Korean music duo Salamanda bonded over their shared love of contemporary classical and experimental electronic music. In an interview taken from issue 07 of WIP magazine, they discuss their eclectic use of sounds, their collaborative relationship, and the underground music scene in Seoul.
‘Immersive.’ It’s a term you see in reference to open-world games and theme parks, 3D film and live A/V shows; a catch-all concept intended to convey the impact of an experience, and one you’ll as likely see applied to a Metaverse Fashion Week show as you would an interactive art installation.
So, when talking about the leftfield ambient Korean music duo Salamanda and the inherent cross-modalities of their work, ‘immersive’, as overused as it now is, feels somehow hollow, insufficient. Salamanda’s music is perhaps better described as a universe unto itself; an ever-evolving space that the duo crafts from sounds of cascading water droplets, laminous vocal textures, and crisp metallophone pulses.
The Seoul-based electronic music duo, composed of Uman Therma (aka Sala) and Yetsuby (aka Manda), are skilled world-builders. Not just limited to their own LPs, their sound design has accompanied interactive installations like studio DVTK’s Sharing Prosperity (shown earlier this year at The Barbican’s Our Time On Earth exhibition). Visuals and tactility are just as integral to Salamanda as audio, whether it’s in the synesthetic timbres of their music or in their retro game-inspired cover art, which Sala creates.
The pair have been enchanting listeners since their oneiric debut album Our Lair, released in 2019. A hidden portal into Salamanda’s world, it conjures up images of humid semi tropical climes and clandestine caves. Their fourth LP ashbalkum is more diaphanous in its explorations of the real and metaphysical, its title a word that the pair coined, meaning that what you thought was reality was just a dream.
Sala and Manda met in 2018 through a mutual friend, bonding over a love of contemporary classical and experimental electronic music. “Downtempo, leftfield music isn’t very common in Seoul. So we decided we wanted to make it without worrying about what people are looking for,” Sala explains.
While Manda has studied musical composition since the age of 14 and is classically trained, Sala’s foray into DJing and production happened a little later. She discovered club music while studying English in the UK in 2014 and upon returning to Seoul a year later, delved into a much broader spectrum of sounds.
It’s getting late in Seoul when we speak, however Salamanda tell me that they are most creative at night and will probably continue working after the call: Manda in the company of her pet Ringo the Cat (whose guest vocals you can hear on their song Mad Cat Party) and Sala with a scenic mountain vista outside her window. We talk about everything from the structure of traditional Korean requiem songs and the soothing potential of horror film soundtracks, to the sound of the color pink, and the importance of local platforms like Seoul Community Radio.
If I’m stressed, I really enjoy watching horror movies. The texture in horror movies can be so fun. (Manda)
Now that you’ve been working together for some time, do you find that you have roles you both fulfill in Salamanda?
Manda: We tend to share the roles still, but my favorite part is doing vocals. I really enjoy using my own voice as an instrument.
Sala: We both produce music separately, but with each other. So I’ll work on a track and complete maybe 70%, then send it to Manda explaining what I envisioned for it, and she’ll add her parts and send it back to me. That’s always brought the best result. This was also largely due to COVID, as you had to stay home. We do love staying home, though.
What do you think is the strangest instrument or sound that you've sampled?
Manda: I‘ve used the sound of a Tesla driving. It’s a really quiet, ambient sound.
Sala: I don’t think it’s too strange, but I love using children’s voices, like their gibberish sounds. It’s really nice to hear that kind of frequency. If that sound had a color to me it would be pink. I like making the color pink with those sounds.
Is there any music that inspires you that doesn’t sound anything like Salamanda?
Manda: I've been listening to shoegaze and dream pop a lot, especially an artist called Ethel Cain. I love those textures and sometimes I try to recreate them using reverb or delay.
Sala: I listen to nu-metal and metal a lot. Recently, I’ve been listening to Korn. Also, I’ve been watching a lot of speeches from Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. At some point I really want to use powerful speeches like these in music. I’ve also been exploring a lot of traditional Korean requiem music played during funerals from different regions in the country.
Manda: We were both listening to a lot because of a recent project we were working on. The requiem music form is really interesting. It’s a call and response, so the lead vocalist will sing a line, then the other singers will follow them and it repeats like that.
Are there any scenes or images that you tend to think of when making your own music?
Sala: I really love the look of retro video games, because I have such good memories of using old computers back in the day. I think that’s why I got into doing pixel drawings. Also there are certain images from Studio Ghibli films that have really inspired us.
Manda: Like the Mountain of Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.
Sala: Yeah, like themes of little spirits running around.
Manda: If I’m stressed, I really enjoy watching horror movies. The texture in horror movies can be so fun. But the film has to reduce my stress and give me inspiration. Sometimes the entropy in horror sounds is so high and can make me sad. To me, the best horror soundtrack is for a 1998 film called Yeogo Goedam (Whispering Corridors).
I listen to nu-metal and metal a lot. (Sala)
You visited Berlin last year. How did you find it and how does it compare to Seoul?
Sala: I felt like the size of the electronic music scene in Berlin is completely different. In Seoul, it’s really hard to have a club packed at midnight, but in Europe, most of the clubs are already full with long queues outside the door. Also, even though techno is really big in Berlin, there’s a huge ambient scene there as well. People are so open to all kinds of music.
Can you tell me about how the platform Seoul Community Radio has impacted you both and the general music scene in the city?
Sala: It's a platform where DJs can really grow. As well as always being a huge supporter of electronic and experimental music in the city, it’s helped us and fellow artists gain much more recognition outside of South Korea, too.
Manda: They also do a lot of work for local communities, not just DJs or musicians. For instance, they hosted performances in a Korean BBQ restaurant called Handoni in Itaewon. So, they were introducing electronic music to a new audience while also supporting a local business.
Have you experienced any backlash against the growing electronic music community in Seoul?
Sala: I think it differs from case to case. Once, we were doing an outdoor performance by the riverside where a lot of elderly people go walking, or where some people just like to chill. There were a handful of artists there including some doing a noise performance. While they were playing, some elderly people came by and said, “This is too noisy, you need to lower the volume, or just stop the performance.” These moments can be really sad. Also sometimes we get comments like, “I didn't really understand your music, but it sounded nice.” We don’t think you really need to understand it, it’s just music. You just need to feel and that’s all.
How much do you think living in Seoul influences the sounds and samples that you use?
Sala: A couple of years ago, we used more natural field recordings. Then we learned how to make organic sounds with electronics, so it’s steering more towards the digital now. I think we feature so much nature in our music because we live in Seoul, and yes there are mountains and trees here, but it’s really different to Switzerland or Germany. So, I think we do it because that’s the environment that we want to be surrounded by: more nature. When working on a track, I think it's really important for us to create our own physical space with our music.
This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop. It accompanies the Carhartt WIP Salamanda Radio show for November 2022.