The electronic duo The Black Soft, made up of Chase Coughlin and Joseph Topmiller, delicately balances almost every aspect of their creative pro- cess. The sound of their music, the various artistic projects they pursue in tandem, and their social lives are all connected and weighed together, threatening to topple them. But it has resulted in a rigorous yet stable work ethic, a dizzying amount of projects and collaborations, and a dynamic, cinematic sound.
New York-based The Black Soft sound like the future – except when they sound like the past, which somehow makes them sound even more like the future. Songs such as “Eating Kandinsky’s” off their most recent album, Dynasty, con- tain all the hallmarks of good electronic music: the pounding metronomic drum machine, the droning synthetic bass lines, the impassioned yelps and croons. It’s all there. But then, two minutes in, the beats drop out, and in come horns and strings that sound as if they would fit better in an old film noir thriller than in a Depeche Mode concert. It’s a surprising departure, which doesn’t prevent it from working perfectly with what it precedes.
The tension-wrought strings segue into the next track, “Glass Hole,” only to fade away as another pounding beat with a crooning vocal both come in. Soon, though, the tension returns, and at the 1:45 mark another noirish string melody enters, taking the song from interesting to gripping. It’s startling just how well the disparate elements fit together and balance each other out, the sound of ’80s synth-pop, and ’40s crime drama some- how sounding like tomorrow’s best club (or film) soundtrack.
Talking with the group, it’s no surprise that Hitchcock and his longtime musical collabora- tor Bernard Herrmann are strong influences on the group. “We love Hitchcock!” Chase enthuses. “Bernard Hermann is a huge influence,” Joey explains. “We listen to him a lot.” It explains why so much of the group’s music has those strange, gripping orchestral cues. In their music, the sound of the past bubbles up into the future.
The past seems to exert a strong pull on The Black Soft, tempering the futurist sound in- nate in all electronic music. The group recently signed to EMI and released a futuristic cover of the ’30s jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” for the label. It would seem like an odd choice if it didn’t fit perfectly with the band’s listening habits.
“We listen to classical music,” Joey says. “We listen to opera. We pull inspiration from things that probably most people wouldn’t if they’re do- ing electro-pop, but we figure that that’s where everything kind of came from. We listen to a lot of Negro spiritual, voodoo, really old, old stuff. I love old recordings in barns, really basic, people who have extreme limitations.”
Adds Chase: “We really like giving ourselves strict limitations to see what it produces.” The word “limitations” comes up often when the bandmates speak. It appears to originate both from a strong desire to avoid clichés in their work, as well as the influence felt by the group coming from its many connections in the fash- ion world. The Black Soft got an early break when New York-based PR group Omen asked them to score a fashion film for knitwear de- signer Lars Andersson in 2010. The initial collaboration led to The Black Soft becoming the first music act represented by them. Working with Omen also led to the group’s first live per- formance for women’s wear brand Nomia. “It was our first performance,” Chase says. “We released our album that night.”
According to Joey, the event was the real beginning for the group. And in fact, both members have tattoos to commemorate the date. “From that, there were some important people there because it was a fashion event. We were just very lucky; it was a packed house, journalists and all this stuff. So our very first show, we got asked by East Village Boys to do a feature.”
“With the East Village Boys show,” Chase adds, “we really targeted a big gay market, which was great.” Interestingly, when Chase mentions this, Joey is quick to add a correction: “We didn’t target it, it’s just that because they are a gay publication.”
It’s a revealing moment. The support of the gay interest blog East Village Boys, along with Joey’s correction demonstrates another aspect of the band that they are attempting to balance: their homosexuality’s impact on audience perception of the group. While both members are gay, they’re keen to avoid being categorized as a “Gay Band.” “Basically,” Chase says, “what we found with talking with people in the music industry, they would always ask us, ‘Do you want to go the Gay Life- style route?’ And we were like, ‘Well, no, because we’re making music and art, and that isn’t distinguished by the fact that we’re gay,’ so we didn’t want to be pigeonholed that way.”
At the same time, the band didn’t want to hide their identities in any way, inside or out of the music. “They were saying, ‘Well, if you want to cater to a larger audience you need to change the he’s to they or she’s,’” says Joey. “I guess I listened to so many gay artists that were about he’s and stuff, I never knew it was gay music! I never knew! I just knew it was songs about love, and I knew it was good beats.” It’s an unfair dilemma unique to gay artists. “We’re gay men making mu- sic about men. You know what, if the gay market omes, that’s what it is, we can’t change that, we can’t change our sexuality. We’re very proud, but it’s just a part of who we are. I think the artwork and the music are universal,” Joey says.
The feature with East Village Boys led to their second show and another significant connection: meeting fashion editor and director (and frequent Lady Gaga collaborator) Nicola Formichetti. “We did a concert with East Village Boys at the Pyramid Club to promote the article,” Joey explains, “and that’s when Nicola came. That was our sec- ond concert and Nicola was in the audience. He was really into what we were doing, and it was at that first meeting that he was like, ‘I would love to do a music video with you guys.’”
At the time, they didn’t realize he was serious. In a year, though, they would be collaborating with him and others on a video trilogy titled “Totu Popep,” which explored sadomasochism, New York’s stark landscapes, and occult ritual, all scored to The Black Soft’s music. Of the three shorts, most viewers agree that the most memorable is the first. It shows Joey kissing and licking an electric tape-wrapped Chase, methodically ripping the tape off him. “I know people say this all the time,” Joey explains, “but it hurt me just as much to pull it off as it hurt him.”
Chase also had a lot to say about the logic for creating the film. “That video was about the psy- chology of power, control, and surrender. It was an intense video, but it’s about things that people really do, maybe things that people don’t want to think about. But that is a reality for some people.”
Joey connects the film’s intensity to childhood influences: “We weren’t trying to be scary, but the things we’re attracted to – Tim Burton, Bea- vis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy – they didn’t pull punches. When we were young, everything was kind of harsh. The pop stars we grew up with were fucking cool. We want to hold on to that fine line between what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s taboo, what’s straight and what’s gay.”
Despite this desired ambiguity – or perhaps be- cause of it – Joey quickly downplays the homosexual element: “You don’t see a lot of stuff. Yes, I cut Chase out, but there is no skin on skin, there’s no contact. Even when I kiss him, there’s tape on his mouth. You’re not seeing anything raunchy! I’ve seen worse stuff on TV!” While logic certain- ly underpins his argument, it’s nevertheless hard to imagine that everyone would find the film as innocent as Joey does. Still, like all three shorts, it has an undeniable atmospheric majesty.
The trilogy is in many ways emblematic of The Black Soft overall. Each video was directed by friends from the fashion world, including Nicola Formichetti, Francisco Garcia, Tim Richardson, and Evaan Kheraj. The opening credits were created by the group on Photoshop (the program was used in lieu of newer technology as another creative limitation), utilizing fonts that imitate those found on Hitchcock movie posters. The group listed German Expressionism (itself a great influence on Hitchcock) as the lens all directors were instructed to work through. “We wanted to have this timeless ‘it could have been done in the ’80s, it could have been done in the ’20s look,” Chase says. It is telling that his ideal for the films could just as easily be applied to the disparate ele- ments of their music. Equally telling is that everyone involved, from directors to stylists, is friends with the group.
For The Black Soft, “friendship” is the only word that comes up more than “limitations.” Joey notes that “everything has been kind of symbiotic; it’s just kind of happened, and it’s been all friend- ships. At the night of our event [premiering “Totu Popep”] there weren’t any lawyers, there weren’t any contracts… everyone did this at their own time and education. There was no budget for this, and everyone did it out of love.”
Aside from dedication, working with friends also has the benefit of allowing something approach- ing a social life for a group that is constantly en- gaged in creating. “We have spent like, 99.9 percent of the past years working,” Chase says, “even on our days off.”
How are they able to balance the workload? “We work on a lot of things simultaneously, so that helps,” Joey says. “We’ve been working with the same people throughout everything. We really love doing it with the people close to us that knew us. It doesn’t seem like a bal- ancing act because when you love someone, it’s all about not letting them down. You want to impress them. We work with such high-caliber people who are really talented and have high expectations, and they set the bar really high because of their skill level. You are as good as the people you surround yourself with. That’s why we’re able to finish a whole album in a week, because there’s someone that we really believe in, they gave us a fire, and we want to be up to their level and it really pushes us to make us do things that we didn’t think were able to do, and that helps us balance.”
The group shows no signs of slowing down their output, and it becomes a challenge to keep up with all of their upcoming work. They’re developing acts for their own label, Terror of the Understood Records. They’re also planning a jewelry collaboration with Chris Habana. Chase has an upcoming four-day residency in October for New York’s “Sleep No More” exhibit, for which he plans to have between 30 and 40 large scale paintings and sculptures.
“We’re doing an art installation in the space,” he explains. “We’re going to make music in the space and perform a new song we’ve been creating for the week. Each night is going to have a different kind of thing. We’re scouting locations. We’re looking at really awesome old, dilapidated spaces like the attic of Studio 54, old banks, or churches.” When they sleep is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the one element they have yet to find room for. Or maybe it’s the passion of creation that fuels The Black Soft, the desire for something new in art and music.
“I truly believe that the creative world has hit the ceiling, and is kind of full of shit,” Chase says. “A Renaissance needs to happen, even though that’s a cheesy word.”
“Nothing new has come around since fucking Grunge music!” Joey adds. “What’s wrong? And I’m sorry, but Dubstep is not the new music movement!”
The GROUND Issue #03