Soft Metals release their self-titled debut album later this month.
One of the most accomplished and ambitious of the myriad new synth-pop acts coming out of the States, the Portland duo have found a home on Blank Dogs’ Captured Tracks label. We caught up with them to talk gear, romance and process…
How did you first meet and what prompted you to start Soft Metals?
Ian: “I was living in San Francisco at the time and came up to DJ a show with Eats Tapes at a party in Portland that Patricia was hosting. Inspired by friends while living in Chicago, I’d been collecting old synths and drum machines and just jamming and recording various songs and sketches in my apartment. When I returned to Portland, I heard a track that Patricia and a few friends had recorded. I really liked the ethereal quality to her voice and learned that she’d composed the vocal melody herself. I thought it was a great compliment to the music and asked if she’d like to come up with vocals for a few sketches that I had been working on. We did a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Red Light’ and then we worked on what would become ‘Another Goodbye’.
Patricia: “I wanted to create music that I would want to listen to and through which I could express my experience of life. At first I tried working alone at home with some keyboards and a drum machine, but the songs were too unstructured and would wander around like they were lost. I recognized there was emotion and beauty there, but I needed to find someone to help me organize it. My natural talent is in creating atmosphere and melody. I love the sound of programmed drums and synth sequences, but am horrible at programming. When I try to program or sequence something it actually takes me out of the spacey mindset I like to have when working on a song. Ian’s brain works in an opposite way. He is structured and organized. It blows my mind how easily he can program a great beat on the drum machines that trigger synths and build a bassline and basic structure. From there, I get inspired and play melodies on top of it and a song starts to take shape. I love our dynamic. It feels like we complete each other. I knew after our first jam session that we had to keep writing together. There was nothing more exciting to me than working with Ian on songs…so we started Soft Metals.
“Without a doubt Europe has produced the majority of talented electronic musicians, but 30 years ago there were lots of great synthesizer bands in the US as well: Patrick Cowley, The Units, Silver Apples, Devo, John Carpenter, Suicide, Laurie Anderson…”
How has the sound of the band developed over time?
Ian: “When we first started playing I was still very into the pre-MIDI, trigger and cv/gate based method of production. Our early songwriting and recordings are reflective of this style. A lot of the inspiration came from just hooking up all the synth gear, pressing play on the 808 and seeing where the jam would take us. Our early shows in Portland were pretty much an attempt at bringing the audience into the studio as it existed at that time and to have a view at this kind of production. As we continued to play and record we started to feel the need to expand on this sound; we began to make more use of multitracking with DAW software and opened up to the world of MIDI, sampling and digital synthesizers like the JD800, Mirage, and DX7 – nothing particularly cutting edge tech-wise but it was a fun challenge to integrate all these new sounds and technologies into the existing studio.
“Around this time we were also traveling further distances to play shows, so the MIDI and newer recording technology enabled us to make our live set up more compact but still provide the sound that we wanted. I would say that our sound and performance aesthetic is still very much a work in progress, I’m deeply inspired by music technology and we’re constantly exploring new pieces of gear in the studio and trying out new configurations in our live set.”
Patricia: “It definitely wasn’t carefully considered when we began. There are so many styles of music that influence us. We decided early on not to settle on one particular sound or way of doing things. Something about having intentions to write a particular type of song makes me feel really uninspired. I also don’t want us to stick to a formula. Changing up gear and performance methods gets you out of your comfort zone and into new territory. We want to have freedom with this project to sound any way we want and I think you’ll notice that on the album. There are a lot of different types of songs on it. It’s all driven from what we were feeling on a particular day and what gear we happened to be playing with. We really made full use of the studio. We didn’t limit ourselves to only what we could hand play and control in real time like we did with the EP. Our sound on the album is much more layered, atmospheric and more true to the vision in our heads of a feeling or idea we are trying to express.”
“I just find synth sounds to be really beautiful and easy to connect to what’s going on in my psyche.”
Tell us a bit about more a bit about your approach to composing. What does “the work” entail?
Ian: “When we first started, it mainly was me working in the studio with my gear and then sending sketches to Patricia to come up with vocal melodies and lyrics. After we had done a few recordings we decided it would be fun to collaborate on the music writing as well and Patricia joined me in the studio; I feel like this is when Soft Metals really came to be. This set up was then translated into a live show. Our approach to songwriting started off as a very hardware-centric, very little midi and a lot of jamming. We still use this as a base approach but have branched out a lot, we use more midi instruments and multitrack our jams into the computer. We tend to jam and record, then listen back, edit down and then repeat till we have a finished product. A few of the songs on the LP are very refined and polished in that way and then a few reflect our early, mostly hardware driven sound. I’ve amassed a pretty good collection of synths over the years and lot of them make appearances in the recording but my go to synths on the LP were the SCI Pro One, Mono/Poly, Juno60, Jx3p, JD800 and of course the 808 and 707.
Patricia: “I prefer a surrealist approach to songwriting. No intentions at first. Melodies find their way out in a jam and they begin to resemble something I have experienced or witnessed in my life. I find words that fit the idea and rhythm in the song and experiment with different ways of singing it. Sometimes we have to alter the arrangement to fit the vocals in.”
Why do you think there are so many synth-based acts coming out of the US right now? It sometimes seems like America’s having the synth revolution it should’ve had thirty years ago now. Which is no bad thing – just wondering why you think it’s all coming together now, and not in, say, 2005 or 2025…
Patricia: “Without a doubt Europe has produced the majority of talented electronic musicians, but 30 years ago there were lots of great synthesizer bands in the US as well: Patrick Cowley, The Units, Silver Apples, Devo, John Carpenter, Suicide, Laurie Anderson, Jeff and Jane Hudson, Crash Course in Science, Tone Set, etc. In the late 80s and early 90s the US gave birth to house music and techno and it’s been evolving and still exists here. There are links from US electronic music back then to today.”
Ian: “While the US hasn’t had as many mainstream breakthrough acts as in Europe, there has been a thriving underground synth culture here for almost 30 years. In the late 70s early 80s there were the NYC and SF synth punk acts and then a huge amount of house and techno being made in Chicago and Detroit in the mid to late 80s and on into the 90s. I don’t really dont feel that there is a synth revolution happening, its more of an ‘awareness of synth music’ revolution. Lots of really great classic synth albums have been reissued in the past few years by Minimal Wave, Dark Entries, Captured Tracks, Mannequin, etc. and I think that more people are becoming aware and influenced by them.
Patricia, your singing voice is very distinctive and strong for all its delicacy. I wondered if you had any particular vocalists in mind when developing your own voice? Off the bat, I’m reminded of Young Marble Giants’ Alison Statton, but that’s just me…
Patricia: “When I first started singing I didn’t set out to emulate any particular singer. I’ve really been trying to push the boundaries of the voice I have. I really admire the vulnerability and honesty in Alison Statton’s voice and I think you can see similarities in vocal approach with our song ‘Psychic Driving’. The theme and style of the song is really what determines how I sing it. I’ve been taking voice lessons for the past year with a woman in Portland named Julia Cramer and am happy with the progress I’ve made in terms of technique and opening up my range. I would really love to study Indian Raga style singing next. There are many vocalists that excite me: Trish Keenan, Julee Cruise, Kate Bush, Elizabeth Fraser, Vashti Bunyan, Nico, Siouxsie Sioux, Nina Hagen, Yma Sumac, Ralf Hütter, Alison Statton, Astrud Gilberto, Grace Jones, Laetitia Sadier, Björk, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Morrissey and Yoko Ono.”
Are there any other contemporary acts in your orbit that we might not have heard of and which you’d recommend?
“Arohan, Cosmetics, //TENSE//, Terminal Twilight, Jewels of the Nile, Mushy, Newclear Waves, Bronze, Wav Dwgs, Finesse, Innergaze, Miracles Club, Streetwalker, Valis, Animal Bodies, The Tempers, Steve Summers, Operative, Tunnels, AS/SS, Brother Raven, Reporter, Xander Harris.”
“The songs on the album are about our relationship, death, conflict with the self and others, healing, timelessness, technology, the cosmos, psychedelic experiences.”
There’s obviously a strong influence from 70s and 80s synth-pop in your work, from John Foxx and Human League to Chris & Cosey and beyond…at what point in your lives did you come across this music and what made you think it was an idiom in which you could create your own music?
Patricia: “I first heard the records of Chris & Cosey, Suicide, Malaria, Jeff and Jane Hudson, Polyphonic Size, The Units, Cabaret Voltaire, Snowy Red, Gary Numan, John Foxx and stuff like that in 2002 at a punk rock record store called Discourage in Portland. I would just hang out there all day and listen to things and get obsessed. A couple years later, I bought some gear – a Roland SH-101, Roland Alpha Juno, and a Korg-ES-1 and made some weird recordings on a 4-track. I don’t know why I want to make synth based music. I just find synth sounds to be really beautiful and easy to connect to what’s going on in my psyche.
Ian: “In high school I was really into industrial music, I started with the more accessible stuff like Nine Inch Nails and the Wax Trax! catalog but this quickly led me to discover the earlier industrial artists like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy. I really loved the more poppy and synth-y TG tracks and the synth-pop grit on Skinny Puppy’s Bites. Soon, I was also listening to more experimental industrial like Download and other cEVIN kEY projects and, eventually through a Nettwerk comp, I heard a few Chris and Cosey songs and I explored their back catalogue and fell in love. Early on, I also experimented in making my own music on my parents’ computer using the Impulse Tracker software. Playing around with the crude sampling and sequencing in it inspired me to explore synthesizer and sampler gear when I was about 16 and I got my first synth (Korg poly 800) around this time. I bought a few more random pieces of gear but it wasnt till I moved to Chicago and began to collaborate with other synth enthusiasts that I started making all-hardware songs. Early projects that I played in were mostly inspired by bands like Liaisons Dangereues, Front 242, Drexciya and the early tracks by Chicago house artists like Larry Heard and Green Velvet.”
How did you come to release your album with Captured Tracks?
Ian: “We had been working on a song that we planned to submit for a local compilation and our friends Raf and Honey (Miracles Club) asked us to share a song with them so they could post it to their blog (Ecstacy Blog). We sent them a demo version of ‘Love or Music’ which they liked and put up; from there it got reposted to Gorilla vs Bear and then we got an email from Juan at Xxjfg asking us if we had anything else we were working on. As it happened, we had just recorded the demo version of ‘The Cold World Melts’, so we sent it over and then were shocked a few days later when it showed up on Xxjfg and then in the Pitchfork Forkcast. From these posts and some recommendations from friends – the Cosmetics and Michael Stock (Part Time Punks) – we must have attracted the attention of Mike Sniper at C/T and we started emailing after that.”
A similar question, but are there many like minds in Portland? i.e. many acts you know that are working largely with synthesizers? Do you feel like part of a scene or do you feel like outsiders?
Ian: “We’ve found the most kinship in Portland with more dance-related bands. The Miracles Club, Reporter, Arohan, Etbonz and our touring buds Jewels of The Nile. I would say that we feel sort of related to the scene in Portland and the aforementioned bands but we’ve also quickly felt a lot of support from people around the world via the internet.”
Romance seems like an important theme and/or inspiration for your work. Discuss.
Patricia: “At the time when Ian and I were writing our first songs (which ended up being The Cold World Melts EP) I fell in love with him- so longing and romance were a major theme at that time. It was such a powerful feeling that I couldn’t really think of anything else to write about. There are some new songs on the album that are about our relationship, but other themes on the album are death, conflict with the self and others, healing, timelessness, technology, the cosmos, psychedelic experiences.”