Soft Tigers: Eclectic Light Orchestra
The curious sounds of Soft Tigers
“We were going to see quite a lot of shows, and we were pretty frustrated with it,” says Bucky Toller (a.k.a. Bucktronic), one third of Soft Tigers. “We didn’t see much stuff we liked. We had a lot of friends who really loved lots of different music, and they weren’t being represented. It was pretty one-dimensional. We just wanted to do something that reflected what we like.”
He says all of this without a trace of bitterness or malice. It’s just a fact: Soft Tigers exist because of – or in spite of, perhaps – the shortcomings of Sydney’s compartmentalised and notoriously cliquey music scene. To even refer to a singular ‘scene’ is itself erroneous. The way things are these days, it’s more like a competing set of individual mini-scenes. Like neighbouring tribes, they live side-by-side in relative peace, but are constantly wary of each other and shy away from cross-pollination as much as possible.
That puts a group like Soft Tigers in a bit of a tight spot. Too rock to be dance, too dance to be hip-hop, too hip-hop to be indie, and too indie to be rock, they’re kind of the odd men out.
“We love that,” enthuses Neil Harvey (a.k.a. Mechanical Bird Collision), who alongside Toller forms the core songwriting duo of Soft Tigers. “If you get pigeonholed, that’s the worst thing.”
Well, sure. Nobody wants to be put in a box. But in a city like Sydney, there’s danger in thinking too far outside the square. Wantonly eclectic acts like Soft Tigers can find getting shows to be difficult at best, and near-impossible at worst.
“We haven’t had a problem getting shows for some reason,” counters Harvey.
“Mainly,” suggests Toller, “because we don’t want to play them. We always get offered these shows and we’re like, ‘do we really want to play that?’ Everybody’s scratching their heads, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, alright.’”
You see, unlike most bands, Soft Tigers isn’t the end result of its members’ latent rock star dreams. Far from being a priority, playing live is something they’re heretofore avoided for the most part, doing only a handful of shows and instead focusing most of their energies on the construction of their forthcoming debut album, Gospel Ambitions.
The record’s roots run back to the fertile soils of Canberra, an oft-overlooked breeding ground for musicians and other artistically-inclined individuals. Both locals of our nation’s circular capital, Toller and Harvey actually met at an Avalanches show in Sydney about five years ago. The two hit it off straight away, and soon found themselves experimenting with songwriting together, aided along the way by Harvey’s interest in home-recording techniques and whiz-bang software like. This sparked a small fad among the guys’ group of friends, and before you know it everybody was, as Toller puts it, “sampling like crazy. There must’ve been hours and hours of music produced from that year or two in Canberra.”
“Kind of the same way a group of friends will get into a certain computer game, we got into this program for recording music,” adds Harvey. “It wasn’t the best music ever recorded, but that’s how it all began.”
Songwriting becomes a process akin to storyboarding, so much so that Toller and Harvey actually draw up what they call “road maps” of the songs: A3-sized charts of how a tune should be pieced together.
The bulk of what would eventually become Gospel Ambitions was recorded at Toller’s house in the seaside suburb of Bronte. The rest of it was done in a beach house in Mossy Point, a tiny blip on the map a ways south of Bateman’s Bay. Both locations had the advantage of being relatively distraction-free, and without worries like deadlines and studio costs the band were free to work at their own pace, taking the time to figure out exactly where it was they wanted to go with this music they were creating and to indulge in experiments like hanging microphones out of windows to capture the natural sounds of their surroundings.
Early on, it was the almost spontaneous birth of the track ‘Mr Icecream’ – a joyous mesh of cheap keyboards, half-rapped/half-sung vocals, handclaps and field recordings – that set the tone of Soft Tigers’ idiosyncratic take on composition and recording.
“That was the session where we broke through to figuring out what we wanted to do for the rest of the album,” explains Toller. “We got more found sounds, a lot more atmospheres out the window… I suppose we were just a lot more playful. The song itself was a very fluid composition. We wrote it as if we were writing a film clip: this is what’s happening here and that’s what’s happening there and then we’ll jump-cut to the ice cream man doing this. It’s kind of straightforward but then it doesn’t create a straightforward product.”
Gospel Ambitions is definitely not straightforward. Entirely a product of the eclecticism that fuelled Toller and Harvey’s initial songwriting experiments, it’s an amalgamation of everything from hip-hop to house, post-punk to pure pop. Traditional verse-chorus-verse structures are all but absent from the album; the songs have instead been let loose, free to jump from idea to idea however their limited attention spans dictate.
“When you work the way that we work, writing and producing a song as you go, you get bored really quickly,” says Toller. “You’ll do a section and you’ll have listened to it 200 times before you move onto the next section and then you’ll listen to that section heaps before you move onto the next. That creates a sort of attention deficit where you just want to jump onto the next thing. You really want to be interesting yourself. If we’re working on something as soon as it starts to get a little bit stale or a little bit boring we’re both just, ‘No we can’t do this’.”
Toller and Harvey are both hesitant to describe themselves as musicians. It’s Pal Gupta, the third piece of the Soft Tigers puzzle, who they say fills that role, crediting him as being a musical polymath with the enviable skill of being able to play just about any instrument he picks up. The pair see themselves more as writers, working on treatments for the songs as one might work on a film script.
It’s not surprising to learn, then, that they both have backgrounds in film and that this has very much informed their methodologies. Songwriting becomes a process akin to storyboarding, so much so that Toller and Harvey actually draw up what they call “road maps” of the songs: A3-sized charts of how a tune should be pieced together. The idea came from the time that Soft Tigers were working on their remix (reinterpretation, more accurately) of Architecture In Helsinki’s ‘Heart It Races’ single.
“We didn’t have a computer at the time,” explains Toller of how it all came about. “Mine was on the fritz and Harvey was only here for a couple of days, so we thought ‘OK, let’s just write all our ideas down.’ When you have an hour where a lot of ideas are coming into your head and you’re both bouncing off each other, it’s good just to write them down.
“The ‘Heart It Races’ one is the prettiest. It’s all colourful. Most of them are A4 bits of paper with these black things all over them. It’s also probably the most detailed one we’ve done as well. Really specific sounds and textures.”
The fruit of all this charting and experimenting and everything else is only just emerging now – such is the joy of being signed to a record label and having to deal with things like release schedules and such. In the meantime, however, Soft Tigers have taken matters into their own hands and released Gospel Ambitions: Demo Versions, an embryonic incarnation of the album limited to 300 hand-numbered tapes. Yes, tapes. Those things that your car stereo used to eat for breakfast.
“The tape was something we wanted to do before we hooked up with the label,” explains Harvey. “When finally they got in touch with us, there was gonna be a big delay before the album was out. So I was just like, let’s just fuckin’ put it out on a tape! They liked the idea, claimed it as their own and made up 300 tapes. We like that kind of retro aesthetic. Back in the day it was just about hand-numbered tapes.”
There is a tendency these days, perhaps as a backlash against the mainstream trend towards downloads and other unsavoury forms of music consumption, to fetishise the humble cassette tape and to overlook its obvious limitations. Sure, tapes are cool, but are they really that cool? But Toller knows a naked emperor when he sees one, and says there’s a more practical reason at the heart of Soft Tigers’ decision to embrace lo-fi analogue technology.
“The reality of it was, we were really happy with what we’d done at home,” he says. “Tape has a certain quality to it that can smooth over the rougher edges. Or make the rough edges more beautiful. When we were mixing and mastering our record it was like, ‘This doesn’t really sound like what we did at home.’ And we’d really like people to hear what we did at home. In some instances I think it’s better.”
As if they didn’t already have enough on their collective plate, Soft Tigers are currently in the process of producing film clips for each and every song on Gospel Ambitions. So far, clips for ‘Intro’, ‘Karate’ and the album’s first single ‘M.A.R.I.A.’ have surfaced. Sure, they could have employed some hotshot Surry Hills director to give his interpretation of their music, but why outsource when they’ve got all the skills they need in-house? This is the real DIY: born out of simple pragmatics and without the faux-revolutionary trappings that such a tag generally entails.
“We’ve just taken to it as a really big art project or whatever you want to call it,” explains Toller of Soft Tigers’ multimedia pursuits. “Which kind of fits with our ambition to make something that’s very distinctive. It may be short-lived but everything about it is special.”
Short-lived? But why? Isn’t it most bands’ ambition to be able to play their music forever and ever, like The Rolling Stones or something? Apparently not. Soft Tigers see their timeline as finite, and essentially plan to burn out rather than fade away.
“In a way, this isn’t what we really want to do,” says Harvey. “It wasn’t conceived like, ‘let’s be in a band!’ It was very natural. I don’t think we want to be that big.”
“Ideally, we’d be a band that releases one or two really strong records,” adds Toller, “and then just goes away.”