Singer-guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse of the Canadian power-punk duo Japandroids turn to each other in confusion. They are lost for an answer to a simple question: When did the two friends – who met in college, formed the band more than a decade ago and have just made their third and best album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life – last have a serious argument?
“Not recently,” King says after a long pause, standing at a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Prowse claims, “The big part of knowing each other this long is knowing how to push each other’s buttons” – but also, King adds, when you shouldn’t. “It only works if we get along,” he insists. “That trumps the little bullshit that could come between us. There’s too much to lose.”
Near to the Wild Heart of Life – the follow-up to Japandroids’ 2012 breakout, Celebration Rock, which went Top 40 in Billboard – is the most commercially assured evidence of that bond. “North East South West” is a classic-rock gallop with glam-gang vocals, and “Arc of Bar” – Japandroids’ longest-ever song – suggests mid-Sixties Bob Dylan leading New Order. King says that when he wrote the words, he first sang them to the tune of Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
“Most bands have boundaries, but these guys are pretty tight,” says producer Peter Katis, who mixed Japandroids’ new album. The record “is pretty austere,” Katis says. King played only one guitar on most songs. But there were up to “half a dozen tracks of that guitar” put through different amps. “That was the key, pushing forward in a way they were comfortable with.”
King and Prowse, both 34, are actually a striking study in contrasts at the bar and also as they stroll through “Exhibitionism,” the Rolling Stones’ traveling show of studio and concert memorabilia, at a nearby gallery. King walks and talks with crisp, excited purpose, snapping cellphone photos of tour posters and vintage artwork as he recalls growing up in Nanaimo, a small town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “It was very isolated, pre-Internet,” he says. “I was really taken with larger-than-life bands like the Stones and Guns N’ Roses.”
At his Vancouver high school, Prowse was more interested in modern Northwest icons like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. He is more laid-back than King, with a thoughtful, measured speaking voice. Prowse says he was more “social” when the two met at the University of Victoria and started Japandroids in 2006 after a short stint with a female singer. “I was the one who would meet bands and say, ‘We should play with them,’ and book all the shows,” Prowse says. But, he adds, King “has a drive that far supersedes my own.” The guitarist oversees their artwork, including record covers, and “has that personality where if something doesn’t sound right with a guitar part, he will go home and play for 12 hours.” Prowse laughs. “My calming presence is a good balance to Brian’s manic obsession.”
It’s a sturdy unity. After two years of getting nowhere in Vancouver, King and Prowse decided to make a debut album, 2009’s Post-Nothing, then break up to preserve their friendship. But the LP was an indie sensation, and they started their first major tour – postponed after the first show when King suffered a perforated ulcer. For Celebration Rock alone, they played more than 200 shows, mostly with a skeleton crew: a tour manager and a sound man.
But Near to the Wild Heart of Life is the first album Japandroids have made since King moved to Toronto in 2014, then started living part-time with his girlfriend in Mexico City. Japandroids eventually made the record in New Orleans, Montreal, Vancouver and Connecticut. Now, when they are not in the same room or van, Japandroids stay in touch via texting and Skype.
“I almost don’t remember what it was like to see Dave regularly at a show or a bar in the same way as now,” King says as he mimics typing on a cellphone. “[But] we’ve played more shows than the Beatles ever played, in more countries.” King turns to Prowse and grins. “We’re doing OK.”
Below, stream Brian King’s playlist of songs that influenced Japandroids’ Near to the Wild Heart of Life.
“This playlist is sort of a window into my 2014/2015, and what I was listening to and thinking about while writing the album,” King told Rolling Stone in a statement. “These are the songs/artists I think were the most influential, either directly or indirectly, on our album (particularly in terms of lyrics/themes/etc). I think if you listen to it once through, and then to the album, it is very easy to see the influence.”