Amber Bain is the mind behind The Japanese House – a fact that has been somewhat elusive until recently. She didn’t seem to do many interviews nor did she seem to be pictured often. I myself stumbled across her music a while back, but didn’t know anything about the musician responsible. In a way, I didn’t really care. It seems that nor did she.
The story behind the name ‘Japanese House’ is an interesting one. At the age of six her and her family took a trip to Devon and Bain pretended to be a boy for a week, dressed up in dungarees. The girl who lived next door started to fancy her, and was heartbroken when she found out that the boy she fancied was, in fact, a girl. Anyway, the house they were staying in was called ‘The Japanese House’, and that’s how the name came to be.
This androgyny carries on into the music itself (whether intentionally so or not) with the production on her vocals in some tracks making it hard for the ear to distinguish between it being a male or female voice. She makes it clear in our interview that it wasn’t her intention to create some abstract identity as a musician. She wasn’t purposely hiding, it was just not a big deal to her, which I find really cool.
The uncertainty in her public projection of self definitely hasn’t stunted her from finding success amongst the masses, with a second UK and American tour currently in progress (including sold-out venues) and having recently supported her friends The 1975 on their Australian tour earlier this year. Not to mention the multiple festival slots the band played across the country this summer. This serves as pretty solid proof that the hype was not merely about the mystery surrounding the musician.
Instead, people are drawn to the charm of her dreamy alt-pop, which is layered and produced into a distinctly Japanese House ambience. She takes to subjects like heartbreak with the depth of a much older soul – the result of which is tracks which are evocative whilst still retaining an element of relatability. There’s a certain syrupy slip to her sound, with lyrical references to tides and cool blue waters as well as the melodies themselves reflecting this fluidity. It’s fresh and really exciting. It’s pining, steady-paced and is adorned with lyrics that are, in places, incredibly sad.
We caught up with her before her show at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms to chat about her new EP, the importance of identity and her dream collaboration.
So hey! Congrats on the upcoming EP. How many tracks are on the final record?
Thank you. There’s four. I think there’s one more to be released and then the last one’s just going to come out when the EP comes out which is… I can’t remember when that is…
The 11th of November! How has the reception been to the tracks released so far?
I haven’t really looked actually, it’s really bad. I read my tweets and I have been on the comments for the video (for ‘Face Like Thunder‘) but after like a week I kind of just stop looking. And I’m already kind of focusing on recording – there’s another EP after this one as well.
And then an album?
Yeah haha. I mean I do look at stuff online but I haven’t done it for a while. I get so distracted.
Face Like Thunder is so great – I’ve had the chorus hook in my head pretty much ever since I first heard it.
Oh thank you – yeah it’s annoyingly catchy actually.
I saw on social media that the track ‘Swimming Against The Tide’ is your personal favourite off the EP. Is there any reason why you like that one in particular?
I just wrote the song really quickly and quite like the lyrics. I like the chord progression too. I think it’s quite sad and I love sad sh*t.
I feel like that’s a great quality to your music in that it has sad and longing elements to it but the mix of tempo and composition doesn’t make it depressing. How’s touring been? You’re a few shows in now aren’t you?
Thanks! Yeah I’ve done three shows and this will be the fourth. We’ve got eight shows in a row which is kind of nuts.
Have you played in Nottingham before?
Once, at The Bodega. It was really fun. It’s quite a lot bigger this time it’s like double the size.
How have your solo shows compared to festival slots? Do you prefer that people have brought the ticket to see you, or is it just more pressure?
It is more pressure in a way, but it’s incomparable until I play a venue the size of the venue I was playing, if I ever will. Because you get a thrill out of there being nice people who have stumbled across you in a tent but you also get a thrill out of people being there for you and I don’t know which one I prefer. The only way I could really judge it would be to actually sell out Brixton for five nights in a row, you know?
I feel like you’ve got it in you. Do you get to go to many gigs yourself these days?
I go to quite a lot, lots of my friends are in bands so I just go to their gigs. There’s a really nice group of musicians who are on the same level as me and we’re all friends.
Is that any of the supporting bands tonight?
Yeah – I met Colouring through my label in America and they’re really lovely. Cam (of Fake Laugh) is a really good friend. He’s lovely and he’s friends with all of us. The Big Moon are playing in Nottingham tonight as well and they’re really close friends of mine. It’s cool when we’re touring that we can hang out. We’re going to meet up after the show tonight, go drink champagne somewhere.
Sweet! I’ve been a fan for a while but didn’t really know much about you as a person. I know there’s been a bit of a big deal made out the mystery-person-behind-the-music. How much do you think identity and image is important as a musician? Or do you think the music should speak for itself?
I think it shouldn’t be important, but I think it is to the listener. I don’t think that it’s right that it is so prevalent in our society that if you hear someone’s music that you immediately want to look at their face. It’s weird. I guess partly that’s because if people connect with a song, a person wrote that song so in a way they connect with that person so it’s only natural that they want to know more about that person. I guess I get it. I mean, I wasn’t trying to make it mysterious or anything I just hated photos. But I guess a good by-product of that was that people were just talking about the music rather than me which is good.
Speaking of photos, is it true that you took some of the promo pictures yourself?
I took all the EP cover photos and all my Instagram photos I take – so yeah basically all of the photos are me.
Awesome. Just to finish things up, some quick fire questions: who would be your dream collab?
Ohh… Kate Bush or Brian Wilson. But both at the same time.
Like a three way kind of thing?
Like a three way kind of thing.
First song you remember hearing?
The first album I bought was a Beatles number one album so probably just Beatles. Or a weird band called The Boys who my dad used to play and they’re just so bad.
Can you recommend something new and good to our readers at The Mic?
Obviously Bon Iver’s album. I really like Frank Ocean’s album. James Blake’s new album is really good too.
The holy trinity. Nice.
Support for the evening was really strong. Cam, lead singer in indie-rock band Fake Laugh, played a solo set without the rest of the band. Following which, Colouring brought an impressive energy to the venue with their electronic-pop set. They mentioned how Rescue Rooms has been a dream venue for them for a while and powered through despite their drummer’s unfortunately timed food poisoning, delivering a great support show.
The staging for Japanese House was simple, again maintaining a focus on the music itself. The band opened with the shifting and spacious track ‘Clean’. They then rattled through the haunting synth mix in ‘Sugar Pill’ and it quickly became clear that their music’s mesmerising melancholy is best displayed live and felt by a contemplating audience in close-quarters.
The layered vocals of inwardly-reflective ‘Still’ seemed to evoke the biggest reaction from the crowd, closely followed by the solid pop-tune ‘Face Like Thunder’. Bain ditched the guitar for the last two songs of the set and pulled her sweater sleeves down to the mic to deliver an aching track ‘Leon’, so-far unreleased and highly emotive. The venue saw them off with a hearty farewell as the set came to a close, and the band wandered off stage to celebrate a great show and raise a glass with The Big Moon & co.
Amber Bain is otherworldly, and to see The Japanese House play live is a real pleasure.
The Japanese House’s new ’Swim Against The Tide’ EP is released November 11th via Dirty Hit.