Holly Whittaker

Interview: mui zyu and her different mould

The year is 3535, and some highly intelligent humanoid being evolved from, well, humans, unearths an old hard disc from the bottom of the ocean. It contains a bunch of arranged sounds structure dwellers once dubbed as ‘pop music’. The digital ether has eaten away all of its pristine edges and perfect harmonies. Nevertheless, the melodies and voices are still discernible through the erosion of time.

This is exactly how mui zyu – the project of Eva Liu – sounds today in the year 2024. nothing or something to die for, the second album of the Hong Kong/British musician and songwriter – after last year’s Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century – contains songs that teeter on the verge of evaporating. Music overgrown with ambient passages, atonal toy box sounds, and yes, lush orchestral passages as well. For a relatively new project, mui zyu seems to have already surrendered to nature’s inevitable decay. And for some reason, there’s something strangely hopeful about all that.

When music inspires such fertile dreams, it can indeed be a very useful thing. Liu, however, admits she doesn’t feel like reading her own press, preferring not to let the outside world’s opinions dictate or taint her own personal relationship with her music. I suppose that makes perfect sense, as she lived a great deal of her life bristling against whatever role she is supposed to be bound to.

Fortunately, for nothing or something to die for, Liu and her collaborator Luciano Rossi were able to fully lean into the creative process without other life distractions, like day jobs or London’s inner city buzz. Holing up in a rural space in Devon, the duo started experimenting with myriad sounds with the abandon of a cosmonaut.

The new mui zyu album is a logical departure from Rotten Bun – a record that explored themes heritage and displacement, a new space carved out where Liu embraces her Chinese heritage while concurrently also discarding cultural tenets weighing her down.

With that heaviness sucked from the surface, nothing or something to die for feels like anti-gravity music – songs that evoke the grace of a jellyfish luminescent beneath the ocean’s abyss.

“I think the hopefulness and the joy are ways of coping,” Liu says. “As opposed to like being completely bleak. It’s also this sense of escapism as well; you want to be transported into a different world where you can reflect on things and also have a bit of space in order to think clearly about what we as people can do next.”

What’s next is a Q&A with Liu on the process behind nothing or something to die for: a conversation about transformation, breaking traditions and embracing your inner beginner.

Your music has lots of very interesting juxtapositions, from grainy drum machines and synths to big blustery strings. Does that part of it compel you to look forward as opposed to looking back now? To see, ‘how can I achieve this theoretically?’ and just learning to enjoy the process of it?

Yeah, definitely. When I started making music, I definitely came from a beginner’s point of view. My first band is this band called Dama Scout. And I was lucky enough to be in this band with two very incredible musicians. Danny [Grant] and Luciano had been in bands for years, and I came into it not really knowing what I was doing. But I think, in a way, that helped shape our sound. The three of us, coming from our different backgrounds, different tastes and interests, really shaped that project together.

So yes, the way I write and the way I create music is definitely influenced by the experience of being in Dama Scout. There was a lot of experimentation with that band as well; there was no wrong answer. No one judged anyone. It was just very playful in the studio, just doing absurd things and just trying different ways of creating sound. Approaching music with that kind of beginner’s mind, embracing a playfulness is important. Because you tap into different things you wouldn’t have otherwise. I think I’ll always want to be like that. I’ll always want try new things, collaborate with different people, go into these things with an open mind… like a beginner’s mind.

I delved into the Dama Scout discography too, and I was pretty struck by how different you sound in that band compared to mui zyu. Did mui zyu allow you to indulge in ideas or themes you couldn’t put in practice before?

Yeah, mui zyu is a project that was born out of the pandemic and what was going on in the world. And particularly, I was thinking a lot about my own heritage and my own upbringing in the UK, growing up in a Hong Kong family. That was something that I was processing a lot of like during the pandemic, and I feel like that’s what mui zyu grew out of. In Dama Scout I have mentioned some things that are loosely based around these experiences, but not to the same extent. And I feel like mui zyu has helped me process a lot of things that I’ve always wanted to explore. Sonically, I think there wasn’t like anything that I specifically wanted to achieve. It all came out quite naturally and organically.

Some songs on nothing or something to die for sound genuinely old, as if someone 70 years from now found them beneath the digital cobwebs. Like “in the dot’, for example, has this ‘record playing on a loop before the end of the world’-vibe. Not dystopian in the bleak sense, but romantic maybe? Gosh, I hope I don’t sound too dark here.

With that song I knew I wanted to work with [Father/Daughter Records labelmate] Pickle Darling. I met them last March at SXSW and we had already discussed we would work together in some capacity. And like this song came from a place of being like so small and insignificant. But it’s not like total despair, but, what you said, kind of romantic. We’re human beings and we have to embrace that and not think too much.

But with “in the dot” I guess we did [laughs]! With the very digital world we live in today, I wanted to process my vocals. I loved how Lukas (Pickle Darling)’s vocals are processed through lots of digital sounds. It’s kind of like an organic world that we used to live in, and now it’s really harsh and really intense and really abrasive. And that’s what I wanted to achieve with that song. Lukas is based in New Zealand, we live so far away from each other. So it just kind of felt like nice for us, being tiny dots apart from each other.

The vocal melody in the intro of “everything to die for” reminds me so much of Wagner’s famous piece “Tristan und Isolde”, particular how it’s used in Melancholia. Was that maybe a touchstone for you?

That’s a great reference. I didn’t, I hadn’t. That’s a great film, one of the films that’s really stayed with me. I think about it every so often, and I actually need to go back and listen to the soundtrack. But it wasn’t like picked from that, but I love chromatic moments and in music. And for the chromatic moment in “everything to die for” I wanted to create something intimate, but with moments of discomfort in it. You feel like it’s going somewhere, but it’s not, and this kind of makes you feel uncomfortable. I’m very much influenced by film soundtracks: someone like Bernard Herrmann has similar ways of writing music that make you feel uncomfortable, but you’re not quite sure why. Yeah. I need to listen to the Melancholia soundtrack again.

Speaking of, you bookend the album with two orchestral pieces, “satan marriage” and “扮豬食老虎”. I obviously can’t read any Cantonese: what does the latter track mean?

My Cantonese is really bad, but it stands for ‘baan, zyu, sik lou, fu’, which is ‘the disguised tiger eats the pig’. I wanted to end the album with a Chinese proverb. Because mui zyu is my Cantonese nickname, and the meaning of it is like Sister Piglet. Which is a nickname I got when I was a baby for some reason, and it’s just always stuck. And yeah, I wanted a saying that my mom uses that has a pig in it. And also the tiger. I was born in the Year of the Tiger. It was a nice way to bring these elements together. What it means is; you’re pretending to be the fool. Sometimes I feel like I am pretending to be the fool, and it’s just like absurd. And like, I feel like the world is absurd in a way, it kind of touches on that.

What about the opening track “satan marriage”? That title doesn’t exactly scream ‘beautiful strings’.

“satan marriage” was actually part of “the mould”. Those two tracks were sort of meant to be together. But then we thought it was a nice introduction to the album by itself. I talk a lot about portals in the album, and going into different places and being transported to different worlds. I kind of wanted it to sound like a big, expansive mess. But a lovely mess, or maybe my attempt at creating a chaos, but in a nicer way. It was inspired by the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know with all the lights?

The trippy worm hole scene. But of course!

Yeah. You’re taken back, or you’re going somewhere, but it’s just like things are just like whizzing past you as you enter this other dimension. Or this other portal, and it’s kind of representing a metamorphosis and… I guess for me, it was like a metamorphosis into this next album. The name “satan marriage” loosely touches base with the theme of nothing or something to die for: about rejecting expectations that are forced upon us. Particularly growing up in in like a Chinese Family, there are certain traditions and identifying as a queer woman is not accepted.

Queerness is not something that was expected of me. I’m expected to get married. And do these sort of things by a certain amount of time. How women are treated within these traditions; I guess the Satan represents the rebelling against that. Well, not necessarily rebelling, but being critical of the forced heteronormative idea of marriage. And it kind of that sort of ties in a lot throughout the album: the sort of codes of how we should live and conduct ourselves as humans. And the Satan element represents the type of marriage people would frown upon.

Do the sort of washed out, smudged sonic elements of your songs also reflect that sense of alienation you feel about what is expected of you, and how you choose to deviate from those rigidities? Maybe of pulling a fast one on yourself as a form of self-liberation?

Yeah, I think sometimes, when I’m wanting to recreate moments of isolation, or moments of like feeling lost, I would sort of sonically think about how that would sound. And have elements that kind of help tell that story. Like, for example, I would sing with a certain mic, or I would sing quite close up and have it sound quite dry. Or choose a different way to record. With “everything to die for”, because it’s a very vulnerable song, we wanted to try recording as soon as I woke up. Without saying anything, and just see what that sounded like. And that ended up being the take that we used in the recording. Just thinking of different ways to record that would help make the song what it is.

I’m very curious about the lyrical allusions to creatures, specifically creatures that have no real arms or legs. There’s a song called “donna likes parasites” and one called “speak up sponge”. It seems there’s a fascination for biology somewhere there that sort of extends into the songs.

Yeah I’ve always been fascinated by creatures and monsters. And I’m a big fan of old folklore and old horror stories. During the pandemic, I read this collection of short stories by Pu Songling. He’s a Chinese writer of short horror stories. I think it’s just something that stayed with me since a child. I’ve just loved weird, creepy feelings. I was obsessed with Ghostbusters. It’s not that doesn’t mean that I love watching horror films, I’m still scared of them. But I’m interested in mythical creatures. And I play a lot of video games that are set into these sort of worlds, and I think that also probably ekes in my dreams and stuff. I have very vivid dreams. So writing this album, I dipped a lot into my dream diary – some of it I don’t even remember writing, and some of them just really don’t make any sense. But it kind of it helped me picture things, and some of these words helped telling what I was trying to say in the songs.

And in terms of, biology, I grew up in a household where everything had to be so clean. “donna likes parasites” is about someone in my family who is striving to be perfect all the time. How everything is she’s so scared of, like germs or stuff like that. And growing up like, I was terrified of catching things. Obviously, it was irrational, and it just kind of reflects how certain people need to strive for perfection. But it’s impossible, and you end up being unhappy. So it kind of touches on that, for sure. I guess it touches on the song “the mould” as well, because not all mould is like bad… I mean, some of it is really bad. But it’s also about looking at things differently and not striving to be perfect all the time.

Makes a lot of sense that a lot of your music doesn’t really abide to notions of perfection. They are pop songs, but they leak out. “the rules of what an earthling can be” for example strikes me like a song about breaking out of a certain mould.

That song touches a lot on the same themes that I was talking before. But more specifically, like about misogyny and what’s expected of women’s bodies. That pressure on women exists in many cultures, but particularly in this case, my own Chinese culture. I know that in China, if you don’t marry by a certain age, you’re branded as a leftover woman. I think men also have that pressure in China; they get named a certain phrase if you’re not married by a certain time. But think it’s definitely more difficult for women. Chinese men are referred to as like ‘bare branches’; as in ‘not branching off’, as they’re not able to add branches to the family tree.

Having had experiences with my family where they’ve pressured me to become a certain way. Not that they’re not accepting. I mean, they accept who I am now. But I think growing up, they tried to push me in a certain direction. Not by force, more like encouraging me to behave in a certain way in order to like fit into a system. A system that’s probably made up by terrible people. And yeah, it’s about certain rule books to live by, and how other things are forced out of cultures. How things are policed, and how we shouldn’t have to be like that. We shouldn’t have to live with all these different rules. And yeah, people should just be who they are.

nothing or something to die for is out today via Father/Daughter Records. Follow mui zyu on InstagramTwitter and Bandcamp.