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.'"
Anyone can make a shitty second album. I felt like I had so much more to give.—Brian King
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."