Interview: The Soap Company
Published on May 28th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Rocksucker was utterly charmed by The Soap Company’s second LP Big Bang, describing its luscious electronic textures as “psychedelic music for the gut and hips as much as for the brain and soul…a resounding triumph” in this four-and-a-half-quail review, so we caught up with the group’s head honcho Tony SoapCo – who incidentally doubles up as one of our most trusted exponents of fresh music recommendations – for a ruddy good natter about the whole operation…
Who are the various guest contributors across Big Bang and how do you know them?
Well, the core Soap Company line-up really only numbers three people at a push: myself, Lorraine Jones and Fujie Yoshimoto, and none of us are trained to any great standard so we do need quite a bit of outside help to get our ideas realised. So it’s roughly a combination of great musicians we’ve been lucky enough to know well enough to ask for a helping hand, and friends who we know can come up with the goods we need after being plied with a few drinks. (Laughs)
Nikki Van Deventer who fronts “King Kong & Godzilla”, for example, is someone I worked with in an office who I know has a really distinctive and interesting speaking voice – my oblique way of thinking here was that she’d sound great if she could also actually sing. It took a while to convince her, and about half a bottle of vodka on the night to get it down, but we love how it turned out, no highly trained diva could have done any better.
Adam who plays guitar, inversely, is extremely highly trained on his axe, I worked with him in a record shop a few years back and was stunned by his digital dexterity on the tills – when this is translated to a guitar, well… (Laughs) Paul who plays the trumpet solo on “The Princess Complex” is someone who I saw playing in a 20-piece big band and seemed to stand out like a beacon – his own band’s music is superb and we’re humbled to have him ice our cake. This goes for everyone involved basically, all the contributors to our tracks solely elevate them to release standard if they did but know it.
How long have you been writing and recording music for?
Personally, a ridiculously long amount of time, we’re just hoping the Old Grey Whistle Test or The Tube will give us a call to come on soon. (Laughs)
How would you describe your music, if pushed?
This is the bit where we try gamely not to sound pretentious, isn’t it? (Laughs) The best way to slip out of this one then is to paraphrase a line from one of our favourite films, so in answer to your question: “We think our brilliant research in the art of making music is unsurpassed and will probably make our names live beyond eternity. In fact, you can take the ‘probably’ out as it makes us sound wishy-washy.” (Laughs) Seriously, It’s the hardest thing to answer really because we do switch styles at the drop of a hat. “Fundamentally electronic” has a nice ring to it, it probably encapsulates everything nicely apart from the mistakes we leave in!
What do you use to record with? How does a Soap Company track usually come together?
Normally starts with a single sound – we don’t write anything away from the studio ever, although we do sometimes go in with an earworm and have to get it down onto the computer pronto – but generally the genesis of any track is a single noise which then just spirals into shape. Whatever is needed is used, happy accidents are a major part (laughs). We often try and put things together that shouldn’t be together, and this is quite effective as well we’ve found.
Instrumentation is standard as for most bands, a mixture of programming, samples, and live performances blended as one. I don’t think we do anything particularly unique there – we use lots of literal sound effects on our tracks though, probably more than most people.
Once a track is 60% finished musically, we decide what sort of ‘topping’ it’s going to have – voices, suitability etc – and then start towards the final hurdle. Staple diet for writing lyrics is two bottles of red wine and four hours alone with them and a blank piece of paper. This method has never failed us yet.
If we’re doing the instrumental stuff, there’s normally a title and theme first and we work towards that, but still with the single sound originally. Et voila, the magical secret of our sound. (Laughs)
You make very colourful music. Is synaesthesia – or at least the idea of it – something that informs your production? What colour(s) would you say Big Bang is in the main?
We do try and go an extra inch as far as a wide palette of sounds goes and it’s definitely informed in the way you describe – it’s incredibly pleasing you’ve clocked that.
Our favourite listening is nearly always stuff where we can detect flecks of colours like silver and gold in its make-up as well as ‘normal colours’ – bands like Flaming Lips and Rotary Connection have what I guess we’re striving for in spades.
Regarding Big Bang, given the title tracks’ subject matter, despite its smoky Purple artwork, we should probably say it’s best represented by a very bright shade of mushroom!
How do you find the time to unearth and consume as much new music as you do? It’s Herculean stuff!
Secret agents in record stores, people flinging stuff at us left right and centre, there’s always music going on Chez SoapCo, good for working to, doing dull chores etc. I’ve never really worked out in hours how much time I spend listening to stuff – we have a 4/5-hour DJ residency in Croydon every week and try to make the sets completely different every week, so this take up a lot of time. But yeah, sourcing stuff from superb publications such as yourselves, Quietus, Stool Pigeon, scanning the Beatport, Juno, Boomkat, Rough Trade, Resident records new release scheds, a thousand different ways really – but it’s mostly done while other things are being done too.
I’ve been making mixtapes for friends since I was in short trousers, it’s just a good conversation piece and leveller to discover stuff not many people may know about really. We even do a ‘Recommends’ list of about 30 LPs per month on the band Facebook page which is quite unusual – we thought it might help people see where we’re coming from a little more. We never put our own LPs in these lists though, that might be just one step too far. (Laughs)
Similarly, can you see yourself doing another “Attention!”/”What Makes You Happy, Baby?”-type thing again, where you got people to send you recordings of them saying various lines which were then worked into the track? Seems like that must have required some hard work!
Probably, but with a heavy heart and definitely with a full drinks cabinet to hand. Enough time has probably passed for a full arsenal of dodgy subjects and Z-list wretches to have emerged as fair game for “Attention” – The Sequel! so watch out in 2013 maybe.
We thought it was a reasonably original idea and tried to get it to stick and elaborate on it by trying to encourage other bands to do something similar, but with little success, which is a shame because it’s a really good way for anyone to let off musical steam. (Laughs)
Looking back as well I think “Happy” is just basically a positive version of “Attention”‘s quite glib and cynical bashing and baiting, and because we genuinely thought we’d overstepped the mark karmawise we felt we needed to redress the balance sooner rather than later. That’s not to say that we don’t still stand by “Attention” 100% – we’ve never attempted to try and cover up the tracks of some astronomically libellous re-enactments of the song’s lines in the video version, which basically ‘outs’ the real villains of the piece if you’re quick enough to see them, and looking at it now it’s possibly more topical than it was when it was made, which is really damn scary.
There were 30 different people featured on “Attention” and we made it by getting spoken word files from associates all over the globe to integrate into the track – this made it quite exciting when it started to take shape. Differing quality and just sheer volume was an issue but we chipped away piece by piece until we were pleased with its flow.
It was quite a lot easier to make than “Happy” as well, which nearly sent us insane may I add, because the lines were shorter, but both were ball-busting editing tasks causing many sleepless nights, high-octane anxiety and a drift towards ‘over refreshment’ in the little downtime we allowed ourselves. (Laughs) We seem to work at an incredibly fast pace and often do all-night recording sessions, but both these tracks took this out to another level entirely.
Have you started thinking yet about your next project? If so, what can you tell us about it?
We’re working like the clappers actually and have three more releases before the end of 2012 ready to go or well in progress and all vastly different from each other.
We’ve actually promised to ourselves that we’re going to document a release every three months of some sort, especially as we have the freedom to do it. There’s nothing essentially wrong with bands releasing an LP every 4 years, but as we don’t play live, we wouldn’t really have anything to do when we’ve finished something in that case, and we are in this daft game to create after all.
The first is a brand new EP out in June called The Kessler Syndrome and our idea here was to try and create an atmosphere of claustrophobic deep space with quite harsh industrial and techno sounds and SFX. It’s completely instrumental, quite brutal compared to our LP stuff, but it nicely shows off not only that we get bored very quickly doing the same thing over and over (laughs), but that we can tackle different styles while keeping our core sound intact. There’s a very nice, very loud explosion at the end of the final track ‘Re-Entry’ as well which took us quite a while to get to sound believable, sounds mental on big speakers that one. (Laughs)
Next up will be another EP in September provisionally entitled 8.9 and it’s exclusively beatless and ambient. Fujie was in Japan when the quake hit in 2011 and she kept a diary while some pretty shocking things were happening and the three tracks on it are basically her reading the diary over some quite filmic mood pieces. We looked to Bowie’s Berlin ‘Side 2’ stuff and Sylvian & Czukay’s two superb LPs as sources of inspiration here, not particularly modern electronic ambient music. We wanted it to sound quite ‘unelectronic’ and natural and in turn maybe more emotional. It’s very warm and repetetive, and we’ve used lots of Japanese instrumentation too. We’re quite proud of how it’s turned out – from just a simple idea we talked about in a pub one night, we have a full-on addition to our canon less than three months later.
The last release of 2012 is a full album in December – we shouldn’t really be giving all this info out, should we? We’re a marketer’s nightmare, but what the hell – it’s called ‘Amyl Nights’ and is going to be a full-on high-energy disco LP. We’re going to keep it down to 7 or 8 tracks like the classic ’70s dance albums had, and we’ve got Craig from “Back To You” on Big Bang back for a couple of tunes because he really knows how to party disco style (laughs). They’re already in the can and Lorraine is working on a couple soon and we may have a brand new addition to the vocal army if all goes right too.
We’re just going to keep everything upbeat, starting at 125BPM and rising – the final track sounds like something off Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, a sprawling 15-minute-long jam at 140BPM. We’re hitting the ground running on this one, baby!
Have you ever thought about performing live?
We think about it all the time and then we go to some tumbleweed laden shed in London on a Wednesday night where six poor bands ship their friends in and out on a conveyor belt for their set only, all playing different styles because the ‘promoter’ booked them without listening to their demos…and we wonder why we didn’t just stay in.
The idea of partaking in this circus is frustrating and – in light of our massive enthusiasm for checking new music – sad, because the pure fact is there’s too many people making good records, but very few really cutting it live, at least at our level, and even if someone does blow you away, there’s very little chance they’ll join the ‘elite’. Things are too orderly now – the business side is king, the creative side almost secondary. Your songs can suck, but if you’ve got a machine working you, it’s hypnotic.
Blame the rise of off-the-peg technology, blame sheer volume, blame lowering of standards to what constitutes a great show, but we don’t really want to add to this melee, because apart from being logistically extremely difficult to recreate our sound onstage, we’d want to do it totally live or not at all and we just don’t have the permanent manpower for it despite many kind offers of help in this area.
How much of a threat do you think stuff like The X Factor and the culture surrounding it is to genuine creativity?
Mmm, not sure I’d offer anything particularly original to this long-rolling argument and I certainly don’t want to help the ‘usual suspects’ search engine results go higher (laughs). I guess the way the question is worded, technically and literally none.
The people that run these kind of things are not really any different to the Tin Pan Alley merchants from the 50’s and 60’s – all treat their ‘talent’ like cattle, all manipulate and manoeuvre to get the best success. The one thing that is a relatively new phenomenon is the amount of people who put themselves up for this type of treatment and it probably says more about us as a society than it does the attitudes of the entrepreneurs.
We could probably name a thousand artists we love who wouldn’t stand a chance of getting even an audition for these shows, and it’s a fact we’re glad about. People in the main want something easy to absorb, they don’t want to be picking up every rock hoping for the best like we do, and they will take it from whatever shouts loudest at them. This isn’t a new thing, it just seems like it is because it’s all now better organised, packaged and shot into your face.
When we think of these shows, we basically just imagine it’s something that runs in a parallel universe. We’re totally serious about music as an art form so it really doesn’t infringe as we see it just as ‘variety entertainment’ or ‘creative based commerce’. MTV is probably more of a big bad guilty party here, they seem to have tied modern music up in a very narrow bow and it has far more influence over the general running of things.
Where once you could have a weekly chart full of massively differing styles all living happily together, now, one diversion from the formula and you just can’t penetrate, it’s lazy on the parts of the bands and labels and producers and pluggers and DJ’s, and unfortunately hitting impressionable fans square in the eyes is collateral damage here, but then it is also sending people running to the hills to find new, more natural and non-formulaic sounding music we think, things they can relate to more. Witness the current rise of cassette releases, didn’t see that coming did we?
Whether you think this is a pose or not, there’s some great stuff being made and it’s deliberately super Lo-Fi which says to us that people are bored of the soulless ‘perfection’ of many of today’s chart icons, they actually want to hear the real sounds people are squeezing out, and people will never stop making these sounds irrespective of quality. It’s just part of our make-up as Humans to want to do this. Shall I get my coat? (Laughs)
Recommend some artists that Rocksucker would like and/or should feature!
Our mates Factory Floor look set to release one of the best debut albums in the history of recorded music very soon, so definitely them. We’re big fans of the 100% Silk record label too, so any of their acts are worth a check, especially Magic Touch and Octo Octa.
We’re also deriving massive pleasure from the acts Keep Shelly In Athens, Thundercat, Teebs and Ryat, some luscious sounds going on there, and there’s a superb new Bear In Heaven LP out right now. Hey, how about sorting a time machine out and interviewing Syd Barrett and Jim Morrison? We’ll be Dictaphone techs for you, and for free! (Laughs)
Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?
Off the top of my head? David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rufus Wainwright, Kraftwerk and Roy Ayers.
Tony SoapCo, thank you.