Parlez Vu: An Interview with Sandra Vu of SISU

photo by Cara Robbins

photo by Cara Robbins

Let’s get this out of the way first: SISU is not a side group, moonlighting gig, or pet project.  For Sandra Vu, lead singer, guitarist, bandleader, and sole songwriter, SISU is the main attraction, the primary outlet for her creativity.  Sure, she’s best known as the drummer for the the girl pop-meets-garage rock outfit, Dum Dum Girls, but Vu can’t very well showcase her songwriting chops from behind a kit.  As much as she tears up the skins for Dee Dee and the gals, to really catch Vu in her element, to truly see what she’s capable of, you’ll have to see SISU.

Fresh off their newly released debut LP, Blood Tears, Vu and her touring band of Ryan Wood, Nathanael Keefer, Chris Stevens, and Jules Medeiros joined up with experimental drone act, Dirty Beaches for a recent U.S. tour.  I caught the group at San Francisco‘s Bottom of the Hill and, for the second time in five months, SISU delivered a stormy set of psychedelic sound collages, expertly fused combos of hooky melody, washed out distortion, driving rhythm, and offsetting noise accents.  While their studio recordings sound great, the live performance brings far more power and urgency, starting with Sandra’s captivating vocals and confident presence.

Populating lush dreamscapes with haunting croons, Vu channels a My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher fronting New Order vibe, her spectral singing blending perfectly with the surrounding post-punk haze.  Of course, the sound is far more complex than that simplistic reduction, mixing in eclectic influences and entirely original sonic elements, even the occasional flute line when called upon.  Immersive, disorienting, and intoxicating, SISU draws you in with squalls of shoegaze and sets the hook with consistently surprising arrangements.

After the show, Vu discussed the live act and shed some light on her creative process via an e-mail interview.  Stay tuned for the full conversation and pick up Blood Tears, out now on Mono Prism Records.

SISU live at Bottom of the Hill (9.22.13) - photo by Nathan Edwards

SISU live at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco (9.22.13) – photo by Nathan Edwards

Monster Fresh:
How’s the tour?  Do you find Dirty Beaches to be a kindred spirit, as far as combining dissonance and melody?

Sandra Vu:
The tour was really great!  The lineups were related but different enough to be interesting, in my opinion.  Dissonance and melody is the name of our game, but I believe Dirty Beaches is further out in the underground electronic and drone tip.  I love their music though and it was honor to play with them.

Are you becoming more comfortable as the center of attention onstage?

Some nights are better than others.  I consider it less an attention thing and more about channeling energy and power.  I do the same behind the drums, but I feel so much more vulnerable performing my own songs upfront.  The more I do it, the more comfortable I feel.  It’s such a mind trip, and I’m learning how to fool myself into being more focused and clear.

Did you ever consider going the Phil Collins route and drumming and singing?

For a second, maybe.  I don’t have that type of powerhouse voice that would pick up strongly enough though.  I don’t want to drum quieter so that the vocals will cut through, so I’d rather not drum at all!

How has your experience as a hired gun with the Dum Dum Girls informed your approach as a bandleader?

I wish every lead singer had to enroll in residency in a band as a drummer.  I know what it’s like so I try to be as appreciative and kind to my bandmates as possible.  I truly appreciate them.  In Dum Dum Girls, Dee Dee is very kindhearted, sweet and respectful as a bandleader.  I am probably more uptight as a bandleader, even.  It’s tough being in a band, and mutual respect is key.

Vu with the Dum Dum Girls @ the 2012 Sasquatch! Festival 2012

Vu with the Dum Dum Girls @ the 2012 Sasquatch! Festival 2012

You’ve said that you write pop songs with anti-pop sounds.  Have you ever written a straight up pop song?

Yes, but they end up sounding more power-pop.  It’s mostly in the production where we get the anti-pop sound, so I could turn most of the songs into something more radio-friendly.  I love melody too much to let a jam go too long.

Do you try to construct a narrative while writing your lyrics or is it looser self-expression?  Are there any lyricists that you emulate?

It’s different per song.  I tend to write about more feelings and moments than tell a whole story, but I do both.  I tend to fall in the Brian Eno school of lyric writing, but not exclusively.  I like to shape phrases and emphasize rhythms of words, and sometimes that will dictate where a song goes.

Is it easier to find an original sound through more disparate influences?  Blood Tears has a lot of New Order and post-punk tones, but you’ve mentioned you listened to Serge Gainsbourg, Vashti Bunyan, and DJ Shadow while recording.

From the beginning, I didn’t want to make any sort of pronouncement on the sound of the band, so that we can explore whatever sounds we like.  I got really hung up on putting chorus on the bass guitar, which is solely responsible for the post-punk comparison.  I love those bands and that sound, but I’ve never been much into being a retro band.  I’m sure it sounds more like New Order than it does Serge Gainsbourg, but I am not into emulating either of them in a direct way.

What’s more satisfying, to create or perform?

I love to create more because, after a while, performing becomes repetitive, whereas creating is open and free.  I do love doing both though.  If you could fly me to every show that would be ideal, because I hate sitting in cars.

You mentioned that you work best from 2-8 AM.  What is it about that time?  The lack of distractions?  The consciousness is too tired to interfere with creativity?

Yes, it’s the lack of distractions.  It’s really bad for my general health, but that’s when your body is so tired your mind slips into this slow autopilot and you’re firing on the lowest cylinders– I love that frame of mind.  It’s borderline hallucinative.  If I’m up and going in the middle of the night, it also means I’m onto something and I can’t stop.

Do you ever visually interpret songs while you’re working on them?

Yes, I think very visually about the songs. I like to visualize sounds as well– that helps me build sounds and feelings.  When I describe how things are to be played live to my bandmates, I almost always have some sort of visual and feeling reference.  Like, I’ll describe an emphasis on a downbeat like a bag of coins falling and dropping.

With unlimited resources, what would be your dream project?

I would first like to be able to properly pay everyone who works on a record.  Do you have any idea how many favors we have to pull to get a record done?  It’s shameful!  After that, I would love to build a studio somewhere overlooking a body of water, buy impeccable gear, hire a string quartet, a children’s choir, hire David Fridmann, hire my bandmates Ryan Wood and Nat Keefer on salary for a month and a half.  It’s so foreign to think this way.  Part of the way things sound is because of limitations, and there is a lot of creativity that springs from not having exactly what you want.  I could almost see having unlimited resources driving me crazy, not to jinx it or anything.

SISU - photo by Cara Robbins

SISU – photo by Cara Robbins

Related Links:

SISU on Bandcamp
SISU on Facebook
SISU on Twitter
SISU on Tumblr

Eric DePriester

I'm a freelance writer and full time culture junky. Currently based out of the Bay, but prone to vagrancy, my home is where the headphones are.

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