Asobi Seksu: Not Lost in Translation

On the verge of his band's third LP hitting the shops, Asobi Seksu's James Hanna tells Nick Mitchell about its inception

Feature by Nick Mitchell | 27 Jan 2009

Without knowing Asobi Seksu’s back-story you could make an informed guess. Perhaps they are a Japanese band inspired by hearing Kevin Shields’ distorted guitar soundtrack Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s prolonged cinematic flirtation in a Tokyo hotel?

No, ‘Asobi Seksu’ means ‘playful sex’, not ‘cross-generational platonic romance’. But it is Japanese, and one half of the band does hail from that part of the world, and they certainly do owe a debt to the My Bloody Valentine guitarist. To dispel that myth entirely though, Asobi Seksu are in fact one of countless buzz bands to have flown the Brooklyn indie nest in the past few years, and this month they release their third full album, Hush.

The duo of James Hanna and Yuki Chikudate caused a shallow but sustained ripple of hype with their 2006 LP Citrus, a record that combined Hanna’s tremolo-bending shoegaze guitar with Chikudate’s crystalline vocal style. In the time between the two albums they drafted a whole new set of backing musicians, but this new line-up wasn’t borne of any creative tension, according to Hanna: “Yuki and I made a decision that this band was going to be the two of us and that we would hire people to play live. We were always the songwriters so it seemed a natural decision. Coming out and saying we are the band has really clarified things in a positive way.”

A renewed clarity also happens to be the most noticeable change in the Asobi sound on Hush. Whereas Citrus relied on looming walls of feedback and murky clouds of noise, Hush is a much more accessible, focused record. “On Hush we set out to make something highly textured without relying on the same things that hopefully worked on Citrus,” Hanna says. “We knew we wanted something glassier and the layers to be a bit more transparent this time around. It took us a lot of trial and error to find textures that we found new and exciting that were also a bit more subtle and didn’t clog up every inch of audio space.”

But Hush could have turned out very differently had Hanna’s dream producer returned his call: “We tried to contact Brian Eno to work on Hush, though I think people thought I was joking when I said it. He’s obviously out of our range but I figured there was no harm in giving it a try. For the next record I think we are going to ask Phil Spector.”

That may be a joke on Hanna’s part, given Spector’s current predicament, but it’s also another clue to the kind of musical heritage Asobi Seksu revel in. Not merely introspective shoegazers, they also distil the symphonic pop pioneered by Spector on his 1960s recordings of The Ronettes and The Crystals.

The one element of their sound, however, that critics always latch on to is shoegaze. Does Hanna tire of this? “I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I obviously love a lot of the music from that era, it was a huge influence on the way I learned to play guitar and helped me to learn how to think texturally as well as linearly. On the other hand I think the comparisons are out of hand and I think there are a lot of misconceptions of what we are and what we are trying to do.”

Whatever wayward guesses are made about Asobi Seksu this time round, with its tight pop aesthetic, Hush will surely open their music up to a wider audience. Hanna, for his part, is ambivalent on that score: “Hopefully Hush represents us challenging ourselves to not just repeat the things that people seem to like about us. As far as our appeal goes, that remains to be seen. I really do hope people enjoy the record but past that I have no say in the matter.”


Asobi Seksu play ABC2, Glasgow on 14 Feb.

Hush is released on 16 Feb.

Download songs by Asobi Seksu now for as little as 10p a track using Ten Tracks; the innovative music portal partnered with The Skinny.