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