Japandroids’ second full-length album Celebration Rock, out June 5th, is one of the year’s most thrilling rock records, a concise collection of songs that split the difference between the arena-ready anthems of Bruce Springsteen and the raw, full-throttle energy of hardcore punk. The Canadian duo – guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse – made the album following a tremendously eventful period in which their first LP, Post-Nothing, became a hit among online music fans shortly after they essentially broke up, and King suffered a perforated ulcer that nearly ended his life. Rolling Stone caught up with King to discuss all of this, and why they made a point of covering the Gun Club on their new album.
Were you going for a massive sound on Celebration Rock?
I don’t think it’s massive like a lot of modern rock records are massive, by any means. It is, for lack of better word, the most massive thing that we’ve done. When we set out to record this record, we made a very conscious decision to not really change the formula. We recorded it in the same way, in the same place with the same person that we basically always recorded everything. I think we all just felt really confident that if we went in and did basically the same thing that we did on Post-Nothing or on our singles, that we would inherently come out with something that was a lot bigger and better in every sort of way.
How long have you been working on Celebration Rock? Some of these songs go back a bit, like “Younger Us,” which came out as a single a while back.
We have been working on it sort of off and on. We only really decided to do a second record at the end of 2010. At that point, some of the stuff that we had been working on that was going be for our singles – or was going to be something else, we didn’t really know – started to become the beginnings of our second record. And then we worked on it for most of 2011. It wasn’t traditional in the way that you think bands spend some time writing a record and then go and record it. We were totally winging it the whole time and didn’t really know what we were doing. Like I said, we didn’t even decide to do a second record until the start of last year.
What do you mean by that? Like, whether you would be a band at all?
What a lot of people don’t understand about the band is that we had already kind of broken up at the end of 2008, like right before Post-Nothing had come out. We had already been a band for a few years by that point, and we hadn’t really got anywhere. We were investing a lot of time and energy in the band and really struggling. By the time we recorded Post-Nothing, it was like the third thing we had recorded and were going to release on our own. In the end of 2008, for all intents and purposes we had broken up. Not in like a, “Fuck you – no, fuck you!” kind of way. Just more, “It was fun, but this just isn’t really going anywhere.” There were just other things to do in life, like maybe start a different band or go do something else.
At that point we had stopped practicing, we had stopped working on new songs, we had stopped booking shows. The last thing we were going to do was just put out the record ourselves. We were going to do what we always did with the stuff we had put out before. We were going to press 500 or 1,000 copies just with our own money and try to get them in record stores in Vancouver, give them to our friends and stuff like that. It was right around that time that Post-Nothing really took off on the Internet.
How did that happen, exactly?
If I had to point to one thing, I would say it was probably when Pitchfork put “Young Hearts Spark Fire” on their Website. They made it a Best New Track, and that was sort of more exposure to the band in about one second then we had in three years. You have to remember, being a Canadian band it’s pretty challenging to get on the American radar. There are a lot of bands that are really big in Canada, and no one has any idea who they are in the States. The funny thing is, we were already over it at this point. So that was when we decided that it was worth giving it another shot. The one goal we really wanted to accomplish was to go on tour, and not even like a big tour like we do now. Just to tour across Canada and back; that was one of our big dreams.
We toured for almost two years on that record. That whole time kind of felt like borrowed time. It was already over, but we were kind of just extending it to see what we could do. And one tour turned into two tours, and two tours turned into European tours, and that turned into festivals and it just kept spiraling out of control. During that whole time, we never really talked about what we were going to do when all the touring ended – we were just so happy playing shows. At the end of 2010, we were basically at the point where it was like, “OK, you want to keep touring? Well, you gotta go make another record.”
When you toured for Post-Nothing, you suffered a pretty severe ailment. What happened?
It was near the beginning of touring, in the spring of 2009. I had what’s called a perforated ulcer. To give you the short version, it basically means your stomach kind of explodes inside your body and a hole bursts in your stomach, and the acid from your stomach that’s in there to help dissolve the food that you eat starts leaking out into your internal organs and doing a lot of damage, and if you don’t have emergency surgery really quickly after that happens, you die. Extremely fortunately for me, we were in a major city, and we got to the hospital really quickly and in a few hours of it happening I was in surgery, and I survived. But I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital and had a long recovery and wasn’t able to play shows for a few months. I’m more or less back to normal now. I just have a slightly different regimen in the way I take care of myself and I have to see the doctor more often, and I have to take certain medications and change my lifestyle a bit. But in general, I’m back to normal.
You said earlier that you had this ambition to tour. After the unexpected success of Post-Nothing, what became your new ambition?
We’re quite different from a lot of bands in that we saw making the record as more of a formality, for lack of a better word. Making the record was the thing we had to do to go back on the road and play shows, which was the thing we really loved. Neither one of us are inherent songwriters or particularly artistic people. I don’t even consider myself very creative at all. It’s actually pretty difficult for us to write songs, let alone enough songs for a whole album.
Is that part of why both of your albums have only eight songs?
That’s one of the reasons. I mean, we’re definitely not a band that can write 20 songs in certain chunk of time, and then narrow it down to the best ones. It might take us a month to do what a lot of other bands could do in a weekend. The only way that we can actually make music that we like and that we’re proud of is to really grind away at it for like a long time. I think there are a lot of bands that came out around the same time as us that have one or more people that are extremely talented. They’re just good at writing music and expressing themselves in that way and it comes very naturally to them, whether it’s Bradford Cox from Deerhunter, or a guy like Kurt Vile or Ty Segall. They are the kind of people that, if you lock them in a room for a few hours, they’re going to come out with a half-decent song. Because neither one of us have that, the only way you can do it is to just like grind and grind and grind away at it for long periods of time.
The other reason is that I think that our band is best served in shorter doses, and I don’t think people want a 70 minute Japandroids record. They might think that they do, but I’m telling you from someone that plays in the band, they don’t want that. They really don’t. You listen to the last Fucked Up record – I like Fucked Up and have nothing against those guys – but it’s like their record, where they filled up their entire CD with music…as much as I like Fucked Up, I don’t want to listen to it for 80 minutes straight. It’s a very intense kind of music, and it has its time and place. All our records are around 35, 40 minutes. I think that’s the perfect amount of time to take in what we do and what we sound like, and what we’re trying to say.
Were all of the new songs basically designed to be part of your show?
All the music we make is, more or less. We don’t really have any songs that we don’t play live. A song is not really done for us until we feel that it would be really good when we play it live. When we record it, we basically record it exactly the same way we would play it live. We go in the studio, and the two of us play it together in the room until we get like a really good take, and then we sing over it and then it’s mixed. Most of the songs on this record, there are zero overdubs, except vocals of course. We don’t sing it live when we record it. Probably six out of the eight songs on Celebration Rock are just one guitar take and one drum take that were done at the same time together, and then we sang over it. There are one or two songs where, just do to a technical thing, I had to record a guitar track overtop just because it was too difficult or didn’t sound good to do it all in one go. There’s no layering of guitars to make them sound thick or something like that, or fixing drum fills, or some shit like that. It’s very simple and pure, and very live.
Do you and David purposefully arrange the songs to sound as dense as possible?
That’s something we spend a lot of time doing in the writing process. Like, going through every part of every song trying to figure out how to make it better and more impressive to play live. At every point during every song, there is something going on that’s sort of fun to do live, whether it be drum thing or a guitar thing. Despite the fact that the record’s only 35 minutes and it only has 8 songs on it, I feel like it’s a pretty dense 35 minutes. There’s not a lot of space to breathe in there, and we did that on purpose.
It’s funny that we say it’s “only” eight songs. That use to be pretty normal. Most of Led Zeppelin’s best records have eight songs.
Oh, man. Led Zeppelin’s IV one of the most famous rock & roll records of all time, and it’s eight songs. I think the first six Black Sabbath records are all eight songs. Born To Run, eight songs. Raw Power by Iggy Pop and the Stooges, eight songs. In fact, Fun House only has seven songs on it. So it’s not like we can’t find examples of records. It’s just that somewhere along the way, maybe with the invention of CDs where you could put more music on a record, maybe bands felt like they had to do more songs.
I was kind of curious what led you to cover the Gun Club on this record. “For the Love of Ivy” is a pretty interesting choice.
There are just some bands out there that are capable of writing certain types of songs – and no matter how hard you work, and no matter how hard you try, and no matter how much time you put into it, you’ll never write a song like that. There are some Beatles songs, they just can’t be written by a band today. The Gun Club, for us, was a good example. I love the Gun Club, I love their songs, I love their sound. There’s no way I could sit down and write a song like “For the Love of Ivy” or “She’s Like Heroin to Me” or “Ghost on the Highway” or “Sex Beat.” I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
The way I sequenced Celebration Rock, it builds from the start to this peak of intensity at the middle and then kind of comes down from that peak as it goes on. Right at the peak, even the most intense thing that I think the band is capable of writing is not quite as high on the peak as I wanted to have on the record. So I felt like the Gun Club was capable of writing that song, and it was just a matter of us covering “For the Love of Ivy” and doing justice to the song to the extent that we can. That’s the reason for putting that song on there and putting it where on the record that it is.
What were some of the other options, out of curiosity?
The B-side to our new 7-inch “The House That Heaven Built” is a cover of “Jack the Ripper” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We had recorded that as well, so that could have been on there. The Gun Club is just one of those bands that I think a lot of our audience probably doesn’t know, so it’s a great way to expose a whole new group of people to a band that they might not be exposed to otherwise. I think there’s gonna be a lot of Japandroids fans that think that song is awesome and hopefully go check out the Gun Club and their records.
That totally works. I know I bought R.E.M.’s Document as a kid, and they covered Wire on that album and that was how I learned about Wire.
Yeah, exactly. I owe a debt of gratitude to just countless bands doing the same thing. I listened to Nirvana, and I can’t tell you how many bands I discovered through them. Whether it be bands like the Pixies that they just talked about all the time, or bands that they covered. When I got Trompe Le Monde by the Pixies, it had a Jesus and Mary Chain song on it, so I discovered Jesus and Mary Chain and then they had covered tons of bands, like “Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen. For another example, when I was really young my favorite band was Guns N’ Roses, and Guns N’Roses use to cover tons of bands. Through Guns N’ Roses I discovered the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, the Misfits. I discovered Dylan. To me, it’s a really important part of being in a rock & roll band. I’m hoping that when this record comes out, that a lot of our fans discover the band and it has the same impact that it had on me.