Permanent Rotation: Yu Su

By in Features





Permanent Rotation is a series in which producers, DJs, and musicians go deep on the albums that have inspired them.

Hailing from Kaifeng, a small town in central China, producer, multi-instrumentalist and DJ Yu Su had limited exposure to Western and electronic music when growing up. A baptism of fire via a Floating Points gig in Vancouver set her on the path to electronic music production, while a support slot for Ben UFO in the same city inspired her to take her DJing in ever bolder directions. 

Yu’s unconventional, warm approach to both DJing and production has seen her tour the world and grace festivals including Dekmantel, Nuits Sonores and Houghton. In the wake of her acclaimed 2021 debut LP Yellow River Blue (released on her co-founded label bié, showcasing the Chinese leftfield underground), Yu formed a live band that played Mutek Montreal and supported Parquet Courts at Brooklyn Steel.

Many an electronic music fan is familiar with the work of avant-garde pioneer Laurie Anderson, especially her futuristic 1982 track “O Superman”, from Big Science, or its clubbier 2008 rework by M.A.N.D.Y. vs Booka Shade.

But for Yu Su, her obsession with Anderson starts and finishes with her lesser-known record Mister Heartbreak, released in 1984 on Valentine’s Day. 

Yu Su

“I’ve listened to some other stuff she’s done, but I’m not as into it,” says Yu. It’s the “precise and playful” East Asian sounds and textures on the album that first grabbed her, captured with impressive authenticity by a non-Asian artist. 

“The pentatonic scale, the liminal sounds of Eastern stringed instruments, the percussion… it’s all of those little things combined,” says Yu. 

The Chinese-born producer was introduced to Western music as a teenager and encountered electronic music for the first time upon moving to Vancouver in 2013. 

It was through her new friends at Mood Hut that she began listening to Music from Memory releases and other experimental records in 2016. She thinks she first encountered Mister Heartbreak via the inclusion of one of its tracks on a mix she heard at the time. 

“I was just like, ‘Who made this? Is it an Asian person? It was confusing, and because I also really like Yellow Magic Orchestra. [Haruomi] Hosono has also made very ‘Oriental-sounding’ music to play around with these genres and expectations from the West, so it really opened up this whole new door for me of what music can sound like.”

The sound design on Mister Heartbreak was a huge source of inspiration to Yu when making 2019’s Roll With the Punches, her first EP for Music from Memory’s sub-label Second Circle. Like Mister Heartbreak, it similarly layers vocals, luminescent keys, gentle percussion and Asian instrumental tones to a gorgeous, lysergic effect. 

Yu had just begun to collect records when she first heard Mister Heartbreak and immediately added it to her collection. “It was always kind of like this dollar bin record and every time I see this record at any shop in the world I would buy it because I love it so much,” she says. “I ended up with six or seven copies at some point.”

She started giving her extra copies of the LP to her “music friends” for their birthdays and found they weren’t usually familiar with Mister Heartbreak either. “I think maybe because [Anderson] is associated with this certain genre of music, people kind of forget about this record,” Yu says. Some people were “super surprised” by her choice, Yu says. “Most people were like, ‘Whoa, okay.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, this entire record. Don’t stop, just play the entire thing.’”

The album became a source of fascination for Yu as her musical journey deepened. “I was just like, ‘How can I make a soundscape so rich and multi-layered?’ And it’s groovy but not dense.”

“Excellent Birds,” featuring Peter Gabriel on vocals, especially stood out to Yu. “I studied that song so many times, I would sit there and listen and try to analyse it,” she says. “There’s so much sound going on, all these little samples and recordings and instruments. Everything was a mystery to me.”

The depth of the instrumentation can be partly explained by the long list of collaborators on Mister Heartbreak, with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Anton Fier to David Van Tieghem to Sang Won Park to William S. Burroughs included. “All the musicians [involved], there’s something that I like about them,” says Yu. “This is the one record that I like from front to back.”

Coming from a classical music background (she started learning piano at 4), being raised on Chinese pop and coming to Western and electronic music later in life are all factors that have shaped the music Yu makes now. She specialises in highly detailed, atmospheric soundscapes that are often more suited to home listening, and very different to the more high-powered (but still atypical) sets she plays in the club. 

“I don’t see myself making a crazy house techno banger any time soon because when I write music, I’m at home or I’m with friends in the studio,” says Yu. “I have to be in the club or on stage at a festival to be hearing dance music in that way. For the same reason, it’s always been difficult for me to record a more dance music-oriented mix at home because it just doesn’t work psychologically.”

Occasionally Yu will DJ with tracks from Mister Heartbreak, usually when playing an all-night set. “I love rounding up the night with something really beautiful, emotional and strange,” says Yu. “I might even play really slow for the last hour.” “Kokoku” is her go-to from Anderson’s record to end the night right. “That one is like, ‘ok, now I’m ready for bed!’” Yu laughs. 

Mister Heartbreak had the most impact on Yu’s Roll With The Punches EP but it has informed much of the work she has done since and is extremely important to Yu to this day.

“I was telling a close friend recently, ‘at my funeral, please play this record,’” she says. “Like, just in case, if something happens to me…you know what to do!”

Yu Su’s latest EP I Want An Earth is out now on Pinchy & Friends.

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