Sometimes you know the answer before you ask the question. I’m on the phone with Japandroids guitarist and vocalist Brian King and before our interview gets underway, I ask how he’s doing. “I’m fine,” he says, before adding the inevitable. “Well, aside from the fact that this has been a pretty fucking shit week.”
Three days after Donald Trump’s stupefying US election triumph and King happens to be in the one country potentially even more down about it all than America itself: Mexico. King’s girlfriend is there, so he alternates between living with her for extended stints and spending time back home in Toronto. King is pretty bummed.
“It just feels like life is kicking us when we’re down,” he says. Earlier in the week, Leonard Cohen – even more of an icon in Canada than the rest of the world – had passed away too. “After the election I just feel like the average person can’t really take much more.”
In January, King and bandmate David Prowse are set to release new LP Near to the Wild Heart of Life. I ask whether the Trump phenomenon made an impact on the record but King says most of it was recorded before anyone took the billionaire bigot too seriously. In any case, he says, his music isn’t supposed to be a reflection of any kind of politics, but a kind of refuge from it all.
“My style of writing in our band has always been more personal,” King argues. “It’s not been trying to affect policy, or to express anger at governments or certain situations. It’s more kind of directed from one individual to the other, if anything trying to affect – I was going to say values – personal feelings.
“I’d like to think, or hope anyway, that if other people out there are feeling the same kind of shock or sadness about the election – or in Canada the massive collective loss of losing Leonard Cohen – that with our music and any of our records, you put your headphones on and they make you feel a little bit better. Maybe they help to take away a bit of the sadness, or pain. Or something like that.”
Over the past decade, Japandroids have been responsible for putting out some of the most joyous, carefree, balls-to-the-wall rock music around. It’s been five years since their last release – the aptly-titled Celebration Rock – and, thematically at least, the new album picks up right where that one left off. Infectious optimism is still at the core of what Japandroids are all about, King says.
“Somehow, between our music tastes and what we want to put out there, [positivity] just naturally comes out,” he observes. “If anything I think with this new record, maybe there is a bit more darkness to it. There’s definitely some fear and some doubt and uncertainty in the record, but I think the overall message of every song is still something positive, with some kind of resolution at the core.”
If King is still in a celebratory mood in his words, musically things have taken a step – if not a leap – out of the mosh pit and towards a degree of maturity. After the swerve of the opening title track, which is just as boisterously anthemic as ever, the rest of the LP takes in everything from Americana, alt-country and even shades of electronica.
I hope that if other people are feeling the same kind of shock or sadness, our music can help to take away a bit of the pain”
Diversifying the band’s sound was apparently the product of a couple of things. First, the pair now live separately – Prowse is still back in Vancouver, where the pair met – so the record was conceived in jigsaw pieces and put together in the studio, instead of thrashed out on the stage. Secondly though, both King and Prowse saw Near to the Wild Heart of Life as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean.
“When we finished touring that last record, we actually took a short break just to recover a bit and fix a lot of things professionally and personally,” he says. “When we started working on this new record, maybe it’s because we’re older and had learned from our mistakes, but we just approached the band and this album in a whole new way. It was almost like, let’s start over; let’s forget about everything we did up until now. I think that’s reflected in the album.”
The beefed-up scale of some of the tracks has created a bit of a headache from a purely logistical perspective. King isn’t yet totally sure how they’ll tour the new songs as a two-man band, although he’s been playing around with a sample pedal. Either way though, King recognises the importance of making sure Japandroids fans buy into the new tracks once they’re out on the road – even if they’re still umbilically attached to Celebration Rock.
“There are inevitably going to be some people who just loved Celebration Rock so much that they’ll be disappointed by [the new material], but I think most of our fans want to see us grow,” King argues. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who wish Radiohead just kept making The Bends for the next 25 years but I think the majority of people are pleased they decided to push themselves to go beyond that – not that I’m comparing ourselves to Radiohead.”
“We don’t want the audience to be enjoying a great Japandroids show half of the time, and going on these meandering pretentious tangents the rest of the time,” King insists. “No matter how weird we think we’re getting, at the end of the day, it’s still us.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life is out 27 January via Anti-