Interview: Into the unknown with mui zyu
When doing a whole week of artist interviews, it’s always a good omen when the very first one goes better than expected; this year, our SXSW interview with London-based artist and friend of the site mui zyu (Eva Liu) was no exception.
For the past few years (and following up from the success of her previous project, Dama Scout), mui zyu has been hard at work releasing comforting, yet unnerving work like 2021’s “a wonderful thing vomits” (along with its accompanying remix EP), which featured the earworm “pour a brain,” the track that got me hooked on her in the first place. Her music exudes a digital synthesis of alluring melodies and fuzzy, overdriven strings and keys, with lyrics sung by Liu herself to showcase the eerie, imaginative elements of her work. Together, they imbue a sense of both comfort and unease, like no matter how alien these worlds she creates may be, there’s always a gentle hand there to guide you along the way.
Following the release of mui zyu’s first full-length album Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century earlier this year via Father Daughter records, we decided to catch up with Liu to talk about her latest and upcoming works, her artistic inspirations, her Hong Kong heritage, and more.
Note: this interview was conducted in-person at SXSW on May 13th, 2023.
So your album, Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century, came out earlier this year; can you tell me what that phrase means for you and how the album came about?
Around the time when I was writing the album, I didn’t have a sort of set theme I was going for yet; it all just kind of happened organically. I started writing a lot of music when we were all in lockdown, and I wanted to explore more about my Hong Kong heritage because my parents had just moved back there after having been in the UK since the ’70s. At the same time, both my siblings had also just moved to Singapore, so I was feeling quite a bit removed from my family. Not like abandoned or anything, but just realizing that it was really just me in the UK. I had some cousins and aunts, but I think it was at that point that I just wanted to understand more about my Hong Kong heritage, having rejected it a little bit growing up.
Around this time, there were also lots of hate crimes happening towards East and Southeast Asian people, both in Europe and America; born out of that, there were these East and Southeast Asian communities in London that were coming together as a way to sort of process everything and provide support for each other. And as this all was happening, these songs sort of just came together out of that.
As for the title, the “Rotten Bun” and “Eggless Century” just came from the titles of the tracks. When I looked at all the songs on the album, those names just really stuck out. And when I was putting the album together, I did have this idea of having this theme of like, a video game, and that’s why there are elements of fantasy and folklore in there as well. I was also playing a lot of video games during lockdown, and “Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century” just seemed like the title for a game, and it really fit that kind of narrative idea of following a character in a game. And listening to the album, you’re sort of living through this kind of story.
Do you feel like writing music has helped you connect with your Hong Kong heritage then?
Absolutely! I always felt music has helped me understand myself better and kind of process things. It’s kind of like therapy because I grew up not really knowing how to express myself, and I’m not a hugely articulate person. And even with interviews now, I’m starting to get better at it. I’m often rambling, and I found music as a way to communicate. Also, my family is not exactly the best at showing emotions? So I kind of felt like I didn’t know how to communicate how I felt to them sometimes, so I just burrow myself in writing.
Do you feel like you articulate your feelings better more so through writing lyrics or through musical production?
A bit of both. With music it’s easier to just gravitate towards feelings, like if I want to create a certain feeling in a song, I can just kind of materialize that organically in a certain way. With words, I find it a bit trickier to get there.
Just because I’m curious, what kind of video games were you playing in lockdown?
I was playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When I first got it, I completed it with like, fighting Ganon and everything, then I lent it to a friend and then my friend completed it, and then when they gave it back I kind of went back in and did all the shrines.
All of them?? Aren’t there like, a hundred something?
Yeah! Because I was really craving being back in there, and then I got the expansion pack, and now the only thing I’ve got left to do is that trial of the sword. Yeah, I didn’t get that far… and I’ve just sort of given up with that and Koroks. Not gonna bother with that, there’s like 900 of those things.
Are you excited for the sequel?
So excited, I’ve been itching for it. It kept getting pushed back, and I was like, noooo! But at least they have a date now, and you can pre-order it now for May 12th! Obviously it’s been etched into my mind. Apart from that though, let me think… I did a bit of Skyrim, and the more recent thing I played was Stray, and that was super amazing. The whole storyline is really interesting and dark, which I didn’t realize; I just got it because it had a cat. But then actually, the dystopian aspect of it is really cool.
What do you feel is your aesthetic for both your artistry and also the art you consume, if there’s a difference at all?
They definitely overlap. I tend to gravitate to things that don’t necessarily fit together, and I think that even comes across in my music. I like things that contrast one another, and I guess that’s probably why I liked Stray so much. It’s a cute cat but it’s really sort of disturbing at times. Like, you’re speaking to droids that have been left behind, and in the story, humans created bacteria to eat all the rubbish, but it kind of backfired, and now it’s taken over.
Diseases and pandemic things are somehow a theme the past few years.
Yeah, I’ve been watching a lot of The Last Of Us as well.
What do you think of it?
I love it, it’s so good! I played maybe half of the first game, which is making me get a bit mixed up between the video game and the TV series. The game is quite hard, but it’s really fun! But anyway, yeah, with my aesthetic: I do like things that don’t necessarily go well together. I don’t know why I’ve always gravitated toward that.
The closest thing I can think of to call it is a kind of, spooky vibe? Not horror necessarily, but more of an unnerving yet comforting vibe. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah, and I’ve been really lucky to work with some really amazing artists to do the videos and the artwork as well. Clio, who did the album cover and all my EP covers as well, she has that kind of very sweet aesthetic, but it’s kind of like, under layers of things that are a lot darker, and her stories are quite harrowing as well. Like, very real stories, but you can’t quite define what’s harrowing about it. And I guess that’s kind of what excites me as an artist… things that kind of make you think a bit more, or feel a certain way but you’re not sure why. And then yeah, CLUMP Collective did the video for “Ghost with a Peach Skin” and “Talk to Death.” They have this sort of sickly vibe to it, but it’s funny as well. Their approach to it is really, really fun. I felt very confident being in their hands, like we were all on the same page.
What are the visual inspirations for your music videos, your album art, for everything?
I’m not sure if there’s anything in particular. I mean, I am very inspired by film and video games, but aesthetically, there isn’t a particular influence. I mean, I’m sure there is, but it’s definitely more of a collaboration. When I built up mui zyu, I didn’t have a clear idea aesthetically of what I wanted. I just kind of mashed all sorts of different things that I liked.
What are the differences between the work you made as Dama Scout and mui zyu?
I guess with Dama Scout, it was a lot more of an experimental approach to writing, and it was very much a collaborative project with the three of us. Danny is our drummer, and Lucci, who I’ve also been working with on mui zyu, was the bassist and also helped co-produce and mix both projects. A lot of that music came together from just being in a room together. I guess we were like a proper band, in the sense that we would just go into a room or studio or rehearsal space and just kind of make sounds, and just kind of go from there. They were actually two really great musicians to work together with. I just love their approach to making music. No judgments, just making sounds and judging them later. It’s very freeing, and even a bit silly at times, and just having fun! Just play stuff and see what happens.
Whereas with mui zyu, I had some kind of ideas that I wanted to get across, and certain meanings and feelings, and Lucci helped with materializing and bringing it to life. And because we had worked together on Dama Scout, I felt extra comfortable working in a space with him, and a lot of our approaches are similar. I kind of felt a bit more comfortable just experimenting — even the way he plays piano and opens up the piano and hammers on the strings inside, things like that. So there’s definitely overlap to how we’ve approached it, but I guess mui zyu has more intention from the start.
Are they still helping produce it and work on it?
Yeah, Danny moved to Scotland recently — that kind of spurred me to do my own stuff, so I kind of started mui zyu. Meanwhile Lucci was in London, so he helped me pursue that and also helped co-produce it. Danny isn’t part of the mui zyu project, but over lockdown he learned how to make 3D art, and he did some visualizers for me, so we definitely collaborate in other ways. I wish he would move back down to London, though, so we could jam again.
Do you have any musical moments from your album that you wanna brag about, like the way you made a certain sound or the way that a transition is done? Or even like how a certain synth was made?
With “Eggless Century,” I feel like there was a moment that I felt I was out of my comfort zone, but also something that I was quite proud of in terms of how I approached recording vocals, and I definitely wanted to do something different vocally on the album. For “Dancing for Drinks,” I wanted to mess up my vocals, so we processed them really really hard… like I wanted that sort of feeling of malfunctioning. And then for “Eggless Century,” we went into the studio and built this makeshift vocal booth, and I just sort of stood in there screaming into it for like an hour or two. I just wanted to see what it sounded like, and I sort of hated it, but also had fun with it, and that’s what you’ll hear on that track towards the end. I don’t even know how I’m ever gonna do that live. But that was quite a fun moment.
There are other songs I was really proud of, like “Paw Paw” was really special to me; it’s about losing my grandparents, and around that time, Lucci also lost his grandmother, so we were both going through the same thing and that song kind of came together quite perfectly. We just wanted this big expanse of drones, giving that feeling of like, another world, or otherworldly ethereal space. “Mother’s Tongue” is probably my favorite on the album; it’s actually my favorite to play as well. It’s a little nod to my mom, kind of stuff that I wanted to say to her, but the meaning is quite hidden in there, and I don’t think she would ever decipher it. She’s probably like “oh, that’s nice,” and there’s a little audio note of her at the end. She probably hasn’t even reached the end of it to realize *laughs*. So yeah, there’s not one particular one. Lots of little sprinkled moments.
Now as for Austin and SXSW… I know you just got here last night, but how’s it been so far? What’s your first impressions of Austin?
I feel like I’ve not seen enough, but I’m so excited by everything I’ve seen; I don’t know what I had imagined in my head, but it is sort of what I imagined it like. I’ve been to Austin before, but just as a sort of trip, and that was such a long time ago. I’ve always wanted to play SXSW. When my colleague at Father Daughter told me to apply, at first I was like, “Ugh okay…” but here I am!
Are you excited for your stay?
So excited! Yesterday we went and got some tacos, and I was feeling very very tired towards the end, since we arrived around midnight London time. It’s funny; I got back to the Airbnb and met like the other artists that we’re staying with, and I felt like I was drunk, but I wasn’t drinking anything. I was just so deliriously tired, and then some powers of hearing Michelle Yeoh winning the Oscar kept me going. I’m not a huge awards fan or anything, but when that hit… that was amazing. It’s just historical. I’ve always loved Michelle Yeoh.
First impressions, how would you compare Austin, or even the States, to the UK?
It’s very vast. I was born in northern Ireland, then my family kind of moved around Ireland and England, so I’ve lived in suburban England, and I’ve spent lots of time in London, which is very compact. But here the streets are really wide. And the taxi driver yesterday drove past some horses, and I was like, wow Texan horses! Even he was like, I’ve never even seen those. So that was kind of nice. I’m super excited to explore more and meet people.
What are you looking forward to this week? People, performances, anything?
I’m just really excited to play; just this morning we checked that all our gear works, so I can fully relax now and just focus on performing. I had to get transformers and stuff and also checked in a Nord keyboard, which got really bashed around on the conveyor belt, so we were just expecting the worst. But it works, so that’s good. And yeah, just seeing some good music; I haven’t fully put together a schedule yet, but I’m excited to see Pickle Darling and Helen Ganya. It’s just been kind of chaotic, like trying to get here.
And then once SXSW is over, then you can rest.
Well actually, we have like a whole folder of demos that I actually went through on the plane and now consolidated into the next slot of music, and I’m gonna start putting it together in April, then spend the next month also just putting that together and doing a few support shows in London. Fingers crossed, I get some shows out here later in the year too. I have some friends in New York and LA but I couldn’t fit them in this trip. I was hoping to make it a mini tour, but timing just didn’t work out. It’s so busy.
Yeah, and Austin’s right in the center of the States, with LA and NY being on completely opposite sides of the country. That also answers my next question of what’s coming up next, which is hopefully some type of tour, and new music?
Yeah, I’m working on new music that I’m trying to make sense of at the moment. This year I’m also planning some companion releases to my album. I’ve had a chance to collaborate with some creatives I really admire and I’m super excited about them but can’t say too much just yet!
Hopefully with the new Breath of the Wild, it’ll inspire more music too!
Yeah I’ll just have to sort of monitor myself! My friend Clio initially was like, “Let’s book a whole week off when it comes out,” but then she ended up booking just one day, and I might do the same. You see people who finish it in like 20 minutes; I could never do that. And I think in those speedruns, Link’s not wearing any armor, so you just have to not be hit. I don’t know how people can do that.
That’s the next goal for you?
Once I complete it all over again, and find all the Korok seeds, then I’ll try that.
This interview was conducted by Jacob Ugalde in-person at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas in March.
Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century (Expansion Pack) will be released on June 23, 2023 via Father/Daughter Records.
Jacob Ugalde is a writer, musician, and pasta enthusiast based in Los Angeles, California. A jack-of-all-trades kind of type, Jacob works in many different fields, from computer programming, to visual design, to film production, to music making, to whatever else he can get his hands on. His favorite musicians are Phoebe Bridgers, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vulfpeck, Luna Li, and Louie Zong, and his favorite video game is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. He thanks you for reading this all the way to the end!