I have a distinct memory from earlier this year of a walk home, slightly inebriated following a night of drinking and laughing and ironically going to clubs meant for university freshers (I’m 24) with some of my best friends. It was April, about 3 am and wet – Manchester’s iconic drizzling rain pestering the few remaining night owls out and about in the city centre.
A copy of Softcult’s SCripture zine that I’d bought from their headline gig earlier on had somehow survived the bar-hopping and lay cradled in my jacket pocket. Going through some emotional turbulence of my own, the ethereal pangs of the band’s latest record, See You In The Dark, met the scene’s requirements perfectly and guided me home. I had it on repeat many times after that show.
Initially drawn to Softcult’s music through their more up-tempo tracks like Spit It Out and Dress, it was – like many bands I love – the band’s lyrics that made me delve deeper into the murky depths of their homebrewed moody shoegaze. For a genre with lyrics typically drowned beneath many layers of reverb, delay and other experimental noise, I was surprised to find Softcult’s songs very much based in reality and the personal experiences of Mercedes and Phoenix Arnhorn.
Combining dreamy pop and shoegaze with powerful messaging and lyrics
I’m usually drawn to moody music. Night walks and rain are a common combination when you live in a country known for its bad weather, and what better accompaniment than a soundtrack steeped in ambience and retrospect. Softcult’s music is pleasant to listen to, and I often have it on while I’m working for its dreamy guitar lines and soft harmonies. But there is something substantial to be found here for those who enjoy digging deeper.
Young Forever tells a story many adults experience – one of purpose and a finality of life that subverts the “white picket fences … mowed lawns, good dogs and breakfast” lifestyle that many of us have grown up believing to be our natural goal, before realising it’s rarely that simple.
“I don’t want to grow old together. I want to stay young forever.”
Someone2Me is a highly relevant criticism of incels and parasocial relationships, Gaslight discusses the trauma of the toxicity and abuse many prospective lovers find themselves wound up in, BWBB (Boys Will Be Boys) is a commentary on the harmful saying that has helped to keep toxic masculinity alive for decades … I could go on.
You’ve spoken about Cathleen Hanna (Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill) being a big inspiration. Is there anyone you’re listening to at the moment – more modern or smaller artists – that you’re looking at and thinking, “Yeah, they’re doing the right thing?”
Phoenix: We just toured with Mannequin Pussy in the US. Movements were headlining and Mannequin Pussy were the direct support. We got really inspired by them because they’re a super ethical band, they make incredible music, and Marissa onstage says really powerful statements.
Mercedes: And they’re providing representation just by being themselves – just by showing up at these gigs. It was really cool to see them play to Movements fans, and maybe introduce them to this whole other sub-genre or scene. That was cool.
Phoenix: Yeah. They’re really solid, and really good people, too. It’s cool to tour with bands whose music you like, but who you also respect as people.
When I saw you earlier this year – Mercedes – you gave a speech, I think before Boys Will Be Boys
I’d been listening to you for a while and I liked the music and the sounds, but I hadn’t really connected with the lyrics, at that point, and then I heard your speech about feminism and the troublesome issues regarding toxic male attitudes, and I understood what you’re about.
We have a responsibility to the planet.
Among the many issues that threaten not just artists and young people, but those all over the globe – even the ones who deny it – climate change is a top contender for the most likely to end us all. Despite the axe ever balanced precariously above our heads, we have so many everyday worries to contend with first.
So, who is going to do anything about it?
Talking about your song Drain and climate change, I heard you say something that I don’t often hear from other artists, which is that a lot of these burdens of activism and widespread change isn’t really the individual’s responsibility, it’s instead on corporations to make these changes. I’ve certainly felt bad about not doing enough. That being said, what do you think artists can do to help? And do you think people generally do enough?
Mercedes: From my perspective, a big thing artists do have control over is their merchandise. Realistically, touring is not an eco-friendly thing – flying or driving every single day. But, those are the things we aren’t necessarily in control of, until companies make those methods of travel more sustainable. But, as artists who sell merch and put merch into production, you do have choices on whether it’s going to be ethically made – recycled fabric, sustainable, plastic or paper for your CDs. Those are things you do have within your control.
You may be seeing it on a micro level – “but it costs more to do it sustainably.” How can you criticise big corporations when you yourself aren’t ready to make that commitment, that small sacrifice?
So, we always try to print our merch on fabric that’s organic, so it’s got less of a bio footprint, and we generally do a paper sleeve for CDs instead of the dual cases which are the cheapest option. And it might not be the fanciest, but the merch definitely feels nicer, even if you don’t care about environmental stuff. It’s got that vintage feel.
Phoenix: Yeah, so if you’re a vintage bro … (laughs)
Mercedes: I think that’s the biggest thing I can see artists standing up and doing. A lot of the time, even big touring artists will charge so much for their merch, and it’ll be printed on the shittiest, scratchiest fabric, and it’s not good for the environment. People wear it a couple of times and then, because it’s uncomfortable, they throw it out.
Yeah, I’ve been guilty of buying merch like that.
Mercedes: Yeah, it’s a shame. If you want to feel like you have some sort of control over something, focus on your merch production.
And take meetings from home. We can all do that – we learned that from the pandemic. You don’t need to drive to another city to visit your label, insist you want to do some video calls instead.
Do you advertise your merch as that? Or is it more of a backend thing?
Phoenix: It’s on our website. It’s mentioned.
Do you find people go for that more? I probably would.
Phoenix: We don’t really give people the option. (They both laugh) If they want it, that’s what they’re getting.
Mercedes: We’re just bad at self-promotion in general. We could promote it a little more, but we, historically, don’t.
Phoenix: People don’t seem to not like that, though! Whenever we’ve mentioned that, people are surprised but in a good way.
I have one of your shirts. It feels very nice and comfortable.
I didn’t wear it today because I thought that might be a bit weird. (laughs)
Like many bands on independent labels, Softcult is heavily reliant on merchandise and their unique aesthetics to attract new fans and earn the funds that keep petrol in the touring van.
As Softcult’s latest single, Haunt You Still, was released, Mercedes commented in an Instagram story that she wanted to show off a particular ‘nostalgic’ aesthetic with the music and the promotional video, harking back to lost love and the eras that so inspired the band’s new sounds.
You also discuss political issues in your zine, but I also want to talk about your aesthetic. When I saw you last, you had a projector on with black and white footage repeating and changing throughout the set. And your guitars have art on them.
Why have you gone for that? Is there anything in particular that’s stood out to you and made you want to go down that route?
Mercedes: It’s so hard to put a finger on it, but it makes sense. If you think about that time – we are generally choosing imagery from the early 60s – that was around the time when social norms were starting to change, for men and women. Men were starting to realise they didn’t want to be like their dads, have a militant outlook on life, hold their feelings in, and cut their hair super short. They wanted to experiment with self-expression and art.
And women didn’t want to be housewives, they wanted to be free-spirited. So, there was this push to change things, and there were lots of civil rights movements happening. I think that time was the first time I can think of in recent history where things, socially and culturally, were shifting.
Also, our music is inspired by the 90s, and there’s always that sense of nostalgia. I know that, in the 90s, people were nostalgic about the 60s, so it’s referencing that in some ways.
And the zines are all black and white – a lot of the media back then was black and white.
Phoenix: I don’t think we necessarily meant for it to be our aesthetic, but we’ve always been inspired by bands that came up through fan-zine culture, so we wanted to make our own zine. And it ends up being black and white because you’re using a photocopier.
To be honest, I didn’t even think about the photocopier.
Phoenix: We don’t have a sick colour printer, so we’re using a photocopier. And then it became the vibe, and we stuck with it.
Mercedes: These are all realisations that have come in retrospect – looking back on why we picked certain things.
Phoenix: It just spoke to us. And Mercedes making the live visual thing felt cool because it’s an extension of the zine, almost.
Mercedes: We’re trying to do it on a budget, too. We don’t have these sick video walls. (They both laugh) We had to make a continuous video that can play throughout our set without being timed – we don’t have the budget for it yet. One day, maybe.
When I think about a lot of social and cultural progression, I kind of assume it’s this new thing, but it isn’t. It’s been going on for ages.
Canada to England: Polar opposites
At various points, I’ve learned that alternative bands I love are from Canada and not, in fact, the US. In my ignorance, I’ve made incorrect assumptions about Alexisonfire, Cleopatrick, and a smaller favourite of mine, Homephone. But there is a certain vibe about these artists – perhaps a humbleness – that I have certainly started to pick up on more and more. I’m aware that this is a massive generalisation, but I think with the Canadian music scene being so disparate, it may play into Canadian artists’ approach to the industry, fostering that ‘underdog mentality’ that Mercedes discusses below.
When I saw you last, I bought some merch at the stand, and … I’m not sure if it was your mum who was manning it, or …
Mercedes: Oh, that was Nicole! She’s our manager! People think she’s our mom, and in a way, she kind of is!
I asked her how you guys were finding being in the UK, and she said it was great, and that “everything’s so convenient.” And I didn’t understand what she meant at the time – for a lot of people who live in the UK, there are a lot of criticisms to be made. But, I’ve since heard a few Canadian people say the same thing, and it got me thinking.
What is the music scene like in Canada, where you have cities that are very far apart, and lots of small towns that are generally very rural? Does it mean you connect with the north of the US more?
Mercedes: It’s not too bad. Mainstream pop in Canada is booming, but for smaller bands and trying to create a scene … I remember growing up and trying to be in a scene, and it seemed so much more vibrant than it is now, and I’m not really sure why that is. Maybe it’s because the main cities are so far apart, so a lot of the time in the smaller cities, I feel like there is no scene anymore, and there aren’t a lot of venues, anymore.
Phoenix: And the pandemic didn’t help with that, either. It killed a lot of cool DIY spaces, and cool smaller venues where local bands could play. Now, where we live, there aren’t many venues at all.
Mercedes: We’ve only played our hometown twice, in about two and a half years of being a band. It’s not like there aren’t any bands, it’s just that they all have to travel really far, and that’s probably where the whole convenience thing comes from. There’s only a few major cities per province – sometimes only one. And you can drive hours and hours and hours and still be in the same province.
I think, here, we have the opposite problem – everything is so dense and there’s almost too much stuff going on. And I think venues are dying for the opposite reason – there’s too much competition, and they hike the prices of everything.
Phoenix: People always think all bands in Canada know each other – if you’re in the alternative scene, you kinda do, whether you know each other personally or not, because it’s so rare. Like: “Yeah, we did it. We made it.”
Mercedes: And you have to travel outside of Canada and make a name for yourself internationally before you’re really celebrated at home.
Phoenix: Yeah, before you can get certain opportunities and funding. But there are really cool bands coming out of Canada, and it’s only getting better for that.
Mercedes: There’s an underdog mentality. You have to stick it out.
The best job in the world
Approaching the end of 2023 and their third year as a published band, Softcult enjoys over 240,000 concurrent listeners on Spotify. The Arnhorn twins didn’t appear out of nowhere in 2021, however. Courage My Love, their previous band, gained a cult following in the US and Canada, topping off their last year (2021) with 210,000 unique Spotify listeners. In interviews, the band commented on how their label stifled their creativity, rejecting song after song – a disappointment for their fans as well as themselves. Getting signed as an artist is the dream … right?
I don’t want to linger too much on past stuff, but as a musician myself, for many of us, getting on a label is the dream … right? So it must be quite difficult moving on from that.
Mercedes: With our previous project, it was soul-crushing and heart-wrenching. You get so emotionally invested in your own music – it feels like an extension of yourself – and when it gets rejected and things don’t pan out, it can feel like such a big failure. That being said, we learned so much from that experience and it helped us with Softcult because we decided we didn’t want to sign to a major label, and we realised how important creative control is for us.
Previously, we got signed when we were 16. We were wide-eyed and had no idea how the industry worked. It was really exciting, but obviously there were a lot of downsides to it, too.
I think it’s set us up for this project (Softcult) to know who we are and what we want and not be ashamed of it.
Phoenix: It sucked at the time, but I think it worked out to be good in the end. We left and started something different.
Mercedes: Yeah. And we’re not in debt – it’s not like this monkey on our back that we can’t get rid of.
You had quite a cult following back then, and even though the music is different now, you seem to have maintained your momentum. It’s quite clear that you’ve changed with the times.
Mercedes: That’s what we were worried about. It really felt like so much got held back, with our first project. This project, in a way, almost feels like a first – it’s the first time we’ve really got to do whatever we want and express ourselves that way. We really hoped …
Phoenix: It lands. Even if it didn’t, though, I think we would have been happy to do it and not feel so much pressure to do it a certain way. It’s good we got that chance.
Mercedes: It’s a nice bonus that we get another shot at touring.
In Manchester, we have a ton of indie bands and the scene is really saturated. Everyone who comes to or from Manchester picks up a guitar and wants to play Oasis. But, surely putting your own spin on something is the way to do it.
It must be refreshing to escape the trappings of a genre.
Phoenix: It feels really good. I think it kept us doing music, too. If we would have stayed much longer in that other situation, I don’t know how much longer we would have kept at it. But starting something new, feeling like we’re using our own authentic voice, it kept us in it a bit longer.
Mercedes: And we were lucky that it happened – and that we decided to start a new project – during the pandemic, because it is so easy to get bogged down with comparing yourself with other artists and people. In the pandemic, it was nice to shut everything out and concentrate on music.
It’s interesting that you say that. I hear people talk about it in one of two ways – it’s either that or that they hated the pandemic because they couldn’t gig.
Mercedes: Yeah! We found a silver lining.
Phoenix: Not gigging sucked, but then getting to work and spending every day writing and recording – I don’t think we would have had time for that unless we were forced not to tour and play live shows. It’s nice that we had that opportunity.
Mercedes: In hindsight, maybe the isolation was a blessing in disguise.
It let you connect with yourselves in a way that you wouldn’t normally have been able to with the noise of everything else.
You said you were submitting songs and they were getting returned by the label. Did you ever get any feedback on that? Was it because of the music or because you wanted to push your lyrics further and be more outspoken?
Mercedes: I think it was both. It just didn’t fit with how they saw us as artists and the way we saw ourselves. And the things we wanted to do sonically and lyrically, versus the way they could market us as a project. There was butting of heads. I don’t think we really have any bad blood with anyone there, it’s just that the vision was not on the same page, whatsoever. So that held it back.
Did you ever find the genre and the scene at the time was oversaturated? Was the label pushing you in the direction of other big bands at the time, and maybe you didn’t want to go that direction?
Mercedes: I think, at a certain point, a label of that size, to recoup its investment, is always going to want to push you towards radio success, because that’s where the money is. So, instead of being satisfied with growing in a niche market or scene, or building a fanbase in a scene that’s sustainable where you can go on tour and fill small rooms, they wanted the music to be competing with mainstream radio artists. And that just wasn’t us. We tried it, and it just wasn’t our vibe. It felt …
Mercedes: And watered down. We were trying to please everybody rather than writing stuff we liked. Now, when we’re writing music, I know not everyone is going to like and connect with it, but so long as we both connect with it, then we’re happy with that.
You can’t please everyone. I think it’s best to stay true to yourself. Music is supposed to be the best job in the world, why would you want to do it and be miserable?
Phoenix: That’s a good way of putting it.
The future is mellow
Softcult’s outspoken songwriting takes a backseat for their latest release. Haunt You Still isn’t a detour from the band’s usual spooky sounds, but it does bring a slightly different, more mellow feeling to their seesaw of grunge and shoegaze.
“Do I haunt you still, in your memories? Do I reappear in your bad dreams? When you think of me, is it fondly? Or do I haunt you still?
Let’s talk about Haunt You Still. Lyrically, as more of a love song, I can draw parallels to those of your older songs. Can you talk about how it connects to what you’re doing now and what it’s about?
Mercedes: Sometimes, we’ll sit down and write songs, and there’s an issue that’s at the forefront of our minds and we really want to write a song about it. And then other times, these lyrics will just come out, and it’s not clear what the song is going to be about until we’re halfway through it. Haunt You Still was one of those, for me. I think I had some stuff on my mind, thinking about relationships, and not just romantic ones but friendships, too. And when they end, and the impact they leave … and maybe thinking about regrets you’ve had from how you handled situations. Like, “I wonder if, now, when this person thinks of me, do they think about the good times? Or is their first gut reaction a painful one.
I guess, that is what the song is about. But it’s also … I get really sick of these breakup songs demonising the other person, and I feel like there’s enough of that already. When it’s justified, it’s justified, but sometimes we can get in this mindset of having to suddenly be like, “Oh, my ex is crazy!” It’s not always like that – sometimes things just don’t work out, and it is what it is.
Phoenix: And that’s okay.
Mercedes: We’ve written a lot of songs that are from a very specific point of view, so it’s nice to write something where, instead of us explaining it to people, they can see themselves in it. We always project meaning onto things, but I think it’s a mirror of what we’re going through in our own lives.
Phoenix: It’s a little more introspective as opposed to putting out a statement.
Mercedes: At least for me, and probably for you, too, as we get older, things that are so intense when you’re younger soften a bit. You think about them a bit more, and maybe you’re seeing the other person’s side a little more, and it’s not always so black and white. It’s a little more of a ‘real’ breakup song, in that sense.
I suppose we have however many centuries of literature exploring romance, and people trying to figure it out. I suppose it’s nice to hear a more balanced take.
Mercedes: And sometimes, those are the most painful breakups, because you can’t really understand why it didn’t work out. And you don’t hate this person. It can be like a defense mechanism, sometimes. At least for me, it’s so much easier to be angry than to be sad. I’d rather be filled with this righteous rage that empowers me than be … broken.
Photos: Courtney Turner