Japandroids No Fun City Rockers
Published Apr 25, 2009"If we could get a hot girl to sing up front there would be nothing to stop us." Over an order of Bloody Caesars, Japandroids guitarist and co-vocalist Brian King is explaining where he and drummer/co-vocalist David Prowse (no, not the dude in the Darth Vader suit) first went wrong. "We were actually looking for a girl, like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs kind of set-up, because we thought we were really good at rocking out and playing together. But over time we got really tight. We just gave up on trying to find someone - we had to start singing ourselves, somewhat reluctantly." Did their plan fall through because they couldn't find any hot girls? "We were very half-assed about it," Dave answers. Brian self-effacingly adds, "There are hot girls [in Vancouver], but they didn't want to spend any time with us."
Being a duo may not have been the initial plan for Vancouver's Japandroids. They settled on their name as a compromise between Prowse's idea (Japanese Scream) and King's (Pleasure Droids), and also often spell it without vowels: JPNDRDS. Forming in 2006 after first meeting at the University of Victoria in 2000, King and Prowse settled on the band's minimal membership once they nailed down the singing, which didn't come easily. "Neither one of us really wanted to be the lead singer, so we tried to think of how we could do things 50/50 - just sing back and forth at each other, instead of trying to be a lead singer," King explains. "But we didn't really know anything about writing lyrics or writing melodies. We were really good at rocking out, but that was about it."
They hadn't even really settled the singing issue when they made their first recording, the All Lies EP. "That's why there's a cover of a Mclusky song on there," King admits. "It was the first thing we recorded because we didn't know how to sing our own songs we'd written. When you're rocking out as hard as you possibly can, it's really difficult to sing, let alone sing well. The night before we recorded that EP, we were writing stuff down, like 'you sing this part, I'll sing this part.' And the next day we..."
"....got ourselves some peppermint schnapps," adds Prowse. And Japandroids made a record.
In the two years since those first fateful notes were captured, Japandroids wrote and recorded increasingly confident music: the Lullaby Death Jams EP and their just-released debut full-length, Post-Nothing. But two years of work - playing as many gigs as possible, holding down day jobs, doing the DIY thing - had resulted in very little for the Vancouver duo.
"We kind of decided at the end of 2008 that we would put out this record ourselves and if nothing really happened, then that was it," says King. "I don't think we were asking ourselves 'Do we just really suck?' - more like 'How much longer can we expect to keep doing this and not get anywhere?' It was like 'we're now on our third record that we've self-released in two years, we're exhausted, we're broke and we've barely had an email from anyone in that time who was interested in us."
One thing the duo had not done a lot of - for mostly financial reasons - is tour outside the West coast. (In fact, the handful of shows played around CMW 2009 marked their Toronto debut.) So when they got invited to Pop Montreal and CMJ in New York last fall, it seemed an appropriate bookend for what had, to date, been a non-starter music career. "We were flying out to Montreal and playing a few shows, then flying out to New York for a bunch of shows. As far as we were concerned, we got to go to Montreal and New York and if we were gonna call it quits, that was a great way to end it. It's much more than a lot of Vancouver bands get to accomplish. Putting out this record and going to those places would have been ending on a high note. If we decided to call it quits, our last show would have been in New York - how great is that?"
At Pop Montreal, Japandroids met Greg Ipp, the man behind a vinyl-loving label called Unfamiliar. Ipp loved the band and wanted to put out Post-Nothing; its recent release on vinyl and by digital download is skipping the CD section altogether. "One show changed our lives," King says. "We play countless shows [in Vancouver] for two years and it's one show in Montreal that changes things for us. That now becomes the best advice you can give to bands in Vancouver: go to Montreal!"
Serendipity reached its hand down and blessed their two heads, but good luck is meaningless without good tunes behind them. Recorded at Vancouver studio institution the Hive, Post-Nothing is a boisterous eight-song set of readymade sing-along anthems built on muscular grooves, fuzzbox jolts and (french kissing french) girls, (sunshine) girls and (quitting) girls. It's powerful enough to suggest that more than two people were involved, but like fellow two-man thrashing crew No Age, King and Prowse work every overdriven power chord, frenzied drum fill and dual howl as if they're compensating for three missing members.
"Just because we're a duo doesn't mean we want to sound like a duo," King says. "Any duo is gonna get compared to other duos, regards. So it's just natural for bands like ours to get compared to No Age or Death From Above 1979. I don't think we'd get those comparisons if we were a three-piece band, it's really only because we're two people. Though I think that if you like No Age's record you might like our record. It's not that far-fetched to say that."
Though they often explain the Japandroids sound is from ripping off other bands, Dave and Brian don't actually have similar music tastes or even own the same records. "If you asked us what we liked, there wouldn't be a lot of overlap," King says. "When we started playing, the Sonics were a band we were listening to all the time, but it wasn't necessarily the songs we were trying to rip off. But if you listen to their records, they're so powerful yet they're so simple and so underproduced. They're about sticking a few mics in a room and recording the raw energy. It's volume and energy and passion and getting that on tape. When we say we rip bands off, that's what we mean."
Adds Prowse: "I think what we both respect about the Sonics is that ferocity and when you listen to it, even at low volumes, it sounds like it's blasting. And I like how you can feel they would melt your face if you saw them live."
After that fateful Pop Montreal show that landed them a like-minded fan in Unfamiliar label guy Greg Ipp, luck came knocking earlier this year in the form of a winning lottery ticket, or at least the modern music equivalent: a rave review from Pitchfork. Blogs and indie publications followed suit, the big ball of buzz started to pick up steam, and before they knew it, retirement plans were shelved and Dave and Brian were suddenly thrown into "a complete 180 in lifestyle." Says King: "I just gave my notice... let's not put that. When is this coming out? Well, by the time you read this, I will no longer be working at my job in Vancouver."
In an instant, the days of posting bubble packs and vainly typing follow-up emails to press and campus radio were over. Pitchfork followed up the review with an invite to play its annual summer festival, and the duo suddenly find themselves with a burgeoning team of people eager to be in the Japandroids business.
"Up until very recently, we've been on our own in every respect. Not only have we been releasing our own records and promoting, managing and booking ourselves, we've also been solely in charge of creating our own image," King says. "Till now, it's been very difficult trying to get anyone to pay attention to us. If no one else is going to write about you, you sort of have to write things about yourself, which does give you some control. Like now, everybody flocks to the internet to research your band and it's the same paragraph that I wrote two years ago."
Sipping Caesars during the band's first-ever trek to Toronto, riding a wave of hype most bands would kill their bassist for, I expect them to be all smiles at the mention of their sudden rise. They appreciate it, sure, but mostly it raises issues of frustration they share with many hometown peers.
"The thing I find very frustrating about Vancouver is that there are a lot of great bands but not enough support," Prowse says. "The media drop the ball in Vancouver, and the promoters to some extent. I think with the right support in place, bands there could be so much more successful."
Vancouver may have had a thriving punk scene throughout the '80s and a strong alt-rock presence in the '90s, but today if your band isn't tied to Black Mountain, the New Pornographers or Mint Records, chances are you're tagged as "obscure." Prowse feels it doesn't have to be this way though. "The thing that really pisses me off is that, if [local media] just didn't like our band, fine, so be it. But they don't support local music at all. It's fucking bullshit. They have a responsibility to tell Vancouver about all the great bands that are in Vancouver. They don't do that."
Adds King: "We've been making music in Vancouver for two full years, lots and lots of shows. How is it possible that we could get both of our self-released EPs reviewed in Exclaim!, the most established music publication in Canada, instead of a Vancouver paper that should have been there since day one? Do you know how frustrating that is?"
Now that circumstances have changed, it's taken a lot of pressure off them. "It was like, 'How much longer are we going to keep pushing, pushing, pushing and then get nowhere?'" asks Prowse. "I think that's a common thing for Vancouver bands. It wears you out and it's hard trying to see the benefits of all your hard work because you're so isolated. What happens is that either bands break up or they move in Montreal or Toronto."
Unlike the country's other musical epicentres, Vancouver's geography limits where bands can play. Sure, there's Victoria and even Seattle but road-hungry bands face a long slog over the mountains to simply get out of town. "It's another thing that kills Vancouver bands," Prowse says. "It takes 12 hours to get to Calgary. We almost fucking destroyed Brian's car on a drive to Calgary when it almost collapsed in the middle of the highway where there's nothing for 100 or so kilometres."
Even worse are the obstacles that face bands right at home. Faced with extremely strict liquor licence requirements, the city has seen plenty of "off the radar" clubs pop up - and get shut down. It's in these underground spots where the city's scene is thriving. "As far as being a musician in Vancouver, it's heartbreaking to see venue after venue being shut down," says Prowse.
King chimes in: "They don't call it 'No Fun City' for nothing."