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Early in the summer, I wandered out into Prospect Park to watch Sasami perform. Her latest album, Squeeze, has been in my musical rotation since its release in February. It’s nü-metal laden tracks, like “Skin A Rat” and “Need It To Work,” coupled with the slightly softer sounds of “The Greatest” and “Not A Love Song” felt like a much needed catharsis while me, my friends, and the world attempted to come out of the COVID pandemic.
Prior to her self-titled first album drop in 2019, Sasami cut her teeth playing with bands like Cherry Glazer. Once Sasami made its way into the world, she immediately garnered comparisons to fellow mixed-Asian female musicians, Japanese Breakfast and Mitski. But the average listener can smartly decipher that these artists all sound distinctly different. And for Squeeze, Sasami drew inspiration from a darker, horror-inspired, folklorish fantasy world.
The cover of Squeeze is inspired by a Nure-Onna, a Japanese water demon with the body of a snake and sopping wet hair of a woman. Japan holds a unique place in Sasami’s background. When she was in NYC, we caught up with her to discuss that—along with her background in classical music, her relationship with anger and rage, and just how community and communal space influenced her to take on a different sound.
So I got to see you perform in Brooklyn this summer. How was that for you?
It was great. It was very hot and humid. We just finished a four month long tour and then had a one-month break. The shows are a little bit of a test to see if we could remember everything. But it was also very fresh ‘cause we weren't exhausted.
It was a super fun show. You grew up in L.A., and I'm curious how L.A. might have influenced your music or your aesthetic.
Growing up in L.A., you have access to so many different types of culture, and I feel like my musical background is a testament to that, because I grew up playing in a symphony and studying classical music...but then also going to like punk shows and all ages shows.
I read in an NYT interview that you play the French horn and that you chose French horn because everyone else was playing flute. Is that true?
Yeah, I think I've always been kind of drawn to the less obvious, the less popular choice of things, aesthetically. I was voted most unique in middle school. At the time I was a goth band nerd that also played sports.
I'm Korean! You know, I was pushed to be excellent at everything.
Yes. There is no slacking in my household.
I completely understand that. Speaking of your family, I want to hear this in your words, what is the exact breakdown of your background and your family's background?
Yes. So my dad is German, English American, born and raised. My mom is Zainichi Korean, she was born in Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. So she grew up in Japan, but is ethnically Korean. She’s very, very mixed between those cultures. And like, I still speak a mix of Japanese and Korean sometimes. Even last night I was saying, “What is this?” in Japanese and then, “Oh, okay” in Korean to my mom. So I grew up with both of those languages. And also I grew up in a Korean church [the Unification Church, sometimes known as “The Moonies”] so I was around a lot of Korean culture. But then in a lot of ways, I think my mom is very culturally Japanese too.
I was listening to your interview on the Feeling Asian podcast with Brian Park and Youngmi Mayer. I was impressed with how much you knew about your family background because I know that not everybody has that type of access to family information. You said that you started asking those questions during the pandemic. I want to know how those conversations started and what your mom's reaction to it was.
I think it’s just a natural thing. As you get older, you become interested in all the things that you weren’t interested in when you were younger. I think it’s not even a ethnic thing. Growing up, you’re just not as interested in your parents. So I feel like it took a long time to prioritize understanding why my mom’s cultural tendencies are the way they are. I knew, growing up, she said that she was bullied a lot as a kid, and I vaguely knew that there was historical tension between Japan and Korea. But I realized how deep the colonization was and how many generations it affected because I have cousins that are in Japan and cousins that are in Korea. So the history is contemporary, affecting my family now. During the pandemic, it was such a time of deep diving within our nation, and I think that drove me to a natural curiosity about my family history.
What was the most surprising thing that you found out?
I feel like...I mean, it’s just a book (and a fictional book), but I did read that book Pachinko, and there are a lot of really similar things. Like, I knew that my grandpa had pachinko parlors, but I didn’t realize that it was such a deeply embroiled part of the Zainichi diaspora. I feel like family history sometimes is…what’s the phrase? Reality is stranger than fiction. Dive deep enough in your family history, you’ll find something that’s movie-worthy.
I know we took a side road, but I want to get back to music. What is your musical origin story?
I grew up in a mixed musical background. My dad played a lot of boomer dad rock in the house, and my mom played a lot of classical music. I started very formal too. Like, I studied french horn from middle school all the way through conservatory, through college. So I had theory, and music education or orchestration and all that stuff.
At what point did you start finding your own musical voice and did you decide to start pursuing solo work?
Yeah, I played in a lot of other bands and did a lot of work for other peoples’ projects. And then in 2017, I started working on my first solo album. I needed an outlet to test out my production ideas. The songs came from a very diaristic place. I feel like this is probably my Korean side also—not wanting to do anything until having studied it. And, with songwriting, I wanted to feel like I was studying other people’s songs and playing a role on other people’s music for a long time. I finally hit a place where I felt like I could just naturally be really good at it. So it took me until I was 27 to really start writing songs.
How does your second album Squeeze differentiate in terms of putting it together, the influences, and your personal growth as a musician and songwriter?
I have the thought in my head that the first album was much more stream of consciousness, whereas the second album was more like writing a screenplay or writing a book. Something where it was more conceptual and much more fantasy based. My relationship to the second album was less about me and my personal individual experiences and more about creating emotional vignettes. Trying to kind of use the music to create an emotional scene that listeners can tap into.
You have a very strong visual element to this album. Can you talk to me about how you decided on this aesthetic?
I knew that I wanted to have a dark fantasy energy to the album, because the album is really about creating a show and the sound world that is able to describe that more negative energy and negative emotion. I feel like my first album was about processing more—and there’s nothing wrong with this — but it’s more processing melancholy, contemplative, or sadder emotions. This album, to me, is more about processing some of the heavier, darker, more violent emotions. So then, during the pandemic…it’s one of those things where you kind of love and hate social media because it’s obviously so toxic and terrible, but at the same time, you connect with people that you maybe would never connect with. So I was really lucky to be able to connect with Andrew Thomas Huang, an incredible visual artist. He works with Bjork and FKA Twigs and is just an actual genius. He's a queer, Chinese American who is very interested and inspired by folklore and spirits and ghosts. We were on the same page and became friends.
You mentioned that with this album, you wanted to explore the darker emotions, which honestly (post-pandemic) feels incredibly cathartic. I read in a lot of interviews that you talk a lot about rage. What is your relationship with rage and anger and these darker emotions?
I think that we all have a relationship to all the emotions. And I think that because music is commodified in a certain way, artists are pigeonholed into a certain emotional language because of their previous work. So I wanted to make it really clear early on that I don’t just have one kind of emotional vocabulary. I’m first and foremost a composer, and I think my relationship to rage is as deep and vast as every human. Every human has all of it, experiences all of it. For me, it was more about seeing a lack of space for people who look like me. People like queer, POC, more marginalized communities. Having someone that looks like them, making that kind of music, and wanting to experiment with taking up space in a more white, male zone, which is metal. I wanted to appropriate some of those tones for my community and my fanbase.
For people who aren’t necessarily into metal or haven’t seen themselves in metal, is there, like, a starter pack that you would recommend for them to get into the genre?
I don’t know. Honestly, even with the bands that I really like, I find problematic things about their lyrics or about their politics. I feel like I was drawn to nü-metal in particular because there’s something that's a little bit more lighthearted about that genre. A little, almost clownier, which is kind of the part of metal that I was interested in. It’s, like, just demented and demonic.
And that’s the other thing, there are definitely POC, queer, femme metal bands, no doubt about it. I really love this band Ritual Moon in Los Angeles; I love this band Crypta, whose like a femme metal band in Brazil. I’m not inventing anything new. I’m just interested in the sounds that this genre uses. I feel like there’s an untapped sound that my community might actually relate to, separate from the culture of metal. I wanted to create a space where my community could very comfortably tap in and feel connected. I feel like my shows really achieve that, and I’m really proud of that.
Having just seen you in Brooklyn, I would definitely agree. On that note, where can people find you and your work and are you doing any shows in the next couple months?
Well, Spotify and YouTube, all the socials, But we’re gonna take a little break. I’m working on writing some new stuff now.
Published on December 21, 2022
Words by Melissa Slaughter
Melissa Slaughter has lived in all four time zones in the continental United States. She is a podcast producer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can hear her work on her independent podcast We're Not All Ninjas (with co-host Alex Chester), as well as on shows from Pineapple Street Studios, Netflix, and HBO.