Japandroids: Journey To Bikini Island

Story by Michael Cranston

“These girls are raw! Bikini kill! We need a ride to Bikini Island!”

I’ve been obsessed over this lyric in “Wet Hair” since I first heard Japandroids Post-Nothing. Maybe it’s the way Brian King’s driving guitar rips through drummer David Prowse’s crashing cymbals, or maybe it’s King’s earnest yelps that lend weight to such seemingly frivolous lyrics. Repeated listens of Post-Nothing over the past two months have taught me a critical lesson: just because you’re singing about girls, failed relationships, living in your 20s and growing old, doesn’t mean you need to cloak it in irony or complex metaphors. It’s no surprise then, that the end of “Wet Girls”, which features the emphatic proclamation “we must get to France so we can French kiss some French girls!”, is one of the album’s most affecting moments. Post-Nothing has no time for posturing or masquerading; its messages are delivered through guitar distortion and unfiltered honesty. So when I phone Brian King late on a Friday afternoon, as he sits in his bed recovering from major surgery, and open the interview by asking, “Brian, where is Bikini Island?” I’m only partially kidding. “In my head,” he answers. We both want to go there and Bikini Island is as much my ideal as it is his.

I was supposed to meet with Brian and Dave last month at their Toronto show, but a perforated ulcer got in the way. “It’s a gruesome medical condition requiring intense surgery and an intense hospital stay and intense recovery. Nobody was more disappointed than me.” The canceled dates included a lengthy North American run and an appearance at the Sasquatch Music Festival. “There was nobody who wanted to go on that tour more than I did,” King says. “If you’re sick, you can still play. I would rather see a band try to play, than just give in.”

Few garage bands can penetrate the heart. The grime of the garage promises thick, unkempt, washed-out fuzz rock that seeks out suburban liberation more than personal catharsis. But Vancouver duo Japandroids are so much more than garage rock. Japandroids are pop, rock, and garage-punk songwriters – in that order. The delivery is achingly visceral which means for us, as listeners, Japandroids are one of the easiest bands to feel.

Japandroids caught fire when Pitchfork picked up “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” a rock affair so dynamic that “rebellious” would be an appropriate adjective if its lyrics weren’t so un-rebellious. “We used to dream/ now we worry about dying,” King and Prowse belt out until they arrive at the album’s credo: “I don’t want to worry about dying/ I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.”

"That song just has more lyrics and others are more focused on just rocking out," King muses. "That’s definitely a song where the lyrics are what you listen to, so if there is a message, that might be the quintessential one.”

The future of the Japandroids before “Young Hearts Spark Fire” was bleak. “We couldn’t pay people to pay attention to us,” King reflects on their earlier days. By “earlier days,” I mean January of 2009. “We couldn’t get record reviews, couldn’t get radio stations to play us, couldn’t get labels interested.” They had already self-released two albums, intending the same with Post-Nothing. “But that would have been the third record we self-released in three years. That had us asking, ‘how much longer do we want to work this hard, use all our money and all our energy without progressing, playing the same venues for the same ten people.’” For all intensive purposes, Japandroids were breaking-up in December. They had played Pop Montreal and CMJ in New York and wanted to end on a high-note. It was the enthusiastic dedication of Unfamiliar Records that kept them going – to the extent that King had warned the label of their imminent break-up. But Unfamiliar wanted to release it anyway. “We were so close to putting out the record on our own that when Unfamiliar Records called us, I had to frantically call the pressing plant and tell them to stop the presses.”

Post-Nothing is an eight-song head rush. “If you don’t feel dead after playing it, you’re not doing it hard enough,” King says about their songwriting. The entire album is recorded live which accounts for the raw sound. “We go to the studio, I set up my guitar and Dave sets up his drums. We pick songs and play them together four or five times to get the good take, then we just record our vocals over top of it. We sound like that when you see us. Believe me, you will hear certain fuck-ups. In "Heart Sweats," there’s a part half-way through the song where I sort of do this guitar solo, it’s not really a solo but there’s a guitar riff that’s high, a Japandroids guitar solo. There’s clearly a funny note that’s bright and loud, maybe it’s not as obvious to other people, but when I hear it I think, “I really fucked up there. That’s one of those things we couldn’t change. We wanted to preserve the live aspect. I didn’t want to cover it up, or fix it up digitally.”

The thematic terrain of Post-Nothing borrows from coming-of-age issues: jobs, leaving home, dying, growing old, girls, break-ups, loyalty, friends, drinking, etc. The opening trifecta (“Boys Are Leaving Town”, “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, “Wet Hair”) evokes these themes impeccably and is irresistibly fast-paced, headbang-worthy. The album’s final songs “Crazy/Forever”, “Sovereignty”, and “I Quit Girls” close out the album on an emotional(ly rocking) note. “We’ll stick together forever/ Stay sick together/ Be crazy forever,” is the formers only lyric, repeated over and over again. “It’s not “sick” in the physical sense,” King explain as he recalls writing those lines, “but sick in something that’s imperfect, like in a relationship, partnership, or friendship.”
“Is it wrong to call Post-Nothing a pseudo break-up album?”
“Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. The emphasis would be on pseudo. Neither one of us considers it a break-up album, but I could totally understand how someone going through a break-up might identify with parts of the record.”

But don't call them immature—Japandroids' candor is their appeal, their content no less adult than marriage and a 9-5 job, and their musicianship no less appealing than a 15-piece band. And athough Brian and I end our conversation by casually remarking how both of us could use a few French girlfriends, don’t call us kids. We’re just growing up.

Japandroids: Journey To Bikini Island