Home, or Something Like It

Indie rockers Japandroids cover themes of migration and stasis in their first album in five years.

Japandroids (Photo by Leigh Righton)

Brian King, the guitarist and vocalist for raucous anthem-rockers Japandroids, has no idea what “home” means anymore.

“There really isn’t one place for me to go back to,” King says. “I have friends and family all over.”

Throughout the years, King has discarded ZIP codes with the same frequency that most people change their socks. He grew up in a small island off the west coast of Canada before moving to Vancouver during his 20s. After residing there for a decade, he relocated to Toronto, where he technically now lives, although he spends much of his time these days in Mexico City with his girlfriend. He recently recorded music in New Orleans, New York, and Montreal, and he’s currently in the midst of a yearlong tour that will see him travel across the globe.

It should be no surprise, then, that his group’s latest album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, is a nomadic creation, filled with a kinetic energy and a palpable restlessness.

“It’s an album about motion,” says King, whose band will play two nights at the Fillmore, on Tuesday, March 14 and Wednesday, March 15. “It’s about moving away, moving forward, moving on. For the past five years, we’ve rarely been in the same place for long. It really fucks with your sense of home, and I think that’s reflected in this album.”

Japandroids, consisting of King and drummer David Prowse, have been running nonstop since the release of their peerless sophomore album, Celebration Rock, a Replacements-meets-Springsteen ode to squeezing every last drop out of life. Filled with soaring call-and-response numbers and paeans to late-night beer drinking sessions, the 2012 album was met with universal praise, and the band toured in support of it for two solid years.

 

King and Prowse then dropped completely out of the public eye for three years, leading some to speculate that the band had called it quits. With Celebration Rock being such a perfect distillation of the group’s ethos — loyalty and friendship, mixed with a little mischief — many believed a worthy follow-up effort to be impossible.

The duo eventually resurfaced late last year to announce their newest album, but fans anticipating Celebration Rock II — i.e., another collection of fast-paced, guitar-chugging rock screamers — will be sorely disappointed. Japandroids may not have broken up, but they’ve certainly tweaked a few things here and there, and what you hear on Near to the Wild Heart of Life could very well be the beginning of a new era for the band.

“I love AC/DC and I love the Ramones, but we’re just not one of those bands that can play the same songs forever,” King says. “Really, it would be damaging to David and I, because we’d be making music that we didn’t believe in anymore.”

The changes aren’t as drastic as when Radiohead released Kid A, but the songs on Near to the Wild Heart of Life are less frantic and contain melodic, more-reflective elements that are new to Japandroids’ oeuvre. The group even adjusted their famously austere framework, adding in small doses of synths and acoustic guitars among their traditional setup of drums and electric six-strings.

 

Album centerpiece “Arc of Bar,” a towering, seven-minute slow burner, cops the noirish feel of something by the Portland band Chromatics, and its shimmery synths are a far cry from the punk-rock signifiers of Japandroids’ early work. Other songs, like “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner),” an atmospheric number that sounds like a reined-in cut from space-jammers Spiritualized, simply sound like a band in the midst of trying to challenge and reinvent itself.

Sonic adjustments aside, the biggest change from the previous two albums is King’s evocative, wordy lyricism. On the first two Japandroids albums, King seemed like he was just throwing phrases together until he could reach a rip-roaring chorus of “whoa!-whoa!-whoa!” serenades. For Near to the Wild Heart of Life, he makes immense strides in his quest to form narrative tales, and he repeatedly zeroes in on the rootless, exploratory elements of his life.

“I never wanted to be a singer or a songwriter, I just wanted to play guitar,” King says. “But now that I am writing lyrics, I always want to improve. I’ll never be as good as people like Townes Van Zandt, or Tom Waits or Dylan, but I certainly look to them for inspiration.”

The title track on the new album and its companion piece, “North East South West,” are King’s personal travelogues, detailing his escape from a provincial childhood into the vast, expansive lands of America and beyond. Avoiding the tired tropes most often used when writing about tour life, King comes across as a wide-eyed wanderer, not some grizzled rock star beaten down by endless days on the road. The songs are restive without being despondent, plaintive without being maudlin. King acknowledges his vagabond roots, but sounds far from lonely and friendless, even if he doesn’t stay under the same roof every night.

“Look, we’re not going to make every song about drinking beers and getting crazy,” King says. “But we’re still Japandroids. This band is my family.”

And there you have it. King may question where he’s from and where’s he going, but with this band, he’ll always have at least one place to call home.

Japandroids
plays at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 14, and Wednesday, March 15, at the Fillmore. $25; thefillmore.com.

Will Reisman is a contributor at SF Weekly.

 

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