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11 January 2017

WTSH Inteviews Charlie Berger of Soft Wounds and Slowly.

Charlie Berger is the frontman of Soft Wounds, a Toronto-based jangle-gaze band that made a major splash in early 2016 upon the release of their excellent self-titled debut LP. (This record topped many “Best of 2016” lists recently -- including ours) He also releases music via his solo project, Slowly, which is just as sonically impressive as Soft Wounds. The combined musical efforts of these projects soundtracked the entirety of 2016 for me, so I am naturally thrilled to share with the world the following interview with the brilliant Mr. Berger.

How and when was Soft Wounds formed? First, I just want to say thank you so much for the opportunity to speak about my projects. Smaller, independent artists like myself would not be able to reach as wide an audience without the hard work of talented music bloggers and radio/podcast hosts like you! I am flattered that you wanted to take the time to get to know more about my projects and myself. I’m also a fan of your blog and radio show, and I have discovered so much awesome music through them, so thank you so much for all you do!

So, let’s see...Soft Wounds was initiated in the spring of 2014 by me (Charlie). I had been the vocalist in many projects/bands prior, but wanted to take a stab at adding guitar, which I had only previously done for home recording projects and never in a live setting. I had the idea to form a new project that would draw from the sounds I’ve always loved (shoegaze, dream pop, post rock, slowcore, etc.), as I had not yet had the chance to explore those genres in a band that played live. From being in a lot of different bands over the years, I know a lot of musicians, but at the time, I didn’t know of many who weren’t already involved in their own shoegaze-ish band and interested in starting something new. So, I did what most people do when they are looking to connect with likeminded individuals who align with their ‘alternative’ (music) lifestyles, I posted on Craigslist. :P

Through craigslist, I met Matt, an amazing guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, and a recent transplant to Toronto from Australia. He was keen on the idea and also a big fan of shoegaze and dream pop. Matt had his own solo project and had played in several bands in his native Hobart, Tasmania. We met up a couple of times and things clicked right away. Along the way, we also met Andrew, a ‘living shoegaze encyclopedia’ of a bass player, who brought a unique style to the mix. Together (with our first drummer, Geordie who we picked up along the way, who was then replaced by Jimmy), we started to write what would become the basis for Soft Wounds first demo and eventual first studio release (released back in January 2016). The rest, as they say, is history?

What prompted you to begin your solo project, Slowly, earlier this year? At the time (Spring 2016), Soft Wounds was going through some lineup changes (a couple members left the band abruptly), so while we were getting new members up to speed on the previously-written material, Soft Wounds put songwriting on hold for a few months. I had a whole lot of new material that had built up over that time (I’m always working on new music at home), so I started to record the ideas I was writing at home in my spare time (mostly to not forget them). I had previously done some solo recording on another solo effort a few years back; and I had always found it a lot of fun and a challenge to write and record every part of the song myself (bass, guitar, vocals, drums, etc.). I started to realize that I had much more material than I could possibly release with Soft Wounds, so I decided flesh some of them out and turn them into material for a new solo project (which I called ‘Slowly’) and release them myself in an ongoing fashion online.  

The sound of Slowly is slightly different from Soft Wounds in the sense that it’s all me. In Soft Wounds, one member may be more responsible for writing the foundation of a given song, but always in collaboration with the other members, so things can morph and change as each of us brings our own unique styles and ideas to the table. I guess you could say that Slowly is what Soft Wounds would probably sound like if you cloned me 3 times and I started up a band with those clones (which is a great idea for a movie, BTW…they could call it something like ‘Clone Band’ or ‘Band of Clones’...I dunno, we’ll let the suits in Hollywood figure that part out…).

What’s on the horizon for Slowly? Do you plan to keep releasing singles monthly? Do you think Undone will ever be available physically, after you’ve accumulated a certain number of songs? For now, Slowly will continue as a project that releases singles monthly-ish (I hope to keep up that pace, anyway). I like releasing it bit-by-bit, as it gives me time to digest what I am writing and to make decisions about the direction of the next song and the album overall. I like how no one, not even me, knows the direction it could take until the next song is released. I also like that the album so far has become like a monthly diary; I can look back and see how the moods/lyrical content changed from month-to-month and were influenced by my life at the time, and how the previous song decisions influenced the next song I would write. It’s fun to take advantage of the digital format, as it has redefined what an album can be for me. Back in the day, you had physical formats that had limitations in terms of album length and distribution, as all the songs had to be released and packaged together at the same time as a single unit. Most music I have released so far has been in the form of full albums or EP’s, so this is the first time I have tried doing it this way and I am enjoying it!

Of course, one of the biggest drawbacks to the digital format is also what makes it so awesome; it makes music so much more accessible than before downloading was a thing. I often find myself getting an album digitally, and not really fully experiencing it as I did when I was younger (way back in the pre-downloading age...apparently I am an old, old man). When I was a teenager, I could only afford that one new CD a month, which I would listen to non-stop and really get into, because it’s all the new music I would have until I could save up enough to buy the next album. Today, it’s so easy to download like 5 albums in a day, listen to a few tracks here and there, and then move on to the next 5 new albums the next day without truly experiencing all that great music and really getting into all the nuances of each album - or giving some songs the chance to grow on you when they maybe didn’t click with you right away. I like how people who enjoy Slowly can take the journey with me and the gradual release format can give the listener the chance to really digest a new song until the next one is released about a month later….hopefully those who have liked what I have released so far feel it’s akin to watching episodes of their favourite show from week-to-week; the previous episode hopefully leaves you wanting to find out what happens next, so you wait in anticipation to come back the next week and check out the next chapter, and so on.

I don’t really have any formal plans for a physical release, but that’s not to say it’s not in the cards. I have self-released projects on physical formats in the past, but it can be very expensive and being a smaller, lesser-known musician, it’s hard to break even on the production costs. Now, maybe if a great label came along… :)

Overall, I really love that releasing my music digitally makes it accessible for everyone, from anywhere. I also plan to always make it ‘pay what you can’, as making money off the music is less important to me than having people listen and (hopefully) enjoy it.

At the moment, I do almost everything in-house; I write and record myself, do my own mixing, create my own artwork/visuals, make my own videos, do my own online marketing, social media, etc...I love the DIY approach, because it has allowed me (and my band mates) to have creative control and can provide the opportunity to learn new ways to inject creativity into a musical project (I am also a visual artist, so it’s fun to create visuals for the project. My musical foundation is rooted in the punk rock ethos, so being DIY is kinda ingrained in me. DIY is fun...and it also saves money. (win-win!) The only thing I don’t do myself is the mastering, which my talented friend Tom takes care of.

Can you tell us what Soft Wounds has been working on currently (if anything), and what might be forthcoming in the near future? Soft Wounds has been experiencing a bit of flux over the past couple of months. At the moment, Matt and I are the remaining core members. Our bass player and drummer recently decided to part ways with the band. It’s very hard to keep a band going when it’s more of a part-time thing and everyone understandably has differing priorities (both personal and professional) that can take precedent over playing music, or different ideas about what the band should, or could be creatively. It’s kind of like dating 3 people at the same time, and it can be hard enough to be on the same page as one person you are involved with, let alone three.

So, as a result we haven’t been playing live much over past few months, but Matt and I are in the initial phases of working on an EP’s-worth of new material. Given the recent lineup changes, we will be playing all instruments, and I am excited to see what comes out. (Matt and I are both multi instrumentalists, so we have all bases covered and then some!). The core of Soft Wounds’ sound has mainly been at the intersection of Matt’s and my songwriting, so at this point, even if it becomes more of a recording collaboration between the two of us, I am totally OK with that...even without playing shows, we can still have a voice, still release music and still have people from all over the world (potentially) enjoy that music!

Do you consider your music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene? Do you feel your sound identifies closely with those genres? (Interestingly, lots of artists I speak to say they feel part of the scene, but they don’t think they have a particular shoegaze-y sound…) I’d like to hope that people would identify Soft Wounds and Slowly as being a part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene. I personally regard both projects as fitting into the scene/sound, but I guess everyone will determine what style they think it fits under based on what they hear in the music for themselves. Music is so subjective and it means something different to each listener, who all have strong opinions on what they like and (especially) don’t like (if the comments you read under the YouTube videos of any semi-popular band’s music are any indication) only hope is that we can reach and connect to even a few people through what we create and that no matter how they define the sound, they at least think it’s good...I know not everyone will be into it, but hopefully we pick up a few new friends along the way.

Overall, I feel our sound has a lot of the hallmarks of shoegaze/dream pop; heavy use of reverb, delay, atmospheric sound, lush melodies, wall-of-sound-y-ness from time-to-time...but whatever genre the listener wants to call it is fine by me, even if they call it ‘total shit’. (because that would mean they at least took some time to give it a listen, and in my mind, any reaction, positive or negative, illustrates that the music has elicited an emotional response. That’s all I could really hope for).

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia artists, any favorites? There are so many amazing musicians out there today, it can be quite daunting, especially being a huge music nerd who is always looking for new and exciting sounds, it’s so hard to keep up!...but, at the same time it can also be very inspiring. I love what modern shoegaze, dream pop and psychedelic bands are much creativity, I love it when bands bend the unwritten ‘rules’ of songwriting and of recording in general...I would be humbled to be considered in their ranks.

I am torn in regards to my views on the popularity of shoegaze, dream pop and psychedelic music; on one hand, it would be great if these niche genres had a wider audience...but on the other hand, if these sounds were too mainstream, bands maybe would not be willing to take risks as they do. Being more underground breeds creativity, IMO, allowing for some really interesting and creative sounds/approaches. Being a part of this scene, I feel like I belong to a special club of like-minded people and artists who are all in on one of the best-kept secrets in modern music.

Bands I love? In my own backyard (the Toronto area), there are some fantastic bands like Beliefs, Indoor Voices, Lust, Memoryhouse, SIANspheric...I recently discovered a local band called Tonemirror who are pretty awesome (would love to play a show with those guys sometime!). Outside of my local scene, I have really been digging recent releases by Lazy Legs, Kestrels, Newmoon and Pity Sex, to name a few.

What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? If I had to pick one, that would be my Strymon Big Sky reverb pedal, so versatile...I’ve had it for two years now and I've officially decided that it’s the only reverb pedal I will ever need...Lush, deep sounds, a ton of different editable parameters and reverbs that you can customize and save...not cheap, but definitely worth every penny! totally sounds like they paid me to say that, but it’s true, see for’re welcome Strymon, please make my check out to ‘cash’. :P

What is your process for recording your music? What gear and/or software do you use? What would you recommend for others? I use pretty old software...Cool Edit Pro 2.0...yep, pre-Adobe Audition-styles...I have recorded with it for years and just got comfortable using it, so i haven’t rocked the boat (or the bank account) on a more modern ‘high end’ recording program. I have also dabbled with using Reaper, which is an amazing piece of recording software (which is only $60 for home-studio users!) and have had some success with it as well, but it’s much more complex and has a steeper learning curve...I like simple, simple works for me. I also use wav editors like WaveLab and Soundforge when they are called for, but I mostly try to get the sound I want right from the instrument, amp, pedals or right from my own mouth, with as little digital manipulation as possible.

For the most part, I just throw up a decent mic to my amp, plug it into my Focusrite interface, and get into it. I usually start by writing a few different guitar parts that can fit together, and test out some vocal melodies. Once I have a couple good, solid parts (usually what could be a solid potential verse and/or a chorus/bridge, etc.), I will record them roughly along with some vocal ideas over top of them and will use that rough recording as reference to work out my ideas and refine them. From there, it’s a matter of choosing what kind of tempo and what sorts of drum beats I want...then I decide (on paper, or in my head) of how many times I want to play a given part, what kinds of transitions I want, etc., and I map out the entire song in a rough outline...then, I open the recording program and it’s GO TIME on an official song...I start by recording the drums, then the root notes (either on bass or guitar) and then start layering on top of that and finish with vocals...many decisions are made quickly, and I often go with my initial gut idea for what I hear in my head for a given part...when I get into a flow state, the stuff just kinda falls out of me and time passes by very quickly...before I know it, I have a song, and it’s midnight, I don’t know where I am, and I really have to pee!

I will spend a lot of time tweaking in the mixing phase. I will mix down a track and listen to it through my studio monitors, on my computer speakers, headphones, ear buds, in my car, on my lo-fi stereo, on my iPhone speaker, tin cans (basically anywhere that sound can be transmitted), all to get a sense of what elements might need to be tweaked. Once it’s all mixed to a point I am content, I mix it down one final time and send it off to be mastered. 

My best recommendation would be to experiment...figure out what works best for you by trying out all kinds of zany setups and arrangements. There are no ‘rules’, only what sounds good to you. It’s so easy to get bogged down in how you are ‘supposed’ to record/write music, but if you think it sounds good, go for it and keep at it. Write a ton of music, record a ton of ideas and always be true to what you want to hear, don’t try to play to a specific audience...I find that when someone is going by something honestly, it comes through in the music and others will feel that honesty. Also, learn from others...if your band/project pays to record in a professional studio, pay close attention to the process and be involved in every step so that you can really get a sense of the process.

Looking back, the first songs I ever wrote were pretty bad, and my first home recordings, which were done on a broken 4-track directly to cassette, sounded like white hot garbage...some could maybe argue that the music I make today still does, but I would like to think that I have come a long way through experimentation and collaborations with other musicians and recording engineers who are much more skilled at songwriting/recording than I am.

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them? I kinda like them all for different reasons, depending on what is required; I like the warm tones and collectability of vinyl, I like the crisp sound and the archival aspect of CD’s, I like the exclusivity, lo-fi-ness and nostalgia of cassette tapes (my first real band released on cassette only, which was all we had back then) and I like the easy-shareability (and inexpensive distribution) of mp3’s and other digital formats, which is the big reason why I have decided to release exclusively in digital formats, for the time-being. 

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work? Good question...I mean, can any shoegaze-ish musician honestly say they haven’t been influenced by at least one of the big-guns? (MBV, Slowdive, Ride)...also bands like Galaxie 500, Swervedriver, Lush, Auburn Lull, Fugazi, Sigur Ros, the White Birch, Godspeed, Codeine, Slint, many others, too many to list here without putting people to sleep.

I listen to a pretty diverse range of musical styles from shoegaze, to post rock, to noise, to math rock, to hip hop, to downright insanely heavy grindy stuff...but for the most-part, I usually end up back on something melodic, with lush sounds that creates a sense of atmosphere in some way, those are the sounds that typically inspire me.

What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by? If I had to boil it down to one phrase, I guess my philosophy on life would be ‘make it happen’...if you want something, make it happen, don’t wait for it to come to is too short to spend it waiting, you have the ability to make things happen, the first step is believing that.