When Japandroids came back to the stage after three years gone, the Vancouver duo didn’t book the city’s biggest concert hall, the Commodore. They could’ve; they’re playing there in March, actually. Instead, guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse, both of whom take swings at the mic (King does most of the heavy lifting), booked four consecutive nights at the Cobalt (or Fauxbalt, depending who you ask). Prowse seems to acknowledge that divide.
“The Cobalt sure looks different from the last time we played there,” he remarks airily, subtext lending an edge to his tone. “It’s still kind of wild to be playing at the Cobalt all these years later.”
He and King are preparing to gallop off into another cross-continental sunrise after their hiatus. Their break was atypical in a couple of ways. It was kind of ambiguous; no one knew much about why they were stepping back from the band. And they didn’t just step out of the spotlight; it was radio silence from a band that had stoked a big goddamn fire. For all we knew, that was curtain call for the beloved, black-and-white garage-rockers.
Meanwhile, they were recording Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, another eight-shooter pistol of pornographically earnest rock and roll.
“I think it was wise of us to work on this record without publicizing the the fact that we were working on a record,” Prowse reasons. And really, it’s an ideal way to make a record: no deadlines, no eyes over their shoulders, no pressure. “I think it was smart, just letting us exist in our bubble and make the record for ourselves.”
It was also unfamiliar territory. “It’s a weird thing to be working on this record somewhat in secret for so long,” he levels. So when word broke that they were coming back, Prowse and King were as excited as rabid Jastandroids. “We were very eager to get it out there. Starting it off in Vancouver, too… Brian doesn’t live here anymore, but it’s still home.”
Bringing it back to a 300 capacity room was their way of dipping their toes in the water. “We hadn’t played, and nobody had heard a peep from us in three years. It was hard to gauge how many people were interested in hearing from us after disappearing for a few years.” All four nights at the Cobalt sold out long early. People flew in from out of town to see the return of Japandroids. Not even a Thin Lizzy reference would do justice to the monumental reunion (although Prowse and King are known to appreciate a good Thin Lizzy reference).
Three years out of the limelight in the 21st century is a substantial chunk of time. No tweets, Instagrams, Snapchats, Vines (RIP); people were worried. But it was a curated silence. “I don’t think people need to know if I’m eating at Taco Bell,” Prowse snorts (today the campaign for a David Prowse At Taco Bell Instagram series starts, someone make this happen).
Here, Prowse hits upon a crucial division: the idea of the essential rockstar, eternally interesting, and the actual rockstar, painfully normal. He and King are not the rock gods they are onstage. Just like their Bruce-and-Clarence album covers, their onstage images evoke wonder and awe. But they’re just human. “It’s probably a lot cooler if people imagine that Brian and I are off on crazy adventures at all times when we’re not in the public eye,” he laughs.
“We’re playing these bigger rooms, which is kind of getting into the realm of musical bigshots. Artists with a capital A.”
On some level it’s clear that these conversations are uncomfortable for Prowse and King; it’s not the world they came up in. A conversation around the gap between them and their fans isn’t their thing. Japandroids weren’t built for the social media era. “We came from this world where we were playing really small shows, doing it ourselves. I don’t think we’re a punk band exactly, but we came from that DIY kind of world, and it’s a very egalitarian world. In that world there’s no difference between being in the band and being in the audience.”
They’ve consented to their label setting up modest Twitter and Instagram accounts, with scattered updates posted periodically. Compared to most bands’ online presence, Japandroids’ is nonexistent. But Japandroids have never been a band of mediated, hollowed-out, convenient communiques; they’re brash, bold, unapologetic, irrational even. On the new record, they’re in bodies like graves, they’re stealing Christ off the cross, they’re clawing to find true love and a free life of free will. For all the talk of development and change in sound, Prowse and King are still the starry-eyed, chest-thumping romantics we know and love.
“Brian really likes to use extremes,” Prowse elaborates. “Our music is extreme in the sense that it’s very passionate. It’s not like [Brian’s] ever like, (here, Prowse dons a nasally, anemic imitation) ‘I think I kind of like you.’ He’s making these grand proclamations of his undying love for someone, and how she’s descended from heaven, and he’ll do anything to get past the devil to get to her.
“That imagery just speaks volumes. It’s so economical.” And Japandroids are nothing if not economical. With just a drum kit, a guitar, and two mics, they’ve figured out how to turn euphoric garage-rock anthems into a universal language, a kind of musical shorthand for unabashed emotional indulgence and expression.
Prowse continues: “There’s a direct simplicity when you’re in a two-piece band. There’s not a lot of fluff around it. You’ve got one instrument for rhythm and one instrument for melody, and then you just gotta sing overtop of it.” The message here is: anyone can do this. It is accessible, it is reachable, it is for everyone. They are not deities. They are vessels for our own hopes and wants and failures and victories and loves and losses and lives. They are speaking our language. They didn’t choose to be a duo because it was cool or fashionable. “We just started playing as a duo cause there were just two of us who were friends who enjoyed making music together.”
It’s apparent that what King and Prowse fear most isn’t failure, or loss, or pain; it’s mediocrity, an absence of any emotional feeling, that scares them. “Where can we go that can avoid being just as good or slightly better or slightly worse than Celebration Rock?” Prowse ponders of their aim when making Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. No repetition, no comfort zone, no Celebration Rock: Pt. 2.
And in all of this, the whole winding, foggy three-year hiatus, the triumphant return at the dinky Cobalt, staying off social media, expanding their sound, ditching the usual approach, it becomes clear that Japandroids are unwilling to sacrifice a shred of emotional integrity, purity and conviction; they’re unprepared to compromise this, because if that’s compromised, what the hell does Japandroids really stand for? Without the resolute constitution and rooting of raw human heart, is music really worth making? Is life really worth living? These are the grand dedications to the universal lived experience that David Prowse and Brian King are protecting from dilution.
Perhaps that’s how their new record is best understood: literally, never figuratively. King and Prowse are always chasing that unbridled essence of humanity. On Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, they’re just that.