If you've ever caught Dum Dum Girls live, you've likely asked yourself, “who is that babe with the flying black hair who's slaying on drums?” That's Sandra “Sandy Beaches” Vu, the quartet's drummer, who also fronts her own music project, SISU (pronounced “see-soo”). Her band mixes minimal electro beats and synth with guitar, bass, and flute, all surrounded by Vu's ethereal voice, a far cry from Dum Dum Girls' chainsaw surf guitar and singer Dee Dee's vibrato.
This tour, SISU joins Dum Dum Girls as the traveling opener for most nights including Mon/21 in San Jose (though not in San Francisco, Tues/22 – but hey, Sandy will still be there, pounding away with DDG). SISU's totally DIY (hence, highly limited) hand-numbered CD-Rs will be available on the West Coast tour.
I spoke with the tireless Vu during a quick van ride during their joint tour, in her Los Angeles hometown, discussing doing double duty in the lineup, feeling naked on stage, and beats that sound like a giant's stride.
SFBG Can you tell me about SISU's formation, when did it start, and how did the idea come together?
Sandra Vu I was in a band called Midnight Movies, we were signed to a small label and we were on track to "go big” but it never happened. I had put everything into it at that point, and had structured my life, day job, and so on to make playing music my life.
So when we split, I was pretty confused about what to do next. I had always written songs and generally messed around with recording multiple tracks of myself since I learned how to use a tape deck.
So I just decided to write songs for myself, and learn how to use the computer as a home studio. This was before Garageband so it was a little more esoteric back then to record on a laptop. My goal was always just to keep it going and play music with my friends if they would join me.
SFBG Who else is in the band now?
SV Ryan Wood also played in Midnight Movies. We had that special rhythm section bond and had become really good friends. He's a talented songwriter and guitar player in his own right. He's pretty much the other half of the SISU brain. More than playing guitar and keyboard, he's the band engineer.
We have done a lot of self-releases, so I've made him responsible for the sort of technical aspects of the band, which I think plays a big hand in the sound of the band. He is a synth nerd and fine tunes a lot of sounds that we end up using. Then there is Nathanael Keefer on drums, Rebecca Calinsky on keyboards, and Chris Stevens who joined us on this tour on bass guitar. They are the best!
SFBG When did you start drumming? And when did you pick up other instruments?
SV I started playing drums when I was 13. I taught myself guitar around the same time as well, if not before. My first instrument was the piano, I think around age 7. In second grade, I joined the school band and learned the flute.
I wanted to play drums for a long time, but picked up guitar and flute along the way because it's a bit inaccessible to get a drumkit. You know, it's expensive, takes up a lot of room, and super loud – basically, every parents' nightmare. I realize it sickens people to hear how easily it came to me, but it really didn't. I worked hard at it and spent many many hours playing and obsessing.
SFBG Has SISU opened for Dum Dum Girls before this tour? What's it like doing double-duty at shows so far?
SV No, this is the first time. We had talked about it before, but it hasn't happened until now! Now that I'm a few shows in, I can tell you that it's pretty stressful. I thought we had no time to hang out playing in one band, we absolutely have zero time to grab dinner after soundcheck with friends now because I have another soundcheck right after. Overall, it's more mentally tiring than physically. I don't think I could drum in two bands in one night though, that would just be too intense.
SFBG Do you see any similarities between the two bands?
SV They are very much separate. Dee Dee and I have overlapping taste in music, but the outcome of our bands are very different. For one, there are no synths in Dum Dum Girls, whereas SISU songs are often centered around synth sounds. In SISU, I play the guitar very sparingly and hardly ever use complete chords.
SFBG Any other musicians, songs, or albums influence SISU?
SV Some unexpected influences are Serge Gainsbourg, DJ Shadow, and Vashti Bunyan. There is one DJ Shadow song that I was sure inspired our bass sound, but I went back and listened to it, and it was much different than I remembered. It was strange that I was inspired by an inaccurate memory, and even stranger that what we came to could have been drawn from much more obvious band, like the Cure.
SFBG Anything non-music related influence SISU?
SV The song “Infinity Net” on our new EP was inspired by artist Yayoi Kusama and a conversation I had with a friend. Sometimes I will let a visual idea dictate sounds and rhythm in a song. It's easier for me to describe sounds as visual than in words, for instance, I always describe to Nat, our drummer, that the beat is like a giant slowly stepping, which would give the song a weighty downbeat. So, in a nutshell, yes, things like dots and giants will influence SISU.
SFBG Is there a huge visceral change switching between drummer and frontperson?
SV Completely. I often don't see audience faces from the drums. And if I do, I have this cage of drums and hardware before me. In front, it's just me, my guitar, and the feeling of utter nakedness. Singing is the most vulnerable thing I can think of doing in front of a bunch of strangers, apart from literally going naked.
SFBG Who writes SISU songs, lyrics?
SV I've written and arranged almost everything that we've put out. I like to collaborate on lyrics with friends occasionally. The invitation is always open to my bandmates since it is usually the last thing we add. “Light Eyes” lyrics were written by my friend Deborah Uytiepo. I had originally written the song not for SISU, but for an unnamed project. I like to experiment that way, involve my friends and open up my world to people who aren't musicians. I create everything else alone and typically between the hours of 2-8am, so it's nice to engage that way.
SFBG Is 'Demon Tapes Vol. 2' available only in CD-R format?
SV For now, yes. My friend just brought up the idea of putting the first and second Demon Tapes EPs together in an actual cassette tape, which will probably happen a bit later. I wanted Vol. 2 to be a cassette tape, but in the end, CD-R is more suited to our DIY production process. It's faster to burn CDs and easier to customize packaging. I would have ruined cassettes if I tried to spray paint them.
SFBG Is it meant to be a follow-up to the 'Demon Tapes' EP?
SV I like the idea of seriality, but the thing they have in common is that they are demos. They are first-takes of ideas as they first happened. We left in a lot of technical mistakes and things I knew I could have performed better. Half the time in SISU, we are deciding whether or not to "fix" stuff, but we often don't, even if it's not a demo. The other common thing between the two is that we produced and did everything ourselves. Ryan knows how to mix and record and we are both graphic designers. I played nearly every instrument on both. It is half out of necessity and half that I actually enjoy every step of the way. My fingerprints are literally on each and every CD that goes out.
SFBG Any plans to record a full-length?
SV Yes, we have one "in the can" as they say. It should be in the cannon, but instead it's waiting in some can somewhere. It was supposed to come out last year, but we had some difficulty planning a release date around my schedule with Dum Dum Girls. I'm already thinking about the next record, but we are still figuring out a way to release that one.