When Asobi Seksu’s recordings serenade you in your living room, the band may sound as if they are creating to obscure their creation. It’s a move that would probably make the shoegazing Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine proud. But at their live show, you will have trouble holding your gaze anywhere but up. Instead, you’ll do as Asobi Seksu’s bandleader Yuki Chikudate does—you’ll headbang and dance.
The evening’s venue, the Spanish Moon, provides a four-star alternative rock dive bar—the only alt rock commodity on the Gulf Coast stretch of I-10 between New Orleans and Houston. The Gulf Coast finds its identity in casinos, Morgan Fairchild doppelgangers, and LSU football. I’ve seen experienced urbanites starve here for a year and leave, defeated, gladly returning to the pretense, neuroticism, and elephantine rents of the edgy and highly cultured. For those who stick it out in the Gulf, New York’s Asobi Seksu at the Spanish Moon ranks somewhere between the equinox and the Beatles at Shea Stadium.
The openers, New Orleans’ Generationals, do their best Spoon and New Pornographers impression. The songwriting is downright catchy and would sound nice in your car or home, but their live show is a disaster. The lead singer is visibly nervous and too self-aware on stage, no one speaks between songs, and guitars are tuned loudly while other band members are still performing chords to end the previous song. Generationals play as if someone pried one wall off of a rehearsal space to let the audience peek in. The show isn’t for them, but neither is it for the audience, and one half-expects them to stop playing if someone in the band gets a cell phone call mid-song. To punctuate their lack of energy, the vocalist gets confused during the second verse of their closing number, a cover of James’ “Laid”, sapping the vigor from even this tune, possibly the simplest and catchiest known to humankind.
Detroit’s Tyvek takes the stage next. Lead singer Brett Dennen may double for Napoleon Dynamite, but with two bandmates that look like not-so-distant relatives of Motorhead and the Stooges, will their sound equal their rock facade? The concert begins awkwardly; mainly because of the drastic mood change from the sweetness of Generationals’ tambourine pop to the grease and oil of minimalist Detroit power punk. The first songs do not catch fire, and Dennen faces his bass player when singing, robbing the band of a large stage presence. But each band member has an odd subconscious dance, even the drummer, who stands while playing. The dances start to grow on you, as does their commitment to zero pretense, and by the third song, the crowd is hollering. To prove I’m not alone, my girlfriend shouts into my ear “I don’t like this music, but they play like a band”. Compliments from the enemy are better than compliments from the friendly.
Tyvek sounds like Detroit, but an older Detroit. The White Stripes come to mind, but Tyvek doesn’t have a hint of the purposeful musical chameleon-ship of the Stripes, and the vocals don’t have the rock-god banshee-ness of Jack White. Tyvek’s music is far less crafted, and faux heavy-metal screams are replaced by Dennen’s less acrobatic baritone alongside chugging power chords. Tyvek are also technically challenged. Their attempts at mid-song silence are often not silent, but they are not playing down to be minimalist or retro. Their mistakes prove they are doing all they can to play their songs, so while your finer sensibilities may be offended at moments, the Gods of American Punk reassure you that Tyvek is giving you your cover charge’s worth of menthol-and-jean-jacketed Dodge Charger rock.
As if to underscore the small-club setting, Asobi Seksu (a Japanese term meaning “playful sex”) take the stage and begin setting up their gear. Vocalist Chikudate dances and swirls to the house music as the band fine-tune the stage settings. After disappearing briefly, the band return. Clearly, everyone in the house has attended to see them. The bar and pool tables empty. The front of the stage fills. The band triggers a digital loop, and the show begins.
From the onset, it is clear that the band prefers volume and subtlety in its live shows. The evening’s performances attempt textures that most bands wouldn’t try live. Seksu negotiate musical precipices effortlessly, letting themselves and the audience roll through a never-ending succession of moods from synth pop to shoegaze to guitar warble to the quietude of xylophone interludes accompanied only by Chikudate’s clear voice. While shoegaze and dream-pop have always treated the vocals as just another instrument, the band’s newer material from Hush keeps the shoegaze emphasis on melody without sacrificing a fore-grounded vocal performance. The softness of the interludes highlights just how paper thin Seksu’s live texture can be—thin as a Japanese paper kite pushed and pulled in cyclone winds, a metaphor that defines the band for most of the set.
But the band isn’t all vacillation between thin paper and tidal waves of industrial-sized pop power. “This song’s about fruit,” Chikudate laughs, as the band launches into “Strawberries”, a tune dipped in the psychedelia of the Velvet Underground imitating the Beach Boys. Chikudate’s humor over the evening distances the band from the East Coast disaffection or the coolness of reserve ala Velvet Underground, nameable ‘90s shoegaze icons, or fellow New Yorkers’ like the Strokes. Seksu’s live show, even when at an adrenaline roar, closes the distance between you and the world, rather than suggesting you observe it from afar or forego participation altogether.
“Thursday”, perhaps Seksu’s most popular tune, isn’t rolled out like a hit. The band play the song mid-set with a one-line introduction unaccompanied by a search for recognition or approval. The song blossoms live into not a radio-friendly lotus flower, but into an extended sturm und drang that would sink songs twice its size. Much of the credit must be given to drummer Larry Gorman, an unstoppable beast of a performer who makes the muscular presence of the band possible. Gorman generates the thunder that accompanies the silence and sheeted glass of Seksu’s sound.
While the band shifts gears at times, such as on “Pink Cloud Tracing Paper”, which features guitarist James Hanna taking lead vocals, “Red Sea”, from the band’s second album, Citrus, defines the locus of Seksu’s live power. The pounding sixteenth-note tom-toms, far more prominent in the live mix than on album, provide a live grounding so that the layered textures of guitar, bass, and synthesizer do not float upward to the rafters, but remain thunder under glass. Perhaps it is my position thirty feet up in the Spanish Moon’s tiny balcony, but Seksu’s sounds are so concentrated they could support migration. And this isn’t due to volume. Yes, the band is loud, but the tones don’t ruffle the ears; the tones lodge lower, in the chest, and Seksu’s medium tempos replace your beating heart for the duration of the evening.
Recognizing their gift horse, the band closes with overwhelming feedback and fuzz, so much a force of its own that it continues while Chikudate moves behind the drum kit to pound out a tribal motif. Drummer Gorman does his best Johnny Greenwood, taking over the pedal effects of guitarist Hanna, who bangs his strings once more, then sets his guitar down to feedback. The band exits the stage and climbs the staircase to the balcony, their instruments still feeding back like a gale meeting a maelstrom. I see Chikudate and company playfully peer over the balcony at their own noise, then disappear down a hallway, leaving their detonations of thunder and glass behind them.