“At the core of all this, there’s a sense of longing, but a sense of acceptance as well. It’s kind of dualistic, where you’re content but you’re still wanting to go to another point and know more.” Big talk from a 28 year old, but this isn’t a precocious manifesto, it’s the carefully considered analysis of a young man who thinks carefully before saying anything. And it only takes a little time listening to ishi vu’s music to understand that he doesn’t mess about: his ability to sonically capture these deep philosophical inquiries – and make it a pleasure to engage with – is truly remarkable. In five years, he’s made his name on Sweden’s, and increasingly the world’s, electronica scene, but now with the album La Luz, he’s reached a whole new level. Created in response to a deep transformational experience, the record is simply unique: channeling all genres and none into a depiction of some of the most fundamental human feelings.
ishi grew up in Gothenburg. For most of his upbringing his dad ran nightclubs in another town, and “on Fridays he’d play everything from church to house music in the living room, and we got injected with a lot of music through that.” Playing music wasn’t big in his family though – he had a toy keyboard, and there was a piano at his grandparents, but that was it. School was more conducive: in true Scandinavian style, it encouraged free time and open-ended learning. “They called it ‘freedom under responsibility’ – it was usually just an extra recess really, but there was also access to studios and rehearsal rooms in that time.” The guitars might have been “wonky with weird intonation”, but he and his friends tentatively formed bands in this space.
His tastes certainly didn’t leap to the most sophisticated sounds: the first CD he bought with his own money was Hanson. But through his childhood, though he started noticing “the little tidbits of electronic music that trickled through the mainstream.” Even though these were by no means radical – he remembers Darude, Shanks & Bigfoot, Phats & Small and Sweden’s own Bomfunk MCs as standing out – he was “captivated” by them, and began to analyse how they worked. From his dad’s collection, he started to home in on and listen closely certain sounds, again noticing the electronic elements in things like Ultravox.
He developed a strange relationship to subculture, though, thanks to his dad’s work. He did get to witness how different fan groups reacted to music from hard rock to house – but because he would only normally see the clubs in daylight hours, he was struck by “how murky and icky those places were”, with the smells and stickiness the strongest impressions. It’s not hard to see a line from this to the kind of insider-outsider position he now occupies, simultaneously detached from and deeply understanding of the emotional connections of the dancefloor.
In high school he was something of a nerd, gaming compulsively, but also building websites and otherwise interested in code. But at 15, he faced what he thinks now was “a bit of a false crossroads” when he had to make a choice between music and art to study further. With full teenage earnestness, he took this very seriously indeed, gave the decision deep thought, and eventually choosing music he started to dedicate himself to it over almost everything else.
His tastes were continuing to develop, and the following year on spotting a fellow student in the computer room with a Justice cross painted on his leather jacket, he got really jealous. “Dammit, that’s my thing, I love them more than he does probably!” He overcame his jealousy, though, and the pair became best friends – and still are – and began to explore music together. And together their tastes only diversified.
After graduating high school in 2011, ishi took various jobs, began to DJ a little, carried on trying to make music, but “never had a path laid out”. Again there was that dualism: he didn’t know what he wanted to do, yet “at many times I was too reassured of my place.” He knew he wanted to explore and grow, and as for many enquiring young minds this led at points to “dark times” – depression, anxiety, personal worry, concern for the world’s future too – but he says now that these times led him to something better, and without “giving myself time to be nourished” he wouldn’t be making the music he is now.
In fact you can hear in his early records exactly this kind of meandering and sometimes melancholy state. His production was highly developed from his first release in 2015, and there are deep and remarkable experiences to be had from the deep house pulses or slow post-jungle rollers in these early EPs – but he was still finding his way. Then in 2018, he had what he understands as equivalent to a religious experience. Sitting completely sober on the beach in Gothenburg, at 6pm but with the sun still high “in typical Nordic summer fashion”, he had a sense of heightened awareness, of colours being brighter, “almost as if something extra was inhabiting nature around me and even the light. Total connection and lucidity.”
He tried to note and remember as much of the experience as he could, and the effect was lasting. Although he does not believe in the mystical and metaphysical as “paranormal or spooky”, it gave him a lasting sense of wellbeing, and made him want to explore the nature of consciousness, through reading and through his work. It was around then that he made the first sketches for this album, and his process has been steady exploration since then. La Luz (the light) refers directly to the vividness of the light and colours he perceived that day, and though the process has not been straightforward since then, the album includes some of his original sketches from that summer, and feels like a complete and vivid statement.
“A lot of artists will talk about a state of flow,” he says. “The best studio moments are when you’re not thinking consciously. You might have an idea or a concept, but you want to go beyond that. In a flow state you’re accepting but there’s an impetus and you try to let that come through. I think that’s how most of the album came through as well.” The imagery and titles came this way too. He admits that the use of Christian imagery and sounds in the album (“threnody”, “sanctuary”, “faith”, the celestial choir in “Bell Tower Trip” or church bells in “The Wasp”) are in some senses “a provocation” given his lack of conventional faith, but in others they represent his best attempts to understand his peak experience on the beach.
The album is an extraordinary listening experience. Where previously ishi’s work explored deep house, or breakbeat, or IDM, here everything is present all at once, with the addition of his vocals and song structures too. And where previously there were hazy emotions in play, here the feeling is vivid, hyper-real. Take “Isolated Incidents” with its ultra-crisp breakbeat cutups, swooping synth tones and piercing guitar solo. Or how “The Wasp” sounds like vintage Cure but adds ever-increasing intensity until a swinging trip-hop break takes it into orbit. Or the delicate, scampering drums and chimes and liquid acid sounds of “A.S.I.S.O.A. 1000” somehow sound more like pop than the nerdy IDM that in theory these elements should add up to.
In each case, each sound is placed with absolute certainty, not with the overconfidence of EDM showboaters, but with the precision of someone who has thought carefully about an exact psychological, physical – and perhaps even spiritual – effect they want to provoke. This is music made with a scientist’s mind but a visionary’s heart. “I feel,” says ishi, “there’s a kind of universal truth or universal appeal there.” And once again, though it’s big talk, from him it doesn’t really feel like overstatement.