Interview: The Soap Company
Published on June 24th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
So taken were we by The Soap Company’s third album Amyl Nights that we lavished four and a half quails on the thing, describing it as ” euphoric, psychedelic all-nighter” of a record. We caught up with the project’s head honcho Tony SoapCo, also an unparalleled unearther of musical gems on his show on Croydon Radio, to find out more about it…
Congratulations on an excellent new album! Was it your intention from the outset to structure it like a night out, or was that an idea that revealed itself later?
Thank you very much, means a lot coming from your good selves at Rocksucker.
Hmmm, well, this genuinely has probably been the hardest thing we’ve ever attempted. From recording the first track right down to making cheesy video trailers and the subsequent promo work for it, which we ALL hate doing with a vengeance, it’s been a tough curve. The whole idea for the album seems to have sprung from the completion of just one track at the end of 2011, namely track five, “Your Love Surrounds My Heart With Sound”.
The very first thought was to do an album completely made from old style disco tracks, keep it to about 35 minutes, maybe six long tracks like the old Philly International albums; have a stab at more natural sounding instrumentation, maybe try less electronics, but then we basically mutated the idea into doing a loose concept thread, spreading our wings a bit out of our comfort zone and encompassing a bunch of different dance music styles under one roof. THEN, attempt to write and record the rest in exactly the order you hear on the record.
We always have some sort of standalone self brief for a new project but nothing as logistically dumb as this before. It took thirteen months in all and from about month three when the backing tracks were pretty much down, it was actually pretty much fully finished in my head, so the whole of the rest of the time was just chipping and shining away at getting it as close as I could to what was buzzing around in my noodle.
I had a job even going to the cinema without hearing the thing swirling round in some form or another, it was like having a huge pair of headphones welded onto my head for a year with the same record playing (laughs). The only thing which genuinely gave respite was listening to other people’s music, which is something I do a large amount of anyway, but it still meant I had 52 weeks of noise. Silence became a thing of the past, and if I’d not had the DJ’ing and radio stuff to source for, you’d pretty much be asking these questions now to someone with a small hole in his temple like the guy in that film Pi (laughs).
Once it was established this was a ‘night out’ album, the idea was to do it in kind of a ‘mix’ album format where each track ramped up the tempo, so we started quite fast – the first track is 124 BPM – and then we took it up incrementally to about a banging 144.
The inserts at the beginning, middle and end offer a little brief light relief, but it’s mostly full steam ahead from start to finish, so the writing became more and more manic as it went on.
There are common links between the songs, but it’s not a story as such like The Who’s Tommy or anything, we’re not nearly clever enough for that, although we do love the idea of ‘albums’ hanging on in there, so that factor loomed large in our minds over the project even though we also knew it’s a bit of an ask on the listener these days.
We wanted it to be quite random and episodic, kind of like you were going from room to room in a large club, hearing a new DJ, slight change of environment, seeing new people and what they were doing…mostly in this case implied mountains of drugs (laughs), it’s unfortunately Gran (laughs), apart from the music, the only real common thread. The album title was decided very early on and we never budged.
We do maintain, however unfashionable, that it should still remain a pleasure that you can spend a chunk of time with a band hearing something unfold over time, something which may take you to unexpected places, not just hopping the first ten seconds of the first three tracks and then try and be first to write a 140 character, real time ‘definitive review’ to your 36 followers on Twitter which seems to be a bit of a ‘thing’ now, especially I’ve got to say, in the negative.
If you remember, the reaction to the – really rather good, we thought – Bowie single was so petulant, even going as far as writing off the album without even hearing a single note extra apart from the one cut. Hysterical, and quite dangerous to our business, really. It simply means now that if you haven’t grabbed someone by the lapels in the first thirty seconds of a 45-minute album, you run the risk of being dead in the water and that SUCKS.
It’s letting things like radio formats and new listening platforms like Spotify dominate and run rampant, overriding what used to be quite an integral, fun and, okay, indulgent part of the creative process. All this filing and boxing away stuff is horrifically limiting and it’s turning our brains to blipvert mush.
What is just SO important that you can’t just log off uploading Chillwaved pics of your half-eaten dinner on Facebook for an hour and connect with something someone’s put their time, love, sweat and quite possibly the last few pence that were actually saved for a couple of cans of lager into. Nobody’s really gonna miss your wit and wisdom for 3600 seconds are they? (Laughs) Well, unless you’re Ricky f**king Gervais or something!
To be brutally honest and quite militant here, we not only didn’t flinch from starting the album with a comedic skit, but also gave less than a f**k following it with what we thought was actually the most unrepresentative and, well, maybe even weakest track we’d recorded overall just to keep the ‘concept’ intact for any kind trooper who stuck with us from start to finish. Screw everything else basically, ‘concept’ LP’s rule OK! (Laughs)
All of these parameters now for commercial records which have to be adhered to, unless of course you DON’T want the fat breakfast radio guy reading headlines from The Sun in a zany voice out over a ninety-second edit of a track that ten of you spent a month having a nervous breakdown over in a 10X10 basement studio with no air conditioning (laughs)…Hell…Your choice buddy, plenty more in line queuing for the privilege!
You’re meant to start with the ‘hit’, then the second single that’s going to be pulled off, then ‘the ballad’ which is going to be the third single (laughs) THEN five tracks of contractual filler before the long epic one at the end (laughs)…Blimey, how did we get here?
How much of the album’s content is based on personal experience? Are there any particular memories of clubbing that leap to mind as summing up what it’s all about for you?
Well, I’ve always LOVED er… ‘cutting a rug’ (laughs) and for me, there’s a direct and necessary link between hedonism and music, at least certain types, people letting go and stuff; quite primal, but instinctive and honest and again. To try and bring that to the bubble with Amyl Nights was quite fun and very key. It’s not a very subtle attempt, but it IS from the heart.
Different collaborators on the record have different outlooks on this, but it basically ranges from as far as total abstinence, to having certain paraphernalia actually delivered by courier to the studio during the sessions (laughs). Personally, I’ve always liked to let loose here and there and have lived through definite periods you could say I directly tapped into and influenced the attitude and sound of this record from.
I’ve always been a fan of dance music since I was a kid and subsequent club culture. I’m in total awe of the Studio 54 scene for example, but also I do think it’s peaked as a full-on lifestyle choice now. I see more of a solitary clubbing experience going on round me now, small pockets of people all wary of each other rather than the community one of old, and it’s lost the creative spark and underground feel a little…I may of course just be going to the wrong places (laughs).
We have a DJ residency at a club and generally there people seem to want to hear stuff they know already rather than being carried away on the general wave of what we’d like to lay on them. It’s become a little self-conscious and that was never really the deal…for this, I singularly blame the iPod and the hermetically sealed soundtrack it affords people (laughs).
In fact, the weirdest phenomenon to spring from this is that people actually want to plug their own pods into our desk when we play out; being a little facetious here, but it’s essentially so as they’re able to have a good time, soundtracked by their ‘theme’ music as it were, so they can feel cool enough to let their hair down and whack off a bunch of pouty ‘selfies’ for immediate upload and approval. It certainly brings the cynic out in us and I DO think we’re on the right track saying stuff like this.
I remember seeing Happy Mondays, when they turned huge, at Wembley with 808 State opening. There were about ten of us, all in sunglasses, shaking maracas, dunking cigarettes into bottles of Liquid Gold, smashed to high heaven on Brian Harvey approved doses of Doves, laughing like maniacs, acting like complete knobs; but everyone was hugging onto each other, picking each other up. It kind of summed up what I liked most about clubbing.
Now it seems way too spiky, there’s too much cheap booze and especially cranky coke on the scene and people getting REALLY blotto on stuff they’ve bought online and have no idea how to control when they’re mashed. You can’t even get a decent pill anymore really, you’re as likely to simply soil your kegs as you are to see the space time continuum folding in on itself (Laughs) sound like my dad. don’t I? (Laughs) Whoever he is (more laughs).
Is there a process of deciding which collaborators would best suit which tracks, or is it more a series of happy accidents?
Regarding the vocalists, this is pretty straightforward. Tracks are never generally written from the base with anyone in mind, but once the music is down and the lyrics start spewing, it’s pretty obvious who out of our wonderful pool of uber-talented sexy helpers will be approached.
We’ve only had one real ‘fatality’ in this area and this was only because someone we asked to help insist their perfectly fine contribution warrant another few hundred quid’s worth of time spent on it which we simply didn’t have. They then demanded we pull the track, so we had to replace the work, but generally, because the sessions are brief and pretty well organised, things run fairly smoothly 99.999% of the time.
They’re generally down and dusted before you even know it. There’s always a good idea in my head of how stuff needs to sound, even down to inflections and phrasing, and a spontaneous approach helps here. There’s always drink on hand (laughs) and I liken myself to a doctor who is trying to put the patient at ease when I send the guys into the booth.
I’ve got into a really bad habit of standing next to them when they’re recording now though; half of the recording is of me going “now try it in a Devonshire accent and imagine you’re on the top of a mountain made of chocolate”, which must piss them off and is admittedly an absolute f**ker to edit after (laughs).
Things aren’t ever really even rehearsed; most people come in and have only heard the backing, not any melodies they have to work on. It’s probably quite unconventional but it seems to work, mainly because the people who sing on our tracks are such damn professionals!
With other instruments, it’s generally felt that if a track begs for something, we’ll start asking. We’re relatively self-sufficient, but sometimes that sprinkling of fairy dust is needed to cover our severe limitations. All in all, though, there’s little in the way of ‘accidents’ in this area. At the speed we have to work, there can’t be any in an experimental sense at least really, a slight shame maybe.
What can you tell us about your next album at this early stage?
Well, the last thing I wanted to do was to get stuck carrying around a 45-minute baby in my head for another year. In fact, Amyl Nights was such a pain in the arse that knocking it all completely on the head was a very tempting option. It’s always the way in this camp: we very rarely take our own advice, so as a kind of symbolic gesture, during the studio session where Amyl Nights was mastered and completed, we actually started laying down a brand new track which will be part of the next record.
The next couple of sessions were spent trying to establish a ‘sound kit’ rather than any kind of concept, something completely different from anything on Amyl Nights that could carry over an album, so next time round it’ll sound more like a band record than a compilation album. There’s roughly the same instrumentation on every track; it;s kind of a buzzy post-punk, big POP synthy sound, and we’re running with that.
A few of ‘rules’ have been established: the first is to try and keep every track around three minutes flat; secondly, no avalanches of percussion as we had in the last one; thirdly, strictly NO Jazzy chords; lastly, more ‘verse chorus verse’, although I’m really keen to have some fleeting instrumentals on there as well.
I’ve been listening to loads of Bowie’s Low and Lodger and I’m fascinated by the almost throwaway attitude to the tracks. It’s very documentary and immediate; you can imagine that if the tracks had been made even one day earlier or later then they’d sound completely different, so there’s also a rule in place with us to blast through stuff at a breakneck pace, not taking too long pondering over detail and getting tied in knots like on Amyl Nights.
We’re also perennially broke also, so the possibility of not being able to record is constantly swinging over our heads. There’s only so much we can do with a home set up the way we work, unfortunately. So progress has been good, we’ve about eight tracks in different stages of development, maybe another four to compose and we’re there.
Mr Craig Yamey who worked on some of the big tracks on Amyl Nights has nailed a couple of Soap-style attempts at power ballads, which are making our hair stand on end. Nikki Van DeVenter, who sang on the last couple of records, is back on a fantastically fun track we recorded about buying fast food in West Croydon at 3am. It’s like Gothic Horror or something, and called “Bad Times”.
Our good buddies The Casual Sexists AKA Ed & Varrick Zed just sent over some great work from New York fronting one track; it sounds a bit like Phil Spector meets Gary Numan (laughs).
Our other good buddies from Surrey Quays, Autorotation, and Soap No.2 General Fujie are both earmarked to work on some bits soon; not sure if Soap stalwart Lorraine is going to work on this record though, we’re trying to coax her down for at least one track. Ah, and someone quite close to Rocksucker HQ will hopefully be making an appearance when the backing is nailed too. It’s going to be called “I Keep Dreaming About You”, and no, I’m not going to tell you why it’s called that! (Laughs)
Track titles this far include “Bad Times”, “Are You Actually Alive”, “American Glow”, “Otaku Baby”, “B.L.E.A.K.”, “Mercedes Benzedrine” and “International Decadence Day”.
We’ve got an amazing picture of Battersea Power Station for the cover photographed by my long standing friend Mr Casartelli and the whole shebang will hopefully be ready for January 2014.
Tell us about your radio show and DJing exploits…
Well, considering we make our own stuff, I also listen to easily as much of other people’s too.
Rather counter maybe to what I was saying about ‘albums’ earlier, I personally think there are way too many DJs, musicians, writers, bloggers and what have you out there to be able to keep really close ties and proper attention on, and I’ve resisted requests to write and blog on the stuff I unearth mainly because of adding to the volume and time; but where I live in Croydon, there is a small but growing internet radio set up nearby and I thought I’d chance my arm in trying to take our live DJ sets and pods we’ve done into a live studio situation at least.
I initially imagined helping there in a technical basis would be better as I hate hearing my own voice on air, it’s chock-full of panic (laughs), but I did somehow end up with a show every Thursday afternoon. It’s just called The Soap Company and the brief is to try and bring as much new music to the table, specifically brand new releases.
No playlists, no pluggers, all my own sourcing, basically trying to get some brilliant new names out there and if they’re more well known, then at least they have to be great tracks.
Nothing is repeated, I don’t even think I’ve played the same track twice in 42 hours on air. Trying to make the quality of the song itself as high as humanly possible is key; I like to think the sounds I play are quite colourful and exotic, not sure what listeners would say about that, but in my head, most people should dig the sounds even if they may not know them. It’s not willingly left-field or anything, just quite distinctive, pretty, sweet and all other ‘nice’ things!
Once a month also, I do a four-hour ‘special’ on one type of music. So far I’ve done twelve hours of post-punk and eight hours of synth band music, trying to get right under the bonnet of the subject so to speak. Both of these I’m sure have been a massive influence on what the band are doing, so it’s nicely cyclical, although the next show is going to be prog rock so not sure how that will filter in (laughs).
Which have been your favourite albums from 2013 so far? Is there anything yet to be released that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I think last time I spoke to you I said I was looking forward to the debut Factory Floor album, and I still am (laughs), but brilliantly it’s just been given a release date, September 9th, so that for definite is something I can’t wait to hear. I think the band are pretty chuffed with it too so that’s good enough for me.
Also, the second album by the Eccentronic Research Council is apparently well under way with Maxine Peake having done her parts already so can’t wait for that, hopefully that’ll see the light of day by the end of the year. They’re absolutely brilliant and one of the most arch and interesting tweeters going.
We also do a monthly ‘best of’ albums list on our website from the stuff we’ve heard, recommending an average of thirty albums a month. I simply don’t have time to write about them, plus what’s the point? You’ve got it covered like a fox (laughs)… We put just the covers and label info up for people to gawp at.
The new Thundercat’s great, as is the latest Gold Panda, oh…and The Stepkids have just released what I think is the single of the year so far, so the forthcoming LP is sure to be amazing. I love them to bits so that’s something I’m already queued up for too.
Tony SoapCo, thank you.
Amyl Nights is out now on Space Station Disco.
You can hear Tony SoapCo spinning tunes on Croydon Radio on a regular basis. For more information, please click here to visit The Soap Company’s official website.