Band To Watch: Soft Fangs
Nearing the end of fall in New York, we arrive at a kind of pre-winter incubation period. The weather’s still nice enough to go outside, but it’s just as easy to stay indoors despite the fact that the landlord has yet to turn the heat on. It’s appropriate that John Lutkevich, who records under the name Soft Fangs, will release his self-titled debut EP into this kind of climate. There’s a distinctive hesitancy found in all five songs on Soft Fangs that serve as the EP’s greatest asset. Hesitancy might be the wrong word for it, but there’s a definitive element of cautionary control in both Lutkevich’s songwriting and instrumentation that fosters a sense of anticipation. The EP doesn’t sound lonely, it just perfectly mirrors the feeling of choosing to be alone, the quiet comfort of staying indoors.
Some of this solitary aesthetic is explained by Lutkevich’s recording process. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, Lutkevich’s band The Devil And A Penny broke up, and he took an extensive road trip before returning home, making music along the way. When he returned to Massachusetts, Lutkevich wrote and recorded all of the songs on Soft Fangs in his parents’ attic on his own.
I hesitate to describe Soft Fangs as having a “bedroom” quality to it, not because it’s a cliché, but because it seems somewhat inaccurate. “Bedroom” suggests a kind of spontaneity that’s difficult to find on the EP. Nothing about the instrumentation on Soft Fangs suggests any sort of spur-of-the-moment decision making, nor do the lyrics. It’s a DIY process, but Lutkevich is meticulous. It’s easy to compare Soft Fangs to Elliott Smith, or Sparklehorse, but there’s a kind of intense proximity to his recordings, a kind of sentiment, that reminds me of his Boston brethren Fat History Month. That is not to say that the two projects sound similar, but that the quality of their respective recording techniques, and the way their lyrics weave themselves into unusual patterns of instrumentation, leave the listener feeling very close to them.
These moments of closeness are illuminated by Lutkevich’s imagery-laden lyricism. “Dead Friends,” the last track on the EP, begins with a murmur, a hushed and unceremonious opening to a song that stands out as one of the most fragile and vulnerable of the five tracks. Lutkevich sings, “So far I’m only hanging around/ The graveyard after the sun goes down/ To feed on everyone I thought I once related to.” There’s a propulsive quality to “Dead Friends,” a kind of stop-and-start swelling sensation to both the music and lyrics about estrangement that perfectly summarizes the EP. Soft Fangs is a collection of songs that will let you in momentarily before pushing you back out the door. For now, Lutkevich seems happy to be doing things on his own.
STEREOGUM: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your old band, and how Soft Fangs originated.
SOFT FANGS: I’m from Mansfield, Massachusetts, which is about 30 minutes outside of Boston. I was in Allston, Massachusetts for around four years, then Los Angeles for a year. That was when I was with The Devil And A Penny — I was playing with them in Boston, and then they were with me in Los Angeles for a year. Then we broke up, as bands often do. I started writing songs on my own before I moved. I was traveling a little bit, and then I moved back to Massachusetts for like a month and recorded all of these songs like at my parents’ house. I was back in my old attic with my old drum set from high school. Then I moved to Brooklyn and finished recording the vocals and over-dubs.
STEREOGUM: What brought you to L.A. and why did you end up leaving?
SOFT FANGS: The spirit of adventure, youth, all that good stuff [laughs] and then I left because after The Devil And A Penny broke up I wanted to go and just like not think for awhile. Drive long-distances, I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: So did you write most of the songs on the EP when you were in Boston?
SOFT FANGS: Yeah for the most part, I started one in L.A. and sort of demoed it, and then wrote the rest when I was back in Boston.
STEREOGUM: I’m very curious to know what it’s like recording the entire thing in an attic.
SOFT FANGS: Cramped… but it’s really fun. Not that I wouldn’t record in a studio or anything, I just didn’t really have access to one. I still don’t have access to one. But, there is something about setting everything up yourself and going at it alone — having to run over to the four track and press stop, and then run back to your drum set, and then run back when you fuck up. That’s the fun thing about it — you get to jump around and feel like a kid again.
STEREOGUM: I find that on EPs like yours, or any sort of record that sounds somewhat ambient and could almost fit into the background, lyrics tend to stick out that much more. I make music, but not well, so I am always really interested in knowing about different artist’s song writing processes.
SOFT FANGS: Yeah, it’s an interesting process. It sort of starts off sitting around for the most part and playing guitar — it sounds so simple when I break it down. I’ll shape the melody, and then I’ll write the words. It always started off with guitar and vocals and that’s just sort of like the natural, “I don’t know” part. And then I get into the recording aspect, which is very much a part of the writing process for me. Basically, the way I record is I’ll lay down a guitar part and I’ll just layer from there. That way I get to really define the parts and shape how I want them all to go and what will make sense with the lyrics. Like, if I talk about gunshots in the lyrics I’m going to do six snare hits — all the fun stuff.
STEREOGUM: Did you study music?
SOFT FANGS: I went to school for creative writing at U Mass. In school I did poetry. But now I’ve been doing these short stories but they are kind of like poems I guess. Like really short. Almost like flash fiction or something.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about whether or not you were involved with any of the Boston scene — since you mentioned that you lived in Allston, and the Boston scene has been scooped up a little bit as something to talk about over the course of the past year.
SOFT FANGS: Yeah, I was when I played with The Devil And A Penny before the whole Allston basement scene got broken up. Because it did get broken up. Like pretty bad. I think there are around two houses to see shows now and there are no addresses anywhere, which is pretty unfortunate because there were so many good spots before. When I was playing with my band we were kind of involved but we were kind of on the periphery, we weren’t like a Pile or one of those bands that played in a basement every night. It’s really kind of a bummer because there is was lot of cool stuff going on there. But a place like Brooklyn … they let places like the Silent Barn exist. [DIY venues] are supported.
STEREOGUM: I don’t want to automatically pinpoint who you sound like, or who I think your influences might be. I definitely hear some Sparklehorse and Elliot Smith vibes on the EP, but I’m curious to know your left-of-center influences.
SOFT FANGS: I think that Roy Orbison has influenced me a lot. The demeanor of his songs, I guess, and also his voice is really great. I don’t think my voice is like that, but his voice is really cool. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rod Stewart from a production aspect — there’s a nice thinness to a lot of his recording that for some reason I really like, with the drums and the bass. Who else? I listen to Fugazi, I guess that’s kind of left of center. I also collect a lot of tapes of ambient artists I really like, I don’t even know their names I just find these tapes where only like, ten were made.
STEREOGUM: I like what you said about thinness, and the quality of your sound. Since you are recording everything on your own you have so much power. You have all of the power.
SOFT FANGS: Thinness in space is something I think about … like absence of sound in place of having a sound.
STEREOGUM: Do you have an example you could think of?
SOFT FANGS: In “Dead Friends” when the shaker comes in, there is room for a drum beat or like an extra floor tom.
In “Point Of View” the keyboard drops out as soon as the vocals come in. Stuff like that, it makes sense because you are replacing one thing with another and if you mix it in the correct way. I feel like that is something I’ve really paid attention to. If you listen to someone who is great, like Elliot Smith, you just listen to the empty space he has. Or with really great writing, have you ever read Robert Creeley? He’s really cool and his poems … there is just so much space, like an absence of words.
STEREOGUM: How did you go about deciding the placement of the songs on the EP and did you scrap anything?
SOFT FANGS: I scrapped one thing and that was just because it wasn’t very far along in the recording process. The song order was the order I wrote them in. I don’t think I’ve done that before. But that’s just kind of how it went and I was like, “I think that makes sense.” And I think that might happen with the next release.
STEREOGUM: So what are you working on now?
SOFT FANGS: A full-length, like ten songs. I will probably put out a split in before then, and the full–length will probably come out in like the spring I think.
STEREOGUM: How much have you completed?
SOFT FANGS: I have seven songs. No, eight songs. I wrote one yesterday. So I have two more to go, for some reason I have this number ten in my mind. And then, as far as the recordings go, I’m like probably 25 percent done, or 35.
STEREOGUM: Are you doing the same thing, recording it on your own?
SOFT FANGS: Definitely, and I just booked some time in my friends’ studio in Massachusetts. We are just going to do one day of loud drums and guitar and stuff like that. I started basically creating all the bones at my house and then we are just going to assemble more pieces to the skeleton.
STEREOGUM: It’s cool that you are going to keep doing everything on your own, because for a full-length that’s a lot of work.
SOFT FANGS: Yeah it is a lot of work, but I feel like I can always keep on refining the choices I make. I’ll get better at things, hopefully. It’s going to be really fun to refine that process and take it as far as it can go.
11/21 Brooklyn, NY @ Black Strap
11/23 Providence, RI @ Aurora
11/24 Allston, MA @ Great Scott
Soft Fangs is out 11/21 via Seagreen Records.