The Soft Moon makes dark pop

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Therapy comes in many forms, not all of them as straightforward as lying down on the leather couch or screaming one’s brains out in a terminally enraged punk band. This becomes clear during a conversation with Luis Vasquez, the founder and mastermind of San Francisco dark-wave electro-pop unit the Soft Moon.

Reached on the phone in Portland, the Mojave Desert–raised musician proves as thoughtful as he is philosophical, even as he paints a picture of a childhood that was less than idyllic. In some ways his upbringing sounds almost surreal.

“My mother wanted me to join the army—she was very into that idea,” Vasquez says straightforwardly. “And later the police force—she wanted me to grow a mustache. She was also very into the idea of me becoming something like a manager in a store, sort of working myself through the chain to that position. She was never supportive of me doing things that were artistic or creative. But I don’t want to make it sound like I’m sitting here complaining.”

To his credit, Vasquez doesn’t sound that way at all, instead coming off more as contemplative.

“I actually don’t remember much of my childhood,” he admits. “It’s like I’ve blocked it out. I do remember that there was a lot of violence at home—blood and violence. And, as a kid, I was picked on and called names.”

As many do in his situation, he spent his childhood looking to escape reality. Music would eventually become excellent for that. Vasquez started out with Prince, Mary Jane Girls, and Madonna cassettes lying around the house, then gravitated toward punk, Slayer-type metal, psychedelic rock, Krautrock, and, finally, to pop again.

It’s a dark and gloomy strain of pop that informs his work with the Soft Moon, whose latest, Zeros, was released earlier this fall. Vasquez quite accurately describes the vibe of the record as “apocalyptic”. The singer’s songs use vintage synths and often unorthodox instrumentation. (“I did things like beat on pipes,” he notes.) If that makes Zeros sound like something from crazy old Tom Waits, it shouldn’t. The Soft Moon is rooted in the same dark and fertile soil as bands such as Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, and, more currently, electro-goth alchemists Cold Cave. From the menacing, otherworldly, album-starting soundscape “It Ends” to the dreamy death jungle jam “Want”, it’s powerful, 
mood-altering stuff. One might be tempted to suggest that the Soft Moon sounds not totally of its time, with echo-drenched drums, dub-underwater bass lines, and moaned vocals partly indebted to the decade of pointy shoes, insanely elaborate hairdos, and clothes the colour of a coal mine at midnight.

But why do that, when Vasquez—who recorded Zeros by himself, but leads a full band live—will do it instead?

“I’m up here in Portland right now shooting a video,” he says. “The idea is that I’m in the middle of all these television sets that I’m smashing. They are sort of flickering and static-y, which is something that we try to do with our live shows as well—get that element in the visuals. I like the idea of being surrounded by television sets—they kind of bring to mind the ’80s for me, and there’s something of that in the music.”

Tellingly, he sounds upbeat and happy and healthy when he relates this, suggesting that the Soft Moon is indeed proving excellent for working through his issues.

The Soft Moon plays the Waldorf on Thursday (December 20).

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