Before the release of his new album, Zauner chatted with Billboard about shedding new light on his latest album, writing a book as opposed to writing a song, the importance of Mitski’s support and his past as a chess prodigy.
1. What was the first piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
I mean it was the vitamin C CD. The album that had the song “Graduation” in it. It sticks with me as one of the first things I bought in fourth or fifth grade.
2. What is the first concert you saw?
Raffi. (Laughs) I was about five years old and brought my little Baby Beluga bath toy. When he sang “Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea” I was like waving my little plastic whale.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a child?
My father was a truck broker, so he was the middleman between trucking companies and product distributors, largely in Canada. He would therefore help distribute the products across North America. And my mother was a housewife.
4. What made you realize that you could be a full time artist?
I mean Mitski, cause Mitski took us on our first real tour [in summer 2016], a five-week tour of the United States. And looking at her, I remember saying, “If I ever get to this point, I can die happy.” She definitely launched my career in such a big way, and I owe her a lot.
5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
I would love to play Fuji Rock and Iceland Airwaves – basically a lot of festivals that allow me to travel. We played stuff in the UK and at smaller festivals in Norway and Poland. But I would love to go to Iceland Airwaves or Fuji Rock or Glastonbury.
6. How did your hometown shape who you are?
I feel like a very serious person and I feel there is a Pacific Northwest type quality. A lot of indie rock from the Pacific Northwest is very serious, denominational, dynamic. Certainly the music has influenced my tastes in a major way, but I also feel like we are just … serious folk there! Perhaps this is the landscape of this region.
7. What is the last song you listened to?
I was listening to the new Lucy Dacus [song]! i watched her Colbert performance, which was great. She has such a phenomenal voice, it’s amazing.
8. If you could see an artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
He’s a badass. It’s like you have to say someone dead! (Laughs) Ah, you know what? I would see Kate Bush. She never turns and might never perform again. I would love to see Kate Bush in her prime because I feel like she is such an inventive musician and performer that I would have loved to see her.
9. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd at one of your sets?
There’s this fun thing going on in Seattle now, and it started with one of our first headlining shows. Jokingly, my bassist left a banana on my keyboard station from the green room, and I thought it was really funny, so I sent a banana into the crowd from my station – and they sent back an orange and an apple. It was such a fun exchange, send one fruit and collect two fruit!
Since then, every time we play Seattle now, a group of fans will bring different kinds of fruit! (Laughs) Like, when we played Sasquatch, someone threw a pineapple. It’s a really fun little tradition that started, and now I can’t wait to go back and play in Seattle.
10. How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
It was difficult because it delayed the release of the album. We were supposed to release an album last year, then we pushed it a year later. So it was actually quite difficult, because I had completed these two really big creative projects that weren’t released yet, so it was really difficult for me to work on new material when those two things weren’t there. were not out yet. It certainly slowed things down a lot for me. It was difficult to be creative this year.
11. How has the album changed, if at all, over the past year? Did you go back and change things or keep them relatively intact?
I did not touch it. I feel like once I’m done with a record I’m done. I feel like with a record you reach a point where the more you keep adding, the worse it gets. So yes, nothing has changed. (Laughs) If anything, I just love the record more – like, the time spent away from it after I finished it made me love it even more.
12. When did you realize that this album was going to be quite different in its sound and sense of brightness from your previous albums?
Rather early. I knew I had written two records on grief, and I was working on this book on grief, and I wanted to explore the other end of the spectrum, and sort of close the book on exploring this theme.
13. How does your creative process differ in terms of songwriting and songwriting – how do you decide which parts of yourself to share in each medium?
It’s different and similar. There are actually a lot of borrowed lines and song titles in the three discs that you can find in Crying in H Mart, and I can’t wait for fans to see what lines are used in both places. They both come from a very specific time in my life. But it’s a very different process – it feels like writing songs is a bit more intuitive than writing a book, which is a bit more analytical.
14. You made your debut on a few Billboard songs for the first time in your career thanks to “Be Sweet”, including Alternative Airplay and Rock Airplay. Do you pay attention to the charts and the performance of your songs on different platforms?
Heard it was our first chance to have a radio single! It’s also the first album I had a manager on, so it helps you develop that kind of thing. But it’s cool! I had no idea this was happening, although it was something we were hoping to happen.
15. You talked about your ambitious touring plans behind this album – working with local string and brass sections during tour stops. How does this process take place?
We really hope everything goes well with the tour in late summer and fall. I knew we were definitely going to have a bigger band for that, so we’re going to have a six-piece band with a saxophonist who is going to double the keys. And I believe we will also have someone who will play the violin and the guitar. We’ll have a bigger band, and for the bigger shows we’ll probably have a local quartet, or a trombone and trumpeter to add, as some of the songs are quite important.
16. What is your favorite karaoke?
“Like a prayer” from Madonna.
17. What’s the one thing your most devoted fans don’t know about you?
I feel like they probably know it – maybe some of them do! – but I was an avid chess player, from grades four to seven. I used to see a Russian chess teacher once a week and go to tournaments and stuff. I was once on a notice board playing chess. (Laughs) I’m not very good anymore, but I started playing Chess.com casually, since watching The Queen’s Gambit.
I feel like there’s this thing that happens in people’s lives, where you devote a lot of your life to something, and then you realize that you’re never going to be good enough to be among the best. living. Some people did gymnastics in their childhood and were really good, but had to deal with their mediocrity, you know? And that was me with chess. I can enjoy it as an adult now, and it has invigorated me to start playing casually again. I had so much passion for the game when I was younger, and watching it [on The Queenâs Gambit] going through that made me want to replay.
18. What movie or song always makes you cry?
There is this scene in My neighbor Totoro, where the mom brushes her hair. Lose it every time.
19. What advice would you give to your young self?
I wish I could tell my young self that anyone who peaks in high school and college will end up being a major embarrassment. (Laughs) And your time will come! (Laughs)
20. What do you hope to accomplish or experience by the end of 2021?
I hope to be able to go on tour again, too bad! I really want to relive this. That’s all I can really expect.