Playful sex meets Protestant reserve in the music of Asobi Seksu
Yuki Chikudate, singer and keyboardist of the New York City-based band Asobi Seksu, doesn’t like to name names. I tried to get her to, believe me. It was an attempt to disguise the most amateurish of interview topics, the giant “duh” of rock criticism: “What are your influences?”
I pretended it was a historical question, a matter of intentional aesthetic homage, but in the end it was all just trolling for name-dropping. Surely certain references would come up. Ride. My Bloody Valentine, a no-brainer. Maybe a quick gloss over the Cure. But no, Chikudate was perceptive.
“I don’t think any musical idea is really original,” Chikudate said. “We’re drawn to what we want to do. I can’t really pinpoint a specific genre or a band. It wouldn’t be accurate.”
She’s right about accuracy, of course. We music critics invent silly terms, like post-punk and emo, that barely reference the types of music they describe. Oh, and you can blame us for the ones that have no relationship to the way music sounds, like shoegaze, the genre that Asobi Seksu has been credited for bringing back with a bang.
Shoegaze is supposed to be a reference to the way the musicians carry themselves while performing, staring down at their sneaks with what David Byrne calls “a Protestant reserve” instead of rocking out and egging the audience on. Ironically, there is much more going on in shoegaze music than the bored countenances of these glum strummers might suggest.
Take Asobi Seksu’s second album, Citrus. It starts with 17 seconds of soft, ambient sounds, almost white noise. But then a crisp guitar chimes out, followed by an echoey, tom-heavy beat and Chikudate’s ethereal vocals, and pretty soon the song has bloomed into a gorgeous mess of guitar sounds and soaring vocals bleeding together into one heavenly mélange. Everything is in its right place.
Genre-wise, Citrus perfectly belongs to that melodic, reverb-drenched period of British rock music that was trying to find its way from the ’80s to the ’90s, and yet this post-millennial band has managed to out-shoegaze the best of them. Guitarist and co-songwriter James Hanna isn’t afraid to let fly with vicious bursts of feedback, enormous and gaping, like black holes that threaten to swallow the band’s songs, which they sometimes do for minutes at a time. Asobi Seksu walks a tightrope between delicate pop beauty and sheer noise, a paradox all the more evident in its remarkably loud performances.
Chikudate says the band considered its songs differently for its exquisitely crafted record. “We approach it as two very separate things,” she said. “We approached this album as an album. The live show is a totally different entity. We try to give [songs] life. We have fun with it. We all enjoy making noise.”
Before she began making noise with Asobi Seksu, Chikudate played piano. She wrote her own songs from a young age, but piano lessons “just went down the classical road,” she said. “It opened a lot of doors, but it became very stifling.”
Still, Chikudate’s musical background is evident in her creative, octave-jumping melodies, and in her onetime role as a piano teacher. Though educated as a teacher, Chikudate has spent more time on the road with Asobi Seksu than in a classroom, which suits her just fine.
“One of my mentor teachers,” Chikudate said, told her students “ ‘You know, you’re in the presence of a rock star!’ ” She blanched at the prospect of third-graders finding out their hip teacher sings in a band whose name means “playful sex” in Japanese.
The perspicacity of her band’s name, and that way it captures Asobi Seksu’s sensual, evocative, exploratory nature, makes me think Chikudate was pulling my leg when she said she couldn’t put a name on the beauty she helps create. Some people call it dream pop. That about sums it up.