The No-Plan Plan
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is one of Canada’s most notorious neighbourhoods. Known as the country’s “poorest postal code,” the area is synonymous with poverty, drug use and crime. But deep inside it along Hastings Street, there are several unassuming bars that double as venues for Vancouver’s DIY indie scene.
It’s in the thick of this tawdry sleaze that Japandroids, one of the country’s most hard-working groups, got their start slugging it out in the literal musical trenches. Since 2006, the duo has gained steadily increasing critical acclaim, with their latest LP Celebration Rock getting a nod from the Polaris Prize as one of the best Canadian albums of 2012.
And their live show, you ask? Well, let’s just start by saying that the group has been on a non-stop tour for nearly half of the year.
Japandroids is comprised of Brian King and David Prowse — two shaggy dudes whose likenesses grace the cover of every album they’ve released. There’s a deep friendship at the heart of their collaboration, the kind of symbiotic, like-minded relationship that can’t help but enhance the music they produce.
The duo met while attending the University of Victoria. Prowse eventually moved to Vancouver, with King following suit two years later. The group began playing shows in the small, dingy clubs that lined Hastings, touring when they could around their academic schedules. Eventually, Pitchfork took notice and Japandroids immediately shot into the indie stratosphere, where the venues are noticeably nicer.
It’s been an awesome ride ever since, and Celebration Rock has widely been hailed as the best work they’ve ever done. Yet rather than growing super-sized egos and basking in the wave of adulation, Japandroids is already planning for their break-up and subsequent retirement.
So what’s the deal: did success ruin Japandroids?
“No, not at all,” laughs Prowse. “The way our band works is that all of our decision-making is very short term. To be honest with you, I don’t know if there will even be a third album. Or maybe there will be — I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes. For now, we’re quite content with touring and seeing as much of the world as we can, and playing as many shows as we can.
“We’re different from a lot of other bands in that sense,” he continues. “A lot of other bands seem to have a five-year plan or something like that — or they operate as if their band is going to continue on forever, and we haven’t acted like that in a really long time. Our band’s come close to stopping well before we achieved any success at all. Since then, I think we’ve always had a mind to keep in check with where we are and that we’re enjoying it, and that we’re passionate for every moment we’re in this band.”
That passion is immediately apparent on Celebration Rock, 35 minutes of arena-sized indie rock anthems that fall somewhere in between the intensity of hardcore and the tuneful wistfulness of shoegaze. Imagine My Bloody Valentine if they’d been obsessed with under-aged drinking and debauchery instead of pure volume, and you’d be in roughly the right neighbourhood.
Celebration Rockwas released at the end of May of 2012, and it quickly became an instant classic amongst the indie kids and the young at heart. To most of us, that’s not surprising considering its rousing choruses and gut-punch guitar grit — but the members of Japandroids say they couldn’t have predicted the album’s sudden success.
“I think popularity and success are relatively arbitrary things,” says Prowse. “It helps if you’re good at what you do, but there are so many other factors that help to determine if your band becomes popular or not. A lot of it is timing and being at the right place at the right time. When you get those opportunities to play in front of a lot of people, you have to make the most of it.
“I don’t think we’re successful because we’re the best band in the world: I think we’re a good band and we play professionally and care about what we do, but at the same time we didn’t get to where we are because we deserved it more than another band. I think that’s total bullshit.
“So I can’t say that I predicted any of this happening to us, and I can’t say that I predicted Celebration Rock would do better than the album before it.”
It’s not just the music on Celebration Rock that grabs you by the throat and gives you a good throttling. Japandroids clearly knows that at the heart of any decent party is good conversation, and the lyrics on Celebration Rock are both nostalgic about youth, ramshackle energy and abandon, and hopeful for the present and future at the same time. Overall, they come across as odes to those who have aged without sacrificing an ounce of integrity.
While the album’s predecessor, Post Nothing, charmed listeners with songs about girls and wet hair, Celebration Rock is the result of Japandroids taking their formula and tightening up all the nuts and bolts before heading back into the studio — and back out on the road, says Prowse.
“To be honest I think [King and I] both felt that we wanted to make something to be really proud of, and to be an improvement over Post Nothing,” he says. “But at the same time I think we both were very worried that the first album got a lot of critical success, and the people who liked it really liked it. We toured for a year and a half on that album, and some people came to see us four or five times during that period — people really liked that record a lot.
“And you know, there are records that I really like a lot, but after a while something happens to those bands and they change. For us, maybe it wasn’t something within the band that had changed, but three years had passed and maybe I’m a different person now than I was before, and maybe I’m listening to different music now.
“Lyrics have this way of hitting you at a certain point in your life and you connect with them in a certain way. It’s not to say that an album is better or worse, but it’s timing and where you are at in life.”
Although planning by having an utter absence of a plan might seem like a strange business strategy — especially in the rough-and-tumble world of independent music — it’s clearly worked for Japandroids thus far. And while fans might be more than worried to hear that their favourite band has massive self-doubt over whether or not they’ll ever release a follow-up to a nearly perfect album, it’s heartening to hear that both Prowse and his band partner are having fun, for now, and are grateful for the ride.
“We were both really aware that people loved our first album and that there was a really good chance that they weren’t going to like Celebration Rock,” adds Prowse. “I was hoping that, best-case scenario, we would keep those fans. But I didn’t think that we would eclipse that popularity — [the idea] seemed really ridiculous to me.
“But that’s what happened — and it happened pretty quick, so what do I know?”