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Asobi Seksu redefines atmospheric pop music

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It's sad when critics and casual listeners will judge a band by its appearance. There are a number of interviews and reviews online that compare the band Asobi Seksu's sound to J-pop or ask Japanese singer Yuki Chikudate about her J-pop influences. Each time, she is quick to point out that she's never been a fan of the music and didn't grow up listening to it.

"People assume that because I'm Japanese and was born in Japan that I like J-pop," she says by phone on the way to a gig in Kentucky. "I respect what those bands do, but I never liked it. When people assume I am influenced by it, it's pretty much just racist."

The music of Asobi Seksu has enough depth and varied influence that it shouldn't be lumped under one generic label — regardless of what it is or looks like. Often referred to as shoegaze, stargaze or dream-pop, the band's sound offers complexity through a combination of keyboards, guitar, drums and the floating vocal style of Chikudate. Her soft, lilting words hover delicately within the mix, presented as an instrument in their own way while also conveying meaning through the lyrics.

The band is currently touring in support of its fifth studio album, Fluorescence, and stops at the Visulite Theatre on Nov. 9. Chikudate says the new album is more complex than previous efforts as the band approached recording with the intention of doing as much layering of the instruments as they could.

Perhaps it's the result of a 2010 acoustic tour in which the band had to strip everything down to its most organic format. "Doing that tour brought all of us closer because it's such an intimate format for the music," Chikudate says. "The songs also took on a new feeling when we got to put them back together to perform live after that."

Originally called Sportfuck, the group changed their name after deciding the title was a bit juvenile. Renamed Asobi Seksu, the Japanese translation means roughly the same thing — "playful sex." While undergoing lineup changes over the years, the core writing duo of keyboardist Chikudate and guitarist James Hanna remained intact. Their current drummer, Larry Gorman, is a former drummer for Glassjaw and brings a new intensity and energy to the group. If Asobi Seksu's music ever wanders into the dazed state of shoegaze, it's usually Gorman's drums who knock the listener back into focus.

"Trails" from Flourescence uses drums to drive the song forward while Chikudate's vocals playfully twist between the riffs and beats. "How can you have no reasons/Left to stay with me/But please, don't leave me here with nothing," she sings, her words soaked with sorrow toward a lost love. She brings as much emotion to lyrics as she does the cooing "oohs" and "aahs" that are interspersed between them.

Word choice has become a big part of the band's music as Chikudate spends more time on the meanings instead of the sounds. She says when the group first started, her words focused on the way they merged into the music as sounds without taking too much consideration into the topics she was singing about. As the group has matured, she concentrates more on lyrical meanings than just the way something might present itself within the music.

Chikudate also sings in two languages — English and Japanese — which adds another element of her vocal presentation and infuses more of her heritage into the band's sound. "It's hard for me to describe, but I am constantly thinking in both Japanese and English," she says. "I don't know why or how that happens. When I'm writing a song, it will just start out in one of them and stay that way, so it makes the most sense to leave it when we are recording."

That doesn't mean the songs remain in one language though. "Me & Mary" from 2009's Hush, bounces between both from verse to chorus. Chikudate says she was "completely nervous" the first time she was going to sing in Japanese, but the band and fans have been so receptive to it that it has remained a strong part of their music. "I'm comfortable now in both formats, but I just have to see what the song dictates as far as which language is used," she says. "The fans have been so supportive that it makes it so much easier to do."

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