Know Your Subgenres: Shoegazing

Last month when Asobi Seksu visited KEXP, I mentioned on Facebook that I was watching their in-studio performance. One of my friends responded by asking not, “Who is Asobi Seksu?”, but rather, “What is shoegazing?” — a question that I thought perhaps many people would have. Hence the first in this series of articles, Know Your Subgenres.

Like many subgenres of rock, shoegazing originated as a label slapped by the music press on a small group of bands who happened to develop a similar sound at the same time. In this case, the bands were based in London and the Thames Valley region of England, and the label was a slightly derisive reference to their performance style, as the guitarists tended to stand motionless and stare down at their effects pedals. Although not the first to be called shoegazers, My Bloody Valentine built upon the influential style of the Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain to create the seminal shoegazing sound. The label was first applied to a band called Moose, following in My Bloody Valentine’s footsteps, and then extended back to My Bloody Valentine and associated acts. Other prominent bands from this era associated with shoegazing included Ride, Lush, and Slowdive.

The bands had good reason to focus on the effects pedals, as the shoegazing style uses distortion, delay, and echo on the guitar parts to create a shimmering wall of sound. Vocals tend to be subsumed into the mix as well, used as part of the overall soundscape, and the lyrics though present are usually unintelligible and almost irrelevant. However, the music is not wispy and ambient but rather heavy and driving, often with a strong melodic line running beneath the guitar washes. “Only Shallow,” from the defining album Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, amply demonstrates this style.

My Bloody Valentine – “Only Shallow” live in London on June 13, 2008

The first heyday of shoegazing was in the late ‘80s to mid-‘90s; as many of the founding shoegazers broke up, the explosion of grunge in the U.S. and Britpop in the U.K. overwhelmed the style’s presence in the music scene. However, no good musical style is ever completely forgotten, and today a new set of bands continue to take inspiration from the sounds of 20 years ago. Among these bands are Airiel, Film School, and the aforementioned Asobi Seksu. Although Asobi Seksu’s latest album, Hush, has moved more toward an open dreampop sound, the shoegazing influence can be clearly heard in such songs as “Red Sea” from their 2006 release, Citrus.

Asobi Seksu – “Red Sea” live in Aberdeen on November 28, 2008

Not all the original shoegazers are gone, either. In fact, My Bloody Valentine reunited in 2007, and are playing this Monday evening at the WaMu Theater in Seattle at 8 PM (doors at 6:30). You can read our interview with Kevin Shields in which he discusses the reunion here. Also by coincidence, Asobi Seksu will be in town, so if you missed when they were here last month, you can catch them this Tuesday at Neumos, opening for Yann Tiersen (doors at 8 PM).

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  1. Posted April 30, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Great column. Please keep it up. These are the kinds of things indie-snobs are too proud to ask but need explained.

  2. Posted April 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Nice post! I recall having an illuminating conversation with you on this exact topic some years ago.

    I’d really like to know how bands like the Ting Tings, Go Team!, and CSS are being categorized. I’m really grooving to their music, and I sense an affinity between them, but I’m at a loss to explain it to others.

  3. MBDC
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Agree — great post! Keep it up.

    Also, I’d like to second tonyd’s request for thoughts on labels applied to Go Team! I’ve always thought of it as cheerleader rock, or distant-beach-radio music, but I doubt either categorization is destined to catch on…

  4. Posted April 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    um, you did read the post, right?

  5. J Shephard
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Your description fits the music of A Shoreline Dream so well. Alas anything that Ulrich Schnauss is involved with becomes new wave of Shoegazer Music. Agree?

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