An interview with Brian Hill of The Soft Pack
by Gregg Shapiro
With influences spanning some 50 years, the self-titled Kemado debut by The Soft Pack (formerly known as The Muslims) is both timely and timeless. Garage, surf, and punk are just a few of the styles embraced by this quartet. Standouts include “Pull Out” (about California seceding), “Answer to Yourself” (about personal responsibility), “Down on Loving” (an anti-love song), the scorching “Flammable,” and the balmy “Mexico.” Keeping the beat is openly gay drummer Brian Hill, who was good enough to take time out of his busy tour schedule to answer a few questions.
Gregg Shapiro: Without rehashing the band’s name change from The Muslims to The Soft Pack, can you please say something about how the name The Soft Pack was selected?
Brian Hill: It was something that I had found on a website that sells adult novelties and things like that. It’s for transgender…
…Oh, pack as in package.
Yes, like soft packing. That’s where it came from. I saw it before I was in the band, and it just stuck in my head that it would be kind of a cool band name, because I like the idea behind it anyway. It was the last possible suggestion that I threw out. We had a deadline where we were either going to change our name or not, and we had all these names that were kicking around. A lot of them were really silly, and we didn’t like them that much.
What were some of the silly names under consideration?
I wasn’t too keen on Spray, although the other guys liked it a lot. We were throwing weird words together like Light Zoo and Hair Zoo. It didn’t make sense. It was something that we had to do, and we couldn’t take it all that seriously.
I think you ended up with a good name after all. The tunes on the disc are credited to all four band members. What is your role in the songwriting process?
Typically, for me personally, it involves coming up with most of the drum beats. On the song “Pull Out,” I came up with all of the guitar parts. We decided to start switching instruments just to get out of the rut where we were having writer’s block. I used to play guitar, and everybody I knew who was playing guitar at the same time got way better than me way quicker, so I switched to drums. As far as the lyrics are concerned, that’s all Matt [Lamkin] at this point. But maybe in the future we’ll contribute a bit to that. But everybody has a big hand in arranging and writing songs.
The song “Down on Loving” lives up to its name. How closely do you relate to the message of the song?
I can totally relate [laughs] to the sentiment there. When you’ve been single for a long time—at least that’s how I can relate to it, although I don’t think it’s necessarily what Matt was going for—and you’re like “screw it,” you don’t care. And then you see it all around you, and you’re like, “whatever.” I can definitely relate to that.
Are you currently single now?
Yes, I am.
When you were in a relationship, did being in a band and being a touring musician have an effect on it in any way?
Absolutely, yes. I met somebody and we started going out. Maybe two months after I met him, we were on tour all the time. It was really hard to stay in contact. We did a stint last year where it was a month overseas, and then we came back and did a month in the U.S. That just killed it. The momentum was gone. We were together for about six months. It’s hard to maintain a relationship, especially after you just meet someone and you’re already pretty busy doing something erratic and hectic.
Being the gay member of a band seems to be becoming a more common occurrence, as in the cases of Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend, Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, to name a few.
It’s great that there are more out musicians in bands not specifically geared toward any one audience. Vampire Weekend is a huge band. I think they’re playing three nights at Radio City Music Hall on their upcoming tour. And our friends, the band Abe Vigoda from Los Angeles, are opening for them. They [Abe Vigoda] also have a gay member. It’s still kind of exciting to me. I’ve been playing in bands for a while. I started playing mostly in hardcore punk bands, and it was a lot harder to come across people that were openly gay. I remember an all-gay band from Chicago called Limp Wrist, and I thought that was really cool. That was kind of an important band for me personally when I started coming out. You realized that you didn’t have to fit in any one mold if you were going to be in a band that plays the kind of music that you like.
You mentioned the song “Pull Out,” which is about California seceding, and it made me think about Proposition 8. What do you think about that whole situation?
It’s kind of disgusting. I remember thinking that it was really cool and great that gay marriage was legal there. Then the people voted to take that away. It just seemed like that shouldn’t have been on the table at that time. Giving this right to people and then taking it away a matter of months later—it was pretty disturbing. And then you started to find out about church groups from other states pouring a lot of money into campaigning for Prop. 8. It’s pathetic to me that California doesn’t have legal gay marriage right now. That old saying, “As California goes, the nation goes,” is totally obsolete right now. I can never see California being on the forefront of anything politically progressive.
As a drummer, do you have drummer idols?
Stylistically, drummers that I modeled my own playing after, one of them would be Dave Grohl, when he was in Nirvana. He was pretty important to me. I really love Ringo Starr because he’s so subtle, and a smart drummer. He doesn’t overplay. I’ve been guilty of overplaying in some of my old bands, but I like the idea of restraint and playing exactly what’s needed for the song. I try to focus on drummers who are thinking a lot while they are playing.
Do you have any gay rocker idols?
I love Joan Jett!
Have you seen The Runaways movie yet?
No. I so want to see it, but we have been on tour since late January. One of these days when I have a day off. Our guitar player Matty and I are really big Runaways fans. Joan Jett is a huge idol. And Rob Halford [from Judas Priest], for sheer intensity. He’s the metal god, and it’s awesome that the metal god is so gay. I’ve always been a big Morrissey fan, but he hasn’t officially said anything. But it’s Morrissey!
Finally, I understand that you have a purple kitten tattoo. How did that come about?
I was on tour and I met somebody at the show who did tattoos, and they offered to do free tattoos for my band members. I’m not really good at impulse things. So I thought I’d get something spur-of-the-moment. I love cats, so I got this cat tattoo, and [the artist] decided to color it in kind of purple. I’ve decided that the point of it now is that I can’t take myself too seriously when I see that thing on my arm. I have to have a sense of humor about things, and it reminds me of that.
The Soft Pack performs October 8 at the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin and October 13 at Fitzgerald’s in Houston.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.