Soft Kill’s Post-Punk Roots Remain in the Underground

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Soft Kill, photo by Joanna Stawnicka

Portland, Oregon-based post-punk band Soft Kill is currently on tour with Chameleons Vox. For the Denver date at The Bluebird Theater on Wednesday September 13 the bill include Denver’s own industrial punk band Echo Beds and beat-driven, post-punk shoegazers Voight. It is, frankly, a show that represents a respectable spectrum of a wave of bands that have come along over roughly the past decade that comprise what could loosely be considered a new incarnation of the kind of music that came in the wake of punk when many creative types realized they didn’t need to adhere to an established mode of musical expression. Industrial developed alongside punk with the advent of Throbbing Gristle, but both musical impulses were anti-establishment and made a lifestyle alternative to mainstream mundanity viable.

By the 1980s industrial, post-punk, death rock, dark synth music, noise and even punk were still relatively underground phenomena even as bands like U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen took post-punk into the mainstream, Fad Gadget influenced Depeche Mode who took avant-garde synth music and gave it pop accessibility and both Skinny Puppy and Ministry proved that challenging music could find more than a simply niche audience. When the alternative music explosion of the early 90s changed the face of popular music some of the aforementioned bands benefited while much of the rest became sequestered to the “Goth scene” or largely forgotten.

The so-called post-punk revival, including “dance punk,” of the mid-90s to the early 2000s brought atmospheric, moody music into the mainstream but began in scattered underground scenes around the country. Groups like !!! (Chk Chk Chk) in Sacramento, The Faint in Omaha and The Prids (initially in Missouri, then Nebraska and for around two decades now, Portland, Oregon) created some of the most compelling post-punk in the history of that music. As did New York-based bands such as Interpol, The Rapture, The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them. All of those bands knew their musical roots in 70s and 80s post-punk, no wave, early darkwave and Krautrock but at that time many of their fans eschewed the term Goth and those so self-identified seemed to dismiss the post-punk revival bands as simply indie rock. The connection between post-punk, Goth, industrial, minimal synth and related music seemed lost.

That is until a generation of musicians, mostly born during the heyday of post-punk and industrial, rediscovered that music and embraced it as something vital that stirred the imagination. That there was an overlap with the noise scene that survived in the depths of the underground didn’t hurt. It was from there that Tobias Sinclair, one of the guitarists and singer in Soft Kill, emerged as a fledgling musician in the larger DIY music scene in New England. He had attended shows at the influential DIY space Fort Thunder in Providence, Rhode Island where, according to Sinclair, “Every other warehouse seemed to have someone with a P.A.” as well as places like Munch House and Dirt Palace.

Going to these unconventional spaces to experience music left an indelible mark on Sinclair.

“It was really inspirational without a doubt that people could just hold their own shows without all the bullshit of a bar,” says Sinclair.

At a memorable show that included now Denver based artist Mat Brinkman, Sinclair experienced the kind of creative expression that one rarely experiences anywhere else.

“With Forcefield he and seven other guys would knit these seven foot tall outfits and play oscillators,” recalls Sinclair. “That completely blew my mind compared to all the other conventional trappings. All that stuff is more important to me probably more than obvious influences on Soft Kill. hat was really inspirational for me because somebody that didn’t ever have lessons or what I perceived at that time as an inherent talent, I loved the lack of those limitations and I could kind of go nuts with it and teach myself to play an instrument based off of what felt and sounded cool rather than what was in a book.”

Around that time, Sinclair and his friends saw the 2001 Friends Forever documentary which shared some of the experiences of the Denver-based noise/performance art band that toured, or even played locally, in a van that often served as both transportation and impromptu stage. After catching Friends Forever at a venue in Western Massachusetts, Sinclair became friends with Friends Forever’s Josh Taylor. It was then that Sinclair and his band Night Wounds relocated to California and played numerous times at long-running DIY space The Smell in Los Angeles. By a strange quirk of fate, Taylor, who was involved in running Monkey Mania, a beloved DIY venue in Denver, moved to Los Angeles to help run The Smell and work at Amoeba Records at the same time Sinclair, who had worked at Amoeba, moved to Denver into Monkey Mania in 2006.

At that time Night Wounds was still an active band that toured the DIY music circuit that had been, and remains, so inspirational to Sinclair and it connected with like-minded noise rock bands like Chicago’s Coughs, Montreal’s AIDS Wolf and Vancouver, British Columbia’s Mutators. All of which were big names in the small realm of DIY noise rock. Also during that time, Sinclair was deep into a thirteen year struggle with drug abuse that ended in 2016. Although his experience with hard drugs took its toll on Sinclair in various ways, access to substances is what anchored him to cities like Denver and his now home of Portland, Oregon. “I wasn’t aspiring to go to a place to go be fucked but I definitely stayed longer because of that, if that makes sense.”

Sinclair admits that the drugs are part of the reason Soft Kill has taken a lot longer to blossom into the band it has striven to be, it also coincidentally pushed his timeline as a musician into developing the ideas and sounds for which Soft Kill is now known. But before Soft Kill, Sinclair had, alongside Night Wounds, been part of a Goth-y punk band called Blessure Graves.

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Soft Kill, photo by Joanna Stawnicka

“When I started Blessure Graves the big thing was the lo-fi garage rock revival,” says Sinclair. “And there was this very small niche out of that which was Goth music made with a similar fidelity. It felt like a quick, flash in the pan. What happened with us was when I started Soft Kill in 2010 we did one album and then my demons got the best of me and I started getting locked up and having to take a long time to stray away from music. When I got out, I started seeing that a bunch of people saw An Open Door as one of the top two or three records that had come out in recent years out of that type of music. That influenced me and people in the band now to put more energy into it in 2012. But by the time we really got momentum was 2014. By that point we realized that our first record had been celebrated as one of the integral releases in post-punk records of the past ten years—they said it was top tier. We thought whoa, that’s crazy, it must be because there aren’t other bands doing that.”

“We started going out and touring and we were blown away by how many bands there were. And from there onward, for the first time in forever I felt there was a large, legitimate scene with dots connected much more than they’d been in the past 15-20 years. There’s a lot of labels that cater to it. Some of the bands have become popular and it’s not been limited to just one style. Not all these bands sound like Joy Division.”

The larger scene that Sinclair had discovered included a constellation of bands and labels across the country and around the world. Imprints like The Flenser, Dais, Sacred Bones, Dark Entries and Beläten are just a few of the labels releasing the music. Bands such as Curse, Beastial Mouths, Troller, Some Ember, All Your Sisters, Burning, Youth Code, Pop. 1280, Echo Beds, Voight, Church Fire and numerous others have been touring and finding an audience eager for sounds and a culture that maintains a connection to its underground roots and experimental music that has yet to be completely co-opted and tamed by mainstream commercial interests.

2016 represented a landmark year for Soft Kill. Its arguably best album to date, Choke, was released on Profound Lore. Best, because it most fully realizes the band’s love of hypnotic beats, driving bass and rich, expressive, evocative tones. Sinclair had booked a Chameleons Vox tour in 2015, through simply contacting vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess. In 2016 Sinclair went on to book two other of the most influential bands for Soft Kill in Sad Lovers and Giants and Modern English, the latter performing its classic 1981 album Mesh & Lace in its entirety for the first time as the group had not toured on the record the first time around. He also booked Clan of Xymox for the third edition of the Out of the Shadows festival alongside Denver-based darkwave band Tollund Men, who released his favorite tape of recent years—Autoerotik.

“When we played Denver the first time at Leisure Gallery they played and we were like, ‘No way, this can’t be happening!’ I think they were really taken aback by how into their band we were. We showed up superfans. They played with us the next time we played there and I think they disintegrated after that.”

“I really like repetitious stuff in general but there’s this slow burn to that whole tape. It’s got hooks and it’s dirty as hell but I can put that on and crank it up and it’s the perfect background music for me. I dug the tones that he gets out of distorting everything to the maximum degree. It was a band I always loved but that particular tape I’m really glad they did that last and went out on that note. He showed he wasn’t beating a dead horse, that he had mastered the vision that he had so it makes sense that he moved on from there. I respect that because I know he could have taken many an opportunity that he didn’t. I love when people don’t give into that bullshit.”

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Soft Kill at Leisure Gallery, June 16, 2016, photo by Tom Murphy

Sinclair’s soft spot for Denver, born of his experience living in the Mile High City and experiencing Friends Forever in New England, extends to the underground metal and hardcore scene in Denver and he expresses an appreciation for acts like Blood Incantation and Civilized. In the near-ish future Soft Kill will also put out a split with Denver death grind heroes Primitive Man, whose Ethan McCarthy shares the history with Sinclair of having lived in and operated Monkey Mania, though not at the same time. But, as is the way with the informal, DIY there is no pressure to put out the split release to fit some record label release schedule. Sinclair met McCarthy and so many other musicians who have impacted him through the underground music route.

“Ultimately, this is how I met all these people and this is the world that we want to exist within and regardless that we sound nothing like Echo Beds, that’s a band we would go on tour with before whatever people think makes sense,” says Sinclair.

Author: simianthinker

Editor, primary content provider for this blog. Former contributor to Westword and The Onion.