photos by steve nilsson, los angeles and Seksu Roba website
Portrait of an Intergalactic Lounge LizardWhen experiencing Seksu Roba’s latest album, Pleasure Vibrations (Eenie Meenie Records), the listener is saturated with lush, throbbing soundscapes, technicolor hallucinations that splash every which way in a dance-obsessed frenzy, futuristic vistas that dare to envision robots and aliens cavorting in harmony. One would be forgiven for assuming that this gem of a recording was cut with the involvement of many and the aid of expensive technology.
An Interview with Sukho Lee
By Andy Kaufmann
But if you did assume as such, you would be wrong. Meet Sukho Lee. The Ann Arbor, Michigan-native lays down tracks for his auditory visions in his Californian home studio with little more than love on his side.
When Lee teamed up with singer Lun*na Menoh, the Japanese-Korean-American duo stunned the underground scene with their unique groove-meets-space-monsters aesthetic, not to mention their multimedia stage show and their bizarre-o name, which happens to mean “Sex Donkey” in Japanese. Their self-titled debut on Crippled Dick Hot Wax features generous servings of theremin and midnight movie sampling. With their latest offering, they’ve taken a different tact; one that appeals more to a dance crowd than culture-jammers.
Though this daring shift might yield some hostility among fans, they’re just as likely to garner a whole new crop of listeners. But who cares whether they gain or lose the adulation of musicological purists? Either way, Seksu Roba is one hell of a trip.
PSF: You grew up in L.A., right?
KL: No, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I went to school there. I lived there for a long time.
PSF: You were doing music there?
KL: Yeah. I grew up classically trained on violin. I got sick of that, but parents sort of obligate you to do something and after a while you kind of accept it. When I graduated from high school, I said “No more violin. I’m going to learn guitar.” So I wound up being in a rock ‘n roll band. I did that for a little while and I guess I got sick of that, too. I was getting more into tapes and samples and bands like Negativland. I’ve always been listening to all kinds of stuff, but as far as making stuff I was like, “This rock thing doesn’t really work for me.” It’s hard for me to find interesting musicians to work with. I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just work by myself and do experimental stuff.” In the early-nineties Detroit scene, there were all these noise bands going on. And then Tipsy and Sukia, an L.A. band, came along. They were working in the same area, using samples, but not in a traditional dance song (way). They were sampling weird shit that they found at thrift stores. And I was like, “Well I’ve been buying stuff at thrift stores, too, and I’ve been collecting all these weird movie samples.” There were other people doing this and actually finding audiences; it’s not like they were just making tapes for friends. It was more interesting than the usual James Brown or funk records that everybody samples.
PSF: What was the reaction of your parents when you decided to throw away the violin?
KL: They bought my first guitar, which I still have, so I think they understood. I already complained about it enough. I said, “I don’t want to play violin anymore.” And they were like, “Why?” “I just don’t want to do it anymore.” So they weren’t surprised. It served its purpose in a way. Actually, it did help me. I understand a lot about music that people who didn’t get that education don’t, but it was painful. Having to play violin two hours a day, it sucked.
PSF: It must have been very liberating when it was okay to hit a wrong note.
KL: Yeah. Well, it was okay to just play whatever I wanted to play. I didn’t have to play something that was written a hundred years ago. I could make up my own song. What a crazy idea! It did help me a lot when I eventually picked up the theremin. It takes a lot of discipline. It’s a lot of fun; it’s also very aggravating, like the violin, but it’s cool.
PSF: What was it that ultimately that made you switch to rock?
KL: I don’t like to talk negatively about any type of music, but I just think rock, for me anyway, hit this dead end. I didn’t see anything new coming along. There was nothing really happening that was exciting enough for me to keep doing it.
PSF: When did you move out to California? Was that when you went to college?
KL: No, I went to college in Michigan and I lived there for a while after that, but I moved out here in ‘96. I was more interested in getting into film. I didn’t really set out to do music. But as I started working in the movie industry, I was a little disillusioned. I was like, “It’s a lot easier for me to make a song than a movie, so I’ll just do that.” There are audiences out there for cool movies, but it’s just so hard. The distribution is so limited.
PSF: Were you trying to direct?
KL: Well, everyone wants to direct. I was just trying to be an editor, start there and see where I could go. But it’s a tough life. It’s a lot of hours for something that maybe isn’t your project. If I’m spending all this time working on someone else’s project that I don’t even care about, then it just seems like, “What am I doing?” I could just get another job and do my own thing, which won’t pay the bills, but at least it’s quality time spent, rather than wasted energy. Plus, you’re not exhausted at the end of the day, spending all your creative energy on something you care about.
PSF: With this album, did you consciously try to move into more of a dance vibe?
KL: Yeah, I guess it’s pretty obvious, but it’s sort of natural. I hope it doesn’t come off as being trendy, because honestly both Lun*na and I are really into disco and post-disco, like the late-seventies/early-eighties thing. That just coincided with what we saw (for) the band. Originally, the band was kind of like a goof. It was like, “Let’s see what happens,” and we’re just experimenting, playing around. And then we noticed people really catching on when we did the live shows. And it was like, “This is really interesting, we’ve never seen anyone doing what you’re doing.” So it all just made sense. (We thought) let’s just try doing something more pop-y and disco-y, because we’re into that and people seem to be responding to us live and it would work live. So it all just seemed to work together. I really hope it doesn’t come off like Seksu Roba is jumping on some bandwagon. I hope we distinguish ourselves. And I think we still have a bit of a vibe from that first album.
PSF: Is the label treating you any differently now that this is your second album?
KL: Eenie Meenie is brand new, so I don’t know about that, but so far they’ve been enthusiastic, which is great. Crippled Dick, we’ll see, because we’re not really sure how they’re going to proceed. But they liked the new direction. They were hoping we’d go in that direction and then we just happened to do it.
PSF: How did you hook up with Lun*na?
KL: Friends of friends through the scene here in L.A. There’s a band here called the Rainmakers that we’re friends with separately and I think that’s basically how we met. I can’t exactly remember when I met her, but she would dance for them sometimes, when they did their live show, and I would play theremin for them. We just noticed each other and started to collaborate. She’s more of a visual artist, originally. She’s somewhat well known. She’s done fashion art and she’s had exhibitions and stuff. But all of a sudden she got inspired to start performing. It’s coming together. The costumes that we wear on stage, she designs and makes.
PSF: How did you hook up with Crippled Dick Hot Wax? Because they’re in Germany and you were working with the German dude from Can...?
KL: That’s just a separate thing. That’s another L.A. connection. This guy in the band Anubian Lights, which is also on Crippled Dick, he hooked me up with Damo Suzuki from Can, because he’s played with Damo before. And he saw me play theremin and he was like, “Hey, this might work.” I was totally grateful, because playing with Damo was a pretty amazing experience. But basically Crippled Dick Hot Wax was a fluke. I have a friend who works in publicity in the U.K. and she suggested it; she used to work for them. She said to send them a demo. We were shopping it around and they were the first to say they wanted to release it. But it worked out perfectly, because they’d been releasing a lot of soundtracks, weird sixties funky soundtracks, but they also wanted to get into electronic, newer stuff. So we were somewhere in between. They’re going to release the new one there in Europe, while Eenie Meenie releases it everywhere else. Crippled Dick doesn’t have quite the status over here in the States, or the resources. They can concentrate on Europe and Germany, especially, because that’s where they are.
PSF: Is Can an influence on your sound?
KL: It’s a personal influence. Maybe more on the first album, because they have that sort of groove. I guess the new album isn’t quite as psychedelic.
PSF: You have video on stage too.
KL: Yeah. It seems with a lot of electronic bands, it’s common. We try to maximize the entertainment value.
PSF: Where do you get all that film?
KL: Oh, just a lot of weird old movies and anything related to the themes that we work with. But generally weird, old, obscure sci-fi exploitation kinds of movies. I love watching that stuff. I have some prints, too. I have some stuff I got from a guy who was getting rid of all these training and educational films from this hospital. He had all this random stuff, like the history of the sandwich, which is pretty funny. There was a guy named Sandwich, the Earl of Sandwich.
PSF: On the first album, I assume you had to front your own money just to get something recorded.
KL: Well, that wasn’t so bad. I mean, the technology (for home recording) was becoming more affordable. For a grand, you could basically buy the necessary equipment to mix and record a CD-quality album. Before, you just had tapes that were noisy and hissy. But the digital revolution was starting, so it wasn’t a big budget. Just lots of time.
PSF: How do things work in terms of putting together the songs?
KL: Well, Lun*na adds her input. I’m doing all the production, but she’s writing more now than previously. She’s getting more involved in the writing aspects but, since I’m doing all the production, more of that stuff falls into my hands usually. And of course she does the vocals.
PSF: Does Seksu Roba really mean ‘sex donkey’?
KL: Yeah! You can ask somebody who speaks Japanese. There’s no real reason for it. Some people think it’s Sexy Robot. I never thought of that until people started pronouncing it that way.
PSF: But you guys have a robot on stage!
KL: Yeah, that’s another confusion. Because then they see the robot and they’re like, “Oh, sexy robot!” And the robot has this large penis thing that moves. But it’s not a sexy robot.
PSF: It’s just a sexual robot.
KL: He’s a separate creation.
PSF: Did you buy that?
KL: No, a friend of ours, he created the robot. I asked him one time, “Hey, can you bring the robot?” He has to operate it. It’s sort of like an animatronic thing. He can control him during the live show and synchronize him, maybe make him dance a little bit to the beat. He’s an interesting robot.
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