Japandroids, interview: The tension between us got pretty bad at times

MIchael Howie
Japandroids: Dave Prowse (right) and co-member Brian King

Dave Prowse recalls the last time Japandroids played London fondly as he muses on their love affair with the capital.

“That show was totally nuts. The crowd was totally nuts,” says Prowse who makes up one half of the Canadian guitar-and-drums duo.

The band packed out Birthdays in Dalston in October to launch what the 34-year-old says was their “hi, we’re still alive” tour, ending a three-year hiatus with the accompanying release of their third studio album, Near To The Wild Heart of Life.

“We've had some amazing times in London and played some great shows. Birthdays was the wildest of the entire tour - one of those shows where the sweat is dripping down the walls, there's so many bodies packed inside the venue.”

He recalls a boozy after-party upstairs. “The bar manager really took a shine to us. He just held out a bottle of Jagermeister - which I haven't drunk since I was probably 18 - and was just pouring it out over a row of shot glasses, feeding everyone.”

Camile Christen

Japandroids, also comprising Brian King on guitar with the pair sharing vocal duties, ended that tour with a triumphant homecoming show at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver – “a legendary venue”, says Prowse, who gets misty eyed recalling Spiritualized and My Morning Jacket gigs from his youth - and are now back on the road in Europe, with a visit to London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire coming up on May 6.

They also can't wait to return to the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona in early June, on an incredible line-up that includes Arcade Fire, The xx, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver. "It's probably our favourite festival. Heaven on earth," says Prowse.

The fact the band are still going more than a decade after they started out feels like something of a minor miracle.

Prowse and King were students at the University of Victoria when they met in 2000. They both moved to Vancouver and started writing and recording their own material, influenced by the raw sound of Sonic Youth, often adopting the do-it-yourself aesthetic of Fugazi to set up their own gigs to overcome a lack of venues.

They recorded their first full-length album, Post-Nothing, in the summer of 2008, but by the end of the year had decided to call it quits, frustrated as that breakthrough appeared to elude them.

That all changed in 2009 when they were signed by independent Canadian label Unfamiliar Records, and then Polyvinyl Records, who released the album worldwide. Its rawness and energy was lauded by Pitchfork and it made the NME’s albums of the year list.

A second album, Celebration Rock, arrived in 2012; another balls-to-the-walls collection of eight short, punky songs that was feted by critics (Rolling Stone magazine naming it one of the 10 Coolest Summer Albums of All Time).

The band toured each of the albums relentlessly, playing 400-odd gigs in more than 40 countries. Prowse says he “can’t think of a better job than touring a rock band” but admits the punishing schedule, and the rock lifestyle, took its toll.

“We take it very seriously, we put a lot of energy into every show. It's been incredibly inspiring and a lot of fun but it does take its toll physically and mentally,” he says.

“Fatigue will definitely play tricks with your mind. When you’re drinking too much and not getting enough sleep, etcetera, etcetera, I think it's easy to fall prey to some darker tendencies.

“You have a shorter fuse, you can sink into a bit of a depression, and I mean it's a lot of time to spend in close quarters with people. “The tension between Brian and I got pretty bad at times. We just have different personalities. I have a tendency to kind of bottle things up and little things about other human beings can drive me insane after a while. “There were a lot of tensions between Brian and I, there were definitely a few blow-ups between. There were a few blow ups between Brian and I and members of the other crew.

“It's an insane amount of time to spend with another one, two, three, four, however amount of human beings.”

One of the pluses to the exhaustive touring, of course, is what you might call the lol factor; they've amassed plenty of amusingly crazy stories on their travels. Prowse recounts one particularly memorable incident in Russia involving an extremely drunk roadie and a mad rush to catch a night train.

“That place is just the Wild West.

“We played Moscow, where we hung out for a couple of days, having a really fun time there, then we had to travel overnight to St Petersburg.

“We finished the gig at like 2am and we asked to the promoter if we need to get to the train. He's like 'is not problem', let's have some vodka. He keeps saying 'is not problem'.

“Then all of a sudden it is a problem. We've got to go and we're late. We’ve got this guy who's supposed to be helping us, but he's mostly just drinking scotch, weirdly enough.

“We've got all kinds of s**t with us, we've got amps, pedals, we're running through the station and the train is moving, it's slowly taking off and we're running behind literally throwing our f*****g luggage in as we go.

“I run, I throw my s**t in, I jump in, I turn around and here comes the Russian guy. He's running, he throws his bag in and he jumps...and he doesn't make it.

“He just falls like a sack of potatoes, so I just freak out, the promoter runs over, he hits the emergency brake button. We're all screaming..I think this guy has just f*****g died. The train screams to a stop. “We’re looking around to see what's going on. The guy has fallen between the platform and the train and basically was in a superman pose. The train stops, he comes up with a mashed up face, all bloody, and he's got some scratches, but somehow he's not dead. He pops up with a smile on his face, even though it’s all f****d up, and shouts ‘I'm alive!’, then grabs his bottle of scotch out of his pocket and keeps drinking.

“After that I was like 'I need a f*****g drink'. I just wanted to drink until I pass out so I don't have to remember what happened, it was f*****g terrifying. I realised it's 4am, this is an overnight train, and we've just woken everyone up.” Such scrapes seem to have been a large part of the fun of being in Japandroids, which have gone to plenty of less obvious destinations.

“There're just two of us, so the cost of getting somewhere is pretty low. Given the opportunity we'll go anywhere and we'll play whatever crappy amps or drum kit we need to play.

“We've got to play in a lot of places people have not gone to, all over Eastern Europe, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, the whole of South America, places that are just emerging as destinations for rock.”

But after touring themselves into the ground, Prowse and King needed to apply the brakes - for the sake of the band, their friendship and perhaps also their sanity.

Camile Christen

King relocated to Toronto and began dating a girl in Mexico City, where he spent much of his time. For three years the world heard nothing from them. They took a rest, they got on with their lives. It they hadn't stopped writing music, they just went about it a different way - bouncing ideas by email, sporadically catching up to thrash out material.

Like most young men entering their 30s, they also did some growing up.

The new album duly arrived in January, some five years after Celebration Rock. It still has plenty of punk moments, in the title track and I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner), while the more contemplative North East South West evokes the wide open horizons of an American road trip. The seven-minute-long Arc of Bar, with its nagging guitar loop, is the album's centrepiece, and best marks their change of approach.

Prowse says the band have been working hard to bring a more nuanced sound into their shows.

"After Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock, there was no discussion about how to play those songs live. We played them exactly the way we played them live, on the record. But this new record, there are so many more layers, a lot more care on developing a specific guitar sound for each song that just ebbs and flows a bit differently than on previous records. "On previous records the guitar sound was just one sound and we turned everything up and just went for it. This new record there's a bit more ebb and flow, there's acoustic guitar on some songs, there's kind of a change in the way it's distorting on some of the songs."

The slow(er)-burn seems to be working for the pair. "We're getting on much better," says Prowse. "It's a strong bond. He's like a brother to me, he's a brother that drives me f*****g nuts sometimes, but I love him. We've known each other since forever and we've been there for one another all over the world.

"Things between him and I are a lot better. I think he's in a lot better place right now, he's really happy, he's with a woman he's really in love with. I think there are times you put a lot of pressure on yourselves, it's something we take seriously but at the same time we're both very happy right now."

It's perhaps no coincidence that the post-show debauchery has been dialled down slightly.

"Compared to Celebration Rock this last tour was pretty tame. We played the show and you get a chance to hang out with some people you haven't seen in a while, but there are very few wild nights compared to Celebration Rock, where there would be nights where one of us would just disappear and stumble back in right before the band was leaving the next morning.

"Maybe one of us will have some sort of midlife crisis and we'll get back on that path. "For a while the allure of free alcohol and people offering you drugs, weird interesting people wanting to hang out with you, all that stuff, that's exciting, especially if Brian and I weren't getting along or you were sick of all the people around you'd be like 'well I'm just going to break into a cemetery with a bottle of becherovka in f*****g Prague with some crazy people you've met. Those things were super fun but I think there's a bit more effort to think a few steps ahead maybe."

Japandroids play O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on Saturday, May 6. Also see primaverasound.com and japandroids.com.