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Brian King (vocals/guitar) and Dave Prowse (vocals/drums) of Vancouver band JAPANDROIDS have had their fair share of ups and downs in their career, but catching up with them now in 2013, they’re riding a massive high, and what better city than Tokyo in which to talk hard work and the mysteries of success.
The dark, dungeon-like lounge area of music venue Shibuya WWW serves as the setting for the interview, the three of us seated around a tiny circular table covered with an assortment of Japanese beverages. When I arrived, the guys were filling in interview questionnaires with questions the likes of “If you could be an animal, what would you be?” so seemed more than a little relieved to start chatting with me instead. After a brief discussion about the best cities to visit in Australia, we move on to their current Asia tour.
So first, I just want to say “Welcome to Tokyo!” – What have you been up to so far?
DAVE PROWSE: Eating and drinking mostly, walking around a lot. We flew from Seoul to Tokyo two days ago, so we’ve basically had one evening and one full day. We’re staying in a hotel in Shibuya, so we’ve been mostly hanging around in Shibuya, eating lots of delicious food, drinking shochu and sake.
And this isn’t your first time in Japan, is it?
DAVE: No, we played Fuji Rock back in July, on the same day that Radiohead played, in the Red Marquee at noon. This will be our first club show in Tokyo. Fuji Rock is a pretty different world altogether, so it’ll be fun to play a packed little club.
BRIAN KING: Fuji Rock was a really fun experience, but as Dave was saying, it was really different from playing in a club at night. When you play at noon on Sunday at a festival, everyone’s just kind of waking up and sort of hungover from the night before, and it’s outside and really hot. So it’ll be a really different experience to play tonight.
Yeah, there are a lot of people very excited to see you play tonight – There are a group of girls waiting outside by the door trying to peek in…
DAVE: Whoa, send ’em in! Just joking…
So, did you have much chance to check Japan out last time?
DAVE: We were here for four or five days, so I think we got a little taste of it. Some of that time, we were just up at the festival – you could kind of be anywhere when you’re at a music festival – but I think we had three nights in Tokyo and got to see a fair amount. For me, Japan is probably one of the most foreign and unique places I’ve ever been in my entire life. On this tour, we’ve played quite a few other parts of Asia – we played Hong Kong, Taipei, two shows in Korea, Singapore, and then also all those shows in Australia and New Zealand. But even within Asia, I feel like Japan is a really unique place, so it’s been super exciting to get to come here. We’re getting a small snippet of what it’s like, but even just in Tokyo, I think you could spend a year constantly discovering new parts of it. We’ve still only been here a few days total in the last year, so there’s a lot more to see.
You’ve just finished your Korean dates – how was that?
DAVE: It was awesome! Before this whole tour, our only venture into Asia was Fuji Rock. On this tour, we’ve played a lot of places for the first time and all the shows have gone really well, but our two shows in Korea (in Busan and Seoul) were particularly stand-out shows, where the crowds were really great both nights. It was a pretty big surprise for both of us to see how receptive everyone was there. There are a lot of expats in Korea, especially Canadians and Americans.
So, any particularly memorable shows on the tour so far?
BRIAN: Well, from the recent past, Laneway Sydney was a really good show for us. The crowd was really good, everything just kind of came together, so that really stands out in my memory from this tour as a really memorable show. There are so many factors that go into making a show good, both for the band and for the audience. No matter how much we try, it’s very rare that all of the factors align in a really positive way. There’s usually something that doesn’t go quite right, or something that you wish was different, but that show was one where I left the stage thinking pretty much everything went right that night, and it felt awesome.
DAVE: Yeah, I think that was the best show we’ve had on this tour. In terms of everything aligning, it sounded good, we played well and the crowd was great. Those are the three big things. Wherever we play, there are a fair amount of people who know about our band and are really excited to see us, and when you get that kind of a response, whether that’s 20 people or 200 or 2000, it’s just a pretty magical thing. There are highlights, and certainly Sydney was the one where everything aligned in the best way on this tour so far, but at the same time, I think every show is a really fun show. Every show we play has something memorable about it and, especially at this point, we’re not playing a lot of duds.
How did you both get into music? And how did that lead to Japandroids?
DAVE: We met at the University of Victoria. Brian had been playing guitar for a while before that, but I hadn’t played drums. I started playing drums in University basically because I wanted to play in bands – it was a pretty conscious decision when I was about nineteen. I’d played a bunch of other instruments as a kid, but I’d never played in bands before and I figured that playing drums was my quickest route to playing in bands, because everyone always needs a drummer – there are never enough drummers to go around, it seems.
I started seeing a lot of local music in Victoria and was increasingly becoming obsessed with music in my first few years of university. Seeing local bands really inspired me to start playing in bands. It was an important moment for me to realise that being in bands and making music wasn’t something necessarily reserved for famous people and big shot bands who live in New York or Hollywood, but that it was something that normal people like me could do, and if you just worked at it and were passionate about it, you could make something worth listening to. Specifically, there was one show I saw by Dan Boeckner’s band Atlas Strategic at this place called Thursday’s in Victoria. Dan later went on to play in Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and Divine Fits, etc. I’d never heard his band before and just arbitrarily went. Dan’s band was the local opener for this touring band called Mice Parade who I ended up not really giving a shit about because I saw Atlas Strategic and thought they were by far the better band of the two. That show basically changed my life. Brian has a different story…
BRIAN: Yeah, I’m just trying to think… I was interested in music from when I was really young. I started listening to music and going to shows, and I learned how to play guitar when I was quite young, like elementary school – it’s just something that I always liked, but it never occurred to me that I could actually do it. I was from a small town where that was not really a reality – there were no local bands and that wasn’t something that people did. When I got to school, like Dave, I got more interested in the local music community and this idea of regular people being in bands as opposed to just “rockstars.” When we finished school, there was a group of us that had this plan to start bands together. Between us, we had about five or six bands all going in Vancouver at the same time when I first moved there. Then after a while, we were the last band standing and we just kept going – and now, it’s eight years later.
There are a lot of great Canadian bands, but it seems difficult for them to get known overseas. Do you think it’s getting easier?
DAVE: I think so. Before bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene really blew up, I think it was a bit of a dirty word to say you were a band from Canada. And there’s a very insular music scene in Canada – a lot of bands became very popular within Canada but were totally unknown even in the United States, let alone the rest of the world. Nowadays, at least in the realm of indie rock, I think a lot of people from abroad are very interested in what’s going on in Canada – maybe not Vancouver as much, but certainly Montreal and Toronto. When bands say they’re from those cities, people’s ears prick up a little bit and it makes them kind of curious about the band, in the same way that when I was younger, if I heard about a band from San Francisco or New York, I’d think, “Oh, they must be good.”
BRIAN: You know, there’s a “British” sound, but there’s no “Canadian” sound. I think that as time goes on, and more and more artists from different music genres start to become popular and it just happens that they’re from Canada, the less and less it actually matters that they’re from Canada – what matters is whether you’re good. No-one cares that Grimes is from Canada – she’s just really popular because the record’s really awesome. And, no one cares that Drake is Canadian – he’s just really popular because of the music. Drake and Crystal Castles and Fucked Up are all from Toronto and really successful, but they don’t sound anything like one another. It’s the Internet age, and where you’re from is becoming less important than whether or not you’re good.
There was a time ten years ago when if you were from Brooklyn, people would pay attention to you and what you sounded like, regardless of whether you were good or not. There was a sort of mini-version of that in Montreal in the mid-00s, because all of a sudden it seemed that there were all these bands coming out of Montreal that had a similar sound – all indie rock bands with guitar that appealed to a lot of people and had this certain sound. I feel like that’s disappeared, and now it’s opened the doors to anyone. There are all kinds of really great Canadian bands coming up and getting talked about, and they don’t sound anything like each other – if you didn’t know they were Canadian, you would never know. Dirty Beaches is playing in Tokyo tonight as well – he’s Canadian.
Yeah a few weeks ago Crystal Castles played in Tokyo, and next month Grimes will be here…
DAVE: Oh really? Canadian invasion!
BRIAN: It’s funny, because being Canadian is the one thing those bands have in common – musically, they’re all playing a totally different thing. I think it just doesn’t matter so much anymore. The fact that the population is smaller means that there will never be as many Canadian bands as there are American or European bands, but I think it’s about the same thing – if it’s good, then it’s good and it’s gonna happen.
So, tell me about the band name – did you plan to have this connection to Japan?
DAVE: Not really, it was just something that I thought sounded cool. We certainly didn’t have any aspirations to play in Japan at that time. We were just trying to play shows in Vancouver, maybe tour a bit in Canada, maybe in the US. I don’t think either of us had any idea of how far we’d end up going with this band, so to a large extent the band name was more a formality just so we could start playing shows in Vancouver, so we had something to write on the posters.
You’re now touring the world, but how did you manage in the early stages with the ups and downs of getting the band established?
DAVE: We were both pretty frustrated. I think in retrospect we probably both feel as though we should have left Vancouver earlier, and it probably would have been easier to have achieved some success with our band if we didn’t live in Vancouver – it’s pretty isolated. I think that’s changed to some extent as time’s gone on – people are looking to Vancouver a bit more as a place where bands come from – but certainly when we were starting, it wasn’t really a place where bands existed. We did everything ourselves for a long time and we were achieving some degree of success, but we were definitely pretty frustrated with what felt like a lack of progress. And it led to the band basically breaking up before anything really happened for us. The big reason that we decided to stick around later was that, after we decided it didn’t seem like the band was going anywhere, people started pretty arbitrarily picking up on our band just because of one show in one place at one time – and that was a little spark that started this whole buzz.
Which show was that?
DAVE: It was a tiny show at a place called Friendship Cove in Montreal, at a festival called Pop Montreal, which is kind of like a SXSW-type deal – multi-venue, all in the same city, lots of different small shows. We played at this art space called Friendship Cove to like nobody, but it turned out that one person who was there was a guy named Greg Ipp who’s now a good friend of ours and who used to run a record label called Unfamiliar Records – that’s the label that first put out our 2009 album Post-Nothing (This debut LP was subsequently re-released by Polyvinyl Record Co.). A guy named Stu Berman who writes for magazines also saw us there and really liked our show, so he started writing about us in Toronto. He was kind of the person who got our record to Pitchfork. So those two things pretty gigantic things happened at the same show and changed the fate of our band.
BRIAN: It was like the perfect storm of things. I mean, famous magazines see bands play all the time, so it’s not only that. It’s like a perfect combination of all the events coming together, because it’s also a lot of hard work, a lot of determination and resilience – all those clichéd things but it’s totally true. And then it’s also a bit of luck on top of all that. It was just this perfect combination of us being in the right place at the right time, playing the way we did with the songs we had at the time, with the right people, and everything just kept unfolding from there. I mean, I like to think that the reason people wrote about us in those early days is because the songs were good and we performed them really well, like they didn’t have much of a choice but to write about us. It could have been totally different – we could have just played kind of shitty that night and them be like, “Meh, these guys suck,” so having them in the same room wouldn’t have meant anything. It’s a really hard thing to explain how other bands could do it or how it even happened to us, because you can’t plan it, or we would have planned it a lot sooner. It just sort of happened accidentally.
DAVE: Yeah, and like I said, hardly anybody was there, so it would have been very easy to just be like, “Well, this is gonna suck, let’s get this over with and get the fuck out of here.” It was basically just bands, a few other friends of friends and then those guys. Luckily for us, we play every show like it’s our last, whether it’s ten people, a hundred people, or a thousand people there. We took it very seriously, even though there was nobody there.
One of your most popular tracks is The House That Heaven Built” and it’s also the only one to have an official music video. Where and when was that shot, and can we expect more?
BRIAN: It was shot over the course of a week. Someone came on tour with us for a week on the East Coast of the States and Canada, so it’s kind of… six shows? – Toronto, Montreal, Boston, two shows in New York, and Washington DC.
DAVE: I think that was the only kind of music video we would make. It took us a long time to bother making a music video. The reason we did that one was that it felt a bit more genuine. There was some trepidation in doing it, but I’m glad we did it, just so we have that document of a very specific time for our band.
BRIAN: I think we never fully understood how much people who like the band would like the music video, and the people who like our band really liked it – they like to have that visual association with the band. And so, after seeing the reception to the video, it kind of changed our minds a little bit about the idea of using music videos as a whole – not that I want to run off and start making crazy music videos tomorrow, but more just the idea that we managed to find a way to do it where we were happy with it and our audience was really happy with it. I think it would be a cool thing to keep doing, if you could find ways to keep doing work you and your audience are happy with. Now that I’ve seen it and I’ve seen the reaction to it, it makes me lament being so staunchly against doing it for so long.
Finally, with all these new experiences, what words of advice would you now give to upcoming musicians?
BRIAN: It’s a hard question to answer actually, because on the one hand I feel like I have nothing to say, and on the other hand I feel like I have a million things to say. I mean, probably just the old classic clichéd thing of lots of hard work… When you tour a lot and you meet other bands that have found some kind of success, like say you play Laneway where you’re travelling with all these other bands and all of these bands have more or less achieved the same thing you did – they’ve all made it to a point that they’re on Laneway for example, they all have records out and have record labels, people know who they are and they’ve found some kind of success (some more than others, but still to the point that they get invited to play a travelling festival) – one thing you can guarantee is that everyone works really hard to get to where they are, and very few people fall into it accidentally. Most people have all worked really hard for a really long time to get to where they are.
Watching other bands perform at that festival, I was thinking that what all these different people – no matter what kind of music they play or what their differences are – have in common is that it’s taken a lot for them to get there, and by no means was any of it easy. We played with people that are like us, who have been doing it for a long time, some much longer than us, and it took lots of hard work, lots of grinding, typically more than one album, typically lots of touring. You get to know some of these bands and you’re like, “Wow, I realise that before you played in this band, you played in three other bands, you’ve been making music for 12 or 13 years and that’s how long it took you to get here.” Other bands have been working at it for ten plus years but are only now beginning to have some kind of recognition, but they stuck with it because they wanted it that badly. They kept on doing it, and when they hit a hurdle, instead of letting it stop them, they just found a way to overcome it.
The longer you do this, the more you realise that that’s the one thing almost everyone – nine out of ten people – has in common. It’s the long history of lots and lots of hard work, dedication and resilience. I think that’s the best advice you can give – that if you really love it and you really believe in it, you just have to work hard and keep doing it no matter what, and eventually you’ll get somewhere. Maybe you won’t become the biggest band in the world, but you’ll get somewhere.