Pop Music Has a Sense of Urgency: An Interview with Japanese Breakfast
What started out as a song-a-day challenge for former member of the emo band Little Big League has now become a national touring act, Japanese Breakfast, set to play Houston later this week. Founder Michelle Zauner has recently built quite a name for herself, including features in Rolling Stone, NPR, and — my first encounter with her music — on Democracy Now! Now on the road with Mitski, who just released the critically acclaimed Puberty 2, Zauner will perform tracks from her recent album, Psychopomp. Free Press Houston was able to get a quick chat with Zauner about preparation for the tour, the music industry, and the ethics of a hit song.
FPH: Congratulations on your upcoming tour with Mitski. What has the preparation been like?
Michelle Zauner: It started on the 20th. It’s been going well. The band has started practicing, so we’re ready to go out. We’ve been slowly packing and putting together excel documents of where we’ll be staying, but I’m really excited.
FPH: Before this interview, I went through your Twitter and saw that, for a few cities, you reached out to your fans and asked if they have any extra room for the band to crash. Have you done stuff like that in the past?
Zauner: Yeah, it’s usually with friends I know that are spread out. Particularly other touring musicians. I don’t think anyone has reached out to house us via Twitter, but it was worth a shot [laughs].
FPH: I spoke to some of my friends about this interview, and the first thing that caught their attention was the name ‘Japanese Breakfast.’ Being that you are not directly Japanese, what drew you to that name?
Zauner: I don’t know, it was not a super thought out thing. I just needed a name for my solo project at the time [in Little Big League]. I liked the way that Japanese Breakfast sounded. I like eating Japanese breakfast, I grew up eating Japanese breakfast. But now that I think about it, it’s asked of me a lot more because I’m not Japanese. I’m half Korean. I wanted a name that hinted at not being American, without revealing my own personal ethnicity. I think that “breakfast” sounds like a very American word and I wanted to pair it with something foreign. I guess I wanted to play with feeling of Asian-American visibility.
FPH: Do you believe that the Asian-American community has started to shine a bit more in the spotlight of the American entertainment industry? In terms of television, I believe that shows like Master of None really shined a light of these groups that otherwise seems to be ignored in the industry. Do you think that there is a band that is the equivalent of shows like Master of None, or other shows that represent the same thing?
Zauner: I am excited because I feel like it is way more of a conversation now, you know. As overwhelming as PC culture can be, I think that social media plays an important part and makes a huge difference, especially since I was younger. Now, I have seen a huge difference in the media, like seeing more Asian-American representation, and just a lot more talk about stuff that wasn’t talked about. Now, you can’t get away with having an all-White cast. People will say something. Even though that’s stressful for some people, and how it’s not something that everyone thinks about and processes, I am excited to see the change. Obviously, there is a long way to go. For example, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character in the film Ghost In a Shell. There’s also Emma Stone who played a half-Asian on some show. There is stuff like that going on, but we have to appreciate how far we’ve come.
FPH: Another big thing, and this is in practically every industry, is the fact that women are represented substantially less than men, including the fact that women, on average, made 79 cents on the dollar. What do you feel about the progress, if any, that society has made in changing that? In terms of music, there always seems to be festivals that get backlash for not enough diversity on the lineup, meaning a disproportionate male-to-female ratio on the bill. Do you believe that there has been the same progress made to change that?
Zauner: Wow. I don’t know. I mean, like, that statement has to be taken with a grain of salt. I guess you can get away with that stuff, because it does happen. But now, I think that people will start to say something about it. There’s going to be more people, and there’s going to be more protests. Slowly, [disproportionate ratios] will start to become incapable of happening. I do think that there has been a huge acceleration of progress, though. Do I think that there are more women, people of color, and women of color in music? Absolutely. I think that we are having conversations that we would never be having — even a few years ago — but there’s a lot of work to be done. There are still a lot of festivals with not a lot of women on the lineup when there easily could be. I think it’s hard to remember sometimes, because I stopped to listening to a lot of male voices, and it wasn’t even a political statement on my part. But the bands I like right now are primarily women bands and I think it’s the most interesting thing going on right now. It’s voices that we haven’t heard, you know, in a lot of ways. I do think that it’s changing and I think it’s an exciting time. We should keep up with it.
FPH: One thing about this project about that I found fascinating about the formation of this group was the concept of the first 30 days of the band. Could you explain what the challenge was?
Zauner: Oh, of the June recordings? This project came from frustration of the record cycle. I used to be in a band called Little Big League. It was way more of a traditional band: there were four members and it was a democracy of creative work. When we had finished the second record, I was frustrated because I felt like I put the creative process on hold when I didn’t really want to. I tend to write quickly and enjoy putting out a lot of work. When we were waiting to that cycle to start, I began a project where I had as much creative freedom as I wanted. It was to challenge myself to write as much material as possible. I ended up writing and recording a song each day for 30 days in June of 2013. There was a couple of days where I only had ten minutes to write a song. Of all 30 songs, I only ended up hating two or so of them.
FPH: Do you believe that rushing to write a songs is an easier way for that songs to become a hit, or is it completely unpredictable? For example, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was written by Keith Richards, according to him, within a matter of minutes.
Zauner: I think that’s the mythology behind a lot of hit songs. Apparently, Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” in five minutes or so. I think that pop music has a sense of urgency, and, I don’t know, allows it to be a bit more simple so it can reach a larger audience. So you don’t really overwork the music and you can’t second guess it, and I think that’s the kind of music I enjoy writing. Exercises like that are really helpful for me.
You can catch Japanese Breakfast at Walter’s Downtown (1120 Naylor) on Friday, July 1 with Mitski and Jay Som.