Going Deeper with The Soft Moon's Luis Vasquez
Birthed as the tail end of the 70’s ‘Year Zero’ mentality bled into the nascent futurism of the 80’s, post-punk in its many guises is a genre that refuses to die.
There’s something about the emotional, abrasive and angular that is latched onto by successive generations, and from a tapestry woven out of luminaries such as Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails, The Soft Moon’s Luis Vasquez picks at the fabric till it’s almost threadbare - leaving a sound that is sparser, yet no less weighty.
As the band gets set to play Australian shores for the first time in support of their third LP (2015’s Deeper), Vasquez took some time out to explain the motivations behind the album and the importance of geography to an apocalyptic mindset.
“With this record I just wanted to completely let go and try to express as many sides and emotions as possible" Vasquez begins.
"I felt like, with the previous records, I was kind of pigeonholed into this ‘post-punk’ thing. I kind of had a particular sound and I wasn’t completely comfortable with who I was as a person. With Deeper I wanted to let it all out, whichever emotion surfaced. It was just a means to discover more about myself - harsher on one end of the spectrum, but also more subtle on the other side”.
Thematically the album continues Vasquez obsession with the apocalyptic, combining harsh synths and Krautrock elements to create an aura of desolation that is as unnerving as it is inviting.
“The whole apocalyptic thing started when I was a child. I’ve always had recurring nightmares about the world ending. They stopped for the last couple of years, but they’ve slowly started to come back. I spent a lot of my younger years growing up in the desert and I think that has a lot to do with those themes of desolation that have made their way into the music. Living out there kind of felt like the end of the world; it's just pure desert, and the population was pretty small too”. With the current end-times cloud cast by looming climate change and resource shortages, I wondered if Vasquez felt that an apocalyptic or cataclysmic future was somehow inevitable.
“Yeah!” he laughs nervously, “at least that's how I feel, but that could be because of my anxiety. I tend to think the worst, but I do feel that it could happen at any moment”
If the future is a muted prospect, then Vasquez is at least making the most of the present, with the Australian tour being followed by a trip behind the veil of state control to the exotic frontier of China. I wondered if the band had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops in order to make that happen.
“I’m not too sure what’s happening behind the scenes with the booking agents, but it’s been a long time coming. The only other time we’ve been to Asia was two and a half years ago in Taiwan. The audiences were hard to gauge because we played a festival, so we didn’t get that true sense of connection - but the people seemed pretty excited about music and culture, especially from overseas”.
We’re fortunate enough to be seeing the tour at all, after things were nearly derailed when the band's gear was stolen from their van during a hometown show in Oakland.
”It was pretty ironic that it had to be the home show" laughs Vasquez. "Luckily we had just finished the set, so we were packing up inside the venue and they mostly got our merch, some back-up gear and all of our clothing and personal items. We still had some of our gear from the live show inside the venue, so we were able to continue to play - but we all had to go shopping at Wal-Mart to buy some last minute clothes".
It’s been a long journey from that small town in the Mojave Desert, but all like all musical travels, it had to start somewhere. I wanted to get a picture of Vasquez as a child when he was first opening up to music and learning to play. What was it that initially turned him onto things?
“When we first moved out to the desert from LA, it was pretty desolate and there wasn’t much to do. My uncle bought me a guitar for my birthday and at around the same time, my Mom had a bunch of cassettes lying around - Prince, Michael Jackson. Madonna and The Cars. I listened to those tapes over and over until I wore them out. That’s how it all started, with me listening to music and taking notice of the structures of songs. That was before I got into punk rock. By the time I was eventually exposed to that I had gotten a little better at guitar and had started a band". With those early musical influences being difficult to emulate, I was sure that punk rock had been a liberating experience.
“Oh definitely!” he enthuses, “I definitely resonated more with punk rock, being a teenager and feeling the frustration and teenage angst that we all had as adolescent boys" Vasquez laughs.
"Everything I’ve ever written has always had a kind of darkness to it, but in terms of sonic influences and the use of chorus pedals, I would have to say it’s all probably down to The Cure. It was when I first heard The Cure that I finally figured out my aesthetic. I like the tones, the bass, the drums. I thought to myself ‘this is an aesthetic that I like, this is me’. So I guess my own personal darkness, mixed with punk rock, mixed with The Cure is where it began for me”.
With his lyrical themes, like The Cure, Vasquez eschews the literary angle to focus more on personal exploration and an articulation of feelings. “It’s definitely a personal thing. I have my own approach because for me, music is therapy. I like to use minimal words and short sentences that repeat like a mantra. When you hear a word over and over again, it becomes hypnotic”.
Speaking of therapy, having mentioned his anxious tendencies, I wondered if the process of taking his music into the live arena helped alleviate Luis' anxiety or in fact tended to exacerbate it.
“It’s quite strange” he pauses, “I would have to say it has helped me. There are definitely times where it makes things worse because I’m taking myself into places that are quite dark, but that’s when you learn most about yourself. I kinda get freaked out!” he laughs
The band’s live sound, where Vasquez is joined by live bass and drums, seems to have a bit more edge and abandon to it than the studio recordings to date (which are generally Vasquez flying solo). I wondered if he had thought of trying to explore and capture that feel in future studio sessions.
“I’ve been touring for quite awhile, and as time goes by I’m always taking into consideration what works live when I’m making records - so the live aspect is definitely something I’m trying to harness more and more. I have people come up to me after shows all the time saying that they prefer the live sound to the records because there’s a lot more spontaneity. Right now, they’re like two separate entities - but I assume eventually the live aspect and the recorded aspect will become one”.
From his hometown of Oakland, to the recording of Deeper in Venice, perennial touring commitments and a new home in Berlin, Vasquez seems to have adopted a somewhat nomadic lifestyle in recent years. Many artists and musicians seem to make the pilgrimage to Berlin at some point, particularly those with an affinity for the darker side of expression. I asked Vasquez what drew him to the city.
“There was always something fascinating or intriguing about Berlin. It is quite a dark place with a dark history, and in a way it really does help me face my demons. Over time I’ve noticed that it’s kind of backfiring though, because sometimes that dark mood and dark past feeds a little too freely into who I am. But there’s something about Berlin that’s challenging me. I don’t want anything I do to be easy, so I’m intrigued by this city and its darkness. I’m trying to harness its energy. We’re very similar, and I’m hoping that connection gives me some kind of breakthrough or revelation for future material. Once that happens, hopefully I can move on”.
Deeper is out now via Captured Tracks
The Soft Moon Australian Tour
Wednesday October 26 Perth - Mojos Bar Fremantle | Tix http://goo.gl/gPJzfu With Erasers Thursday October 27 Sydney - Newtown Social Club | Tix https://goo.gl/jW6ALy With Buzz Kull Friday October 28 Melbourne - The Curtin | Tix https://johncurtinhotel.wazala.com/ WIth Nun