To celebrate the launch of New Balance’s 997H – the sneaker built for independents – The Spinoff spoke to Auckland synth pop duo Imugi about their musical influences, independence, growing up, and giving voice to bicultural experiences.
We all have those years that define us for the rest of our lives, and for Yery Cho and Carl Ruwhiu, that year was 2014.
“That was when we met, in our last year of high school. We had maths class together and we ended up in the same friend group,” recalls Ruwhiu, whose bright and airy Grey Lynn flat we’ve gathered at to talk about all things Imugi 이무기. We’re chatting in the living room overlooking the grassy backyard, laidback and lounging as Auckland’s afternoon heat slowly simmers. Ruwhiu, dressed in a loose-fitting shirt and sports cap, stretches himself out on a bean bag on one side. Cho, whose distinctive septum piercing is the first thing I notice, rests easy in shorts and an oversized bomber jacket on the other. Their style, like their music, bridges aesthetic touch points: from sneaker culture to American vintage to 90s streetwear casual.
“Yery had been playing in some bands that year and for me. That was the first year I was showing people the beats I was making at home. Then our friends were like ‘you and Yery should do stuff together!’ So we just ended up jamming.”
“2014-2015 was just the time,” Cho adds. “Honestly, I always liked music but I was really shy and not confident at all. I’d always watch people and think ‘I could do that’, but then I never did.”
“But that year, with the friend group we happened to fall into, I feel like everyone did music and everyone was in bands. Seeing them do it and seeing them make music got me thinking ‘okay, I see how it works. I could do that.’”
What came out of that collaboration was ‘Dizzy’, a smooth, synth-pop dance track fusing Cho’s melodic vocals with Ruwhiu’s buoyant, rhythmic beat. Clearly, the song struck a chord with the online crowd with the track boasting more than 48,000 Soundcloud streams since being uploaded in 2015. At the time, Cho and Ruwhiu were just 18-years-old.
“I had this one song that I really liked and Yery had written some lyrics to it. We fleshed it out a bit and then chucked it up on Bandcamp pretty much on the same day,” says Ruwhiu, “We didn’t think much of it, but it got more of a response online than we were expecting. Some blogs wrote about it and it was getting shared around.
“That was when we were like ‘oh shit, maybe we kind of have something here.”
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At 21, Imugi are still as young and aspiring as their namesake suggests (in Korean folklore, an Imugi is a serpentine beast longing to become a fully-fledged dragon). But the band’s come a long way since the release of ‘Dizzy’ back in 2015. They released their first ever EP (Vacasian) in 2017, made their first ever music video (for ‘Greensmoke’) earlier this year, and played their biggest gig yet (Laneway Festival) just last month. Now, the plan is to release more music with a sophomore EP set to come out in the next few months.
“Just spending a year writing songs and playing shows [in 2018] really helped us to figure out the kind of music we wanted to play,” says Ruwhiu. “The fun part is the process of writing songs, so we end up with about a million of them. Now it’s about trimming the fat and picking what’s best and putting that into a cohesive project.”
For Ruwhiu, who takes care of the production side of things, making music started as a teenage hobby. His earliest beats were inspired by whatever his brother would bring home on CDs ripped from Limewire: Soulja Boy, Lil Wayne, Fat Jon, and the like. Then came the EDM phase (“Everyone was listening to dubstep when I was in intermediate”), the rock/metal phase (“I even took bass guitar lessons the whole way through school”), before drawing on artists like Toro y Moi’s smooth, shiny, electro-pop beats for musical inspiration.
On the other hand, while well-versed in music (“I had the classic Korean mum. She put me on piano as soon as I could breathe”), singer/songwriter Cho had never made her own prior to Imugi. In fact, she’d barely even had any experience singing: fear and trepidation had always held her back. But by the time her late-teens rolled around, she started gravitating towards artists like Grimes, Abra, Mitski, and FKA Twigs: fiercely independent women who were “doing it themselves”.
“For me, so much of it was a confidence thing. Being confident enough to be honest in your lyrics and then putting that out there for people to see. So when I was like 17, 18, 19 and even into my twenties, I’d spend so long watching YouTube interviews with different producers, singers, and rappers – [especially] women of colour – who were doing it themselves and just didn’t really care.”
As a duo, Cho and Ruwhiu share plenty of mutual musical interests: Erykah Badu and Average Rap Band, for example. But in the end, what really brought the two together, what really forged their alliance and friendship, was a shared love for a band called Miniature Tigers – a New York-based indie-pop outfit of the Vampire Weekend/Neon Trees ilk.
“I remember Yery showing it to me and on first listen I thought it was just so incredibly cheesy, such over-the-top synth-pop. I couldn’t get into,” recalls Ruwhiu. “But the more and more I listened to it, the more and more addictive it became.
“That was a real turning point for me in enjoying pop music because I was just so into hip hop and rap. After that, I really got to appreciate just good songwriting and melodies.”
Being exposed to such an eclectic range of musical influences isn’t exactly uncommon to anyone who grew up in the internet era. Naturally, Imugi’s music often ends up as a bit of everything: dream pop, hip hop, ambient, electro, synth, rap, and even spoken word. They’re the consummate bedroom artists, spending hours tinkering back and forth between lyrics and beat. Sure, it’s a question of resource for bedroom artists like Imugi, but it’s also a question of independence and creativity.
“We’ve never had our own private studio that we go to. It’s always been my room,” says Ruwhiu, “Yery would just be lying on my bed vaping and looking at Facebook. I’ll just be making beats [and she’ll be like] ‘Oh! What if we did this?’
“It’s still creative when we go to the studio, but I feel like when we’re in the bedroom [there’s] a lot more experimentation and playing around.
“For some reason – especially when we first started making music – I imagined a girl alone in her bedroom with her headphones on, in front of a mirror and singing into a hairbrush.
“I guess that’s sort of music I wanted to make. When you listen to it on your own, it could be a really intense and personal experience. I really enjoy listening to music on my headphones so I wanted to make something that would stand up to that.”
It would take another two years before Imugi was to reemerge with something new. ‘Dizzy’ had done well and the pair were starting to take music more seriously, but with the end of high school and the start of university (Cho went to study english literature at the University of Auckland; Ruwhiu went to study audio engineering at MAINZ), it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the time to make anything new.
“Dizzy’s success was really encouraging, but it was also very scary,” says Ruwhiu. “We only had one track and I considered [that beat] to be the best thing I’d ever made. How do you follow that up? It took us a while before I felt like we’d made something that reached that same threshold again.”
“But I feel like that [break] was really important,” Cho adds. “I don’t think I was mature enough. I don’t think I had enough life experience… I definitely feel more reflective now because I feel more self-aware. At 18, 19, there’s still bits of teen angst in you. It’s all about ‘this is how I feel right now’ and not really thinking about it beyond that.
“I think music sets you on this journey of going from self-consciousness to becoming more self-aware. And instead of pausing all the time and stopping yourself and trying to think about how others may see you, or the negative ways you might see yourself, [you learn to] just say ‘nah’ and ignore it.”
Vacasian, Imugi’s debut EP released in 2017, certainly touches on these themes. As well as a remastered version of ‘Dizzy’ and trippy, chillwave anthem ‘Paradise’ fleshing things out, Vacasian is perhaps most notable for the spoken word pieces bookending the EP’s opening (‘Fade Away’) and closing (‘I Am’) tracks. These poetic, stream-of-consciousness style passages wrestle with questions of culture, identity, sense of place, and sense of belonging. It’s questioning the wider world, it’s “yelling into the void kind of stuff”, and gives the EP a thematic cohesion it otherwise would’ve lacked.
“I think [the spoken word pieces] were coming from a place of feeling kind of frustrated but also wanting freedom,” says Cho. “[I wanted to say] ‘Look, I’m allowed to have dreams and say what I want without feeling any pressure’. Because in reality, it’s not like that. It’s escapism. It’s ‘vacasian’! This dream world where you’re not pressured to [show] which culture you’re more a part of.”
While Cho’s lyrics are unique to the South Korean migrant experience (her parents emigrated here when she was just two), her musings are equally relevant to anyone who’s grown up with the pressures, the judgements, and the crippling frustrations that come with living in a multicultural environment.
“When it comes to a lot of migrant kids, but also mixed kids who have more than one culture, there’s always so much pressure from every single group you’re part of, to have a finger in each one.
“I think women of colour all go through really similar experiences. Everyone has their own upbringing and stuff, but there’s always a point when you meet and you don’t have to explain it because you just know.
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“Coming into my early twenties and looking at my peers around me, everyone seems to be more comfortable with who they are.
“You spend so much of your teen years thinking ‘But I’m not white! That’s the definition of coolness and beauty!’ But lately, it’s been really good just being surrounded by this energy of ‘You’re worthy exactly as you are.’”
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New Balance is committed to supporting the independent local music scene and putting Kiwi artists centre stage. This article was created to celebrate the launch of the 997H – the sneaker built for independents. To find out more about New Balance Music and the 997H, click here.