Shelling’s ‘Aquarium Sympathy’ provides a soundtrack to rainy days

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

When Shelling takes the stage at an ambient-drone gig at an art gallery in Tokyo’s Okubo neighborhood, one thing sets them apart — the synthesizers.

Singer-guitarist Aya Sato almost whispers her vocals, and guitarist Shota Ishihara draws out chords in a classic shoegaze style, but the sharp, multi-note synth accompaniment is like nothing you’d hear in that genre.

“We weren’t focusing on an particular genre when we started out,” Sato says. “We took time in studios experimenting with all sorts of styles, including ambient, pop and toy electronica, and that’s how our sound progressed.”

Taking its name from the act of collecting sea shells, Shelling formed in 2008 when Sato met Ishihara online. The duo released its debut eponymous album last year via the White Paddy Mountain label.

Shelling’s sound is often dubbed by fans as “sherbet pop”: dreamy, whispered vocals and ambient guitars punctuated with sharp drum-machine beats that evoke shoegaze bands. However, Sato and Ishihara say bands like My Bloody Valentine were not hugely influential on them, making them something of a rarity in Tokyo’s indie-music scene.

“I grew up listening to techno, house and alternative rock bands such as Smashing Pumpkins,” Sato says, though her vocals resemble those of Asobi Seksu’s Yuki Chikudate rather than Billy Corgan’s.

Ishihara admits an interest in shoegaze, but says “Brian Eno had a bigger influence on me.”

Shelling released its second album, “Aquarium Sympathy,” last month. As the title suggests the duo takes a lot of inspiration from the ocean and the water.

“It always rains when we play shows or visit record stores for promotion,” Sato says with a laugh as thunder rumbles outside on this, the first weekend of the rainy season in Tokyo. “We’ve worked with other themes, but this time we kept naturally going back to water as our focus throughout the writing and recording process.”

Most of Shelling’s tracks are written and programmed first by Sato before being passed on to Ishihara who improvises with added guitars. Ishihara says this has led him to come up with an individual playing style that compliments Sato’s songwriting.

“I spend a lot of time connecting guitar pedals and making sounds out of it,” Ishihara says. “When Aya sends me the tracks, it gives me an visual image that inspires me to develop my sound.”

Ishihara’s guitars in “Lake to Love” and “Dizzy” play on the aquatic theme and echo a stream of water, heavily ambient through a line of delay and reverbs. Though the sound varies a bit from track to track, this particular guitar sound is used throughout “Aquarium Sympathy,” forming the signature tone of the album.

On June 17, Shelling will open for Swedish trio Twiggy Frostbite. The band, who have drawn comparisons with Icelandic acts Sigur Ros and Mum, will be performing in Tokyo for the first time.

“They have that cold, transparent sound of North European bands, and we can really empathize with that,” Ishihara says. “Since my first listen, I’ve really wanted to perform with that kind of band. And, of course, it’s a great chance for us to spread Shelling’s music, too.”

“Aquarium Sympathy” is in stores now. Shelling play with Twiggy Frostbite and RiLF at Under Deer Lounge in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on June 17 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-5728-2655). For more information, visit www.shelling-info.com.