Rock demands trade-offs, and as a result a musician’s life is bracketed by contradictions. You have friends in every city, but those back home barely know you anymore. The chance to appear before millions on Jimmy Kimmel Live! is paid for with 10-hour van trips amid B.O. that festers like compound interest. Word-of-mouth attendance proves more leaky-faucet than wildfire, and the whole touring experience is less of a carefree vacation, more of a wait-filled minimum-wage job.
It’s all worth it for those 90 minutes on stage, of course—but like a tree in the forest, it’s not sustainable unless someone hears it. That’s where catchy, fuzz-laden Vancouver duo Japandroids found themselves. As a Canadian band, they had trouble breaking through across the border. They practiced religiously and released a couple EPs to little avail. Their 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, was sort of their last gasp. “Playing music as much as we were playing it, as seriously as we were playing it, we were kind of burning ourselves out,” says drummer David Prowse.
That swan song tour featured shows at CMJ and the Pop Montreal Festival, where they attracted label interest from Unfamiliar Records. A favorable Pitchfork review followed, seeding a wave of positive response that changed Prowse’s and guitarist Brian King’s lives forever. The album proved a critical success, engendering two years of near continuous touring, and setting the stage for a big emotional hangover.
“You’ve spent two years on the road traveling around the world,” says King. “It’s a very exciting thing to do. But until you have a new record, you can’t do that again. It’s very disheartening. It feels like the ride is over. You’ve been on this fantastical voyage and now it’s over and you’re back to your real life.”
Never the most prodigious band, the break brought on a troubling bout of writer’s block. Suddenly, King felt the weight not just of his own expectations, but of the audience’s as well—and of the need to live up to the energy and intensity of the band’s debut LP. After all that touring, he wanted to ensure the next batch of songs would survive 200 to 300 performances without losing their crackle. It was a lot of pressure. By June last year, Japandroids’ follow-up was supposed to be finished—but it was only half-written.
Worried that the remainder might take another six months, the band set off for Nashville to escape the distractions of their everyday reality, hoping to jump-start their creativity. Within a month, they’d finished the album—though not without several visits from Nashville’s finest. “[The cops] were great, though after their third or fourth visit you’re sort of tired of seeing them,” King laughs. “They were very professional and polite. And very cool about all the noise complaints they were receiving. We’re like, ‘Well, we came all the way from Canada to write a record in Nashville because we heard it’s a music town,’ and they’re, ‘Damn right! That’s why people should come to Nashville. At the same time, can we take it down to 7 or 8 instead of 10?’”
The resulting album, Celebration Rock, isn’t going to change a lot of minds about Japandroids. It’s a sharpening of all the elements that went into their vibrant, hooky, no-fi debut. The biggest change is the lyrics, which were minimal on the first album and more central this time. “There might be more lyrics per song than on the whole album of Post-Nothing,” King says. “There was a conscious effort to … stop thinking about lyrics and vocals as a secondary component.”
Musically, it’s much the same—though, King argues, when there’s just drums, guitar and vocals, how different can you be? But while the outline of their high-energy, overdriven thrum remains familiar—like Hüsker Dü scoring a pep rally—the album benefits from the duo’s tour-sharpened chops and crisper production. They consciously chose to follow the same template as their first two releases ( Post-Nothing and 2010’s odds and sods collection, No Singles ).
“Any contemporary band that finds some success on a first record that’s lo-fi or self-recorded in their bedroom, it’s really easy for your second record to switch it up and work with a big-name producer and refine your sound,” King says. “We had the opportunity to do that on this album, but felt ... [with] our improvement in playing together from touring and that confidence, if we just went in and did the exact same thing ... we’d inherently come out with something better.” Indeed, every track on Celebration Rock stands on its own, full of sonic enthusiasm, while the lyrics unite a tempered mix of hopeful excitement and hard-ridden road-weariness. “I wouldn’t say road-weary per se,” he says. “More like weariness in general.”
It’s all crystallized in the album’s centerpiece, “Adrenaline Nightshift,” a restless blast of somewhat debauched carpe diem. Like much of Japandroids’ music, it’s less about grievance than call to action. “Hurricane home to crusade alone wounded and thin,” the song laments, “still waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin.” It’s an anthem holding out for a revolution. “Celebration Rock isn’t just a good name for this group of songs and record,” King says. “It’s a good name for the band as a whole—what it’s like to see the band and listen to the band on record.” Of course, to properly enjoy a celebration, you should generally do something to deserve it. You listening, Generation Y?
Japandroids perform Fri., June 29, 8pm. $13. With Cadence Weapon. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com
PW's Music Issue 2014