West coast, best coast: The return of Japandroids

Four years after their breakout album, Vancouver rock duo Japandroids are back to strike a chord for their stratifying city
Japandroids play at Birthdays in Dalston, London, England on October 20, 2016. (Valerio Berdini/REX/Shutterstock/CP)
Japandroids play at Birthdays in Dalston, London, England on October 20, 2016. (Valerio Berdini/REX/Shutterstock/CP)
Japandroids play at Birthdays in Dalston, London, England on October 20, 2016. (Valerio Berdini/REX/Shutterstock/CP)

“This town, and this scene, has gone bad.” That’s what Vancouver duo Japandroids told us on their first album, 2009’s Post-Nothing. To an outsider, it wasn’t hard to believe: Vancouver, once a West Coast musical mecca from the ’60s through to the late ’90s, was now too expensive to sustain an economy for young, struggling musicians. The next wave of British Columbians now moved to Montreal, not Vancouver, to make art in a city that incubated creativity.

Japandroids came up in a DIY scene in Vancouver, playing non-traditional venues in a town dubbed “no-fun city,” where a small-capacity bar couldn’t pay its rent on a diet of live music. Out of necessity, Japandroids hit the road—hard, “North, south, east, west, coast to coast,” as another of their songs goes. Their intensely loyal following gravitated to the band’s punk rock anthems with a Springsteenian sense of escape and adventure that resonate no matter where you live.

But they always came home, always sang the praises of Vancouver, always swore they would never be the band to leave—they wouldn’t be like every Vancouver band before them. On their highly anticipated new album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, out Jan. 27—their first in 4½ years—they sing about “a cold war between my home and my hometown.” In 2014, guitarist and singer Brian King packed up and moved to (gasp) Toronto and now spends half his time with his girlfriend in Mexico City. Drummer David Prowse, on the other hand, remains in Vancouver and is fiercely proud of it, particularly the people who manage to carve out a space for creativity in a real estate market that routinely makes national headlines. “Vancouver is a fabulous place to live if you’re wealthy,” says Prowse. The term “wealthy musician” being mostly an oxymoron in today’s economy, never mind in a heated housing market, Prowse adds, “There’s a resilience to being a musician in Vancouver that I’m not sure exists in other Canadian cities. The people who do stay here and make music have committed to being in Vancouver, to making the most out of what they can here.”

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Principal songwriter King grew up in a town he knew he had to leave: Nanaimo, B.C. That puts him in good company: from Black Mountain’s Stephen McBean (Victoria) to Nick Thorburn of Islands and the Unicorns (Campbell River) to Wolf Parade (Cowichan Lake) to Hot Hot Heat (Victoria) to Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire (Courtenay), the small-town dreamers of Vancouver Island have punched above their weight on the Canadian music scene of the last 15 years.

“When you grow up in a small town or somewhere isolated, you can’t help but look out at the rest of the world,” says King. “It’s a very common thing for anyone who grows up in a place like that to think about getting out and escaping. For me, growing up and looking over the water toward Vancouver, you have this almost mythical idea of what Vancouver was and represented. Vancouver might as well have been Manhattan to me: it had tall buildings, and rock bands would play there. It shaped my songwriting from the very beginning and continues to do so to this day.”

A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Japandroids’ breakthrough album was 2012’s Celebration Rock, an album that opened with the sound of fireworks, and roared through eight songs that were custom-built to be a Saturday night soundtrack to inebriated romantics passionately embracing a quickly fading youth on “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” driving “Fire’s Highway” on an “Adrenaline Nightshift” to the sound of “Continuous Thunder.” The narrators in Japandroids songs are in love with rock’n’roll mythology and escapism and celebrating the local. Not unlike the Constantines, a beloved Toronto rock band of the early 2000s, Japandroids manage to somehow—in a jaded and digitally detached age drowning in irony—make ancient clichés and punk rock righteousness sound like gospel truths once again. It’s no small feat, then or now.

King and Prowse, both 34, now find themselves peers of musicians they consider heroes, including the Constantines, even if those heroes are only a couple of years older. Then there was that time Prowse found himself eating at a Chinese restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, at the invitation of Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Operators)—“an ultimate musical hero” whose first band in the Victoria scene of the early 2000s, Atlas Strategic, was one of the main inspirations for Prowse and King starting a band in the first place. “Dan said, ‘Oh, Arcade Fire are in town and they’re going to come, too.’ So soon Owen Pallett is sitting next to me, and Win [Butler] and Régine [Chassagne] and Kid Koala was on that tour, too, so he walks in—I was just like, ‘What the f–k is going on?’ Trying to keep my s–t together, surrounded by Canadian indie rock royalty, basically.”

One thing Japandroids learned from Boeckner is how to take your two-person band to global locales far off the beaten rock’n’roll path. Just as Boeckner’s synth duo Handsome Furs toured remote corners of Eastern Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia, the economical travellers in Japandroids have followed. “The infrastructure for live music is a very different landscape in those places,” says Prowse. “When you play Russia, it’s more of the Wild West in terms of how the show goes.”

Those shows are not that far removed, however, from the types of art spaces—legally sanctioned and otherwise—that Japandroids played plenty of before Celebration Rock put them on a professional path. That’s why the recent fire at the Oakland Ghost Ship in California’s Bay Area, which killed three dozen people in December, hit a little close to home for Prowse and King. “Anybody who’s played in a space like that, or gone to events and shows in a space like Ghost Ship, it was easy for a lot of people to see themselves being there,” says Prowse.

Much like in Vancouver, the Bay Area has seen artists priced out of neighbourhoods entirely or resort to putting on shows in neglected fire traps. “There was a pretty similar, albeit much less serious, incident in Vancouver [in 2013] at a space called Goody; a guitarist, during a show, tried to pull a Jimi Hendrix and light his guitar on fire and it got out of hand. A woman in the front got very badly burned. It ended there, thank God: nobody died, but there was this one poor woman. There was one fire exit and 200 people in there. The city did come in and shut down quite a few of those spaces, the most prominent being a space called Red Gate, which housed a recording studio, a lot of artist space and some rehearsal spaces and occasional shows.

“The city, to its credit, has done quite a bit of work to help Red Gate open a new space in a safer location,” he continues. “If you’re going to run a space that isn’t going to generate income and you’re trying to create spaces for artists, you’re trying to keep that as low-cost as possible. Usually that means you’re going to be in a neighbourhood that is maybe not the safest, and it’s not going to be up to code or be the best situation for having large group gatherings. The city is trying to negotiate those two forces, at least on some level—which is more than can be said for a lot of cities.”

The number of great Vancouver rock bands in recent years might be able to be counted on one hand—and would include White Lung, who relocated to L.A., and fellow guitar-drums duo the Pack A.D.—but at least Japandroids will be waving the municipal flag far and wide.