Album Review: Japandroids – Massey Fucking Hall
Missing gigs? You definitely will be after hearing Japandroids’ brilliant new live album, Massey Fucking Hall
Japandroids talk returning from a three-year period away from the limelight, keeping positive and their ace new album.
After announcing details of their highly-anticipated follow-up to 2012’s Celebration Rock last week, Kerrang! caught up with Brian King and David Prowse while they were in London recently to find out what inspired their change in approach, and why Near To The Wild Heart Of Life took so long.
You’ve been pretty off-the-radar since finishing up your world tour in 2013 – what have you been up to in the past three years?
Brian King (vocals/guitar): “I think the public perception is that we’ve been away, but in our terms we haven’t actually been away at all – we’ve just been busy working on a new record. The only difference between us and a lot of other bands is that we just haven’t been telling people all about it along the way. We’ve not necessarily been doing it in secret, but just doing it in a way that we can work at our own pace, without any outside influences, making the record that we want to make and taking the time to do it the way that we want to. There was definitely a bit of a break between finishing touring our last record and actually starting the writing, but for the last two years almost we’ve basically been just writing, recording, mixing, working on the artwork and just focussing on the whole process. So I know that it seems like we’ve been away, but we’ve actually been working very hard!”
Did you plan to take such a long time between records?
David Prowse (vocals/drums): “Yeah, the big plan was more that we weren’t going to set any timelines or deadlines – it’ll just take as long as it takes. We weren’t going to finish it by this date to make it for this tour or what have you. I think it was quite important to both of us that we just focus on making the record something that we’re really proud of and excited about, and then when that’s done we can worry about everything else that’s associated with being in a band.”
Brian: “If you have the luxury of having that freedom then you’re going to be able to make something better than if you have a deadline that you have to meet. If you’ve got that countdown then you have to settle with whatever by a certain date, whether you’re happy with it or not. So this time we had the luxury of taking our time, and we really took advantage of that.”
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life feels like a more experimental Japandroids album. Was that a conscious decision to push the sound?
Brian: “Yes, definitely. The first two records are kind of our attempt to make a really great live-sounding record, but when you’re trying to do that in the studio you have a set of rules in place and you’re trying to capture the spirit and energy of a great show on record. In order to do that you have to think about the studio as the stage, so it’s kind of produced in like a ‘rock concert’ way – very simple, very direct and very raw. We’ve been trying to achieve that since we started the band, and with Celebration Rock, we felt like we really achieved that. So with this record we very purposely decided, ‘Okay, now that we’ve achieved this thing, let’s go out and achieve something else.’ And we didn’t really know what that was, but we just threw out the rulebook and embraced the studio instead of purposely setting limitations. We were like, ‘Let’s actually not be afraid to use the studio for what it was designed to be used for, let’s not be afraid of using other instruments or building layers or having something that we don’t necessarily know how we’re going to perform live.’ Celebration Rock was very much written to perform live, and this one was, ‘Well, let’s not worry about that stuff, let’s just purposely do things that we think are cool and we’ll worry about all of that stuff later.’ So it was almost a totally different process than the previous record.”
Have you had to actually learn to play these songs live, then?
David: “Yeah. Some of the songs translate pretty easily, but, like Brian was saying, there was a lot of us going, ‘Well, we’re just going to do whatever we think sounds best and serves the song best, and we’ll figure out how to play it later.’ And now it’s later (laughs)…”
Brian: “There are all those moments in the studio where we’re like, ‘How the fuck are we going to do this? Oh, who cares, that’s like a year away!’ Arc Of Bar is a good example where we purposely worked in a new way, it wasn’t written in a way that we would typically write, with a lot of ideas and instrumentation and things that were new to us. It all came together and sounded great, but it’s not as simple as just stepping out onstage and playing it. We actually only played it live for the first time, like, two weeks ago, so there’s been an element of trial and error on this particular tour, just trying to figure it out basically.”
David: “Which is really fun, you know, feeling like you’re almost a different band making your first record. There’s this element of challenging ourselves in a very different way for these tours and learning a new way to be a touring band. These songs can’t necessarily be perfectly replicated live, so we have to make a bunch of decisions – there’s just two of us onstage, but we have all these extra layers, so what decisions do we make to mould the song into something that we can proud of live? So it’s been really fun – it’s a challenge, but it’s really exciting, too.”
What inspired this, then? Was it just like, ‘We mastered the live-sounding album, and now we want to move on’?
Brian: “Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of bands are faced with that same question when they have a successful album. They say, ‘Okay, we’ve been refining this formula and now we nailed it, so do we keep doing it, or do we pick something else and spend the next decade trying to nail that?’ Some bands choose to walk upon the path where their whole career is built upon trying to emulate that one album that really connected with people, while other bands walk the other path. I think that last time we had an idea of what we were going for – at least loosely – and I think this time we didn’t. I don’t know what we’re actually trying to achieve, but it’s something along this line of not having any rules, not being afraid to use the studio and not being afraid to get weird and get out of our comfort zone. We just blew the doors wide open as to what a Japandroids song can be and what a Japandroids album can sound like – so who knows where that will go?!”
Is there more pressure, then, going into your third album with such a different approach after three years away?
David: “It’s hard to say… While we were making this record very, very few people heard any of the songs we were working on, and it was a closed environment. It was basically just us and then whoever else was in the studio at the time – our engineer who was helping us record, or our mixing engineer. So it was pretty easy to just stay inside this safe zone where we could do what was interesting to us and divorce ourselves from the outside world in the creative process. The pressures of public expectations came about more once the record was done. All of a sudden we looked at our calendar and realised it had been quite some time since we had been out in the world, so there was definitely a sense of wondering how many people were still going to be interested in a Japandroids album, or interested in the fact that we were touring. It was a pretty exciting thing when we just posted the first tour dates on Facebook pretty randomly, and the shows sold out really quickly and it felt like there was this palpable sense of excitement that we were back. It can be really hard to gauge the excitement, and people’s attention spans are what they are – three years can be a long time to be gone. So I think the big thing for us was just wondering if people remembered us, and fortunately people do.”
And how have the people been responding to the new songs live?
Brian: “I think the songs that are more like the older songs are definitely going over really well, just because people are like, ‘This is what a Japandroids song is supposed to be.’ They’re easier to wrap your head around. Arc Of Bar is a good example of something more different from what we typically had done in the past, and there’s a bit more trepidation and some people don’t quite know what to think. That’s definitely a harder song to enjoy the first time live without knowing it – especially when we’re still learning how to play it! But I’m confident next year when the album’s out that it’ll go down really well. It varies, but everybody knows what it’s like to go to a show of a band they love and hear new songs – it’s kinda weird!”
David: “Everybody I’ve talked to after the show, y’know, fans who have come up to us and had a chat, seem really excited about the new songs. We’ve grown pretty accustomed to having this very intense dialogue with our fans when we’re up onstage, when they’re singing along to all our songs, so it’s always a bit tricky to read the crowd when we’re playing the new ones because people are much more subdued. They’re paying attention and they don’t know the words so they can’t sing along, so it’s interesting to try and get a read on how it’s going – especially for the ones that are more of a departure.”
Brian: “I like to think that when they look back on that, in a couple of years from now when the record’s been out, it will seem very cool that they’re like, ‘I remember when they played this song for the third time every and they were still trying to figure it out!’ I think it’ll have some charm in the future hopefully.”
Musically it’s a departure, but lyrically what sort of a place does Near To The Wild Heart Of Life come from?
Brian: “It comes from the same place that all the records come from in that it’s just a snapshot of a time and place. Post-Nothing, our first record, was a snapshot of us at that moment, and Celebration Rock was the same thing. The last time we wrote a batch of songs was 2011, five years ago, so a lot has happened in those five years – both personally and professionally. We got older and our lives changed, and of course we toured Celebration Rock for almost two years and saw a lot of the world and met a lot of new people. By the time you actually sit down to start working on a new batch of songs you think back to the last time you did this, and you’re trying to capture a snapshot of who you are at the time but also sum up all that time that’s gone by. Some songs are taking all of that time and condensing it into a four-minute rock song, and other songs are a snapshot of where I was in 2014 or 2015 – like, ‘This is where I am, living in this city, at this age, with this person and dealing with this experience.’
“More specifically, we’re getting older and there’s a more natural tendency to write in a slightly more – for lack of a better word – ‘serious’ manner. The album’s a bit more reflective. People often talk about the previous albums and previous lyrical concepts as ‘nostalgic’ or ‘looking back’, where we’ve written about a time that has long passed. But I feel like this album is very much written in the present and I think that’s a pretty massive difference, generally speaking. Most of the songs Celebration Rock are looking back in some way, but these ones are about that moment in time when it was written.”
Is Near To The Wild Heart Of Life all positive, or has any of the negative goings-on in the world seeped into it?
Brian: “I wouldn’t call this album ‘negative’ or ‘dark’, but I do think it’s probably the darkest record that we’ve written. In the old days I would approach writing a song and typically take the positive side of the story and disregard the negative part. All of the Japandroids songs have a positive and negative side, just like every story has, but I used to just disregard the negative one in favour of the positive, so there was a real positive vibe about the whole record. Of course there’s a lot of famous bands that do the opposite, like it’s all focused on the dark or sad element and they disregard the positive side, and I think this is the first time – at least from my perspective – where we’re trying to put both sides in the same song. So the songs will have a certain darkness but also a lightness coexisting. The first song on the record has verses that the vibe is one of doubt, fear and uncertainty, and then conversely the choruses are the opposite – they’re a bit more triumphant and ‘Fuck it!’ Then you get to the next verse and it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know…’ You’re beginning to see a more complete story or something like that. So maybe it’s slightly darker for us, but I still think the general vibe is quite positive.”
Is that because you’re getting older and your perspective has changed?
Brian: “I’ve passed a point in my life where I used to think life was better when I was younger. I’m very content in the age I am and the life I have and how I live, and I don’t look back on anything as better than it was right now. Obviously at some point in the past I didn’t feel that way – like Younger Us, which I obviously wrote when I was looking back. It’s called Younger Us, so it’s pretty obvious what that’s about! When I sat down to write that song there was obviously something from the past that I felt like was better than it is now that was worth writing about and missing it. So that’s a pretty fundamental difference. It’s hard for me to identify with that person right now because I don’t miss being younger and I don’t miss that time. The most exciting thing I can think to write about is right now.”
Missing gigs? You definitely will be after hearing Japandroids’ brilliant new live album, Massey Fucking Hall
Watch Japandroids' new video for Heart Sweats, taken from their upcoming live album Massey Fucking Hall.