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."