By Adam Lovinus
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By Mike Seeley
New York's Asobi Seksu have spent the better part of the past decade making music that can only be described as "powergaze"—combining the swirling guitar theatrics of bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Swervedriver with a power-pop drive led by singer Yuki Chikudate's peppier-than-thou vocals. But they continue to evolve in sound with their fourth major album, Fluorescence, trading some of the guitar bombast of their previous work for glowing synthesizers that drizzle the music like syrup.
"Since the beginning, we've gotten more comfortable with embracing synths, and this one, I hope, is just a continuation of the stuff we've done on the past couple of albums," says Asobi Seksu guitarist/songwriter/backup vocalist James Hanna. The band also include bassist Billy Pavone and drummer Larry Gorman.
Asobi Seksu formed in 2001 as the oh-so-subtly named Sportfuck (Asobi Seksu is a veiled update of the same name, meaning "playful sex" in Japanese). Their 2004 self-titled album won college-radio airplay and acclaim with sugary gems such as "I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me." Next came 2006's Citrus, an album that delivered on the best elements of the shoegaze genre, with lovelorn melodies sent skyward by shuttle-launching guitar noise.
But the band threw a wrench in the works with 2009's appropriately titled Hush, which relied more on layers of keyboards and building atmosphere than previous works. That year also saw an acoustic album of reworked material called Rewolf. "It was maybe calculated for a while because we kind of burnt out on [loud guitars]," Hanna explains.
Fluorescence keeps the dream-pop train rolling with another batch of woozy tunes, with the band applying what they've learned from tinkering with the sound during the past few years. First single "Trails" finds Chikudate really showing what she's got voice-wise, belting in an atonal wail that shakes up the musical reverie floating beneath it. "My Baby" lets her coo like a Supreme. "We've always wanted to write fake girl-group songs," Hanna says.
"I think there's some energy on some of the new jams," he says. "We just started calling ourselves dream pop so people would stop calling us shoegaze, but they're both kind of bullshit terms."
Another misnomer they continue to avoid is J-pop, which has been foisted upon the band since their inception due to their name, as well as Chikudate's Japanese background and chirpy singing.
"To a degree, we're maybe influenced by some Japanese music, but not Japanese pop music," Hanna says. "That shit sucks."
But that tag may have helped Asobi Seksu garner more of a worldwide base, landing them fans in Asian countries. And touring copiously has helped that base stick around over the years, Hanna says.
Asobi Seksu have also increasingly appeared in films and television shows—such as The L Word, Ugly Betty and the original, British version of Skins—and scored So Yong Kim's indie favorites In Between Days and Treeless Mountain. Their kick-ass, anthemic "Thursday" (off Citrus) appeared in the equally amazing mumblecore film The Exploding Girl. Hanna says they'd love to continue working with filmmakers in addition to releasing their own music (no new album beyond Fluorescence has yet been scheduled).
The resurgence and endurance of shoegaze in the underground music scene also has ensured that however much Asobi Seksu evolve, their basic sound is beloved the world over.
"It's cool that people have never stopped making garage music, so there's no reason to stop doing that and updating it and messing with it," Hanna says.
This article appeared in print as "Getting Synth-sual: Dream popsters Asobi Seksu add synthesizers to the mix on Fluorescence."