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?”
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.”