the Soft Moon
Has Vague Synesthetic Visions
Interview Dale W. Eisinger
Photography Nathanael Turner
The Soft Moon’s cloudy nature raises questions. Despite frontman Luis Vasquez’s professed bear-it-all-or-nothing approach to songwriting, there’s a deep sense of mystery. Sure, it’s an aesthetic that’s been dredged and dredged again: binary palette, Kraut rhythms, post-punk darkness, Suicide synth squelches. The kind of band that wears all black and maybe didn’t coordinate it. This is the place Vasquez and the Soft Moon come from. Did we too quickly pass over darkwave as a relevant art-form in the ’80s? Perhaps its heyday is yet to come.
It’s fascinating how quickly the album cycle can move these days. The Soft Moon moved from a few tracks on Myspace to an LP on Captured Tracks just about as fast as could be imagined, which the help of some hype. With the recent release of the Total Decay EP, Vasquez is cranking out blog bashers that he’s road-tested with a fair amount of success. However, the rate of release is almost alarming, considering their presence and depth.
Live, The Soft Moon is a different beast. Loud as shit. The textures that come off on record as subtle are straight-up abrasive in the pit. At the time of this interview, I had yet to see the band. But a few days later, the Soft Moon turned 285 Kent in Williamsburg into a fairly literal homage to Factory records. (It might only be coincidence the Soft Moon and Factory share the same black, white, and red visual aesthetic, and that 285 Kent is a sweaty, windowless warehouse shabbily disguised with wall murals.) Watching Vasquez and co. that night, what he told me about his music really began to make sense: the brash catharsis, reigning in a near-to-flailing energy, the anxiety so many artists seem to share these days. It’s just strange that, personally, Vasquez is so forthcoming and cheery. I spoke to him about his living situation first, and then we moved on to deeper things.
Where do you play in Oakland right now? I hear Oakland’s kind of rough.
Yeah, Oakland’s kind of rough. I happen to live in a nicer neighborhood. Usually if there’s any shows out here they’re either at like a dive bar situation or at a warehouse loft space. And then there’s the Fox. It’s kind of a huge contrast. Most bands tend to play like an underground party. We do play those all the time.
That’s what I hear. My friend used to live at like a sort of [DIY warehouse] type place out there.
You haven’t been to San Francisco in a few years? It’s a little small after a while but it depends on your lifestyle I guess.
What do you mean? You run into a lot of people?
Yeah, and plus it’s a small city. It’s only seven-by-seven miles large. That’s it. That’s the size of San Francisco. Pus everyone comes up with their own kind of designated districts where they hang out. There’s like the marina area, more like the college graduate area. And then there’s like Pacific heights, which is your young professionals. And then you got the Mission District, which is all like your hipsters.
Manhattan is only two miles across.
But no one lives in Manhattan anymore. How often do you get down to the Mission District to see shows?
It’s weird. Over the past two years, I rarely go out anymore. Nowadays I’m going to a show just once or twice a month, if that. I’ve kind of become like a hermit, you know? I just stay home. I try and not get caught up in the scene. It kind of swallows you a little bit. I’d rather just kind of do what I do and not be influenced by what’s happening out there. It’s all internal.
Why don’t you want to draw inspiration from what’s going on now?
I mean I do draw inspiration from what’s going on, just not in terms of scenes. I draw inspiration in terms of personal life, and good friends and family, and things like that. So I am drawing from current times. Just not club nights or anything like that.
Being introspective in what you’re doing, how does it happen that your music sort of lines up with a lot of your contemporaries these days, in terms of style and instrumentation?
That’s something that’s kind of surprising to me. I don’t know. When I wrote the LP it was definitely like a very introspective, internal sort of project for me. And it just turned out that it sounded contemporary and it related or resonated with the contemporary, with now, with today. That’s actually something I can’t figure out. Because it’s pretty much me and my childhood and all that stuff. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just a Nostradamus in me, I don’t know.
Who do you think you sound most like these days?
These days? There are a couple bands that are doing sort of like a revival ’80s kind of thing, like there’s a band called Factory Floor. We’re kind of like parallel musicians. In some strange way John Maus? We’re kind of similar in some weird ways. We’re kind of like, into the weird. A bit more eccentric and deep and somber but pop and mystic at the same time. Which is cool, because we get to play together pretty soon. We’re looking forward to that.
What about Weekend?
We’re similar on a very emotional level. Like they, they’re very nostalgic sounding and I’m a huge fan of kind of expressing nostalgia. And I think that’s where we relate. And we happen to be really good friends. But they’re sort of doing the same thing I’m doing. It’s like a slight revival but something new. But they’re doing it in more like a shoegaze-y sort of way and I’m doing it in kind of a post-punk/industrial kind of way.
I think one of the things about Weekend and you that is similar is the idea of punk, not in sound, but in just being sort of confrontational. Can you speak to that?
Yeah. Definitely. That’s something I forgot to mention. I think it’s more about the attitude and more about the emotion that’s there, the honesty. And then also for us, it kind of comes out more in the live perspective. We’ve actually figured that out. Our very first show was in Brooklyn, at a place called Monster Island Basement. It was a terrible sounding show, but amazing on an energetic level. We kind of almost sounded like a noise band. And that was the moment that we realized, ‘Wait a second! Maybe we should embrace this whole punk kind of side of things.’ And I have a punk background so why not, you know? Why not add another element of honesty and just run with it. And so in a way, we’ve just embraced this punk attitude, especially live, and we’ve been moving forward with that energy.
And I think that energy is something that’s important to the honesty. You see that with John Maus too, as you said.
Because he doesn’t even play any instruments, but it’s such an intense show.
Do you think energy is what was missing from post-punk? I think of when I saw New Order live. The keyboardist is sort of just plodding, so bored up there.
Energy is extremely important to us. Energy is important, but also for me, it’s uncontrollable. When we play live, I tend to go a little wild, and I think that’s just goes hand in hand with the honesty of the sonic sound. I think a physical expression of the honesty is important. It’s sound and vision. It’s a transformation, and I think people are intrigued by transformation. Seeing something that they would like to express, but it’s kind of hard for them. They live vicariously through that person. And that just enhances the overall honesty of expression.
So you see your performance as catharsis for others?
I try. It definitely is for me. Definitely for me. But I definitely try to take the audience to that world. Just letting go.
Going back to John Maus, you called his music somber, in relation to yours. I think about that term and then I think about taking things seriously. How seriously do you think about your music?
The music is extremely important. In fact it’s so deep that sometimes it’s really hard to actually write. So therefore I tend to procrastinate, because I have to go into this certain kind of mental state to express it. It’s therapeutic and it’s awesome that I actually get to be super honest and people get to hear it. I don’t communicate on a social level. I kind of have a shield, I tend to be very guarded, I tend to not be serious ever, on a social level. But the music is extremely important for me because it’s the only chance I have to talk and it’s the only way I can talk.
What does it mean philosophically to you? I take that as something more personal. Do you have any larger visions of music?
I tend to paint a soundtrack, like a snapshot of life. I guess that would be my philosophical point of view. Overall, what I would like to accomplish is to take audio photographs of moments in my life. And that’s the purpose for what I do or how I do it.
Let’s go back to instruments. You use a lot of analog stuff, synthesizers, and drum machines. In relation to your instruments and the idea of constraints, how much does it influence you when what you’re working with can’t do something?
When it comes down to that sort of situation, I kind of like the challenge and I tend to stick with something I can’t make work and I’ll work until it does. And I think there’s sort of a beauty in that. And I like to work with what I have and keep it as minimal as possible. Therefore I run into a lot of problems, where I can’t get the sound I really want. I try really hard and I get something close or I discover something new, through the experimentation.
I think a lot of that experimentation and mood comes through in the textures that you play with. Is that a reflection of trying to refine something over and over again? I see almost like a painting, you know? If you brush the same thing with a few a different colors a few different times, the brush strokes are going to be more and more dense.
The whole textural side of the album, it wasn’t something I meant to do. And then what happened was I had a lot of new equipment when I started the project and so everything was kind of tinkering and what not. I was messing with delay pedals and a lot times the delay and reverb will trail for awhile. And I noticed I was leaving them in while I was doing recordings. And it sounded cool and it filled in the empty space. And it kind of became an aesthetic over time. Now I actually go in and I precisely create those textures. I think it’s important to create like a landscape, if you will.
So in sense if you hadn’t been making mistakes, you wouldn’t be making music at all?
Do you think that’s true of a lot of music?
I don’t know. That’s a great question. I would like to think that most musicians know exactly what they want and they achieve it. At least that’s what I think. That’s my assumption. But for me, I tend to leave in all the mistakes. And I tend to leave in all the curiosity and experimentation. And I think that’s something the listeners kind of resonate with, because in a way, subconsciously, I’m no different than anyone else, you know? I’m just tinkering with toys and kind of leaving it in there. I haven’t been just testing it out and it feels like any sort of human who’s playing with a synth for the first time would almost sound that way.
You’re saying you’re almost going in blindly, not knowing what you expect, but you have a vague vision?
Always, but everything tends to be sort of foggy in the end. The end result is definitely the expression I wanted to achieve.
So what sort of art inspires you then? I assume you take influence from Krautrock and minimalism. But what about visually? I’ve watched all your videos and it seems like you must be really well-acquainted with visual art.
Yeah. I somewhat am. I’m not knowledgeable on the history of art. But I know what I feel and I know what I relate to when I see something. The whole shapes thing, that you’ve probably noticed with the project, I realized one day that when I hear sound, I see shapes. It’s just something I see. And when I describe anything, I see a shape or I see a circle or whatever. And therefore, it just naturally happened to where it just combined shapes with the sound, even though they don’t really go hand-in-hand to most people because there’s so much texture and ambiance and emotion in the music. But in a way it almost works with a contrast.
What about film in general? On one of those videos, people are bringing up Man Ray, which is understandable. I was thinking of all those avant-garde dudes from the late ’20s. Did you start watching those films at any time?
I actually started watching those films after I created the project, The Soft Moon. I was just looking for something cool to make an amateur video for one of the songs, and I was just searching through YouTube. I forgot what I typed in the search engine but I definitely had something in mind. Something kind of vintage or retro and gritty, and I discovered all these visual artists through YouTube. Another guy I’m really into is Nam June Paik. This Korean, late ’70s, early ’80s avant-garde visual artist. This is actually something that’s kind of new to me, all this visual art stuff.
So you just chose this video on its visual merit alone? You hadn’t been aware of its relation to your music?
One of the things I noticed was the timing of the video. I’m talking about parallels. This was the first video that I did, the timing was just insane! The bass lines just lined up with certain frames of the video. It was black and white, and The Soft Moon aesthetic is just three colors: black, white and sometimes red. It just felt like it worked and the pace of the movement aligned. It’s also sort of anonymous. It’s really mysterious too, which is another factor in visual presentation of the Soft Moon. Keeping it kind of vague.
What do you think of that whole minimalist electronic influence, Krautrock?
I’m a huge fan of Krautrock and that’s probably where I get most of my musical influence from, especially Neu! and Can. I think what I like about that music is, when it started, it was kind of like a reaction to politics or whatever, whatever was happening in Germany. But also, it’s artistic music. It’s pure art. and I think that’s what I was drawn to right away, was music that had become art. And for me, I think that’s the first time I ever noticed that, through Krautrock, when music becomes art. And that’s what I want the Soft Moon to be.
What about this felt artistic to you?
The layers and how sophisticated it felt. It felt like very sophisticated “brain” music. And I felt like it also was made to kind of push your brain a little bit and push your mental thought and make you think more. It actually paints a picture in your head, and gives you a different train of thought, in terms of conventional music.
Did you ever get to see Neu! live?
I never got to see Neu! live, nor Can. But I did get to see Holger Czukay, from Can. He had a solo project for a little while. I got to see that here in Oakland actually, at a little underground space. And it still had the same feeling. It was almost too much to take in. Almost too progressive in a way, but it’s not. They’re using almost native instruments. There’s, in Krautrock, a lot of world instruments.
You said Krautrock was the first type of music you were interested by, but you also said you had a punk background.
There’s punk emotion and the punk energy in the music. And then there’s the Kraut element which is the more artistic view of it all. And that’s where the music sort-of slightly hits. it borders on the avant-garde realm. It’s the connection of the two.
Do you think the timeframe that music was made has anything to do with that connection? Punk sort of started around the same time as a heyday of electronic music, such as Kraftwerk.
I’m not too familiar with that point in time, but I relate to the music. Maybe I need to dive into it a little more to find out why. There must be a reason I connect with the mentality or the emotional expression that was happening at the time. I felt like during that time, the ’70s, people were expressing more honesty, and there was something to talk about. But in terms of the history, I don’t know, aside from music. It just connects with me.
What else do we need to know about you?
My family’s from Cuba. I was born in LA. When I was nine years old, we moved to the Mojave desert. And that’s where I first became a musician. Because there was nothing to do out there. I begged for a guitar and my grandfather bought me a guitar for Christmas. And that’s it. I stayed in my room and played guitar. Because there was nothing to do outside.
Did you have air conditioning?
Thankfully, there was air conditioning. It would get to 115 degrees out there. And the winters were horrible too.
Which state did you actually live in?
California, bordering Nevada.
Do you draw any influence from the desert? I see the phrase ‘desert music’ get passed around a lot these days.
I would say the influence of my music comes from the combination of my childhood, which has to do with my upbringing in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, my current situation in the Bay area, and then influences from punk, and Krautrock and post-punk. That’s pretty much all in a ball.
What about this new EP?
I think I’m expressing more radical thoughts. I’m really stoked on it. I felt like it was the right time and the right format, being an EP, to be a little bit more radical.
What’s the radical bent in the new album?
The opening track, “Repetition,” for me, that’s kinda like pure Krautrock. Whereas, when I tend to write music I show a little influence and a nod. And then the final track on the EP is like Detroit Techno, which is something I’m also influenced by but I don’t really express. I kind of went with influence 100 per cent on those two tracks that are on the EP rather than giving you 20 per cent of that influence. So that’s something more extreme I did here on the EP.
But why is that radical? I take it you don’t use the term radical lightly, just by your usage.
To me it’s not radical, but I throw the word out there because I think it’s going to shock some people, maybe, because they’re going to be expecting more of the first album. I throw the word radical out there for more of the listener’s sake.
Do you think it was radical for you though to make a change like that?
A little bit, yeah. Only because now, by default there are expectations that start happening. People expect certain tracks. People are probably expecting more of “When It’s Over.” Or more “Dead Love” or more “Tiny Spiders.” And I kind of just refrained from that.
What kind of expectations are you feeling?
I get a lot of messages from people, and I kind of base it off of that. I have small grasp on what people expect from my music and its growth. I have the tendency to be very considerate. And I always consider the listener when I write my music. It’s like a 50-50 thing. It’s for me, but it’s also for the listener. So with the EP, I’m being 100 per cent myself. This is me, completely.
How much support are you receiving on this and how is it coming in?
It all started, funny enough, on Myspace. I posted two or three tracks, and they weren’t even finished tracks. I posted them up and didn’t even tell anybody about it. But obviously, in some way, I wanted people to hear it. In a few weeks, I was considering taking it down. But that’s when I got a message from Mike Sniper of Captured Tracks. And he just asked if I wanted to release a 7-inch on the label. That was “Breath the Fire.” And that got a lot of good press and attention, so we decided to sign a contract and put out a couple records.
Is that sort of intimidating to go through that cycle so quickly?
Yeah, very intimidating. Especially because in some way, what I was doing when I wrote those first three tracks was something therapeutic for me, something I felt like I needed to get off my shoulders or get off my mind. And then, all of a sudden, it became like, let’s put out an 11-track album, you know? And I had already felt like I was sort of done with releasing that emotion. So that’s where the intimidation kind of came in. I was just like, ‘How am I going to keep talking about this? How am I going to say something further than what I’ve already accomplished with these two songs?’ That was kind of tough. I would have to dive deeper and deeper and deeper and shovel out more of what I had inside of me. Going back to when I said I kind of procrastinate when it comes to writing a song, it’s because I have to dig deeper and deeper and deeper every time.
Do you think those expectations inhibit your writing?
Yeah, definitely. I try to block it out, but it’s there. And it’s definitely there. The expectations are always in the back of my head. I don’t know if other artists feel that way. It’s actually a conversation I’ve wanted to bring up with other musicians. But it definitely does. I can’t avoid it.
Do you think a lot of these anonymous musicians and producers coming out now are in reaction to that sort of carnivorous aspect of the music culture these days?
I do. I sort of do. I see that happening recently. Music to me seems like it’s becoming more honest again. In some way.
That has to be paradoxical for you, when you’re trying to be as honest as you say you are. How does that end up working for you? How satisfied do you feel at the end of a track?
I actually feel super ecstatic at the end of a track. It’s like “I don’t want to,” like a little kid. And then at the end, I’m so glad I did it. It’s a very conquering, euphoric kind of feeling.