The Man In The Mirrors; An interview with JJD of Soft Riot

Glasgow, Scotland’s Soft Riot is the stylised musical alter-ego of JJD. Canadian by birth and an ex-resident of London and Sheffield, now based in Glasgow, he has over twenty years of hard fought and won dues paying under his belt, and myriads of experience playing in various post-punk and synth-punk bands. He has been crafting the sound of Soft Riot since the early turn of the decade, releasing a slew of albums across a multitude of labels and touring obsessively around Europe and beyond.

With The Outsider In The Mirrors, his sixth full-length, he has found a new home for his sound on Possession Records, a fledgling Glasgow imprint he founded with Claudia Nova (aka Hausfrau) and Andy Brown (Ubre Blanca). The Outsider… is a consolidation of all the stylistic elements Soft Riot has pursued in the past; manic propulsive energy, infectious, off-kilter dynamics, pulsing, elegiac synth washes are amongst the records many sonic palettes.. Comparisons to musical kindred spirits like John Foxx, DAF, early Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget and Virgin-era Cabaret Voltaire would be analogous, but JJD is defiantly fusing these basic references into something highly idiosyncratic and personal.

Ghettoblaster recently caught up with JJD to discuss the journey that led to his recent release.

Soft Riot is either at or pretty close to a ten-year anniversary right? What have you learned along this journey?

To be honest, I’m not really sure what the official anniversary is! I’ve always pegged it at the release of the first EP, No Longer Stranger, which was a digital-only release on my friend Constantine’s Panospria label at the beginning of 2011. I had no great plans for Soft Riot at the time. It was just a little recording project that I just wanted to document. I had been casually messing around with it for a few years prior to that as disjointed studio experiments I was doing on the side when I was actively putting most of my time into other bands.

As my other band projects sort of fizzled out I started putting more weight and energy into Soft Riot in 2012. Overall there has been a lot of evolution in the sound, how the music is produced and how it’s presented live. The original concept for it was documenting a headspace I was in for a somewhat dark period of life, but presented as a dreamy, dark sci-fi heavy landscape with myself as some sort of alien narrator with more of a whisper-y stylized vocal on top of it.

But as you know my background is more from punk, hardcore and post-punk so Soft Riot started becoming less of a specific concept and started containing more “me” in it. Fiction Prediction, the second album, was turning that ship around in a new direction, moving more into a synthpop, darkwave or post punk sort of direction and has been moving in that direction ever since, evolving the sound as it goes along.

A lot of the learning and changes in this journey were in sync with how I was doing the music live. Playing a bunch of synths with a mixer was pretty new to me when I started. I actually played sitting down for the first few years. But I definitely got more confidence and was able to feel more free to be a front-person for the project. The shows nowadays are pretty energetic and the music has moved along with it.

Of course there’s a lot of other things I’ve learned. Being a solo artist offers a whole new set of trials and tribulations. And as I’ve been doing music for 20 years or more, moving on through the ages you figure out how to balance things differently, when to pounce at opportunity and when to just pull back a bit.

Overall I can say that with where I am with Soft Riot now is probably the project I’m most comfortable just being me. I can experiment as much as I want in view of what my personality or interests decide to do with it. I feel it’s my most artistic and multi-layered musical statement that I’ve done so far.

Soft Riot (Photo by Jonas Ranson)

Has your relocation to Glasgow had an influence on the direction you’ve been taking?

I’m not entirely sure yet to be honest. I think it has less to do with Glasgow itself but more so that I’ve relocated numerous times in the last 10 years. These big changes in surroundings and leaving old friends and ideas in the past rocks the boat internally a bit; in a lot of ways good but it can be distressing at times. At times there feels like a lack of a real home so the mind fills in the blanks to take things on new tangents. I think it makes me anchored more to my own ideas and intuitions a bit more to try things as I see fit with less outside influence.

But I can say that I do feel a kinship here with a lot of musicians but inserting yourself into an entirely new scene of people takes a while. Due to the nature of my work and just being I guess, a little bit older I’m not immersing myself into meeting a lot of new people like I might have. And as years go by a lot of old bonds, friends and ideas that I used as points of reference fade away into the mental fabric of time and I take on new ones. I’m naturally a curious person and if I’m exposed to new things in music or film, I’ll dig a lot deeper to find more.

I would say that the music is probably getting more “camp” in relation to the general tone of the music I’m creating. This is a bit of a broad term. As I get older I think I’m getting a bit more eccentric and having more fun with things, as well as providing a good antidote to my naturally depressive personality. I’m very aware of what’s happening within the music “scene” I’m in and the music world in general so I’m forging my own path with my own resources to make it be its own thing.

Do you believe the future will be as dystopic as your music seems to suggest or are you more of an optimist?

Ever since I was really young I’ve always harbored a sense of unease and dread about the world. I think I intuitively picked up on the tension between many things: man against the environment, culture against culture, old ideas against new ideas. When I was a kid in the ’80s it was all about cold war nuclear tension and the beginnings of a full scale environmental movement. As we jump to where we are now, in ways these tensions are far more terrifying. And in some ways they’re even stranger than fiction. I think this is however somewhat skewed by the information we receive and what channels it comes from as there’s so many sources to get your information these days. The internet has provided many different pathways for this so you can absorb yourself as much as you like into a particular set of ideals, which breeds things as disparate as sub-subgenres to violent extremism.

With the new record I think there’s been a most optimistic shift but this is more at the personal level. A combination of having relocated multiple times, the trials of live and again being naturally a depressive person I figured I needed a bit of an antidote with the music that was being created. The earlier records were more about creating an internal world and giving the listener a chance to peek inside whereas The Outsider In The Mirrors is more about the feels of alienation and anxiety and trying reach out to the world outside. And that itself is some optimism there. Despite the obvious conversation points of the music being dark or whatever there’s a bit of fun, romanticism and a bit of hope for the future. I think we all as people need that sort of fuel to keep things rolling to have inspiration to work for the future.

Soft Riot (Photo by Tiu Makkonen)

There’s also been a sort of underlying sense of humor to your output. Where does that come from?

With the music it’s pretty subtle and most people wouldn’t pick up on it although with the newest record it might just come about a bit more. Perhaps someone might pick it up with lines in the lyrics if they’re paying attention enough, but frankly, unless you’re a punk rock kid most people aren’t really reading the lyrics. Ha! As for the music it’s me just being playful and subverting exceptions but you have to be paying attention. It might be messing around with time signatures or using sounds that might go a bit too far into pastiche, like using some weird orchestral hits or something. I’m mainly just having fun.

But, with the more recent video work I’ve been doing, the humor is definitely more obvious. I think with the Soft Riot work I’m doing there’s a weird tension that I identify with between black humor and things that are a bit weird or terrifying. I’ll often come up with these little films, characters and daydreams in my head, along with the strong imagery that accompanies it. I can’t really articulate these in music so the video work is becoming more of an extension to the whole “world” of Soft Riot.

I grew up in a pretty humorous household and have had many friends over the years with amazing intelligence, talent and observational humor so in turn my own sense of humor is honed by those experiences. As for other influences, I was a major Kids In The Hall fan when I was a teenager. They managed to combine the weird, absurd and slightly gross and frightening in a good mix. And obviously there’s a lot of British humor I love. But there’s also humor in less expected places. Sometimes moments in David Lynch films, as an example, have this element where there’s moments of humor in terrifying situations. I think of the moment in Wild At Heart when Bobby Peru says “It’s a dummy, dummy!” and then accidentally blows his head off with a shotgun.

What were you hoping to communicate with this record? Do you believe you achieved that?

This one’s a bit of a tricky one to answer. Overall I think I was trying to apply a lot of the sound design, aesthetics and mental landscapes of the previous records into more accessible, more concise compositions. This is always a bloody cliché; bands saying they’re trying to reach a wider audience or whatever, but mine is more personal reasons rather being informed by “exposure” or whatever.

After the first record I knew I wanted to move into a more synthpop direction but I still wanted to experiment with things and I needed to get there in a very roundabout way. I had to do it on my own terms, finding my own sounds and own tone of songwriting that appeals to all of my artistic idiosyncrasies to do it. I have a love/hate relationship with popular music; I can totally appreciate it, including the more cheesier details of it but totally want to fucking destroy it at the same time. I think this the young punk-rocker in me still informing my listening and writing habits. This why I can go from listening to “Tango In The Night” by Fleetwood Mac to “In Love With Jetts” by Antioch Arrow within a space of 15 minutes.

Being someone doing all the music and all the peripheral admin, booking and promotion on this record, as well as feeling a bit rootless I was trying to write something more inclusive and hopeful and try to connect more with people to not feel so alienated.

With The Outsider In The Mirrors I think I’ve finally tapped into a sound, writing approach and vision for the music that carries weight to a broader public and that I think is a basic groundwork for writing future music. I think however with a more accessible sound however there are likely a broader pool of listeners thinking I’m trying to attempt to insert myself into the legacy of classic synthpop which I’m not. I’m coming at it from a very “backdoor” approach. I like using elements from music I love but skewing it at the same time to fit my personality and what I’m trying to convey with the music and the lyrics.

Soft Riot (Photo by Hicran Ergen)

This is the first album that you’ve mixed almost totally by yourself, right? Were there things that you heard while mixing that you were particularly proud of?

Actually all of the records except the previous album, You Never Know What Might Come Next, was mixed entirely by myself. However, with the previous albums that I did mix I was still experimenting with the sound and style I was trying to create. A lot of the compositional aspects and the sound design are well integrated with the final output, so for me whenever I think about going into another, more professional studio I’m always thinking about having to tear down all my mixes in progress and relinquish them into the hands of someone else, who might not share by particularities in how things should sound. On top of that it’s a sizeable budget and time constraints that you have when doing it that way. I think it works for bands, or artists who are less comfortable with production and not sure how it should sound and want a mix engineer or producer to guide them along.

With You Never Know What Might Come Next I mixed it with Owen Pratt, whom I am good friends with, having toured with his old band Noi Kabát several times. We shared a lot of the same influences and aesthetics as far as mixing goes. I used it as an opportunity to observe and improve on what I was doing and just see where someone else would go with it. When I was getting to the mixing stage of this new record, I had been playing a lot of the songs out live quite a bit so I had tightened up the performances, knew how to pull off the right vocal takes and what sort of sound I wanted from the mixes. For the final mixes I rented out a rehearsal studio for a day here in Glasgow and played all the tracks back through a large PA. That helped me round out the bass end more and let those bass lines fill the space with less reliance on effects.

I think overall the extra attention I put into the self-production and mixing process paid off. There’s an evolution in sound from previous records. There’s less of the grainy dissonant reverb I was using before and the sounds are more sharp and bouncy in comparison. I pushed myself to try new things but still retaining “trademark” sounds I’d used in the past. There’s a lot more weirder drum production. I got really into using phasers on things and took the music more out of “saw wave” territory. All in all the end result is really sharp and sounds a lot more impressive. I should also thank Josh Stevenson at Otic Mastering as well as his final touches really rounded off the final, completed tracks.

You founded your own recording label, who will release The Outsider In The Mirrors, right? How long has that been in the works?

Possession Records was started in late summer of 2016 between myself and my friends Claudia Nova (Hausfrau) and Andy Brown (Ubre Blanca), respected musicians in Glasgow in their own right who have been here for a lot longer than me. We used it as a vehicle to release Hausfrau’s Trivial Pursuits EP in the autumn of 2016. Around the same time I was preparing mixes to send out to shop for a label. But something felt wrong and that seeking out a label was the wrong direction. I had been releasing music on so many labels over the years and a lot of those labels I felt like I could do a better job. Plus I thought it would be nice to have a nice, long-term home for future releases and to perhaps mould the label into something interesting that people might recognize over time.

All three of us are all quite well connected and have a good work ethic. This Soft Riot album is our second release, and our first at taking a crack at being a “flagship” release that is available in a number of formats as well as putting more time and effort to get it to distributors and press. So far it’s been going good!

You experiment with other mediums a bit, right? Can you tell us about that? Do those retain a similar look and feel to your music?

For as long as I’ve been doing music I’ve been doing graphic design. In fact, I’m a graphic designer/web developer by profession. That’s my main job. I started doing design in the computer lab in high school in the mid-’90s, using old pre-intel Macs and programs like Pagemaker. When I was in Vancouver a few years later I was one of the few people that had a Mac — one of those old color bubble iMacs when they first came out — and design program experience so I was picking up a lot of work doing gig posters, websites and album design for bands locally in Vancouver and abroad. My skills are very versatile but I developed a collage-style of artwork that was more of an artistic signature. And from that I created a particular aesthetic for Soft Riot for the majority of the albums and promotional artwork. There’s a lot of visual influence with the music, especially as I’m really into films. I write here occasionally: http://softriot.com/filmklub/..

In more recent years I’ve been getting really into video as a medium and with a lot of the newer Soft Riot videos I’m trying to package the music videos to be like a viewer is jacking themselves in midst of a weird cable access TV channel been aired, complete with channel idents, peripheral and recurring characters and of course satires of TV adverts. This is something I’ve been exploring more and more as they expand the Soft Riot world a bit and give it a new angle to view; possibly throwing off people’s expectations of what to expect with an artist working in the general genre(s) of music that I do. A lot of artists might create videos that are as much of tribute to their influences as their music but I get ideas and influences from all over the place so the video medium it giving me more space to express those.

Have you been touring in support of the LP?

It’s less of an actual tour in the traditional sense but more a lot of clusters of shows. I don’t have the time or mental resources to be booking tours that go on for a week or more. Contacts keep changing all the time and coordinating shows on dates and arranging all the travel is very time-consuming. Plus I’m almost too modest when it comes to booking — I feel like I’m harassing people when I reach out to promoters to play. Having said that I am booking shows this year and so far have select shows in the UK, Italy, Canada with some European festivals and a number of other European “mini-tours” (ie: two to three shows) in the works so I suggest checking out the Soft Riot site as more and more shows will be added.

10 more years of Soft Riot or should we be keeping an eye and ear open for something different?

Well, where I’m at now Soft Riot is gonna be my main and only musical project. This can of course change but I’ve set it up in a way where I can be experimental with it. Along with the synthpop trajectory I’ve been on sometimes I’ll step onto a different track and so more soundtrack, experimental sometimes ambient stuff like the Some More Terror album I released in 2014. I’ll probably do some more recordings in that style as well in a limited release format, of course on Possession Records.

Having been in many bands over the years I’m trying to keep my output as efficient as possible. I don’t need to be starting and dissolving bands which then in turn negate many hours of time and effort, as well as effectively almost totally voiding stacks of physical album stock. Doing music nowadays requires an obscene amount of admin, and multiply that even more when you’re releasing it on your own label. There’s social media, promotion, booking, arranging production and all that stuff which just is just the tip of the iceberg!

Plus everyone and their dog is in a band or doing some sort of music these days. I don’t need to further clutter the musical landscape with side projects and one-off bands. People have enough to listen to and that piles up when you have legacy bands still trying to make a living on their music 30-40 years after their heyday.

I think I’ve found some sort of inner peace knowing Soft Riot can be my one thing to do. For other styles of music that I love and sometimes entertain doing a band in that style I release that I’m just happy to see and hear my friends doing it and I can appreciate it through them.

But overall, I’m still overflowing with ideas and things that I want to try out creatively. I’ve already got rough ideas for tracks for future recordings. I think there’ll be a lot more leaning into the video medium as well. I’ve been planning with some friends to do some sort of “cable access” style miniature online TV show format. I’m not sure what exactly that will be yet but we’ve got lots of ideas so perhaps that will surface to the public eye soon enough!

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