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Japandroids break with formula on latest album

Japandroids’ Brian King and David Prowse.

Reading Argentinian writer Clarice Lispector influenced more than the title of Near to the Wild Heart of Life, says Japandroids’ Brian King

Here’s another piece I wrote for the soon-to-be-defunct It’s a recent interview with Brian King of Japandroids about the Vancouver band’s 2017 album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. It was first posted the week of Jan 27, the date of the record’s release. 

JapandroidsNear to the Wild Heart of Life (out Jan. 27) is everything a fan of post-punk and indie-rock could want from the Vancouver group’s third album. The blistering yet melodic anthems are still here, along with progress in the duo’s songwriting, most noticeably in tracks like “Arc of Bar,” a shoegaze epic that is unlike anything the band has done before.

Guitarist/vocalist Brian King and drummer Dave Prowse formed Japandroids in Vancouver in 2006. Three years later they released their debut album Post-Nothing, and the band almost instantly became an indie-rock sensation for their spirited evocation of pre-grunge college-rock bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

Near to the Wild Heart of Life is the duo’s first album since Celebration Rock, their 2012 follow-up to Post-Nothing. Celebration Rock led to two years of touring and, finally, some time off. In a statement, the band has said that Near To The Wild Heart Of Life was written “clandestinely throughout 2014 and 2015 in Vancouver, Toronto, New Orleans, and Mexico City.” The record is eight songs long – what the band calls “the standard template for a great rock ‘n’roll album.” I talked to King, who splits his time off from touring between Toronto and Mexico City, about the new album, the influence of Latin American literature on his writing, and covering the Talking Heads.

Japandroids at the Biltmore Cabaret
Japandroids at the Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, Dec 2 2009. Jon Healy photo for

SC: You’ve said that the album’s title was influenced by Argentinean writer Clarice Lispector as well as James Joyce (Lispector’s first novel’s title is translated as Near to the Wild Heart, which was taken from a quote from Joyce). Does where you live affect what you read?

BK: Basically, when I started dating my girlfriend and spending a lot of time down here (Mexico), a whole world opened up to me – not just Mexico but all of Latin America. It’s a part of the world I didn’t know much about, historically or via arts and culture. And obviously there’s a language barrier. And I’ve always been interested in reading, it’s one of my only real hobbies. I’ve just started to discover a lot of the great literature of Latin America, and to seek out what’s been translated into English. I started to get really into it. The last few years I’ve been primarily making my way through the classics. I would say it’s had a pretty profound impact on my writing, just because it’s something I’m reading all the time and thinking about. The Latin American style of writing really speaks to me, and it’s something I try to bring to in my own writing.

SC: “Arc of Bar” is a song on the new album that jumps out. What was different about that song as you wrote it? Did you know it was going to end up sounding different from what you’d done in the past?

BK: When we started working on this record, we realized we’d settled into a songwriting formula. All of the songs on Celebration Rock were written the same way. I would write the guitar parts and I’d bring it into Dave and we’d add drums, then we’d have an instrumental of the song and I’d write the vocal and the lyrics. And we realized if we never broke away from that, we would never write anything different. We were getting too comfortable. So with this record we decided to try some experiments in the songwriting phase. And one of them was to write all of the lyrics to a song first, and build the music around the lyrics, which is the opposite of how we’d usually write a song. That’s what ‘Arc of Bar’ is; I wrote all the lyrics first, brought it to Dave, and said ‘Here’s a new song, I have no idea of how it’s supposed to go.’ We had to think about the music and all of the components of the song in a totally different way. They had to fit these words that already existed. And because there were so many words, we knew it was going to be a longer song. And it had a certain vibe already we had to cater to. And it ended up turning out really great. It’s the song I think Dave and I are the most proud of, and the one we’re most excited to play live. It surprised even us. It was the kind of song I didn’t think we were capable of writing before we set out to do it.

Japandroids – “No Known Drink or Drug” (fr. the album Near to the Wild Heart of Life)

SC: You did a bunch of shows in the fall. Was that to figure out where a song like “Arc of Bar” might fit into the set?

BK: Yeah, exactly. And one thing we did on this record was to not worry about live performance while writing and recording, which is something always on the forefront of our minds on the other records. We thought, let’s just write and record songs that we thought sounded really good and not worry about the live aspect at all. On the one hand, that tour was a chance to reintroduce the band to people live, because we hadn’t played a show in a very long time, and the other was to experiment with these songs live, because we’d never played them before we wrote and recorded them. Arc of Bar is a great example of a song where, we love the way it sounds on the recording, but we had no idea how to pull it off live. We played that song every night of the tour but I don’t think we played it the same way twice. For our very first show back in Vancouver after three years, we decided to open with that song, thinking that it was a bold move. And it didn’t go over so well. There was a lot of experimenting as to just where to put that in the set. And to some extent we’re still doing that. We’re starting a tour in a couple of weeks but we have by no means figured all those things out. I think that’s also something that makes the shows exciting – they’re not formulaic rock shows, where we’re copying and pasting the same thing every night. There is an element of individuality and experimentation and a sense of chaos that makes for a better rock ‘n’ roll show.

SC: You’ve said that eight songs is the perfect amount for a great rock record, and cited a bunch of examples. Why do you think that is?

BK: I’m old enough that I was a fan and collector of music before the internet. I have a really big record collection and when I’m home that’s what I listen to. So many of my favourite records were designed and sequenced to fit on one 40-minute vinyl record. A lot of classic records are only eight songs, four songs per side. They (the artists) really put a lot of thought into what songs started each side of the record, which songs ended each side, and to condense all that material to the best of it. Once the CD generation came around, that idealogy of putting an album together kind of died. You could put eighty minutes of music on a CD, there’s no Side A, no Side B. And now, in the digital age, it’s a total clusterfuck. You can put anything you want on an album, make it as long as you want, and artists do. In the Spotify age it benefits you to have 20 songs on the album no matter how good they are because it’s more plays which is more money. So I think that old-school idea of how you put a record together based on limitations is totally lost now, but it’s something Dave and I both really love. We put all three of our albums together using that kind of mindset, where certain limitations of the medium affected the final product. So our record was put together very much with the idea of Side A, Side B, a forty-minute listening experience in mind.

SC: On the B-side of the single for the first single, the title track, you cover a fairly obscure, early Talking Heads song, “”Love → Building on Fire”.” Why that one?

BK: That’s just one of my favourite Talking Heads songs. What I really love about that song is that it’s so simple that it leaves a lot of room for a band covering it to take it in a few different places. Whereas there are a lot of great Talking Heads songs that are more complex where I feel like the band has already decided for you, if you’re going to cover it, where it needs to go, and there’s not as much room to put your own spin on it. There’s a simplicity to that song and to the parts that allowed us to build on top of it. And I don’t think a lot of people know that one. It almost introduces a lost Talking Heads song to our audience who maybe is only familiar with ‘Psycho Killer’ or something like that. I discovered so much of the music I love now through other bands covering them. It’s a cool way to pay it forward. Hopefully there are some kids out there who maybe never even listened to Talking Heads before and they like Japandroids and they’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I should check out Talking Heads.

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