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Behind the Japanese Wallpaper: A conversation with Gab Strum

Since winning Triple J’s Unearthed High competition in 2014, Gab Strum, aka Japanese Wallpaper, has wowed audiences nationwide with his ability to create his own brand of heavenly, unmistakably ethereal, hypnotic pop. “Maybe it’s a cathartic thing,” he says, “I guess it just sounds like my brain really.”   

The excellent level of production, craftsmanship and creativity of Japanese Wallpaper’s music often makes you forget that he’s just 18 and about to do his VCEs – no small feat considering he’s already had one of his songs featured in a film, was playing over 18 gigs before he was 18 and has earned praise from the likes of fellow critically acclaimed artist Chet Faker.

Having just released his debut self-titled EP, Strum is now on his first tour, which will take him through Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and finishing off in a performance at Splendour in the Grass. Dressed in a colourful button-up shirt and his trademark black-rimmed glasses and up-turned cap, I caught up with Strum at the FBi headquarters in Alexandria, fresh off the plane from his Brisbane performance the night before.

“It was lots of fun, a really good reception. I was pretty nervous about it before… Well, the first show was last night in Brisbane and I was pretty nervous about that, but it went well. Now I’m just excited for the rest of the tour.”

Hailing from Melbourne, Strum seems to be part of a new wave movement of organic electronic music, a scene which caters to the needs of emerging, independent artists. “In the Melbourne scene, there’s a lot more underground stuff. There’s the whole scene with Tornado Wallace and Sleep D, and it’s a bit more techno. here, it all seems to revolve around Astral People and the Future Classic thing.”

But then again, the incredible accessibility and expediency of modern day, easy-to-use, music-making technology, such as your garden-variety programs like Garageband, and online publishing platforms like SoundCloud, means that now, more than ever, young musicians, especially electronic artists, can get the exposure that was once off-limits to them.

“Fifty years ago, whenever kids that wanted to start experimenting with music-making and production, those tools just weren’t really out there. If you wanted to do production, you couldn’t… Booking a studio would be really expensive, and then getting it pressed to vinyl and all of that.”

But no matter what the surrounding circumstances are, cream always rises to the top. The beautiful originality and melancholic ambience his music possesses is a hybrid between his own productive capabilities and many of the collaborations he’s had to date, which can often come as a breath of fresh air when you work mainly as a bedroom producer. “It’s good to have another pair of ears on things. I often find that just producing on my own (music) and sitting at my desk with headphones on and like not moving for hours. You can get really caught up in what you’re doing, but sometimes it’s hard to step back and actually listen objectively.” 

Released just under three weeks ago, Japanese Wallpaper is a collection of ambient, gentle and highly emotional anthems. It is as if the music you hear was dredged from the recesses of your subconscious, the music to theme that dream you once had, but can never recall. Released gradually over SoundCloud, his debut collates all of his original work thus far and recruits the talents of Pepa Knight (co-frontman for Jinja Safari), Jesse Davidson Airling and Wafia; the latter two he counts among his friends.

“I just really liked their music and Airling and I were already friends. I just called [Jesse] up and was like, “Hey, I really like your stuff,” says Strum. “I got really lucky and I mean, everyone that’s on that record I’ve got a lot of respect for,” he adds.

As for playing live, Strum would be the first to say he finds it a little daunting. “I’m not a natural front person,” he admits. “I’m pretty shy in front of a crowd. So it’s pretty scary.” Keen to not just ‘look like a guy checking his emails’ when he gets up on stage, Strum incorporated a variety of other elements into his show, singing on some of his tracks, having guest vocalists feature live and playing keys so “It’s not just like pressing play on a track”. He’s also been thinking about putting a band together for the next round of shows

After he wraps up his tour, Strum’s focus will shift back to his schoolwork. But music is still very much on the horizon for him once that’s out of the way.  “Once I finish school, I’m going to be able to get a studio space somewhere and just sit for a couple of months and make a record. So I feel like this is kind of a closing chapter, which is good.”

Spoken like a true musician.

Japanese Wallpaper tour dates:

Wednesday 8th July (SOLD OUT) – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne (18+) – Tickets

Saturday 11th July (SOLD OUT) – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne (18+) – Tickets

Sunday, 12th July  – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne (U18 matinee) – Tickets

Sunday 12th July ( SOLD OUT) – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne – Tickets

Friday, 24th July (SOLD OUT) – Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay – (You can try buy tickets here)

Check out our review of him here.

Japanese Wallpaper is also available on Spotify and iTunes via Zero By Nine.