Salamanda create imagined worlds that feel both familiar and strange
It’s almost midnight in South Korea, but Sala and Manda are fully awakened by the thought of having magic powers.
“I want to control mother nature,” 29-year-old Manda (who also goes by Yetsuby) exclaims exclaims from her dark kitchen in Seoul, her eyes round with childlike delight. “Like, if you spread your arms and all the grass [starts to] grow,” 30-year-old Sala (who also works as Uman Therma) adds from her bedroom in the neighbouring province of Gyeonggi, before gently sweeping her arm in front of her. We all giggle, as we envision imaginary owers sprouting across the screen of our video call.
The idea of a human making seedlings shoot up with the wave of a hand is ripped straight from the films of Hayao Miyazaki, a huge influence for the duo who DJ and produce as Salamanda. It’s no surprise that the two look to the wondrous universes of the Studio Ghibli founder for inspiration, as well as other immersive sources, like NASA space videos and nostalgic PC video games. In their work, Salamanda create bewitching soundscapes that transport listeners to vivid environments that feel both alien and familiar.
© Xione Qin
These enveloping tracks, built on a foundation of modular synths, bear the rhythms of minimalists like Steve Reich, the “fourth world” sounds of Jon Hassell, and the whimsical sensibilities of soundtrack composers like Joe Hisaishi, who scored most of Miyazaki’s films, and Koji Kondo, who conjured the music for Super Mario. But to make it all theirs, Salamanda incorporate their own voices and samples of the world around them, from bird calls to barely detectable noise. These tactile sounds become hallucinatory details, creating dimension amid a trance of electronic patterns, akin to how a hyper realistic detail in the background of a video game will suddenly inspire awe. The samples contribute to the “visual life story” of the songs, Sala explains. Later, she adds: “I believe when you look at one thing closely enough, you’ll find any [kind] of inspiration.”
The duo have captivated a growing worldwide audience with their enchanting ambient music, shared across numerous EPs and projects, including Allez on Good Morning Tapes and, most recently, the Métron-released album Sphere. Last August, they were invited to Berlin to play their first overseas set. For Sala and Manda, escaping dreary everyday life, which still includes day jobs (Manda works at a clothing brand, while Sala works at a local record store), is certainly one of the goals. “I wish I could go [back to the fantasy worlds of my childhood], but I have [too much] realistic information now, so it’s really difficult,” Manda explains. “But when I’m making music, I feel like I can go there [again].”
© Xione Qin
Salamanda’s ascent is all the more impressive considering that the duo only met in 2018. After connecting through a mutual friend, the two quickly found out that they shared an af nity for minimalist music. Within three months, they agreed to start Salamanda, a project “where we can be free making music that we love”, as Manda describes it. They regularly met to eat gopchang, a popular grilled offal dish, at a restaurant where they ended up determining their group’s name, their schedule and other logistics amid the lingering scent of sizzling meat.
The idea for the name was born from a random salamander doodle made by Sala, who creates all the nostalgic pixel art for each Salamanda release. Inspired by the natural habitat of the amphibian, the duo named their debut 2019 track and project, Our Lair. Then, with their 2020 Glass Cage EP, the pair signalled that they were, as Sala explains, “going out into the world”. “It was a story of a bird coming out of a cage, like how a salamander comes out from a den.” These early songs mirrored this sense of exploration and curiosity by including rhythms and samples that can sometimes resemble Korean and Japanese folk music, though at other times aren’t quite placeable. These regional sounds, Sala explains, “have a certain charm – something that you’re still not familiar with, but at the same time you get attracted to. There’s something that makes you want to listen to it again and again.”
"I wish I could go back to the fantasy worlds of my childhood… When I’m making music, I feel like I can go there again"
© Xione Qin
On their newest album, Salamanda wanted to set a more abstract concept. For Sphere, they decided that any kind of spherical object could spark an idea for a song. “Like boiled tomatoes or planet Earth, or maybe bubbles,” Sala lists off, while Manda illustrates her collaborator’s words by making little circle shapes with her fingers.
As a result, Sphere became their most cohesive project yet. Each mesmerising song – from the submarine-plunging dramatics of The Big Blue to the wet rainforest textures of Puddle Underwater – is a multicoloured vignette that captures the expansive universe of Salamanda. Importantly, the two believe their approach left room for people to bring their own narratives to each piece. “We want to spark people’s creativity [with our music],” Manda says. “I think I like that more, leaving it up to the listener.”
© Xione Qin
Sala and Manda both grew up with stories in their heads, sparked by the imagination-colouring soundtracks of film composers: Hisaishi, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer and John Williams. (James Horner’s Titanic soundtrack is a personal favourite for Manda, while Sala lists off Disney scores like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid.) Manda knew she wanted to be an artist from the age of four, and her parents supported her as she learned piano at a young age and eventually majored in music composition at both high school and college.
Sala, on the other hand, always felt that music was just out of reach. She remembers being 14 years old, watching her friends play in the orchestra, and thinking, “‘Oh, I wish I could be there,’” Sala recalls. “That’s when I realised I wanted to do music.” A major turning point arrived in 2014, when Sala experienced UK club culture for the first time during an eight-month stay at the University of Portsmouth as an exchange student. “While being there, I got this feeling [that] I have to do things that I want to do before it gets too late,” Sala reveals.
© Xione Qin
Coincidentally, both Sala and Manda took up DJing and Ableton production in 2018, before they met. In those days, Sala contributed a few tracks to compilations as Uman Therma, while Manda made a Yetsuby project that featured birdsong she recorded during a 2017 trip to New Zealand. But the two have discovered that there’s a special “synergy” when they work together. Each production starts with a simple sketch made from humming and “playing around with our synthesiser”, Manda outlines. “It’s really fun to start developing from the sounds that we accidentally [find].”
In the past year, Salamanda have found kindred spirits in Seoul Community Radio – an underground electronic music hub that has connected them with friends and collaborators both locally and globally, even as pandemic- related closures caused frustrations throughout the scene. In an effort to “cheer everyone up” last March, Salamanda started a project called Computer Music Club with their friend and fellow producer Yeong Die, providing an outlet for them to share more upbeat dancefloor bangers.
© Xione Qin
The two are also closely following the Seoul-based label Helicopter Records, founded by Park Daham, also known as DJ yesyes, who Manda says “has really good taste [in] music and artists”. Besides Yeong Die, they recommend that we keep an eye on the label’s artists Hosoo and Joyul, whose recent release, Earwitness, was issued jointly by Helicopter and Berlin’s Psychic Liberation.
Salamanda also tease that they have a new project – whose concept they’re keeping a “secret” for now – coming out in the spring via the New York label Human Pitch. But as they think of their goals for the year ahead, Manda can’t help but jokingly – or not so jokingly – blurt out, “Being rich!” Manda clarifies: “Yeah, because we need money for a studio, better devices, good music, press photos, collaboration with [other artists]. Most of the time, money is the problem, for real. If [we’re] rich, we can do anything.”
Sala grins like she’s got something up her sleeve. “I guess I need to change my magic power,” she smiles, uttering her ngers as she pretends to summon up coins and bills. “To make money.”
© Xione Qin
"I believe when you look at one thing closely enough, you’ll find any kind of inspiration"
More realistically, the two hope to travel more, if only because they believe that expanding their physical and musical universes go hand in hand. “It’s so hard to find music from other [cultures] when you’re stuck in a single country,” Sala contemplates. “For instance, when you’re in Berlin, if you go to a supermarket, you can hear some techno. You never hear techno in Korean supermarkets.”
Sala wants to explore the world in order to have more of these unexpected experiences. Because if other places can be a portal to music, she says, then Salamanda’s music can, in turn, open a portal to a whole new world. One of their own making.
Overdose is out on 23 February via Human Pitch