RICHARD SHIRK already has the next two Soft Tags records mapped out. One is a collection of B-sides and demos called May '68, which he's hoping will come out later this summer. The one after that is tentatively titled Halloween 1983, for which Shirk already has the four-track demos recorded; Soft Tags will commence recording it after their summer tour of the West Coast.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: The current Soft Tags album, Suit of Lights, comes out this week, and it's the best work to date from the Portland indie-beat band, which has released more records since 2007 than I can count: at least two full-lengths (including 2009's double album Mathematical Monsters), three EPs, an experimental collection of field recordings called Tape Side A, and several live cassettes. Shirk—the frontman and lone constant member through Tags' many permutations—besides being an obsessively prolific songwriter, is a savant of lo-fi recording, using tools ranging from a cassette four-track to GarageBand to the built-in microphone on a Canon SD1000 digital camera.
Charting the development that began with Soft Tags' early, intriguing but murky-sounding recordings, the new Suit of Lights sounds uniquely marvelous. The opening title track sets the jagged chords of "London Calling" over an intense simmer, while "Many Hands" is a fierce post-punk anthem with growling bass and an infectious, wordless chorus; its lyrics refer to the people who have contributed to the band over the years. "Trying to keep the band together and [then] losing the band, it really influenced a lot of the lyrics," says Shirk, who adds that he doesn't really write love songs. "I kind of refer to them as 'us and them' songs. There's only a small portion of the world that even cares about rock 'n' roll music."
As mentioned in the record's lengthy, fascinating liner notes (a mainstay of Tags releases), the record almost broke the band. But it also put the band back together; two lineups came and went over the recording process, the Tags' lengthiest to date. Part of the delay was due to plans to enter the studio with a big-name producer (Shirk politely declines to say who), which fell through the night before sessions were to begin.
"All these things were super frustrating," Shirk admits. "But things worked out, because there's a certain sound I am always going for, and when you try recording things the 'right' way, you're not going to get it, so I am glad we recorded it ourselves. And just the amount of time that we were forced to spend on it—if there was something wrong, we were already held up by so many things that we could circle back and try to get it right."
Songs like "Cut the Right Wire" show a different side of the group. "I wanted to write a song that my grandfather would have been able to sing," says Shirk. "He was a crooner—like, a Frank Sinatra-type guy in the mid- to late-'60s in New Jersey. [His name was] George Catino Jr. He put out one record. I thought that would be a nice gesture, because I never got to meet him. I found his record on eBay. It's really good. It is really sparse, you can tell he was probably hoping to get a big Frank Sinatra orchestral sound, the whole Nelson Riddle thing, but because of the budget he has like four guys. It sounds really cool, because it's really sparse and interesting and tastefully done."
Meanwhile, Shirk has realized that his dedication to Soft Tags is sometimes difficult for his bandmates to match. "We move really quickly," he says of the band, which now boasts a lineup that didn't play on Suit of Lights. "I put in a lot of time to the band and it wears people out. I am thankful and I am lucky that they played music with me, because all of the people that played on this record are many, many times the musician [I am]. They were just ready to move on, and one by one they all either got really nice jobs, or had a kid, or... things come up and all of a sudden you are the only one left in the band. And then you try to build it back up."