Medical emergencies and cancelled tours can’t stop the rock juggernaut that is Vancouver’s own Japandroids
If not for the small matter of singer-guitarist Brian King almost dying, Japandroids’ first full tour of North America would have been memorable for all the right reasons. Still, although the Vancouver two-piece found itself stuck in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre on April 24 at the start of what was supposed to be a seven-week, 28-city haul, it wasn’t all bad. The way David Prowse sees things, each morning in a stretch of dark days for Japandroids brought a new ray of sunshine.
With King recovering from emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer, someone was looking out for the duo from above. After years of wondering why no one cared about them, Japandroids suddenly found their just-released debut album, Post-Nothing, garnering no shortage of attention for its unrelenting brand of distortion-fried postgarage rawk.
“For me, a huge thing when Brian was in the hospital was that every day I had awesome news to tell him,” says Prowse, the band’s easygoing singer-drummer. “That was nice, even though it was kind of a blessing and a curse. It was nice for me to be able to come in and, rather than dwelling on the situation, to have something to be excited about. It was pretty cool to be able to let him know that we’d just been reviewed in Pitchfork. Or that we’d been added to the Capitol Hill Block Party [in Seattle], where we were going to be playing with Sonic Youth and all these other cool bands.”
Along with his bandmate, Prowse is squeezed into a booth in Vancouver’s ’50s-kitsch-cool Templeton café on Granville, on an overcast May morning. The outing is the first for King since his hospitalization not only temporarily derailed Japandroids’ quest for world domination, but almost killed half of the most buzzed-about act from the Vancouver underground since a certain group of new pornographers.
Even though he notes that his arms look like a junkie’s—blame the IV drips and hospital tape that were part of his life for the past couple of weeks—King looks better than he has a right to. Scruffily bearded and rocking hair that seemingly hasn’t seen a shower since George W. Bush was president, he sports a grey T-shirt, checkered scarf, and jeans that hang off him, which is what happens when a 6-1 guy who normally weighs in at 160 pounds drops 20 of them. Prowse, bearded and bespectacled, wears a green hoodie and jeans, and has a ’do that’s a little like the Mars Volta after a good sheep-shearing.
As a steady parade of ’80s favourites blares over the Templeton’s speakers, King orders the artery-clogging Truckers Breakfast, partly because his doctor has instructed him to bulk up—no small task given that, until recently, his weight hadn’t changed in a decade. Prowse opts for coffee and the Mangled Eggs with bacon. It’s not lost on the two Japandroids that at least one of them is lucky to be here. Had they not been staying in Calgary close to the hospital, Post-Nothing would have marked the end of a group that was suddenly a with-a-bullet breakout band among indie-rock tastemakers.
It would be easy for King and Prowse to be pissed off at the way Japandroids have been temporarily grounded; in addition to a tour that was to take them across Canada and through New York and Chicago, the list of gigs they’ve had to cancel on doctor’s orders has included a much-coveted, high-profile slot at Washington State’s Sasquatch! Music Festival. Instead, they’ve chosen to be philosophical. For a long time, the two wondered if they were wasting their time with Japandroids. With everything that’s happened over the past few months—including a glowing review of the cacophonic Post-Nothing on the indisputably prestigious Pitchfork—King and Prowse are now looking on the sunny side of things.
Forgetting for a second that someone almost died, the dark days appear to be officially over for Japandroids. “After my surgery, we had to slow everything down,” King says. “Now we at least have some sort of context for how things are progressing for us. When you’re out on tour you’re in a bubble where you’re cut off and don’t always have time to check your e-mail.”
Looking up from his breakfast, he pauses for a second and then continues: “There are a lot of people who are discovering us now who think that we are a brand-new band, which isn’t true. We’ve been around for a few years, and we have a few records out. We’ve been working really hard for a really long time. I think, for both of us, there’s a sense that all that hard work is finally paying off. We suffered for this attention. And now we deserve it.”
If Japandroids have a secret short list of cities that they’d be happy never to visit again, Cowtown is at the top.
“Calgary is fucking cursed for us,” Prowse says.
“The first time we were in Calgary, my guitar got stolen,” King elaborates. “The second time, we drove all the way to Calgary, played a show for nobody, and then drove all the way back home. The third time we were in Calgary, I had emergency surgery.”
The condition that almost killed the Nanaimo-raised guitarist wasn’t a new one; he was first diagnosed with an ulcer when he and Prowse were studying at the University of Victoria, where they met. For the past half-decade, medication has kept things under control. But when he woke up at 7 a.m. on April 24, after playing the Flames’ hometown the night before, King knew something was wrong.
“My ulcer had actually perforated, which meant the acid had eaten a hole right through my stomach,” he relates. “Air from my stomach was basically leaking into my chest cavity, causing pressure on all my internal organs, and acid from my stomach was dripping into my internal organs and damaging them. I woke up in excruciating pain, woke up Dave, and we hobbled to the emergency room.”
Doctors would later tell him that he had dodged a potentially fatal bullet.
“After Brian went into surgery, I went back to my uncle’s house, which is where we were staying,” Prowse says. “I started looking up perforated ulcers on Wikipedia. At the bottom they list famous people who have died from it—J. R. R. Tolkien is one. It’s pretty scary that, had we been in the wrong place, things would have turned out differently.”
Until late last fall, when good things finally started to happen for the group, lucky wasn’t a word the members of Japandroids would have used to describe themselves. Meeting through a mutual friend at UVic, where King majored in science and Prowse studied anthropology, the two decided they would form a band once they were done with school. Following some serious bonding during a road trip to Coachella in 2005, Japandroids began taking shape the next year.
After halfheartedly scouting for a singer, the two realized they were onto something as a duo, proving themselves to be nothing if not committed.
“We practised more than any other band we knew,” King says. “Other bands would be like, ”˜We practise once a week,’ and we’d be like, ”˜That’s nothing—we practised five times last week.’ ”
Prowse adds with a laugh: “We weren’t very popular with our girlfriends.”
At first, Japandroids bore little resemblance to the tinnitus-inducing two-man assault squad that it’s morphed into today. “We used to record all of our jams on cassette tape,” Prowse says. “I probably have 20 hours on tape, and the range is pretty crazy. There’s early stuff where we were almost trying to be like a two-person Sigur Rós.”
Fixated on Seattle garage pioneers the Sonics, U.K. rawk agitators mclusky, and seminal art-punks Wire, Japandroids eventually began drawing up a different blueprint, which would lead to a debut EP, 2007’s proudly loud and lo-fi All Lies.
“There were very specific bands that we both loved, so we were like, ”˜Let’s make a band that rips off this band, this band, this band, and this band, and then we’ll go from there,’ ” King says. “Like with the Sonics, it wasn’t necessarily the musical or songwriting aspect of it that we were trying to rip off. It was more like how they played, how they recorded, and the way that their records sounded—really raw, really distorted, really loud, really high-energy.”
Fittingly, then, raw, distorted, and loud are good starting descriptions for Post-Nothing, a record that has King playing one-man guitar hero while Prowse puts on a devastating percussion clinic. One of the band’s great tricks is the way it manages to take a host of influences—shoegazing alt-pop, melody-soaked hardcore, and turbocharged garage—and create something all its own. So as much as the cascading “The Boys Are Leaving Town” is wrapped in eight layers of ’90s-issue guitar gauze, Japandroids aspire to something more than being My Bloody Valentine for the Stereogum nation.
Just as impressive is the way that, whether you’re talking the sexed-up thumper “Heart Sweats” or the solar-flared “Sovereignty”, Japandroids never seems like a two-piece. Check out “Crazy/Forever”, where King unleashes wave after thick wave of distortion while the endlessly inventive Prowse proves himself either unwilling or unable to play a simple 4/4 beat.
It all adds up to an art-noise fusion that makes you think Prowse and King could have been bigger than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—or at least the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion—had they come together in Williamsburg circa 2000. But because the two were more interested in making ears bleed than in giving Vancouver’s indie cognoscenti yet another reason to fire up the Black Mountain–brand bong, getting noticed in their hometown was a frustrating struggle.
“We had to leave Vancouver for something to happen for us,” King states bluntly.
Prowse continues: “If we had left Vancouver, and seen what it was like outside of Vancouver way fucking earlier, I think we would have had a lot more hope for this record that’s come out. We were like in this bubble where it was like, ”˜Okay, we can’t get in any paper in Vancouver and we’re still playing the exact same venues we were playing two years ago. We’ve got this new record that we think is super-awesome, but how is this ever going to turn into anything?’ ”
And today it has. Based on things that have been happening for Japandroids over the past half-year, the struggle would appear to be over. King and Prowse were resigned to releasing Post-Nothing themselves when, while playing the Pop Montreal festival, they blew the mind of Greg Ipp, founder of Unfamiliar Records, which subsequently released the disc. Pitchfork has not only been a supporter of the band, but the site has invited Japandroids to play its hipster-blessed Pitchfork Music Festival this July, by which time King will be fully recovered. There’s also a major tour to be rescheduled.
Today, Japandroids could easily sit around the Templeton and curse what happened in Calgary. And in fairness, Prowse and King aren’t all sunshine and lollipops. Having bucked the odds to get noticed in Vancouver, they remain passionate about the local music scene, more than a little outraged at the lack of coverage and respect that it often gets, and pissed off at the criminal lack of live venues. But at the same time, the two Japandroids, for the first time, are grateful that their hard work has finally paid off. The suffering is over, and, funnily enough, it somehow seems like it was all worth it.
“We thought we could be something, but we didn’t know all this would happen,” King notes. “For example, we thought maybe we could get to play with some big acts: we didn’t think we’d be able to play with acts like Sonic Youth.”
His Truckers Breakfast has now been demolished, a sign that what happened in Cowtown is part of a grim but fading memory. King leans over the empty plate and smiles.
“There’s a holy-fucking-shit factor every day,” he says. “This has gotten bigger than we thought it could ever actually be.”