Story by Samuel Duke
Photography by John Francis Peters
It’s dinner time and The Soft Pack are hungry. This is reasonable. What is perhaps unreasonable is that I’m sitting in their van, badgering them with questions about menial shit like how they chose their band name, and (unknowingly at the time, for what it’s worth) preventing them from sating themselves. If I were in that position I would probably be answering monosyllabically, unable to elaborate on anything, lost in a dream about fresh pasta or cheeseburgers. But they are riding high and into it, probably because their second album—the first written and recorded with their current lineup, and the first released under the newly-chosen name (more on that later)–came out a few days prior. Tonight is the New York record release party, a midnight show at the tiny, stage-less, basement-cum-venue Cake Shop in the Lower East Side. When they play, they will play tenaciously, and I will think: I’m really glad they finally got to eat.
You know The Soft Pack. Maybe not personally, but you know people like them–smart, enthusiastic, motivated twenty-somethings confused by the prevailing what-the-fuck-do-we-do-with-ourselves-nowness of their generation and trying to make a life of something they actually enjoy doing in the midst of it. Unlike many, The Soft Pack have actually made that happen.
After graduating from college, high school friends Matt Lamkin and Matty McLoughlin moved back home to San Diego (Lamkin didn’t have to go very far since he graduated from UCSD; McLoughlin had to schlep his stuff back from Richmond, Virginia). They decided it was time to form the band they’d been talking sporadically about starting for a few years. “It was time to give it a shot before we got real jobs,” Lamkin says. In the meantime, they delivered pizzas. “We’d have different shifts,” adds McLoughlin, “So I’d demo something in the morning, and then Matt would get off and do the lyrics. We’d try to trade CDs on our routes.”
They chose a name they thought was “catchy”: The Muslims, which was not a direct reference to the followers of Islam. “I had a film professor whose Dad survived the holocaust,” explains Lamkin, “And he was talking about how to survive, you didn’t just wait it out—you had to make political connections and social connections and had to work really hard to get out. Those who were just kind of waiting around and were considered to be inactive–the living dead, so to speak–were referred to as ‘muslims.’ We thought that was a cool double-meaning. [It had] catchiness.”
He’s right. It was super catchy. And so were the songs. In between those pizza runs, Lamkin and McLoughlin had figured out what they wrote well: punk blitzes that were memorable without being cloying. They wrote them often. The first and only Muslims LP came out in 2008 on a tiny Brooklyn upstart called 1928. For what was ostensibly a punk record on a tiny label, it received an avalanche of press. Did the provocative name help spill all that ink? Probably. But it only took people so far; the music–glassy but ballsy, disaffected but not disillusioned–rang true as well. Hometown friends Dave Lantzman (bass) and Brian Hill (drums) joined the fold. Touring commenced. Industry fests were played. Crowds grew. Record deals were signed. And then they changed their name.
“Obviously, our songs aren’t titled, like, ‘Douchebag Abortion,’ or something like that,” Lamkin says. “We’re not trying to be racy, it was just a catchy band name. It got interpreted the wrong way pretty widely, so we said, ‘It’s not what were about.’” To go from something as prickly as The Muslims to something as innocuous and, frankly, boring, as The Soft Pack was exactly the point.
“It was so far at the other end of the spectrum from The Muslims–that was the main appeal to me,” McLoughlin adds. “Like, ‘Fuck this whole thing, and fuck you if you don’t think we’re…” he trails off. “[It was] the weakest, lamest sounding thing you could come up with.”
It does have a double meaning, though. McLoughlin explains that Hill found the name online, where he discovered that a “soft pack,” in addition to being an easily crumpled cartridge for cigarettes, was “a fake, flaccid penis that transvestites wear to pass as men.” Interesting. “We’re pretty huge Steely Dan fans,” he adds, “And they were named after a dildo, so that [connection] was kind of cool. Plus, it sounded good.”
Under this new, seemingly-innocent-but-totally-not banner, the foursome set about writing their second record. Or, their first, if we’re being technical. Somehow the name of venerated, D.C.-reared producer and former Girls Against Boys member Eli Janney entered the equation, a partnership that was sealed when the guys ran into Janney at an Obits show in New York. “He just walked up and jokingly said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do your record, right?’” says Lamkin. “And from that point [on], we got along and things just kind of fell into place.”
Janney’s studio know-how upped the hi-fi quotient and streamlined what was already an impressively direct sound. The record he helped The Soft Pack make is essentially a crash course in punk’s tangential relationship with pop. Opener “C’Mon” sounds like the Empire Records soundtrack—big, ringing open chords; a hook you imagine yourself singing on a roof with a crush and/or a keg of beer—but, naturally, faster. Obvious single “Answer To Yourself” is the kind of life-affirming, shit-being-gotten-together anthem that belongs third in an album sequence. Ten years ago, the dirge-y, “Pull Out” could’ve been a Hot Snakes B-side. There is only one slow song, the breezy, Walkmen-esque beach stroll entitled “Mexico,” sandwiched between “Flammable” and “Parasites,” the two most abrasive songs on the album.
And the whole thing is just over thirty minutes. It doesn’t dilute itself with multiple listens. It’s what people their age (my age)—those disillusioned by the fact that a college education doesn’t automatically warrant you a clear, sustainable future, “muslims” in a way—need right now: a record that’s loud and easily familiarizing; that’s cognizant of how lost we all feel; that isn’t afraid to want to be normal and motivated. McLoughlin sums this up perfectly when I bring up the fact that people have criticized them as being “preppy”: “I don’t think its that odd of a thing for someone in their mid-twenties to wear a collared shirt and have a fucking normal person’s haircut. Not everyone has to look like an asshole.”
The Soft Pack aren’t assholes. At the Cake Shop show–after everyone’s been waiting in the crammed ground level coffee bar for the better part of an hour, only to be let down into the venue right at midnight–they start playing immediately. I cannot remember the last time a headlining band did this. The throng from upstairs hasn’t even made it all the way down by the end of the first song (“C’Mon,” appropriately), and prompted by the sound engineer to wait, the band retort “We can’t!” and barrel on through into the next one. Slowly, the room fills to capacity. It starts to smell like bad weed and beer. Everyone is smiling, the band most of all. There is no discernible mosh pit. It’s a room full of people The Great Recession fucked over having the time of their lives. The Soft Pack are their band. “Come say ‘Hi,’” Lamkin says before the last one, “We’ll be hanging loose.” If only we all were.