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 films, 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-20-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 like-minded 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?”
Image 02. The Black Soft, 2012.
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 eighties 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!”
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.
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 eighties synth-duos who took their cues from the world of visual art. In some ways, in spirit and temperament, they are the eighties 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 eighties, 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?”
Image Credits: Image 01. The Black Soft. Styling: Alexander Paul. Photo by Evaan Kheraj. Image 02. The Black Soft, 2012. Ball pen, grease pencil, marker, gloss paint, glitter on paper. 210 x 200 cm. Photo by Roland Schmidt.
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