On the basis of her taut, precision drumming in the Garage-Pop outfit Dum Dum Girls, listeners might be reluctant to describe Sandra Vu as experimental or expansive. Yet, as the mastermind of SISU, she proves to be just that. Both SISU’s debut EP, Light Eyes, and the full-length Blood Tears, out on September 17, serve not as a reinvention of- but an introduction to- Vu’s voice and vision. Miles away from the by-the-book song structure of Dum Dum Girls, SISU is a freewheeling, adventurous exercise. With sounds ranging from dance-floor new wave to introspective shoegaze, Vu confounds the notion of classification. If Blood Tears has a through-line, it is in the discord with which she offsets the otherwise harmonious. It’s an affectation that underscores SISU’s nature as a work in progress. In this interview, Vu expounds on the origin and ambitions of the project, as well as the freedom (and burden) that comes with taking the lead.
I was struck by the all caps spelling of the band’s name? Is SISU an acronym? What does it mean?
It’s a word we came up with based on my name and some mysterious formula which will remain a secret. Coincidentally, it means “extreme perseverance” in Finnish, which we have respectfully adopted.
On the subject of names and titles, SISU’s last release was Light Eyes. This one is Blood Tears. Both titles reference the ocular. What is the significance of the eyes as they relate to SISU? Are the titles meant to be antithetical?
I am drawn to writing about the senses, the immediacy of physical touch and physical manifestations of trauma, or enlightenment. That’s what Blood Tears and Light Eyes are about, respectively. They aren’t antithetical, so much as they are cyclical. Light Eyes is about the clarity you find after a breakup, and Blood Tears comes after or before.
Is SISU a pet project? Is this a fair assessment of your vision for its scope?
If by “pet project” you mean “side project,” then no. But because I’ve been so busy with other bands in the past, it’s invariably something that I have to start and stop here and there instead of focus on full-time. That doesn’t mean I’m not constantly working on it though, because I do, even when I’m on tour. I might even go so far as to say “project” is unfair, because lately it’s been me all the time.
I have been collaborating with label MONO PRISM on every aspect of production, which has actually turned out to be much more than I thought. I think I have overextended myself this time. I designed everything and I’m working directly with the pressing and printing companies. It’s driving me mad.
It seems like you handle every single aspect of SISU. Is it a difficult transition from being part of Dum Dum Girls – where everyone has creative input to contribute -to being the sole creative force? Does it add to the pressure you may feel in the creative process or does it mitigate the pressure?
The contrast might even be more extreme because I really have no creative input in Dum Dum Girls. That band is more of a touring outfit. After tour, we go home and Dee Dee collaborates with her producers. I would say that this difference makes playing in DDG feel like vacation.
Being the sole creative force is completely freeing. Writing is the easy part, it’s pushing the music out there, which is difficult. It’s much more personal and, therefore, so much more daunting to put yourself out there. DDG is a set thing, it’s even got a uniform.
When and where did SISU begin to take shape? The oldest reference I can find is from 2011.
Let’s say 2011, then. I started writing a few years before that, but it didn’t become SISU as we know it until a bit later.
Was the work on Blood Tears and Light Eyes done in Dum Dum Girls downtime or concurrent to developing material with Dum Dum Girls? Do the two projects require different frames of mind?
Some of the material may have stretched back to a bit before I joined Dum Dum Girls. Joining that band prolonged gestation a bit, but I would work on both concurrently, as much as was physically possible. I think the bands are so different from each other, so yes, they are very different modes. Receiving direction as a drummer is as far as you can get from leading a band and singing.
Is the Light Eyes material from the same period as the material on Blood Tears? Was the material on these releases recorded piecemeal or in larger spurts?
The material is somewhat piecemeal. Blood Tears came together as a collection sooner than Light Eyes, for sure. But because I had to write whenever I had the time, I just collect parts and things in a pile that I revisit later on, sometimes they become completely different songs.
Was the intention always to turn SISU into a full-fledged project? If not, what tipped it from experiment or creative outlet to something that you wanted to get behind and put out into the world?
When I started writing, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to accomplish with it. Truthfully, it took me a long time to get the courage to play my songs for other people. I went from that to recording the songs with my bandmate Ryan Wood, and then from that to finding band members to play the songs live. It was an incremental growth, and every step would just be me pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I didn’t set out with the intention to even become a “lead singer,” I just wanted to make music.
There seems to be a special emphasis on succeeding or failing on your own merits and of confronting insecurities. Do you feel a need to justify your talent after all the success you’ve had in Dum Dum Girls?
Quite [the] opposite, the more attention I got in Dum Dum Girls, the more the negative stuff would come out. I got shit for playing the same surf beat over and over. I’m sure some people think that’s the only beat I can play. It’s just the nature of the beast; you will never be universally praised or loved. Even though I didn’t write or even decide on those drumbeats, it can be hard to swallow at times. The pressure to succeed, I think, comes naturally when you put yourself out there. You want people to like it and you want to prove yourself that you are worth a damn. But again, I don’t think about this while I write. What I’ve written about is so personal and inward that I haven’t even gotten to this material yet.
To that end, do you put your work on SISU to anyone for criticism? Do you solicit opinions or outside advice?
Yes, but only to my band and my sister. If they’re down with it, then I feel better about going forward. Even though SISU is a “solo” project, there’s just as much work in their support as their is in the writing. Having some guidance is helpful for me. I make it for myself first, but, if they are excited about a particular song, then I feel better about it too. We produce our own music, so there isn’t some paid professional who foolproofs the songs. We are left to our own devices and music doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
There is definitely a progression to Dum Dum Girls sound, yet Dum Dum Girls does tend to get associated with a sound. SISU is much more diverse in sound. Is that freeing?
…Part of the SISU sound is that it’s not so tightly defined, and references tend to be more more subconscious than deliberate. So yes, it’s freeing, because I honestly don’t give it that much forethought.
How important is developing a distinctive sound for SISU? Is the goal to hone in on a sound or to explore whatever sounds pique your interest?
I’m not sure how people process SISU. I’ve heard specific pinnings, and sometimes not. I stick to what I like to hear, and it comes out hopefully as something cohesive. I don’t limit myself while I write, it goes in a pile and I’ll corral the material later–I usually know instantly what will work for SISU, and what might work for another project. I have wanted to do a choral record, or work with a children’s choir for ages– whether or not that becomes SISU or not is another question. So yes, I would say I work on more micro level–I’ll take note of a certain drumbeat, or the way something is recorded, and maybe it becomes a seed of something that might eventually sound completely different, rather than hone in on a particular style for a song.
In my experience of the album, for all the different sounds, from the poppier stuff to the more new wave-flavored stuff, you always seem to insert some dissonance or discord. I find myself remembering the little “off” touches as much as the hooks You describe it best in the press material as “pop with an un-pop sound.” Is this meant to obfuscate listeners who may have come to your stuff through their experience with the more traditionally structured Dum Dum Girls stuff?
No, I didn’t write this music in relation to Dum Dum Girls at all. What came out really just came out. Dissonance and mixing the “un-pop” with pop elements is what I like to hear in music myself. I like the idea of creating these contrasts, marrying distorted sounds with pretty harmonies and catchy melodies. It’s like uniting the weirdos with the jocks, even if it’s just for 3 minutes at a time. it’s kind of sweet isn’t it?