When Gab Strum started Japanese Wallpaper at 13, he never expected to have played the main stage at Falls Festival, delighted crowds at Splendour in the Grass, attracted the admiration of luminaries like Lorde and Gotye, and appeared in cinema soundtracks before he’d even finished high school. The last couple of years have seen extraordinary success and glowing praise heaped on Japanese Wallpaper before he’s even put out an EP.
Strum began playing piano at 6 at the urging of his mum, who recognized that he wasn’t a particularly sporty kid, with the promise that he’d thank her for it later. “I’m thanking her now,” he says. Having spent his formative years steeped in classical theory, Strum came to his contemporary sound by welding his understanding of song structure to GarageBand loops. Not yet a teenager, Strum got antsy having not practiced piano for several weeks on a long family holiday, and started playing with the software to stay sharp. After throwing some demos on SoundCloud with no expectations, he came back six months later to find comments and messages encouraging him to keep going.
Strum began picking up national, and then international attention with his first proper single. ‘Breathe In’ was recorded with good friend Wafia. Strum provided the arrangements, Wafia the lyrics and vocals. What resulted was breathtaking. Strum’s sparkling production, combining bright, spacious melodies with a sparse but rumbling beat which is felt more than heard, and Wafia’s ethereal singing, made ‘Breathe In’ impossible to resist. Strum remembers the build up being slow, but it wasn’t long after that triple j was broadcasting his song to the nation and, a year later, electing him Unearthed Winner of 2014. By then, Zach Braff had chosen the track for his latest film, I Wish I Was Here. “Sitting in the cinema and hearing my song while watching famous people on the screen was a milestone,” Strum says.
‘Breathe In’ was followed by the rejection fantasy ‘Between Friends’ with upcoming crooner Jesse Davidson. ‘Between Friends’ takes the immortal hook from the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ and flips it into a kiss off: “If you wanna be my friend / Stop tryin’ to be my lover.” Becoming confident with his own songwriting has been a trial for Strum, but he recalls the girlfriend of a prominent Australian musician once saying to him, “It sounds like what I imagine your brain feels like,” and even as Strum stands behind a laptop and a sampler, the music and the shows which consistently sell out because of it speaks for itself. Strum is working on his own vocals, but in the meantime, one of the major parts he enjoys about music is his collaborations. “Collaborations are half the fun.. Working with people you like and respect. Every time I’ve collaborated with someone, I’ve learned so much about songwriting,” he says.
His latest collaboration is his most auspicious yet. Featuring grimy R&B belter Airling on vocals, ‘Forces’ pulses with intensity. Strum says it’s the first time he and a collaborator had nothing prepared. Instead, they worked from scratch together, and three days later they’d written their next single. Lending help were Graham Ritchie from Holy Holy and Big Scary’s Tom Iansek as studio engineers with Ritchie providing additional guitar. “That was exciting. I’ve been listening to them since I found out about Australian music,” Strum says, “and #1 Dads made my favorite album of 2014.
Released under the guidance of local label Zero Through Nine, ‘Forces’ presents the first step in the next act of Japanese Wallpaper’s career. Zero Through Nine co head Will Evans admires Strum’s unique perspective on electronic music, forged not by genre trends when Strum first started, all he was listening to was The Beatles but by his own instinct. According to Evans,”He can’t really party, and he can’t go out and experience the scene in that way, so he could only make music that was the opposite of what everyone else was doing.”
Strum sees an album in the near future future. “I have this image of me writing an album and not being full of self doubt when it’s finished.” Strum wants to sing on it, too. But his ultimate goal is to keep reaching out, moving and relating to people through his music. “I got an email the other day from a recovering heroin addict,” Strum recalls, “and they told me my music really helped get them through it.” That means more to Japanese Wallpaper than anything else, as much as Japanese Wallpaper means to them.
Strum has kept busy following the success of his debut selftitled EP, with a string of 11 shows across eastcoast Australia which was topped off on a high at Splendour in the Grass, an AIR nomination for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and a tour around the country for Laneway Festival with the likes of CHVRCHES, Thundercat and Beach House. After highschool ended for Strum, he immediately moved into a studio to work on fulfilling his goal of writing an album, which can be expected for release in 2017.