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The Soft Moon's Luis Vasquez on Working with Trent Reznor, Constant Touring, and Growing Up in the Desert

The Soft Moon, by Julie Bonato

The Soft Moon, by Julie Bonato

In music, as in life, all things are cyclical. In the last several years, there has been nothing short of a rebirth of so-called "minimal wave," a genre born in the late 1970s and early 1980s when artists who would have otherwise picked up guitars and drum kits began experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines instead. Their records were raw, gritty, and brash, but at the same time danceable and even poppy, owing as much to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder as to the Sex Pistols and Joy Division.

Enter The Soft Moon, the brainchild of Oakland’s Luis Vasquez, one of the many contemporary bands and projects that have offered their own twist on the minimal-wave sound. What separates The Soft Moon from the rest of the pack is the way they sound so effortlessly contemporary, inspired by the sound of the past but not derivative of it. There’s a motorik Krautrock edge to much of The Soft Moon’s music, a trance-inducing psychedelic haze, and a kind of enveloping darkness that belies how accessible their music is. That last bit may be the key to The Soft Moon’s success, and the reason their stock keeps rising.

I recently caught up with Luis while The Soft Moon were touring Europe to chat about the experience of live performance, Trent Reznor, their place in the current musical oeuvre, and the Mojave desert. They’ll make an appearance in San Francisco at Neck of the Woods on Saturday, June 8 – their only Bay Area gig for quite some time. Don’t miss it.

This is like the third or fourth time you’ve been to Europe. I feel like you’ve toured Europe quite a bit.
Yeah, it's kind of like our second home. We play in Europe a little bit more than we do in the States.

That’s interesting. What’s the audience like over there?
Great. There's a really strong connection out here. We tend to headline larger venues and sell 'em out, in comparison to the States–we do good in San Francisco, and in New York and LA, and Chicago is good as well, but in Europe, it's like if we do a tour for thirty days, like twenty of those dates will be sold out. And it'll be, between, you know, 500 to 2,000-capacity venues.

You just finished touring the US. How did that go?
It went good. We're doing surprisingly well in territories that I wouldn't think we'd do so well in. Lots of cool surprises. Like Kansas City–we did a little bit of the South–Kansas City was amazing. And then of course there's Oklahoma, and that was pretty bad. That was the one pretty bad show in terms of turnout. We played in this ghost town.

What's the crowd like in the Midwest? Who comes out to your shows?
It's always a mixture. That's what's interesting about the Soft Moon. The audience age range, you know, is super vast. It's from, like, 16 to 45. You get the hipsters and then you get the true goth fans–and then you have just normal college kids who are fans. It's all over the place, which I think is a great thing. It seems like we're connecting to a wide range of people.

How was South by Southwest?
It was good. You know, I was not looking forward to it. This was our third year in a row. It's a pretty grueling time. It's very exhausting.

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I've never been. It seems like a shit-show.
It's completely horrible. I broke down a couple nights. Our tour manager broke down. It just breaks you down. It's too much. You just have to be completely wasted the entire time in order to handle it. And that's not good either, you're trying to perform, just trying to deal with the situation. But this time around, it was pretty good.

I feel like you guys are constantly touring. How do you do it? Doesn’t it take a lot out of you?
Oh, man. It destroys me. I battle with it emotionally for sure. I can't just get up on stage and perform and not be completely sincere about it. So every time I get up on stage, I get into the full mode. It's pretty emotional.

Has your attitude changed as you do it more often?
Well, I feel like I'm still getting used to it, to be honest. There's always going to be a percentage of strangers watching you, and I'm going to be giving it my all and being completely honest with my expression, and at the same time I'm expressing to strangers, which I feel a little uncomfortable about but it pays off. But it's still weird.

You worked with Trent Reznor recently, didn't you? You did a remix for How to Destroy Angels?
Yeah, I didn't really communicate with Trent too much. I just got approached, and I was like okay–I was definitely intimidated by the whole thing. I procrastinated for awhile, because I was like Oh my god, I'm going to be touching his work–and then I finally worked on it, I had like two days away from a deadline and I had like a month to do it. I finally did it and I think I did a pretty good job. What I wanted to do was be considerate to Trent, his style, but also to express what the Soft Moon is to his fan base. It turned out to be one of his favorite remixes, and I think they're going to put my remix on the full length album–or they're going to be performing it live. Something like that.

Do you feel like you guys are part of a scene, if you will? I feel like in the past couple years, there's been this groundswell of interest in minimal synth, minimal wave, that kind of thing. Is this something that you've noticed too?
I've definitely noticed it. And the only reason why I do notice it is because my music does get lumped into those scenes. But in all honesty, I'm just writing what feels natural to me–a lot of these bands I get compared to, I never even listened to growing up. I just happen to be writing something that's sonically comparable. I'm really just being myself, that's all I'm doing. The way I look at it is, if there are comparisons to the music, I sit back and wonder about it, because it's almost like we're kindred spirits in a way–similar people with similar thoughts writing music and that's how we're connected, but not because we want to sound like each other or anything like that.

What do you listen to in your downtime?
I listen to a lot of psychedelic world music from the 60s, early 70s. Lots of Turkish psych. Brazilian music, Cambodian music, folk music.

I feel like I can hear that influence starting to creep into the Soft Moon, and it's incredible. I feel like I can hear some of your drumming from the Lumerians [a Bay Area psych-rock band Luis was formerly part of] creeping into the Soft Moon, and that's working for me.
Exactly. It's part of my heritage, you know, and that's why I played percussion in Lumerians, because it's what I actually feel most comfortable doing. That's the one thing I do know as far as what's on the horizon for the Soft Moon– I'm definitely going to bring out my heritage more, so you can hear a lot more percussion, and I'm looking forward to that because it's so natural to me.
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Was the Soft Moon something that you've thought about for a while? Was it something that you thought of as a kid? Is it the culmination of something?
That's exactly what the Soft Moon is. It's harking back to when I was a little kid, the thoughts I had growing up, the experiences and the things I witnessed. It's a combination of that and being an adult, and trying to reveal pieces of my life to myself.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Los Angeles, but when I was 9 or 10, my family moved up to Victorville, in the Mojave desert, on the way to Las Vegas. The middle of nowhere.  That's when I started writing music, because there was nothing to do. I started writing punk songs and things like that. I think that place is what made me a musician. I didn't appreciate it as a child, but now I'm sort of glad I grew up in that area.

That's an interesting topic to me, how place and geography can influence music. Has that changed for you since you've moved to the Bay Area?
You know, it's interesting because it wasn't until I left the desert and moved to an environment like San Francisco or Oakland that gave me the perspective on where I grew up. So it was like a reaction, an opposite reaction, to the environment I had been in, and it made me think about the opposite end of the spectrum. It wasn't until I was away from it that I realized how important it was to me.

That makes sense, because I get a certain primal sense of rawness from your music, and it's not a city vibe.
It's exactly primal. That's the ultimate word, I think, to describe the Soft Moon.

The Soft Moon are playing live at Neck of the Woods in San Francisco on June 8. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased here. Their most recent album, Zeros was released last October on Captured Tracks.