Interview for Other Voices Records

15 October 2013
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Soft Riot "Creeps" - Photo by Del Jae
Photo by Del Jae

This is an interview done with Pavel Nattsol Zarutskiy, formerly of Grave Jibes Magazine, for an Other Voices Records exclusive. This interview was done in June of this year:

Soft Riot goes to Russia for the very first time with the presentation of his new album Fiction Prediction (Other Voices Records, Russia). Before this remarkable event please read this interview made by our good friend Pavel ‘Nattsol’ Zarutskiy specially for Other Voices Records.

“Yes, everything looks fine, but could you put bigger stress on the label in the interview? For example, ask, why the fuck he chose the label from Russia? Couldn’t he find anything more decent?” – told me Oleg of Other Voices when I showed him the first draft of the interview with Jack Duckworth – the musician who played in various bands and recently attracted the attention of minimal synth admirers all over the world with his new project, called Soft Riot. Indeed, Jack hardly could face a problem with finding the label. Not only the project is in the very trend of indie synth music, but also, Jack manages to keep quite DIY and outsider-ish atmosphere so it seems that with the music he more explores his inner universe than tries to please the listeners with the sounds they might want to hear. The new Soft Riot album, ‘Fiction Prediction’, will soon be released by Other Voices. So indeed, what circumstances lead to this result? Jack’s answer on this question starts our interview:

Jack: I was aware of Other Voices by their releases of Eleven Pond and Tobias Bernstrup and after checking out the website, the related Plastic Passions distribution I thought it would be worth a try to submit to this label. In all my years of releasing records a lot of the record labels I’ve worked with have been with people I didn’t know before working with them, often from far away and not local to where I was living. I’d either contact them with a demo because I like the music that label is releasing or I will get a suggestion from a friend.

My girlfriend, MM Lyle, plays in the group in A Terrible Splendour and I think recommended Other Voices initially. I sent this label a request by email initially and got a really quick response from Oleg, who runs the label. After some emails back and forth we decided we would work on a record together. I was already working with Volar Records out of San Diego and they eventually came on board to work with the Fiction Prediction album in North America. I was interested in working with a label in a country I wasn’t really familiar with, as I’ve always worked with record labels out of Canada or the US. The fact that both labels are from two countries that have historically been “enemies” politically interested me. No matter what country you’re from or what languages you speak, I think a lot of people have common goals, philosophies and interests in the arts that transcend that. Oleg, Craig (Volar) and myself like a lot of the same bands!

It’s been good working with Other Voices. I think we have a lot of similar taste in music, from the more synthesiser based stuff to the more punk rock stuff as well!

Nattsol: Thanks for the clarification, Jack! Before we start the proper discussion about Fiction Prediction, let’s talk about the things not so current. You started your musical journey in Vancouver and now you’re Londoner. What do you feel about it as musician? I.e. does it change something for you in your musical approach and musical “language”?

Jack: I moved to London from Vancouver in late 2007 so I’ve been here for 5.5 years. In Vancouver I felt like I was hitting a ceiling in terms of what I could do there. It’s very isolated, being on the west coast of Canada. The only other city nearby worth playing is Victoria on Vancouver Island. After that the next nearest city is Calgary and that is a 12 hour drive through many mountain ranges. Seattle in the US is a 3 hour drive south but it is tricky playing in the US without an expensive working visa to go there. So if you’re a Vancouver musician looking to play shows abroad your options were a bit tight.

In Europe and in the UK it seemed that there were a lot more options and an audience for the things I was into. It made sense as a musician to move to the UK to try something new.

As for how it effected the musical style I was doing, I definitely felt a bit more in tune with myself to just sort of let what I did musically happen organically, especially having been involved in music for 10-15 years and seeing things come and go. The change of environment, being all new and exciting helped shake things up a bit.

Nattsol: When I listen to many projects of the bands, related to Soft Riot, I have the impression that they forgot or just aren’t aware that there’s word “punk” in the name of the genre in which they play (post-punk). And how about you? You started in various punk/hardcore bands, was this experience somehow helpful when you moved towards softer sounds? (or should I ask “is soft riot still riot”?)

Jack: My background I guess is a bit different than a lot of peers and contemporaries that I know in the European synth scene. I’m perhaps a bit older than some, having started in the early 90s in the Canadian punk/hardcore underground, by extension including the whole early 90s US punk/hardcore scene happening at the time. I originally got into bands on the Dischord Records roster like Minor Threat and Fugazi and then into a lot of other stuff on labels like Great American Steak Religion, Kill Rock Stars, Gravity Records, Ebullition, Troubleman, GSL, File Thirteen, Mountain Records, and Skin Graft to name some.

I think the experimental and intense nature of some of that music and the whole community-driven DIY spirit of those scenes formed a base formation of all the music that I would do from then on forward. A bit later synthesizers entered the music I was doing, and the first band with that added element was Radio Berlin, formed in 1998. It had a lot of the classic post-punk and synth sounds but retained a some elements of the contemporary post-hardcore music of the time such as a driving rhythm section and raw-off-the-floor production. There was a bit of a movement at that time of musicians from punk and hardcore bands starting to experiment in new projects that were incorporating sort of 80s post-punk and synth sounds. Most of the projects over the last 10-15 years were essentially experimental synth-punk bands.

Soft Riot was a bit different. It started out many years ago as a casual studio project. It was initially more ambient and less “pop” than it is now. I was really into the tone and sounds of artists like Labradford, early Dead Can Dance and more obscure stuff like Second Layer or Ike Yard where the tone was more subdued and sinister. I had done many years of loud, confrontational music. You don’t know how many shows I’ve played where I was trashing around like a lunatic on stage and in turn watching others thrash around like lunatics. When you see enough of it and others copying what others did it seems to be more of an act and looses the power it once did.

So yeah, I’ve opted less for over-production and more of an even-keel production with a good sense of organic ambience. People have pointed out there’s a tension or something bubbling under the surface in the music, which is exactly what I’m trying to go for. There are some influences in what I do which are obvious, and some which aren’t. It’s all written as it comes in the studio in a state of mind that’s really just “me” after 10-15 years of trying stuff out in various other bands.

Finally, in regards to the name SOFT RIOT — it was actually the name of one of my original songs when this project was using the moniker JJ WAX (JJ being my first two initials and WAX from my name from graphic design at the time, The Wax Museum). The song “Soft Riot” was about gentrification and being marginalized in a city you live in, being priced out of neighbourhoods and becoming more poor and oppressed. In turn the “soft riot” is the inner rebellion against that. Although most of us aren’t out there rioting or causing mayhem, there is definitely a lot more simmering anger out there amongst the people nowadays that I can see. It comes out in out communications and our writings online and in our conversations to one another. A “soft riot”. I kept the name for the project back in 2006, although a few years later it seemed there’s now a slough of bands out there with “Soft” in their name (The Soft Moon, Soft Kill, Soft Metals, etc.) but the name has meaning for me so it’s stuck.

Nattsol: According to what you said it seems like you had a lot of fun performing with your punkier projects. Maybe you have some specific memories about those shows to share?

Jack: Ah man, there are so many experiences from those days. Not like I’m not having fun now though. Especially when playing abroad with Soft Riot I’ve had some great times with people. There are a lot of good people involved in the European synth/wave scene at the moment so it’s exciting to go out there and play.

But as far as past experiences go, I can give you a quick recap of some “highlights”: Getting hit in the face with a guitar headstock in my old hardcore band from when I was a teenager by the other guitarist and doing the rest of the show with blood gushing out of my nose / Playing venues as weird as boxing rings and retro video arcades in the US / jumping of oil barrels used as drums and landing on my arm, causing it to swell / throwing a drum stick high into the air at an outdoor festival and it almost landing in an occupied baby carriage / hot-wiring a Roland Juno 106 with bare wires at a packed Halloween show years ago because we lost the cable. Sparks were flying out as we were playing. That’s just a few right off the top of my head.

Nattsol: Is there something from your past musical experience that you’d like to never repeat?

Jack: Over the years I’ve learned a lot of “do”s and “don’t”s and I think one overall philosophy is don’t rush or over-extend yourself. With younger bands especially they try and do to much and in some cases it works out but in the majority of cases it breaks up the band due to the stress or conflicting directions the members of the band want to take.

Back in the day I’d be in bands that’d go on tour for like 6-7 weeks and when you have a string of bad shows it really brings down the morale. I like shorter trips nowadays when you can not only perform but also check out new places as well.

Oh, one more piece of advice to bands, especially if you’re travelling by vehicle: ALWAYS do a thorough tune-up of your road vehicle before going on tour. It might save you the experience of hearing your driveshaft fall to the ground when pulling out of an intersection.

Nattsol: Could you call few releases of your past projects which you could suggest for those who want to learn more about your past activity, briefly describe what they are and why you chose them?

Jack: I think Radio Berlin, who I mentioned earlier, would likely be a good point. That band released five albums and toured many times over its seven year run. When we started we were lumped into an emerging scene of American/Canadian “nu wave” (not my term!) — a number of bands from more 90s punk and indie pedigree trying their hand at more synthesizer-based music such as The Faint, Hot Hot Heat, Beautiful Skin, The VSS and Camera Obscura (not the Scottish indie band) to same a very small few.

The press at the time would of course reference the obvious 80s stuff as if it were a throwback but all those bands were doing a unique take on synthesizer or post-punk music. The music journalism itself was actually more banal and cliché than the music apparently was. Listening to those recordings now I think they were too informed by American indie rock production values to sound like an exact copy of the older synth bands, as well as being too noisy and technical. Some of the tracks were almost “prog” sounding.

As for other projects I’ve done I think the first Primes album is a good slab of digitally distorted electro/synth-punk. The debut album by the group Winning that I played on is the oddest of the bunch. That band was highly experimental, almost improvised guitar music akin to US Maple or any other band on the Skin Graft Records roster. I’d pick those for a variety of what I’ve done previously.

Nattsol: USA and Canada had great underground synth bands in the 80’s – Experimental Products, League of Nations, Eleven Pond, Techniques Berlin and many others. Do you consider those bands as your influence?

Jack: I’ve heard of those artists, mainly in the last ten years as the internet has done wonders for re-mapping old timelines in the underground music scene but I can’t say any of those artists you mentioned really influenced me given that.

There’s a good compilation of (mostly) American synth-punk music from that time called “Oh Harry, You’re Such A Drag” that’s worth checking out as far as US synth/wave artists go.

But as far as Canadian synth music, and more specifically Vancouver, the obvious groups for me to mention would be Skinny Puppy as well as Images In Vogue, Moev and some of the other Nettwerk artists like Severed Heads, etc., Psyche from Edmonton etc. I recently did a little research project into Canadian synth and post-punk music from that period that I posted in the form of a 2 hour mix on my website which you can check out here:

A number of the artists I are favourites of mine but I discovered a lot of really good, less known stuff by artists like Moral Support, E and Benjamin Russell that are really quite good as well.

Nattsol: Tell, please, how and why you “formed” Soft Riot? Is that one-man project by choice, or you just don’t have musicians to turn it into a band?

Jack: Soft Riot formed in early 2006 but under a different name as mentioned before. As I was in a lot of more driving and up-tempo synthesizer-based bands, I was looking for something a bit more “nocturnal” sounding and far more minimal. The first recording sessions were based on a random acid trip I had (that is not a joke!) and trying to replicate some sounds I had heard in my head during that time within the studio. I think one track from that phase would be “I Wanna Lay Down NXT 2 U” on the recently re-released No Longer Stranger record.

I did one show in 2006 with a three-piece band and it didn’t feel right. The music was too personal and the instrumentation was too minimal. Trying to get three musicians to play a song live was just an arpeggiated synth line and drums seemed a bit much.

It would be four or five years after moving to the UK before I really got into it again. The main reason why it’s only one person now is because I like the aesthetic of a lonely, wandering man behind a bank of machines. It suits the vibe and subject matter of the music.

I also like it one person as it’s more compact and easier to get things done. I’m big into efficiency and the environment – making a smaller footprint on planet Earth. Having just one person makes it less likely a band will break up and then have lots of unsold records lying around and I do have a lot of records from old bands sitting around. I can also be flexible about how much equipment I use live. I can travel light if I want to or bust out an arsenal of hardware. My life is really busy at the moment so trying to co-ordinate with other band members would kill the momentum.
However playing guitar music is more of a social/collaborative thing for me; writing and playing electronic music is an internal process for me, almost like working in a garage or laboratory.

Nattsol: Does the Soft Riot have social appeal, or its focus goes inwards?

Jack: I am a social person by nature and am aware of universal sounds and themes in music that have broader appeal so I think in my own way there’s more of those “pop” elements that other people might be attracted to.

Some people start bands because they like music of a certain style or are influenced by other artists; or even just to be social. Those things to a small degree are true for myself but I know that I sort of have a broader reason for doing music; following some sort of self-dictated path.

Nattsol: I read that you enjoy cooking, so could you tell our readers the “recipe” of Soft Riot music how you personally see it?

Jack: Yeah, I do a lot of cooking and have been for years. I’ve been vegetarian since I was really young so my cooking has gotten really creative because of that.
As far a “recipe” for my music is concerned, I usually have some core musical ideas in head when I start writing as the urban or natural environment influences ideas in my head. From there I’ll take those core ideas into the studio. I guess with the equipment I use there’s certain unique qualities about their sound that people have said are unique to the music I do.

Nattsol: You must really work hard performing as Soft Riot, as you stated that you’re trying your best to avoid being “karaoke singer”. What on stage attracts you so much that you’re ready to keep doing this work again and again?

Jack: The local punk/hardcore scenes in North America at the time were centred around getting all the people down to some dingy venue and having a unifying event through performance, energy and the immersing of oneself into the volume of the live experience. I’ve seen a number of shows but lesser known bands over the years that have really had a lasting effect on me.

Given that I wanted Soft Riot to play live but wanted it to be a proper live show, even though it was a pretty different sound. I had the idea of doing in in sort of a “cockpit” of synths, sort of like Tangerine Dream or Vangelis or something. The idea initially intimidated me as I was usually used to just playing one instrument live and/or singing. But with a bit of practice a new sort of live performer emerged from within and I really get into the zone of multi-tasking live by playing a number of synths, singing as well as mixing the sound live. As I write newer material it tends to be composed around how I might do it live to some degree.

Granted, I’ve never had massive success as a musician — at least where playing shows was a source of income but a show is a coming together of people with ideas and also a chance to feel the music in a more engaging environment. As much as there’s always hardship with touring and playing shows — organization, transport, setting up, etc. I think I’ll always be attracted to live performance as it is sort of part of the whole music experience for me.

Nattsol: It’s good to hear that you see the idea of a show as a unifying event. Of course we all understand that anyone can listen to your music and attend your shows but how to you picture your listeners? I mean, who is the person you want to identify with (or on the contrary, who is the listener who hardly will find something common with)?

Jack: Yeah, a gathering of people for art, music or ideas is a pretty important thing for me. I’m not super active politically, mainly as I’m pretty busy, but even getting out to demonstrations and protests once in a while is a good thing. There are more and more people taking notice to issues in this troubled, complex world which is cool.

As for picturing who might listen to Soft Riot, I don’t really think I have anyone in mind I’m trying to write for. I’m trying to write music that has unique and specific themes, but entirely universal at the same time. For those that are familiar with the relevant genres they might like the sounds and references going on. For those who are audiophiles they might like the effort into the sounds. From my own experience the best shows are the ones where people are new to sounds and ideas, usually in smaller towns and areas of the world where they don’t get as much underground art and culture as in London where I live. When I used to tour Canada and the US a lot I’d play in some pretty small places, usually for younger students, etc that would go crazy for music. That is a pretty amazing feeling to be a part of that.

Nattsol: In an interview you told that sci-fi is influential for you because it “has essentially predicted a lot of the advancements in technology, turbulence and social engineering, both good and bad, in our world over the last century”. But all those “advancements” essentially end in XXI century, which yet hasn’t known such vast leaps that were typical for the XX century and inspired all those sci-fi writers. So, do you think there’s anything to predict? And have you ever thought about your own music as of “futuristic”?

Jack: For me good science fiction is good social commentary. Take 1984 for instance, that book has predicted a lot of developments in the more recent arena of world politics. When I was young I was very aware of the unrest in our civilized world and it’s effect on the environment. There’s a lot of philosophy that’s been addressed in the science fiction canon over the last hundred years and a lot of the directions our world has developed in I’ve seen discussed in theory prior to that as science or speculative fiction. How future things would be predicted is anyone’s guess as we race faster and faster toward a technological singularity.
I personally don’t have too much hope for things given our failure to give up the grasp on religion or capitalism but I’m an optimist at heart. Despite the wrongs happening in our world there are people putting their minds together and doing good things with the knowledge we have.

As for the music of Soft Riot being futuristic, it is in it’s own way. I definitely don’t have interest in the electronic music clichés of robots, space ships or having sex with androids or whatever. It’s more organic and comes from a viewpoint of someone observing from a slight distance where we are now and what the future might bring.

The music itself can’t really be too futuristic, as the equipment the majority of it was written on is now considered old. That’s fine by me. I’ve come to terms over the years that electronic music doesn’t have to be future-obsessed. I like a bit of tradition. Humans have been working up the craft of writing and playing music for years so I can honour that to some degree. What is futuristic music these days anyway? Computers? Processing the sound of a malfunctioning smartphone through a bunch of open-source software plugins composed on an iPad?

I think it may have been Xeno & Oaklander who stated in an interview that a synthesizer is a folk instrument. To some degree I agree with this although the prices of some of the more coveted analogue gear kind of puts it a far narrower range of accessibility; mainly to those with the money who can afford it. But hey, some great stuff has been done out there with some cheap digital/analogue modeling synths, or Casios, or an ancient copy of Fruity Loops.

Nattsol: I see Soft Riot has “vintage” collectors’ physical format releases on vinyl and cassette and “contemporary” more mass-oriented mp3 versions. Could you explain your own policy regarding the musical formats? (and how do you see the future of the formats?)

Jack: The first couple of releases were all digital, mainly as it was more of a casual studio project and friends had offered to put out my first release, No Longer Stranger. Soft Riot was more of a side project as I was in other bands that were more my focus for the time being. I think digital is obviously great as you can pass files around across the world and it gets music to people quickly. However, music is also an emotional, engaging and sometimes private thing. I sometimes don’t want to listen to music that requires me to log into a computer and access a more corporate-driven interface like iTunes or WinAmp, or in a desktop environment like OS X or Windows. I have a turntable and cassette player in my living room. Sometimes it’s just nice to sift through records in natural light, have a drink and drop the needle and not be in an environment where you are accessible to everyone right at their fingertips. I elaborated more on this feeling when I released my limited edition Hyperbolic Masses cassette last year, which you can read here.

Also, this sounds funny, but if some great catastrophe happened in our modern world, or even more minor events, it’s more likely you can recover playback on music by coming across a preserved vinyl record than a digital file that requires a computer, electricity, a hard drive that’s still intact where the file is stored on, etc.

Nattsol: Have you ever been thinking about the project’s potential? How far do you think you could go with it?

Jack: Well, I certainly don’t have delusions of grandeur! I’ve been through the musical shit-grinder for about 10-15 years now in various bands and have seen the rise and fall of many artists, including people I know. I’ve been a bit lucky as I have an artistic career (graphic design) that parallels what I do musically so I’ve never had to compromise the music to try and make money doing it. That’s trickier to do nowadays and doesn’t last forever, especially for younger artists. I really feel for future generations of musicians.

But it’s alright. My schedule is flexible enough where I can self-book a few tours a year as well as any amount of short-trip shows. I’d like to keep putting out records, even stubbornly to the point where it’s a bit hilarious that I keep putting them out. I have a sense of humour, and a ton of untapped ideas I haven’t even have had time to write or record yet. So there’s a lifeline there still to live and many places yet to still travel to.

Nattsol: Your new album will soon be released on Other Voices Records (Europe) and Volar Records (North America). Could you introduce this release to our readers in your own words?

Jack: Fiction Prediction is the second album by Soft Riot. It’s sort of my psychedelic and fucked up version of “Rio” or something… Or a better description is as follows. This one I wrote for my press release; something I find really difficult to do!

“Drawing inspiration from synthesizer-based film soundtracks of yesteryear, drones, early EBM, minimal synth, a dose of psychedelic synthpop and a heavy dose of throbbing arpeggiated rhythms, Soft Riot is a science-fiction heavy soundscape that narrates the listener through today’s fractured, excessive landscape with hints of black humour.”

Nattsol: I know that you’re responsible for your releases’ artwork, and the cover of ‘Fiction Prediction’ looks pretty interesting and detailed. Could you tell more about the idea behind it?

Jack: As a graphic designer one certain field of my work has been the development of this sort of surrealistic, collage “style”. I wouldn’t say it’s a style that’s completely different and new but I think I have my own thing going on with it. I’ve done a lot of cover and poster artwork over the years developing that style. With the Soft Riot releases I’ve been really pushing the complexity of it within a two-dimensional framework.

I don’t really plan everything out when I do these collages. I sort of have an idea for a landscape in mind and based on the source material that I find, that material dictates how that landscape will be modeled in my collages.

There are recurring themes and images in the artwork and sometimes this is a very specific effort to do so. For instance, the same character in the silver suit with the quartz crystal for the head appears on the Fiction Prediction cover as well as the cover for the Another Drone In Your Head EP. That whole Fiction Prediction cover it’s an unreal landscape with a “Secret” hidden behind the book with the combination lock. This references the lyrics in the track “You’ve Got To Use It”, a story about a person that visits the future and learns some knowledge that can be used to save us all. You never learn what that knowledge is. Anyone else looking it at might get other things out of it.

Nattsol: According to what you told one can conclude that your lyrics on this album are a blend of sci-fi, humour and psychedelia with no sex (with robots) and clichés. How fair could be such conclusion?

Jack: Ha! I think that could work as a description. I mean, the humour is pretty subtle though; more of a black, dark humour. I’m not the Weird Al Yankovic of synth-wave or anything. I like adding some lines that bite in a sarcastic tone.

Some of the songs are narrative tales where I purposefully wrote them in a linear narrative to tell a story. I did this initially to challenge myself to write in a different style as I always had and on and off struggle writing more “esoteric” lyrics. And being someone really into film and books the narrative angle appealed to me.

But yeah, I don’t think I’ll be writing about robots soon. There is sex in some songs though, at least implied —

Nattsol: Ok, after ‘Fiction Prediction’ released, what’s to come next?

Jack: As Fiction Prediction is out this month [June 2013], moving forward I’ll be doing a few remixes, or least have been in talks to do remixes, for artists like TSTI (Desire), Keluar, Celebration (4AD/Friends Records) and more.

I’ve got a lot of ideas for tracks in progress for a future record which I’m thinking I’d like to be a 4-6 song EP or something. This format gives me a smaller group of songs to work on and expand on the ideas from Fiction Prediction. I’d like to make the sound more minimal (literally) but with more expertly captured sounds, perhaps working alongside a producer to help with the technical stuff I don’t have absolute expertise in.

Nattsol: Thanks for the interview, Jack. As a final question I usually offer musicians to ask an ‘open’ question to our readers. What yours could be?

Jack: Would you take the red pill or the blue pill?

Questions: Pavel ‘Nattsol’ Zarutskiy
Specially for Other Voices Records