In their first six years as a band, Japandroids recorded with a simple rule: Make every record sound like a great concert, communicating rawness and energy through simplicity.
It worked for the Vancouver two-piece's first EPs, their debut album Post-Nothing, and especially for Celebration Rock, their balls-to-the-wall 2012 record that Rolling Stone ordained one of the coolest summer albums of all time, keeping company with Purple Rain and Paul's Boutique.
And then they disappeared. After a year-and-a-half of gruelling touring behind Celebration Rock, hardly a peep came from the Japandroids camp for nearly three years.
They were hardly in hiding, though; they were just rethinking their rules.
First, they actually, finally, took a rest. Then – imaginary rulebook decaying in some imaginary dumpster – they started writing music anew.
The band, guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse, did it in bursts. They took breaks. They changed their listening habits. They grew up, as much as a band whose songs exalt the power of late-night boozing and later-night dalliances can.
"Once you remove those rules from the way you write songs or record them, it's like a whole new world opens up to you," says King, whose layered, washed-out guitar and full-throated chants have propelled the band since its inception a decade ago. "Now the band or its music could be anything."
Not that it was easy. Japandroids's third full-length record, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, arrives Jan. 27, almost five years after Celebration Rock.
There are still punk-anthem moments on Wild Heart – including in the title track – but the reference points are harder to nail down. Or at least there's a broader range. There are moments that sound like Tom Morello taking the mantle, and others like the Misfits rewriting Copperhead Road. Japandroids used to be the boys of summer; Wild Heart is summer band, winter version.
It's more narratively complex, sometimes softer in tone. It's the sound of the band slowing down for the first time, taking the chance to drift where life took them. It's less a replication of a beer-soaked show than the sound of getting there. "The one thing about throwing out the rulebook is you don't necessarily know where to go after that," King says.
After those last Celebration Rock shows in 2013, King spent a long time wandering. He moved to Toronto and began dating a girl who lived in Mexico City, and started splitting his time between both cities. Other than hopping on stage with Dan Boeckner's band Operators for a three-night residency in 2014, King and Prowse hardly picked up their instruments.
But despite living in separate cities and dropping off of social media – prompting fears of a clandestine breakup – they were plotting new music at a relaxed pace.
The itch returned by late 2014. It was too distracting at home to write – note the reference to "drinking Dundas dry" on North East South West – so the band rented a house in New Orleans, La., for five weeks, just as they had in Nashville before Celebration Rock. "It felt good to go somewhere where we didn't really know so many people," Prowse says. "You could just wake up and start playing music."
After dredging up bones of songs from the swamps of the south, King and Prowse began two years of jet-setting to flesh them out. Prowse stayed in Vancouver, where they formed the band a decade ago. In past album cycles, practice meant daily trips to their jam space; for Wild Heart, they'd fly to the other's respective city for a few weeks at a time and work non-stop.
Now in their 30s, the creative-burst approach helped Prowse and King get things done. "Kind of accidentally, the move had a pretty profound impact on the way that we write," King says. "I don't know if we could have possibly created this record under any other kind of circumstances."
Many others have embraced – if not fully imitated – the band's "whoa-oh," fist-pumping style since Celebration Rock; the Philadelphia band Beach Slang, for one, gets Japandroids comparisons the way Japandroids get Springsteen comparisons. King sounds frustrated when asked about it.
"I don't want to have an opinion on something if I don't really know if it's true," he first says. Then his mood changes: Smiling, he won't admit his own influence, but maybe his source material's. "That music is connecting with people a lot right now, and they're turning around and starting bands that are influenced by it. Which is a pretty awesome thing, 'cause we like that stuff, too."
The earliest Japandroids songs found power in simplicity. Tracks like Press Corps and Wet Hair used a handful of repeated lyrics to steady the ship as guitar lines and drums swelled around them. These days – if borrowing Wild Heart's title from Clarice Lispector, who borrowed it from James Joyce, was any hint – King is more interested in telling stories.
Part of that is based on what he's been listening to. For the first time since Japandroids formed, he's turned to the classics in his LP collection, rather than keeping up with however many hundreds of bands he might be expected to hear each year. He's been glued to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young records – they even took a break from recording Wild Heart to see Young in Vancouver.
"This might be the first Japandroids album where we're actually culling from influences outside of the same general genre of music that we're in," King says. "You can't really argue that Townes Van Zandt is in that same genre. … You're trying to expand your songwriting into something similar – not that you ever could in terms of quality, but you're at least trying something."