Soft Science

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Soft Science

For better or worse, Soft Science has never lost touch with their limitations. Life has its demands, after all, and the indie pop band has learned to work within them — content to make what music they can in the midst of family and work demands. Despite the slower pace, their dedication to making music and expanding their palette is what keeps them (and us) interested.

Detour is the band’s latest and perhaps heaviest album, with more guests than ever before, and Ross Levine said it was hard to “fight off the pop”. That tension helps create memorable tracks like “Gone” and “Blue” and should speak to the thoughtful nature of the band’s creative process while remaining true to their core sound. We’ll linger as long as we need to for another Soft Science release as long as they stay this course. It’s always a worthy wait.

Stereo Subversion: The band works around each other’s schedules and other life demands and it’s kept at that level. What’s the tension there between that being a source of joy—being able to indulge at levels that allow you to maintain it—and a source of frustration?

Ross Levine: My brother and Katie, we feel a compulsion to create, so we know we need to keep making music for as long as possible. We can’t really imagine not doing it, but we know that life, the real world, is out there, so you have to do your day job and pay the bills and all that. We all have families and children, so the more complicated life gets, the more we appreciate having an outlet. Some people don’t have that. We obviously can’t do that as much as we would like—we can’t just drop everything and tour the world—but we still get to create music we feel really good about and put it out into the world and get some kind of response. We know we’ll never be rock stars though, but we do it for ourselves. [Laughs]

SSv: Was that always true, even in the very beginning?

Ross: Well, we’ve been playing in different incarnations for a long time, and one of the things is that we never really thought of a living in music as a possibility; maybe we should have dropped everything when we were 22, toured non-stop and just seen what happened, but we went to college and got jobs. But we always kept a place for music and pursued it enthusiastically. [Laughs] Part of me wishes I had maybe tried a little harder when I was younger. I think we never really thought of it as an option.

SSv: So really, your answer for the reason for making music now would be largely the same as it would have been a decade ago?

Ross: Yeah, pretty much. We just love to make music. We love the creation process. We love to write and record. And also, it’s a little bit of chasing the dragon. This is Soft Science’s second record, but my brother Matt and I have played in many incarnations and made a ton of different records. Katie, Matt and I were in California Oranges, a pop band that put out four records. They had some lineup changes and weren’t on every record.

Katie, Matt and I also had an indie rock band called Sinking Ships that we put out a record back in the early 2000’s, which, after California Oranges broke up and we wanted to start playing again, we almost started back up as Sinking Ships. But since we put out our record, a hardcore band called Sinking Ships has come out. More power to ‘em. We played one show as Sinking Ships and we already got confused on Facebook. “Sinking Ships are playing Sacramento!” thinking it’s the hardcore band. [Laughs] So we decided to name ourselves Soft Science. It’s a really hard to think of a name that hasn’t been thought of. It takes a lot of Googling.

SSv: Oh man, at this point it seems like every name or derivative of that name has been taken. It’s like trying to register a domain name.

Ross: Yeah! [Laughs] Going back to music, I’m sort of a compulsive songwriter. I’m not saying I’m a genius or anything but I just have such a desire to be as good as possible, or to want to get better all the time, that I always feel like I’m falling short, but when you hear a great record or new band and you think “Wow, that’s awesome! I want to be that good.” With every record, we always think it’s going to be the best record ever, and then when you finish it you realize it’s good in spots and maybe you’ll get ‘em next time. Certain songs end up better than you thought and some don’t come out as well as you thought they would.

We feel really good about this record. We spent a long time, stealing hours here and there from our lives to write and record it, and we feel it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done out of our various projects, so we’re hoping to have as many people hear it as possible, and we’re really proud of it.

SSv: You mentioned the ongoing desire and commitment to be the best songwriter you can be, and chasing that. For some people it’s hard to talk about the process because all they can say is, “I don’t know, it just happens,” but I would think, as someone who’s been chasing that for a while, that perhaps you’ve learned some things about the craft. Can you look back and see some specific things about what it means to be a better songwriter now than you were in the past?

Ross: I think one of the main things is you can’t force it. As hard as some people try, inspiration comes in flashes, and the best songs are often songs that come very quickly and then people are like, “Aw, that’s just what I needed,” and everything falls together. Then they say, “That was easy. Let’s do it again,” and then you realize the well’s dried up and you have a bunch of false starts; you’ll have a good start to a song but you can’t figure out where it’s supposed to go and that song can linger forever [Laughs] and sometimes it just goes away because you just can’t figure out where it goes. You just hope for inspiration to come through.

Listening to music is a great way to get the juices flowing. Artists you respect and all that. But nothing’s guaranteed. But if you write a song and think it’s a great and think, “Wow, this is totally coming together!” then you realize you’re writing a song you just listened to on Spotify or something and you’re like, “Doggone it! Back to the drawing board!”

But writing lyrics is incredibly hard. It’s probably the hardest thing. Our songwriting process is generally I’ll write a chord progression and a melody, and a verse/chorus. Sometimes I’ll bring some lyrics into it. And then Katie and I will collaborate to finish out the lyrics. One of the best songs is one that I hummed the melody to and Katie wrote the lyrics to. Then we bring it to the band and put it together. My brother builds from there.

One of the things about this project that was different from any of the other ones we’ve done was, historically, our projects have been pop-oriented: indie pop, pop punk, pop. I have this theory that good songs can go through this filter of any type of genre and still be good. But this record, we wanted to do something a little darker, and it’s hard to fight off the pop. We tried to be a little moody, bring in some elements we haven’t used before, so there’s more keyboard on this record. And the other thing is we have our friend Hans who we brought in, who did some overdubs and a bunch of analog stuff and just makes weird noises. He took those snippets and weird stuff out and the songs where he did add some of those elements in are certainly the standout tracks. We hope to do more of that in the future.

It was fun to experiment and that’s what stretched out making the record because there’s a lot of experimentation and trying things that didn’t work. “How about this? How about that?” And put that into our little world, having so little time, and the months really slip away, because really, we practice at 9:00 on Wednesday nights and not much can happen outside of that because of our schedules. We self-recorded the record which is another big thing. We did a lot of the recording in my brother’s basement.

SSv: So is that what the name Detour is indicative of? Sort of that shift and the experimentation?

Ross: Yeah, and the record took a long time. For only being 10 tracks and nine true songs—the 10th track is a reprise—it took a long time and we had a lot of half-starts, because we were initially going to record with someone and decided no, let’s just do it ourselves. When you do things yourselves, time slips away. And during the process, I had a son and got sidetracked with that. Katie has young twins, so she’s very busy and we basically had to say, “Practice once a week at 9pm after our kids our asleep!” And then kids are always sick, so someone couldn’t make it because the kids were sick. We never had any doubt that we would finish the record, but you just have to keep pushing the ball forward. We thought it would be done about a year before it actually was.

It’s weird, when life is less complicated, you can crank stuff out because you have free time, you don’t have bills, you don’t have mortgages. But once life gets more involved, it’s hard to make it happen.

SSv: Early though, you mentioned being proud of the work you’ve done and you want as many people to hear it as possible, and certainly that’s proportional to the amount of time you can put into putting it out there and promoting it. Where are you with that right now? Are you sort of over that now because you have other priorities?

Ross: Well, I think all of our individual dreams were to be rock stars when we grew up, or maybe not rock stars, but to be able to play music as a career and just live in the creative world of creating music and playing out. We try to be realistic, maybe pessimistic, because so many bands that we respect, you find out when you meet them the struggles they’ve had. Everyone has that friend who has a band that’s incredible and you say, “If the world was just they’d be able to make a living from their music and be lauded from the hilltops,” but nothing ever happens. It seems often there’s no rhyme or reason to what happens. So much is out of our control that we try not to count on anything and be grateful for what does come our way.

We have a saying that I heard on a TV show a long time ago: “Don’t believe your friends and family when they say you’re wonderful, because they’re lying.” So many bands, especially in local scenes, they get caught up in their friends telling them they’re great, and maybe they get a distorted view of how good they are. One thing we’ve always tried to do is make sure the bands we respect aren’t from a local scene, but a national one, and from that perspective, there’s a lot of good music. So we try to be humble and do the best we can, understanding that there are a lot of good bands in the world, there’s a lot of good music.

We love to play music as a career, but we have too many bills to let ourselves dream about that anymore…unless someone wants to give us a ton of money! [Laughs] But the chances of that are low.

SSv: How much support are you giving this? You’re releasing it and then what?

Ross: Unfortunately we can’t play that often because of our situations. We’re doing a record release show here in Sacramento. We played San Francisco recently; that show went really, really well. We’re going to try to play San Francisco some more, and we’ve talked about trying to get up to Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles for weekend trips, so we have things in the works, but nothing’s set up. We’re probably going to be back in the Bay Area in a little bit, but we know we can’t do a national tour. We’re probably going to do another 7-inch as quickly as possible—in our terms anyway (laughs)—and get it out in the second half of the year to build some momentum, and hopefully that will point back towards the record.

SSv: Is Test Pattern Records your baby?

Ross: Yeah. When the California Oranges broke up, we’d had a long-time home on Darla Records. We’ve always talked about starting our own imprint or label. Part of it is just to control our own destiny. So we got distribution through Darla and thought we’d give it a try. It’s another way we thought we could try to stay involved in music as we have less time to go out to shows and play. We can’t go out to as many shows as we would like, or play as many as we would like, but putting out a few other bands allows us to kind of stay involved in music.

Running a label is a very frustrating thing, because there’s a lot of good music in the world and it’s hard to get people to take notice. It can be tough. We call ourselves a micro label because we don’t have a big budget or anything, we just try to get as much as we can.

Soft Science – Feel from Test Pattern on Vimeo.


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