Until recently, New York City's Asobi Seksu were one of those hidden regional gems just on the verge of getting attention outside of their scene, a group whose name most non-New Yorkers wouldn't have recognized. But they did make waves at random festival showcases when music fans accidentally stumbled onto their shimmering waves of fuzzed-out guitars and ethereal girl-group melodies.
They weren't, say, the type of band whose album you'd remember to look for in alphabetized racks at your friendly local independent record store.
But when minuscule Brooklyn indie label Friendly Fire re-released their self-titled debut with '60s retro-stylish cover art, people started to pay attention. College radio and art-house filmmakers swooned over the quartet's knack for lush, dreamy sonic atmospheres.
Then Asobi Seksu's markedly more sophisticated Citrus--also on Friendly Fire--hit stores in May with a visible explosion of tangerine tones and Björk-meets-Harajuku collage effects, and people started to notice. Literally. There's something about the disc's visual references to mid-'90s 4AD cover art, old Galaxie 500 albums, anime, stylized psychedelia and fruit that wholly encapsulates the ethos of their music.
"At the beginning, we really weren't into any of the aesthetic stuff," explains guitarist and co-founder James Hanna over the phone from his New York home base. "None of us is any good at that shit--I can barely write my name legibly."
Luckily, after several years of "terrible shit" posters and gig flyers, Asobi Seksu collided with Brooklyn artist Sean McCabe (check out his stuff at www.wider-than-pictures.com), who effectively repackaged their debut and struck cover-art gold with Citrus.
"Everyone sat and made decisions together, but it was really Sean's work that made it fly," Hanna continues. "I knew I wanted something obnoxious, loud and orange, and I wanted a color jewel case, but it started out a lot more retro-looking before he found this direction."
It may seem counterintuitive to fixate on a band's cover art to grasp what they're all about, but in Asobi Seksu's case, as their profile builds, they're having to deal with people writing them off as merely part of a semi-fabricated shoegaze-revival trend based on those distinctive distorted sheets of guitar.
But Asobi Seksu's music is way more complex than just nouveau-shoegaze shit, and the visual signifiers of Citrus really do stand in for, say, lead singer Yuki Chikudate's birdlike cooing about talking strawberries in Japanese and English, for the cascading glockenspiel bits that meander in and out of heavily textured guitar feedback, for the bass line at the end of "Strings" blatantly swiped from the Phil Spector co-penned "Then He Kissed Me."
Hanna admits he's frustrated by folks who lump his band in with a nonexistent shoegaze-revival movement, though he admits they've partly brought it upon themselves through recent tour dates with Norway's Serena Maneesh (who've also bemoaned the fact that the media pigeonholes them as the next My Bloody Valentine-slash-Jesus and Mary Chain). However, Serena Maneesh is not coming to Tucson; Subtle and The Lymbyc System will open for Asobi Seksu at Plush next Tuesday, Oct. 10.
"We get offered those shows, and they're good shows, so we take them. We've only started thinking about all this stuff recently. It seems like people want something to be excited about, but all I've heard is, like, two bands and an electronica guy making sorta shoegazey music, and I don't think that's much of a trend."
It's hard not to agree. Until there's enough nü-generation interest to lure Kevin Shields out of his basement for a (lucrative) reunion tour J. Mascis-style, or 'til this generation's feedback flag-wavers establish a uniform style of facial hair, the shoegaze revival has not officially begun.
A version of this story originally appeared in NOW magazine (Toronto).