Navigating the terrain of adulthood and all its complexities can be an isolating experience - but for Auckland act Imugi 이무기, the world and its warped structures are a playground to explore through sonic textures and synth-pop beats.
"Our intention is always to make music that we enjoy and music that reflects our internal landscape - how we're navigating the outside world and all its complicated, messed-up structures," Yery Cho tells Newshub.
With her glittering nose rings and streaked hair, Cho packs a punch on-sight. Perched on a couch in the Newshub office on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon, she and beanie-clad bandmate Carl Ruwhiu - the two halves of one Imugi 이무기 - are the epitome of effortless cool. Ruwhiu curls up on the couch and kicks off his sneakers.
"I feel rude having my shoes on the couch," he laughs.
As a new listener, the contemporary synth-pop did conjure an image of who might be behind the Imugi 이무기 phenomenon - and Cho and Ruwhiu fit the bill. The 20-somethings emanate a certain panache, a style almost analogous with their sound. Much like their music hybridises a variety of genres, from synth-pop to modern R&B to downbeat trip-hop, the Imugi aesthetic blends urban casual, '90s streetwear and punk inflections, reflecting a number of references.
Since their debut release three years ago, the homegrown duo have been steadily gaining traction in the local music scene. Setting socially-conscious themes against a backdrop of dreamy, alternative pop, 2017's Vacasian laid the foundation for their unique brand, grappling with questions of identity, culture and belonging. Their latest project, Dragonfruit, builds upon those blocks - continuing their exploration of existential ideas through poetic passages and "big sonic textures", Cho says.
"I'd say it's a continuation of the same kind of themes, because we're still the same people - but the content is going to be us continuing to figure out how to exist," she explained.
The project was put on hold as New Zealand grappled with its recurring outbreaks of COVID-19, its seven tracks a welcome snapshot of a pre-pandemic point in time - where gigs were not conflated with a fear of transmission and artists were able to collaborate freely.
"At the time when we were writing these songs, it was a really exciting time in our lives and in the journey for Imugi. We had lined up Laneway, which was like the dream gig for us. We had people excited to hear our new music, we had lots of collaborations happening and lots of shows," Ruwhiu explains.
"We wanted to make something that had a degree of depth… we wanted to create something cohesive that showcased all the different styles we were interested in."
Both Cho and Ruwhiu have wrestled with their own notions of identity and belonging. Cho is the daughter of South Korean migrants, while Ruwhiu is of Māori heritage. Growing up on Auckland's North Shore, Cho struggled with the binary of being South Korean by blood, but Kiwi by birth.
"It's like you're too assimilated for the Asian kids but you're not white enough - because you're not white - for the white kids. It's like, where do I find acceptance?" she mused.
The lack of Asian representation in mainstream media and pop culture also left teenaged Cho feeling invisible, battering her dreams of one day releasing her own music. In an essay supplied to Newshub ahead of the interview, Cho chews over the impact of othering and internalised racism.
"I wanted to be a part of the same white girl choruses, melodies, words and world that my Pākeha classmates lived in," she wrote.
"Our colours were absent on the sparse canvas on diversity and as a result, I felt absent from opportunities to ever make and perform my own music."
Elaborating on her comments, she tells Newshub: "I feel like if you talk to any person of colour, especially women of colour or migrants of colour, you just have this understanding - you just know. There's certain things you've had to go through… that experience of being othered and minimised."
For Ruwhiu, his Māori surname and lighter skin represented a dichotomy that he grappled to overcome. He admits it was hard to find a sense of belonging when he felt he didn't fit in either camp.
"I look like a white person, and people are always confused by my last name. Growing up, my last name was always something I was embarrassed about. My Māori heritage was something that I didn't want to share with people," he shares.
"There's a stigma, being a white Māori kid, feeling like you can't claim your culture because of the way that you look. It's a weird thing to grapple with."
Music has since become a form of catharsis for the two friends - a platform to explore complex thoughts and themes, giving voice to a myriad of issues young people face.
"Songwriting for us really is a cathartic process. I make a million beats a day, Yery writes a lot of poetry… these topics that kind of arise in our music are things at the forefront of our minds anyway. They're topics we feel should be more acceptable to have open conversations about," Ruwhui adds.
"It's about not censoring yourself. An honest representation of your own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that people connect with it."
Despite the doldrums of lockdown, Imugi 이무기 are set to finish 2020 with a bang. The duo will be a fixture on this summer's festival circuit, having secured coveted slots on the Rhythm 'n Vines and Splore line-ups - all-Kiwi affairs due to the ongoing border closures. They're now preparing for two headline shows in Wellington and Auckland this month to celebrate Dragonfruit's release, and have new music on the way - featuring some familiar faces.
"Leaping Tiger, Hans., some surprises - we're working with a lot of local artists," Ruwhiu hinted.
"The flow of Imugi music isn't going to stop anytime soon."
Watch the video above.