Japanese Breakfast | photo by Peter Ash Lee | courtesy of the artist
Hits Different: Japanese Breakfast’s “Glider”
Hits Different is a recurring feature where we explore artists and musicians, mostly from Philly, that have songs, releases or albums that go against the grain of their usual repertoire! A rap band making an 80’s hair metal ballad? A noise artist putting out a polka record? Or perhaps the differences are subtle but worthy enough for an examination! In this column we’ll explore the psycho-spiritual cosmology and intimate processes behind these quirky songs and their challenging ideas, what makes the group tick, and ask, “what were you thinking?!” Join me for the trip!
We here at the Key have covered many of Michelle Zauner’s exploits as Japanese Breakfast, the epic city-pop drenched, electronic dream-punk band she fronts, writes for, and conceptualizes. But we were left stunned, disarmed really, by a teaser for the game Sable that featured 90 seconds of Japanese Breakfast song “Glider” as its background music. The game is an adventure and discovery game, filled with caverns and cryptic architecture, featuring a nomad-like protagonist in a sand dune covered land whose visual aesthetic feels out of time — simultaneously a thousand years in the past and a thousand years into the future.
“Glider” is a soaring, dramatic piece that is quite unlike the usual Japanese Breakfast musical lore — it’s minimal, cinematic and hella wispy, a stark contrast to the bombastic yet still warm and deeply personal oeuvre Japanese Breakfast is known for. After wowing the crowd at the gaming convention Summer Game Fest with an elegiac rendition of “Glider” as part of a presentation on Sable, we were left to wait breathlessly for the entire soundtrack to drop tomorrow. For the performance, Zauner appeared on stage, mic in hand, floating as soulfully as the game does — in fact, scenes from the game (beautiful renditions of Moebius-meets-Tattooine-esque backdrops, alien landscapes, and, yes, gliders) crystalize around her in dramatic repose, a stark contrast to the usually frenetic, hyper-masculine scenes that play out in gaming spaces.
But it’s not just “Glider.” Indeed, the entire score is a work of art in and of itself, each song creating a mind-bending yet immersive scenic vision, not only compelling you to play the game, but to experience it. With several projects released this year (Japanese Breakfast’s proper noise-pop album Jubilee and Zauner’s best selling memoir Crying in H Mart), it’s safe to say she’s had a busy, almost dizzying 2021! We sat down with Japanese Breakfast to uncover the secrets of creating quiet, lilting work, a score not only Sable, but for this moment in time.
The Key: So, my column is about artists who are creating music that’s a little outside of what they’re known for. The song “Glider” like really affected me when I heard it. I listened to it like 700 times since it came out!
Michelle Zauner: Oh! Thank you!
TK: How did you get connected with Raw Fury and Shedworks?
MZ: I got connected to Shedworks in Oct of 2017, Daniel Fineberg, one of the developers, reached out to me about my interest in composing for the game. At the time, he just had some animated GIFs of the art, and it was really striking and beautiful. I knew right away that I wanted to be involved. I think at that point, they had already signed on with Raw Fury to publish the game.
TK: Whats been the response from the gaming community, with [Raw Fury and Shedwork’s] integration with what you do? You seem to be very involved — like you performed at the Summer Game Fest.
MZ: Yeah, I feel like that community can be somewhat volatile [chuckles], and I feel like it’s gone as well as it can. I’ve actually been a little surprised because I think that — like, I don’t have the most objectively beautiful voice.
TK: [politely objecting] Hmm.
MZ: My voice has character and I like my voice, but I think that the response to it has been largely positive, especially for that performance. I was very nervous because I don’t usually just sing in front of a screen. I was very hesitant initially to do that, especially because it was really important for me to be the sole producer and composer behind this game soundtrack, and I felt like people wouldn’t know that I arranged and performed all the instruments. But yeah, it was really positive, and I feel like that’s kind of a new thing, where game developers are involving indie artists, to bring a new kind of color to the game.
TK: And that’s super important that they know that it’s you doing it all, as a woman of color in this boy’s club, right?
MZ: Totally. And yet that’s funny, because it is one of those fields where there are a lot of Asian women that do game soundtracks! And they’re major icons, like so I definitely have my work cut out for me.
TK: Can you name some?
MZ: Sure! There’s some very famous women in games, Yoko Shimomura, the woman behind the music for Kingdom Hearts and Parasite Eve. I was also going down a Yoko Kanno wormhole, she did the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop and a lot of other animations and video games.
TK: This has to be known! You know? All those gamer-gaters, they gotta know this stuff.
MZ: Yeah! There’s some really incredible Japanese women, particularly– like Kero Kero Bonito who did the Bugsnax theme and Lena Raine is a woman, she’s white, but she created this soundtrack for Celeste, this indie game that got a lot of recognition.
TK: Oooh, yeah, I love watching my husband play Celeste!
MZ: I haven’t played it but I love the soundtrack!
TK: Well, Sable is kind of about a scavenger, but the game plays out more emotionally than say, a Star Wars, Matrix kind of beat ‘em up. Did that aspect appeal to you? Is there a way that you think fantasy worlds don’t have to end up in this violence or militarism or imperialism? Can you talk about that and how that might have influenced what you were doing?
MZ: I thought that was a really unique part of the game. They knew early on that they didn’t want to have any combat in the game, and that the major idea would be that you’re exploring this desert planet and learning about these different cultures. I think initially that I didn’t understand that? I remember being at GDC [Game Developers Conference] and getting drunk and being like, “But like, what if you could like, kill some bugs?!” And they’re like, “No, no there’s no combat, that’s really important to us,” and over the years when I saw their ideas and this narrative come together, it made sense.
It’s such a rarity in games and I think that’s something that’s really special. It’s a really compelling game that doesn’t need any combat. It’s really interesting that Gregorios [Kythreotis of Shedworks] has an architecture background and so, I feel like I’ve developed a better appreciation for architecture and seeing the way that’s integrated into the games. I think it’s a beautiful world where it doesn’t need [combat], it’s exciting to see this new type of game that doesn’t need that and that there’s more and more of a demand for that. It’s a very therapeutic game.
TK: Yeah, that does seem to be a huge wave right now in games. Would you consider yourself a gamer?
MZ: I mean, I don’t play as much as someone who would identify as a gamer, probably, but I do think that a lot of the games that I’ve played recently that are newer don’t have combat. There’s a couple of indie games that I really enjoyed last year, like A Short Hike and Spirit Bear and neither of those games have combat and I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing that element of the game.
TK: That’s awesome. Yeah, my nerddom comes from other places, but a lot of it is integrated into Sable. Like, I love Moebius’ art–
MZ: Yeah, I wasn’t into it before this game. But that makes sense, because growing up I was a huge Fifth Element nerd and I’ve watched that movie like a hundred times. And I was like, “wow this is really similar to like a lot of Fifth Element stuff” and then I realized that Moebius was a big influence on that movie and I think also helped with a lot of the character design. So yeah, it was this strange new art that I was being exposed to in this game that I connected with.
TK: That’s awesome. What’s the mental preparation for soundtrack work like? It seems like it would be different than just sitting with a thought and an idea when you’re writing for your albums. Was there a different process that you used mentally and instrumentally?
MZ: Yeah, it was very, very different. I think Japanese Breakfast is mostly like a pop band, there’s this specific type of structure where you have repeating choruses, you’re constantly clamoring for the listener’s attention. Whereas, for this kind of open world game, you have to create a very ambient, sprawling loop that doesn’t call much attention to itself. Maybe one of the main notes that I got while turning in music to the group was, like, “mooorree sparse”, “moooore ambient” and I was just like: “It’s just a pad!’ [laughs] So that was an interesting, new part of the process. I haven’t written much instrumental music before so that was new.
And then lyrically, it was also really different because in the beginning stages of the game, the narrative was still being put together, the writers were still working so I didn’t have the greatest sense of the details of the game. With Japanese Breakfast, so much of that work is about sorting through my own emotional issues or trauma and sharing these very, very hyper-personal details — whereas, Sable has nothing to do with me. [The soundtrack work] has to be very broad and universal theme. So, all I really knew, when I started writing “Glider” especially, was that it was a coming of age story about a young girl trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
I remember thinking a lot of the Miyazaki movie Kiki’s Delivery Service because it’s about a young witch who goes off and tries to find her calling, and so I listened to that theme and just thought a bit about what I knew about the game — I knew as the main character you had this glider type thing, and that you were exploring this foreign world and had to figure out what you wanted to do with your future. It was a really fulfilling thing because I realized that I didn’t have to excavate any personal trauma or write about these personal details without losing some meaning, I could write about these very broad themes and still create something moving so that was really exciting: to learn through this.
TK: Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been thinking about and that I’ve been trying to approach with this column — so, I’m from the 90’s and it seems like indie rock has lost some of its bite, its meaning. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of meaning in a lot of indie rock. How do you approach the personal, with being artistic and universal at the same time? Do you feel like indie needs to matter more, especially in the light of all the stuff we’ve experienced in the last year and a half or so?
MZ: I will say that I’m still moved by a lot of indie rock, maybe that’s because that’s what I was raised on, that’s a type of music that I tend to enjoy — I feel like it’s a pretty broad genre. I think that for me, in both writing prose and music for Japanese Breakfast, I find that the personal is often what’s universal. I’ve had a really lucky experience of writing very personally about my own life and find that it’s a very universal thing to relate to. I think a lot of indie rock is actually kind of like that and a part of what I really enjoy about the genre.
TK: Speaking of writing personally, and then universally — there’s one line in “Glider” that really sticks out to me, when it says, “It feels like everything is moving around me.” That line really speaks to me as an artist and as a person, but also maybe it’s personal for you? Like, how you’re personally on this track now, where a lot of your moments in time are scheduled. Do you feel like a part of “Glider” is you parsing through that rise to — I guess not fame, but I guess whatever’s happening is happening around you! [both laugh] And you’re just like, speeding through it, I mean you have the book out, you have a million interviews today, that kind of thing?
MZ: I wrote “Glider” before any of this whirlwind of events, but I think I always have had that feeling. That’s kind of interesting, because I haven’t really talked to anyone about the interpretation of the lyrics for this game. It’s interesting that you called that line out because there’s also a lyric in the other theme, “Better the Mask”: “something happens everyday, whether or not you pause / whether or not you wait.”
For me, I guess both of those lines, it’s just like the world is gonna move on, whether or not you decide to engage with it or not. I thought a lot about my best friend who — being at an age when you’re so paralyzed by [the thought of] “oh my god, what do I do next?” Like, when you’re 18 and you’re just like, “Oh my god, do I go to college? I don’t know what I want to do!” and there’s something very scary about that. I still have friends who have yet to find their sense of purpose or their passion or their calling in their life and they’re very paralyzed by their next steps. So much of my advice to her and those people in my life is “just move” or “just pick something and just try it.”
I felt like so much of the game was that feeling of “You don’t have to know what you want, just explore! And figure it out!” You’re exploring and trying to figure out what your calling is and eventually it’s going to make itself clear to you. That’s something that we all go through in life and I feel that’s one of the only things I’ve learned in life — that you don’t have to know exactly what your next steps are all the time, the important thing is that you just explore, experience and you embrace things that are moving around you and you interact with it. Otherwise it’s just going to keep moving around and you’re going to just be standing still and you’re not going to have any better idea for it.
Sable is available now on the Xbox Game Pass console and PC, and the soundtrack hits streaming services on September 24th — find it here. Vinyl of the soundtrack can be pre-ordered via Rough Trade, and is expected to release in April of 2022.