The Japanese House, interviewed by Rowan Ferguson & Aoife de Bhál.
Amber Bain, aka The Japanese House, is on the way to great things. Her debut track ‘Still’ was Zane Lowe’s final ‘hottest record’ on Radio 1, and her distinctive style of melancholic alt-pop has been tipped for the mainstream by international tastemakers such as The Guardian, Annie Mac, DIY and Noisey. We’re sitting down with Amber before her sell-out show at The Bullingdon to discuss ‘making it’ in the industry, creative control, Taylor Swift and The L Word.
Surprisingly only 21, Amber is quick-witted, disarming and charming. As she comes in, she apologises for being slightly late – she was held up by her four-year-old sister in the bar downstairs.
We start by asking Amber how she thinks the Japanese House have gone from relative unknowns to Radio 1 in the space of only 18 months. Her response is quick, defensive and characteristic of her drive to push herself: “I don’t feel like I’m very big yet”. After some prodding, she loses her prickliness: “I guess it has been quite a fast trajectory. But I couldn’t tell you really. It’s because I’m great? I think it’s probably just being really lucky in the sense that people have connected with certain songs.” We ask her what track she herself connects most with and she responds with a laugh: “I like them all! They’re alright. But yeah no I think probably Letter by the Water, it’s quite sad – I love the sad ones.”
The Japanese House’s music has great appeal partly because of the emotional ambiguity it inspires. Lyrics frequently focused on death, rebirth and ending, as in ‘Clean’, are counterbalanced with nebulous, often joyful instrumentals – leaving the listener space to explore their own interpretation. Amber addresses this: “There’s a lot of layers to the music. I feel like at school you’re taught that major chords are happy, minor chords are sad – but I don’t think that’s necessarily right. Major chord progressions can evoke so many weird emotions; even without lyrics it makes me really sad sometimes. And obviously, minor chord progressions can make you feel really cool and happy you know – like Arctic Monkey’s songs, they’re all in minor keys.”
We ask Amber about her songwriting process and particularly about the role of production in creating The Japanese House’s densely layered sound and vocoded melodies. “I think songwriting and production go pretty much hand-in-hand. I feel like there’s a really blurred line, in anyone’s music, as to when songwriting ends and when production begins. Like when Taylor Swift writes a song on the guitar, she writes the chords and the lyrics and the melody, but when she goes into the studio, the producer will, I don’t know, arrange – well maybe she does as well – a string thing on it or all these drum sounds. I think a lot of that is songwriting, but it just gets labelled as production.”
Asked whether she’s protective of her music Amber replies: “Yeah definitely. The only other producer I work with is George [George Daniel of The 1975] and he’d never change the whole song. It’s a co-production. Whatever I send to George it’s just like bouncing ideas off each other, and he’s a really creative person and we have similar tastes so it works really well. But yeah I wouldn’t ever be able to kind of like give my demo and to a random producer and have him be like ‘do this do that’ – that’s my worst nightmare.”
The Japanese House are signed to independent label Dirty Hit Records – masters of the slow-burning fan-base build, who also have on their roster The 1975, Wolf Alice and Amber’s girlfriend Maricka Hackman. We wonder if she feels she has creative control over her sound. “I’m completely free. The only kind of experience of being pushed to do something is from myself. If I turned round and went ‘actually I want to do FIVE more EPs’ or went ‘oh! I want to do a metal song’ they’d be like ‘um, alright’.” Any fights at all? “No, no, no. Never been in a fight. We’ve had… well we disagree, people disagree all the time, but we’re just very honest. It’s usually about photos of myself, they say ‘we think this photo is really nice, but I’m like ‘I think it’s disgusting!’ I can’t really speak for major labels – I’ve never been on one – but I think being on an independent label, well it’s just a really healthy thing to do.”
A lighter on the table brings up smoking, and how Amber is definitely over it. We wonder if she thinks it’s affected her voice at all. “Maybe it’s made it lower? Made it more mysterious?” Androgynous? She laughs. “Yeah exactly, that’s why I smoke. In all seriousness, if you say that you smoke for any other reason than you thought it looked cool when you were fourteen the you’re a liar.” And what does she think of vapes? “I fucking hate vapes. I do. They literally make me feel sick”.
We move on to what else she does she’s not touring or in the studio. Deadpan, she replies: ‘’Smoking. No, really I kind of just hang out with people a lot and I do a lot of music all the time. I watch a lot of films and a lot of weird TV series.” We wonder if she’s got any particular favourites. “Freaks and Geeks is so good. Arrested Development? The L Word, I’m literally obsessed – it’s about this bunch off chic lesbians in LA, they’re all so fucking cool. When we are on tour in America, we started in LA, where it’s all filmed, so I was watching it and all the band were coming in, watching it and being like ‘ooh has Shane gone off with yadayada’ and just really getting into it.” Aside from TV, Amber also comments on the value of expressing herself artistically through her photography, examples of which make up the cover of each EP.
We are interrupted by tour manager Caroline and bassist and keyboard-player Will tentatively opening the door. In the final few minutes we just have time to discuss the future of the Japanese House – which for the moment is the release of a fourth EP. “I think EPs are a nice way to do things as it’s like a tiny body of work that you can be like ‘ok, that was that second of my life.’ I will write an album though, that’s what they’re there for” (she gestures toward a pair of monitor speakers on a small desk). “It’s good to release as much music as possible I think, because that’s the whole point of it isn’t it? People want to hear your music and you want to make music, so you might as well make loads of it and release loads of it.”
Our 20 minutes are up. There’s just time for a few awkward photos in the beautiful surrounds of The Bullingdon’s cramped dressing room and then Amber is off – she’s just been told her other sister is waiting downstairs.
The Japanese House have just released their third EP ‘Swim Against the Tide’.