Japandroids frontman Brian King had hundreds of shows under his belt by the time he climbed on-stage for the first night of a four-show stand at the Cobalt last October, but the hometown gig had him looking a little jittery. To be fair, the singer-guitarist hadn’t performed live with drummer David Prowse since a Buenos Aires tour-closer at the tail end of 2013.
The duo would treat the capacity crowd to countless fist-pumping rock anthems as the night progressed. Japandroids started its return with a slow-building epic called “Arc of Bar”—described as the “longest and weirdest” song from its new album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Halfway through that first number King was sweating, and not just because of the stage lights.
“You forget what it’s like to be on-stage, where everyone’s looking at you. You might practise a lot in your jam space, but it’s a whole different beast actually standing in front of people and executing certain things. It’s just a lot of nerves and, of course, playing new songs for the first time,” King tells the Straight, interviewed with his bandmate in the back of East Van’s Caffe Brixton. “In many ways it reminded me of our very first show; it reminded me of [playing] Pat’s Pub.”
The singer is decidedly more relaxed at the Brixton, with him and Prowse already a few Czechvar lagers deep into their day. They’ve shown up to talk about Near to the Wild Heart of Life, which finds them back to business as usual.
As the nearly five-year wait for the follow-up to 2012’s Celebration Rock suggests, it took a while to get here. Both note that the exhausting, write-record-tour-repeat cycle they had been locked into since their 2007 breakthrough, Post-Nothing, was a major reason for stalling on album number three.
“We were very burnt out at that time. We knew that we wanted to make another record, and we wanted to keep going, but both of us just needed a break,” King says. “If we had started working on a record right away, the vibe would’ve been bad.”
King also explains that “things were falling apart” in his personal life as the Celebration Rock tour came to a close, so he was looking to make some major changes. First, he packed up his bags and moved to Toronto. As he was adjusting to the Big Smoke, he started dating a woman who lived in Mexico City and opted to lay down roots there as well—he currently spends downtime in both locales. But King wasn’t entirely off Prowse’s radar, having maintained a healthy relationship that involved bonding sessions across three home bases.
“It’s not like I was like, ‘I’ll see you in six months,’ ” King says. “I would come back here, and Dave was out in Toronto—we were seeing each other regularly. [It was] just a little bit more ‘friends only’. We didn’t necessarily talk about the band with every conversation that we had. We’d just go to a show and not talk about the fact that we also play in a band together.”
After about a year off, the twosome began working on fresh material in New Orleans, before tracking the bulk of Near to the Wild Heart of Life back in Vancouver with producer Jesse Gander. Fittingly, the shifts in scenery seeped into the story lines.
The opening title cut is a full-blast road anthem mixing blown-out guitars with lines about getting “fired up to go far away”. Home and identity also figure on “North East South West”, which peppers Mellencamp-style heartland rock with shout-outs to Vancouver and their favourite Crescent City drinking spot, the Saint. “Midnight to Morning”, sung sweetly by Prowse, is about coming back home, wherever that may be.
“Home is more conceptual, as opposed to a singular place now,” King explains. “It sounds so cliché to say, but it’s the idea of ‘Home is where the heart is.’ Vancouver is home—it always has been, and always will be. But Toronto is also home, and Mexico City is also home.…for both of us, now.”
Prowse adds: “Part of being a musician is being a bit transient, obviously.”
Though often unified in theme, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is Japandroids’ most musically diverse collection. While “No Known Drink or Drug” revels in the distorted chord work and glory-days sing-alongs of older numbers, “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” is a subtle shoegaze daydream of cloudy vocal effects and glitter-covered electronics.
The aforementioned “Arc of Bar” centres around a digitally warped guitar loop that sounds like it should actually be coming out of an ’80s keytar; King’s long-form treatise on the “hustlers and whores” hanging out in the “flesh bazaar” is Beowulf compared to Post-Nothing’s two-line “The Boys Are Leaving Town”. While there’s still plenty of hope streaming through Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids is exploring a fuller emotional palette.
“The last record is called Celebration Rock,” King points out. “There are no downers on that record, but that’s because I specifically removed the downer part of the story and focused on the triumph; I think that makes a great rock song! This record, we’re not shying away from the darker, negative side of the experience.”
King adds that the shift toward seriousness is a symptom of age, an honesty that he hopes long-time fans will relate to. Don’t worry, Japandroids will still be cranking out “Younger Us”, but there’s an excitement to growing up, too.
“If we had tried to recapture the spirit of Celebration Rock because people identified with it, I feel like our fans would’ve been the first people to see right through that,” he explains. “I think there are definitely some people where, if they just had 10 rockin’ party anthems, they’d be like, ‘Fuck yeah, new Japandroids!’ but I’d like to think that our fans are smarter or more self-conscious than that.”
Japandroids’ Near to the Wild Heart of Life is out Friday (January 27) through Arts & Crafts/Anti-.