Thursday night, Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som brought a lo-fi fever dream to San Francisco’s Gray Area Theater for the fourth day of Noise Pop.
Hand Habits opened the show with a somewhat dreary solo set. Although Meg Duffy’s ample guitar-shredding skills and mellow vocals would have been perfectly suited for a good late night bedroom cry, starting the night off on a sober note just made the crowd restless. Light chatter filled the theater, causing abrasive reactions from the few concertgoers solely focused on the music.
Japanese Breakfast was a welcomed burst of fresh energy, taking the stage to the breathy, sprawling “Diving Woman,” a song inspired by an island in South Korea that’s famous for its female divers, called haenyeo. In an interview with NPR, Michelle Zauner explained her admiration for the haenyo and their lifestyle of regimen and endurance. Zauner may not be able to hold her breath for three minutes underwater, but she’s proud of her own tiny triumphs.
“I was a responsible woman and said ‘no’ to some spicy wings like three hours before the show,” she revealed. “I’m growing as a person.”
Zauner infused serious, dark bedroom pop and meandering vocals with a playful stage presence, cracking jokes between songs and stepping out to sing straight into the audience at any given opportunity. She introduced two separate songs with the quip, “This song is about oral sex,” and poked fun at concert cliches, bellowing “San Francisco!” in a goofy tone before adding, “Sometimes I think my job is just to excitedly say whatever city I’m in.”
Japanese Breakfast closed with fan favorite “Machinist,” a sci-fi narrative about a woman who falls in love with a robot. Zauner’s urgent, spoken-word intro was barely audible over eerie synths and sound effects of wind blowing over a desolate planet. Her desperate plea for connection in an alien landscape carried out over the crowd through vocoder harmonies, a hammy saxophone outro transforming into an unexpected dance moment.
Jay Som brought a more understated approach to the night. Oakland native Melina Duterte wore what looked to be a basketball T-shirt layered over a casual hoodie, cinching the hood comically tight around her face at one point in the show. No wisecracks slipped out of her mouth and she didn’t stray far from her post at the microphone, but she kept things relaxed and good-natured, giggling in the awkward silences between songs as she tuned her guitar.
The band seemed to lose the crowd a bit in the sleepy, dream pop stratosphere, immense walls of sound sprawling for ages until finally fading out so unassumingly no one seemed sure when to clap. Short attention spans caused people to filter out before the set came to a close. But everyone came back to life for “The Bus Song,” shouting along to the beloved lines right on cue: Why don’t we take the bus? / You say you don’t like the smell / But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be.
Where the Noise Pop audience left a lot to be desired, there was no lack of love between the women on stage. Zauner and Duterte gushed about each other as well as Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy. Mentioning a music video she directed for Jay Som, Zauner told the crowd how grateful she was to have Duterte in her life, and Duterte complimented the two for being some of the hardest working women she knew. In the indie rock genre, one still largely dominated by white men, it’s refreshing to see women — and Asian American women, at that — holding each other up.