Brian King of Japandroids on Husker Du, the Gun Club and the lost art of album art

Japandroids (due tonight at Larimer Lounge) started out with their own reinterpretation of angular, splintery punk and post-punk. But instead of sounding like another band that just discovered the Stooges or Joy Division, Japandroids plays their songs with a certain conviction you normally hear in blue-collar rock with a hint of tongue-in-cheek humor. This Vancouver band isn't exactly trying to create an ironic distance, and their exuberant live shows reveal an unaffected sincerity in the act's songwriting.

The outfit's latest album, Celebration Rock, is brimming with a startling, triumphant desperation, like the duo is striving to overcome the odds in some Sisyphean endeavor with sheer willpower -- and succeeding. We had the chance to speak to the Japandroids' singer and guitarist Brian King about Hüsker Dü, the Gun Club and his band's album aesthetics.

Westword: Why did you guys describe Post-Nothing as "lo-fi Hüsker Dü covers"?

Brian King: I don't remember where we described it that way, but that does sound like that, I would say. There's very few bands that are so totally musically original that they don't have any influences.

For the rest of us, the nine out of ten bands, you have two ways of looking at things. You have, "I've been a music fan for a long time. I like tons of records, and I started a band to be like the bands I like. I'm going to pretend like not only am I a mixture of all those big bands, but I'm also adding something new on top of it, which makes me awesome."

Or you can be the person that goes, "You know what? I just like these bands, and my friends and I have wanted to start a band that sounded like this because we just think this is awesome and cool." We're just kind of in the latter category.

Dave [Prowse] and I love Hüsker Dü, and I won't go off on a rant on how much we do. It's just one of the bands and kind of music that resonates with us. There's no question when you're starting a band, the way you write your first songs is you start jamming and if it sounds anything remotely like a band you like, you're like, "Yeah, that's a song!"

For us, that's Hüsker Dü and its arrangements of songs and the simplicity. Not to say they're a simple band, but in the three or four kinds of songs, [it has] simple melodies, simple guitar parts. When you start playing in a rock band, that's something you can do. It's doable! Then you've got something that sounds like something you might hear on a Hüsker Dü record, and it's bam! You've got one of your songs.

In doing that, you don't want to pretend like, oh, you know, "We're like Hüsker Dü meets the Replacements with a little bit of the Stooges sprinkled on top" kind of thing. What an asshole thing to say. Of course you're not that. No one's that. But we say, "We're a band that loves Hüsker Dü, and our record is kind of like a bunch of lo-fi Hüsker Dü covers." I think that's a pretty legitimate thing to say, I think, and a pretty honest thing to say.

Is it safe to say you're not old enough to have seen Hüsker Dü?

Sadly, I'm not. I recently saw, at SXSW, Bob Mould play Copper Blue, the first Sugar album, start to finish. So I was lucky enough to see that.

Have you been able to see Grant Hart?

I've never been able to see Grant. He played Vancouver a couple of times in the last few years, but it's always been when we've been on tour, so the stars have never aligned in that way. You know what's really cool about him? He tours totally solo on his own with a suitcase and guitar, and he tours by train.

He took the train up from Seattle to Vancouver and showed up to the venue by himself with his suitcase, with some clothes and pedals in it, and his guitar in the other hand. And [he] was just like, "I'm Grant Hart. Here's the show." How fucking cool is that? Talk about the old school, romantic idea of the traveling troubadour? Grant Hart is fucking living it like now.

Obviously there's humor involved in your album titles. Did No Singles get that title because of something you were told about the material? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it's a compilation as well.

I think it's because the first album we actually named was Post-Nothing and that obviously has kind of a tongue-in-cheek connotation. It's sassy so, because of the "success" of that record, we decided to use a similar kind of vibe for No Singles, which was just to kind of say, "Here's all the stuff we recorded before Post-Nothing came out."

You know how Best Of compilations are always called Singles or Greatest Hits or something like that? We decided to call the record No Singles to say, "Here's all our early stuff. It's early stuff," thus No Singles. What a perfect fucking name.

You did a cover of Mclusky's "To Hell With Good Intentions" on the All Lies EP. In what ways would you say that band impacted what you've tried to do with Japandroids? Have you ever been able to see or play with Mclusky or Future of the Left?

Sadly, I never got to see Mclusky because I didn't really discover them until about the time they were breaking up. But we've played with the Future of the Left. Actually the guys from the Future of the Left, including Andy [Falkous], came out to our show a couple of weeks ago because we played in Cardiff, which is their home town, of course.

We've played a few shows with them over the years, I think, sparked by the fact that, in the early days, we talked up Mclusky quite a bit, and we kind of became not friends but we did play with those guys a bunch. It's surreal to meet your musical heroes.

Mclusky was one of the bands that, when we started Japandroids, that I was particularly into. That compilation Mcluskyism had come out, and I was really into it around the time we started the band. Dave's and my own musical tastes don't overlap, but we like enough of the same bands that we can start a band and pull from those bands we both like. Mclusky was one of them.

When we started jamming together, we realized that we were going to have to sing. There was going to be no singer in the band. We weren't going to get someone else. We literally had to learn how to sing. We thought we should learn some covers, so we could each practice playing guitar and drumming and singing at the same time.

"To Hell With Good Intentions" was our favorite one to play because it's got a great stop and start, quiet-loud dynamic. It was always one of the more fun ones to do. When we started writing our own songs, that's one we kept playing in the set live. When we did our first EP, we only recorded a couple of songs, and we decided to put that cover on there. We felt like that at the very least there would be one really good song, even if we didn't write it, on our first EP.

Is "Wet Hair" in any way a reference to the experimental band from Iowa?

It's not but I discovered that band through people asking if it was a reference to them. I wouldn't say we're particularly into that kind of music. We don't know much about that genre, but I did start listening to them because of people asking about that.

On every album, the first song has a title that seems to be referential send-ups of other artists: Obviously Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen and, on Celebration Rock, the Dream Syndicate. Is there any significance to that or to the artists you chose at the time?

"Darkness on the Edge of Gastown" [is a reference to] the neighborhood in Vancouver that we lived in at the time we wrote that song. And that seemed like a funny homage to a record we both loved. It's not jokey, but it seemed kind of funny, whereas "The Nights of Wine and Roses" was a much more earnest kind of homage to one of my favorite bands of this part of my life.

I don't know if there's a record I listened to more during the writing and recording of this record than The Complete Live at Raji's, the double album/live record by the Dream Syndicate. That record is, to me, quite possibly the most influential album, if you can call it that, on the writing of this record.

When I discovered that record, it was like, "That's it!" You know, like every few years of your life you discover a record that's like all you listen to for a year or so. Last year, that was that record for me. I'd been into the Dream Syndicate for a few years and always really liked them, but when I heard that record, it was just like that. That was it for me.

There's a new record in my top ten favorite records ever. When we were doing this record, of course, I loved The Days of Wine and Roses, and I thought a good concept for a song would be "The Nights of Wine and Roses" because that title, while being an homage to the Dream Syndicate, had a new meaning for me. I reversed it a bit. I had the name of the song before I had the lyrics and wrote the lyrics based on flipping the song and what it meant to me.

It's just a bit of coincidence that all those songs are the first songs on the record. But that song on Celebration Rock I thought was the best opening song. It's just sort of coincidence that the opening songs are all kinds of homages in a sense to some of the bands we love and respect. It's funny, I think that's such a totally obvious fact, but it's been quite a long time since someone's mentioned that. You might be the first person on the new record that could put one, two and three together and ask me about it, so bravo.

Have you ever been able to see Steve Wynn play?

I haven't. Similar to Grant Hart, Steve Wynn came to Vancouver once in the recent past and again while we were on tour. That's fairly typical these days. Lots of people come to town and you're just not there for it. But if I was ever curating an ATP, which is a bit of a fantastical dream, I would put Steve Wynn on my ATP just so I could be there to hear him play a couple of songs.

In Vancouver, what kinds of places did you play early on, and do you remain connected with that underground world today?

When we first started the band, we were really outsiders in what was going on in the local music scene because I think the local music scene was built upon people from Vancouver that had been playing in bands since they were quite young.

All the bands that were our local contemporaries, everyone in those bands were all friends. They all played in ten bands before the band they played in. They had a little scene; they had the places they played. So it's pretty difficult for a new band that doesn't know those people that moved to Vancouver to break into it.

In the old days, when we wanted to play shows, we'd just have to put on the shows ourselves. So we used to arrange with bars or small clubs or rent out halls or community spaces and rent P.A.s and get booze, if that was necessary, make our own posters and post them around town. We kind of did everything ourselves mostly because that was the only way we could play shows. Unfortunately, because of Vancouver's liquor laws -- and of course the Olympics came to Vancouver -- that city is not what I would call music-centric. They don't really give a shit about live music.

Most of the places that we played in the first few years of the band don't actually exist anymore. They either closed down or they're something else now or turned into condos or something like that. It's actually pretty hard when you go home to have a connection to the local music scene because all the bands we used to play with are gone; all the venues we used to play in are gone. There's new venues, and there's new bands, and we tour so much it's really easy to fall out of touch with that, and that's sort of what's happened to us. It's a little bit of glory days thing for us now.

So like Mutators and Modern Creatures were part of that?

Yeah, those bands are part of that scene. Mutators and Modern Creatures are a good example. Those people that played in those bands, for every member that was like their tenth band and those people have probably played in two or three different bands since then and probably play in a new band now at home. I know that Brody [McKnight] from Mutators now plays in a band called Nu Sensae that just signed to Suicide Squeeze and have been getting a lot of buzz.

That was part of that kind of family of bands that, when we started the band, we wanted to be in that little club but, because they were all old friends, and they always played together, it was impossible for us to break into that. They didn't want outsiders in that little club. We were just never really a part of it.

You do a cover of "For the Love of Ivy" by the Gun Club on your new record. How did you find out about the Gun Club, and what is it about that band that you find interesting?

I think I found out about the Gun Club originally through their connection to the whole...When I discovered Nick Cave, that was a turning point. There was a very clear line of before and after. When I discovered him, it was such a revelation of musical discovery that I became obsessed with everything in his sort of circle.

So of course I discovered the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and later Grinderman; I discovered Magazine, the Cramps, [Einsturzende] Neubauten and Lydia Lunch and just that whole family. Everybody that was associated with him, Dirty Three and all the bands they played in, and of course Kid Congo [Powers] played in the Cramps and the Gun Club as well. I looked at every individual member of that band and getting all the bands that they were all in. It was, "Whatever is associated with this, I know I'm going to like because I like this so much."

So I discovered the Cramps and the Gun Club via the Kid Congo connection to the Bad Seeds. When I discovered the Gun Club it was a whole other level of revelation. Just like, I cannot believe I'm just hearing this now. They're the kind of band where like when you start listening to them, it just makes a whole chunk of your record collection seem totally obsolete. It's one of those moments where it's like, "Now that I've discovered this band, I don't ever need to listen to these hundred records again. I've evolved past that. My university music collection days are gone. Now I just need every single Gun Club record."

We jammed a bunch of Gun Club songs a couple of years ago. We did a cover of a bunch of songs off of The Fire of Love. We did "For the Love of Ivy," we did "She's Like Heroin to Me" and "Fire Spirit." We also did some later Gun Club Songs like "Texas Serenade" and "Bill Bailey" and a bunch of songs for fun. "For the Love of Ivy," [has a] dynamic in the song is really different from the kinds of songs we wrote.

It never occurred to us to write a song that had that kind of dynamic. So when we played that song in our set, it just had a different vibe and kind of intensity that the kinds of songs we wrote never had. It slowly became a standard in our set. We used to close with that song, we still do a lot of nights, because, when you play that song, what are you going to do after that? We don't have anything that goes after that because that's as intense as it gets.

When we were doing the record, the way we did the sequencing, side A was supposed to build to a peak and side B was supposed to kind of start at the peak and build back down. We thought what a great song to put at the peak of the record and what a great band to introduce to Japandroids fans. I'm willing to bet that nine out of ten people that listen to our band probably don't know who the Gun Club is. Now, hopefully, they'll discover it and go get those records and have the same kind of musical epiphany that I had when I heard it for the first time.

Have you read Go Tell The Mountain?

I've been trying to find that book for a long time, but it's not like you can walk into a bookstore and find it. I'm always on the lookout for it.

Yeah, the number of people who you run into regularly who even know who the Gun Club or Jeffrey Lee Piece was is few.

When we told people we were going to put the song on the record, people were sort of like, "Uh, really?" But that's exactly why. That band, they don't really get their due. I feel they're going to be a band that's easily forgotten by the new generation of music listeners if people like us don't kind of do whatever they can to sort of keep it alive. It needs to stay alive in my opinion.

You design the cover art for your albums. Is there a reason you go with black and white for that?

In the last few years that the band's been going, my musical taste, you might say, are from a certain kind of music from a certain era. I don't want to say "classic" because everyone has a different idea of what's classic. A very simple and classic aesthetic is what a lot of early punk rock and early post-rock and early rock and roll--that was kind of what it was founded upon: the name of the band and a photo of the band and no bullshit.

The kind of music that we make and the kind of band that we are, it would be easy to have a super artsy drawing of something on the cover, which works for a lot of bands but I don't think it really does. I think the kind of band that we are is based largely upon a kind of music, a kind of sound and a kind of image that is so heavily influenced by that late '70s through the '80s kind of alternative or punk or post-punk or garage rock or whatever you want to call it, I feel that that aesthetic has sort of been lost a bit in modern times in favor of more arty or modern look.

To be fair, in modern times, a lot of people just don't give a shit about the album art anymore because they don't ever see it and they don't have records. I just come from that background of being a music fan where that kind of thing is really important to me. Like owning the album and it looking cool and it being something you really want to put it on your wall.

Having something inside that you actually want to take the time to flip through and having a record collection that, when you buy a record by the band, you're not just buying the record, you're buying a part of a collection. You know what I mean? If you're a big fan and you buy all the records, the sum is greater than the individual parts kind of thing.

That's a classic idea from the punk days that I just really like and hope it continues, to have a cover for an album and a cover for a compilation and a kind of cover for seven inches. If you're a big fan and you're buying all those, ten years from now we got a couple of more records, all of a sudden you have something that really looks like a real package, a whole collection and something you want to really keep and show off. That's what I did with those kinds of records.

Like SST or K Records or Industrial Records releases have a kind of similar look.

Exactly. That's what I'm talking about. Trying to keep the spirit of what they were doing alive. When I bought those records, it was really cool to put them on the wall and to have all the ones with the same kind of packaging and same logo all kind of line up. Every time you buy one you're kind of adding to your collection. So I try to keep that spirit alive as much as I can.

Kind of like keeping a legacy alive both visually and musically.


Japandroids, with Cadence Weapon, 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 19, Larimer Lounge, sold out, 303-291-1007, 21+

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.