The Japanese House @ The Liquid Room, Edinburgh, 10 May

the japanese house

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★★

Amber Bain, aka The Japanese House, takes to the stage at Edinburgh’s Liquid Room looking like the fourth member of Hanson, with her denim on denim attire and wispy blonde hair covering her face, announcing that she’s ill but will “try not to cough.”

Luckily Bain’s vocoder masks any sign of illness in her vocal, as she plays through songs from her three EPs with almost no interruption. In fact, the only between-song chat we get from Bain is to introduce the next song. What Bain lacks in charisma, however, she makes up for in songwriting ability: particular highlights include Teeth, Saw You in a Dream and Clean. The performance of the latter is sadly ruined though by the distracting and unnecessary strobe lights, but the band seem to think it’s cool and headbang along to the track’s clichéd dubstep-esque break.

The difficulty with Bain’s music is that, at its core, it is bedroom music. It’s minimal, ambient and best listened to alone with headphones in; live, it just doesn’t quite have the same effect. But this doesn’t stop her droves of teenage fans, many of whom will be aware of her music from the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack and from her ties with The 1975, gazing up at her admiringly and singing along to every word.

There is something undoubtedly captivating about The Japanese House but if Bain intends to move on to playing headline shows in bigger venues then she’s going to have to come up with something more exciting than a few strobe lights.

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PWR BTTM – Pageant review

PWR BTTM pageant

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

★★★★

Album title: Pageant
Artist: PWR BTTM
Label: Big Scary Monsters / Polyvinyl
Release date: 12 May

Any PWR BTTM fans hoping for more of the same fun, upbeat pop-punk anthems as heard on their debut Ugly Cherries will be surprised by what they hear on Pageant, but fortunately it’s a good surprise.

In a recent interview with The Skinny, PWR BTTM’s Liv Bruce told us, “(Pageant) reflects the difference in who Ben (Hopkins) and I are since we made (Ugly Cherries).” That difference is that they’re a whole lot more grown up and they’ve got the music to prove it.

All the album’s tracks remain under three minutes in true PWR BTTM style, sticking to their punk-rock roots, but there’s more of a sense of self-reflection on Pageant. Where Ugly Cherries felt spontaneous and carefree, Pageant feels more mature and considered.

There are still the thrashing guitar riffs, like on the epic glam-rock opener Silly, and the classically humorous lyrics: “I sweat out seven pounds in water weight / Just asking for your number”, sings Bruce on Answer My Text; but there are more moments of melancholy on Pageant.

Tracks like LOL and Now, Now show a more self-deprecating side to the band, telling tales of identity struggles and battling your inner demons, while Oh, Boy and Wash reminisce about past loves. On the other hand, Sissy and Big Beautiful Day are modern-day queer anthems and two massive fingers up to the haters, showing that the duo are still as feisty as ever.

If Ugly Cherries was PWR BTTM’s fun-loving, footloose and fancy-free effort than Pageant is their moment to be recognised as serious musicians, who have much more to talk about than just wanting a boy to keep the bed warm during numerous different situations. That’s all part of their charm, of course, but second albums are about progression and on Pageant, progress they certainly have.

Listen to: LOL, Sissy

 

The Pursuit of Happiness: Perfume Genius interview

perfume genius

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

Perfume Genius tells us about trying to feel happiness and rebelling against himself on new album No Shape

Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is known to bare his soul in his music but once a tortured soul has expelled all their demons, can they ever achieve real happiness?

‘Let all them voices slip away,’ sings Hadreas on Slip Away, the lead single from new album No Shape. The track is indicative of Hadreas’ new writing style and, seemingly, his current state of mind. “I was writing more in the moment about how I feel or how I wanted to feel, as opposed to going over old stories of things that have already happened to me,” he says.

Hadreas’ first two albums as Perfume Genius, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, introduced us to some of his deepest, darkest secrets: battling drug and alcohol addiction, teenage sexual abuse and struggling with his sexuality, to name a few. But 2014’s Too Bright really felt like Hadreas’ coming out; his departure from lo-fi piano-playing, singer-songwriter to fully fledged queer icon.

Hadreas’ music is heart-wrenchingly honest and on each album, we’ve listened to him processing different issues in his life, with Too Bright feeling like the moment he finally unleashed all that lingering internal anger. Now that he’s shed that skin, on new album No Shape he has been able to explore more positive themes. “I never really get happy, but I’m really trying to,” he says. “There’s a lot of rebelling against my own self and my own brain in some of the songs.”

Writing optimistic songs doesn’t come easy to Hadreas, who is more accustomed to drudging up dark moments from his past. “I find it really easy to write something really disturbing,” he says. “Even the happier moments have a dissonant thread underneath but there is something vulnerable about it because you’re just admitting that you have no idea what’s going on.”

Despite his previous material dealing with darker issues thematically, there has always been an underlying sense of hope in Hadreas’ writing; a desire to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. With his life in a much less tumultuous state nowadays, he had to make a conscious effort to tackle new ground musically and emotionally for his latest effort and it appears he has finally come to terms with his own contentment. “I thought about it all together, not just the emotional content but how to push myself farther in the structure of the songs and the chords that I went to,” he says. “Happy chords for me felt fresh, just to try more major keys.”

While Too Bright had its experimental moments, and toyed with the idea of a bigger sound, No Shape is much more boldly cinematic and epic. Hadreas enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills to assist on the songs, taking his music to another level of grandeur. “I kind of let everybody go to town on the songs,” he says. “I knew I was writing these anthemic, stadium songs so I wanted it to have that kind of feeling and I knew working with Blake would take it there.”

Much of Hadreas’ music is created at home. His debut album Learning was recorded in his mum’s house outside of Seattle, following a stint in rehab, and the songs for every album since have been created in his own home. Taking his music from such a personal space into a big studio may have taken some getting used to at first but for No Shape, Hadreas knew he wanted a fuller sound right from the beginning.

“I wrote this album knowing much more than before that that was going to happen,” he says. “I knew that the piano was a placeholder and I wrote the songs knowing that the sound was going to be completely created after the demo.”

Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels is the somewhat unsung hero of Perfume Genius. The pair first met during a period when Hadreas had relapsed and Wyffels helped him get sober again. They have now been together eight years and live a very normal, peaceful life together in Tacoma, Washington with their dog. But Wyffels is much more than just Hadreas’ muse, if you could even call him that in the first place.

Wyffels, a classically trained musician, has seen Hadreas through every step of the making of his last three albums – every album apart from Learning – and has lent a helping hand on each one along the way. “I write the music but he’s played every single live show with me and he helps figure out how to translate the songs live,” Hadreas tells us. “It’s nice to be talking about him more because even though he’s been here the whole time, I’m always the one getting my picture taken.”

Sometimes getting your picture taken isn’t so bad though. Hadreas worked with Dutch photography duo Inez and Vinoodh on the artwork for No Shape, which sees him facing away from the camera looking upon a picturesque landscape. “When we were doing all the pictures, I thought for certain we would use the one that was a more traditional portrait and I even had to fight my label after for this one,” he says. “I felt like it fit with the songs, having this warmer energy but then underneath there’s always some discomfort.”

Interestingly, Too Bright is the only Perfume Genius album to use a portrait shot on the artwork, while both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It used images where faces are masked or covered up in one way or another. “I think for [Too Bright] having that picture felt really rebellious. It felt more defiant to be on the cover of that one, the way that it was,” he says.

Hadreas has never shied away from his sexuality and he openly deals with queer issues in his music. “I can’t get too mad about constantly talking about my sexuality, because if I didn’t want to then I probably shouldn’t have made three albums about it,” he says. But that’s not to say you must be queer to identify with his music. The emotions and feelings dealt with in Hadreas’ music are universal, but being labelled a queer artist can create unfair prejudices.

“People are allowed to steal ideas, or to play with the same things that queer people play with, but as long as they’re not actually queer then it’s seen as subversive and exciting and somehow people can be thrilled by it, but not feel like they need to be uncomfortable and that can be really frustrating,” he says. “Some people think listening to a queer artist means something about their sexuality, and sometimes it does and it can then be a really powerful thing, but you don’t have to qualify before you like my music.”

You begin to get a sense that Hadreas really does struggle to allow himself to be happy, but it seems that in many ways, he is also his own worst enemy. Although he makes steps towards a more positive, uplifting sound on No Shape, there are still plenty of cracks to be found underneath the surface and those demons appear to still be there, even if they aren’t as obvious as they once were.

Whether Hadreas will ever be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure,  he’ll never stop trying.

No Shape is out on 5 May via Matador; Perfume Genius play with The xx @ The Galvanizers Yard, Glasgow, 29 & 30 Aug