The album Shall We Go On Sinning So The Grace May Increase is both a brilliant response to trying times, and a radical departure for its maker.
The Soft Pink Truth is, or was, a solo project for Drew Daniel: artiste, electronic musician, provocateur, one half of Matmos (along with his life partner Martin “MC” Schmidt) and Shakespeare professor.
It is nominally a dance music project – formed in response to British artiste Matthew Herbert's challenge to make a straightforward house record – but is nonetheless, as with Matmos, generally mischievous, overtly politicised and piled high with conceptual layers.
Previous SPT records have comprised cover versions of belligerent anarcho-punk anthems, and of the satanic sounds of black metal. This one, though, couldn't be further from these kinds of confrontational exercises.
Instead it's a thing of unabashed beauty, a long-form piece blending the gentlest of deep house music with the minimalist composition of Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and a notably churchy streak in its rich organs and choir-like voices. The title is, after all, a Biblical quotation from the apostle Paul in Romans 6:1.
It was conceived as “an emotional response to the creeping rise of fascism around the globe... looking to creativity and community for psychic healing”.
And while those earlier SPT records really were mainly Daniel's solo work, this one features multiple guest musicians, including Schmidt and a wide array of friends.
The effect is a long way from anodyne or anaesthetic, but nonetheless it's the kind of record you can bathe in – not exactly escapist, but certainly offering a little bit of a sense of sanctuary. We asked Daniel about its genesis (no pun intended), and about the music that he in turn uses for rest and replenishment.
Regarding this project, was there a particular moment you decided that your response to tumultuous times would be with such relatively gentle music?
It all started with the piano. I started to play tiny phrases, and then I would listen back and isolate short loops, and I would leave them running for hours while I was working on academic things, professional things. So while I was going about my other life as a Shakespeare professor, there was this constantly rotating pinwheel of a few notes that became the basis for Side Two of the album. One night Martin and Koye [Berry, pianist on the album] came home from a night out drinking and I played them a mock-up of Side Two and tested it for other people. By the process of elimination, I picked our four or five other piano riffs or chords that really seemed to reward long-form listening, and those became the components of Side One. But there were many other possible versions of this record- there was a raging drum n bass version of Side Two with breaks, there was a much more overtly “housey” drum programming oriented version too. I tried those and decided they weren’t right. Gradually I just stripped things away, added more voices and keys, and kept taking away and adding and listening and reworking. I drove poor Martin insane playing him endless variants of these mixes. Finally he was like “you have got to stop.” So then I started torturing some of my friends and my brother with them, because I was feeling my way in the dark towards something that would strike the right balance. Eventually I felt like I could leave it alone and let go.
Can you tell us more about the relationship with religiosity here? The imagery is explicit in the cover and title, and the communal sound of it, especially of voices in harmony, feels close to religious or ritual music...
I have a complicated, love/hate relationship to religion. As a gay man who grew up in Kentucky in the shadow of AIDS and lived across the street from a church, I certainly saw religious discourse as oppressive, homophobic, lethal: it was “the enemy.” But the actual religious people I knew were kind and loving, from my Anglican mother to our circle of Jewish friends – my stepfather was Jewish but pretty much an entirely secular Jew, though we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover as well as Easter and Christmas. When I was in college at Berkeley, I joined the college gospel choir – the Young Inspiration Gospel Choir – because even though I was an atheist with green hair, I loved the sound of gospel music and the feeling of live gospel performance. We performed in churches in Oakland and it was so intense when people in the audience would get the holy spirit and start shaking and other people would touch them and get it too. No matter what I believed at the level of theological concepts as an atheist and a philosophy major, the emotional force of singing gospel in a choir was undeniable to me as a first hand source of pleasure. I don’t think of what I’m doing with this new record as reaching those peaks, it’s a more contemplative thing. But the pleasurable feeling of stacking voices on top of voices on top of voices in the studio was a way to achieve a kind of virtual choir while I was working alone in the studio, and that’s what I was trying to do.
Matmos and Soft Pink Truth have previously generally contained within their music tendencies to trickery, intellectual provocation. How conscious and deliberate was it to jettison that?
I really didn’t want any feeling of irony or sarcasm within the music. I just felt that that kind of awareness of steering and prodding towards comedic deflation would get in the way. It was scary to let go of that kind of framing, because the other side of the coin is that the awful risk of self-seriousness and pomposity looms. But it just didn’t seem helpful to put winks and nudges and airquotes around things. I wanted a record that felt vulnerable and direct, which is why the first voices you hear are so naked, and why I avoided sampling music in ways that are laden with a knowing sense of “I know that you know that I stole this” – so it’s the opposite of, say the moment when the “I got the Power” acapella sample drops in my Sargeist cover on “Why Do The Heathen Rage?”. That moment was a very overdetermined gesture- “here’s a sample that is hilariously dated and overfamiliar, on purpose.” This record was the opposite of that spirit.
It's a horrible cliche that "interesting times" create interesting art, and generally cold comfort – however, have you noticed any positive or interesting responses to the era of Donald Trump?
When we moved to Baltimore we suddenly had to play a lot of benefits to raise money for spaces to say open because it’s a poor city and most people barely get by doing what they do, so they need each other. I don’t think we had realized how wealthy San Francisco was until we pulled up stakes and left it. But quite simply, there’s not a lot of support for the arts in my country even before everything fell apart. The Covid-19 crisis has multiplied that awareness of fragility and interdependence on a global scale and everything feels at risk, but also up for grabs. I am moved by specific people that I see doing things and saying things that redirect energy. April Camlin of WUME is involved in Baltimore food banks in a direct way. Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon have been pushing for a shift from an “independent” model to an “interdependent” model as way to think about scenes and artistes in a holistic way rather than in an individualist, dog-eat-dog capitalist competition framing. Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago has relocated performance online in a compelling way with their quarantine concert series, provided a way for people to support artistes directly and connect. Those are good things. Maybe it feels like I’m reaching because, to be honest, it’s fucking horrible right now, generally speaking.
And finally, we asked you to suggest a few pieces of long-form or meditative listening, that have either inspired this record, or which you turn to for succour: could you tell us about them, please?
Cranioclast’s Iconclastar (Green) Icons No. I-VI
This is an hour-long suite of six pieces that occupies a kind of interstitial space between industrial music and ambient without collapsing into any “dark” velvet cape cliches. There are what sound like bird-songs and heavily manipulated guitars and processed speech/whispers, but what makes it work is the stately pacing (perhaps because it’s one half of double-CD set with its Blue twin, which I like less. I have been listening to this one for decades and still return to it. Very underrated.
Deradoorian’s Disembodied Improvisations Vol. I
This was digitally released on Bandcamp last year and has become something of a daily companion for me. Synthesisers, supported by the occasional gust of wordless voice, build Escher-esque recursive staircases to the beyond. When some people use synths and sequencers, the effect is far too squared off and linear, but the slinky playing here has that slightly wiggly effect of heat haze upon the horizon or the curl of smoke. If you dig Terry Riley’s synthesiser work (and, duh, who doesn’t?), you need to check this out.
Kevin Drumm’s Tannenbaum
Sometimes you need to just hit reset on your mind and take everything way, way, way down. Drumm has so much material, and so much of it is fantastic – definitely check out October (Early Warning) but the go-to for me is this stark, motionless horizon line of low ur-tone. This is for when you need just enough sound to not be driven mad but almost nothing more than that.
Eberhard Schoener’s Meditation
My brother turned me on to this amazingly deep record of breathing that feels electronic and synthesisers that seem to be shivering, and every time I play it out it has that weird capacity to attune nearly all of the people in a room. I remember DJing at Tarantula Hill at a Bill Nace/Chris Corsano show and it seemed to really focus people and bring them together. The writer John Doran told me that this guy’s synth was the one Moroder used on I Feel Love, which is wild to me, as this record moves in the opposite direction – Apollo to Donna Summer’s Dionysus, maybe? Whatever the case may be, this rules.
Ruth Welcome’s Hi-Fi Zither: Familiar Melodies Styled for Easy Listening
With a name like that, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is dusty LP of yore is just heartless numb muzak, a purely kitsch marketing exercise. While Welcome does play standards like the Theme From The Third Man and Stardust at a languorous crawl, there’s some kind of unholy power in her plucking fingers that casts a spell I can’t describe but which transfixes. I sent a tape of this years ago to Dave Pajo and he was like “whoah” and now I encourage you to seek this record out. Trust me.
Cover Image: Drew Daniel by Josh Sisk
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs