While Asobi Seksu’s creative core explored music at an early age (lead vocalist/keyboardist Yuki Chikudate got standing ovations at child prodigy recitals when she was just 8; guitarist/vocalist James Hanna bounced between sludgy hardcore and Mogwai-schooled post-rock in his teens), their potential ‘career’ wasn’t put into perspective until a stint at the Manhattan School of Music. And by put into perspective, we mean finding out what they didn’t want to do.
“It was good to have something musical to do all day, since most of my bands were like, ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll practice on Saturday or something,’” explains Hanna. “Playing someone else’s music all the time seemed robotic after a while, though.”
“It was a miracle I graduated at all,” adds Chikudate. “I love playing the piano, but three hours of it—breaking it down, measure by measure, note by note—makes my mind go numb.”
Soon after escaping the joyless world of sheet music and classical composition, Hanna began tackling dreamy-but-disorienting soundscapes for the first time. He quickly shifted his focus from singing to starry-eyed chords, however, with Chikudate falling into the frontwoman position without missing a beat. The problem was trying to be an actual band, as in a fully functioning quartet that tours and records together. Asobi Seksu 1.0 lasted between 2004’s self-titled, learn-as-we-go-along debut and the spring of 2005. Hanna and Chikudate gave it a go with another bassist and drummer for their critically-acclaimed breakthrough, 2006’s Citrus LP, but it didn’t take long to realize that lineup was doomed as well.
Which leads us to the frustration that fueled the making of Hush, the group’s third LP and Polyvinyl debut. As Hanna admits, Asobi Seksu “was starting to get somewhere” post-Citrus, but they couldn’t ride a cresting wave of hype after a debilitating cycle of touring and personnel changes.
“Hush was written while we felt destroyed,” explains Hanna, quite simply. Which is funny, because the entire record has a phoenix rising vibe to it—a clear sense of shimmering, dew-draped riffs and spiral staircase melodies that are occasionally blurred by bits of guitar violence and sputtering drums (see the firework finale climax of “Me and Mary” and the liftoff portions of “Sing Tomorrows Praise” and “Glacially”).
“We knew we didn’t want to do 7,000 reverb guitars this time,” says Hanna, “So we stripped the sound down and built it back up from there.”
Another thing Asobi Seksu’s avoided is sheer shoegaze-pop revivalism. While they listen to a lot of into-the-ether music—hence their tickets to both of My Bloody Valentine’s reunion gigs—Hanna and Chikudate are too obsessed with the expansive possibilities of sound to explore one well-treaded path.
“Every shoegaze song is the same rhythmically,” says Hanna, explaining that he’d be terribly bored if he followed that template.
“Their parts don’t propel into other parts,” adds Chikudate. “Us, we meander a little more, so it’s not just one big wall of noise.”
Wall of noise? “Layers,” for one, is downright gorgeous, suggesting an afternoon spent in a gently-shaken snow globe. And then there are the clusters of ambient Eno effects that close Hush’s Technicolor curtain. That’s what happens when you learn how to use space and dynamics to your advantage, skirting what some might refer to as “Kevin Shields syndrome.”
“I’ve realized that while something might sound awesome in my head,” explains Hanna, “Adding 50 layers to it might make it sound like shit because you lose a lot of the details. Some parts have only one guitar this time.
He pauses and adds with a smile, “We agonized over that guitar, though.”