The Soft Close-Ups is the band of London-based vocalist David Shah and American guitarist and synthesizer player Aug Stone.

Shah is the former singer in indie pop act Luxembourg, who released two acclaimed albums, 'Front' (2006) and 'Last Holiday Before Divorce' (2008), and now fronts his own solo project the Melting Ice Caps, whose debut album 'Permissible Permutations' came out in 2012. Stone has played in several different indie bands, including electronic trio H Bird, who Pennyblackmusic interviewed in 2010 when they posthumoously released their only album 'Operation: Facination'.

Stone, an Anglophile, is currently based in Stratford in Connecticut, but has spent much of the last decade living in London, and met Shah at a party there in 2006. The Soft Close-Ups released 'In Retrospect', a seven track collection of their early recordings in 2011, and have now followed this with their full-length debut album, 'City Air'.

'City Air' was recorded both in Boston and London, and is bittersweet in tone, Shah's melancholy vocals merging with Stone's brooding and gently reflective guitar and keyboard lines.

With Stone making two visits in rapid succession to London in February and April, the Soft Close-Ups recently played their first shows as a full band, with former Luxembourg member Steve Brummell on drums and Colm McCrory, who was previously in Help Stamp Out Loneliness, on bass.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to David Shah and Aug Stone about 'City Air'.


PB: When we last interviewed you three years ago, Aug, about H Bird, that band’s singer Kate Dornan described its members as being “the sort of people who have their fingers in many pies.“ It seems that much the same could be said about the Soft Close-Ups. You also make music as Eiscafe and AUNTIE, run your own music blog 'First Kiss Lips', are working on 'The Beekeeper' comic with artist Steve Horry, and write about music, comics, and books for 'The Quietus'. David, you also front your own project the Melting Ice Caps. On top of this you live now in separate cities in separate countries, Aug in Boston and David in London. Has ‘City Air’ proved as a result a very difficult album to make?

DS: Not so much difficult as... slow. In the summer of 2012 we were made a very exciting offer. We can't say exactly what it was but it spurred us on to focus intensively on songwriting for a few weeks. Aug was sending me music demos, sometimes several in one day, to work on. From that period, we got many of the songs that ended up on the album - got them written, that is.

So the songwriting wasn't the part that took the time, but recording the album took longer, particularly the four songs we recorded whilst Aug was in the US and I wasn't! Passing almost-finished mixes back and forth across the Atlantic via email was sometimes novel and exciting and at other times just quite frustrating. I think it was all worth it in the end though.

AS: I wouldn’t say it was difficult. Because when you really want to do something, obstacles don’t really matter. And we really wanted to make this record. When I had to move back to the States, David and I consciously decided not to waste time and to keep things moving forward. And I find that when you commit to things like that, possibilities start to open up for you. Sure enough, I was working with my friend Danny Gold in Boston, MA on our remix of the Victoria & Jacob song ‘Festival’ for John Jervis’ WIAIWYA label (https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/track/festival-aug-stone-danny-gold-barium-remix ), and I mentioned to Danny that the Soft Close-Ups were trying to figure out how to record the album now that we lived in different countries. Danny, very awesomely, offered to record the music at his studio in Boston in exchange for me doing session work for him. So that was taken care of.

Then I asked the current rhythm section of Lifestyle, a fantastic synthpop band I used to play in when I lived in Boston, if they’d be up for the sessions. Eric Donohue on bass and Patrick Ahern on drums are both excellent musicians and I was very pleased they both said yes. We only had two rehearsals for it and then two sessions in the studio. I remember quite strongly a curious phenomena during the second rehearsal which sometimes happens when you’re completely focused –what I describe as ‘becoming the music’. Not becoming one with it, it’s more than that, this wonderful state of flow where you’re not even aware of actually playing, or anything else really, just this beautiful sound, and what’s coming through everyone’s fingers is exactly what it should be. And that level of intensity continued in the studio. On a few of the recordings the basics are all one take.

Looking back at your question, it did take a lot of effort. I was driving the two and a half hours each way to Boston and back at least once a week for four months, and sometimes three times in one week. And not being in the same room to mix meant a lot of adjusting back and forth. But as David says, it was well worth it. I get this wonderful feeling when I listen back to the record, not pride exactly, more an extreme gratitude that we got to bring it into the world.

PB: Your first met in 2006 at the birthday party of Luxembourg drummer Steve Brummell. How aware were you of each other’s work before forming the Soft Close-Ups? What was the initial appeal for you of wanting to work with each other?

DS: I imagine at that time I just knew Aug's H Bird output. That would have been enough for me to realise he has a keen pop sensibility and lots of ideas. Later on I twigged how hard working he is.

AS: David’s old band Luxembourg were my favourite band at the time. In 2005, I went to eleven Lux gigs. I didn’t know that many people in London and just used to go on my own too. The Close-Ups actually did Luxembourg’s beautiful b-side ‘About Time’ at an acoustic show at the 12 Bar once. Steve, Lux’s drummer, is now the Soft Close-Ups drummer as well as providing sticks duties for the Monochrome Set.

When H Bird released our ‘Pink Lights and Champagne’ single, Alex Potterill and I wanted to do something special for the release party. So we asked a lot of our musician friends to do a short set of something a bit different. Acts would have about ten minutes using the same equipment and it’d be like cabaret with H Bird doing a full set at the end. It was great. Jamie Manners and Martin White did an accordion version of Gary Numan’s ‘Are Friends’ Electric?’, Dickon Edwards and Charley Stone (no relation) did the ten-minute ‘File Under Forsaken’ from the very first Fosca ep, Harvey Williams did some piano songs. And David did the two songs from what would later make up the first Melting Ice Caps single – ‘Hard to Get’ and ‘Don’t Say a Word’ – and also a Kirsty MacColl cover. Everybody loved it. I remember Ian Catt (Saint Etienne collaborator, who recorded the H Bird album) saying to me, "Someone needs to get these songs to Marc Almond!"

When I moved back to the UK in 2007, I wanted to get into producing bands (something I’d still like to do) and I asked David if there was anything he wanted to record. We eventually did co-produce the single version of ‘Don’t Say a Word’, and spent a very long time on it, but before we got to that point, it took months for us to actually meet up. I was having a terrible time finding somewhere to live and was moving between friends’ couches and cheap B&Bs for about four months. David was very understanding and suggested at some point that we try to write something together. I sent him a very sloppy demo of an idea that I’d recorded around 3 a.m. during a bout of insomnia and this became our first song, ‘Fireworks’.

I’ve always thought David has a magnificent voice and is an excellent lyricist. It’s great writing together. I’m always pleased at how well the songs come out and a little surprised as the end result is always slightly different than I would’ve foreseen. A good thing.

PB: How does the song writing in the Soft Close-Ups work. Aug, for H Bird you wrote most of the lyrics and music, while Eiscafe in comparison involves different singers “writing words to a bunch of music I’ve got stockloaded.” Has the Soft Close-Ups been in some ways an extension of Eiscafe with David providing the lyrics to your music, or do you provide both the words and music?

DS: Aug writes the music and I supply lyrics and vocal parts. There's also a little piano from me on the album, but the rest of the music is down to Aug and some of our talented friends.

AS: The Close-Ups were around well before Eiscafe, as was the Soft Close-Ups song ‘Eiscafe’.

When we decided to write the album, I went through all the ideas I had on my dictaphone, just little scraps – a riff or a few chord changes – and worked to make them into actual songs, awaiting lyrics. It’s true, as David says above, I would sometimes send him several in one day. To get out of my flat I would go to the rehearsal studios near Holloway Road – Strummers and Storm. They’d rent me a cheap room where I could sit with an acoustic guitar. I clearly remember ‘Awkward Scenes’ coming together at Strummers. It was exciting.

David provides all the lyrics and vocal melodies. Though when we were doing ‘The Way I Don’t Kiss’, the first version, I remember showing up to record it and David wanted to change the first verse. We sat at his kitchen table and fired ideas back and forth. Through a few revisions, we forged the "your head, your hips, your knees" line. But that’s the only time that’s ever happened. I really like the piano parts David laid down on the album. They really add a nice element.

PB: In our previous interview, Aug, you said that you were a “big fan of a good title.” ‘City Air’ is full of them –the title track, ‘The Way I Don’t Kiss’, ‘Awkward Scenes’ and ‘Birthmark’. The Soft Close-Up have a more Autumnal feel than much of H Bird’s music. Your songs there seem to be set in a less fantastical, more downbeat world and tell of real heartbreak and loss of communication between people. Several of the songs on the H Bird album took their name from chapter names of James Bond and ‘Avengers’ episode titles. Were the tracks on ‘City Air’ drawn from your imagination or were they similarly literature and film-inspired?

DS: Both. The titles and lyrics are mostly imagined, but the imagination is of course a repository for all sorts of stuff, including ideas from films, books and life in general. 'Your Likely Years' and 'Eiscafe' are slightly different in that their lyrics are largely lifted from two poems by AE Housman. We hope he would have approved.

PB: Several of the tracks were recorded in what you have called “the Boston sessions.” How long did those sessions last? They were produced by Danny Gold, who also plays synths of some of the tracks. Who is he and what did he bring to the sessions?

AS: We started recording at the beginning of June last year and made the final mixing decisions in October. Aside from September when I was visiting London, I was in Boston at least once a week during those months mixing or putting down additional guitars and synths. Including one strange week where I stopped in the studio for a day’s work en route to going on holiday with my family. Then I lost my glasses when during my first ever time in a kayak, it flipped over in the Atlantic. Luckily I had my prescription sunglasses in the car with me which I wore for a week straight while waiting for my new glasses to arrive. I stopped in the studio on the way back and drove up one further time whilst wearing shades all day. I don’t know how the Mary Chain did it!

I’ve known Danny Gold since about 2000. He’s a great producer and engineer. He has a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and is always very keen to experiment and add parts whilst keeping a watchful eye on the movement of the song as a whole. It’s great working with him, as he really loves to record music. The sessions were very productive and a lot of fun. Danny also has his own band, Polystar. Boz Boorer from Morrissey’s band and Roger O’Donnell from the Cure have played on some of their songs. (info on Polystar - http://www.last.fm/group/The+Cure/forum/183/_/410900 )

Danny had a lot of ideas for little parts that added exponentially to the songs. The middle eight of ‘Small Salvage’, the little extras and pick-ups to the choruses of ‘City Air’, he’s always on the look out for how space can be best utilised. He really encouraged David to add some backing vocals, like on ‘Awkward Scenes’, which are fantastic. He also insisted I add a guitar solo to that song. I was dead-set against it but after going back and forth about it, I just let my fingers move and something really special came out which we then made into a part. The same thing happened years ago when I was recording the second Rockets Burst From The Streetlamps album. Rick Webb insisted that I put a guitar solo at the end of ‘Blue Green’ and I absolutely didn’t want to. But now those two parts are among my favourite things I’ve ever recorded.

PB: Other than three tracks which you produced yourselves, the rest of the album was recorded at Studio Klank in London and produced by Simon Nelson. Studio Klank seems to have become a haven for indie pop acts. Is that why you decided to go there? Who is Simon and what do you think he contributed to the album?

AS: I must admit I didn’t know it was a haven for indie pop acts at the time. I’ve known Simon since I first moved to London in 2003. I really liked his old band Vermont. And his new band, Cosines, are really good. I’m looking forward to their album.

Simon would tell me about Klank when I’d see him about town, usually somewhere he was DJ’ing (busy man, Simon is) and when we were looking for somewhere to record, I thought we should give Klank a try. I knew Simon to be very knowledgeable about recording. Working with him made me respect him even more. To the point where his input was so valued we gave him a co-production credit. He was very much up for experimenting and I’m very pleased with what we came up with. ‘Birthmark’ became a whole other being in the studio. I kept having ideas for guitar melodies and Simon was very encouraging. Simon also helped to balance my perfectionist tendencies, something which if you’re not careful can take the life out of what you’re doing. He has a great phrase “Close enough for rock n’ roll”.

The rhythm section on the Klank sessions was Laurence Owen who played bass for the Indelicates and is now doing solo stuff and Grant Purser from 586 and If… Both great musicians and great guys to work with.

PB: Both ‘Birthmark’ and ‘The Way I Don’t Kiss’ are re-workings of tracks which appeared on ‘In Retrospect’, a mini album of demos and early recordings. Why did you decide to re-record them for this album?

AS: We had written ‘On The Mainland’ in April/May 2011. That song kind of revived the Soft Close-Ups. We hadn’t done much in a while and after that was written we decided to record it with a proper band, as it leant itself to being a more fuller song than the acoustic stuff we’d been doing. Right after that was written we then decided to collect ‘In Retrospect’ and make the three videos for it with a few of our female friends miming David’s vocals (‘Fireworks’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfM3cRPAGRw [starring Jo Bevan from Desperate Journalist and Joanne Joanne], ‘The Way I Don’t Kiss’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOIDlLQ_hSk [starring Sophia Wyeth], and ‘Some Sick Day’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSgHtllrg54 [starring Francesca]).

We thought if we were going in the studio we might as well make the best use of the time if there were any other songs that might be suited to a full band set-up. And ‘Birthmark’ very definitely was. Colm (McCrory, our bass player now) and I were just talking after the last gig how much that song rocks.

In the rehearsals for the Klank sessions, I just started playing ‘Don’t Kiss’ and Laurence and Grant joined in. It sounded fantastic. Grant accenting the melody on the hi-hat really sold it for me. We didn’t have enough time to rehearse it for the Klank sessions but David and I got it in our minds we’d like to do a guitar version like that one day. When we were almost finished with it during the Boston sessions, it was another case of emptying my mind and letting my fingers just move. And these two really lovely parts came out that I feel add a whole other element to the song.

PB: The album is just being released through your Bandcamp page https://thesoftclose-ups.bandcamp.com and is also up on Spotify. (It’s also on iTunes, Amazon, etc.) You have both with your other bands usually released CD versions of your records. You are both now in thirties and presumably have an audience as a result who would love to see a CD edition. Why have you decided not to release a CD version? Is that out of financial necessity or just a reflection on the current state of the music industry especially for smaller independent bands?

AS: We had talked about doing a CD version of it. We were thinking of doing a Kickstarter in order to press up CDs. But it was really a question of time. The album was ready to go and I was flying to the Angoulême Comics Festival at the end of January with the intention of spending February in London. The trip was planned rather late and there wouldn’t have been enough time to press CDs and have them ready for the February gigs. It made sense to release it in February while I was in London so we decided just to put it out online. It’d be nice to have it as a physical product with the artwork and everything. And we’re definitely still open to that possibility.

PB: The video for the title track is fantastic. It is an incredible fusion and explosion of colour. Who directed and made that?

AS: Jodie Lowther made the video. We love it. Jodie’s a very talented lady. I love her artwork. She runs the Soft Bodies record label with Johnny Vertigen and she’s been doing videos for the bands on their label. Jodie also makes great music herself. She used to sing for Brontosaurus Chorus and she and Johnny now make music as Quimper. Recently she released a lovely haunting solo album of soundscapes called ‘Klepsydra’ http://jodielowther.bandcamp.com/album/klepsydra

PB: You played your first concert with a full band in February at the Buffalo Bar in London. As we speak, Aug, is in Britain for more concerts. Do you hope to do more shows with a full band? Is this the way that you see the band going live in the future? Is it true, Aug, that you sold your Van Halen '1984' tour T-shirt to finance this trip to Britain and tour?

AS: YES. Definitely, yes. Many more gigs, please! They were so much fun and a pleasure to play. At the last gig, April 26th at the 02 Academy Islington, we all felt we really came together as a band. It was only our third gig, the first two were very much finding our way, but when we started rehearsing for the last one, it felt like a proper unit. Two of the three gigs were with the Lovely Wars too, who were my big pop discovery of 2013, my favourite new band. It was really nice they came up from Cardiff to play with us and that I got to see them live. Check them out, they’re fantastic. http://thelovelywars.bandcamp.com/album/young-love-ep

I did indeed sell my 1984 tour t-shirt to help finance the trip. It was a gesture to the universe to show how much I want to be back in London. And I think gestures like that are important. They help to focus the mind on what you really want.

‘1984’ is my favourite album of all-time. Van Halen are very special to me because they were the ones who first got me excited about music when I was a kid. Actually my love of music comes from my Mom playing all her 60’s girl group 45s and Beatles records when I was young, but Van Halen were the first band I ever fell in love with on my own. I remember it being so exciting. I had a birthday while I was in London this last time and we were at Big Red on Holloway Road. Right after midnight I stood up and said, "I’m off to do something totally righteous," and I went and played the whole ‘1984’ album on the jukebox. It was great. It’s funny, I never really put on the last two songs on that album – ‘Girl Gone Bad’ and ‘House Of Pain’ – by the time I’ve got to the end of ‘I’ll Wait’, I really want to hear the record from the beginning again. So it’s my favourite album of all-time and I only ever really listen to 2/3 of it.

PB: Are you now working on a second Soft Close-Ups album?

AS: I’ve got a bunch of musical ideas that will hopefully one day see the light of day. And there was a piece of music recorded during the Boston sessions that would be great to make into a song. But no, no plans for another record yet. We’re focusing on playing the ‘City Air’ songs live at the moment.

PB: What other plans if any do you have for the future both with the Soft Close-Ups and also your other bands?

DS: I'm midway through producing a new Melting Ice Caps album. It'll be a while yet, but I'd like to think it'll be out some time this year.

The live Soft Close-Ups band is sounding great, so hopefully we'll do a few more gigs this year if Aug is able to get some more time in the UK.

AS: I’d like to do a lot more gigs. A tour would be fun. We did a cover of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ at the last acoustic show, which we’d like to get around to recording.

I’ve just started an instrumental project called ‘Céline & Julie’ (named after the Jacques Rivette film). The first song will be on the new Soft Bodies compilation coming out in May. The idea came to me when I was flying back from London in March. It will be mostly piano lullabies that I’ve written over the years when I couldn’t sleep.

PB: Thank you.









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