Take a listen to any of New York dream-pop/shoegaze duo Asobi Seksu's five studio albums, including its finest and most recent, Fluorescence, and the influences shine through pretty clearly. The band has a decidedly epic sound, with huge synths and electric guitars swirling around in oceans of reverb, song structures morphing seamlessly through time signatures and tempos.
"We were influenced by indie-rock stuff—My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and Broadcast," says guitarist/vocalist James Hanna.
Hanna and vocalist/keyboard player Yuki Chikudate, the other half of Asobi Seksu, originally met as students at the Manhattan School of Music, a fairly prestigious music conservatory with some very famous alumni, like Herbie Hancock and Harry Connick Jr. In interviews, Hanna frequently describes the pair as a couple of music nerds; the mouse-voiced Chikudate, whose lyrics alternate between English and her native Japanese, studied classical piano before making a reluctant switch to vocals. There's always a sense of slightly high-brow professionalism separating the duo from other contemporary psychedelic bands.
But Hanna doesn't seem like a snooty intellectual, and he insists that, despite the sense of adventure and experimentation that crops up throughout the songs he and Chikudate write, a lot of their nerdiest accents are simply coincidental.
"We actually always write the parts first and than go back and figure out the time signature," he says. "But I love little prog-type tricks like that."
Hanna and Chikudate have worked as hard at crafting their relationship, both musically and personally, as they have at honing their epic sound. In fact, the two didn't exactly hit it off when they first met. "I wouldn't say there was an immediate chemistry," Hanna says. "I think we actively disliked one another for two years before we actually had a conversation. The band has definitely had a slow development, and that's kind of cool with me now."
"Slow development" is a pretty accurate description of the band's evolution. Once the pair finally became friends (and then, later on, bandmates), they had to overcome Chikudate's initial reluctance to sing. She felt out of her element as a live performer, and as a result, the band struggled through an early awkward phase. It also took a while before they figured out exactly what kind of music they wanted to make in the first place. Before meeting up with Chikudate, Hanna played in an all-instrumental band. In Chikudate, he found an opportunity to go in a very different direction, embracing a prettier, more melodic approach. While their obsession with '80s and '90s indie rock eventually signaled the path for their sonic trajectory, it's possible Asobi Seksu could have ended up sounding very different.
"Old soul plus early Wu-Tang is where we first bonded," Hanna says.
Flash-forward to Fluorescence, the band's acclaimed new album, released in February, and it's dreamy business as usual. Which means, of course, that there are lots of excellent, blissfully spaced-out songs (like the dense, alien pop of "My Baby" and the synth-heavy daydream "In My Head"). But in a way, it's also a return to what they do best; Asobi Seksu's 2009 album, Rewolf, was a change of pace, with the band reworking many of their older songs on acoustic instruments. It was a much-needed shake-up, but with Fluorescence, Hanna was ready to get back to their trademark expansiveness.
"It was nice just making it sound as good as possible with the keyboards and guitars we actually use live," he says.
There's no particular method to their magic, besides, of course, a lot of hard work. "Yuki and I determine the majority of the structure just banging around the rehearsal space until something resembling a catchy song starts to come out," Hanna says. "The process is really pretty painstaking."
And for all the pigeonholing they've suffered at the hands of critics, Asobi Seksu seem pretty comfortable just doing what they do best. Hanna says the Internet "blows," an opinion that's out of step in the age of iTunes, when a MacBook and a microphone can constitute a recording studio. But Hanna and Chikudate are still aiming for outer space.
"I love putting that big polished sheen on our music and keeping it really weird," Hanna says. "We're bringing back hi-fi."