Japanese Breakfast: a piece of another planet


Thea Gonzales

There are moments, sometimes in love and most times in art, when it feels as though the universe is altered just for the briefest of seconds because you have witnessed something so beautiful you don’t know how else you can go on living the same way after experiencing it. An hour away, in a dive-bar-turned-music-venue (all the rage in Indie scenes now), I allowed my own personal universe to shift and collide with every distorted hum of the bass and tap of yet another guitar pedal on Japanese Breakfast’s seemingly unending pedalboards.
All around me were the half-lit faces of “alternative” college or straight-out-of-college music listeners, who trekked out into the wilderness of metropolitan Iowa City (a place that seems so unlike the rest of Iowa) to get a glimpse of Michelle Zauner, high-kicking onto a bar table on a Wednesday. In anticipation of the main act, the audience surges forward and I am now pressed right against the lead guitar speaker with my right knee on the stage.

Michelle Zauner singing “Triple 7” on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at The Mill in Iowa City. Photo by Thea Gonzales. 

In an instant, the air changes into something heady and alive. Layers and layers of bass resound from somewhere hidden in a parallel reality, and the band walks out to the sounds of “Diving Woman.” Layers and layers and layers of intricate sound surround the crowd, showcasing the attention to sonic detail that has pushed Japanese Breakfast to Indie fame.
A quarter of the way through their most recent international tour, the band has already sold out half of their 25 shows. At $16 a ticket, I was feeling pretty lucky to be in the same room as them, a band I had admired for their musically mature lyrics and almost alien compositions. (It didn’t hurt that Michelle Zauner, the band’s frontwoman, was someone I imagined being best friends with and making Korean bibimbap with)
“It’s so great to be in Iowa City for the first time!” Zauner said after their first song,  to which Craig Hendrix, directly behind her on the drums, shook his head “no” at. “Not the first time.”
“Well it feels like the first time again with you guys!”
The band members (whose names are near-impossible to track down) have all formed a tight bond that’s palpable in their onstage collaboration: Craig Hendrix (drums), Deven Patrick Craige (bass), Peter Bradley (lead guitar and keys) and Michelle Zauner (vocals and guitar) come together in holy matrimony, with a coordination that mimicked the same practiced ease of “musical conversation” in jazz music. Each band member had something to add that changed the sonic landscape of each songs into an experience that could be felt and seen. Zauner communicated back and forth with her husband (Bradley) lovingly, exchanging secret language looks as he shredded on guitar, looking like he was having the best time of his life as he bobbed his head back and forth to the music.
Zauner herself was an enigma – someone you’d definitely want to see again in concert. She walked out with the rest of the band and immediately made me wonder why I didn’t already own mesh shirts, experiment with blue eye shadow or start my own Indie  band. With the wonder of a child, her energy seemed to pour out of endless reserves with her high kicks, jumps onto occupied table booths, and sequins brushing up against those lucky enough to be by the stage (hint: me). In just over an hour, she transformed Iowa City’s The Mills into a spaceship, a studio apartment in Philadelphia, an untamed jungle of human emotion. She was a paradox: dorky and approachable, but also the kind of girl you’d be too intimidated by to talk to at a party, even as she talked about east coast Spaghetti Warehouses.
Limitless as her energy seemed, Japanese Breakfast also knew exactly how to work the crowd with pacing and charmed us, her loyal subjects, into feeling exactly how she wanted us to feel by switching to acoustic guitar halfway through and slowing down the set with emotional gut-punches like “‘Till Death” and “Triple 7.” Though their recordings on Spotify or even on vinyl are impressive and on paper don’t appear as if they’ll work because of how ambitious they are, the band is a completely different experience live and something I would absolutely recommend.
It felt like at any second, I could be changed or made undone because of tiny choices the band made in presenting their truths to us. The fragility of being in two different places at once was exhilarating: on the edge of heartbreak (mimicked by Zauner’s delicate register in “Boyish”) or in the midst of great victory in uncertainty (a story told through Bradley’s guitar riffs in “Machinist”).
Even now, trying to conjure Zauner’s image in my head — an electric countenance, smirk and secret in her eyes, somehow both ethereal and grounded in the same moment — it seems like a near-impossible task not to fall in love with her on that tiny stage in The Mill, half magic and half woman, asking the audience for -4.75 prescription contacts and inviting us all to share in the new world her music created.