When the Muslims started garnering attention in 2008 with the release of a self-titled EP, it was probably for both the right and wrong reasons. While some people may have been more concerned with how a band could have the balls to adapt such a moniker in the hate-mongering climate of post-9/11 America, those with the good wits to listen to the record were lucky enough to hear a brash batch of whipsmart rock. The then San Diego–based band—originally begun by just singer Matt Lamkin and guitarist Matty LcLaughlin, but filled out by bassist Dave Lantzman and drummer Brian Hill—eventually dropped the name in favor of the less controversial the Soft Pack, re-releasing the EP (still titled as The Muslims) in March 2009 before signing to Kemado Records.
This month saw the release of the Soft Pack’s self-titled full-length debut. Like it’s predecessor, the album is built on a solid foundation of irascible, yet catchy, songs propelled on a garage rock backbone and post-punk demeanor. After one listen, it’s hard not to be taken in by cuts like “Answer to Yourself” and “Pull Out,” which seem built, not just for the times, but for the ages.
I caught up on the phone with Lantzman while the band was staying at a Travelodge in Nottingham, England during a month-long tour of Europe.
Have you noticed any difference between European audiences and American audiences?
Dave Lantzman: Not particularly. It’s pretty similar. We get a pretty wide array of fans. We get a lot of older people—like old men in their forties—it’s pretty rad. It’s kind of the same thing over here—not a lot of movement, but people standing attentively— and then the one guy dancing crazy.
There’s always that one guy. What you do is pretty straight-up rock & roll. Do you think that’s why you attract older audience members?
DL: Yeah, I think so. Maybe in their minds we remind them of the straight-up rock & roll bands from the ’70s.
Let’s talk about the new record. Did you have specific goals going into making it?
DL: Always a specific goal of ours is to make something that’s honest, not too complicated with clutter, and gets the point across simply and effectively. We wanted it to be fun sounding and somewhat eclectic. With the first record, it wasn’t a goal to sound lo-fi, but it kind of turned out that way, which is cool. But for this one, we wanted to have a clean sound overall.
You mentioned wanting it to sound “honest.” How would you define “honest?”
DL: I guess just sounding like us and how we feel. We started hitting a creative stride towards the end with the track “Pull Out.” Our schedule last year was a little hectic, and we didn’t really have enough time to write the record. We ended up having to push it back; it was originally supposed to come out in September. I think that resulted in over-thinking some of the songs. Not that I’m not happy with the way it turned out—I’m totally happy with the way it turned out. But songs like “Pull Out” and some of the stuff that we did later came from us loosely jamming in the practice space when we had got to a creative stride where we figured out how to work and write together and communicate musically and verbally more effectively. That was an exciting stride to hit as a band. We’re not trying to be something we’re not—we can’t fake it. I think people sense that, and that's important to us.
You mentioned hitting your stride as a band. I know the band started out as Matt and Matty. Did they write those first batch of songs?
DL: Yeah. It was basically Matt and Matty writing all the songs, and then Brian and I came on and we toured on those songs for awhile. When we started to work on the new record, there was a little bit of an adjustment period as far as us working together and communicating. We were trying to make it collaborative, and that was what was really great about Matt and Matty. They were open to that and had faith in us as artists and musicians to bring stuff to the table. It wasn’t a dictatorship or anything like that. But it did take a little bit of an adjustment period to learn how to work together, but I think we got there. And it got there more towards the end, like I was explaining, with “Pull Out.”
So you were basically starting from scratch going into this record?
DL: Yeah, all the songs on the record were songs we did as the four of us.
Was there a reason for wanting to record in Brooklyn as opposed to some place closer to home?
DL: We got in touch with Eli Janney through our friends in the Obits because we really liked that record. It wasn’t that we wanted to record in New York, it just happened that way because it was better for Eli to work out there. Our label is out there, and New York’s been kind of a home away from home in a lot of ways so it didn’t seem farfetched.
Were you a fan of Girls Against Boys?
DL: I didn’t personally listen to Girls Against Boys in the ’90s, though I heard stuff afterwards. What attracted us to Eli was he was part of the DC DIY punk scene and the records he’s done are powerful, like the Obits record.
What’s going on on the cover? Are you passing a joint?
DL: No, it’s a secret handshake! We’re walking on the beach... yeah, we’re passing a joint. It was a point of contention at first. I was like, “No, we don’t want to put that on there!” But we decided it doesn’t look that obvious. We just thought it was an interesting photograph. Matt’s cousin took the photo awhile ago, and we like the blue skies more than the idea of us passing a joint.
Do you think there’s elements that make you distinctly West Coast?
DL: We have some surfy guitars, but I’ve never thought of the band as West Coast–specific. We just try to make songs that we have fun playing live. I’ve never thought of us as a San Diego band or an L.A. band—we’re just a band. I feel like nowadays, with the internet, you can be anywhere and make music.
You guys did 10 shows in one day in Los Angeles, right? How did that work?
DL: The first show was at 10:30 in the morning at Matty’s house in Highland Park. It was pretty wild. Sean Carlson, who promotes FYF Fest, put the whole thing together and booked all the shows. There was a really strict schedule we had to adhere to. He was blowing whistles to get us on the special vegetable oil–powered school bus we were using. We had to leave on time to get to the next place quickly, but we totally pulled it off. The only hiccup we had was in Downey, where we were playing at a fan’s house—we had fans send emails to play at their houses. The cops were there when we got there, and we only got to play two songs. But other than that, we played every show and people showed up. It was a really good experience. We did a proper tour of the greater Los Angeles area. It was pretty awesome.
Were you playing full sets at the other shows?
DL: We were playing about five songs a show, and then at the last show we played 12 songs. That show was around 12 o’clock so it was about 13 hours of playing.
You always get asked about the Muslims name. I’m curious about the original thought behind that name. Given the anti-Muslim sentiments in this country, was it some sort of political statement?
DL: It was never a political statement. None of us ever thought of it as a bad word. It was just a catchy name in the vein of Frank Blank and the Catholics. Even with all the stuff going on with terrorism, we never thought of it like that. We never thought the band would break out of San Diego, and it was never a problem with our immediate group of friends in San Diego. It only became an issue when we started getting more press and people started making bad jokes and racist comments. It became a catalyst for stuff we didn’t want to be associated with.
Did you ever have trouble flying?
DL: No, not really. We got pulled over by a cop in Texas once, and we decided to just say that our band name was the Slims to avoid any contention. We became more aware of the problems and we wanted to change the name of the band for awhile before we did. It was tough finding a new name, but we’re not the kind of guys to get hung up on the band name—we’re about making songs. I think it was made a bigger deal than it should have been.
You guys got a good amount of buzz going when you were the Muslims. Do you feel like you had to re-establish yourselves as the Soft Pack?
DL: We had to re-establish ourselves a little bit, but it carried over pretty well. The people that were into us for the right reasons stayed on board. There were actually a lot of people that were bummed out that we changed the name. Some people thought we were selling out because it was right around the time that we got signed, but our label was like, “Do you really want to change the name?” We just wanted to move on from the bullshit associated with it.