Japanese Breakfast

Words by Annie Bacon

Last night at Rickshaw Stop, Noise Pop curated a powerhouse night of music. Headliner Japanese Breakfast brought out a damn good-looking crowd who showered attention and affection on all the bands. All in all, it was a night that invigorated my belief that there is an explosion of incredible new music happening right now, and that women are leading that charge.

Dante Elephante is a charming band. They can also rock, but it was charm that pulled me in as the supporting band warmed up crowd at Rickshaw Stop last night. There’s something inherently likable about them — frontman Ruben Zarate made multiple jokes at his own expense, which I often hate, but which in this case were totally accessible and pleasant. The nine-song set brought to mind Weezer, Semisonic, and The Weakerthans, ranging from garage pop to rock and leaning disco for at least one tune. The band could stand to add a little virtuosity or tighten up its mid-verse riffs, but all in all it was a fun set.

Main support for the evening was Miya Folick, who made an apologizing comment before her set had even started: “We haven’t played together in a long time, so I’m really nervous.” This is often an artist’s way of saying ‘We might suck,’ but mid-way through her set, when I remembered this statement, I guffawed in disbelief, because this band operated as a single organism. To get a sense it, imagine Nirvana with Chrissie Hynde at the front. Better yet, if you know The Gun Club, imagine them revamped for the modern era. There was a little bit of Grace Slick and Ann Wilson in her impeccable voice, which was effortless as it raced (sometimes in the same breath) between punk screams and pitch perfect, bird-like notes — a voice profoundly musical and acrobatic. Opening number “I Got Drunk” set an indie-pop and electric (not electronic) tone to the evening, but one that didn’t box the group in. A later track turned the tempo down to a Mazzy Star feel with a folky intro, as Folick waxed melancholic (though never saccharine, from what I could hear).

Introducing “Pet Body,” Folick gave a perfect statement of protest — without needing to name names — against the recent executive order repealing protections for transgender students: “Sometimes I feel uncomfortable in my own body, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be trans. I think it’s important to think about that today. Yeah. Protect trans kids!” The song is full of angst and frustration, wrapped in technical prowess and vocal virtuosity. The only phrase I can use to describe my reaction to Miya Folick, which even seems to fall short, is “mind blown.” Folick is a superstar. Not ‘in the making’ — she’s there. The rest of us just need to catch up to her and give her the superstar following she deserves.

For months, friends and strangers alike have been telling me to listen to Japanese Breakfast. As it goes for all of us, I think, sometimes I put off for too long the things that are best for me. When I got the assignment to cover this show, I decided not to listen in advance and to take in the show with virgin ears. It’s likely I was the only person in the room not already in love with the band. That stat was a full 100% by the end of the night.

Japanese Breakfast was originally a side project of emo band Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner, but with the release of Japanese Breakfast’s first studio release Psychopomp in 2016, it has taken center stage. The band eased the happy crowd in with the mellow and dark “Heft,” singing “I wanna find out what’s in your stomach / if it’s the same dark.” With the second tune, “In Heaven,” the band jumped around the stage and brought The Smashing Pumpkins to mind.

Reverb was definitely a band member during this set, applied expertly at the sound engineer’s station. Long tails of words would wash over tight arrangements with jangly surf-rock guitars. The ambiance contained dark worlds, happiness, delight, and angst. Like Miya Folick before her, Zauner’s voice was impressively acrobatic in this set, something she noted herself while describing her own set list: “screamy songs and quiet ballads.” A difficult combination for a singer who’s spent the last week sick (Though you’d never know if she hadn’t commented on it).

The highlight of the evening however, for those on and off stage, was when Zauner announced that she was a mom. “I have a daughter. Her name is Jay Som.” The crowd erupted as Jay Som’s Melina Duterte joined the band. “Michelle forced me to do this,” she joked. “Please help me.” With that the ensemble launched into a raucous and gorgeous cover of The Cranberrie’s “Dreams,” with dueling guitars and two voices merging as one. These two playful and tremendously talented musicians plus a healthy dose of nostalgia brought the house to pieces.

Japanese Breakfast is releasing a follow-up album later this year, which was welcome news to the crowd. And in the meantime, I’ve got Psychopomp to geek out on.

Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.