Japandroids On The Importance Of Keeping Hope Alive While On Tour In Trump’s America

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After Japandroids released their second album, Celebration Rock, in 2012, the Canadian indie-rock duo played an exhaustive support tour that spanned more than 200 shows in over 40 countries over the course of 17 months. Then they took a well-deserved break and pretty much disappeared from the rock world for three years.

Last fall, Japandroids finally returned to the road to limber up for the release of their excellent new LP, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. But the official support tour didn’t commence until this week, and is already scheduled to stretch into the summer. When I caught up with Japandroids on Tuesday in Minneapolis before the tour’s second show at the iconic music club First Avenue, they were still getting their sea legs.

Guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse had not yet acclimated to the rhythms of the road — a few chaotic days of tour prep in Madison, Wisconsin followed by a four-hour jaunt north to Minnesota proved exhausting for a band not yet in peak tour shape. Prowse actually begged off from our interview to crash in the back of the band’s tour bus for a pre-show nap while up front King drowsily played the polite host, offering an IPA while pouring himself a tequila.

“We should start to get tighter and get more comfortable and put on a better and better show until the apex of the tour,” King insisted. “Whenever that is.”

Any lingering feelings of pre-show fatigue appeared to be eradicated by the time Japandroids hit the stage that night. While previous Japandroids’ tours have been likably scattershot punk-rock affairs, with guitars going out of tune and songs occasionally completely breaking down, this band is now a dependably professional outfit, even when the band members are shaking off the rust of a long break. Tuesday’s concert was the powerful gig I’ve ever seen Japandroids play, with the stadium-sized stomp of new songs such as “Arc Of Bar” and “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” perfectly complementing scrappier older songs such as “Wet Hair” and “Younger Us.”

While the oldies from Celebration Rock predictably roused the moshpit, the tempered optimism of the new songs felt like a salve during a particularly dark time in America. While Japandroids are touring here as outsiders, the timing of their uplifting new record and the accompanying tour has been uncanny. If you love rock ‘n roll, songs about hope and perseverance (not to mention fun and lots and lots of beers) might be exactly what you need right now. Read our conversation below.

The wait for a new Japandroids at times felt like an eternity. But when Near To The Wild Heart of Life finally did arrive, the timing was sort of perfect, coming one week after Trump’s inauguration. It was like the calvary arrived. I think of the last song, “In A Body Like A Grave,” where you sing, “But remember there’s heaven in the hellest of holes.” Obviously you didn’t intend for that line to have political implications for some listeners when you wrote it, but I definitely needed the hopeful sentiments of this record at that particular time.

This is something that we became aware of recently that’s very specific to our American audience obviously. I mean, we … To set the record straight, we’re Canadian. We have our own government. Our own leader and our own problems.

You also live in Mexico, so you see America from both the north and south.

We were so busy with so much sh*t going on — we’d been playing shows and traveling and doing this and this and this — it didn’t really occur to us until very close to the inauguration that our record was actually coming out around that time. I mean, people [are] just very down. Very sad. Very unsure of the future. The way that the record was perceived with some of those fans because of that mood was something we didn’t really realize until the moment. People in Australia, people in Europe, and people at home in Canada or people in Asia, that was not a factor in the listening experience but in America it very much was and very loudly.

My whole life, music has been something that really … That’s like what I would turn to. In moments of darkness or moments of doubt or the times in my life where I’d been so personally down and just needing something, music is what I’d naturally turn to. Obviously you hope that your record could be like that for somebody else, but conversely you realize there are other people who feel very much the opposite. They’re like, “This is not the time for a Japandroids record about living life and loving someone and growing up and trying to figure all this out,” Maybe we need Public Enemy or something like that.

I love America. I love touring here. Love traveling here. I love our American fans. I love the cities. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to tour. I never get tired of it. It was … Yeah. It’s been a weird time. This is our first tour in Trump’s America and it’s been very obvious the shifting of the moods and just the general vibe, the places we go, and as much as I’d like to think that music is the one thing that can help free your mind from this kind of thing or inspire you beyond these things, it’s a pretty big thing to fight against.

“Arc Of Bar” is my favorite song on the new record, and it really seems like the centerpiece track on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life . It’s definitely the song that breaks strongest from the Celebration Rock template. How deliberate were you about moving Japandroids in a new direction on this record?

By the end of Celebration Rock we had kind of settled into a songwriting formula. There was a real formula to how we write a Japandroids song. I would come up with the guitar chords and then come in and bring them to Dave and he’d put the drums down and then we’d get this kind of banging instrumental. Then I’d go back and write the vocals and they were always fast and they always had a certain number of parts and they had the verse and the chorus and the intro and it just got to a point where we were, I think for a long time, we were trying to figure out how to really just write a song, you know?

This is our first band and when we started the band we had no experience writing. Just playing covers just to play together. So, that’s why a lot of our early songs kind of have weird strong structures because it was… we didn’t really know what we were doing. There got to be a point on Celebration Rock where, I think, we just figured it out. It turned out people really liked that, so when we started writing this record there was obviously a lot of temptation to just do that again. But trying to do that again a few years later for the 10th or 12th time, it just didn’t have the same level of excitement.

“Arc Of Bar” is a perfect example of how we looked at [our songwriting process and said], “How could we just shake this up?” I remember we were in New Orleans and I had been working on these lyrics down in Mexico City. And I just slapped the lyrics down on the table and was like, “Here’s our new song. I don’t know how it goes. But we have to build some music around this.” And Dave’s looking at this going like, “Whoa. These are a lot of lyrics. Okay. We’ll start to tackle this.”

Would it be fair to call Near To The Wild Heart of Life your “stadium rock” record? There’s just a hugeness to this LP that reminds me of albums like Who’s Next, especially “Arc Of Bar.” Any band that can create that sort of outsized energy and then stuff it into a club or theater is pretty much my favorite kind of band.

I love stadium rock bands. That type of music that’s made to be performed and enjoyed in a massive place like that is just part of my DNA in a way. I didn’t really see a lot of stadium shows growing up because I’m from a small town, so there was no stadium let alone stadium shows, but just that idea of… The Rolling Stones, for example, are a very popular band and a lot of people know their music, so they play a stadium. But there’s also something inherent about the music that just works in that environment.

I like to think in a way that we’ve always kind of been a stadium rock band. It’s not like Dave and I ever had a conversation when we started the band like, “We want to be stadium rock and we want to play a stadium someday.” I mean, that’s obviously ridiculous. We’re going to play First Avenue [A 1,550 capacity venue in Minneapolis] tonight for the first time, and that would’ve seemed like a stadium to us when we started. Our ambition was to play like the local bar in Vancouver. But we’ve just always been a stadium rock band. We’ve been writing and performing in a way as if it was a stadium full of people even though a lot of the times there were only five people there.

I’ve described as Celebration Rock as the Pulp Fiction of ’10s rock music, in that you guys took a lot of the conventions and cliches of rock music – similar to what Tarantino with crime film genre — and made them seem fresh and exciting again for a new generation. When Post-Nothing came out in 2009, not many indie bands were proudly drawing from the classic-rock continuum. But in 2017, I see that a lot more often. Do you feel like Japandroids had a role in that shift?

I don’t really think of ourselves as particularly influential. I mean, to some extent, I wouldn’t really know. We haven’t been on the road. We haven’t been interacting with other bands. We haven’t been keeping up on music as much. We’ve kind of just been doing our thing. People sometimes forget that we’re Canadian. Canada and the States are similar in many many ways, but there’s also some fundamental differences, I think, in that people in the U.S. are much more conscious, in the music world specifically, of their image and their presentation and the idea of being talked about or written about. Some of our favorite bands that we used to go see, I mean, they wore their influences on their sleeves with pride.

Like Constantines?

Constantines is a great example. When you listen to Constantines, you can hear Neil Young. You can hear Springsteen. You can also hear bands like Fugazi. It was cool to wear your influences on your sleeve and it was cool to be influenced by classic rock and it was cool to just make your version of the music you love. That’s about as much as we ever thought of it, you know? We were making our version of the music that we loved and we were wearing our influences on our sleeves. I think that’s what we initially always just thought being in a band was.

In the press materials for Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, there’s a note about the album having a loose narrative. I took a stab at guessing what the story was in my review. But is there really a narrative on this album?

Yeah. There is a narrative to the record. Not a planned narrative. This is not a concept record.

It’s not like 2112?

Or American Idiot or something like that.

So there won’t be like a Broadway musical version in five years?

How much do we get paid for that? I’m just kidding. I was trying to make every song about something. With Celebration Rock, I was feeling a lot of the same things and putting them in song after song after song and there’s a lot of the same feeling expressed in a slightly different way. We were very conscious of the fact that we wanted to do something broader, I guess. I mean, we used the word “complete.” I think a lot of really great rock ‘n roll albums are complete in the sense that they run the whole gamut of types of songs in the sense of a range of emotions, like really a journey from start to finish. I always talk about the same records but they’re great records — like Horses by Patti Smith. That’s a real journey that record takes you on from start to finish. Or Born To Run is a great example of that. There are great AC/DC records and there are great Ramones records and they don’t do that. And I love those bands and I love those kinds of records. Celebration Rock is kind of like our AC/DC or Ramones record. It’s like we figured out how to do something good that people like and there’s a whole album of it. On 10.

The first song on the record is about leaving for something else — that could be leaving your home, that could be leaving your job, that could be leaving your relationship. And then the next song is about what happens when you do leave home. It’s called “North East South West.” It would be insane to have the songs in the reverse order.

It was kind of piecing [the songs] together and trying to put the last few years of our lives on a record like, “Here’s the story.” Everyone’s wondering where’ve you been. What have you been doing? What’s going on with you?” It’s like, “Here it really is, in order, with a full range of emotions and thoughts and feelings and all that that we’ve been having.”

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is out now via Anti Records. Get it here.