The Soft Moon's Luis Vasquez on the primacy of percussion and adding a cyborg drummer
The Soft Moon started out in 2009 as the solo project of Luis Vasquez. The band developed over the next few years from a stark, Suicide-eque, minimalist post-punk band into something with a dark urgency and expansive song dynamics that recalled Chrome and Cabaret Voltaire. The Soft Moon's 2011 EP, Total Decay, exposed the band to wider audiences with an even more refined combination of organic and electronic drums giving the music a gritty, industrial sensibility. Having expanded to a four piece live band last year, the Soft Moon released a new album titled Zeros. We recently spoke with Vasquez about his grounding in percussion, the influence of Suicide and the impact of Chrome.
Westword: In your music there is a lot of detail and attention given to the way the percussion is constructed and recorded. Would you say the music is rhythm driven?
Luis Vasquez: [That's interesting that you caught] that because my family is actually from Cuba, so I grew up listening to a lot of percussion and hearing a lot of Latin music growing up. Then my uncle was a percussionist, so I guess it's kind of in my blood. So I try to make the percussion sound more prevalent within the music. I think it's a strong part of the puzzle.
You wrote a lot, if not all, of the music yourself. Was choosing drum machines more related to how you had to record your early material?
Yeah, I think when I first started the project, drum machines were pretty new to me. I've always been more of an organic kind of percussionist. But I thought it would be a really cool technique to work with vintage drum machines in a way that wasn't straightforward -- make it more intricate. Then I'll bring in actual bongos and congas and other percussive instruments. I thought it would be a cool hybrid, if you will.
What do you think that hybrid adds to your music? Each has its own virtues, but what do you think combining them really brings out?
I think it creates something a little more fresh. It's more of a fine line between electronic and rock music, rather than straightforward electronic music. I thought it would be interesting to combine the two. I don't hear it very often. Normally when you hear artists using drum machines, it's obviously a drum machine, and they use it very straight-forward. So yeah, just to create something unique, and I'm a great fan of percussion in general, whether it's a vintage drum machine or actual percussion.
You recently added a flesh and blood drummer in 2012?
Yeah, he's been involved for six months now. It's the same concept with the drums. He plays a drum set, but the only thing that's acoustic is the floor tom. Everything else, he uses triggers. The snare is muted, so he's just triggering a sound I created while recording. So it's sort of a hybrid kit -- we call him "cyborg."
Did you sample the congas as well?
No, I played all that stuff live in my recordings. Since I have that background with my family, I do all the live percussion on the recording.
"Repetition" has some frenzied playing. Very precise and urgent.
That one I had to do quite a bit of takes because it's kind of wild. I found the cool pockets and combined them. On that one I played the percussion with my fingers, which was why I was able to get really fast with it.
Ron Robinson is the visuals guy in your band, rather than a musician. Why did you feel that was important for what you're doing?
I'm a huge fan of stimulation. For the project, as I was writing the initial material, I had just envisioned a whole aesthetic involved with it as well. So I felt like it would be a good idea to have a strong visual concept that tied in with the music live. You know, a multi-sensory experience. It enables you to get more enveloped and more lost. The world kind of stops and that's all that exists at the moment.
Those videos he made for like "Circles" and "Total Decay" are black and white and have a kind of feeling like the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Did you talk about what sort of vibe you were going for with those videos?
He, [Tarkovsky], actually got brought up in the conversation. I'll do a bunch of research on older art or whatever. I'll do hours and hours and weeks of research and come up with concepts and then present them to Ron. Ron has the ability to make it happen because he's skilled in that area. So it's a combination.
I'm hoping to work with him again on at least one of the songs on the new album. Probably something along the same lines and keep the aesthetic similar with him. I'll also be working with a couple of other video people this year just to make it a little broader. I think it should evolve at some point. Also, harkening back to the initial visual aesthetic project and not lose sight of that while also evolving.
The bass tone on "Lost Years," and other songs, it sounds like you use a flanger or something like that. What do you like about using that sound?
There's something about using choruses and flangers that makes the sound more fluid, organic and watery. I guess, in a way, I'm subconsciously trying to imitate flesh or organs or organisms. I love those sounds that sound [biological] -- it sounds more human, you know?
In other interviews, you've talked about how when you were younger you were in punk bands and the like. What got you interested in synthesizers?
It's strange, I think I'm just interested in music in general. When I was young, it was pretty much all about guitars. I didn't realize there was this whole other world. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and punk just felt right. So I would play my guitar constantly through distortion pedals. I think once I started getting older, I think I just took interest in the synthesizer. I don't know if it felt a little more sophisticated to me or I tend to be able to be able express emotions through some of sounds I can find in a synthesizer in a way that I can't with guitar as much. I think the synth for me is almost like an extension of the guitar.
Your music has been compared to a lot of different things, depending on a writer's musical vocabulary or frame of reference. One of those would be Cabaret Voltaire. How did you find out about that band?
I think it was high school, and I had a few friends that were into the darker stuff. Actually, growing up I didn't really listen to the darker stuff. But I had friends who were into industrial and EBM and Goth and stuff like that. I think it was through a friend who made me a mixtape with all kinds of stuff on it. I didn't pursue them, as in purchasing records, until way later.
It's weird because, back then, I didn't resonate with it as much. It didn't connect with me. Maybe it was just because I was a teenager, and sometimes when you're a teenager, you're kind of narrow-minded. I was stuck in the punk world, and that was all I listened to. I can see the comparisons to Cabaret Voltaire listening back to certain tracks.
The band you probably get compared to the most is Suicide. What is about their music that resonated with you early on?
I felt like the subject matter Alan Vega would sing about was just so real to me and so courageous, I felt. Something like that is really inspiring to see someone really not care and really express what they want to express. He really doesn't care. The music is something I really resonate with. It's like this weird, dark future but retro at the same time. What's funny, too, is that you can tell that Alan Vega is a fan of Elvis Presley. It's interesting how he combines that. They're a huge inspiration to me -- one of the bigger ones.
Yeah, when you listen to it, it's like nothing that existed then and not like much of anything that exists now.
Exactly. It still has its own place in the world that no one else can touch.
Another band that some people talk about in connection to your music is Chrome. How did you get introduced that band's music?
I got into Chrome a little later, once I moved to the Bay Area. They would come up in conversations. They're originally from here. I'd go to bars, and the DJ would play a track. They're also in the tops of my inspirations for sure. Their perspective on music is similar to how Suicide approaches music: really unorthodox, really breaking it down and making it what you want. I like the effects they use on the vocals, I love the guitar tones and the drum beats. Everything about it. It's also this weird, fucked-up future. It's fascinating.
Have you been able to see the current version of Chrome?
No, I haven't. Helios Creed performs here and there. I've been in contact with his manager about possibly doing something with him in the future. I would love to do that and have that in my "resume," if you will.
That would be great. Chrome has been through Denver at least a couple of times in the last decade and the keyboard player uses Damon Edge's keyboard rig. Apparently he acquired it from Edge's sister.
Wow, I would love to get my hands on those.
Is there a significance to the title of your new album, Zeros?
At first I just liked the way it sounded. Then the more I thought about it, it kind of ties back into the post-apocalypse sort of theme that the Soft Moon kind of plays into. I think that record, as I was writing it, touched more on my fascination with the Apocalypse. Titling it Zeros references how if the world ends, everything would start from zero again.
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