Ahead of the band's Denver show, drummer David Prowse chatted with Westword.
Westword: What was it like working on the new record with improbably high expectations from fans?
Prowse: I think a lot of people like a lot of music, but we have a pretty devoted fan base. People really took hold of [2012's] Celebration Rock, and it meant something special to a lot of people beyond just, "Oh, it’s a pretty good record. I like it okay." I think a lot of people really loved that record. People would come to our shows and sing along to every word of that record. When you get that kind of response, it’s an incredible feeling, and you can’t help but think a bit about it when you make your next record.
But I think the big thing for us was we had to make the record we wanted to make, and as much as we could, we tried to push those outside forces, not worry about the next tour, how the album would be reviewed, and how people would feel about it. [We] just try to go with our instinct and kind of run with the mantra of, "If we feel good about it, that’s priority number one." If we put everything we can into a record and can stand behind it, hopefully other people will respond. But the bottom line is at least we did what we thought was being true to ourselves. That’s the most important thing.
Was it difficult learning that lesson — that the album needs to be what you want it to be?
I feel like on some level, we kind of learned that lesson when we made Celebration Rock. People say that this record is more of a departure [from previous albums], and I suppose it is, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that different from what we’ve done in the past. No matter what you do, I think just because it’s [Brian King and I] making the music, there’s something about it that’s always gonna sound like Japandroids. And we’ve expanded on what a Japandroids song can be, but there’s something about it that intrinsically sounds like Japandroids.
At the time, we thought we were making a very different record, but at the end of the day, you can’t escape sounding like yourself on some level. But hopefully you can just push and grow and expand on what that sonic identity is. I think we had some of those doubts on Celebration Rock where we were worried about [how] people liked [debut album] Post-Nothing. It was what put us on the map: Are people gonna like this record as much as the last one?
We had that moment when we made Celebration Rock where it was like, "Well, we don’t know, and you can’t control that." But you just gotta make the record you want to make and put the time and effort into making something that you’re happy with.
Obviously, that paid off very well for us, so that’s the mentality that we had going forward. You just have to trust your instincts and make the record you want to make, and that's the most important thing. It’s always kind of been the M.O. for the band, but I feel like that was being reinforced when we made the last record. Going into this one, it was very clear that’s what we needed to do again.
In terms of sound, Near to the Wild Heart of Life feels like the natural progression from Celebration Rock. It’s perhaps a little bit catchier, a little more accessible to new fans. How intentional was that sort of progression?
It was very intentional to make a different record. I think when we started making it, we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do. In some ways, it was a lot about not wanting to repeat ourselves, not wanting to do "this or that." More than having a very clear-cut idea of what we wanted the record to sound like, we were interested in having a wider variety of tempos, a wider variety of moods on the record.
When you look at Celebration Rock or Post-Nothing, there’s seven rockers and then one slower song at the end, and I think we wanted to make a more diverse record, with lots of different sounds and different moods and tempos through the record that took you more on a bit of a journey.
The obvious way to do that is, one, you do that in the songwriting process itself, but two, we stepped into a different sound that comes down to production and choosing different textures and guitar sounds from song to song. It was more natural to think about how we wanted to record this record and stray away from the whole, "Well, we’re just going to set up our amps and drums just like we would for a live show, turn everything up to a million and then just rip through it." There’s a bit more thought into the whole recording process.
The other big thing that’s pretty obvious to me is the vocals are just higher in the mix. When you listen to Post-Nothing, part of that was an aesthetic choice, but I think part of that also was we weren’t very confident in ourselves as singers or as lyricists compared to now. There’s a bit of this strategic element of, "Let’s crank up the distortion on the vocals so you can barely hear what the hell we’re saying" and have [the vocals] kind of sitting within the mix. We’d do super-loud instruments, whereas with this record —Brian especially, since he writes the lion’s share of the lyrics — he really wanted to make sure everyone could understand every word on the record, so the vocals are quite higher. They were already getting more prominent on the mix in Celebration Rock, and they’re one step even more, kind of at the forefront, on this record.
That’s a very pop thing to do, obviously, but it wasn’t necessarily for pop purposes or to get on the radio. It was more...[Brian] was really proud of the lyrics and wanted people to be able to hear what he was saying.
It’s a funny thing, because our band...it’s not like we’ve ever been in the business of making really difficult or inaccessible music. I think “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is just as “poppy” as anything on this record; it’s just that we were playing so goddamn fast and everything was so loud. That’s the real big difference. Now we’re a little bit more comfortable having the song presented clearly for people and [sounding] bigger. As far as songwriting goes, it’s not terribly different, I don’t think. At least on some of the songs. “Near to the Wild Heart of Life" — hat’s a pretty Japandroids song.
Last year, a big to-do was made about the function of album releases, especially visual albums and surprise releases. Do you feel those sorts of shifts in the music industry, and how does it affect you? Or are you just going to do what you do?
We’re certainly aware of that stuff happening. It’s pretty cool that certain artists can just drop a record the day after they announce it. I think we’re pretty old-fashioned, in a sense. We still think listening to an album means you buy an LP, and you put it on your record player, you listen to side A, and then you turn it over and listen to side B. That’s very old-fashioned [laughs]. I think most people don’t think about music that way anymore, but we still do. We can’t help it; it’s just kind of ingrained in us. I think things like having a track listing and a certain length of running time so that it fits on an LP — that kind of stuff is still something we think about and prioritize even though nobody else does [laughs].
What has been the most fun you’ve had with the new album?
In the writing process and the recording process, the most exciting times for me were — and I think
for Brian, as well — were those moments when we were going into uncharted territory. We’re really proud of this whole record, but I think the songs that excite us the most are songs like “I’m Sorry for Not Finding You Sooner” and “Arc of Bar.” You know, ones where we couldn’t have predicted the finished product when we first started thinking about them, when we first started working on the record. That stuff is the most exciting to me.
You play in a band for ten years, and there's a way that Brian and I click musically that’s very special — at least very special to me and Brian. But the one thing that can get tricky about that is your instincts can lead you down a similar path, and you can get less surprised with the results sometimes, because you know [the results].
I’ll hear something that Brian plays on the guitar, and I’ll be like, ‘I know how this song's gonna go already’ — I can already visualize it. And with those two songs, we really surprised ourselves. It was pretty wild going back and listening to “Arc of Bar” when we finally had a [nearly] finished recording and hearing back one of the first real mixes of it and going, "Whoa, this is pretty cool, but this is very different."
And it felt like it opened a lot of doors for us where I don’t know where we’re gonna go from here, and that’s very exciting. It feels like a lot of doors got opened with this recording process, where everything just feels way more wide-open now. And that’s pretty crazy, to be ten years in with the band and with someone you’ve known for a million years, and all of a sudden, you feel like there’s a lot of uncharted territory and a lot of different directions you can go.
It’s really freeing to have some of those newer songs that just feel a little weirder and a little outside of our normal Japandroids box. It’s really exciting times for the band.
Japandroids play at the Gothic Theatre Tuesday, March 7, at 8 p.m. For more information, go to the Gothic website.