From left: Matty McLoughlin, Matt Lamkin, Dave Lantzman and Brian HillJust when did dildos become less controversial than a reference to a religion? Answer: When that religion is Muslim. At least that's what a Southern California band called The Muslims figured out before they finally gave up and rechristened themselves The Soft Pack.
A “soft pack,” obviously, is not a sex toy that stands at attention.
“It's a dildo used for women who are dressing like men,” vocalist and guitarist Matt Lamkin nonchalantly explains. “Drag kings, I guess you'd call them.”
Sure, it's more realistic than a stuffed sock, but The Soft Pack wasn't some feeble hipster attempt to be ironic or mildly shocking.
“We are Steely Dan fans,” says Lamkin, who grew up in San Diego with guitarist Matty McLoughlin. “It's kind of a Steely Dan reference, because their name is a reference to a dildo from Naked Lunch, the book. So, you know, it's a shout-out to them.”
The name change happened more than a year ago, but Lamkin is still fielding questions about it. The short answer: The Muslims attracted too many ignorant, inflammatory comments.
Lamkin, who studied film at UCSD after graduating from Torrey Pines High, culled the name not from news headlines but from a lecture by French filmmaker and professor Jean-Pierre Gorin. It's a Holocaust reference—the people in the camps who'd given up hope were called “The Muslims.”
“At the time, picking the name, we never thought we'd be playing outside of San Diego or getting mentioned on the Internet or in press,” says Lamkin. “It made sense when it started happening that people were freaking out, but we weren't planning on getting much attention, so we didn't think it was that big of a deal.”
When they formed The Muslims in 2006, longtime pals Lamkin and McLoughlin had grown bored of the local scene's emulation of vintage English new-wave bands.
“There weren't that many people doing simple songs, you know? Like straight, honest music,” Lamkin says. “We thought it would be good for a change.”
The band's punchy, punky garage rock takes its cues from The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and The Replacements—two-and-a-half-minute, stripped-down songs with tight riffs, raw edges and post-adolescent angst. Bloggers couldn't type the hype fast enough.
In 2007, The Muslims (now a four piece) uprooted to Los Angeles, generating speculation that they'd outgrown their hometown scene.
Not exactly, Lamkin says. “We all graduated from college, and us and the band and six or seven friends moved up here to get a change of pace. We spent all our lives in San Diego.”
Between 2008 and 2009, The Muslims released three 7-inches and a couple of EPs on under-the-radar labels. Last year's untitled 12-inch EP, packaged in jackets riddled with real bullet holes (courtesy of a former cop), became an instant collector's item (it's being re-pressed).
Word spread, and soon Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Fader and Billboard heralded The Soft Pack as the second coming of The Strokes. Getting into the band's CMJ set in October required serious credentials or an invisibility cloak. And then there was the invite to play the Breeders-curated All Tomorrow's Parties last May and an opening slot with the legendary Deal twins on their fall tour.
The Soft Pack also spent the summer in the studio with Eli Janney (from Girls Against Boys), recording their self-titled full-length debut, set to drop Feb. 2 on Kemado Records.
Lamkin explains that Janney recorded an album by The Obits, the latest band from Drive Like Jehu's Rick Froberg. “We liked that it was straight-forward—there wasn't much involvement. It was more about recording the band rather than creating an atmosphere. We know from Eli's bands that he would understand what we were going for. We wanted to have a clean, accurate recording.”
The album barely leaves room for breath-catching from track to infectious track. The only slow-down comes toward the end with the laidback, sunny “Mexico.”
“That's the first song we wrote with [drummer] Brian [Hill] and [bassist] Dave [Lantzman] and the band. We basically started jamming it one of the first days they played with us. We did spend a lot of time in Mexico on surf trips and all that. But we were actually listening to Elvis' Blue Hawaii and liked the vibe of that album.”
Lamkin is clearly still a local boy at heart. He cites Drive Like Jehu as a major influence—Froberg even designed The Soft Pack's bull-and-anchor logo. And Lamkin eventually hopes to go on tour with San Diego band Beaters—which features members of The Sess, with whom The Muslims played their first-ever show. (“The Beaters are my favorite San Diego band,” someone proclaimed on The Soft Pack's Twitter feed.)
Until then, it's a European tour, an upcoming appearance on Letterman, and band-to-watch proclamations from nearly everyone who matters. It's enough to turn a soft pack into a hard-on.
The Soft Pack play with Beaters at Tower Bar on Tuesday, Feb. 2. www.myspace.com/thesoftpack.