Don’t call Asobi Seksu a shoegaze band. Sure, 2006’s Citrus had more than a little My Bloody Valentine coursing through its tracks, but the Brooklyn outfit owes more to experimental composition and transnational identity than scuffed-up Chucks. While on the road to promote the new Hush, vocalist/keyboardist Yuki Chikudate spoke with The A.V. Club about straddling two languages, breaking away from her classical training, and learning to breathe. Asobi Seksu performs Saturday, March 28, at The Rock And Roll Hotel.
The A.V. Club: Why do you write lyrics in Japanese and English?
Yuki Chikudate: I used to not think about it so much in the beginning, especially because I was really hesitant about making that a part of this band’s image. But I was born into a Japanese family, grew up in Los Angeles, and then moved to New York, so I’m really a mixture of both worlds. My thought process is really funny because some things I clearly think in Japanese. There are certain words that you can only express in Japanese and there’s really no translation in English that works well. I’m always flipping back and forth between the two, so this band is really the inside of my brain. The way we split the lyrics is really just my thought process.
AVC: Do you find that certain songs or themes lend themselves better linguistically to Japanese or English?
YC: Japanese a really rhythmic, percussive language, so I think that it drives certain melodies really well. James [Hanna, guitarist] is fascinated with different languages, even though he’s really horrible at them. [Laughs.] He really is—it’s surprising how horrible his ear is for language. But he loves using them as texture. He doesn’t mind that I take over with the Japanese lyrics, even if he doesn’t really understand what I’m saying.
AVC: How did Hush evolve?
YC: It took us a while to buckle down and start it. I think that we had some nerves to work through, we were feeling a little lost after touring with Citrus, and we really didn’t know what we wanted to do after that. But then I had some song ideas that I started toying with, and James had some as well. I was playing the piano one day and James said that it sounded terrible. [Laughs.] Somehow we worked it into a song and that became “Familiar Light.” Once that song was written we had a better idea of what we wanted this album to sound like, and that opened new doors for us.
AVC: What caused that initial anxiety?
YC: It was daunting to have the shoegaze label after Citrus. We definitely felt like we were sort of being pigeonholed, and we really didn’t want to just be a shoegaze band. I mean, of course we love all those bands and we are heavily influenced by that sound—we wouldn’t be who we were without that kind of music. But we wanted to explore new territory. We wanted to grow as a band, to experiment with new sounds, layering and creating textures in a different way.
AVC: Did you have a new direction in mind?
YC: We just wanted to make sure there was more breathing room. With Citrus there wasn’t a lot of breathing room, there was a lot of tension from just stacking sound after sound after sound. With Hush, we wanted to create a new kind of tension, a melodic tension more than aural bludgeoning. It was really rewarding for us to just kind of create a wintry, crystal sound. [Hush] has more clarity than in the past—we let some light shine through, which was exciting because it was definitely something new and it felt challenging.
AVC: Were just you and James working on the album?
YC: Yes, and Chris [Zane, producer] for sure. We work really closely with him and he has a lot of amazing ideas. He’s just really fun to work with and I think we’re really compatible and have a great chemistry.
AVC: Having worked with Chris as a producer before, how has your relationship grown?
YC: We originally had no idea whether we were going to like him or not. Our first impression was like, “Oh, this guy is kind of a dick!” [Laughs.] We got over that quickly and we’re really good friends now. It’s fun to be in the studio with him, he always challenges us. It’s good to have a guy who always pushes you to be better than you think you are in that moment—he always tells you when something is not good.
AVC: What happened between self-releasing your first album in 2001 and getting picked up three years later by Friendly Fire Recordings?
YC: A lot of struggling. We were performing, but not very well, and we didn’t have an audience. That was fine, because we were really just finding our way and stumbling a lot. It was a good way to practice and, really, to work out my nerves. I’d never performed where I’m facing the audience and using my body as an instrument. It was a good way for us to figure out who we wanted to be and what we wanted to sound like. We were able to then hook up with Friendly Fire and from there we were able to finally tour the States.
AVC: Any surprises once you got out of the insular New York scene?
YC: I was surprised to find how many older people would come to shows. We’d get middle-aged fans, which I guess makes sense because they’d been waiting for—I hate to say it—a shoegaze or guitar-heavy band to come out.
AVC: You and James met at the Manhattan School of Music—where was he creatively when you two met?
YC: He’d been in a lot of different bands. His first band was formed when he was like 14. I think his greatest moment of pride was when he cleared the auditorium during a school talent show—his parents even left the room. He had a band when we met, but there wasn’t a main vocalist, it was more of an instrumental band. He wanted to move away from that and, I guess, make guitar-heavy music mixed with pretty, feminine vocals. That’s where I came in.
AVC: Were you doing any other singing at that point?
YC: I wasn’t singing at all. I’m not a vocalist by any stretch of the imagination. After a couple years of struggling and feeling insecure about it, I decided to take some lessons, because I was sure I was doing the worst possible thing with my voice. And sure enough the first thing my teacher said was, “You’re not breathing.” [Laughs.] That was step one.
AVC: In your early years as a classical pianist, did you ever expect to front a rock band?
YC: No, I didn’t. It was actually a very happy surprise. I really thought for a while that I was stuck on that path and it did feel like I was trapped. I loved music from an early age and I always knew that I would be a musician, but the classical world felt kind of stuffy for me. I didn’t know what else to do, I had no idea that this could be an option for me. I had always thought that I would just be a passive listener of rock and pop music, so being able to do this has been amazing.