Aiha Higurashi pauses, her brow furrows slightly, and she purses her lips. Her eyes have the sharp, scrutinizing focus of someone who doesn’t want to miss a single cue or nuance of meaning in her surroundings. There’s a wariness about her, and even in the simple matter of scratching her chin, it’s her middle finger she extends to perform the task.
“Half of me is still a 17-year-old girl and half of me is 43 or whatever,” Higurashi says. “But I’m still a little girl, struggling all the time, with music, with other people, with society. And I love that part, but it’s a mess.”
Higurashi’s new album, her first under the name Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her since 2001’s “Future or No Future,” is titled “Eternal Adolescence” and in lines like, “Every time I fight with you/You never try to fight me back,” (from “Kiss and Make Up”) there’s a sense that her creativity somehow needs the constant conflict her inner stroppy teenager brings.
Born to bohemian parents (her father was a famous copywriter and her mother a political activist) and growing up in Tokyo’s uber-hip Shimokitazawa neighborhood, Higurashi was an outsider from the start. Bullied at school and shunning classes, she instead found a home in the live venues of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa — “anywhere I could go out and see hardcore music” — and then at the age of 19 formed Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her.
Being a young woman in a rock band in early-1990s Japan brought her into conflict with a music scene that wasn’t fully ready to take her gender seriously as musicians.
“I fought so much with other people,” she explains. “I didn’t want to fight, but unless we fought, we couldn’t get anything. We’d never get a show with Jon Spencer or Sonic Youth or whoever. There was a big bias, and I was really sad every time I fought with someone. People thought I was a bitch because I’d speak out, to fight for my rights.”
An admirer of feminist American bands such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, Higurashi nonetheless drew the line at the women-only stance that members of the Riot Grrrl movement sometimes took at their shows. Nevertheless, while many female musicians in Japan today are reluctant to associate themselves with feminism, Higurashi is not so willing to let go of it.
“Japanese women really care about the extremeness of feminism,” she notes. “Sometimes I think of myself as a feminist and sometimes not. I like some parts of the thinking of feminism, but I don’t want to think only one way: it’s dangerous. But sometimes I need feminism.”
The sense of being slightly out of place follows Higurashi throughout her career, with Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her’s raw, lo-fi garage-punk an oddity on Keigo Oyamada’s (aka Cornelius’) Trattoria label in the ’90s, alongside such slick, aesthetically rigorous pop as Kahimi Karie.
Then, in the early 2000s, Higurashi took a leap into even more uncharted territory, firstly as the writer of ex-Judy And Mary singer Yuki’s debut album “Prismic,” where she achieved the distinction and honor of getting the word “s—-” into a top-10 Oricon chart hit.
“Yuki loved Seagull and she loved my songs,” says Higurashi. “She came to our shows and she was desperate for something new, then she chose me. She’s the same age as me and her background is almost exactly the same as mine even though she’s a well-known pop artist. It was really interesting to talk to her — she knew the Slits, the Shaggs … we had really good chemistry.”
Around this time, however, Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her split up, with Higurashi pursuing a solo career with Sony Music. Rather than being a source of conflict, however, it seems in some ways as if the very freedom the major label provided was what did her the worst damage, turning the conflict self-destructively inward.
“The responsibility made me sick,” she says. “They paid so much money for me, but I wasn’t popular at all. Now maybe that was their fault actually, but at the time I felt it was my fault, and it made me sick. Not sick of them, but I was depressed, I was up and down a lot. I gained weight and my body balance was a mess. Everything was going wrong, so I felt it was dangerous to be there.”
Higurashi credits the re-emergence of Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her to her longtime friend and collaborator Kentaro Nakao. Former bassist with generation-defining late-’90s punk band Number Girl and currently Crypt City, Nakao worked with Higurashi in the band Loves, and later as a producer with The Girl. His stabilizing influence helped talk her round to revisiting her old material and writing new songs under the Seagull name.
“He said, ‘Please do (things) your own way,’ ” she explains. “And that was a difficult point, too. I can’t go back to being a 24-year-old girl writing songs based on nothing, but I have so many layers under me — musical layers, artistic layers — and I can’t erase that. But still, I felt free to write any kind of music, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it!’ ”
The new lineup has already seen the group reaching both old fans and new audiences, too young to remember its ’90s Trattoria days, but as the title of the album suggests, something fierce, contrary, unpredictable and defiantly honest remains unchanged at the heart of the band’s music.
“I cry like a little girl,” Higurashi says with a laugh. “I cry, but I’m fighting. That’s my way. I’m weak but strong.”
“Eternal Adolescence” is in stores now. The Eternal Adolescence Tour hits Club Quattro in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 21 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 06-6311-8111); and Club Quattro in Umeda, Osaka, on Oct. 23 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in adv.; 06-6311-8111). For more information, visit www.sskhkh.com.