There are plenty of potential motives behind wearing masks on stage be it an artistic statement, a freak show gimmick, or just plain ol’ stage fright. For Koibito, a duo creating blissed-out, beat scene psychedelia, their disguises aren’t trying to conceal their identities. Instead, they’re revealing them to you without the usual distractions.
“When you’re fronting a band, you feel like you’re representing the band with your voice and your stage presence,” says guitarist/ flutist Esther Kang, half of the Long Beach duo and former frontwoman of King Kang. On stage, she dons a black sorcerer’s cloak with only her hands visible to play her instruments. “[This project] taught me to focus way more on my playing, the tones of the guitar and the flute and playing with that way more because that’s how I’m communicating, not through my voice which is what I was used to. It’s a really cool challenge.”
Together with her producer and partner Abbey Barnett, the couple is tearing up the local bar scene, playing moody sets that tell a story through ambient subtlety with pockets of 808-slapping savagery as Barnett’s live iPad producing and finger drumming incites hoots and hollers from the audience. Last January, they released their debut EP Elian, christened after the third-grade student who created the white, misshapen mask that Barnett wears on stage. It’s become the duo’s calling card.
Barnett found the mask through one of the customers at the place where she works who ran an afterschool art program for elementary school kids. Barnett’s boss went and bought a bunch of their artwork for a buck or two to share with his employees. “He asked if I wanted any of it and I said I wanted this mask it looked really cool and it was just so weird,” Barnett says. “It had the kid’s name who made it on the back too. By putting it on I really wanted to embody the whatever was going in his mind.” Though the original mask didn’t survive very long (it was cracked, beat up and ultimately melted after being left in a hot car), the band’s sound endures and gets better with every incarnation of the mask they’ve recreated.
Painting aural dreamscapes with songs like “Gingersoda” and “NYD”, the sound is steeped in cinematic romance, a trait that lends itself to the band’s name (Koibito means “Lover” in Japanese). Kang and Barnett didn’t start making music together until about a year into their relationship after Kang’s previous band went on hiatus and they had more time to figure out their sound.
“We had a few failed attempts where we said it wasn’t gonna work,” Kang says. “She was more into electronic and I was so used to jamming with people with organic instruments that there was a disconnect there initially.”
Despite the shaky start, they persevered, eventually compiling a body of work that they perform at bars like 4th Street Vine and Que Sera. Recently, they released their first video for “Caturday” created by Niv Rajendra, a visual artist out of Shenzhen, China. They met through mutual friends via Instagram. Without knowing anything about the group, Rajendra heard the song and created the video, a beautifully cut mosaic of outdoor images spliced with footage of her partner lying on a bed asleep. The anonymous nature of its creation shows the value in what Koibito are going for by stripping away the pretext of their appearance in order to focus on the music.
“It was a beautiful, accidental collaboration,” Kang says. “She just went on a trip to Thailand so she had all this footage of her and her partner and she has such a cool eye of seeing everything around her. She captured the song perfectly.”
As for their continued journey as lovers and bandmates, Koibito is excited to experiment even more with sound embracing the mystery of where it could go.
“I think it was really freeing because we started with a blank slate and there isn’t a road map of lyrics to follow,” Kang says. “It’s just a blank canvas and we create it together.”
Koibito performs at Coaxial Arts. 9 p.m. $5, for more info, click here.