Listen to Austin 360 Radio

ACL Fest 2010 preview: The Soft Pack

Patrick Caldwell

On the last, thankfully clear and warm, Saturday in January, the four members of Los Angeles garage rock gurus the Soft Pack crammed an entire South by Southwest's worth of shows into a single day. The marathon started at 10 a.m. in guitarist Matty McLoughlin's living room and ran from one end of Los Angeles County to the other.

Remember: that would be the county that's larger than the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware, almost 4,800 square miles. 88 incorporated cities. More than 10 million people — the most populous county in the United States.

Go big or go home, eh?

‘We had this crazy idea that logistically nobody in the band, including me, really thought was going to work,' recalls drummer Bryan Hill, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where the band's been resting since the April conclusion of its last tour. ‘And it was exhausting. By the end of it we were brain-dead, stumbling around like zombies. The last show was in this big warehouse with people drinking and having a huge party, and the next day everybody was telling me how drunk I was. Except I wasn't. I was stone-cold sober out of necessity. I was just so tired that I seemed hammered.'

Dreamed up by Sean Carlson, founder of Los Angeles music festival the FYF Fest, the 10 shows that day commemorated the release of the Soft Pack's eponymous debut. Busing from place to place in Carlson's vegetable oil-powered van, the Soft Pack played beaches and mansions, apartments and record stores.

It was an appropriately over-the-top gesture from a band that always seems cranked to the proverbial 11. The Soft Pack began its life in San Diego as a collaboration between McLoughlin and vocalist Matt Lamkin — under the different, much harder to Google name of the Muslims. From the beginning, they specialized in a breed of garage rock graduated from the college of the Sonics or the Knickerbockers, fast clawing guitar riffs delivered with a dash of regionally appropriate surf rock rhythms. In search of a drummer, they called on Hill — a friend they'd met through the house party scene who was just beginning to return to music after a disastrous foray into living like a normal person.

‘I had gotten tired of playing music and touring and always being broke, so I got this office job that I wound up hating. I was having this weird quarter-life crisis where I actually wanted to make money,' says Hill. ‘So it just so happened that I was easing my way back into playing music when they gave me a call. I had more experience and a few years on the other guys, so I helped keep things in perspective when they were touring for the first time and sleeping on floors.'

The Muslims released an EP and hit the road hard, climaxing in a deeply busy run through New York for the 2008 CMJ Music Marathon that got them perhaps the highest honors an aspiring would-be hipster band can achieve — glowing write-ups in the music blog BrooklynVegan. A wave of hype hit them just as they decided to change that troublesome name.

‘A lot of people thought it was influenced by our record label or management or something but it was really something we were talking about before we even had a manager,' says Hill. ‘It was becoming problematic and distracting people from the music. People were like "What's with this crazy ironic name?" and it wasn't really meant to be like that. It was never meant to be a statement.'

They signed to Heavenly Records and began assembling ‘The Soft Pack.' Where ‘The Muslims' EP had mainly been the work of McLoughlin and Lamkin, the band worked to craft the songs off their debut together, taking inspiration from the collectively credited songs of REM.

And they also found inspiration from an unlikely source rarely credited by musicians: standup comedy. Not an interview went by where Lamkin didn't credit Steve Martin's ‘Get Small' as one of the band's biggest influences. That's evident in the band's sly sense of humor — one of the best songs off their debut record, ‘Pull Out,' is a satirical call for Californian secession — but, Hill says, the band has always treasured standup comedians primarily as an inspiration to keep on trucking in the face of abject failure.

‘We're so amazed by their hardiness. When you're in a band, you get up on stage and perform in front of people and you can feel pretty exposed, but when you're a comedian with just yourself and a microphone you're totally vulnerable,' says Hill. ‘You can't fall back on "Well, you guys just don't get post-punk," or whatever. So when people bomb it's really devastating. It's terrible to see. And that's a huge inspiration to us, that kind of courage.'

Not that being in a band is terribly intimidating for Hill — he'll take it over what he could be doing any day of the week.

‘The band is so, so much better than what I was doing before,' says Hill. ‘Thank God I changed my mind. I mean, I could be at work right now.'

The Soft Pack performs at 1 p.m. Friday on the Zync Card stage.