Souls in Isolation, A Q&A With Soft Kill’s Toby Grave

Photo by Nicole Anne Francis
Photo by Nicole Anne Francis

We’ve been hitting Soft Kill’s newest album, Choke, hard for almost six months now. When Choke smashed into winter 2016, it immediately reminded of UK legends The Chameleons (Script of the Bridge is a genuine deserted island-type record), French mopers Asylum Party (whose Borderline album is a must-hear), and Belgian treasure obscure The Names, whose single “Nightshift” went on to inspire contemporary pop-prog outfits like Mew. The group’s label, Profound Lore, is never one to turn away from an adventure, so when Choke was announced in September 2016 it immediately made sense; at least to those understanding the trajectory and repertory of labelhead Chris Bruni. Moored by songs like “Whirl”, “Wake Up”, and “Frankie”, Soft Kill’s Choke is the kind of album driven by a desire to inform the next generation of the greatness that was post-punk in the ’80s. At the very least, it’s dark, dreary, and despondent, three things that have run through acts like My Dying Bride, Katatonia (also heavily influenced by The Cure and Joy Division early on), and pre-Pink Floyd era Anathema. Not that Soft Kill and the aforementioned bands have a contemporary red line connecting them, but there’s certainly something in Choke that fans of musical desolation can relate to. We sit down with Soft Kill frontman Toby Grave to discuss the inner workings of Choke, his checkered past (and coming to terms with it), and next steps.

Soft Kill. Tell us longhairs who and what Soft Kill are?
Toby Grave: As of late Soft Kill is made up of Owen, Conrad (Warm Hands), Brandon (Buried At Sea, Glaare, Deth Crux) and myself. I’ve been making music under this name since late 2010 and we’re just now getting our shit together.

Categories are dangerous things. Would you call Soft Kill post-punk or post-punk revival? Toby Grave: That’s a question I don’t know how to answer. There was definitely a lapse in bands of this style for many years, so maybe it’s a revival?

I think there is… from a metalhead point of view. There’s a bit of a revival happening in post-punk. Globally. Why do you think this is? There’s always precedence for things happening in music? And there’s a lot of cross-over too. With bands like Boy Harsher and Pleasure Symbols. Cool times.
Toby Grave: There was one in 2008 that went hand in hand with everyone recording at home, but it seemed to get overshadowed by the mindless Burger Records garage rock thing that happened simultaneously and still reigns supreme. In the past couple years it seems like kids from punk, metal or straight up “indie rock” backgrounds are starting bands drawing from this sound. It’s gotta be the Internet… it’s opened up so many doors to finding new and old bands for obsessed psychopaths.

We’re obviously interested since you put Choke out last year on Profound Lore, which is a choice label in our neck of the woods. How did Soft Kill and Profound Lore hook up?
Toby Grave: We got connected with Chris through my girlfriend. I listen to more metal than post-punk and really loved a lot of the bands Profound Lore has worked with, so when he was into the demo version of our record it was a no-brainer. We all agreed that we’d rather be the only band doing this sort of thing on a label normally associated with a different genre than seemingly being “right at home” some place else. We’re really happy with how things went with Choke and happy to be with a label that takes chances and consistently puts out amazing records.

Choke was released last year and we’ve not been able to get it off our proverbial turntables. For the uninitiated, who are Soft Kill’s primary influences? I hear bits of The Chameleons, Killing Joke, Asylum Party, Echo & the Bunnymen, and so on.
Toby Grave: Asylum Party we’re a big one for sure. Borderline has been a huge influence on how we build albums and song order in particular. The Chameleons are a huge influence on our guitar tone, as well as Sad Lovers & Giants, Lowlife, The Sound and Pink Turns Blue. We also look to the Stone Roses, Soul Merchants, Replacements, Cleaners From Venus, Dire Straits and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers for ideas as much as the obvious ones.

Chameleon’s vocalist Mark Burgess appears on Choke. How’d that happen?
Toby Grave: We toured with the Chameleons in 2015, our first real set of shows/activity in years, and it made sense to ask him to be on the next record. He wrote his part and really surpassed our expectations. Choke was an album that was really important to the survival of our band as I fell into some really hard times leading up to going into the studio and his contribution meant a lot to us.

Did you think about asking [ex-Chameleon’s guitarists] Dave Fielding and/or Reg Smithies to also guest?
Toby Grave: I guess that would’ve taken The Chameleons involvement to its greatest degree. There was room for a contribution vocally, but we’ve never really contemplated collaborating with anyone musically. Conrad and I look to Dave & Reg as key influences for sure. They mastered the two guitar approach. I really can’t think of anyone who did it better.

Getting back to Choke, did you have goals going into it? More of this, less of that. What are songwriting sessions like for Soft Kill? Jams or do things come together in bits and pieces.
Toby GraveChoke was our first collaborative record with the core line-up of Conrad, Owen and myself. It’s half songs I wrote at home and half jams/riffs we made together in Owen’s living room. Usually Conrad and I would layer riffs and once we sorta locked in, Owen would add a bass line while a drum machine blared from the corner. Choke was the only song we wrote as a live band with ex-members Maxamillion (Atriarch) and Brian, so that’s kinda foreign to us. I don’t think we limited ourselves at all as we were really open to not being one-dimensional this time around. Heresy comes from one place and is sonically very consistent, and while that worked perfectly for that album we wanted to do the exact opposite with the follow up. We are pretty much done demoing the fourth record and it seems like we’re refining our favorite aspects of all three records.

You’ve had a good deal of time to acclimate, dislike, fall in love again, feel apprehensive about songs on Choke. Which songs stand out to you now? Any special connection to a song or song that won’t go away?
Toby Grave: My personal favorites are “Frankie”, “Wake Up”, “On The Inside” and “I’m Beside You”. I don’t get sick of hearing those, but they are all special to me. My complaints are few enough that I’m pretty happy with the end result, but there is some stuff that drives me a little crazy that I’ll definitely be keeping in mind when we do this again.
The production is great. The vocals are a bit behind in the mix though. Was that on purpose?
Toby Grave: Ben Greenburg (Deconstruction Unit) did a ridiculous job mixing it, but yeah, they are buried. I think I natural try to hide a bit more than I should due to hating my voice but one of the things that made “An Open Door” work so well was our engineer’s insistence that I stand out in front more than I was comfortable with. The demos from that first album we’re all double tracked vocals, buried in the mix, and he vetoed doubling and pushed everything to the front. Overall, I think it works for Choke though.

Rock ‘n’ roll is full of controversy. You’ve addressed various allegations in other interviews. Is there something you’d like to put to bed permanently?
Toby Grave: I think the general public’s tolerance of controversy has changed drastically. A G.G. Allin or Sid Vicious wouldn’t make it very far this day and age. When I found drugs to escape dealing with my issues and open wounds, I found not only an escape from that but from caring about anybody’s opinion of my actions. Heroin, crack and crystal meth became my main obsessions, far more important than art or connecting with peers and you are forced to live so in the moment that any dread for tomorrow disappears once you start blazing a path to nowhere. I think a lot about Soft Kill’s existence as a band… we formed late 2010, and within a year we’re basically inactive, I went to prison, came out to the same lifestyle and didn’t attempt to really get my head out of that world until late 2015. That’s such a long gap in productivity, it’s one of the biggest elephants in the room for me to this day as it can only be blamed on addiction, weakness and laziness.

Is it hard to move on from the allegations since they’re obviously personal and public? I mean, I’m asking about them.
Toby Grave: To be honest, yeah, it’s incredibly hard. I’m years removed from when I was running wild but have a reputation that cancels out benefit of the doubt. If you post on Facebook that I’ve killed somebody, there’s a good chunk of people who will believe it out the gate, but strangely enough I’ve found that most of this is kept alive by people I don’t actually know nor dealt with directly, whereas most of the people I hurt I’ve made amends with. Years ago, I watched a guy punch my then-partner in the face and I beat him down with a drum stool in the parking lot in front of a bunch of people. He went on to start a band that is now shit-hot and that duo has done whatever they can to influence people to keep the hate alive. Stuff like that can be maddening, but I have to remind myself that there is consequences to living the way I did for so long. I used to get hung up on the fact that most rumors about me we’re not true, like it somehow cancelled out the heinous shit I was in fact guilty of. The biggest hurdle of my life was looking in the mirror and saying, “I don’t want to give in to my addictions and I am not okay with being a bad person to stay high”. Meeting my son this past month has been one of many things that makes that easier every day.

Music has come to you fairly quickly over the last few years. There’s only a year between Heresy and Choke. Besides hitting the road, are you working on new material?
Toby Grave: As I mentioned earlier, we’re basically done with the next record, so yeah, it comes really quickly when we’re in the mood to write. Personally, I’ll go months not touching a guitar then pick one up one day and have five songs done in a week, and as a unit we seem to always write a song any time we get together and jam. Making music is one of the only things I’ve found to not only be therapeutic but also an alternative to getting high.

If so, how would you describe it? Maybe more “Moving in Stereo” meets “View from a Hill” meets “Love Like Blood”? Hopeful thinking, of course.
Toby Grave: More hooks and more focus. Spent a lot of time trying to write songs that weren’t five minutes plus. It can be easy to find a cool riff and wanna ride it forever… the Cure made albums out of that, but that wasn’t the approach this time around. We still worship Chameleons, but are showing how much we adore the Cars, Stone Roses and Replacements too.

When can Soft Kill nerds, like myself, expect a full-blown US tour?
Toby Grave: U.S. dates with Chameleons in September, but another extensive U.S. run is definitely in the works sooner than later.

** Soft Kill’s new album, Choke, is out now on Profound Lore Records. It’s available in several configurations. The vinyl (on cream and clear) is obtainable HERE. The CD and digital version are obtainable at a different location HERE.