Alex Brettin, singer and guitarist of Chicago-based band Soft Candy, kind of looks like a Who. Not a member of The Who, although Soft Candy’s roots run deep into the Mod sound, but the actual Dr. Seuss, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” kind of a Who. His mustache is a little wonky and his hair does the same upwards curl, and he has a jacket that makes him look like the Cookie Monster.
Brettin is sitting across from me, in a haze-filled room with the four other members of Soft Candy, talking about their latest and only release–Chelsea Boots + Violet Eyelids–and how they’ve cultivated their uniquely throwback, psychedelic pop sound.
“We’ll just talk right now about how our band disfunctions,” laughed Brettin.
Soft Candy’s sound can probably be best described as a really loud, happy hug. One could liken them to The Beatles, except not really. Or Stereolab live minus the disco plus some proto-punk, but the way Soft Candy makes you feel is not so much a reminder of another band, but of a place in time. Take, for example, Soft Candy’s cover of “Money” by Barrett Strong. The song has been done over numerous times by bands like The Beatles, The Cramps, The Sonics, The Flying Lizards.
“The reason we play that is because of our extensive obsession with rock ‘n’ roll history and our obsession with finding these crazy niches of music where we thought they would never exist,” said Brettin. “It’s totally about being honest to what we’re listening to.”
“We definitely don’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard,” said Adam Pezen. Pezen plays guitar, sings, and did the artwork for the seven-song tape. “We play in a style because we love the style and we want more of it.”
Instead of shooting for certain sounds–The Doors plus Iggy Pop–the Soft Candy sound is more of a memory. Having a tune in your head that reminds you of something else.
Said Brettin, “It’s often we get reminded of things that we love, and that’s one of the greatest rewards of playing in the band is, all of the sudden, someone will start playing something, and it’ll be like, ‘Whoa! This is like the feeling I got when I heard Sgt. Pepper.’ It’s not necessary like the same thing, but it’s definitely like your heart starts beating a little faster and you feel this sort of energy and it’s like, wait–what the fuck? We are doing this. This isn’t something that’s externalized or like, press play–this is five people interacting that totally, somehow… I don’t know. It’s like, magic.”
The room itself is filled with sound and energy–beer cans popping open, lighters clicking; a bearded guy softly plucking on a mandolin in the corner. People shift like the conversation, from growing up with the first-gen, high-speed internet and entire albums at your fingertips to having Beethoven, The Big Chill, and Beck’s folk tapes as your formative musical experiences.
“We all just come from a totally different background,” said Pezen. “With the exception of Alex and I, who grew up in the same town, everyone is from a different state and has their own musical influence. When it came together it was sort of like combining all of these things, and it took a year to coalesce and to find like a unique sound that we all could agree upon.”
Drummer Roy Arsenault is from Maine, bassist Kyle Crager from San Francsisco, and pianist Alex Rowney from New York. Brettin and Pezen grew up in Cary, IL. Each one has his own tastes (“We’re not clones!” yelled Pezen, when the subject was breeched), and the broad list of influences comes out in the way they react and connect with one another, agreeing and, just as often, adding dimension and texture to what was just said. According to the band, this is often how a song is made: collaboration and a dash of telekinesis.
As Arsenault put it, “It’s kind of cool because, since we do have training in this group–three trained jazz musicians, one classical musician–we just kind of like listen to shit, pick it up, transcribe it, and that’s how we hang.”
Most of the members went to and met each other through Columbia College in Chicago, but their formal training isn’t something they like to flaunt. At the album release show, Crager lit up talking about how crazy-talented of a classical pianist Rowney is, but also how playing in Soft Candy is like a release from that.
“We don’t flaunt it” said Brettin. “We don’t need to tell people like, yo… we just… don’t need to tell people…”
He trailed off, and Pezen added, “Let’s not talk about ‘Columbia Students, jazz musicians’ because you just don’t want anyone to get the idea that that’s what we’re doing. However, those things are integral to what we are capable of making now. Without those influences of jazz or classical, we would not be able to make the music that, in my opinion, is on a level above your standard garage rock band.”
Which it totally is. There are layers of intricacy and nuance in every song, which is pretty impressive for a band that just had its first physical release earlier in the month. Every instrument is distinct enough to showcase the talent of their players with enough fuzz and perfect timing as to blend it all together into one, sweet sound.
“We’re just not trying to name drop our school,” said Brettin. “Not because we’re embarrassed. We’re trying to let go of like who we are necessarily in our real lives and sort of get into this land called–”
The room broke into laughter as it so often did, and Brettin continued.
“Candyland is this place in my garage, okay, and we get in there and–”
“Kill each other,” chimed in Arsenault.
Brettin smiled. “We get in there and we have a couple of beers–we have these ‘Genesee Cream Ales’ (Brettin picked up one of the tall boys like Vanna White) or whatever it might take and we just get in there and plug fucking like 25 things in and just make noise.”
And that noise is pretty gorgeous. There’s a punkish edge in the gritty sound that evolves seamlessly out of the sixties psych-pop they have going on, blending almost subconsciously from one genre to the next and showcasing the extreme range of influences the boys pull from.
After two years of getting blazed and playing gigs, Soft Candy finally decided to produce its own album. The story was told in parts around the room, like dominos falling into place.
“I think for a while we didn’t put anything out because we weren’t necessarily confident with it.” said Brettin.
“We were super negative after the shows,” said Rowney. “We were always pouting. But that’s what I really like about this is that we’re finally patting ourselves on the back a little bit like, ‘Okay. You finally did something okay.’ ”
Said Crager, “There’s a certain point where you just get sick of having to debate things and control yourself. You just want to be done with that whole battle with yourself.”
Finally, Pezen added, “At the same time what it also takes is someone else in the band telling the other person who’s concerned about it, ‘This works. Don’t let it tear you apart because it’s actually like, pretty cool. You’ll never be able to hear it the way you want to hear it but take it from me it’s good.’ ”
This process of going from person to person, each guy adding his own touch to the whole, is integral in how they produce their music. The last song on the record, “Song for Ellie Mae” was a perfect example of this.
“It was cool because [Adam] wrote the core sections of it, I put it together in a form and I recorded the piano track, and eventually, six months later, [Alex] gets a hold of it and he’s like, ‘Check out these cool vocal harmonies I’m gonna do and this jangley guitar part, and mess with the drums and put them in different places’ and that’s what’s on the record,” said Rowney.
Said Pezen, “Without that process, without us being there to push each other to get this shit out, to convince each other that it can be worked, that recording may never have existed. Without the pressure we imposed upon ourselves to get the tape out in three weeks, that song would’ve remained on my computer as drums and piano and a chorus vocal and just that.”
Which would have been a damn shame. “Ellie Mae” is the perfect way to end this record because it contains so many elements that are strewn across the tape. The sound is so whimsical, but the lyrics are so sad. Ellie Mae / You must stay / On a sunny day–the narrator is imploring his lady love to be with him in real time, as opposed to only being reachable across digital medium.
“The whole digital and real life aspect is all over the album, but I think that’s inherently true of the times these days,” said Pezen. “We’re all sort of trying to meet somewhere in the middle.”
The middle area they decided on was, essentially, an album that was recorded digitally, put on tape, and then put back to digital so that it sounded like a tape.
“We put out a full piece of art that takes up several senses,” said Pezen of the tape, “but it’s a combination where we have these two-minute songs. Instead of having the option to skip ahead like anyone on iTunes can, you have to listen to it on a tape, so we’re combining that quick ADHD appeal with forcing kids to listen to it as if it were a record they had to flip.”
The decision to put the album out on tape was made based on several factors. It was cost effective to make a tape in the living room on $50 equipment cleaned with rubbing alcohol, where the sound to noise ratio is anything but ideal. Having a tape with a full fold-out and killer artwork is part of the experience. The ten-minute sides also really work with the songs themselves; the melodies resonate for just the right amount of time.
“Little pieces of candy,” said Pezen with a smile.
But the production process has as much to do with the sound as anything. Soft Candy live is just as fuzzy and dirty as they are on tape, provided the the listener cranks up the volume as the fold-out asks them to. With the volume turned down, it’s a totally different experience. Rowney actually fell asleep to it while listening to it on his headphones. I noticeably bopped along waiting for the L. There’s a range of subject matter and song writing styles that just make it a really interesting tape to listen to. Where the lyrics on “Ellie Mae” and “Satan Baby Today” take up half of the space in the fold-out and are pretty dark and twisty, “Maxwell” and “Calm Yrself Now Boy” are under two minutes but resonate just as much. The story for how “Maxwell” came about can be heard here.
Note: Alex Brettin does most of the narration. The voice in the background at 1:45 is the man Maxwell himself (remember the bearded guy on the mandolin? Max.) The last voice is Adam Pezen saying, “a wizard, a true star?”
There’s also an element of hilarity and grandiosity on the tape, designated in its dual titles.
“What it is is we love to see women walking around in Chelsea boots with violet, big eyelids. We love that sort of Jackie O-type woman idea of Americana, but also this hilarious British thing because obviously we’ll always love the British for their Rolling Stones and The Beatles and the fashion but we just love that sense of regalia; that sense of like, ooh-hoo! Mozart!” said Brettin. “Honestly, if we could get ruffled collars, we would wear them. Paul Revere and the Raiders. We would be like that because we think that is, honestly, kind of like this great sense of American pop culture shit. It’s just hilarious.”
A tape is also something tangible. You can told it in your hand, stick it in your purse, pop it into a stereo if you have an old-enough car. Using a passé medium also works with Soft Candy’s obsession with nostalgia and being a part of the musical tradition not only globally, but in the Chicago scene.
“The scene here is so good compared to…I mean I’ve never been out of this scene, so I can’t really compare it to anything,” said Brettin, laughing. “But the whole thing that connects all of our groups is that this is a very tight-knit group of bands. We’re all very human about what we’re doing… none of the people in this scene are obsessed with money. They’re all obsessed with making a fucking awesome band, and that’s why it’s awesome. Everybody just wants to live it and feel like you’re contributing to an artistic community.”
While it would be great to have the funds to release another record and keep doing what they’re doing, the future is unclear. Soft Candy just knows they want to keep making music.
“We’re not necessarily obsessed with becoming the next sensation. We’re more obsessed with the fact that we want to make a couple records, and maybe 30 years down the road, some kid picks up this cassette and he’s like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ and he puts it on and it’s like ‘Whoa!’ ” said Brettin.
Pezen interjected, “And it changes his life, because that was us.”
There was a pause, and Brettin said, “It blows my mind to think that maybe one day, something that I’m part of musically will influence what somebody else creates.”
Chelsea Boots + Violet Eyelids is available for digital download and on on tape at http://softcandy.bandcamp.com. On the inside flap of the tape is a QR code link to the music video for “Satan Baby Today” made by Maxwell.