Although it might be the foremost city of the Sunshine State, Miami has more than enough darkness to go around. Whether it’s in the city's dimly lit clubs or twisted sensibilities, Miamians have a powerful yearning for the macabre, a quality glimpsed in the ongoing survival of the long-running goth and New Wave party the Kitchen Club, as well as the continued popularity of bands such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order.
The Magic City’s fixation with the grim and foreboding might explain why the Soft Moon’s show at Gramps tomorrow, April 25, is so hotly anticipated. Reflecting the singular vision of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Luis Vasquez, the Soft Moon began as a way for Vasquez to channel his innermost anxieties and fears into something positive — namely, his music. Since the project’s self-titled debut in 2010, the Soft Moon has grown past its postpunk-indebted origins to become a vehicle for all manner of sinister sounds, incorporating everything from the danceable beats of EBM and industrial to disquieting drone music.
Vasquez is on tour in support of the Soft Moon’s fourth record, February’s Criminal. In addition to being the first Soft Moon release on the independent experimental record label Sacred Bones, Criminal sees Vasquez’s voice take center stage for the first time, reflecting the project’s newfound focus on lyricism.
Despite having spotty cell-phone service while driving through Arizona for the tour, Vasquez spoke with New Times about how audiences are receiving Criminal, how it feels to be acknowledged by one's musical heroes, and the challenges of staging an involved light show in an outdoor venue.
New Times: So far, the tour has already seen you play several sold-out dates. How’s it been going, and how have audiences been reacting to Criminal in a live setting?
Luis Vasquez: It's been fantastic. I mean, almost every show has been sold out, so it seems like people are reacting pretty well to the new album. So, yeah, things are going great. Also, in Europe, 90 percent of the shows were sold out as well, so it's been quite a success.
How heavily has the set list relied on new material versus the overall Soft Moon discography?
I would say at least six or seven of the songs in the set list are from the new album, and we play between 16 and 18 songs, so quite a bit of the new material is on the new set list. And people are singing along to the new stuff, which is great. I love that feeling, especially because in the past I wasn't really writing too many lyrics; I was kind of hiding my voice.
With the vocals on Criminal being a lot less buried in the mix than they have been on your previous work, what’s more important to you, the lyrical content of the Soft Moon or vocals that enhance the mood or ambiance of the song?
Well, on this record, I felt like it was very important to be more direct with my expression and with my feelings. In the past, I never knew how to express what I felt with words because I could never put words behind what I was feeling. So with this record, one of the main focal points was for me to just be literal with what I'm saying, a little bit less metaphorical.
In a way it helps me, because, ultimately, this whole project is like a healing process. So being able to be more direct now that I understand myself a lot more over the years, it's more therapeutic.
Criminal marks your first release with Sacred Bones, a label best known for its experimental and noise bent. What prompted the change from your former label, Captured Tracks, and how has your experience with Sacred Bones been thus far?
It was something that kind of happened naturally. I just felt like the label was naturally going in a different direction, and... kind of like a relationship, you move on at one point; things change. I've always had this connection with Sacred Bones, even from the beginning, because Sacred Bones and Captured Tracks, they used to share the same office when I first signed. So I've known Caleb [Braaten, the label’s founder] from Sacred Bones for a long time. We've always had this kind of connection, and I always felt like we were going to work together somehow, and years later, now I'm on his label.
Tracing the first album up to Criminal, it feels as though there’s been a shift from the sounds of postpunk to more industrial and EBM-indebted songs. Even though these are obviously distinct genres, they both operate in the wheelhouse of grim genres that were birthed or refined in the 80s. As an artist, why does that template — or even that decade — resonate with and appeal so much to you even if it’s such a diverse array of sounds?
Yeah, it's weird [laughs]. I even ask myself the same question, like, Why am I using this sort of formula and I'm sticking with it? In terms of expressing myself musically, it's the one template that I feel works the best for me, because I like heavy dance rhythms; I like percussion; I like noise, distortion; and I like to be dark. So I guess I just kind of fit into that. Even before the Soft Moon, I've tried different styles of music. But this sound works for me the best in terms of expressing myself. I don't know — it's just natural.
What other sounds or styles did you try, and why did they fall short for you as far as self-expression?
I started out playing punk. And punk was great, but I felt like it was a little bit limited for me, because I like to explore with sounds. And then I started getting into electronic music. I've made drum 'n' bass; I even was in a jazz band for a while [laughs]. I went through Latin music for a while, acoustic music at one point... and then even techno, way back.
And what happened was once I stopped trying to be something that I wasn't, I finally gave up and I said, I need to make music for once, so if I'm going to do it, I'm going to be honest and be pure. That's when it all happened; it all clicked when I just wanted to communicate.
The Soft Moon had been slotted to open for seminal postpunk and industrial band Killing Joke on a 2016 tour before it dropped out, and you’re playing [Cure frontman] Robert Smith’s Meltdown Festival in June. How does it feel to be directly acknowledged by your sonic forebears?
Being hit up to play by Robert Smith or [Depeche Mode multi-instrumentalist] Martin Gore and things like that? It's insane; it's almost too much to take in. It's like I'm kind of just living in it right now and I haven't had the chance to step out of it.
Maybe when I'm older, maybe when it's all over... I could kind of have more of a perspective on it, but it's... it's insane. I mean, when I got the email from Robert Smith about the Meltdown Fest, that was a pretty intense feeling, a roller coaster of emotions. It feels unreal, but at the same time it's a beautiful thing.
So Gramps — where you’ve performed before — is an outdoor, open-air venue. With the Soft Moon’s live component being a big part of the project, do venues of that nature pose any challenge as far as curating the same effects or mood as opposed to that of a dark, closed venue?
Yeah, we really rely on a pretty intense show. It has to be visual, and of course it has to be sonic. Gramps is kind of more like a... party club, I guess. So in those scenarios, what I like to do is just kind of perform my ass off if there's not the proper setup onstage with all of the gear and the lighting. But ultimately, it's just about the energy, and every night is different. Sometimes nights without the things that we need onstage, sometimes those nights are amazing, but it's all about the energy, and I’ve felt that with Gramps, with Miami.
As we come up on ten years of the Soft Moon project — and so much of it has been about expressing yourself in an honest, cathartic way — how do you feel about that looming anniversary? Have you achieved what you initially set out to, or have the goals or contours of this project changed over the years?
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This whole project for me has been a means to reach some sort of inner peace or happiness. But it's kind of taken me a little bit more into the darkness, into the dark abyss. And I'm starting to realize, I think I'm doing it on purpose. I feel like I need to live in turmoil; I need to live in some sort of chaos. So... I'm kind of addicted to feeling like opening up wounds and the scars and living in a fucked-up world, for lack of a better word [laughs]. And I think that's ultimately what the meaning of the whole project is — to just kind of live in chaos.
For as fruitful as that might be creatively — and it sounds like you need it to function as an artist — are you enjoying it at the end of the day?
Ultimately, it's very rewarding. It just makes me feel alive. And having that connection with the audience, having that connection with the fans, having people relate to you and not feeling alone, it's an incredible feeling. I had a hard time communicating or expressing myself emotionally growing up, and to have this now... it's another thing I live for and is sort of the reason why this project is alive.