Photo Credit: Giulia Giannini McGauran
Melbourne-based artist Japanese Wallpaper has had a rather unorthodox first few years of his career. Having burst onto the electronic-music scene by winning a 2014 high school producer competition hosted by national Australian radio station Triple J, it seemed the only direction to go was up for the then 17-year old Gab Strum. After racking up a solid 20+ million plays on his 2016 self-titled debut project, and subsequently finding fans in Charli XCX, Flume, Gotye, Lily Allen, Chet Faker and Bombay Bicycle Club, the past few years have seen a relatively infrequent trickle of releases for Strum.
Yet reclusive as he may have been, Strum's hard work and silent planning has started to come to fruition. Along with some considerable changes to his production style, workflow and overall sound in light of a near two-year break, we now have the pleasure of bearing witness to Japanese Wallpaper's triumphant and unconventional return.
The late 2018 "Fooling Around" was Japanese Wallpaper's first single since 2016 and two separate tours with Shallou and Lily Allen. We sat down with Strum to discuss his changing musical style, discovering his voice and the heaps of new music he has in the works.
OTW: It's been a while since your first big track "Breathe In." Obviously that song was of great importance for you and your career - I'm curious though, what are your thoughts on it now? Has the emotional significance changed?
JW: It's interesting… Songs kind of lose their emotional significance every time I play them live. They become associated with work and touring, but also gain a different sentimental value. That song was me when I was 16 - it opened a lot of doors for me.
OTW: That release does seem to mark a time of change and growth for you. How did you deal with that sort of transition from being a high school musician to touring indie-electronic artist?
JW: I think the more music I'm exposed to, the older I get and the more confident I get in what I'm doing… I feel like the music changes as a result. My goalposts have shifted basically. I guess doors are still opening to me that haven't been in the past and I'm meeting more people and playing more shows and all of that. I feel like on this new record there's a sense of boldness and confidence that there might not have been in the past.
OTW: After your self-titled EP you dropped a few remixes, your deluxe album, and then your single "Cocoon," but then 2017 is a bit of a sparse release year for you aside from "In Motion" with Allday. Was this a big writing year for you?
JW: Yeah, 2017 was the first year that I had a big chunk of time to get stuck in writing and producing. 2016 was my first year out of high school and I was traveling a bunch. "Cocoon" came out and we did a lot of festivals but at the end of 2016, I was like, "Cool time to make a record." 2017 was just a year of every day opening up Ableton and spending like eight hours experimenting and messing around with stuff. After touring, I had a bit of money so I bought some equipment and set up a little studio space and that was the biggest learning experience - just having a year to write and mess around which turned into finishing an album and narrowing down ideas into what would make up the record.
OTW: Was that collab with Allday incepted around that time?
JW: The Allday track came about early 2016 actually. The first iteration at least came about early in 2016. We'd never met before, he just got in touch with me on Twitter and came around to my studio. We talked about Jamie xx, ate a really good falafel, made the beat, and started messing around with ideas for the chorus and that was it - I left him with the beat. Then a year later he hits me up and says, "Hey here's the song. It's the lead single on my record; it's coming out in a few months. Hope you like it." And it was wild! Like, it was something that going into it, I had no expectations and it was a good lesson in just saying yes to things and being open to meeting people.
OTW: Now fast-forward to 2018 and you're working with swim good now and remixing Charli XCX! Both awesome releases, but the Charli remix definitely seemed like a bit of a departure from your normal collaborations. How did that one come about?
JW: That remix came about definitely around the time of my first EP. I think something happened with her and the label? They decided that the song wasn't going to be a single and that there wouldn't be any remixes coming out… But I had already done it (laughs). So then two years later, I was in New York in June, and I randomly met the head of her label and he said, "Man, (those remixes) were one of our favorite things we've worked on. We're doing this compilation; could we put yours out on that?" It was weird because like, then I was going into the start of an album cycle I guess with music that feels so different to that remix. I was a bit like, "How is this going to fit in with my stuff now?" But it's cool, and I'm really proud of it. Charli is one of my favorite artists so I'm just stoked at the fact that it exists.
OTW: Amazing, such an incredibly opportunity to reach larger audience. I guess now going back to "Cocoon," that transition from your self-titled EP to you introducing your own vocals into a more indie-electronic sound makes sense. Your music seems to be much more emotionally intentional at this point. What inspired that sort of evolution?
JW: In hindsight, a lot of the shifts that have happened in my writing and producing have been brought about just by touring and playing live. Singing was something I never thought was for me - I've always been self conscious about it. I got to a point in my live shows where I realized playing vocals over the backing tracks was really boring for the audience. But it's also monetarily restrictive to bring all these guest vocalists from the record on tour so I had to figure something out which was when I started singing in the live show. That was a year of basically just building my confidence to where it felt like it was something I could do. At that point I had written "Cocoon" and I had made a big list of people who I thought I wanted to sing it, but I played it for a friend and they actually really liked my vocals on the demo and just persuaded me to keep it. That was kind of it, I was like, "Alright, I'm doing it!"
OTW: It seems a bit like you're going in the opposite direction of a lot of electronic artists nowadays. By that I mean that there are a lot of prevalent solo artists that played in indie bands for the first part of their career and branched out to electronic music, but you're doing it in reverse?
JW: Yeah, it's interesting! I feel like indie-alternative is something I've always been drawn to and always wanted to do. I mean there’s times when I feel like the solely electronic route would be a lot more convenient, but I'm really fascinated with this other sound at the moment and I guess I'm just trying to follow it.
OTW: It's apparent you've got a passion project on your hands. Which I guess leads us to the big question, what's next for you? What can listeners expect in 2019?
JW: Album's gonna come out sometime in the first half of this year, hopefully we'll be able to come back to America and play some more shows. Just finished a tour with Lily Allen and then I'm already halfway through another record so hopefully lots more music, lots more touring and yeah. We'll see!