Saxophones? A six-minute song? Har Mar Superstar? Are we still talking about the Soft Pack? The answers are a resounding "yes" on the San Diego garage rockers' sophomore record, Strapped, due September 25th via Mexican Summer. For their latest effort, the Soft Pack — formerly known as the Muslims — drew inspiration from neighborhood hookers, Funkadelic, and Roman Polanski's Chinatown to pull together their most expansive and mature set of songs to date. (War On Drugs concur.) Stream Strapped below and check out vocalist, guitarist, and sometimes bassist Matt Lamkin's track-by-track breakdown.
For this album, we've been recording demos for the last two years, since 2011. Some of these songs are from 2009, from demos from before we made the last album. "Saratoga" is funny, because it's one we all kind of recorded and then forgot about. And then a year later, I was digging through our files — because we have 70 songs, demos that we recorded — and I found this one, and thought it was kind of fun, and I just sang over it. When I sang it back to the guys, they didn't even remember recording it. It's kind of funny, but it turned out to be one of the catchier ones. It starts out upbeat and fast.
We've been playing that one since 2010 when we were touring with Kurt Vile, and Adam [Granduciel] from War On Drugs and the Violators said that was his favorite song. We actually recorded the saxophone for that one in the back of our van on my computer. That was one of the first songs where we decided to do saxophone, and there ended up being a lot of saxophone on this album for a Soft Pack album. We ended up recording that one with our friend Aaron Hester in a parking lot by the beach. We were doing a show in San Francisco, and Aaron was the only guy at the time we knew who played sax, and he lives in San Francisco. We couldn't do it in the hotel and he was working and his practice space wasn't open, so we were like, "Let's go somewhere where we can be loud."
On this album, we also did a lot of switching instruments. For "They Say," I wrote the bass line and Dave wrote the guitar — Dave plays bass and I play guitar, but for this song we swapped. The cool thing about this is there are timpani drums on it. That's pretty cool. And it's about the music business. It's a good place to work, I guess. You can be your own boss, self-employed, which is nice.
We're friends with Har Mar. He's a great dude and a fan of the band, and I'm a fan of his, and I saw [Har Mar Superstar's "Tall Boy"]. Our version is a little different. I thought I'd come up with that originally, and then I saw that he had one, and then I decided we could both have one and that would be okay. This song was also recorded in a bunch of different studios, like four or five different places. We recorded this one with Dave Newton, the guitar player in the Mighty Lemon Drops. And the horns are fake keyboard horns that I put on there from my computer. It kind of reminds me of rap, but it didn't wind up being a rap song. I listen to some rap, and Matty and Dave are big fans of rap, but I just kind of listen to the classics. With this one, we were trying to get a Tattoo You vibe, like late '70s Stones. This is one of the first ones we wrote that got away from garage rock or whatever we were doing before.
Bobby Brown, of course. That's the most ambitious song we tried on this album. I feel like it was a success. That one's interesting because we probably came up with the music for that way back, in 2009, when we were kind of screwing around and playing different instruments. I'm playing drums, everything's swapped. At the time we were listening to a lot of Grace Jones and Funkadelic, and stuff like that. This was us taking a stab at that. It was recorded and produced by Rob Barbato, of Darker My Love, who's doing a lot of good recordings around L.A. now. He's kind of a go-to dude right now.
"Chinatown" is a song about the water rights in California. I borrowed the title from that movie of Polanski's about the same thing. The water in L.A. comes down in an aqueduct from Northern and Central California, and there's a lot of scandal around that. It was a big agricultural area up there. It's actually where my dad grew up, Owen's Valley. It was a big agricultural area and there's a lot of water, obviously, and L.A. basically bought all the land where the water went through and just kind of drained it down to L.A. Everyone's farms dried up, and that was the end of that. It's the movie Chinatown, basically. The farmers were pissed and they were bombing aqueducts, reservoirs, things like that. It's a typical Soft Pack kind of sound, but it's also an attempt to sound more '80s, more like Feelies, Big Dipper. It sounds like Black Lips, at times, too. It's always mayhem with those guys, it's great.
There's this 50-year-old tiki bar by my house — it's called Tiki-Ti's — that I love, and that's why I'm hungover today, actually. They have these rum drinks, and the special is called Ray's Mistake, because the guy who opened this place in the '60s is one of the original tiki bartenders. It should be a historical landmark in L.A. It isn't, but it's an awesome spot. Anyway, Ray is the name of one of the original tiki bartenders. He invented a lot of the drinks, the standard tiki rum drinks. So Ray's Mistake is one of those songs screwing around with those words, getting drunk, drinking Ray's Mistakes. I'm going to give him a copy of the record when it comes out and I'm hoping they put it on the wall or something. It's got rum in it, I know it has rum and fruit juice. That's about it.
We were listening to a lot of early Funkadelic and Sly Stone at the time. The other dudes wrote that music when I was visiting my parents and then I came back and we re-recorded it, mapped it out. Oxford Ave. is a street I used to live on that had a lot of transvestite prostitutes on it. There were always these transvestite prostitutes leaving empty bags of meth behind, and I'd be walking to practice through bags of meth to catch the bus. Their makeup would be all off by noon and they'd be wandering around. It's funny, I lived on a corner, and on Oxford Ave., there were all these transvestites, and Lemon Grove, the other street, had a bunch of female hookers. There was a bunch of traffic there, whatever your taste was. I never really partook in anything, but I did talk to the girls on Lemon Grove. They were funny. They would always make fun of me and joke around, but they were cool.
"Everything I Know"
I can't really sing, but I tried to write like a Bowie song or an early Thin Lizzy song, like from their album Nightlife. Thin Lizzy has an album called Chinatown and an album called Nightlife and those are both song titles that we've had. There are a lot of song titles being reused. Anyway, it's never been intentional. I was just trying to write a serious song, trying to sing. I'm trying to learn to sing now. I think it's about time I learned to sing. I'm used to going into it knowing it's not going to be an amazing vocal performance. Hopefully the fans are bearing with me, that's all I can really ask for. That's one where I'm trying to get a blue-eyed soul thing going.
"Head On Ice"
That's about the transvestite hookers that are on Oxford Avenue. I was also thinking I wanted to write a song about them that kind of reminded me of '80s Leonard Cohen stuff, when he had an electronic sound, even though we played it with the band. It sounds kind of eerie. The title is a Denim reference. That band Denim, they had an album called Denim on Ice. "Head On Ice" seems like that's what they're doing.
"Bound To Fall"
A kind of a Leonard Cohen-y, Beck-ish, singer-songwriting one. The interesting thing about this one is that it was all recorded on my computer, so that one's not done in a studio. It's kind of a hodgepodge. This album was kind of a hodgepodge or recordings. For this one, the demo kind of stayed. A lot of them were demos that we recorded in a studio either here or around; for this one we thought it would be kind of cool to mix it up and have not exactly lo-fi, but a demo that made the grade, I guess.
We realized all our songs are pretty short, so we wanted to have a long one. We jammed out; we had some instrumentation going on. That one is also kind of that jangly college rock thing we wanted to try. Try and do a couple of guitars, kind of jangly notes, picking instead of strumming. When we recorded it, we did it all in one take. We just kind of kept playing in the studio and we thought we should keep that. It's nice to have a song that's over six minutes. We've never really had that before. I think our longest was three-and-a-half or something.