Residing in Glasgow via Sheffield, London and Vancouver, Soft Riot is an artist who’s been rocking the synths for the best part of 20 years across various bands and projects. He describes his current output as ‘art punk synth disco’ and you should absolutely be checking it out. We caught up with JJD for a chat as part of our Introducing series.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind Soft Riot and how would you describe your sound?
My name is JJD (Jack Duckworth) and I’m a Vancouverite currently residing in Glasgow after spending some time in London and a little bit in Sheffield. I moved to the UK almost 10 years ago from Canada. I’ve been playing in bands for the better part of 20 years, probably the one I’m known most for back in the homeland would be the “new wave” band Radio Berlin.
Soft Riot started very, very slowly in 2006 when I was still in Vancouver. I was playing in other bands at the time and I was using Soft Riot as a vehicle to try out ideas with electronic music that didn’t suit a band format, mainly as the music was too minimal and too specific the in musical detail that I had in mind that would have made it difficult working in a collaboration. I barely did anything with it until early 2011, a few years after I moved to the UK when I released an initial EP, “No Longer Stranger”. I started performing live with Soft Riot in mid-2011 in London.
The sound has definitely shifted in the last five years while still maintaining a unifying aesthetic. When I started it was more subtle, dronier sound and influenced by soundtracks but in the more recent years shifting more and more into a mutant synth-pop sound. This is in part due to just working with the music for a while and allowing it to find a stronger voice, but also due to the fact that I’m a lot more confident and have gathered experienced to execute the music live and build a live energy behind it.
All in all it’s sort of an “art punk synth disco” for the most shortest description I can come up with.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
Well, I guess my background might be a bit different than a lot of synth musicians, being rooted in very experimental punk and hardcore, a scene I was involved with a lot in the 90s. I was really into bands on labels like Kill Rock Stars, Troubleman, Dischord, Gravity Records and so on. So having that influence gives me a lot of different perspectives to the whole synth genre. Where a lot of bands might focus on melody, synth production and how dance-y the song is I might come from another angle, like mashing a number of contrary ideas together, polyrhythms, experimental chord structures, that sort of thing.
In the late 90s I started getting more into early post-punk and new wave and as time carried on I was into a lot of synth/wave, italo, NDW, minimal wave and earlier synthesiser pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Silver Apples. I also have a great appreciation and interest in a wide variety of film soundtracks as well as weirdo 60s and 70s psychedelia.
I’m also into a lot of science fiction and speculative fiction. I think one area I’ve morphed a lot in my music over the years is lyric writing. Back in the day it was these sort of dour, personal abstractions and now I find I’m trying to write some more narrative lyrics, mainly in the third person and injecting a biting sense of black humour where I can.
And finally, I’m a bit of a film fanatic so that definitely is thrown into the mix although I can’t really explain how directly, except I pick up on sound design and soundtracks quite a bit.
Sounds In Alternate Pictures, your last release from May this year was an eclectic collection of remixes and reworkings of some great artists. How did the collaborations and remixes come about and why pick 2016 as the time to release them together in one volume?
A lot of the remixes on that release came about because I was friends with the artists involved. In many cases we’d be hanging out, on tour together or just in the same city and either I’d say “I’ve got a cool idea for re-working your track” or they’d in turn ask me to try something. Starting with listening to their original track for long enough on playback, the track would start to mutate in my head with my own ideas. I’d have the basis of how the remix might sound even before touching an instrument. At that point I’d go into the studio and bash out these ideas that were in my head. This sort of thing applied to remixes I did for artists like Lebanon Hanover, A Terrible Splendour, Noi Kabát and Keluar.
These remixes gave me another arena to try out new ideas in a looser, less conceptualised format that was different than the focus on writing more core material for my own albums. And those experiments in turn influenced the writing of my own material.
As time progressed I got more artists approaching me based on the strength of those initial remixes. I did these remixes over the period of 3-4 years and they were either released as extras on other band’s releases, compilations or just digital premieres on online magazines.
I’m a bit of an archivist and having had the chance to listen back to the whole collection at the beginning of this year it sounded like it’s own record in its own right so I opted to do a small release of these releases as a compilation album.
Your live shows are a real spectacle with three synths, vocals and effects all played live by yourself. What prompted such an involved stage set up and how do you manage to keep on top of all the gear single handed?
I’m originally a guitar player and then a bass player so I have had a lot of experiences playing in live bands, many of those bands having electronic elements. I think because of that I actually enjoy playing instruments live. Some artists are perhaps solely more interested in just performing in a more playback format.
The music on the earlier releases carried a far more subtle energy because it was a result of my confidence which I could pull it off live. It took a few years to feel the physical rhythm of what I was writing and playing and how to carry the weight of doing that all live as a one man show. I think within this past year that’s definitely accelerated as I now play standing up and treat my live show with as much energy now as a rocking live act.
Overall I just practiced the songs a lot. Things become sort of muscle memory after a while with all that repetition. It’s more like doing a live science lab performance, or executing a lot of cues in a live environment. For some reason my brain really clicks with that sort of thing and I find as time goes on that the whole multi-tasking of playing synths and effects becomes more and more intuitive and organic.
… and of all of live shows you’ve played all across the world, is there a particular show or venue that really stands out for you?
There’s a good number of enjoyable shows. I played Moscow in 2013 and that whole trip was an experience. It cemented the idea of that no matter where you go in the world the mindset of the musical underground is constant and you’ll find that we all share a more common vision about the world than we think on the surface, despite any language barrier that you might have.
As for other memorable shows, a lot of those have been on tour with other artists in Europe such as Lebanon Hanover, Noi Kabát, Uncanny Valley, Hausfrau and Keluar. It’s fun touring with another band because it’s like being in a band on the road when you’re actually a solo artist. I did shows with the Japanese-American artist Nao Katafuchi a few months back in Germany and it was a great opportunity to hang out with a musician I respect and a great person as well.
I know you’ve just moved up to Glasgow, how are you finding it up there and what’s the electronic music scene like up in Scotland?
I’ve only moved to Glasgow recently but had visited many times before, including playing a few gigs up here over the last few years. Having travelled around to most cities in the UK I think Glasgow for me has by far got the most buzz and interesting things going on outside of London. I think there’s many things I just “click” with here with people: the bands, their influences, the energy, the community, the sense of humour, etc. There’s definitely a build of exciting things going on here right now. I also find there’s more and more people moving here from elsewhere. It’s a city of the right size and with still a cool DIY interconnectivity that sees people going out to shows and supporting each others bands or nights.
It might sound abstract but I feel there’s a bit more of a European sensibility in how things are conducted here. Again, it’s a feeling and less of something I can explain. Maybe because I’ve travelled around Europe and have connected the dots in some way.
Some notable electronic bands I’m into here would be Hausfrau, The Junto Club, Apostille, Happy Meals, Leatherette and Den Haan, just to name a few. There’s also some more post-punk bands going on here like Kaspar Hauser and Current Affairs.
Moving forward a group of us are starting a label here called Possession Records. A number of people involved are veterans on the scene and figure it’s the right moment to ground ourselves to something. I can’t say too much about it now but we’ll be putting the wheels in motion with a few things we’ve got on the go soon enough!