MU­SIC THE BLACK SOFT

Fuck art, let’s dance.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Paul Tier­ney

Elec­tro/fash­ion/art duo The Black Soft have only been around for three years, but their in­flu­ence and at­ti­tude feels much greater than their rel­a­tive age. To lis­ten to Vimeo’s de­scrip­tion of the pair one might as­sume they had spent decades forg­ing an iden­tity. “The Black Soft seeks to change the to­pog­ra­phy of to­day’s mu­si­cal caste sys­tem,” an­nounces the stream­ing site in a fit of hy­per­bole, “recog­nis­ing a tan­gi­ble move­ment that is per­co­lat­ing in the cre­ative bow­els of New York City’s East Vil­lage. Artists are col­lab­o­rat­ing, cre­ation is hap­pen­ing and a new mu­sic is ac­com­pa­ny­ing the cries of birth ... the cries that an­nounce the rise of a new dy­nasty.”

And to think none of this was planned.

The Black Soft are the best band you’ve never heard of – two pho­to­genic gay men who could var­i­ously be de­scribed as mu­si­cians, pain­ters and un­ortho­dox fash­ion mav­er­icks. But Joey Top­miller and Chase Cough­lin, who met at col­lege in Tuc­son, Ari­zona and now re­side in Manhattan, are the epit­ome of a new breed of artist – un­com­pro­mis­ing, de­fi­ant and ev­i­dently multi-tasking. Their mu­sic is not the eas­i­est of lis­tens. It’s been em­braced by the fash­ion world for use in videos, ad­verts and cat­walk pre­sen­ta­tions, and while not a par­tic­u­larly com­mer­cial propo­si­tion it cer­tainly is ar­rest­ing in many other ways. Lis­ten­ing to their dark, throb­bing pop­erettas, or view­ing the pair’s sub­tly com­pelling art pieces you are re­minded of many things, but it’s hard to put a fin­ger on what ex­actly that might be. As some­one who feels vaguely jaded at the thought of yet an­other synth-duo (Fis­ch­er­spooner any­one?), and has seen more am­a­teur­ish paint­ing than he cares to re­mem­ber, there is much to rec­om­mend in their rich, en­velop­ing uni­verse.

It’s an un­com­monly warm spring evening in the East Vil­lage, and Joey & Chase are bur­rowed in their base­ment studio pro­duc­ing mu­sic while mus­ing on their place in so­ci­ety. The two late-twenty some­things are nearly al­ways in this space (“ob­ses­sively!”) apart from when they’re trawl­ing the neigh­bour­hood’s dive bars, spread­ing The Black Soft gospel in search of like­minded souls. “We moved here hav­ing a false dream,” ex­plains Chase in a speedy mid-west­ern chirp that’s al­most too fast to keep up with. “We felt like we were go­ing to jump straight into this myth­i­cal world of Siouxsie Sioux, hip de­gen­er­ates and the Pyra­mid club, but it wasn’t quite like that. Don’t get me wrong,” he coun­ters, “there’s a lot of re­ally cool un­der­ground things hap­pen­ing in New York right now, es­pe­cially in the trans­gen­der world. To do the tran­si­tion and be­come a woman is power and they’ve taken that power and brought it into the nightlife. But we wanted to start a new legacy in New York be­cause no one else was do­ing it. We’d go out to par­ties or clubs and it would be like – where the fuck is ev­ery­one?”

Hav­ing bonded at art col­lege over opera, col­lab­o­ra­tive paint­ing and lim­it­less ex­pres­sion, the duo re­united in New York, in­spired by the city’s his­tor­i­cally cre­ative un­der­ground. On the face of it, the fu­ture wasn’t neatly mapped out, yet some­how The Black Soft have nav­i­gated their way to a place which af­fords them ul­ti­mate free­dom. If one day they feel like writ­ing a song, or lay­ing down beats, or pro­duc­ing spon­ta­neous art­work, then there is noth­ing to stop that flow. They are mod­ern Re­nais­sance men, un­shack­led by con­ven­tion and from what­ever an­gle you look at it, they set their own agenda. “As artists we’ve found our place and are ready to take on re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” says Joey. “We just get on with work and don’t take much no­tice of what’s go­ing on in the world. As you can see, we never re­ally leave the studio. And then we find out that one of our tracks is num­ber 2 in the French charts. I mean, how did that hap­pen?”

They both freely ad­mit that their mu­si­cal out­put – a se­ries of widely praised EPS and the cur­rent, bru­tally hon­est al­bum, The Slow Burn - is not aim­ing for the pop jugu­lar. And yet al­most all who come into con­tact with it are se­duced by what they hear. If you’re fed up by the auto-tuned con­fines of EDM then this could be what you’re look­ing for. “We some­times go to a club,” of­fers Chase, smil­ing at the sit­u­a­tion, “and out of po­lite­ness the DJ will spin one of our songs, and ev­ery­one seems to stop danc­ing. It’s like they’re think­ing, is this the right time for a cig­a­rette? We look at each other and think, are we do­ing some­thing wrong? We dance to it, and we have fun, but we’re kind of kooky peo­ple. But it’s neat to see peo­ple ac­cept­ing us for who we are be­cause we haven’t tried to write the per­fect pop song. We’re just try­ing to write the mu­sic we want to hear.”

Some­how, they’ve found them­selves pro­duc­ing oddly pow­er­ful elec­tronic mu­sic that sound­tracks all man­ner of hip events. Songs such as Tor­ture sound off kil­ter, be­hind the beat, al­most clumsy, will­ing you to dance, but trip­ping you up like a school­boy prank at every given op­por­tu­nity. Else­where, drums thud out prim­i­tive dance floor beats, but lay­ered with art school vo­cals that owe much to bands like The Rap­ture and 80s UK nearly-rans The Teardrop Ex­plodes (al­though this is a band they’ve never even heard of). Weirdly, there is also cin­e­matic scor­ing, steeped in Bernard Her­rmann’s sig­na­ture Hitchock­ian strings. Else­where, mood and tempo is er­ratic and ever-evolv­ing. Their sound is a per­verse blend: chal­leng­ing but si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­ces­si­ble. “With all the things we do, there are dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties to us,” ex­plains Joey, “and we wanted to make that ap­par­ent in the mu­sic, and in the way we sing. Our thing is – how can we make them all live in the same world to­gether? Some­times we feel like singing pret­tier on one song than an­other, but then there’s that gut­tural, sex­ual thing go­ing on as well. That’s what it’s like in life re­la­tion­ships, and we wanted the mu­sic to have a sim­i­lar mind­set.”

It isn’t clear if the aim is to move peo­ple at all. “You’re sup­posed to lis­ten,” cries Chase. “It’s the kind of mu­sic I wish I’d had when I was paint­ing and stuff, when I could put on an al­bum like The Bea­tles or the Go­ril­laz and draw and cre­ate with some­thing au­di­bly solid and ad­ven­tur­ous. We don’t want to make back­ground mu­sic, but thought-pro­vok­ing mu­sic that ques­tions what you think you like. We of­ten throw in an in­stru­men­tal piece or a gospel choir to let peo­ple know that they like a lot more than they think they do. You know what,” he says, warm­ing to the theme, “it’s so hard to find an al­bum that you can play and lis­ten to all the way through. Like, there’s so much fuck­ing fluff and wasted tracks on cer­tain al­bums. I think to my­self, why did they say yes to this?”

“And we al­ways play with the du­al­ity of things,” adds Joey em­phat­i­cally, “ex­plor­ing the fem­i­nine and the mas­cu­line and how they re­late as light and dark. We love con­trast. We grew up lis­ten­ing to mix tapes, and the idea of a mix tape is a bunch of dif­fer­ent things liv­ing in the same world. All our songs have a lit­tle life of their own. We might sound like lots of dif­fer­ent bands, but I would like to think they’re all signed to the same record la­bel. In­ci­den­tally, many of our songs are about want­ing and search­ing for some­thing but not get­ting it. This might sound a lit­tle graphic, but it’s al­most like a big, beau­ti­ful black dick that can never get hard!”

In­evitably, as gay men com­bin­ing their re­spec­tive artis­tic tal­ents, The Black Soft have been com­pared to many ex­ist­ing duos, gay or oth­er­wise. Swirling around this mix are ob­vi­ous fig­ures, such as the UK’S enig­matic Gil­bert and Ge­orge, Charles and Ray Eames, Dutch fash­ion de­sign­ers Vik­tor & Rolf and a raft of 80s synth-duos who took their cues from the world of visual art. In some ways, in spirit and tem­per­a­ment, they are the 1980s re­fined and dis­tilled. But for all the shared in­ter­est in the seed­ier side of life they are so much more than a lat­ter day Soft Cell. “Gay cul­ture can of­ten be em­bar­rass­ing,” says Chase. “Ever since I was young I never wanted my whole life to re­volve around be­ing gay. It was more that I hap­pened to be gay, rather than gay defin­ing all those things.”

“We are two gay men writ­ing love songs,” con­tin­ues Joey, tak­ing the ba­ton and pick­ing up on Joey’s thoughts in a way only the truly con­nected can. “We’re not a cou­ple, even though ev­ery­one thinks we are – but we wanted to play with sex­u­al­ity and that fine line, and we wanted to make sure that the mu­sic we were mak­ing would ap­peal to ev­ery­one. When I was lis­ten­ing to mu­sic in the 80s, I didn’t know a lot of it was gay mu­sic, but that didn’t mat­ter. Now I want to make things that a foot­ball player might en­joy, or I think, would my brother like this tune? Or my mum?”

The flip­side to all this is their art, which, like their mu­sic, is tex­tu­ral, lin­ear, but per­haps slightly more ac­ces­si­ble. “Joey comes from a very op­er­atic, mu­si­cal the­atre back­ground but was al­ways very pas­sion­ate and in­volved in art. My back­ground is in pho­tog­ra­phy and graphic de­sign but I also played mu­sic. We’ve kind of evolved side by side to­gether. Even de­sign­ing our web­site to­gether helps us flex our cre­ative mus­cles. Even when its some­thing that doesn’t re­late to mu­sic or fine art we think, how do we put our touch on this? How can we re­late it to The Black Soft.”

And the over­whelm­ing mono­chrome sen­si­bil­ity (all their pieces are in black and white) - why such stark­ness? “It gives us a de­fined re­stric­tion” ex­plains Chase. “It’s like the uni­ver­sal na­ture of the mu­sic we were talk­ing about, how we want to ap­peal to our mums and brothers and ev­ery­one. Mono­chrome speaks to the out­sider. We wanted to cre­ate a world with­out re­stric­tions. It’s vis­ually com­fort­able. Colour can some­times wa­ter things down, so it’s bet­ter to project your own colour. In a black and white world every­thing works.”

As the sun sets on this mono­chrome land­scape (adding a touch of burnt om­bre to its edges), the pair be­gin to dwell on the hu­man con­di­tion, sex­u­al­ity, and per­sonal iden­tity. They also con­sider meta­physics, which isn’t a sub­ject touched on in many songs, let alone works of art. “The things that we write and paint about are the things that we’re deal­ing with in life,” ex­plains Joey, as ex­citable now as he was sev­eral hours ago. “We’re get­ting it off our chests, but its up to you to fig­ure out. All the songs are very raw, they’re not happy and they’re all from dark places: re­la­tion­ships, abuse, drugs, over­dos­ing. It’s try­ing to find a non-cheesy way of say­ing the things you re­ally want to. Like, when He­lena Bon­ham Carter’s char­ac­ter says, ‘I want to have your abor­tion’ in Fight Club. Isn’t that just an in­ter­est­ing way of say­ing, I love you?”

Photo: Evaan Kheraj. Styling: Alexan­der Paul.

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