Ben Kopel

Lost Interviews: Ben Kopel Interviews Japandroids on Near to the Wild Heart by the Japandroids

Four years ago, Japandroids released their new album titled Near to the Wild Heart. Dedicated music journalist Ben Kopel had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with the band members, Brian King and David Prowse, on the eve of its release. There were some people who stated that it was hard to give the album its due in the current political climate. Some believed that the album lacked the fear, anxiety, and sadness that is typically reflected in our current day and age.

That is not what Ben Kopel heard. Ben Kopel heard something different. He noticed plenty of fear, anxiety, and sadness on the album. It will be interesting to see which album Ben Kopel takes a listen to in the future. Furthermore, it will be exciting to see what Japandroids release next.

The following is the transcript from the interview 4 years ago:

Ben Kopel: I read an early review of Near to the Wild Heart… that asserts that the author can’t give the album its due in the current political climate because it doesn’t “make room for doubt and anxiety and sadness.” Would either of you agree with this statement, or do you think that this writer took an overly simplistic reading of the songs and their emotional concerns?

Brian King: I’m familiar with that review. The author states very bluntly that “this is a time of fear and anxiety and regret and resentment.” – an interesting choice of words considering that it was those very same feelings that led so many Americans to vote the way they did. Unfortunately for us, the release of our album happened to coincide with a unique moment in America where many of those feelings were instantaneously transplanted from one half of the population to the other, thereby contaminating the listening experience for much of our American audience. And to this, I am hugely sympathetic. The author clearly wants (or needs) to listen to music more reflective of his current state-of-mind, and who can blame him. 

Personally, I do hear fear (and doubt, and anxiety) on this album – a lot of it, actually. In the past, I tended to shy away from such feelings, with much of my writing focused purely on the most positive aspects of my life and my experiences. On this album, I tried very hard to expand my palate, to include within the songs all of the thoughts and feelings that exist alongside those singular, magical moments. For example, I don’t know how someone could listen to the verses of Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, or True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will, or Midnight To Morning, or In A Body Like A Grave, and not hear trepidation. While the choruses certainly strike a triumphant tone, the paths there are by no means straight lines. 

But I also have a window into the soul of each song and concede that any feelings of fear (or doubt, or anxiety) on the album are of a deeply personal nature and not an overtly political one. And perhaps that is where the disconnection lies – my feelings of fear (et al.) with respect to my personal life just don’t jive with the author’s feelings of fear (et al.) with respect to the President and his policies. 

Ben Kopel: Some promo materials for the album told us that “keen observers may also notice sequencing similarities to Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones.” Would you mind commenting on these similarities? More than its origins, I’m interested in what your thoughts are when it comes to sequencing. 

Brian King: I always had an unexplainable fascination with the way classic albums (and in particular, classic rock/punk albums) are sequenced. For decades, the songs on an album (and the sequencing of those songs) were immeasurably influenced by the simple fact that they fit on a single vinyl record, which was divided evenly into two sides (Side A and Side B). As a vinyl record is typically 20 mins per side, artists and producers had to take this into account throughout the recording process, and it affected the number of songs that could appear on the album, the length of those songs, etc. One of my favourite songs of all time (Sister Ray) is 17 minutes long because it was recorded specifically with the intention of taking up an entire side of a vinyl record. 

In this respect, a lot of my favourite albums are very similar – they are 8 songs long (4 per side), and are sequenced in such a way that Side A (songs 1-4) and Side B (songs 5-8) each provide an evenly-balanced listening experience. When you listen to Born To Run, or Horses, or Raw Power, you can tell that a lot of thought when into which songs appeared on which side (and in what order). All three of our albums are sequenced using that same Side A (songs 1-4) and Side B (songs 5-8) methodology. 

The Rolling Stones are one of my favourite bands of all time, and one of the few bands that I’ve listened to consistently throughout my whole life. I have listened to Let It Bleed countless times, and have always had an affinity for it’s sequencing. It just flows, man! Side A kicks off with a real rocker, but then tends to just cruise at a more relaxed pace, right until the end. Side B kicks off with the longest, most epic song on the album, and after 7 straight minutes of hearing Mick wail, you get a breather as Keith takes over lead vocals. And the whole thing ends on a very uplifting and inclusive note. Like I said, it just flows, man!

Ben Kopel: Storytelling seems to be a bigger concern on this album. You’ve mentioned that the songs of Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits were in heavy rotation during the gestation of this record. Were there any Tom or Townes songs or albums in particular that spoke to you and taught you something about where you wanted to go on this one?

Brian King: Generally speaking – and this is by no means an exaggeration – ALL of their albums were in heavy rotation in my house throughout 2014-2016. Aside from a handful of bootlegs, I think I own pretty much every Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits release available, and I tended to rotate through them all with regularity. Townes-wise, Live At The Old Quarter probably saw the most action. Tom-wise, either Nighthawks At The Diner or Small Change.

Both artists are masterful storytellers and having totally immersed myself in their music during the writing of this record, I felt compelled to try to expand the storytelling element of my own writing, to begin blending fact with fiction. My favourite Townes song is Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold – the pacing, the alliteration, the vivid imagery – they are all next level. Arc Of Bar is a crude imitation of this same style of songwriting. As for Tom, I love the way he uses geography and weather to set the scene, either in a particular city or the places in between. He can really paint a picture with his words, and put you right there beside him. I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite song, but I Wish I Was In New Orleans was my template for how to set a song in the city, and Foreign Affair was my template for how to set a song on the road. 

Ben Kopel: What can you tell me about the writing and recording of ‘Arc of Bar’? That song is the most surprised I’ve been by the band since the first time I heard you. 

Brian King: AOB was a very deliberate attempt to break certain songwriting habits, namely: music first, lyrics second. I wrote the lyrics and presented them to Dave without any preconceived notion as to what the song should sound like musically. It was a very naive attempt to write ‘our Sympathy For The Devil’ or ‘our Like A Rolling Stone’ (though in retrospect, it ended up having more in common with Walk On The Wild Side, which is by no means a slight, as I love that song too). Regardless, it was both a fun and frustrating experiment, and the result was our most ambitious (or self-indulgent, depending on whom you ask) song to date. 

The song itself is built around a guitar loop (often mistaken for synthesizer) that I made randomly/accidentally in New Orleans in the fall of 2014. It sat on my loop station for many months before I rediscovered it and start playing guitar over top. And very suddenly, AOB became an actual song. Well, sort of. The skeleton of a song. We then spent several months chipping away at it – different arrangements, different drums, different guitar effects, etc. – just endlessly tinkering. And then we tinkered some more during recording. And then we tinkered some more during mixing. It was only song on the album that continued to evolve significantly right up until our final day of mixing. As I said, it was both a fun and frustrating experiment. 

Ben Kopel: On the Celebration Rock tour, one of you would often introduce “Continuous Thunder” to the audience as their “chance to talk to the boy or girl you’ve been eyeing all night.” If you were going to introduce “In a Body Like a Grave” in a similar fashion, what might you say? What’s the appropriate action for this closer?

Brian King: I don’t know if there IS an appropriate action for this song. If there is, it isn’t obvious. Of all the songs on the album, it is by far the most comprehensive (and therefore, the most inclusive). At the same time, I think it lends itself to a much wider spectrum of individual interpretation relative to the other songs on the album, and it’s very hard to think of a single action that would somehow embody the meaning of the song for all those listening. The sentiment behind Continuous Thunder is very simple and very direct, whereas the sentiment behind In A Body Like A Grave is panoramic in comparison. One is directed out, and the other is directed in. Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps the most appropriate action is actually no action at all.

Ben Kopel: On the record and in concert, your whole presentation projects a lot of fearlessness. Going into the drafting and recording of Near to the Wild Heart…, were there any fears you had to confront? If so, how did facing them and the challenges they came with the impact of the final album?

Dave Prowse: I’m not sure about fear, per se, but I think a certain amount of doubt is very healthy in the creative process. It’s good to be critical and to have doubts – I think that is what helps to push you to do your best work, hopefully. So while we’ve been a band for a while now, and we certainly have more confidence than we did when we first started, we still are very critical and see a lot of faults in what we do and try to push the songs and performances on record as far as we can. Fear seems like too strong a word, but we definitely spent a lot of time thinking “is this song as good as it can be?”, or “Is there something missing on this record? How can we improve it?”.  One source of stress was wondering how the record will be received by fans and critics, but the only thing you can really do about that is just make sure you create something you can stand behind. Easier said than done, obviously, but our aim was to push all outside expectations away from the process and just focus on what we thought of the record and made sure we created something we were very proud of. 

Ben Kopel: Were there a few different running orders for this one, or did everything find its own place naturally? What are a few albums you both always look to and can say “yeah, they nailed the sequencing on that one”?

Dave Prowse: ​As we wrote, it wasn’t entirely clear how many songs we were going to have on the record. I know we always end up with 8 song records, but I swear we don’t intend to! As we came up with more songs, a tracklist started to come together. Near to the Wild Heart of Life always felt like song number 1 and North East South West always felt like number 2. Lyrically, it made a lot of sense – Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a sort of origin story, and North East South West is a song all about where you go once you decide to take that plunge and make your move. In a Body Like a Grave always seemed like the album closer, as it had a certain sense of summing up everything that could be talked about on an album all in one song. And Arc of Bar felt like the natural opener to side B, since it is a bit of a departure for us and sort of occupies its own little world somewhat apart from the rest of the record. From there everything just sort of fell in to place as it came. There wasn’t too much discussion really… I think the sequencing we chose just made sense to both of us intuitively. 

There are a lot of albums where the sequencing is part of the magic. Off the top of my head, Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen), Tim (the Replacements), and OK Computer (Radiohead) all come to mind. It would be very, very hard to imagine those records in a different sequence. But honestly, Brian is more obsessive about these things than myself. He can’t listen to an album on shuffle. It will drive him insane. I certainly believe in the power of proper sequencing but don’t feel quite as dogmatic as he does about these things. ​

Ben Kopel: In an age where digital playlists are king and album lengths are slowly edging past the more recent tradition of 80 minutes max for an album, you guys are holding steady at albums that fit neatly onto vinyl and max out at 35 minutes or so. When changing parameters for this album, was a longer piece of work ever considered as an option?

Dave Prowse: ​As I said earlier, we don’t plan on having an 8 song album, or that it has to be around 35 minutes, but it just naturally seems to end up that way. We certainly never attempted to have an 80-minute record or a double LP or anything like that, but it didn’t necessarily need to be 8 songs maximum. Brian and I both like the idea of having a coherent set of songs that feel like they fit together, and for whatever reason 8 songs and 35 or so minutes seems like the ideal running time for us to have a coherent album. I suppose it’s quite old fashioned to still think of an album as a vinyl record, but Brian and I can’t help thinking that way.  To some extent we tend to think of our records as two mini-albums – side A and side B being two separate pieces that sort of fit together. Maybe at some point, I could see us doing an EP or something like that. We like to do a ten-inch record at some point. And we did have a string of 7-inch singles that we recorded separately from our LPs back in the day and we would love to get back into that habit. It has just been hard to balance writing and touring, so we end up focusing on writing until we have a finished album and then go back into touring mode and forget about writing for a while. 

Ben Kopel: One question I always want to ask musicians who travel constantly and keep many homes is this: through what medium are you listening to your favorite music these days? Do you stream? Carry an iPod? Where do you keep your records?

David Prowse: ​For both Brian and me, I think it is safe to say that listening to vinyl LPs is our favourite way of listening to music. There is something about throwing a vinyl record on and sitting down and committing to listening to the album in full that just feels right. That said, with the lives we live we obviously don’t have that luxury as often as we like. So yeah, we listen to stuff on our phones or iPods or laptops when we’re on the road and those records sit on our shelves at our respective homes for long stretches. A small price to pay for getting to play in a touring rock band! 

Ben Kopel: How do you feel about touring Trump-Era America in the coming weeks? Is there any temptation to comment on the state of affairs, or will the shows be a couple of hours where fans can forget the stress and scary aspects of the new world order?

David Prowse: That’s a very good question and to be honest with you I don’t know the answer. Brian and I are both Canadian, obviously, but we do spend a lot of time in America, and we were both shocked by the election results. So what do we do now? Our shows have always been pretty cathartic, and maybe some people need that catharsis now more than ever? Sometimes you just need to feel good for a couple of hours in the midst of all this fear and hatred, and maybe that’s enough? On the other hand, most great art comments on and critiques the world around it in some way, and it seems naive to pretend that our music exists in a vacuum and pretend as if nothing has changed. In the past, I think we’ve focused on our music as something that was more personal than political if that makes sense. But given the current political climate, I’m not sure if we can continue to make that distinction. We played a benefit for Planned Parenthood last week in Austin. That felt really good. I suppose, just like most people, we’re still trying to figure it out.

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