Luis Vasquez is haunted by visions of the apocalypse.
In fact, he's actually gotten used to the idea of looking out toward a barren, dystopian future. The songwriter and singer of the darkly atmospheric San Francisco post-punk act The Soft Moon, Vasquez has had these recurring nightmares for such a long time that they've evolved into something strangely comforting and profound.
"I've gotten to the point where they're not so much terrifying as they are almost kind of a relief, almost beautiful," Vasquez says. "The last 10 or so dreams I've had that were apocalyptic, there was lots of color. It was very overwhelming—you feel as if the world is much bigger than you."
Such strange visions have fed into The Soft Moon's art since the release of the group's 2010 self-titled debut—one track on the album, "When It's Over," was a dreamily beautiful dirge that revolved around the lyrical couplet "I want to sail around the world / When it's over." Meanwhile, the band's follow-up EP was titled Total Decay, just to give an idea of where many of The Soft Moon's paths lead.
A similar theme pervades the band's recently released second full-length album, Zeros. In most of the songs, Vasquez's lyrics are droning, layered in effects and frequently indecipherable, used almost more like an instrument than a method of conveyance for any specific message. The album's chilly, claustrophobic vibe evokes a grim future, one that's all the more enigmatic by lyrical obscurity.
Zeros, Vasquez says, "comes from an idea where the world had ended, and we have to sort of start from scratch. But there's nothing really plot-driven. It's mostly evoked and emotionally driven. The plot could just be me chasing demons. I tend to be developing more phobias, and they've been getting more intense. So it evolved around that, too."
Bookended by the track "It Ends" and a companion piece called "?bn? ?I," Zeros is both futuristic in tone and retro in aesthetic. Each Soft Moon track is built on a heavy foundation of analog synthesizer buzz and distorted bass, frequently drawing parallels to artists in the 1980s cold-wave and darkwave movements—such as KaS Product and Dead Can Dance, who were notable for ethereal, frequently minimalist synth-based variations on post-punk.
Vasquez never sought to use either genre as a template—he says he never listened to much darkwave. However, one notable influence on Vasquez is The Cure, whose famously bleak albums Faith and Pornography are in the ballpark of the chilling atmosphere The Soft Moon aims for.
Yet more than attempt to mimic or capture the sound of any specific album or era, Vasquez places considerable importance on being in a particular headspace while writing music, one that enables him to perform a cathartic, almost therapeutic ritual of sorts.
"Normally, I write in complete solitude," he says. "I'm trying to branch out more in the future, but it's usually in solitude. A lot of the time I'm playing the waiting game. I'll write when I'm feeling energetic, or when I'm depressed. And if I'm on deadline, I'll force myself to get in the right headspace. Or I'll just get a six-pack—the buzz can help me to express certain things.
"Sometimes I'll be bawling, crying—it gets very emotional at times," he continues. "There's a weight that gets lifted off my shoulders. And if I don't get that sort of feeling, or at least try to, it usually doesn't make the cut."
Vasquez's atypical methods, unsurprisingly, lead to fairly unconventional pop music. His songs have beats, melodies and verses—even hooks. However, you'll never hear a Soft Moon track ascend to a climactic chorus or break down into a sing-along coda. Much in the way Vasquez's vocals are embedded into the scenery of his arrangements, the songs themselves behave more like mood pieces, albeit with a bit more buzz and groove to them. The songs aren't about hooks so much as atmosphere, each track building into a dense fog of synth grooves and ambient haze; the darkness and abstraction create a visceral intensity that you don't always hear in more traditional pop songwriting.
Yet even if he entertained the idea of writing songs that fit a standard verse-chorus-verse format, Vasquez says it's just not in him to do so.
"My songs aren't songs in a conventional sense," he says. "Where there would be choruses in another song, there are verses. People tend to have that expectation. And I'm definitely not interested in having a formula. Every time I think about using a formula, I just can't."
Not everyone fully grasps the structurally quirky methods Vasquez uses, and he recognizes it. Still, he's not about to let that stand in the way of his broader artistic vision.
"People give me criticism sometimes, that the songs aren't focused or they're missing something," he says. "But I think of them more like mini-scores of my life."
The Soft Moon plays with Group Rhoda, Tropical Popsicle and DJ Art Vandelay at Soda Bar on Thursday, Dec. 13. thesoftmoon.com