Straight to Cassette: A Chat with 90s Indie-Kid Layton Wu
Taiwanese bedroom pop artist Layton Wu is an easy-going guy who wants to make music for fun.
Make no mistake: while his music and visual aesthetic heavily borrows from 90s nostalgia and bedroom pop, Layton Wu’s influences go deeper than just that. That much is apparent in his killer set of Spotify playlists, named after classic Taiwanese night market snacks like “Stinky Tofu”, “Oyster Omelette”, “Braised Pork Rice”, and of course “Boba Tea” — all foods he grew up on. Dig deep into these playlists and you’ll experience a zephyr of Wu’s kaleidoscopic range of inspirations, ranging from jazz-funk to calming music scores to obscure funk records. Mix these all together and you’ll get a good glimpse of where Wu’s feel-good, warm summer songs come from. Songs like “Summertime,” “Summer Night Wind,” and “Honey Ginger Tea” fit right at home with those songs he’s so inspired by, bringing a touch of modern production to a vintage era.
But Wu wants to keep it fun and about the music. When a big Chinese music label wanted to buy his music, Wu declined and instead chose to join his friends at Sunset Music Productions (the label of Taipei’s Sunset Rollercoaster) to keep doing what he loves and not let the business of music ruin it for him. Together, they released a mixtape called Summertime Mixtape on a quickly sold-out physical cassette back in January.
I sat down virtually with Layton Wu, who just moved from Taipei to Chicago, for a quick chat about his influences and his future plans. At first, he seemed a little hesitant, but I find he’s not a shy person at all – just nervous. This quickly gives way to his energetic personality, which like his music, radiates warmth and happiness. Throughout our conversation, I’m both fascinated and left smiling by this friendly musician who emanates vibes of peace and love.
As the scorching summer sun starts to loom in both Taiwan and North America, Layton Wu’s Summertime Mixtape will guide you through the sizzling heat.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Taiwan and I’ve spent 25 years there. I was influenced very much by Taiwanese culture but also American from movies, music, and the entertainment industry in general, even sports – I love NBA. I got the chance to study abroad at DePaul University [in Chicago], and I’ve been here for about 2.5 years. I don’t consider myself a full-time musician, more like part-time. I don’t want to really make music for a large audience or for money. I’m studying computer science to get a stable job as is typical for Taiwanese/Asian culture, and to do music for fun.
My real name is Wilson Wu but I call myself Layton Wu as my artist name because my cousins in the Bay Area adopted a dog and its name is Layton. The birth documents showed that the dog coincidentally came from Taiwan — it’s a Taiwanese mixed dog but they don’t know how it ended up in the States when they adopted it. I feel like I’m kinda like that dog because he’s Asian but found himself in a totally different world and way of life. That’s how I feel now.
My genre is bedroom pop, but my influences are actually more hip-hop, soul, funk, and 70s and 80s music influenced me a lot. I’ve got some playlists on Spotify which are all my favorite music — you’ll see all different kinds of stuff from the big classic names to more unknown stuff. I’m trying to recreate the 70s and 80s sound but I fell short and ended up in the 90s with bedroom pop.
How has the Taiwanese indie music scene shaped your music taste?
I played in a band, [Colored Whale], before I started my solo path that was more shoegaze or indie pop. At the time my music interests were shifting from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to more Mac Demarco, Real Estate, and HOMESHAKE. But because we have mandatory army service in Taiwan, we left and disbanded. At that time I had graduated from college in Hualien [city in Taiwan] then moved back to Taipei to spend time before my service, where I found a community called Beatmakers Taipei. That group really helped me do the music I’m doing now and shaped the way I listen to music.
When I started going, there were a lot of people doing EDM, lo-fi, trance, electronic stuff, or anything they could make on their own in their bedrooms. I started to be exposed to a lot of new music and genres — at the time I really liked hip-hop which has a lot of samples. Beatmakers would meet up monthly on a random Sunday where people would share their knowledge about making music. There were DJs there who helped me grow my taste in different music as a “selector” of different and interesting music. The DJs go beyond just the popular stuff and look at those rare, unique sounds. That’s where I started digging into music and diversifying what I listened to. I used to go to parties with DJs and try to Shazam their music. But nowadays, I just use Spotify and YouTube.
What has the reception been to your mixtape?
With this tape, I think people liked it because I covered a song called “Summer Night Winds.” It’s a famous song by this Taiwanese rock legend. If I were to guess, that’s why people like it.
I used to upload beats and other stuff to Soundcloud but this is the first time I’ve put something out that’s packaged like this. I think people like it cause it’s already sold out — we had 500 that already sold out! I didn’t expect it to sell out that fast. I’m not that confident of a person but my label had more faith in me which I’m thankful for. I used to think my music sucked and I still think it can be better, but now I want to write more songs and express myself. I feel songs on Side A represent me right now because they are more mature.
Why did you decide to release Summertime on a cassette?
I definitely wanted to do vinyl, but on the business side it’s more expensive and risky for the label. But a cassette is a good starting point. I didn’t want to do CDs, it feels too digital or not meaningful. I’m a cassette and vinyl person. I think cassettes are a trend on Bandcamp for lo-fi producers or indie artists but for me, it’s a real physical thing that I can directly record onto, like vinyl. Growing up in the 90s, I would listen to cassettes. When I was in elementary school, we used cassettes to learn English. So cassettes mean a lot to me. I’m an old-fashioned guy and I do like that time period of 80s and 90s. I’m an optimist and I imagine that period was a very exciting new time for music with electronics, computers, and synthesizers.
What is your connection with Sunset Rollercoaster?
A few years ago I recorded the song “We Just Feel the Night”. For that song, I collaborated with the bandmates of Sunset Rollercoaster: the bassist and keyboardist. We were just randomly playing in the rehearsal room and found the loop was interesting so we recorded it. Also, the lead singer used to be my guitar teacher six or seven years ago!
But the main reason I know them is I’d see them at a rehearsal room called Fattone. I think it’s one of the cheapest rehearsal spaces in Taipei. It’s a little dirty but I love that place, so many cool indie bands started out there. The owner of Fattone is the keyboardist of Sunset Rollercoaster. I would go there to practice a lot with my old band (Colored Whale), so that’s how I got to know them. There’s a culture there, lots of cool people there. That’s mainly how I know there’s a music culture in Taipei, through Fattone.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on my debut album right now. I want to collab with more people, trying to connect with some friends I know in Chicago, someone from Canada and Hong Kong. I’m not sure if it will all go in the album but I’m starting to reach out not only locally, but globally. There’s a Taiwanese American musician in LA I’ve never met but he helped me make a bit of “Honey Ginger Tea”. We may not be able to meet in person but we have the internet and can share the files online. Everything can happen there. I also want to share my music not just in Taiwan, but with audiences around the world.
What does music mean to you?
Music today is like fast food or a snack. Before the streaming services, music was more precious, like a gift. People would go to a record store and get it and listen to things hundreds of times. But now it’s like fast food the way people are consuming music.
But music to me is very important, it’s an art. I don’t want money to get in the way. In the future, if no one listens to my music it’s fine, I will keep doing it. Because it’s just the thing I love. I don’t want to have a music career where I have to rely on it to survive, because I don’t want to have to compromise on what I make. I just love it so much.
This interview was conducted virtually by Derrek Chow in early 2021.
Derrek Chow is an interdisciplinary researcher and designer from Toronto, Canada with a passion for music and film.