In the lobby of a hotel in New York City's Chinatown, Japandroids guitarist Brian King exits a staircase and offers a greeting. He says his bandmate, drummer David Prowse, will be down shortly, so for the next two minutes, it's just King, sporting a black sweater and scrolling on his phone, representing the band. This happens sometimes, given the logistics of two people's schedules, but seeing only half of Japandroids is like beholding a cropped photo: incomplete. Duality is Japandroids' trademark, as their three album covers reveal. Black and white. Guitar and drums. Brian and David. When Prowse finally walks down and joins us, the picture is complete.
The Canadian rock duo, beloved for their sky-scraping, hockey arena–ready ragers, have flown in to promote their new third LP, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, out January 27 on Anti. And that's how they want you to experience it, phone-captured live videos be damned. "I don't want people to listen to the entire album in shitty YouTube format three months before they get to hear it," King says after we find a table at the hotel's restaurant, as a waitress delivers him a gigantic plate of eggs and potatoes. "It's almost like you're never going to play it worse than that time, you know?"
Not that you can blame enthusiastic fans for filming. Last fall, the band debuted some tracks during their first shows in three years, before they'd even announced the album or released a single. The new material caught fire online and stirred up excitement around the band, who'd been quietly assembling their follow-up to 2012's revered Celebration Rock for years, away from social media and the spotlight. There were no title teases, no studio previews. The Japandroids blackout was partially strategic: "The story about 'where are you?' becomes its own story," King says, "and you end up having this presence without actually doing anything." But mostly, it was so the pair could just work undisturbed in Vancouver.
"I feel a strong loyalty to our fans. We both do," Prowse says, stirring his coffee. "You don't want to feel like you're toying with their expectations."
If the band's debut, 2009's Post-Nothing, was a blurry cell-phone snap of their live show, and Celebration Rock was the same show shot from the pit on a DSLR, Near is a panoramic portrait of the entire venue, the city it's in, and the highways traversed to get there. King and Prowse utilize what they call the template for a great rock album: eight songs, nearly all anthems, spread over about 40 minutes (à la Horses, Remain in Light, and Born to Run). The guys still yell like hell to the heavens and radiate adrenalized momentum as much as they invoke sentiment — but this time, it's all in CinemaScope. Yes, this is a Big Rock Record — one song is literally called "True Love and a Free Life of Free Will" — and it seems destined to be equally cherished for its grandeur and scoffed at for its earnestness. "No known drink / No known drug / Could ever hold a candle to your love," King proclaims on the album's penultimate track before a "sha-na-na-na-na" coda plays them out.
But what is a Big Rock Record in the 2010s, anyway? Arcade Fire's Reflektor comes to mind, as does last year's Teens of Denial from Car Seat Headrest, though those are both more than 70 minutes long. Keeping their albums trim and wiry might be Japandroids' secret — something they've held on to, even as they begin to expand their sound. "There are certain people who I think will always just want us to make Celebration Rock forever," King says. "But I think if you really like a band, there's almost something disappointing when they don't make any effort to change or experiment or grow in any way."
For the duo, that growth was as simple as diversifying their sonic palette, just enough to notice the difference. When you listen to Japandroids, you expect shouted refrains, fuzzy chords, and big drums, and they deliver. Near stretches those expectations without subverting them, burying a love song in the thick noise of "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)," evoking Monster-era R.E.M. on "North East South West," and crafting what Prowse calls a "cerebral, epic, groovy" seven-minute song — unsurprisingly one of the first to find its way to YouTube after its fall debut. For years, live Japandroids and studio Japandroids have been nearly indistinguishable. But how could that song, "Arc of Bar" (on which David mans a sampler pad next to his drums), not evolve from night to night when the duo takes it on a 42-date tour across two continents this spring?
"It'll be a little bit of a process to figure out exactly the best way to play 'Arc of Bar' that we feel represents it on the stage," Prowse says. "It's a fun little puzzle."
Near is the band's first release to feature the once-foreign sounds of unplugged guitars and electronic blips, but it's still unmistakably Japandroids. "It's not like we decided to make our Kid A, make a record where there are no guitars and drums," King says. "We're trying to make a really great rock-and-roll album." That explains the ecstatic blur of travel and the implied journey of self-discovery hinted at by the album's title, a James Joyce reference. "So many miles, so much to lose," Prowse sings on "Midnight to Morning," a heavy midtempo tune that approaches the edge of balladry but doesn't jump.
There's no time for a proper ballad anyway, not on an album this lean. Maybe on LP4? Maybe on some future Japandroids double album? "I don't think people would even wanna listen to 80 minutes straight of Japandroids songs," King says — but then, almost immediately, he corrects himself: "Maybe they would." We'll just have to see where the heady new seven-minute jam takes them on the road.