Japandroids and the Great Northwest Two-Piece Tradition

[23 July 2009]

By G E Light

For my money the most interesting new band going is the West Vancouver duo, Japandroids, who recently released their debut, Post-Nothing. I know it’s trendy to talk about the new wave of art rock and/or grungy lo-fi blues two pieces from New York and the Upper Midwest. But as we shall see Japandroids spring from their own noble and older left coast tradition. First to the band and the disc. Their instrumentation is spare guitar and drums. Formed at the University of Victoria in 2006 the band features Ben [E.] King on the former and David {No Not Darth Vader] Prowse on the latter. Originally thought about being a trio but settled on duo format and shared vocal duties. To early self-released EPs appeared -- All Lies (2007) and Lullaby Death Jams (2008) -- before they signed to the Canadian indie Unfamiliar Records and released Post-Nothing.

They probably will make you forget fellow Canucks Death from Above 1979 with their… fill in the blank. The single getting all the buzz is "Young Hearts Spark Fire" and it is a doozy; here's the video:

But here at PopMatters we want you to be ahead of the wave not just surfing its backside with the trendier than thou haystack and sticking implement crowd! So, to the album’s hidden gem “Heart Sweets” or as I like to think of it the “Valentine’s Day Candy as Binary Communication System Song” aka XOXOX. Or is it “Heart Sweats”; the title is written one way, the word pronounced differently in the song. Yet another doubling ambiguity from this most ambiguously fey duo. Other tracks worth your own personal further exploration include “Crazy/Forever” and “Sovreignty”.

They’re a two-piece, but they sound like a full blown rock orchestra here. How? Learned an old Steve Reich trick, the almighty power of the ringing overtone (Cf. LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends”). See also the Spinanes first album for further evidence, about which more anon.

Only a sole question remains, Historically, Why are there so many great indie two-piece outfits in the Great Northwest?

There are a least three possible explanations for this phenomenon, which we’ll examine briefly in turn.

1. Screw FJ Turner and His Thesis: Life’s a bitch in the high desert and ain’t nothing manifest about it.

Yes, Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific, but it was a close run thing: Columbia Gorge and all. Further north, getting past Banff and the Canadian Rockies to taste the glory of Vancouver Bay was quite the undertaking, never really first conquered from the East as Vancouver’s foundation dates to the 1860s, slightly after the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush from the sea and the south (read USA and frustrated 49ers plus maybe Jack London and White Fang) in 1858. Don’t talk to me about any namby pamby boat ride around the Cape and we all know there ain’t no Northwest Passage unless you’re helming the USS Nautilus. So, we are hardy pioneer stock here in the Great NW, self-reliant and able better to work in small groups, the smaller the better. It’s all about your carbon footprint really: imagine touring in a Yugo with drumkit and guitar and tiny amp.
With only two, sì se puede!

Mecca Normal—“Caribou and the Oil Pipeline”

2. Life is almost perfect in the NW, Why complicate it any more than necessary?

I mean Yoko wasn’t even in the Fab Four and look what happened! A NW two-piece makes for easier conflict resolution. Hell, even after our interpersonal relationships fail, we keep the band together anyways. Why, because we rock! “And none of that poser we’re brother and sister shite” as Peel would have said except for the fact that he really liked them.

Quasi—“Our Happiness Is Guaranteed” Portland (1998)

The antipode to # 2 is our final option

3. Well it rains a lot here and is dark and gloomy; we’re kinda anti-social as result.

We don’t know that many people so making a band out of just two seems to work until it doesn’t anymore, especially with two utterly distinctive instrumentalists.

Spinanes—“Noel Jonah and Me”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/108727-japandroids-and-the-great-northwest-two-piece-tradition/