Rock band Japandroids
Canadian rockduo Japandroids are still pinching themselves over their meteoric rise
Brian King sounds confused when asked to cast his mind over 2012, a year that saw his band Japandroids become the new darlings of North America's rock scene, with a sophomore release that made album-of-the-year lists.
"People ask what's it like to have these reviews and to make these lists, but we have to say we don't know because we felt so cut off" during that time, the guitarist and vocalist says by phone from Vancouver, Canada.
It was a "whirlwind year - but we spent so much of it on tour, and on tour we live in a bubble. You have your own little universe", King says as he takes stock of 12 months that started in a state of panic as he and co-Japandroid David Prowse prepared for the release of their second album, Celebration Rock, and ended with them being praised by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine and Pitchfork.com
He's been home just a few days, enjoying a brief pause in a touring schedule that has kept him and drummer Prowse on the road since last May. The schedule has taken them on three tours of the US and will resume this week when the pair travel to Asia, including a gig at Grappa's Cellar on January 23.
Their success took King and Prowse by surprise. Three years ago, they were organising their own gigs around Vancouver and still holding down day jobs (aptly for the rocking King, he was a geologist). Then, in 2009, came debut album Post-Nothing, a brash, hard-rocking slab of melodic guitar-driven grooves that won the band comparisons with many of their heroes, from fellow duo White Stripes to Bruce Springsteen.
King's twitchy stage performance, reminiscent of peak-period Kurt Cobain, and Prowse's manic tub-thumping won them glowing reviews, and "the shows just got bigger and wilder", King says in a voice left ragged by a cold he attributes to the "post-tour recovery" syndrome that "always happens when … months of tour life finally catches up with you when you get home".
Although Post-Nothing set internet music sites alight, superstardom had to wait: on the eve of their first US tour, King had to be rushed to hospital. "My stomach more or less exploded - I had a perforated ulcer and nearly died," he says of that day in Calgary, Canada. "It was the morning after the first night of our first proper tour. The first album had just been released and things were happening very quickly - something we'd dreamed about doing for a long time."
After emergency surgery, King was told to take three months to recover. When they eventually got back in the saddle, Japandroids saw their stock rise as word of the band's incendiary live shows went viral. The high-pressure demands of touring in a post-CD age in which new bands can only make a living by playing live meant the duo had to slog it out on the road. They went from playing half-full pubs to theatres and, since the much-vaunted sophomore album, to arenas. "There was a certain amount of growing pains on the road last year - it was a bit like school, like a crash course in how to be a real band."
Among the biggest challenges thrown up by their meteoric rise has been adjusting their stagecraft to play ever-larger venues. "We really do love to play those small rooms because with a band like ours, when you pack a lot of people into a small room there's this kind of ball of energy. The larger the room, the more difficult it becomes for two people on stage to hold that room together with the same energy.
"We're getting too big to play the rooms we used to play - a couple hundred people to 500 to 800 to a couple thousand - and then to some festivals where we were playing to 10,000 people and the first row is like 40 feet [12 metres] from where you're standing. We've been trying to figure out how to take that energy on stage and transfer it to the people in those much bigger rooms."
If the cosseted "bubble" they found themselves living in was surreal, even more so was the fact that each time they returned to a city, they were booked into successively larger venues. King says that was the only way they could gauge how successful they'd become in their closed tour world. "Things change rapidly when you are on tour, even though you are doing the exact same thing day after day," he says. "You are cut off from the outside world in many ways."
While a near-death experience failed to halt the Japandroids steamroller, fear of failure almost did. After two years of touring the album, King and Prowse returned to Vancouver to regroup and plan the next stage of their career. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, as their home city offered little in the way of inspiration.
"It felt like the ride was over - we'd spent almost two years going all over the world playing to people and then all of a sudden it's done," says King. "There are no more shows. You're back at home and life returns to normal. You have to write an entire new album before you can go out and do it again."
The "difficult second album" cliché became reality as they sought a muse to follow up Post-Nothing - a psychological plight deepened by the fact they were running out of money. "There's a difference between internet success and financial success," says King. "On the first album, it was a case of people finding out about you on the internet. And while they were accessing the band name and they could buy the record on iTunes, it's not like we sold a lot of copies of Post-Nothing and we don't make a lot of money at shows. It's a common misconception."
The situation became so desperate that King had to sell equipment to raise money just to live. "It was kind of deflating. One month you're playing in different parts of the world and the next you're back at home trying to figure how to pay the rent with no prospect of ever playing a show again."
The only answer was to decamp. That was in the autumn of 2011 after about six months of idleness. It was the change they needed: by the end of the year, Celebration Rock had been written and recorded. Its success after its release in May was a huge relief.
"We were really, really nervous in the spring," says King. "We'd had such a good time touring Post-Nothing and building up an audience that we were nervous our fans might not like the new record and would abandon us. It was a sign of the fears of a new band and of not really understanding how the business works, but we were scared the whole thing might get taken away from us."
Japandroids' gig at Grappa's Cellar will see them return to their natural habitat: an intimate, sweaty and energetic venue. Even so, it'll be another readjustment for the duo. "Neither of us are natural-born performers, and so it takes a long time getting comfortable playing in front of people. The last year threw that into a tailspin: as soon as you get comfortable playing for one size of venue, you get a little more popular and all of a sudden the room doubles in size and you have to get used to playing for twice the number of people."
Japandroids, Jan 23, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$290 (advance, ticketflap.com HK$350 (door). Inquiries: 2521 2322