Interview: Japanese Breakfast on Ditching Full-Band Jams for Dream Pop Songwriting

After the dissolution of Little Big League, the Philadelphia-based indie-punk band Michelle Zauner fronted from 2011 to 2014, Zauner brought all she had learned about songwriting to a solo project dubbed Japanese Breakfast.

To the personal lyrics and strong sense of melody already present in her previous band, Zauner added synths, dreamy samples, and refined production techniques to 2016’s Psychopomp and last year’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet—albums that have resonated with a much larger audience than Little Big League enjoyed.

Japanese Breakfast - Soft Sounds From Another Planet

We got a chance to talk to Zauner about how she’s changed her approach to writing and recording, like ditching full-band jams for one-on-one sessions with producer Craig Hendrix. She also shared how she started and quickly reconsidered making her latest record a concept album, and how she found success just at the time she thought she’d quit playing music professionally.

For more information on Japanese Breakfast, including upcoming tour dates in the U.S. and Europe, visit the band’s website here.

I wanted to start by putting Japanese Breakfast into a bit of context. The success of your debut, Psychopomp, was rather unexpected, after your first full-time project, Little Big League, went on an indefinite hiatus due to a variety of things—your mother’s illness, bandmates moving on. Can you talk about what that was like?

I think that saying that Little Big League was a professional band is pretty generous. [Laughs.] We absolutely approached it with that level of seriousness, but we just didn’t have a platform that allowed us to experience the success of a professional band.

I was largely making records and going on tours while working a job in food service to support myself. We would leave for a month, and I’d come back and get fired, and I’d have to find a new job, and it was really stressful. A lot of times, we’d go on tour and, since there were four of us, it was difficult to make money and pay our rents—a lot of sleeping on floors and playing to very few people. It was really a difficult lifestyle.

I’ve heard you talk about how you felt, at the time, that perhaps you should put actively pursuing professional music on hold.

When my mom passed away and our bass player left, it wasn’t really a lifestyle I was too enthusiastic about going back to, because you’re away from your friends and your partners and your home base for long periods of time, and it’s not conducive to stable mental health. I was already really nervous about what my mental health would be like after going through something like losing my mom.

I was also 25, and I’d been doing it for a long time. I’d been writing music and playing music out since I was 16, so it kind of felt like this was a sign to put up my hat. But, you know, of course, I love making music. I’ll always love making music, regardless of whether I have success at it or not. I decided to make a record that I wouldn’t really do anything with—it was just a way for me to compartmentalize all the feelings that I had.

Japanese Breakfast - "Road Head" (Official Video)

When I started working, I got a job in New York as a sales assistant at an advertising company, basically selling wall space. I would work from nine to five, but in New York, you’re really working from nine to seven because you’re just waiting to be the last one to leave. I would leave, and even though I felt busy all day, I felt like I just didn’t really accomplish anything. So I would drive to Crown Heights and work on mixing Psychopomp with Ned Eisenberg and came up with something I was happy with.

I convinced a small label that they should put it out on vinyl, even though I was not going to tour any more. But then a year passed, and I really hated my job. Even though I thought I was doing a really great job, they did not think that I was doing a very good job there [laughs]. So they offered me a severance to leave around the time that South by Southwest was happening, and I’d been invited to play multiple showcases.

Then Mitski offered me a direct support spot on her tour, and everything was coming together. We were getting good press on the record. I was just like, “Okay, I guess it’s not time to give this up quite yet,” so I went back into it.

Stylistically too, Japanese Breakfast is definitely in more of the atmospheric, synthy dream pop and shoegaze territory, whereas Little Big League was more an indie-punk band. Were you always interested in making the switch into this genre of music?

Yeah, I think Japanese Breakfast was more the sounds that I enjoy. When I started Little Big League, I was working with three guys who were raised on the East Coast on punk and hardcore, while I’m from the Pacific Northwest and like indie, rock, and pop music. It was that negotiation, the collaboration, that created that sound.

But I think that the thing that came over from Little Big League is I wrote the songs and I wrote the vocal melodies and the lyrics. I think that my style remains pretty similar—lyrically, at least. I have always liked pop music more, and I think Japanese Breakfast was a chance for me to investigate a softer, poppier, dreamier side of myself. I worked with a co-producer who also liked that sort of style, so that was more of what we came up with.

Speaking to that natural progression of getting closer to what you’re most interested in, I read that you likewise weren’t allowed to get a guitar until you were 16 and grew up playing the piano. How did that influence you as a musician?

I don’t think I really wrote song before I got a guitar and learned how to play it. I almost came to the belief that the more naive I was of the instrument, the better the songs that I wrote because I wasn’t over-analyzing what I was playing quite as much. Whereas, if I’m playing piano, I always know what key I’m in or generally what chords I’m playing.

Michelle Zauner (Photo by Phobymo)

I think it’s a bad attitude to have, but I always liked not knowing too much about [guitar]. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d learned how to play the guitar earlier, if I had been allowed to pursue music seriously at an earlier age. I don’t know if I wanted it more because it was banned from me, or if I was a little bit stunted because I didn’t come into it until later on.

Now that I’m older and I work in music in a real way, I have gotten to meet a lot of people who have studied at Berklee [College of Music] and went to music conservatories, and I’m quite envious of all of them. But I think that it solidified what my role was going to be. I think that my strengths are that I’m a solid songwriter and lyricist, and I can use these things intermixed as vehicles. And sometimes it’s better if it’s simpler.

It sounds like inexperience has perhaps made you more willing to experiment—less of a clear idea of where you’re going to go when you pick up the guitar. Has that carried over into your experimentation with synths and other electronic instruments? Japanese Breakfast is full of those ethereal, airy textures.

Having a project like Japanese Breakfast really opened me up to try on different hats. When you play in a band, you all kind of have these defined roles. But with Japanese Breakfast, I was able to direct the project more and become more involved in production.

Michelle Zauner

I’d made two albums before, so it was technically my third record, and I think I had more confidence to take on different kinds of instrumentation and have more of a hand in the production of that album. And then even more so with the last record, which was just Craig Hendrix and I co-producing and playing all the instruments together.

I like not writing for live performance anymore, which is a big thing that Little Big League did. It was almost like we didn’t want to add synths because how would we recreate it live? We wanted to be able to have more of a live sound. With Japanese Breakfast, I’ve allowed myself to be a little more ambitious, because I’d never thought about playing it live.

It really opened a lot of doors to just follow what was right for the song and add whatever I wanted. When I approached this last record I really loved the way that Psychopomp came out, and I wanted to follow that same sort of idea of serving each song.

Soft Sounds from Another Planet initially started as a science fiction concept album. You can definitely hear that in tracks like “Machinist” specifically. But what inspired you make a concept album, and then how did that get derailed in the writing process?

I think it was a natural desire to write something opposite. Pychopomp was my grief and mourning record, and it was really personal. I was getting asked questions about my mom’s death and illness multiple times a day, and it was really exhausting. I felt if I did something entirely different, like a sci-fi concept album, I would protect myself from dealing with that.

The first song that I wrote was “Machinist,” and I thought it was such a funny, weird song. I thought it would be really great to go in that direction. But when I sat down and tried to force myself to write nine other songs about a woman who falls in love with a robot, it just seemed like it really wasn’t something I actually wanted to do. [Laughs.]

Japanese Breakfast - "Machinist" (Official Video)

The sophomore record felt like a third date. The debut had gotten some attention, but then to create this new fantasy character I figured was probably something I’m too early in my career to do [laughs]. People are just starting to get to know you, and you’re going to derail them like that?

I also don’t think I was finished talking about myself. I infused the spacey interest into what I was feeling two years after the record came out, and what I had been doing with my life since my mom passed away—new feelings about grief and loss. I used space and fantasy as a place to disassociate from grief and trauma and loss, just in a more natural way than going really hard on a concept record fresh out of the gate.

Since you weren’t planning on touring and you weren’t writing for live performances, how did you re-approach touring?

It was really stressful. I think I had a month to figure it out. I had met a live drummer and Peter Bradley—who plays bass on Psychopomp—played bass originally. Pretty much the first shows that we played were at South by Southwest, so it was a lot of pressure, because we’d never played out as a band before. We didn’t have time to get super tight.

Japanese Breakfast: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

There were all of these music industry people who had been hearing about us for the first time. We were getting courted by a label and booking agents. I was really stressed out. I’ve never been too confident as an engineer or a mixer. It was a lot of trial-and-error, figuring out how to mix things, and how it would sound in a live setting, and pushing the gain on things way too far so they would poke out in a way that made me comfortable.

Once Craig Hendrix joined the band, it became a huge relief, because Craig is really confident and good at mixing. We got a drum pad, a Roland SPD-SX drum pad that we used for the backing tracks, and he goes through and splits them with the click. We also added another guitar player.

Who is your touring band made up of?

We have Craig Hendrix, who plays drums and the pads, and he also sings backup vocals. He’s like a nice Swiss Army Knife, a multi-instrumentalist who can play all the things, which is nice to have in a band.

We have Devin Craig who plays bass, and we have Peter Bradley who plays lead guitar and keyboards. I play guitar as well, and I use the 404 [a Roland SP-404SX] to trigger some samples. I use a Teenage Engineering OP-1 because it’s so versatile and small, so it’s really good for traveling, and I just use it for one keyboard patch.

Since you’re using so many different instruments, is your writing process different with Japanese Breakfast than it had been for past projects?

It’s definitely very different from Little Big League, where I used to just come in with a verse and the chorus and we would jam for a really long time. I hate jamming. I thought that was always the way to do it.

Now, it’s very, very different. For Psychopomp, it was a super haphazard process where I wrote the songs. I wrote full songs, and I would bring them to three people that assembled this sort of band—Colin Redmond played drums, Nick Hawley-Gamer played guitar, and Peter played bass. They helped me arrange the song, and then I sat on the record for six months, and I hated what we did.

Then I worked with Ned Eisenberg to take it apart. We sped the songs up. We would take drums out. We would add electronic drums at points and add a lot of synths and stuff like that. That kind of had its own process. Then, my favorite part that allowed the record so far was just Craig and I in the studio.

A lot of times I would write in the studio and Craig would come up with a drum idea. He would be recording and comping drums while I wrote another song, and we would arrange it together. It was just easier and more manageable to sort of write to the record. We were talking about it the other day when we were demoing it. It’s kind of an unromantic process to lay down a verse and then copy and paste it and bring in a chorus. But it’s also a really easy way to be—it works that way. If it doesn’t, then you take more time to open it up.

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