Having a Beer With BUMPER, the Uplifting Pop Project We All Need Right NowSeptember 21, 2020
Since the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic began and the live music industry ground to a halt, there's been a lot of talk about “quarantine records”—the new albums that our favorite musicians would be churning out since they, like all of us, are stuck at home. Most would expect something like that to encapsulate the angst of life in the year 2020, but in the case of BUMPER’s new EP pop songs 2020, what we instead got is a blast of lyrically gauzy electro-pop bliss informed by '80s R&B and full of...what's that feeling, again? Oh, yeah: joy.
The project is the brainchild of two artists best known for their work on other efforts: Ryan Galloway, guitarist and keyboardist for indie pop trio Crying, and Michelle Zauner, who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast. The duo, both living in Brooklyn but separated by social distancing, crafted pop songs 2020's four tracks in a back-and-forth collaboration that kicked off in the early summer, and have unleashed it on a world in desperate need of a pick-me-up.
With the EP now streaming its sugar rush-sensibility into ears everywhere, Zauner and Galloway took time out to talk about beer can lore text, why '80s synthesizers can't be beat, and bringing BUMPER to life.
Is there anything you guys have been drinking to get through these unprecedented times, as they say in the car commercials?
Ryan: Yeah. I have a whole graveyard of cans at my desk right now. I do a cleanup every two days. What I...hold on, Michelle, you answer this question because although I feel like I want to shout out this place close by to me, but I just want to get their names first. So what have you been drinking?
Michelle: I feel really bad because I love beer, but I've been trying not to drink too much beer because I'm getting older and it has a negative impact on my body. Lately, though, I've been drinking a lot more beer, but not exciting beer, because I've been doing a lot of housework, and after doing a lot of housework, it's really nice to have a cold beer. So I've been back on the beer train, but usually...I've done this interview with October before where I've talked about this and it's really embarrassing, but I really like mom beers, basically, anything that comes in a green bottle. Your Stella, Heineken...
Ryan: Before you said green bottle, I thought “green bottle.”
Michelle: Yeah! Pacifico comes in a brown bottle, but it's basically a glorified green bottle. I like Bitburger, that's a German beer. Not very exciting, but I'm a real baby when it comes to those dank, hoppy, chocolate guys.
I don't think I've ever heard anything described as a “mom beer.” That's a really interesting branding opportunity for somebody.
Ryan: Moms drink, too. It's just called Hers. That would be a good mom brand name.
Michelle: Like Hims. Is Hims a shaving thing? Or is it basically like Viagra?
I think it's a variety of, like, men's pharmaceuticals.
Michelle: It's either for balding or your penis.
Ryan: Yeah. And it comes in a leather pouch.
‘Did the laundry again, cleaned the top of my cabinets, I’m really freaked out about what’s going on outside, I have no idea what’s happening, I’m afraid to go to the grocery store.’ I couldn’t imagine writing songs about that.”
Ryan, did you figure out the name of the beer that you were going to reference?
Ryan: Before the pandemic, or before this half of the pandemic, I worked at an organic grocer, and they prided themselves on their beer selection. It's one of those places where there are three six-packs over here, but no one gets those; it's all solo cans, so you get some mix and match, which is always my favorite, because I love collecting different colors. Despite having a bunch of beer in my time, I'm very bad at describing flavor, which is the case for a lot of people across food in general. I really loved all of the Foreign Objects that I got. Beautiful artwork, crazy cans, insanely pretentious lore text. I remember liking the Wet Gravity.
Michelle: Wet Gravity?
Ryan: Foreign Objects Wet Gravity. That was the last beer that I had that was interesting, that isn't, "Oh yeah, I got Brooklyn Summer Ale for the fifth time."
Michelle: That's still way cooler than Heineken.
Ryan: Yeah, but you're taking it back. Mine doesn't have a statement attached to it.
A lot of creative people I know have said that this has been a particularly hard time to make art, despite the fact that a lot of us are stuck at home with less to do. But you guys cranked out an EP in the midst of all of this. How did that work for you?
Michelle: I feel like we started working together...I guess it wasn't that early on. Was it?
Ryan: I could pull it up, but I'm pretty sure it was June, early June.
Michelle: Yeah, I kind of felt pretty early on in quarantine still. I think for me, I had a record that got pushed to next year. I had just been working on a lot of really big projects for the past three years and hadn't released anything in a really long time. I feel like I was just getting really precious about everything I was doing, that I wanted to have a project that was just more of trusting my instincts and really immediate gratification. So, I think it was, for me, a light in the days for me to focus and not obsess over the news and be freaked out for a period of time.
Ryan: I think it definitely blurs the line between hobby and job. I do like to think of making music as the thing I do. So, the idea of not feeling creative or something like that, I don't really understand that, because if you're treating music as the thing that you do, or your job or your livelihood, I feel like you just automatically are making it. It's very hard to stop that part of your brain where you're like, "Oh, I have this melody in my head." I actually think it afforded us a little...the project happened because of it, which is fortunate and unfortunate.
How did you find your collaboration? Were there adjustments that each of you had to make individually to work together?
Ryan: I make a lot of music, and you could tell that Michelle makes a lot of music just based on the things we know she's working on right now. So, I feel like we already had songs that could fit with what we were going for, which is easy, poppy, immediate songs. And we kind of just took the things that we were working on separately and plopped them in here. I didn't really have to change anything. I just had to offer up the songs that fit.
Michelle: I don't know if that's entirely true. I wrote all the lyrics and melodies for this particular project; I wasn't sitting on any of it. But I wasn't trying to change. I don't think that either of us demanded that we change any part of our style that much, because I think we were just pretty easygoing about this project. I feel like, normally, I'm a real nightmare to work with. For this project, I felt way chiller about, because I approached it as a true collaboration. I want everything to be really fair because, honestly everything in Japanese Breakfast is pretty unfair. I get to make all the major decisions with Japanese Breakfast. So, to get to collaborate with someone, where the intention was to really respect where Ryan comes from and his ideas and instincts, that was a big part of going into this. I think that's something that's really beautiful in collaboration. It was nice to get to lean on someone for things that are sometimes hard, and some things that I had more of a strong opinion about, Ryan was like, "OK, that's fine.”
For instance, Ryan was pretty passionate about the track list, and I really didn't have that much of a feeling about it, but I also really liked the EP names that he wasn't too excited about. So, it was just a real give-and-take of what each of us felt strongly about, and I feel like we were pretty open to the other person's opinion.
Ryan: Yeah. I definitely... it doesn't happen often, the full-on 50/50 collaboration across the board, and it felt really good. It felt really good to write a part and then have it be changed. But I already opted into that, and well, this is probably for the greater good and that situation. So it did feel good to give up some stuff, but then it felt good to be on the other side of it
I feel like there were sounds on this EP that I haven't heard since the R&B of the '80s. Where did the idea of drawing on that era as inspiration come from for this project?
Michelle: I think that, when Ryan sent me “Red Brick,” it was a pretty finished song, and it had those kinds of elements, those really bombastic snare sounds and big synths that are generally associated with the '80s. Also, I really appreciate that Ryan is an excellent soloist, both on keyboards and guitar. I do feel like that's something that's thrown around in the '80s a lot, especially keyboard solos. I don't think you get that a lot now. So, it just came pretty naturally, the vocal melody that came to me, and this kind of '80s diva sort of vibe.
I feel like I wanted to just really go for it lyrically, too, that kind of content, because I definitely didn't want to write about what was going on. It wasn't like the fun stuff that was happening at all—did the laundry again, cleaned the top of my cabinets, I'm really freaked out about what's going on outside, I have no idea what's happening, I'm afraid to go to the grocery store. I couldn't imagine writing songs about that. So, it felt cool to channel whatever someone like Janet Jackson would sing. A lot of it is just nonsense about love and passion, so I just wanted to go to that smoky, sultry, fantasy place.
Ryan: I think this is a very boring way to explain it, but '80s software synthesizers that you can buy for under $100 on the computer, they've figured that out. They snap, they all sound good.
Michelle: Because they're digital. A lot of them are digital.
Ryan: You can get that sound and then, why not just keep doing that, because that's the thing that sounds good? I can't get an acoustic guitar to sound good ever. I need a lot of money to do that. I feel like '80s is very easy to get if you're a grocery store worker. That's kind of the stuff I personally just gravitate towards.
I've read more than one review that's called this EP a “mood-lifter.” How do you feel about that reception?
Michelle: I think that was the response that I was really hoping for, honestly. I was definitely nervous, because there's so much really serious and important stuff going on that we should be focusing on, but also, it's the first time in my life that I don't know if art is important. I really questioned that for the first time, and it felt very useless in all of this. But I think that going into this project, it was something that helped me. I think that a lot of my personal projects have been going after some tough, dark, lyrical matter and presenting it in an uplifting way sonically. I think that's just what I do to make myself feel better.
So, I'm glad that there are some people who picked up on it; to call the EP pop songs 2020, it was a little tongue-in-cheek, because it's obviously been a really trying year for a lot of people and has brought to light a lot of issues that have already existed for a long time. But yeah, I think that's what I hoped for, personally, that it would be a nice little spark in a dark tunnel.
Ryan: Yeah. I love making music that either sounds happy or makes people happy. There's so much good, sad music. Why not, you know?
Top illustration by Mary Vertulfo.