Soft Metals Interview & Top 5
With the release of their debut LP Lenses in 2013, the Portland duo Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks aka Soft Metals announced themselves as one of the more interesting exponents of electronic dance music.
On Lenses throbbing and cyclical analogue synthesizer arpeggios weave their way around minimalist, hard-hitting Teutonic 808 beats, while the echo’d, almost diaphanous vocals of Patricia Hall conjures images of ghosts in the machines.
The cerebral and alluring sound is at once claustrophobic and sparse, and frequently calls to mind Kraftwerk, John Carpenter as well as the earlier strands of Detroit techno and British synth-pop. The duo are currently in Ireland touring, including a show tonight (Friday, May 30) in the Triskel Development Centre, Cork. We Are Noise caught up with the duo to discuss working with your romantic partner, vintage synthesizers and Top 5’s.
I’ve read interviews where you have described Soft Metals as “the synth-pop romance of Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks”- does the collaborative process differ in any way when it occurs between partners? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of this?
Patricia: It’s hard for me to answer whether or not the collaborative process differs with romantic partners or platonic ones as this is my first experience with music and I haven’t really worked with anyone else. When Ian and I started making music we were just friends. I was terribly shy about singing or playing in front of anyone, but Ian is very pleasant to work with. He’s open minded, patient, polite, and always encourages me. As romantic partners maybe sometimes you feel more comfortable to speak your mind, which can sometimes be harsh, but we’ve learned how to communicate in a way that’s more constructive than insulting. Sometimes those firey fights can inspire good music, though.
How did your appreciation for vintage analogue synthesizers come about? What is it specifically about the instrument that continues to appeal to you on a musical level?
IAN: I took piano lessons from a very young age so keyboard instruments have always been my go-to. I think around age 15 I started listening to industrial and synth-pop records and just became fascinated with the sound design in the music. I was also really into computers at the time so integrating the sound creation with midi and tracker sequencing was fun for me. It was around age 15 that my parents bought me my first proper synth, a Korg Poly 800 and a year later I bought my self a second hand TR 505. After that I was hooked.
I think what continues to be inspiring about the vintage analogue gear is that when it was designed the engineers weren’t exactly sure how these instruments were going to be used. This led to some really weird work arounds and bizzare modulation possibilities that are endlessly fun to explore. We recently put together a small Eurorack system, this coupled with the new (Korg) MS20 mini has been really fun to play with. The exploration of electronics and sound design are big inspirations for me.
How do you feel modern synth modules compare to the vintage equipment?
IAN: I think they are great! The more the merrier. I think what has been really cool about the recent analogue gear resurgence is the conscious effort to integrate into older systems. A lot of new modules and boxes will have the older Roland din sync conversion or cv/gate to interface with Eurorack or pre-midi gear. We’ve been using a bass station II and DSI Mopho X4 in our live sets on this tour and we’ve fallen in love the with the sound of them.
I’m of two minds though, while I do love that the new gear really packs in features, like multi mode filters, effects, arps, after touch, I think that some of the extreme limitation of older gear can lead to very interesting work arounds and approximations. Also older stuff just has stronger character I think.
There’s elements of Krautrock, John Carpenter-esque movie scores, Synth-pop and Techno at work within your music. Is there something about this combination of elements that particularly appeals to you as musicians?
IAN: We love each of the above mentioned genres/styles so their influence is definitely at play in our music. All of the styles share a sort of trancy hypnotic repetitive quality that I think we draw on quite a bit or at least try to come close.
I found there to be a distinct dichotomy within your compositions – where the often relentless and at times discordant synth patterns and beats are often offset by these alluring, pretty vocals. Does that in any way reflect the individual personalities and tastes or is the end product more representative of ye as people?
Patricia: I think Ian has a harder, rougher taste than me, but I find it very inspiring. The world can be a very dark place and I guess I like to play the part of the light shining through it, or the brave warrior opposing evil. The juxtaposition of lovely synth melodies and vocals with an ominous backdrop is very interesting. It gives you a spooky feeling like a mystery novel, or a paranormal experience. The feeling of possible danger lurking about is exciting to me.
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