Two years ago at a pub to celebrate a friend’s birthday one of his mates started talking to me about a surge of new American garage rock bands and promptly wedged an iPod earphone into my ear cavity to prove his point. He played two bands, one was the Vivian Girls whose rise has been covered in these pages, the other was a band called The Muslims. It was rough and raw rock, a little too raw for my tastes but the band was enthused so I made a mental note. Nearly a year later The Muslims both had a less volatile name, The Soft Pack, and a more polished repertoire as heard on their self titled debut. Songs like “C’mon”, “Down on Loving” were equal parts Strokes, Shout Out Louds and West Coast surf pop. The highlight of the album was “Answer to Yourself” with its horizontal guitar riff and laconic vocals that resembled classic Australian indie icons The Screaming Tribesmen. It was an album that made you feel like doing air guitar moves, whether in public or at home, damn the consequences.
Comprised of Matt Lamkin on vocals and guitar, Matty McLoughlin on lead guitar, David Lantman on bass and Brian Hill on drums The Soft Pack are presently in Australia for The Falls, Southbound and Sunset Sounds festivals. When they were last here Dave and Brian had some quality time with Static’s Chris Berkley who got to the beginnings of how the band formed, that name change, the San Diego and LA rock scenes, surfing, the prestigious honour of being covered by Nada Surf and the possibility of covering some Australian indie classics.
Dave you were in Australia with The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower were any of you other guys in The Soft Pack band veterans before this outfit came together?
David: No, this is my first band and I think it was Matty and Matt’s first band too. Other than some college side projects I think. Matt was in a band called Progressive Orthopaedics (laughs)
It sounds fantastic. Were they a prog band?
Brian: Yeah they played one show.
David: I think they were politically progressive!
So you don’t have any dark band names in your history then Dave?
David: No. I would jam a lot, I would sit in a lot. I have been playing guitar for a long time but my first band is this one.
Well it’s actually not the first band name for The Soft Pack either because you ran through a different name, The Muslims, I mean how serious were you when The Soft Pack began? Was it a committed thing?
Brian: The band had been around for about a year before I was even in it and we were still The Muslims back then. There was one band I would have joined at that point that was from San Diego and it was that band.
Is that because Rocket from the Crypt had finished by then?
Brian: Yeah, I was really really hoping but then I couldn’t compete with Mario, their drummer is amazing, even though they’re not around anymore.
The outfits would get to you in the end, much better to be smart casual than dressed up so much.
Brian: (laughs) Yeah, no embroidery! But I liked their deal, it was good.
I’m wondering, because the band’s name was originally The Muslims did you think it wouldn’t get very far David or was that just not something well thought out by you guys?
David: Matt came up with the name at a time when they booked two shows and they didn’t really expect anything to happen. Then it started to become a little bit more of an issue and more press got involved and people just misinterpreted it in lame ways, we decided we just wanted to move on from it.
It must have been really frustrating when that was sort of the sticking point about getting your band over a few hurdles.
David: It as kind of disappointing you know people were pretty immature about it. They would make racist comments. Just stuff you wouldn’t expect you know? None of us really thought it was that big of a deal or even that controversial a name.
I guess amongst your friends it’s fine but once it gets into the greater world….
Brian: You just take it for granted that people understand what you mean and they know that you’re not making fun of something. But when you’re playing for strangers they don’t know.
And Progressive Orthopedics didn’t stick like The Soft Pack did! So did you all relocate to Los Angeles?
David: We’re based in Los Angeles, the band started in San Diego. Me and Brian joined around the same time and then shortly after that we all moved up to Los Angeles. Mainly just a change of pace, we grew up in San Diego, I think all of us were ready to move. Matt actually had some job opportunities back then.
Is it hard to move a whole band?
Brian: We kind of trickled up there though, like I was the last one to move up. It took me eight months after them to actually move up.
Did you get in trouble for missing rehearsals and stuff like that when you were in San Diego?
Brian: There was one particular thing where I didn’t even remember that there was a show going on at a friend of ours house and I had to take a train up immediately to make it in time, so that was frustrating. At that point it was kind of like “Alright, I better commit to this enough where I’m going to move or figure out some better situation”. So luckily these guys helped me move up.
How much do you think geography plays into something like that, I mean do you think The Soft Pack sounds like a typical San Diego band or an LA band or as if you could some from anywhere?
Brian: I think there’s just us growing up and all the San Diego bands we grew up listening to that it’s just in there, there’s some of that in the guitar playing. of my favourite drummers were San Diego drummers from various punk bands and I think it comes out. I don’t know if we sound like an LA band but I don’t really know what bands sound like regionally or what they’re supposed to sound like anymore. Everybody is kind of all over the place now.
Is San Diego a bit more protectionist or a bit more proud of the bands that have come from there?
Brian: People are pretty aware and I think everyone is proud of bands that come out of there, but when you leave initially I think there is kind of an abandonment thing where people are a little bit bummed out on you for leaving, because they’re like “Oh great, so we’re not good enough?”, but people tend to not worry about it so much after a while.
Compared to a lot of bands from San Diego The Soft Pack sound like a pop band.
David: I like pop music
Brian: Yeah we love it, pop hooks.
There’s also a hint of San Diego surf in songs like “More or Less” or “Mexican”, was that the sort of stuff you were saying you think trickles into the band’s sound, Brian?
Brian: Yeah, I didn’t grow up surfing but Dave, you used to right?
David: Yeah I grew up surfing.
Brian: It’s kind of in there, I don’t know it’s kind of a relaxed vibe that comes out of being in San Diego, it’s a really mellow city, it’s a nice place.
David: I guess naturally we’re all from Southern California basically so I guess we have that Southern California feel naturally, maybe.
That’s what people are tapping into. Were you expecting the band to become as popular as it has done? Can you put a marker on when it went a little bit crazy?
Brian: I definitely wasn’t expecting much.
David: Neither was I.
Brian: I was just happy to play in a band that I really liked the songs that they already had and I liked going to see the band before I was in it so I was just happy to join the band. I didn’t really know what would happen I was like ‘This is going to be fun’ you know? It’s going to be a new bunch of people that I haven’t played with before and will be just kind of exciting.
I think you’ve helped the rep Brian, a few people have said to me there’s a standing drummer, and it’s a selling point!
Brian: Well I’m also a gimmick guy, I need something!
The other three of you are going to have to kneel down on album number two or something Dave, or face the back of the room when you’re playing!
Brian: Get these big hamster wheels and just run!
David: It would be cool to play on a stool.
There’s plenty of time for that in the future, when Soft Pack go acoustic!
Brian: That could be on the cards, we don’t know. We might get adult contemporary and Dave might get a twelve string fretless bass.
David: That’s my dream.
It’s all part of the zeitgeist that Soft Pack seem to be coming more and more entrenched in now. I mean, you’ve had a song covered by Nada Surf.
David: Yeah that was a huge surprise! That was really cool actually. We didn’t really know about it and we met the singer, I think his name is Matthew, and he came to our show in New York and he said “Oh, my band does a cover of your song ‘Bright Side'” and I’m like “Oh cool”, and I didn’t know who he was yet. I’m like “What band are you in?” and he said “Nada Surf” and I was just speechless! I remember in high school they had a pretty big song on the radio.
How were you guys with their cover of it? Did they do a good job?
David: I heard it, I liked it yeah. Definitely didn’t sound like us but that was really cool, and was just a total trip hearing them do it! It was awesome.
Well now you guys know how Phoenix felt as well because you have done a cover of their song so did they give you much feed back?
Brian: Yeah they’ve been incredibly cool to us. They really liked the cover and as a result of that they keep asking us to play with them which we’re always up for. They’ve been really, really, cool to us.
So what Australian covers have you got ready for your tour here?
David: They used to do a Saints cover I guess, before we were in the band.
Brian: If they remembered it I would totally be willing to do it, I love The Saints.
I think that needs to be put out there.
Brian: Some Go-Betweens maybe?
Interview broadcast on Static on 08/08/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).