Venturing into The Mind of The Ambitious U.K. and U.S. Electropop Trailblazer, Suzi Wu
Interview by Evan Balikos
Suzi Wu’s music is dark, sonorous, and intricately layered, and as it so happens, Ms. Wu, whose real name is Suzie McDermott, is equally capricious as her foreboding lyrics about devils and witches can suggest. Her 2017 EP, Teenage Witch, proved with its nuanced DIY indie pop flair that she was not prone to falling into stale patterns. The project’s penultimate track was a delightfully twisted re-imagining of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, which saw it stripped down and re-sewn together with staccato keyboards, hard hitting snares, and resonant bass-heavy layering. Her newest project, Error 404, was released March 22nd, and it is Wu’s latest offering since that 2017 EP. Though the 4-song project is a lot louder and club-friendly this time around, Wu’s chaotic and colorful songwriting is guaranteed to get you thinking just as much as these pounding rhythms may get you dancing. I contacted Ms. Wu in pursuit of answers to the questions that her songs provoked. She was gracious enough to oblige.
So, I want to start by asking if I can remove the veil from your artist persona. How did the moniker “Wu” come into play? Were you inspired by Wu-Tang Clan, for example?
Woozy Wu was what my family called me. I knew that giving yourself a new name can give you a sort of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, I wanted to avoid that.
I’m really impressed with the depth and maturity in your lyricism. I mean, a line like, “I got a pharaoh’s tongue/ use it on the mummified young”, which is from “Taken Care Of”—a song you said you wrote when you were you 15—that’s not something I expected. Who or what would you say is the strongest influence on your songwriting, and how has it changed since you wrote a song like that one?
That's very lovely of you. My strongest influences are pretty varied. I've written songs since I was a little kid, so it's hard to pinpoint where it all began. I love 1930s American beat poetry and the rambling stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf. Around fourteen, I became fascinated by Kurt Cobain’s style of writing and his ability take one clever sentence and repeat it almost like a Bible sermon. Which is actually the essence of pop. So, I try to find the diamonds in the rough these days.
When I listened to Teenage Witch, I thought that the way you converted your teenage angst and post-education lifestyle into this concept of witchery was nothing short of artful. With Error 404, I noticed a similar concept in the title track, but with a cyberpunk trend instead of a witchy one. Do you feel like this pattern of transformation is going to be mainstay in your music?
I treat life as a dressing up box. If I see the mountain, I try to be the mountain. So, I'll always be trying on different themes. The next is a happier phase of life, so the guitars are coming back, but the production is more balanced than either of the first EP’s. I hope to keep up with transformation, yeah!
Error 404 is your first project in almost 2 years. I think it’s a much more polished and straight- forward collection of electro-pop tracks, with big-time producers like Mike Dean and Dave Bayley from Glass Animals attached to it. It’s also your debut US project for Def Jam Records. Can you tell me about the road that’s taken you to this point? How did you feel the first EP was received? What did you think you needed to change, meaning the sound and yourself as an artist?
The first EP was written around high school age, I was doing demos in my bedroom and taking them into the studio. That EP went so well I ended up in America meeting labels all over the place. I also went and did my first writing trip in Los Angeles. It isn’t my favourite city, but it is the place to be if you want to see genius-level producing in action. I got equally inspired and intimidated, but if the second EP taught me anything, it was to trust my creative gut.
You just performed at the Governor’s Ball a couple weeks ago. That must have been amazing. Can you tell me about the experience? What was it like performing at such a reputable festival?
It was new. Every musician’s dream is a receptive festival crowd, so of course that was fabulous. Also, after a lot of truck-stop cuisine, I could have kissed the festival caterer. The fresh veggies were to live for.
Going back to Error 404, I love it. I love that your lyrics and the production both have a sinister and chaotic edge. I particularly like “Grim Reaper”, because of the way you imagine death as this friend who looms over you as you’re dealing with your parents being hospitalized. It’s a bold track for an opener, and definitely a little freaky with its hectic and serrated synth-laden chorus. Was this always a track that embodied the direction you wanted to take with the EP?
Grim Reaper is the track that embodies the EP’s vibe for sure. My co-producer Ceci-G and I were trying to push new sounds. She showed me My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and I was interested in using live guitars as chopped samples. These ideas all build on each other, that's something I've developed more in my most recent demos.
I think the state of Pop music is always in flux, but I also think your music could be instrumental to yet another change for the genre. Specifically, your embracement of rave and dance music being embodied through the clattering, speaker-shaking percussion of “Highway”. The pounding drums on the rhythm section remind me of “Venus Fly”. Is one of your goals with your music to bring U.K. Rave sound to the U.S.?
Pop is nothing but a formulaic medium with simple placeholders. Within those you can do anything. I will always be using British sounds. I feel as if there are scenes within England that have so much potential to be world-wide. UK garage is one that I’m amazed isn’t more well known.
We’re seeing artists bring their struggles with drugs, mental health, and even topics like suicide to the forefront of their music. With your music, I feel like it is evident but maybe less blunt. For example, you cleverly use the computer term ‘error 404’ to imply that when you’re high on these drugs you don’t exist as yourself—that you’re not there. Were you worried about being this vulnerable when writing these lyrics? Is it condemning drug use, or are you just kind of telling your story?
I think being closed off with your art can only serve you for too long. Even if I write something cryptic, I know the right person can decode it within seconds. I don't underestimate my audience. My opinion on drugs is no bullshit, they're fun but at what cost? In the long run they can't make you anything, they can only take away. That doesn't mean people won’t do them, they always will! When I was a kid, I really felt isolated when it came to mental health problems or having any problems at all. I would like kids who feel like that to know even if you see really strange stuff in your life you can still be a well-adjusted human being. You’re certainly not alone.
You sound more confident on Error 404. As some reviewers have noted, you’ve got more of a swagger on this one. Less shyness, and more attitude. During the production of the EP, how did you change? What made you transform from an angsty teen to a bold and abrasive partygoer?
I feel as if it's almost the other way around. With the second EP, I lost a level of confidence in myself and my own vision. If anything, I've transformed from a bold party goer to an angsty teen! When I get shy, my attitude comes out, so this EP is me growing into myself a little and realising the adult world comes with adjustments to personality, I’ve become much more aware of my own mortality. The stuff coming next is a testament to the balance I’ve achieved, some of its actually happy, lol.
I read in your DIY interview that while Teenage Witch was about the songwriting, Error 404 is about testing, and I think I get what you mean by that. The songs on this project seem much more aligned with making a statement and hitting the cultural mark. There’s those pointed sounds of hip hop, minimalist pop, and electronica splattered throughout. Also, hearing those Timbaland-flavored drums and synth chords on “Hungry” was definitely the most surprising moment for me while listening. I would like to see more risks like that. Since the EP’s release, have you made decisions about to what to keep, what to alter, and what to do away with?
I figured out so many things that I want out of my demo work from doing stuff in the studio for this EP. Dave and I are both obsessed with Timbaland. 10-year-old me vibed to Mlissy Elliott. I love this question because the whole EP was me trying to figure this out, and the conclusion I've come to is to keep the beat and the hooks, add guitars and go back to old bedroom demo basics. Those who truly understand your demos understand your art, and if anyone understands my demos, it’s Dave.
Is there any news you can tell us about a future album?
I won't release an album till I think I have a coherent piece of art. However, there is a distinct possibility of a single before the end of summer.
Suzi, I want to thank you for speaking with us. Your music is so mysterious, so it was nice to get some answers. I wish you the best of luck with your art. Have a wonderful day.
Thank you for your enthusiasm. It’s still a trip to me people care. X