Words by Tim Anderl
Soft Kill’s Dead Kids, R.I.P. City is already an absolute triumph and it hasn’t even officially hit the streets yet. The band has already sold out of multiple variants of the LP, the brilliant accompanying R.I.P. City board game set, and mountains of merch (including custom sneakers). Most importantly though, it marks the first album the band has created while lead singer Tobias Grave was completely sober (he recently celebrated two years clean).
While Soft Kill has been growing in sound and depth with pretty much every record, a deep level of emotional intensity, even for a band known for setting a high bar for feels, is present here. Grave, Conrad Vollmer, Owen Glendower, Daniel Valadez and Nicole Colbath present an odyssey told in ten parts and largely culled from Grave’s past. Each track essentially a character – Dead Kids — conjured from a beguiling mix of personal memory, allegory, and narrative structures that turns both poetic and stinging.
This fever dream memoriam burns with immediacy from beginning to end. It tells of a long and complicated relationship with a seedy and desperate version of Portland. Whether it’s Hooper Detox choked with cigarette smoke, the grim and grimy downtown doorways, abandoned industrial buildings on N.Interstate, the confinement cells at Inverness Jail or a midnight apartment building rooftop in Northwest, the scenes that backdrop these characters’ stories offer a scuffed fever dream tour of addiction, death and, ultimately, redemptive and reverent reflection.
Produced by David Trumfio (Built To Spill, Wilco) and mastered by the legendary Howie Weinberg (The Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana) the record also features guest vocals by Choir Boy’s Adam Klopp on “Matty Rue” and Tamaryn on “Floodgate.”
Offshelf recently caught up with Grave to discuss the work, which sees release via Cercle Social Records on November 20.
Off Shelf: How much of the narrative here is first person or third person based on people you’ve known?
Tobias Grave: It is 100 percent based on our own experiences; telling the stories of people we lost. It is a record about Portland, about drug addiction, about people who didn’t make it. There are moments of self-reflection lyrically spread through-out.
OS: Is there a general outlook of hope despite the hard subject matter?
TG: The record is ultimately about navigating survivors guilt… continuing on through life without those you love and wondering why you were spared, or in a sense doomed to continue.
OS: I’ve seen the band mention John Hughes movies as an inspiration or at least a catalyst for the record.
TG: What I meant by that was that Dead Kids was designed to be a soundtrack to a movie we lived. The inspiration came from the actual era of that film and soundtrack, the songs are triumphant and cinematic. Psychedelic Furs were a big influence on this one even if it doesn’t blatantly show.
OS: Your vocals seem way less “obscured” by production than they’ve ever been.
TG: It is just what the record required. The vocals weren’t buried on An Open Door. They were their most naked and up front in my opinion. Some of the material that came after I wanted the voice to be more of an instrument. I didn’t necessary want to share with the world what I was talking about because I was buried in it.
OS: What are your favorite moments on the record?
TG: Every song feels special and perfect to me but my favorite songs lately are “Roses…,” “Matty Rue,” “Ducky,” and “Oil Burner.”
OS: “I Needed The Pain” is different from anything I’ve heard from Soft Kill. It has an almost Bon Iver vibe.
TG: That song was written in a very upbeat, full band fashion. I sat on the demo for a while before trying it on a baritone acoustic and it immediately became something we thought should close the record. That’s the most honest song on the record, the one about how it feels to survive alone. At this point we just want to do what feels right for an album, not what people think fits in the box.
OS: Is Nicole new to the band? What role has she played in the evolution of Soft Kill’s sound?
TG: Nicole has essentially been in the band for years, acting as impromptu management, mailorder guru, anti-spiritual guidance, etc. She collaborated on the lyrics for about half of the album and was a big part of assembling this project, choosing the cover image amongst other things. We’ve been in our studio space writing again and she’s been doing most of the synth parts from a totally different outlook than how we’d normally write them. We’re happy with the results so far.
OS: Art, merchandising and music are entwined in the Soft Kill presentation. How do those things associate with each other for this band?
TG: Aesthetic is definitely important. I don’t think we’ve been incredibly happy with some of the covers and layouts of past records. I always wanted things to be a little more contrasting, which I feel we accomplished through merch designs. Ultimately they’re all intertwined because we’re trying to take as much ownership as possible for this project, keeping money coming in so we don’t have to compromise the vision by collaborating with the wrong entities. That’s a vague way to put it.
OS: Cercle Social is releasing the record, which means you are largely taking the endeavor into your own hands, right? How daunting is this?
TG: It’s beyond overwhelming. We’re up over our heads in work. But I think I rejected the idea that being in a band and making a living results in doing next to nothing and getting paid. That’s not realistic. I feel like we’re just busting our asses for the payoff.
OS: I heard a rumor that you had to invest 5-figures to make the release and the recent merch drops? Did you expect that you’d see a return that matched or exceeded that?
TG: We spent a lot to record this album and to curate the drop that went along with it. This is the first studio album we’ve self released and while I don’t think we underestimated the financial investment required it definitely was hard to watch so much money get poured into something that inherently feels like a gamble. This is a really difficult industry to navigate and some of these decisions just feel really foreign to a group of people that just want to write songs and tour the world. We didn’t know what to expect. We’ve been really happy with the response so far if that hints at anything.
OS: The first vinyl variants sold out in less than two days. How challenging is it as an independent band to keep up with demand when the front end largely comes out of pocket?
TG: That was pretty remarkable. Definitely some tears of joy throughout the day from everyone involved.
OS: What are some of the predominant challenges with being in a band in the current musical business ecosystem. How does Soft Kill hurdle or eschew those challenges?
TG: We just own everything we can, run our own store and try to keep it interesting for our fanbase. Fuck the norms of the music industry and what’s expected. We stay afloat by being ourselves and working via our own schedule.
OS: What are the other predominant ways you interact with your fanbase?
TG: The main way is through touring and giving people the time of day face to face. I don’t wanna share anything people have shared with us, but it’s been huge to hear people talk about their ups and downs and struggles and give some of my own experience and perspective. People doing the same for me saved my life.
OS: I have to know…has the band played the board game as a unit? If so, who generally wins?
TG: Not yet but maybe soon. I played it with Nicole’s dad and he won.