Hush Life: Asobi Seksu—-Mellow Out, Fuzz Down

Text by Michael D Ayers
Photography by Jesper Justesen

New York’s Asobi Seksu fill 500-person rooms, make regular rounds in Europe and have produced two records of hard-hitting, fuzzed out fem-pop, which use Yuki Chikudate’s delicate vocals as their locus. But following 2006’s Citrus, some confusion brewed as to how to proceed. On one hand, they’d garnered favorable reviews, drawing comparisons to a hybrid of My Bloody Valentine-like shoegaze and to the Japanese pop of Pizzicato Five and, to a degree, Stereolab. But they realized a couple things: they didn’t want to be lumped into that “gaze” category and were sick of the Blonde Redhead and Deerhoof comparisons. But most of all, they came to the realization that Asobi Seksu’s evolution was binary: Chikudate and guitarist and some-time vocalist, James Hanna.
“Being in a band is just so unnatural,” Chikudate says, very matter-of-factly. It’s an odd thing to say, coming from a musician but, she clarifies, “Being with these people… strangers, essentially, twenty-four hours a day, three months, six months, years. That pressure just builds for everybody.” Hanna feels the same way. “You audition someone for a couple of times and then say, ‘Let’s spend six months together.’ It is strange and a lot of pressure.”

Chikudate and Hanna are no strangers to one another. They first met at the Manhattan School of Music in 2000, and started the band shortly thereafter. In one way or another, they both spent a handful of their earlier years on the more intellectual, cerebral side of music. Chikudate was receiving classical piano accolades at the tender age of eight and Hanna explored the mother-of-guitar aesthetic in assorted post-rock acts. If you ask them about it, they don’t shy away from those earlier moments of their life, but don’t necessarily give these former times much credence, either. “I can see the point of certain aspects being influential, but I’m sure you can’t reject things that are ingrained in your person and learned,” Chikudate explains. “I think we’re drawn to some technical aspects of music,” Hanna adds, “but the idea is that you don’t hear it anyway—without it being overtly obvious as a trick. We’re in a rock band, so we want to keep things intuitive.”

The decision to reduce Asobi Seksu to just the two of them wasn’t without its initial difficulties. With no identifiable “break through” moment, I wonder aloud if they’d had fleeting notions to quit. An immediate “no way” comes out of both their mouths. “Our ideas were very limited,” Chikudate says. “Well, we had ideas, but no direction,” Hanna counters, in a rare moment where they weren’t exactly on the same thought wave.

Relying on this intuition is how they’ve structured their song writing. On their third LP, Hush, Chikudate and Hanna continued exploring a fondness for lush, ethereal soundscapes, but unlike Citrus, Hush sees Chikudate and Hanna utilizing time in a much more expansive way. Before, they’d hit you with an immediate punch. Here, they’ve slowed, almost teasing in a layered, loopy coherency. “I think we had a little more confidence this time to let the songs breathe,” Hanna says. “We tend to be a little nuts; everything being short, fast, immediate.” But this doesn’t necessarily translate to a longer form.

“The songs are shorter,” Chikudate adds. “It feels like they’re longer, or that there’s more space, or it takes time to get to the point of the song—I don’t know, it feels like the journey is a little longer,” she says. “But we knew we wanted to be different,” Hanna adds. Indeed, Hush’s opener, “Layers,” slowly works through a crescendo of guitars and keyboards, “Gliss” has a slower, rhythmic whirring pop sound, and “Blind Little Rain” is washed out, a bastardized ’60s-style lullaby.

Ultimately, this desire to breathe, open up and slowly expand had been one of the principle traits of Asobi Seksu, whether conscious or not. They’ve managed to parlay a career out of a sound that wasn’t necessarily “New York,” or trendy. Their album covers, show posters and singles involve a very intricate, colorful presentation in a Japanese B-film motif, and they’re now on Polyvinyl, a record label that has been successful in celebrating differences, most notably in Of Montreal. These changes and subtle yearnings for a definable quality about their music ended up driving Hush sonically. But in a strange way, this inability to stay grounded in one form, sound, or band has enabled them to continue. “Everything [in New York] is very lo-fi, or psychedelic,” Chikudate starts to say. “I mean, we’re psychedelic too, but not in the same way. We haven’t quite fit into any stuff.” She looks up at Hanna and he agrees. “Especially in New York, I don’t think we’ve ever fit in.”