Japandroids: Killing Yourself To Live
Japandroids' loud and lauded, feel-good, should-be-hit of the summer comes infused with plenty of DIY spirit and more than a little old-fashioned fear of mortality. It's the sound of a dream come true crossed with an encroaching real-life nightmare. DAVID BEVAN heads to Vancouver to find a band at a crossroads.
Save for the scrape and shudder of a hockey game drifting from a television set near its entrance, the crowded waiting room at Mount Saint Joseph’s surgical day-care unit is silent. Just skates on ice, jaws on glass, commentators, murmurs, the occasional sigh. As the Slovakian and U.S. squads trade blows in Helsinki, Japandroids guitarist Brian King is preparing to undergo an endoscopy and biopsy, exactly one week before he and bandmate Dave Prowse leave their home here in Vancouver for a spate of late-spring tour dates across Europe. “I’m more nervous about the result than I am the procedure,” King says as we approach the nurse’s station to check in. “No matter what, it’ll fall within some spectrum of bad.”
Since he was a teen, King, now 29, has suffered from recurring stomach ulcers, a condition whose cause his physicians are hoping to finally pinpoint. Because the origins of the ulcers are so nebulous and their frequency so extraordinarily rare for someone his age, King says the doctors have suggested that the pain may be evolving into something far more dire and insidious. For both him and the band, the procedure comes at a particularly pivotal moment: Japandroids are preparing the release of their second full-length, Celebration Rock, a course-setting triumph that will require the duo to spend the next seven months where King’s heart always seems to be: the road. Today, he’s asked Prowse and me to pick him up and bring him home post-anesthesia.
“I’ll send you a signal when I’m out,” he says with a mischievous grin, as the waiting room’s automatic doors close between us. “See you on the other side.”
The day before, King and I were walking the southern curls of Vancouver’s seawall, a pedestrian path that borders most of the city’s 13-plus miles of coastline. It’s the first weekend in May and there are but two clouds in a sky that’s usually smothered by hundreds. King grew up a brief ferry ride away from here on Vancouver Island, where he spent much of his youth doing “crap jobs” (hoisting prawn traps, cleaning fish, procuring dogfish sharks for bait with his younger brother) on a boat with his grandfather; you can spot his grandfather, along with a five-year-old King, holding a glimmering salmon inches above the ground, in one of two photos he keeps taped to the belly of his red Fender guitar.
Though he played in his high school’s jazz band, King obsessed at home over the six-string heroics of Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and AC/DC’s Angus Young, eventually embracing the Nirvana-led alt-rock hordes whose distortion reached the small Island city of Nanaimo by way of a “crystal clear” signal from Seattle’s 107.7 the End radio station. “I didn’t just love music,” he says, as we sidestep a line of grunting cyclists. “I loved bands. I was a fan.”
From the start, that distinction has played a defining role in the way King and Prowse have approached their craft, an ethos captured best by an album — Celebration Rock — that is their fullest expression yet, and one whose title and tenor belies the gravity of the circumstances looming over its release. The idea of starting a band hadn’t occurred to either of them until they met at the University of Victoria in the fall of 2000. Prowse, a native of Vancouver’s West Side, who bears an often disorienting resemblance to Turkish basketball player Hedo Turkoglu of the Orlando Magic, lived next door to a childhood friend of King’s in their UVic dorm. And though King says that they didn’t care for each other at first, describing their friendship as “force-fed” (Prowse agrees), a burgeoning interest in making music closed the gap.
“At that point, going to shows wasn’t just about going to shows,” King says of seeing local indie-rock luminaries like Run Chico Run and Dan Boeckner’s pre-Wolf Parade posse, Atlas Strategic. “It was about studying the bands, figuring out how we could do that. The conversations were not like, ‘This is awesome.’ or ‘Yeah, I love this, too.’ It was more, ‘What kind of drum kit is he using? Look how he’s playing it. Look how he’s setting up. They’re getting this kind of sound.’ As time went on, [Dave and I] would start standing closer and closer to one another at all those shows.”
Prowse transferred to Simon Fraser University and returned home to Vancouver in 2003, and King followed just as soon as he earned his degree (in earth and ocean sciences) and found a job in the city as a geologist in 2005. The goals were modest: Start a local band like those that had inspired them, tour as far and wide as they could, and become, as King puts it, “cowboys.”
Across a wooden table in the Gastown loft that he shares with his girlfriend, Courtney, and their black shorthair kitten, Memphis, King fans out a series of seven-inch singles that he’s designed to maintain a common Japandroids aesthetic: a live photo on the front cover, a corresponding photo from the same show on the back, sans serif, white on black. Every B-side is a cover song. “I do it all myself,” he says of the design. “Not in a tyrannical sort of way, but just as, you know, a hobby. It’s something fun to do.” He pauses, marveling at all four. “Sorry, I don’t have anyone else to show this to, and Courtney doesn’t care.”
“I think it’s cool, baby,” she reassures him from the bedroom.
“Not at 4 a.m., when I’m trying to move lettering.”
Japandroids found their name via compromise — King wanted to go with “Pleasure Droids,” Prowse lobbied for “Japanese Scream,” a reference to a Kings of Leon lyric. But King’s hand in “steering the ship” since the band’s inception hasn’t been limited to album art, and Prowse, he says, is “happy to go along.” When the two weren’t playing whenever and wherever they could, King spent his evenings working into the night, booking more shows, preparing “epic mail-outs” to college radio stations across North America, writing press copy, booking more shows, writing more songs, drafting posters, designing artwork for recordings he’d finance himself, and becoming educated in the evolving science of DIY self-promotion. Armed with romantic notions of rock’n’roll mythologies, he was driven to will the band out of British Columbia, and obsessed over details as, hopefully, a Japandroids fan might one day. (Every show’s poster and date was included with 2010’s No Singles compilation, a document of the “early days” that King claims is the purest of the duo’s releases.)
“I stopped going out,” he says. “I stopped going to other shows, I stopped going to parties, I stopped going to the bar, and I stopped going on trips. There’s always a band that’s willing to work harder than you. Being in Vancouver, you know you’re not going to make it because you’re going to be playing some warehouse and the right person is going to be there. The only way that bands from the Pacific Northwest make it,” he pauses, “is to grind.”
But in 2008, after recording and digitally self-releasing their scrappy, chest-thumping debut, Post-Nothing, to little notice or fanfare outside of Vancouver, King and Prowse decided the lack of progress meant it was time to stop. The plan was to play a few final shows at Pop Montreal and New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, two festivals that had rejected them previously. And though the band played to mostly empty rooms, they did catch the eye and ear of Toronto-based critic Stuart Berman, whose enthusiasm would spread online. Their swan song suddenly began to look like a fresh start. “Brian opened with some cocky stage banter,” says Berman of that night. “So I expected them to be this real trashy, attitude-heavy, blues-punk band. But then they began with ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ — I remember that vividly because it’s the kind of song that feels instantly familiar, and I was surprised to hear such an epic, anthemic song coming from a two-piece.”
Songs like “Wet Hair” (a central shout: “Let’s get to France so we can French kiss some French girls!”) and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” (a prescient refrain: “I don’t want to worry about dying / I just want to worry about those sunshine girls”) began tearing across the Web. By the end of 2008, not only did Post-Nothing have a label, but Japandroids had a North American tour, their first, booked for the following spring. King quit his job, sold his furniture, and shoved most of his belongings into a storage space that his mother kept in Vancouver. Days later, they were on their way to the first show of the tour, a date in Calgary.
But that night, after the show, King began experiencing swells of abdominal pain that intensified as the hours passed. He drank some water, hoping the pain would subside. It didn’t, and when he finally woke Prowse to tell him that something was very wrong, his pajamas soaked through with sweat, there was little question about the seriousness of the situation. One of King’s ulcers had perforated, allowing the acid in his stomach to move freely into his abdomen and threaten several of his internal organs. Prowse drove him to the emergency room. The tour was over.
At the hospital, just five minutes from where the two had been staying with Prowse’s aunt, King waited for two hours before X-rays were taken and he was ushered into a room to wait alone while further tests were run. There, folded into the fetal position to keep the pain at bay, screaming and sobbing, convinced that he’d squandered the best opportunity the band had earned in three years of struggling, King threw himself from the examination table to the floor. Unable to stand, and needing to urinate, he crawled to a nearby wastebasket. When a nurse walked in to find him on the floor, she fled, afraid, he says, that he was “some drug addict going psycho.”
The last thing he remembers is crunching himself up into a tighter ball and rocking back and forth as best he could, hoping that if he hit his head against the wall violently enough, he’d knock himself out. “It was,” he says, “like I didn’t know what pain was before that happened.” Several hours later, when he awoke, the first face he saw belonged to his bandmate.
“Brian just wanted it so bad,” Prowse says. “He was terrified that he’d blown it for us. The first time I saw him, actually, after his surgery, he apologized to me.” Prowse shakes his head. “The first word out of his mouth: ‘Sorry.'”
When the nurse leads us into the post-op waiting area, we find King in bed, tangled in a blanket. “He’s a little sleepy,” she says. King awakes, his mess of brown ringlets matted across his forehead, his face flushed and grooved from being pressed against his bedding. Prowse asks him if he’s in pain and he shakes his head no.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t come with me into the operating room,” he croaks. “It was like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, with all of these lights and gadgets and this massive, massive screen for the camera feed. I couldn’t see my stomach in real time, but I could see the last recorded image.” “How was that?” we ask. “Neat. Gross. Neat.”
The next afternoon, in the practice space the band rents on Vancouver’s East Side, Japandroids quickly roar through a mix of songs old and new. Though his throat is sore from the endoscopy, King howls just as he always has onstage.
“How’s your voice?” Prowse asks. “You don’t have to give it every time.”
“It’s okay,” he says, the words splintering. “I just want to make sure I can still play tomorrow, and the day after that.”
King and Prowse muscle their way through Celebration Rock’s blistering opener, “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” a song whose title is a goofy homage to Los Angeleno Paisley punks the Dream Syndicate — like “The Boys Are Leaving Town” is a tribute to Thin Lizzy and “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown” is a shout to Springsteen. And while the album is a retromaniacal rock nerd’s Ouroboros — built by fans for fans — it’s also a major leap forward for Japandroids as songwriters, a stack of paeans to emptying glasses and staving off sunrise, sung by two guys intent on elbowing their way into the annals of an art form some consider passe. They recorded it in Vancouver during several sessions over the course of a year, returning to the same room (the Hive) with the same producer (Jesse Gander) and the same setup they used three years earlier. “It’s an extremely simple recording,” Gander says. “It’s one guitar and one drum kit.”
Still, it’s a major improvement; King’s vocals have been foregrounded, and his lyrics, once lost in distortion, now, in all ways, ring true. “Anyone can make a shitty second album,” King says. “I wanted to expand on the inclusive nature of the band and the songs, which I didn’t understand until ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ came out and I saw what that could do. I felt like I had so much more to give. So much more to give to songs, so much more to give to an album.”
Celebration Rock is also an album of transition: Its final songs were written outside of Vancouver. After King recovered from the perforated ulcer, the career window that he’d worried would close opened up even wider. Post-Nothing began to garner acclaim at home and abroad, and Champaign, Illinois’ Polyvinyl Records stepped in to reissue the record in wide distribution, signing Japandroids to a multi-record deal that still allowed King the kind of all-encompassing creative control he’d commanded since the band’s birth. They went on an 18-month tour across four continents, including dates in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Russia. Look at the back cover art of their latest single and you’ll see them playing in a Swiss club, a progression in the series he’d shown me in his apartment days before.
When Prowse and King returned to Vancouver in the early winter of 2010, they came home to a changed city. Friends had married or left for the suburbs, and clubs that they’d cut their teeth in had been razed to make way for condominiums. Within weeks, they had slipped into old routines: Prowse was working his day job as a social worker in a nonprofit housing project, and King was “hiding inside,” paralyzed by the thought of “writing an album from scratch” with a newly found audience in mind, worried yet again that their moment had come and gone.
“It felt like the ride was over,” Prowse says.
For months, King and Prowse labored over every inch of tape before deciding that maybe what they needed was what they had wanted all along: a road trip. They threw their gear into a car and embarked for Nashville, a city that met all their criteria: “We knew we wanted to go south, somewhere far away, far enough that I would feel like we really went somewhere,” says King. Using tour funds, they rented a house, went out on the town, stood slack-jawed at the sight of Jack White in his Third Man Records shop, and got to work writing what would become the album’s defining statements, “The House That Heaven Built” and “Continuous Thunder.”
“When Post-Nothing happened,” King explains, “we felt like we were going on an extended vacation. You did this thing, people discovered it accidentally, it felt finite. We always thought that when the touring stopped, it’d be over. It never occurred to us that we could be a real band and make lots of albums and keep touring. It never occurred to us that we would have the potential to be like one of the bands we liked.” As we leave the rehearsal space, King receives a phone call from his mother, with whom we’ve planned to have dinner. I’d been given one conversational guideline for the evening: Do not mention the endoscopy or biopsy, and, if his mother asks, “compliment her cats.” But someone already had done the former. As Prowse and I mill around waiting, King nods and offers his mother a string of monosyllabic responses through his teeth.
“You’ve been talking to Courtney, haven’t you?” he asks, finally. She had.
Despite her fear of heights, King’s mother, Kellie, lives on the top floor of a sky-scraping condominium tower in Vancouver’s newly residential downtown. When we arrive, King immediately darts toward her stereo. “The first thing Brian does when he comes over,” she explains, “is say hello to the cats. Then he changes the music.”
“It’s fucking Coldplay,” King says, as he turns it off altogether. “Hey,” she scolds. “You’re not on tour yet, son.” As King starts to seek out a suitable replacement, she leans back on the kitchen counter and looks him over from a distance.
“How are you feeling, son?” she asks.
“I’m fine. Little bit sore.”
“Yeah,” she says, pressing the tips of her fingers to her throat. “From the scope?”
From a chest in an office nook on the other side of the apartment, King starts shuffling through reams of Japandroids memorabilia: clips from NME and SPIN, as well as the band’s first bootleg, a DVD of a show they played in Belgium with “professional audio, pulled straight from the board.” In her bedroom, his mother also keeps a framed clipping of the band’s first mention in The New York Times, a live review that described King as a “cocksure dweeb.” He couldn’t be prouder.
“He’s leaving us again,” Kellie says, tearing up as she watches her son hustle in and out of the room. Courtney consoles her. “It’s okay,” she says. “It’s short this time, only a month and a half.” When King apologizes again in passing, saying he just doesn’t have anyone but Dave with whom to share all of these mementos, I ask the two if that’s really the case.
“He’s the most private person I know,” Kellie says, looking to Courtney for approval. “To be honest, I’m still surprised that he agreed to you coming here at all.”
And when King leads me into the office to look at an impressive collection of laminates that Japandroids have accrued over the past few years, I ask him quietly if the procedure we’re not supposed to mention is merely precautionary. “Yes and no,” he says, distracted. “Unfortunately, I’m sick again.”
Moments later, Garrity, a professional roadie from Florida who the band hired in late 2009 when it became clear they couldn’t do everything by themselves, joins us. He’s in town with the Polish metal crew Decapitated, whom he’s been driving across North America in a small sprinter bus for several weeks, subsisting on rest-stop food and Mountain Dew. His face has taken on an ashen, slightly jaundiced color, and his skin, like the long beard he continuously pulls, is slick with grease. Between stories of cheeseburger-flavored hotdogs and donuts he just 2nd Day Air’d as a gift to a girl back home (“When things get serious, then I’ll consider Next Day Air”), he inhales every prawn, every slab of salmon and hunk of corn that King’s mother places in front of him. King and Prowse look on in wonder, devouring more tales from the road with similar glee.
“Are you going to get a new suitcase?” Kellie asks Brian. “Yeah, the airline beat mine to shit,” he replies.
“That’s actually my suitcase,” she says.
“Well, then, the airline beat yours to shit.”
After dinner, King accompanies me to the airport on Vancouver’s elevated Sky Train. For an early, vocal-less Japandroids recording (on which he played drums and Prowse contributed a harmonium melody), King gathered field recordings from a train just like this one, using the station announcements as an ambient record of where it was made. “That’ll be on the Post-Nothing anniversary reissue in 20 years or something,” he says. “As a bonus track.”
When asked if he worries about his health, a day out of surgery and a week from being thousands of miles away from Canada, King demurs cheekily. “I only think about it peripherally. I’m more worried about our gear not making it to the U.K. in one piece. If it’s bad, there’s nothing I can do about it. If it’s good, then great. I just ask that they keep my grave clean.” In addition to a face-to-face post-biopsy consultation with his physician, he’s set to receive an ultrasound in early July. Japandroids are scheduled to leave for tour only days later.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says of touring. “I should be living in a normal way that allows me to sleep well and eat right and take care of myself. Now that I’ve gone through all of that, though, I know what the warning signs are. I wouldn’t let it get that bad again. As much as I love doing this, there’s no fucking way I’m going through that again.”
Since that night in Calgary, he says, it’s been more difficult for his mother to say goodbye. “I try not to show my excitement around my mom and Courtney. They get upset every time I leave. But I can’t wait,” he whispers. “I don’t belong here anymore. I belong out there, with the wind.”