Ihui Cherise Wu spins such enchanting, sparkling sounds with her band Polartropica that it’s easy to assume she’s a mere electro-pop escapist, albeit one with a glamorous, glittery onstage style that makes her resemble a space-age fairy-tale princess who’s fallen to Earth.
Polartropica are set to debut their latest single, “Wild Lyfe,” at a free show at Resident on Wednesday, Oct. 17. As with the local indie-pop quartet’s other recent singles — including “Olympia” and “Golden Soul,” from their as-yet-untitled upcoming album — “Wild Lyfe” floats atop a sea of shiny synthesizers while Wu coos dreamily as if in a spectral trance. But Wu’s gauzy vocals and shimmering electro-pop melodies sometimes mask the heavy messages she’s singing so sweetly.
“Born and so celebrated, last of your species/Trapped in a lifetime, a spectacle to see,” Wu purrs as guest star Jett Kwong plucks spidery patterns on the guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. “Like an insane asylum, controlled to a T/Living that glass-cube life, frozen in time.” The combination of delicate guzheng adornments with waves of synth and Wu’s airy singing only adds to the feeling of strangeness.
“There’s a very vivid experience” that inspired “Wild Lyfe,” Wu says about a visit earlier this year to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where she was attending her sister’s wedding. “I was completely blown away. We were in the gorilla exhibit. The gorillas were super-crowded in the display case and visibly stressed,” she says. “Kids were pounding on the glass. There was a gorilla looking out into the distance. All I could see was his silhouette, and he looked like a man, and I thought, ‘What is this place?’”
The singer-keyboardist, who lives in Highland Park, recalls a large tortoise trapped in a cage that was too narrow for his body to turn around in; the animal looked unhappy, “like a patient in a psych ward. I thought, ‘What is he doing in here for eternity?’ It was an eye-opening experience. I knew I wanted to bring awareness to that,” Wu, 33, says in a phone interview while driving from Silver Lake to El Sereno. “Zoos are really outdated.”
In June, Polartropica took on another serious subject with the single “Golden Soul,” with a video that was premiered by L.A. Weekly. As Wu unwound a pretty music box–style piano melody, she sang ruefully in an ethereal voice about the tragic drug addiction of a friend’s sister. Last year, the group released the more uplifting single “Olympia.” “I was watching the Olympics, and there was a gymnast who did a horrible face-plant and then got up and finished his routine,” Wu says. “The song sort of evolved with the current political climate. It’s kind of a self-encouraging rally cry for human rights. Don’t give up.
“I’m trying to paint a feeling,” she continues about Polartropica’s sound. “It should be so vivid that when you close your eyes, you can see what I see. It’s like when you have a really beautiful dream, and you’re in it … and you make this world where it does exist. That’s where Polartropica came from, a make-believe fantasy world where anything can be anything — like a polar bear living on a tropical island. I feel like my desire to create that kind of space was because I grew up in a strict, regimented childhood.”
Wu was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and was raised in San Jose after her family moved to the United States when she was 2 years old. Her musical world expanded when she attended college at UC San Diego. “I remember almost not passing biology because I was going to shows and surfing,” she says, adding that she often took Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to catch concerts in Los Angeles. “I went to see Muse the night before a final and barely passed with a C-minus.”
After college, Wu relocated to L.A., where she joined her first band, playing keyboards and trumpet in Sanglorians, an Echo Park indie-rock band led by former Ozma singer-bassist Daniel Brummel. “I learned a lot about rock arrangements from him. I was just a classical piano player when I met him,” she says. “I was always interested in composing. I think the only thing with the classical [background] is that I want to put 100 layers on everything and over-arrange. I love orchestral music. … There’s [always] a counter-melody that I can hear in my head [when she listens to and composes music]. I battle with my producer,” who prefers to keep arrangements simple.
Following Sanglorians, Wu played keyboards and sang backing vocals in the local indie-pop band Light FM. She recorded keyboards on Simone White’s 2012 album, Silver Silver, which also featured Andrew Bird. Wu and future Polartropica drummer Andrew Lessman were part of White’s band on the tour for that record. She also spent time playing keyboards in the beguiling L.A. group Robotanists. “Daniel [DeBlanke] is one of my favorite composers. He can write any style,” Wu says. “I learned a lot from the bands I played in.”
But Wu fully expanded her talents once she began singing and writing her own music. She formed Polartropica in December 2015, when she played her first show at all-ages bastion Pehrspace as part of a duo with guitarist Roman Salas. That month, Wu also released her debut single, “Light Up the Sky,” an ode to a past romance that she aptly described on Polartropica’s Bandcamp page as “a sparkly hug for those dark nostalgic days.” In March 2016, Lolipop Records released Polartropica’s Astrodreams, a five-song EP that was recorded and produced by C.M. Rodriguez. Wu formed a full-band lineup that now includes guitarist Alexander Noice, bassist Graham Chapman II and drummer Lessman.
“It was really daunting starting my own band," Wu says. "The way you start is working with people who care. C.M. Rodriguez is one of those people. I was really broke and working at three different restaurants. He helped me record; it meant so much.” Wu and Rodriguez are responsible for most of the instrumentation and drum programming on Polartropica’s recordings, although Chapman played bass on much of Astrodreams. Noice also laid down the guitar solo on “Olympia” as part of Polartropica’s upcoming 11-song album, which will be released in spring 2019.
“Alex is kind of an experimental guitarist in his own projects,” Wu explains. “He brings psychedelic, interesting sounds and pushes … what the guitar can do. It’s a little proggy and space-pop. He adds another element to the music I write — it’s a great combination. Graham is a bassist but he also has the voice of an angel. Andrew is the drummer but he also triggers the different samples, which is a big job because they all come in at different times. It’s not just a backing track. He’s balancing a lot. He’s the architect of our live sound and one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with.
“I have a very particular vision,” she continues. “Sometimes I make costumes for the band. … I’m always over-ambitious,” she admits about designing her own fantastic stage wear. “It’s a constant challenge; I should really take a sewing class! This whole costuming thing happened even before Polartropica. I’d think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone in the band was an animal?’”
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Was it ever difficult to get her band to dress up, such as when she made Lessman, Noice and Chapman don pink swim trunks as part of a beach-themed set at the Satellite in August? “I had a little resistance,” Wu admits, citing the time she asked them to wear cropped football-jersey tops at another performance. “But they’re so down for everything. They’re really fun bandmates.”
Looking back on a Halloween show at the Hi Hat last year, she says, “Every member of the band dressed up as different Britneys. The year before, we did different Madonnas. We’re doing that Madonna act again at Zebulon [this year] for Halloween.”
Given Wu’s colorful, stylish stage costumes, it comes as a bit of a surprise when she reveals that her day job is working for her own real estate company, Unicorn Dream Home. “I can still wear glittery clothes and be weird” at work, she says. “Everybody is so serious in real estate.”
Polartropica perform at Resident, 428 S. Hewitt St., downtown; Wed., Oct. 17, 9:30 p.m.; free. (213) 628-7503.