Dead Soft cofounders Nathaniel Epp and Keeley Rochon are careful to suggest that their new album, Big Blue, shouldn’t be read as an embittered kiss-off to a city where, increasingly, the haves outnumber the have-nots. A better way to look at the release is as proof that, sometimes, change is good. In their case, that meant abandoning the grind of being artists in Vancouver for the more laid-back lifestyle of Gabriola Island.
At its loudest and most deliciously distorted, Big Blue reflects the tension and anger that come with living in a city where making music has never been more difficult. But there’s also a beautiful side to the record, with the quieter back half of the 10-track release giving you the space and time to think about lyrics like “I think I’ll just wait outside in the parking lot of my life.”
That dichotomy makes Big Blue—which was recorded over an extended period—seem like a piece of art created by folks caught between worlds. That’s true, at least on a superficial level.
“It’s definitely true that we started the record while we were living in Vancouver,” singer-guitarist Epp says, speaking on a conference call with Rochon, who sings and plays bass. “Keeley and I were starting to become unhappy living in Vancouver, and were definitely searching for a way out, so to speak. We were looking for somewhere else to go to, but there was a period of being really unsure where. I think some of those feelings showed up in the music and the vibes that are in the record. But it’s not a literal, anti-Vancouver record, or anything like that.”
On this day the two, along with drummer Alex Smith, are in a tour van making its way across Connecticut in the middle of a North American tour. Things are, they report, going great during their stateside swing for Big Blue. Consider that a reward for sticking with things when life got tough a couple of years back.
They note it originally wasn’t all bad for Dead Soft in Vancouver. As kids in Prince Rupert, Epp and Rochon both played in bands, and idyllic as things were up north, they knew they’d eventually move down the coast.
“It was actually a pretty healthy little music scene for a town of its size when we were in high school back home,” Epp says. “But part of it was that the ceiling for how high you could go as a rock band in Prince Rupert was pretty damn low. So we headed down south.”
The postsecondary-education route in Vancouver quickly proved to be nowhere near as much fun as committing to music. Dead Soft released a self-titled debut full-length in 2014, the band's discography also including a couple of EPs and numerous singles. But as time went on, the reality of life for creatives in one of the world’s most expensive cities began to set in.
“We played a lot of shows when Dead Soft first started,” Epp says. “It was fun for a while, but it was also always kind of a struggle. Not being from Vancouver, and it not being our home base, we were moving once a year, like constantly, in really shitty housing situations. I don’t know if it was bad luck or what. A lot of people make it work and enjoy it there, but for us it was a really tumultuous period. Eventually, it got kind of exhausting.”
So Dead Soft relocated to Gabriola, where, initially at least, not even the idyllic shores of the island helped with a mental-health reset.
“I don’t wanna talk about too much, but I was really struggling by the end of my time in Vancouver,” Rochon says. “When we moved to Gabriola, I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to tour anymore, or do anything like that. I was having a really difficult time even taking a bus. But I finally worked through a lot of that. I’m feeling pretty good right now and know how to take care of myself a bit better.”
Part of the reason for that might be that Gabriola is a lot closer to the pace of Prince Rupert than to the roar of gritty Vancouver.
“It helped,” Rochon acknowledges. “It was a big transition at first—it was difficult to acclimatize, maybe. But as soon as I was able to flip that switch, I’ve been a lot more clear-headed. It’s easier to centre myself.”
Starting with the album’s title, it’s tempting to read Big Blue as a document of a time with some challenges. Think about the line “I’m sick and tired of watching this world turning into their world” on the overdriven grunge-pop detonator “Tulips”. And consider the lumbering “Porch”, where Epp sings “I want to move back to my hometown/Made up my mind 10,000 times,” and then goes for red-lined rage at the end with “You fucked up my life/I’m going to fuck up yours.”
But at the same time, Dead Soft reveals itself to be capable of seeing beauty in the world. Big Blue becomes noticeably less chaotic on its back half, with “Static” planting itself in dream-hazed shoegaze territory, and “Snake” sounding like a lost treasure from Los Angeles’s fabled paisley underground.
“We wanted to make this record a bit of a dynamic journey,” Epp says. “We had these songs that we’d written that we knew were very different dynamically from past Dead Soft songs, and we were fairly determined to incorporate them in our sound. We wanted to show people that Dead Soft can do whatever we want. We can write softer, more delicate songs, and then we can crank it right back up.”
For the members of Dead Soft, the past couple of years have been a journey offering the big lesson that sometimes you need to ask yourself what you want out of life. There’s no point being embittered about something that you can easily change if you’re willing to.
“We’ve learned to expect the unexpected, as clichéd as that is,” Epp says. “Things are always going to jump out at you. The thing is that you can’t freak out when things go sideways. That’s when you go back to the lab and figure out what to do next.”
Dead Soft’s Big Blue is out now on Arts & Crafts.