You may have seen Sandra Vu around before, as one of Dum Dum Girls’ black-clad 60s devotees. Now, she’s stepped out from behind the drumkit to lead her own band, SISU. The quartet recently released its debut album Blood Tears, a collection of dark, slyly twisted dream-pop gems. Loaded with New Order-inspired basslines, sparkling electronic flourishes, and reverb used as punctuation instead of a mask, it may be one of 2013’s best-kept secrets.
After hitting the road with Dirty Beaches, SISU will be playing a series of shows at NYC’s CMJ Music Marathon. I caught up with Sandra to talk songwriting and coming out of her shell.
So you got pretty experimental on this record, yeah?
This record, it’s partially experimental, but when you get down to it, I consider it a pop record. But since my singing isn’t very conventional, I think it sounds a little bit offbeat.
You worked with a lot of different recording techniques.
Yeah, we did it all ourselves. In that way, it was kind of experimental, because I don’t technically know if everything I’m doing is correct, I’m just kind of winging it half the time. I have friends who record and things like that, my friend Lars Stalfors mixed the record, and he’s a pro. So it’s kind of half and half winging it and professional, I guess.
Was experimenting with different sounds part of what helped you develop your own voice with this?
Yeah, totally. I don’t really have much of a structure for writing or recording or anything, so some of these songs start out with a drumbeat on a table or something like that. I don’t sit down with an acoustic guitar and record structure. It is verse/chorus/verse in a lot of ways, it is almost completely [like that], but I like to take that pop structure and make it kind of weird sounding. When I wrote it, I didn’t even set out to write a record or put it together as a record, so I was really just writing it for myself and experimenting and learning how to use the laptop to record.
What did you learn from the writing process?
I learned that the more I think about it, the less productive I am. So really, in general, I embrace my naïveté in the whole thing, because it’s more freeing that way. Once I start to sit down and think, "Oh, I’m going to write a record, and these are the songs that are going to be on the record"–which is kind of what I’m going through now–it’s a little more challenging, because now I have a little more pressure to make something cohesive. But I didn’t really think of it on this record, I just wrote songs for myself and recorded them and put them together.
Obviously, you get something different from that then you did previously with Dum Dum Girls.
Yes, completely. With Dum Dum Girls, Dee Dee writes the songs and works with producers to do the records, so it’s more of a touring outfit when it comes to the rest of the bandmates. We don’t have any creative input, really, except in the live show.
Did striking out on your own seem daunting at first?
Yes, it did. I’ve probably been [drumming] the most out of all the instruments that I play, even professionally, so I was much more comfortable with it. I don’t get nervous at shows. Singing up front is completely different. I’m standing up, no one’s blocking me ever. It’s definitely daunting, but it’s fun.
What helps you get over that?
Doing it a lot. We played so many shows this year, it’ll be around 60 shows for me. It’s probably not a lot for a touring band, but for me and for my project, it’s insane. I can’t believe I’ve done that many shows on my own. But that really helps, doing it over and over again. Practice makes perfect.
What was your biggest challenge in making this record?
It’s kind of funny, it was probably more challenging after the completion of the record to get it out, because of my schedule with Dum Dum Girls. I was so busy. The typical lead for press time is like six months and it just was really difficult, because Dum Dum’s schedule was also up in the air a lot of the time as well. Other than that, creatively, it was recording myself singing. As I was recording it, I was just getting over playing my songs for other people. It was a new thing. I’m over it now, I obviously have put it out there, but it’s the same way that performing them live is a little bit scary. But I’m doing these little steps and getting more comfortable with it.
What song on the record are you the most proud of?
I think probably my favorite song is "Electronic." It’s probably the most experimental one too, I guess. And that’s probably a good example of no structure leading to a song, the structure of the song is just one keyboard sound that’s played throughout the whole thing. I’m pretty proud of that, I don’t even know where it came from, but it just happened. And I love the bassline. So that’s one that I love, I’m pretty proud of that.
Did you find yourself doing that a lot, just surprising yourself with what you could do?
Yes, yes. Honestly, when I had these demos just starting, I don’t know really if I would have pursued it on my own, but I was pushed by my bandmate, Ryan. He really encouraged me to pursue it, saying, "These songs are great, you should record them and just do something with it." We had played in a previous band together, we have this rhythm section bond. He’s like my older brother, too, we’re really close. So it did surprise me, I was like, "Really? These are good? I don’t know." I mean, I obviously believe in them now. As a drummer, you don’t really expect people to take you seriously as a songwriter, maybe.
Bringing your band together must have really inspired you as well.
I was really surprised, honestly. It sounds so insecure and humble or something, but going from just being a drummer and supporting other people writing songs, I guess I didn’t really see myself in that position as a leader, where other people support me. So really initially, it was really brave. I was surprised, but I still sometimes don’t believe that these people are helping me do this. It’s really great, yeah.
So it was difficult for you to see yourself as a leader at first?
Yeah, definitely. I had to learn a lot in that regard, because it’s not all about writing the songs, it’s about corralling a group together and making it a positive experience for everyone where it’s fun. And especially because I have experience as a drummer, I’ve been on the other end where sometimes it’s not the greatest. I just try to make up for that.
As a fellow Asian-American, it’s great that you and Dirty Beaches are doing this tour. I love that.
I love it, too. Alex (Dirty Beaches) himself is really inspiring to me. Because honestly, maybe that was one of the hurdles. Not only was I a drummer starting to write songs, a lot of people do that, but I didn’t know if people would really embrace a leading Asian-American frontwoman.
That’s not Karen O.
That’s true, she is, I guess she’s half, or something, right? She’s a big one.
You do get fixated on representation.
Oh, for sure. It’s always been part of me growing up, and I think that really did feed into my insecurity, like "I don’t know, will people get behind this?" And even when it comes to press photos, I’m the one that’s like, "Oh, should we have the other band members in it, because maybe people will be less scared to like it if there’s white people in the picture?" It’s a really weird thing to think about. I grew up being obsessed over the racial makeup of the room I walked into, things like that. I mean, I try not to, I’m not racist or anything. But definitely, in a positive way, that’s why I look up to Dirty Beaches, it’s like, "Wow, he’s doing this, it’s so cool."
Honestly, though, I want to say that so much of it is in my head, because my experience of it has been nothing but positive. I don’t really get called out for being Asian or anything like that. That’s been nice, and it’s been refreshing that people are open to it. So I think we’re in good shape, people are just listening to the music.