In Depth With Japandroids’ Brian King: “Nothing Is Off the Record”


Few guitar bands cleaned up this year like Japandroids, whose triumphant second album Celebration Rock brought them massive universal acclaim and a bounty of new fans in the spirit of Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor and the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday. Just yesterday their Celebration Rock was named SPIN’s number three best album of 2012, and more year-end accolades are sure to swiftly follow. We caught up with the endlessly-touring Vancouver duo’s frontman Brian King from a Florida tour stop about looking professional, fighting over Morrissey in the van, and erasing any trace of negativity from his new songs.

Japandroids play tonight and tomorrow at Webster Hall

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Did you hear that Paste named “The House That Heaven Built” their song of the year?
I heard that yeah, I got an email.

Are lots of people telling you that you wrote their favorite song of the year?
Mm. No.

You have to remember that the people that we’re touring with and our crew have little respect for me whatsoever. And so they would not ever do or say anything that would contribute to my ego or my sense of confidence, or anything that may encourage me to be more of myself at any moment in time. So they’re the best!

You sing it a lot more intensely than the rest of the album. Actually, the whole song feels louder than the others.
It was the only song I think on the whole record that we more or less tried to do in one and we got it on the first try. Most of the other songs we recorded a million times in different ways and some of the songs we could just never get it, or never get something we were happy with. And that one actually took the least amount of effort to get what we wanted. I don’t know what that means, but there was the least amount of fighting over it. I think all three of us were just like “Yeah.” “Yeah.” “Yeah.” It was suspiciously easy in that sense. Because it’s usually like “Yeah.” “Yeah.” “No!” Or “Yeah.” “No!” “No!”

We also spent part of last year in Nashville working on this record and when we first got to Nashville, it was the first song that we wrote when we got there. So it has a sentiment attached to it, the background of writing it is significant — not that the others are not — but it reminds both of us of this certain time and place.

Was being in Nashville what inspired the religious imagery in the song?
No, no, that’s me. That’s my personality. Unlike Post-Nothing — which to me is really attached to a certain place, a really Vancouver record to me, it always will be, the whole thing just reeks of Vancouver to me — whereas I don’t really attach a singular to any of the songs [on Celebration Rock]. I’d like to say we could’ve written the song anywhere, but obviously we had to go to Nashville. I just don’t see Nashville influencing them in that way.

I heard that everyone hated the title Celebration Rock, which is ironic. Do you ever worry about being too on the nose?
No. I mean, everyone else worries about that. I don’t. I just don’t care. That’s where the controversy among all those involved with the band came from. We’re a rock and roll band, and as soon as the idea popped into my head, it just couldn’t be called anything else.

I agree.
There’s no other person in our inner circle who thought it was a good idea. And thankfully, I’m stubborn.

On “Evil’s Sway” you talk about seeing “sexual red”; it’s hard to tell if you’re being joyful or frustrated.
At no point am I being angry on any of the songs ever.

I’m incredibly aware of when I begin to take things in that direction. And I’m not at all interested in making that part of my personality published in any way. I’m interested in trying to … showcase, for lack of a better word, what I think needs to be the most positive elements of my personality or my life, etc. I don’t like to tell people anything about the songs, I like to leave it out there for interpretation, I think that’s where the real power is, but on the whole record, I think that there’s nothing negative. I tried really, really hard to keep that out of the record. I don’t like records like that, I don’t want to make records like that, and I don’t think people listen to Japandroids to feel negativity. I think people listen to the band when they want to get out of that kind of mindset, when they want something more positive and uplifting, and that’s the kind of music I’m interested in making. I’ll leave the rest to [Morrissey]. He can take care of it. He’s got my back on the other side of the coin. Of course I jest, I don’t know Moz personally. I’m just kidding, after I talk to you we have a date.

I wish we did. You ever interview Moz?

Oh no, I haven’t.
He doesn’t do a lot of interviews. Too bad.

Sorry, sorry, I get going and it’s not professional.

You’re in a rock band, don’t worry about being professional.
Fuck! I need you to call about 10 people and say what you just said right there. You need to call my publicist Dana Erickson and say what you just said there. You need to call my mother and say what you just said there! You need to call everyone at Polyvinyl and say what you just said. I could use some backup, I’ve been saying this for years. Damn!

I’m biased though, I’m in a band too.
What kind of music?

It’s not…far off from you guys but a lot worse.
Aw, don’t sell yourself short. You’ve got to look professional. [laughs]

So when you put out a record and some other music journalist rips your record to shreds, do you get upset because of what they said about your record, or do you get upset about like, how poor their writing was when they trashed your record? “Ugh, this is so poorly written!” Or “Ugh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, our record rules!” See, ’cause I can see you getting upset about either one of those things.

It’s not really like a life or death thing; because I wanted to be a critic I’m used to people talking about whatever. Among critics, we talk about bands like they’re teams or something, like “They’re having a good year,” or, “Oh, they’re having a bad year, but I’m still a fan.”
So what band is having a bad year right now?

I’m not really an Animal Collective fan, but it seems like a lot of people didn’t like that album.
I haven’t listened to it yet. I’ve read about it but I haven’t gotten to listen to it yet. For me I was gonna say the Strokes. Those first two records, and then about a third of the third record, amazing. But that new record Angles, have you heard that record? “New,” quote unquote.

Well, between you and me, that record sucks. They recorded it without ever getting in the same room together and it shows. It was a bad year, that year.

Do you want that off the record?
I’m just joking, I don’t care. Nothing is off the record.

I don’t think they’re gonna sue you or anything. They can’t get into the same room, much less the same courtroom.

But yeah…
Anyway. The point is, that first record, second record, and a third of the third record are brilliant. I’m still backing them. But they had a bad year.

I thought like, “Heart in a Cage” on the third record was the best thing they ever did. But I’m not married to the first or the second one so it’s easy for me to say.
Well…nobody’s perfect. [laughs]

What song has your favorite whoa-ohs ever?
I don’t think it was necessarily like, ‘We love this song or this record so maybe we should do it.’ It was more like we toured for Post-Nothing, and did so many shows, and on that record there were some songs where the response from the audience was just unbelievable. There were clear peaks in the show.

For example, there’s a song “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” where what happens during those five minutes just totally lays waste to the rest of the set. The reaction, the interaction, the energy of the room, it’s like holy fucking shit, look what just happened when we did this. And it doesn’t happen on every song. So part of the idea of making this record was, let’s make a record where the whole record is like that. And now the whole show is like that. So it’s not just like a five-minute peak, it’s like, now the whole show is a peak. It just goes the whole time we’re playing, and the energy just goes the entire set. Does that make sense?

Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly what it sounds like. One of the coolest things about the band is that, with few exceptions, it’s hard to imagine these songs being played in any other arrangement than one guitar and drums, with both of you singing. Do you get scared at all of not being able to break out of that someday?
Not really. Our concerns are incredibly immediate. Our concerns are really, really, ridiculously primal. Like, I really, really want to eat between now and this time tomorrow. I’d really like to have a shower at some point today. And like, I really, really, really don’t want to lose my voice before we play right now. Very, very immediate. That’s more of a philosophical kind of question. My concerns are so overwhelmingly immediate that I thought about that more in the last two minutes since you asked me that than I have in the last two years.

Maybe we’ll be a big arena-rock band someday where we can do what the Black Keys did, like, ‘We don’t want to be just two people anymore. Now we’re gonna be five people. And there’s still gonna be two of us in the promo photos, but when you go see us play, there will be five of us.’ You seen the Black Keys play live recently? There’s like five guys up there.

What would be the first instrument you think you guys would add?
Umm … our own Bez. You know Bez from the Happy Mondays? He just does drugs and dances? He doesn’t contribute anything musically to the band at all. But he’s in the band. He’s in the photo, he’s in the record, he’s there. But he contributes musically nothing. He just does drugs and dances while they play. He’s just like his own light show, that kind of thing.

Wasn’t there a guy in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones like that?
Uhhh … good question. I don’t know. Possibly? Because there’s a lot of people in that band. I don’t really know them besides that one big song that everyone knows. But there are a lot of people in that band, you could be right.

I just remember their scene in Clueless where there’s one guy who seems to be just dancing…
Ohhhh … there you go. Good reference. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, they’re kind of like the Arcade Fire of ska, because they have a lot of people, and they have a lot of crazy instruments, they have their own kind of schtick. And they’re pretty famous! Not a lot of ska bands you say their name and everybody knows who they are. Are they the Arcade Fire of ska?

I assume they are.
I think when you said they were the Arcade Fire of ska, you were right. You said it, not me.

I’ve read that you and David [Prowse, drummer] have very different tastes in music. What music do you fight over the most?
I’m more into everything and a lot of stuff. There’s lots of stuff I don’t know, but not a lot of stuff I can’t get into where I don’t like something about it. I can find something to like in almost anything. David’s a bit more like, he likes this and doesn’t like that. And then he has bands where he’s like, ‘I hate this band, I never want to listen to one of their songs again in my life.’

He hates the Smiths, hates Morrissey, hates Morrissey’s solo stuff, won’t let the Smiths or Morrissey be played for more than one song in the van, acts like he’s doing a big favor when he does. Fucking hates the Smiths, hates Morrissey, doesn’t even like hearing about them in conversation. And I love Moz, seen him play live, I’m a big fan, I love all the songs, know all the lyrics. So they’re a very obvious contrast. Nine times out of 10, we like most of the same bands. But if you look at our iPods, you’d find really different records. I can listen without shame to stuff he’d be embarrassed to be caught listening to. I don’t give a fuck.

So is this the best year you’ve ever had?
That’s a good question. I can understand how people on the Internet who view the band would think that. But the first year that we toured, 2009, playing in shitholes to no one half the time, I still loved every second of that. We played 200-something shows, just the two of us, touring in a Ford Explorer. That was the best. Since we’ve started doing this, the last few years, I’ve loved every second of it. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. So yeah, it’s the best year, but not at the expense of the previous few years. I can definitely say this is better than any of the years I was in high school. Those years of my life can fuck off. But I don’t want to undermine the last few years of the band. I can collectively say the best few years have been the best years of my life and I know David would say the same thing too. But it’s not necessarily better than the last two years because the record’s doing better and we’re playing bigger shows.

And have you guys finally gotten to French kiss some French girls?
I can’t answer that question, use your imagination. See? That was pretty professional.

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