities we got to tour even more, suddenly there were festivals we could play and go to Europe and go to different countries in the world, and there was no way we could not do that stuff. So we thought at the very least, whenever we came home for a week here and a week there we could at least do a seven-inch. So it was a way to have some new music trickle out over this course of time when we were touring so much.
On top of that I also just think the concept of a single series is really cool. I know Jay Reatard did one a few years ago. It's a cool way to release music and it's a cool thing for music fans to have. All of these things combined, we convinced Polyvinyl it was a good idea, and they thought it was cool--they had never done a single series before.
It's interesting. "Heavenward Grand Prix," has a slow-burn, hazy feel to it that is different for you guys.
That's the thing about Post-Nothing. We knew it was going to be a short record, and so we felt like it would be better to do this short, constant burst of energy. And when we were thinking about that song, there was nowhere we could put it on the record. We thought it would be this lull in the energy. That's one of the reasons it's a single--it's its own thing.
It's funny to think that on an eight-song album there wasn't room for more songs.
We only had a few days to record. So it was going to be about eight songs, 35 minutes or so, no matter what. So we decided that it might as well be this sonic burst the whole time, and maybe by the time we get to a second record, we'll have more time.
A lot of the songs on Post-Nothing had a real knowing earnestness about them lyrically, but "Art Czars" is just straight cynicism. [Chorus: "Here's your money back/here's your punk rock back."] What inspired that?
Actually, "Art Czars" was one we really wanted to have on the album, and we took it off at the last minute because, like you were saying, it has a different feeling than those other songs and it wasn't part of the message we wanted to send. There's a bit more sarcastic, angry feel, and the album has a bit more of a hopeful feel as opposed to a--I don't know, you might call it a negative feel. But it doesn't mean that we weren't still proud of the song or [don't] still like it. I guess if we had more time, we may have had one of those great albums that explores all sides, but it just wasn't in the cards. It sounds stupid, but we had to pick a feeling and just sort of roll with it. You know how when you listen to a lot of classic rock'n'roll records they kind of explore all sides of it? We didn't have that time to do that.
The second single, "Younger Us." You guys seem pretty young to have such nostalgia for your younger self.
You know what it comes from? It comes from [the fact that] we started a band a little bit later in life that a lot of people start bands. Both of us went to University, and graduated from University before we started playing in bands, so we were already in our early '20s even before we had our first band. When we started the band we had already graduated from University, I was already working a quote-unquote "career job." I guess you just wake up one day and realize, "Well, I went to University, and got this degree, and got this job, and now I'm on this sort of path" that your society or your parents or whoever is sort of telling you this is the right path to be on, but you feel that you're too young to be on this path already. There's so much stuff that you still wanted to do, or expected to do, that you're kind of almost being told that you're too old for that now. It was just kind of like, "Well, fuck that."
What jobs did you guys have?
At the time Dave was working in restaurants, and I was working in mineral exploration. We were feeling the same way after graduating University that a lot of bands we grew up listening to felt after high school. They got to be in their late teens and then they had this--I don't know what you would call it--this epiphany or personal revolution where you just decide to put everything aside and start making music. We were just older when we had that feeling to do that. And all of our friends that were around us were getting married, and having kids, and buying houses and getting these sort of jobs, and following on these paths, and there was this sort of...we didn't come from a place where all of our friends played in bands, we were the only people that did that. We didn't know anyone that played music or was interested in these sorts of things. Everyone had these, sort of, textbook lives. And "Younger Us" was kind of this rallying behind watching your friends get pressured into lives that you were unsure they wanted and they were unsure they wanted. It was frustrating times, and this was before anyone knew about the band. We were just a local band, right? So there was this desperation of wanting to capture that fire and that spirit that forced you to make it happen.
Did you ever actually wake up to drink with David after you had already gone to sleep?
That sort of feeling [the lyric: "Remember that night you were already in bed/said "fuck it" got up to drink with me instead!"] was less related to Dave and I, and more related to the people around us. Like, watching your friends that you grew up with find themselves--without going into too much personal detail--being pressured into this textbook life where they sort of ...they seemed to lose a certain passion for life and living in the moment and everything had to be really regimented and really planned out. "We could seize the moment, but let's schedule it for two months in the future" kind of thing. And that feeling of "We're not our parents. We're so young to be thinking about life that way."
You've got a PJ Harvey cover coming up, right?
That third seven-inch with "Heavenward Grand Prix" and our PJ Harvey cover on it--we just got off a seven-week tour that involved festivals all over the world, and by the time we got home, we were so exhausted, and we weren't really that focused. I don't know, we went right into the studio unprepared and I feel like that cover is the one out of the ones we've done so far that I feel like it's a bit...I feel we didn't give it everything we should have. I'm a little bit nervous for it to come out. One of the goals with the covers was to get the covers to a point where we would be proud to give them to the band [who conceived them], and be like, "We love your band and we did this." I don't know if I can give that one to Polly Jean. It should have been even better than that.
I'm sure she'll understand. She's been on tour before.
I hope so. We love that music so much and it's meant to showcase that.
How did you pick the covers?
We had been introduced to so much music by other bands that we knew playing those songs. We wanted to do the same thing. For example, think of how many Nirvana fans discovered David Bowie or the Vaselines because Nirvana covered them? Or the Meat Puppets? There's a massive, massive chunk of our fanbase that have no idea who these bands are. Not everyone, but I bet there's a lot of people who listen to Japandroids who don't know who Big Black are, who don't know who mclusky are who [they covered "To Hell With Good Intentions" for their early All Lies EP], who don't know who X are. And that was the first thing: "Let's not cover bands that everyone already knows that we love, let's cover bands that we don't think a lot of people know that listen to our music."
What other songs can we look forward to in the singles series?
I can't tell you. I can't spoil the surprise.
I also don't want to tell you in case we go back into studio after this tour and something changes and we don't do them. But we've already recorded one [cover], and I think it's one of, if not the best, music we've ever recorded. Because when I hear it, I can't believe our band did that.
With the single series, is part of it that with a really crowded marketplace for bands, this is a way to keep your name out there with fans between...
Yeah, that's a really nice side-effect! Every couple of months there's a new Japandroids song that you don't know to listen to. And even though they're kind of old for us, and I can't believe people are only hearing a song like "Heavenward Grand Prix" now. It seems so ridiculous to me, but it kind of bridges between the albums. Because the next two singles are going to come out at the end of this year and the very start of next year, and right when you would be expecting another seven-inch, it's going to be a new song off a new record. You kind of always have something coming out, which is really nice. It makes you feel like you're always in a band. I don't like the idea that bands do records every three years. It's such a long time for fans of those bands to wait.
I wanted to clear up an urban legend. Is it true that one of you puked before your set at the Village Voice Siren Festival?
Uhm...it was...I...I'm not going to tell you whether or not we puked, but I will tell you that up until that time, we had never played for anywhere close to that many people. And that weekend we were doing Siren Festival and the Pitchfork Festival on the same weekend. And those two, at the time for us, were way beyond anything we had done as a band. And we got to that festival in the morning and we started to see how many people were there, it was just like...you just look out from behind the stage and you're like "I cannot fucking go out there. There is just no way." If I blew a show a couple of nights ago, then I'm going to blow it for 50 people or a 100 people. If I go blow this show, thousands of people are going to see me blow this. So we just started drinking, and trying our best to loosen ourselves up. And I remember going out there was just like one of the most terrifying experiences of the band. And now we're sort of used to it. By now we've done a lot of festival and we're used to walking out and seeing that many people. Now I love it. Now I wish every show could be like that. I love that feeling and that energy of playing to that many people, but back then it was absolutely terrifying. Both of us thought we were going to be sick hours before when we looked out there. But I'm not going to embarrass ourselves by saying whether we actually did or not. I guess that's best left to legend.
Japandroids play Death By Audio with A Place To Bury Strangers tonight, October 26 and Maxwell's on October 27.
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