Within and Without: An Interview With Hyunhye Seo

Hyunhye Seo’s new solo album, Eel, is visceral and somewhat disturbing, but there’s a satisfying timbre that saturates every movement. Dark motifs scatter when any stray beam of sunlight focuses in, pouring water over decaying, angular frameworks. Her part in Xiu Xiu always made such a strong impression, so I was thrilled when she began making solo works. She has a unique approach and perspective that transmit through every sonic pathway resulting in music with sculptural gravity and tactile resonance. It’s quite something.

Eel is one of my favorites from 2023 and is out now on Room 40. Grab it HERE.

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I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

I remember music classes in grade school in South Korea. We all had to buy a kit that included a small tambourine, a triangle, and a bell. The class was split up in three and we played our assigned instrument while our teacher did her best to conduct rhythm.

I moved to Los Angeles and at my class recital in third grade, we sang “Guajira Guantanamera” in Spanish. I didn’t even know any songs in English yet and I suspect not many of my classmates did either since we were mostly immigrants with English as our second language. 

I also grew up in a religious family and went to church regularly, where I sang or played in the church choir/band.

My earliest experiences with music were a collective and educational pursuit. A tool to learn how to be together — listen, sing, and play collectively. It can also teach, manipulate, and change people. Funny though that I don’t have many early recreational memories of music. 

Photo by Eva Luise Hoppe

Did you always want to be a musician or play music?

I can’t say I did. Frankly, for a long time it never even occurred to me that I could be a musician. It just didn’t seem like an option to me, because for most of my life, I did not imagine that I would be rich, privileged, or white enough to become a “musician.” This assumption was probably an outcome of a complex mix of parental pressures and classist ideals, as well as ingrained cultural prejudices and systemic inequities that do not relegate meaningful creative pursuits to certain classes of immigrant communities. 

Things have changed a bit, and there are more spaces that are being forced open. Also, the concept of what is a “musician” or what it means to play music has personally evolved for me as well. 

It’s something I find myself still grappling with.

A lot of people are probably familiar with your work in Xiu Xiu (myself included, obviously!), but I was so excited and intrigued when your first solo record, Strands, came out a few years ago. Which, as an aside, I love the title of that record so much and the little bit you wrote for it on the Room 40 website. I still think about that a lot, especially as I find strands of my daughter’s hair in places I never expect them to be. Anyways, I have a question here… What pushed you to start making solo works and, particularly, making an entire record?

Ultimately it was Lawrence English from Room 40 who pushed me to make a solo record. We were having tacos and he just told me to do it. Like not even really ask me, just basically told me I had to do it.

I guess sometimes it takes just one person who you love and respect to tell you that you can and should do something you didn’t imagine for yourself.

How different is your approach to working on solo material compared to working in Xiu Xiu or other projects? I mean, besides the obvious of there being other people and their ideas involved.

A bit more messy and disorganized, unfortunately. It’s also interesting because you don’t have your bandmates to bounce ideas off of or help expand. I have to push myself all alone and give myself some more room, time, and grace to discover new things. It takes some extra effort when you’re the only one around to tell yourself that not everything you’re doing sounds dumb.

Do you find making music on your own and putting out these solo works to be a more vulnerable experience? And does that aspect shape it in any way?

Completely. Mostly, I try to ignore the apprehension and self-preservation that comes from vulnerability and just make something that feels open and candid, however, it makes sense to me at that moment. But perhaps there is something in that act, in wanting to make something that is both in and outside of myself. 

Okay, let’s talk about the new album, Eel. First, where does your interest or fascination with eels come from, and how did that inspire the themes of the record?

The title came after the music. While I was trying to come up with a title, I happened to be reading about eels and it just seemed to fit. 

If you could ask an eel one question, what would it be?

Just one? Jesus Christ. I guess I would ask how it counts time and ask it to be really specific and thorough, and maybe provide some visual diagrams too if possible.

Your music is always so visceral to me, and this is especially the case with Eel. Sonically, it does this thing that feels so rare to me where it feels really close – I think I said in a previous thing I wrote that it’s like it’s crawling on my skin – but there’s also something that is spacious and kind of massive. There’s a moment on “Eel 1” in particular where the piano really comes through and becomes clearer that this dichotomy is in full effect. Can you talk about the sonic dichotomy you create in your music? How do you achieve a sense of intimacy and spaciousness at the same time?

For a while, I was practicing piano in a big hall that is a part of a former crematorium in Berlin as part of a residency at silent green. Some of the piano was recorded in that space. I also imagine performing in that space but for just one person at a time. Just the piano and gong, me, and one other person in a big reverberating hall. It’s so intimate, and the hollowness of the space reverberates with closeness, no matter how far apart you may be within that hall. The entire album was made in this dream–with that one other person–in mind. 

I find your music to be really transportive, as though it creates and exists in its own world. How has music been a medium for creating and exploring new worlds and ideas for you? And how do you try to harness these transportive effects in your work? I also wonder how these pieces start and begin to take shape. Do you start with some idea or mental image, and then translate it into sound and go from there? Or is it more to do with collecting sounds and seeing what reveals itself as you start putting things together? Or hell, something else entirely? 

Thank you for your kind words. I’m very grateful to hear it because it’s what I would hope for; for it to feel like someplace, something different and new. I want to answer these two questions together because it feels very connected, as you mentioned. Music, all sound, has such insidious power to create entire worlds, and for me, it’s in big part via the creation of a new language. And as we know, sometimes things exist only after we start articulating it. So in many ways, certain sounds seem to reflect certain emotions, ideas, worlds that otherwise have no words to describe them. It gets in between those cracks in between. 

I can’t say that I try to harness that effect much. Instead, I try more to give up control. Usually, I just start playing, without much thought to where it needs to or should go. Just make a sound starting from what I’m feeling at that moment and keep playing even if I don’t love it at first, without expectation. After a while, sometimes very quickly on good days, there’s a certain point at which I am just listening and hearing and playing without thinking. But there’s still a playful engagement, an exploration of the sound, tone, depth, and texture, and letting myself ask questions without answers. There’s a pull and push and exaggeration and restraint, not out of a need to control, but out of curiosity. That engagement adds layers to the original framework, and it’s a continuous dialogue with the piece. And after a while, I just need to stop and say that’s enough and you have to let go. That can be hard. Deadlines help.

I realize perhaps I am being quite abstract, but I do think there’s a bit of a brute abstraction in the process. I just sit and play and see where it goes. 

I do want to say that the letting go is not always easy. It takes a certain amount of security and comfort, a knowing relationship–if that’s not too esoteric to say–with my instrument. To achieve that, I practice a lot. Just play and play without needing anything to come of it. I like knowing that I can follow the sounds to wherever it wants to go.

What was the biggest challenge with making Eel? And what surprised you the most about it?

The biggest surprise was how much it evolved over time. It started as something that felt quite different in the beginning. That was also the challenge–that it needed to evolve, a lot. Also at some point, I think I exported the tracks in the wrong name/order and then ended up mixing stuff from the first song to the second one, which caused a bit of confusion, but then created something better in the end. Happy mistakes. 

And to wrap up, what are your favorite and least favorite sounds in the world?

It feels like a bit of a cop-out to say silence. Can my favorite sound be the lack of sound? It rarely, if ever, happens. OK, to be a better sport, my favorite sound is when you hold your finger up to your neck to feel your own heartbeat. And suddenly it seems like you can really hear it through your fingers. I check my heartbeat quite often during the day. Does everyone else as well? 

My least favorite is the sound of people sneezing or coughing.

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