Indie rockers Japandroids have more of a reason to keep the peace in their band, and make sure everybody’s happy, than the vast majority of acts. “Everybody” is just guitarist/vocalist Brian King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse, and when your band is a two-piece, accommodation and communication can mean the difference between here today and gone tomorrow. For them, that means splitting the songwriting credits 50-50.
“We just say all songs written by Japandroids,” says King over the phone from Oslo, Norway. “It’s what we’ve always done since the beginning. We’re a two-person band, and those cliché things – where somebody doesn’t feel like they’re getting the right credit, so you end up replacing them – can’t happen. Five-person bands can have these disagreements, and all of a sudden there’s a different guy in the band. We don’t have the luxury of being able to have those kinds of fights.
“You’re doing it as a band for your fans,” King continues, “so people who give a shit about their own personal credit, I don’t have time for that. Dave and I tour a lot together. We spend 90 percent of our lives, 24-7, together. It’s just really important for both of us to preserve that relationship so we can keep playing in a band together.
“Dave and I tour a lot together. We spend 90 percent of our lives, 24-7, together. It’s just really important for both of us to preserve that relationship.” – Brian King
“I write the lyrics, but Dave comes up with a lot of the stuff on drums. I don’t know how to play drums, so who’s to say what’s more important or what’s not? So no matter who plays what, we just always say, ‘It’s by Japandroids.’”
Japandroids formed in Vancouver in 2006 and released its first two EPs, All Lies, in 2007, and Lullaby Death Jams in 2008 (now available together as 2010’s No Singles). It’s likely you never heard about Japandroids during that time, but in April of 2009, Canada’s Unfamiliar Records released the album Post-Nothing on vinyl, and influential music site Pitchfork praised the song “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” essentially validating Japandroids’ years of hard work, and the quality of their writing.
“Yeah, maybe validation is the right word,” says King. “We were just doing the same thing we’d always done for so long… No one seemed to give a shit the day before that happened, and then the day after that happened we couldn’t even get through all our e-mail accounts. It was like, ‘You have 10,000 new e-mails.’”
This was all the more remarkable because Japandroids broke up for a few months at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 out of frustration, working for three years and “getting absolutely zero attention.”
The Post-Nothing album, which was then licensed by Polyvinyl Record Co. for release in June 2009, landed on year-end lists of NME, Spin, Pitchfork, Exclaim and others. It earned Japandroids a place on the 2009 Polaris Music Prize long-list and a 2010 Juno nomination for Alternative Album of the Year.
They dropped Celebration Rock last May in Canada and June internationally, earning a 9/10 rating from Spin and appearing on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums of 2012. The single “The House That Heaven Built” gained lots of attention worldwide, eventually being voted as the new entrance theme for the Vancouver Canucks.
This year, Japandroids toured the U.K. and Europe in late March and early April, before heading to the U.S. to play the Coachella and Sasquatch festivals, and more dates into June. They plan on returning to the U.K. and Europe throughout July, and in August they’re slated to play Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Australia and New Zealand.
When Japandroids are touring, King says very little songwriting happens. Days are filled with long commutes “in a van full of people and gear” – on the day of this interview, for example, they drove all day from Copenhagen to Oslo in time for load-in and sound-check – which is not the ideal setting to start strumming out song ideas, or concentrating on lyrics.
“It’s not like you’re doing nothing,” King clarifies. “You’re always collecting ideas and in sound-check, you find some good guitar parts. Or if you’ve got a day off and you come up with a good idea for a song or lyric, you start writing that stuff down, but we don’t really finish very many songs on tour. Just the initial spark might happen, but it doesn’t really get finished until you get home and have time to work on it.”
While they split the songwriting credits, King does handle the lyrics. “I never, ever talk about the lyrics or what they’re specifically about to me,” he says, “mostly because I think part of the power of the song – at least as far as our audience is concerned – is their interpretation of the songs. Some of my favourite songs of all time, I have no idea what the song is actually about to the person who wrote it, and I don’t actually care. It’s what I interpret the song to be about and its reflection in my own life.
“That’s where the real power to me lies in it,” he continues. “I think that about our songs as well, which is one of the reasons I never, ever talk about what songs are about – but I can assure you that they’re all very, very, very personal. I certainly did not rip something from the headlines and then turn it into a song.” King says he writes on electric guitar, adding “If I had more money I might buy an acoustic guitar; it would be convenient to have one.” He says that writing is part of a multi-part process for him and Prowse.
“We write songs in order to play them live,” he says categorically. “There’s no separation for us between writing a song and recording it and then playing it live, [unlike] the way that, say, Radiohead will write a song, go record it, and then they’ll worry about how they’re gonna play it live afterwards. For us, that’s kind of why we play in a band in the first place – to perform live. “So writing the songs is always about, from the beginning, how are you going to perform that live at the end of the day? Because our records are essentially live records. They’re [recorded] in a studio, but they’re recorded essentially live.
“Interaction between Dave and myself, because we’re just a two-piece, is an important part of the process,” King continues. “So I’ll have the skeleton of a song, but it’s not until I actually bring it into our jam space, and we start going through how we would do it together – how the drums are going to sound, and how the breaks, and the pauses, and the transitions are going to be – that it actually starts to take life in the way that Japandroids songs do.” It begins very traditionally, King says, with a verse, chorus, bridge, a melody and a loose idea of the lyrics. This is what he calls “the kind of standard pop-song or Beatles-song elements of it.” Then comes the Japandroids goal: “How do we turn that into something that’s really impressive to play together?”
Then comes the Japandroids goal: “How do we turn that into something that’s really impressive to play together?”
“It’s never really done until we literally can’t do anything more impressive to it,” King says. “Then after that’s done, usually the instrumental will have changed because we’ll have put in this new part, or we’ll have changed the beat of this. Then I’ll have to go back, after we’ve got the instrumental as this really impressive thing, and re-write lyrics and sometimes the melody on top of that.”
Of Prowse, who wasn’t available for this interview, King is clear that the Japandroids would not be Japandroids without him. “I write all the lyrics to all the songs, and I’m the guitar player so I write all the guitar parts, and David’s the drummer so he plays the drums. But in terms of breaking down those roles to the nitty gritty, we just don’t give a shit about stuff like that.”