There’s a palpable energy that overtakes the crowd at a Japandroids show. One minute they’re watching dutifully as the Canadian duo—garage-rock-minded, pop-punk-channeling—powers its way through the sort of songs that toast to triumph and tragedy and taking life to the limit; the kind that make tattooed toughs emotional and already-sensitive types into weepy babies. Then, as if on cue, sheer mayhem. Mass sing-alongs. Raucous mosh pits. Unity.
“It’s almost like they’re a part of the band,” singer-guitarist Brian King says of the symbiotic relationship he and drummer Dave Prowse have with their notoriously interactive crowds. “When we start giving, the crowd starts giving back. It just goes back and forth like that for an hour or two. Honestly,” he adds with a sense of profound wonderment, “there are times at our shows where it’s more exciting to look around and see what the rest of the crowd is doing than what we might be doing onstage.”
And yet, last October, when the two musicians prepared to take the stage for the first of four hometown shows in their native Vancouver, they were terrified. Chalk it up to the fact it had been more than three years since they last performed. When they got off the road in 2013, they’d just wrapped their biggest tour to date, performing in more than 40 countries over 17 months behind their much-lauded second album Celebration Rock. In the years that followed, finally with some money in their pockets, Japandroids hunkered down in studios in New Orleans, Toronto and Mexico City to record their new album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. But as a result, the stage, long the most comfortable place for the band, was now a daunting place. “We kind of felt like we had to prove ourselves a bit all over again,” Prowse says.
Japandroids needn’t have worried. Once they began playing that evening in Vancouver the crowd promptly roared back in approval. They were quickly reminded, Prowse says, of what they’d been missing during their time away. “You realize the people who are there to see you play are on your side,” he says. “They’re not just silently judging you and deciding if you’re as good as you used to be.” He laughs. “I don’t know what we were worried about.”
In the wake of Celebration Rock, a runaway success of an LP that represented everything the band does well—blistering guitars, shotgun drums, frank songwriting, minimal overdubs—there’s an undeniable pressure put upon any band, new or old. Where Japandroids’ debut full-length, 2009’s Post-Nothing, established them as an edgy new outfit, its follow-up cemented them as a force: Celebration Rock was named the Number One album of 2012 on MTV’s year-end list, cracked Rolling Stone’s Top 10 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize.
“Even in that first week of release, it dawned on us there was something bigger happening,” Prowse remembers. “It was very clear. It wasn’t just holding on to the fans we had. There was definitely a jump, which was very exciting. The amount of places we got to go to and the size of crowds we got to play for grew quite a bit over that tour cycle. It definitely felt like by the end of Celebration Rock we were in a very different place than by the end of Post-Nothing.”
Fuck all the deadlines! Fuck the momentum and all the kind of things that people tell you!
When they regrouped in fall 2014, after a year largely spent away from one another, and began plotting out what would become Wild Heart, Japandroids decided to loosen all creative restrictions like never before. During the multi-year recording sessions the band’s mantra, according to King, was: “Fuck all the deadlines! Fuck the momentum and all the kind of things that people tell you! We’re just gonna make this record on our own timetable.”
The result is undeniably the band’s most forward-looking effort yet. Whereas earlier albums relied almost exclusively on a straightforward guitar-and-drums assault, this time Japandroids added synthesizers (the seven-minute “Arc of Bar”), acoustic guitars (“North East South West”) and overdubs. “We were both very interested in exploring different tempos and having a bit more wide range of moods and atmosphere and different sonic textures,” Prowse explains. They also began to embrace the sanctity of the album as a cohesive statement. “As great as the shows are and as fun as it is,” King says, “that’s really kind of a small component of the band and what it means to people. At the end of the day, the records are what’s going to last.”
King acknowledges that some fans may want Japandroids to stick with party-time albums like Celebration Rock. But, he says, “they don’t actually contemplate the fact that the band’s getting older. They have an idea that the crazy-wild, totally wasted band that they saw eight years ago is still out there doing the same thing. But in reality our lives are changing.”
To that end, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is also Japandroid’s most lyrically challenging album yet. On it King dives into weighty topics including romantic disenchantment (“I’m Sorry [For Not Finding You Sooner]”), self-destructive living (“Midnight to Morning”) and even mortality (“In a Body Like a Grave”).
“As you get older you’re able to reflect differently on the circumstances,” King says as the genesis of a more nuanced lyrical perspective on the new album. “Everything is a little less dramatic or life-or-death. You begin to realize there’s other things that are actually important and what you really want to focus on when you write.”
Still, both band members concede they’re amazed to remain a cohesive unit more than a decade after first forming. Many bands flame out when the youthful spirit of reckless abandon they were founded upon subsides. But, as King says, Japandroids’ new album in many ways was a welcome wake-up call.
“It rejuvenated the band in a way that’s pretty rare,” he says. “We’ve stumbled onto something that’s pretty unique.”