The Cover Story

SOFT PLAY: “We need to do this together… the magic of our band is both of us”

Following the hiatus of Slaves, a trifecta of time, therapy and trauma sought to bond the brothers Laurie Vincent and Isaac Holman back together, repairing their fractured friendship and reigniting that creative fire once more. Under their new guise of SOFT PLAY, and superb new album Heavy Jelly, the duo are finally embracing what they wanted to be all along – whether you like it not…

SOFT PLAY: “We need to do this together… the magic of our band is both of us”
Mischa Pearlman
Paul Harries

A lot can change in six years. For Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent, a hell of a lot did. It was in 2017 that the duo – then known as Slaves – had first headlined 2000trees. Everything was on an upward trajectory. Quintessentially British, their fun but punky, boisterous and bemused songs had given them two Top 10 albums – 2015’s debut Are You Satisfied?, and its 2016 follow-up Take Control – and a third would arrive in the form of Acts Of Fear And Love in 2018. There were also huge support slots in the offing, opening for The Prodigy and Foo Fighters in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

But then, everything started to unravel. Isaac – their vocalist and drummer – had a mental health breakdown and moved back in with his parents. Then, the band cancelled all of their remaining tour dates scheduled for December 2019. Laurie’s partner Emma had been diagnosed with cancer following the birth of their second son and her condition had rapidly deteriorated. She died in June 2020 at the age of 32.

It’s fair to say, then, that not only had a hell of lot changed when the pair headlined 2000trees again – this time as SOFT PLAY – last summer, but they’d also been through Hell itself. Because in addition to their own personal problems and traumas, the strong, close friendship between the two that had always been at the centre was fraying. It’s not that they hated each other, but because they hadn’t been speaking properly, they became increasingly isolated, and that ramped up the (literally) unspoken animosity between them. Professionally, too, the band was on the back-burner, undergoing an unofficial hiatus as a result of their significant personal troubles. But in 2022, an opportunity to support Britpop legends Blur – one of their favourite bands – came up. They didn’t actually get the gig in the end, but it managed to get Isaac and Laurie talking again.

“Relationships are based on communication,” says Laurie today, on a residential street in leafy Tunbridge Wells, where they formed in 2012. “If everyone could learn to say what they felt and deliver it in a way that didn’t involve anger and persecution, and you just really get to the core of it, things could be a lot easier. But it’s a fucking hard thing to do. Both of you have to be open to it, and receptive to hear hard stuff about yourself, and deliver hard stuff. We still loved each other, so you don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, but we’d got to the point in 2018/2019 where we barely spoke to each other.”

During that fraught time, when they had gigs, Laurie would chill in one corner of the dressing room with his family, while Isaac would usually be hanging with friends. They’d meet only to walk onstage together. Thankfully, when they decided to give the band another shot for the Blur gig that never was, Isaac relented to Laurie’s insistence that he try therapy.

“I was usually pissed off because we weren’t able to talk about the setlist,” remembers Laurie. “I had no idea that Isaac was going through his own struggles with OCD. Our lines of communication were non-existent, and we had to learn how to communicate again. Isaac is my brother – he’s not my friend, it’s deeper than that – and you get pissed off at your brothers.”

He then goes on to expand and double-down on that analogy.

“There was no ugly fallout,” he continues. “There was just a natural distance thing that occurred. I guess it’s the same with family – you grow up together and then you all move out, and then there’s less tying you to the family home and you just go and do your own thing. I think we needed that space after being together in such an intense way for 10 years. I think that distance really allowed us to deal with some of our personal shit that we had going on.”

“Distance really allowed us to deal with some of our personal sh*t that we had going on”

Hear Laurie on the positive effects of giving each other some space

It was because of Laurie’s own positive experience with therapy that he’d asked Isaac to try it, in the hope it would allow them to not only get the band back together and functioning again, but also restore their relationship.

“Isaac’s go-to place when he struggles with decisions was to just withdraw,” the guitarist says, “so then there’s a lot of pressure on me in that moment to either try and handle it or make the decision for us, but I know he’s not going to be happy with the decision I’ve made. We need to do this together. When things start getting one-sided, it all goes shit. The magic of our band is both of us, and without both of us bringing 100 per cent, we’re not the band we’re meant to be.”

For Isaac’s part, he relented to Laurie’s demands, even if he took some time.

“It was difficult,” he admits. “It took me fucking ages to go to therapy. For some reason, I knew it was going to be a can of worms. I knew I had shit to deal with and it was going to be difficult, but I’m well into it now and feeling better for it.”

“You did it in less than two weeks, though… and you received what I said so well,” chimes in Laurie, sounding almost like a proud parent, even though, at 31, he’s about 14 months younger than Isaac. “I thought I was going to snap you, and you were just going to bite my head off, but I just remember you being like, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’”

He chuckles.

“Yeah, man,” smiles Isaac. “It was hard, but it’s so worth it.”

And so, on July 6, 2023, SOFT PLAY headlined the first day of that year’s 2000trees, six years after they’d previously done so. How did they feel when they stepped on that stage?

“Terrified,” says Isaac with a wry smile. “It was obviously a really familiar feeling, but at the same time it was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ It felt like a fever dream.”

It wasn’t, however, a fever dream. It was real, and very much the beginning of this next era. SOFT PLAY have since confirmed forthcoming appearances this summer at both Download and YUNGBLUD’s new day-long festival, BLUDFEST, and last week they announced that they’d made a new album. Titled Heavy Jelly, it’s a stunning record that completes their reintroduction and reinvention, and sees them lean into heavier, more punk and metal influences than ever before. For while those sounds were always present in their music, they were often been dismissed for being neither punk or metal enough by purists, who – largely because of the pair’s playful personalities, but also the occasional bit of whimsy in their songs – regarded them as a kind of cartoonish interpretation of those genres.

“This album is what I originally wanted to do,” explains Isaac. “It’s back to being heavy and comical and all the things that were great about our band when we started that got lost along the way. We’ve found it again, and we’re really enjoying going heavy. It’s fun.”

“To add an extra layer to that cake,” says Laurie, as he wanders under a tree to take shelter from the rain that’s just started, “I was trying to be cool when we started the band. I was like, ‘Who’s the most art-punk band we can reference?’ And, ‘Who’s the most punk?’ And it was, like, Crass. I wasn’t sitting in interviews and going, ‘I grew up listening to Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and System Of A Down’, because it wasn’t cool at the time. They were dirty words and I was like, ‘None of our cool East London punk friends are going to like nu-metal, I can’t possibly reference Fred Durst.’”

To some degree, that’s also why SOFT PLAY have never really been featured a great deal in Kerrang!. Because as loud and abrasive and obnoxious as their music could be, they didn’t quite fit the mould. Until now. Because these days, after everything else they’ve been through, they realised none of that stuff actually matters. They don’t care about what the metal and punk elites might think. They’ve fully broken the shackles of giving a fuck and are just being themselves.

“With this album,” continues Laurie, “I wanted to make nu-metal riffs, I want to reference Korn and I just want to accept that I grew up listening to emo music and I had a Kerrang! subscription. And what turned out was that those sort of influences leant themselves to what we did completely perfectly. So by embracing the stuff that that actually made us, we’ve made better music – and then in a beautiful, full-circle moment, we became a Kerrang! band, which is kind of what I’ve always wanted to be anyway.”

“I wanted to make nu-metal riffs, to reference Korn, and accept that I grew up listening to emo and I had a Kerrang! subscription”

Hear Laurie on not shying away from his core inspirations and formative musical moments

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re towing that line completely. On Punk’s Dead, they take aim at both themselves and their detractors at the same time. It’s a ferocious, rollicking tune that incorporates some of the insults they’ve received online, and for which the band even solicited video messages and voice notes from said detractors. ‘What the fuck’s with the new name anyway?’ barks Isaac. ‘SOFT PLAY? More like soft c*nts.’

The self-awareness of the song – as well as their self-deprecating humour – is compounded by its video, which sees them performing on a bouncy castle and being viciously beaten up by a group of young children. But that’s not all. The backing vocals are performed by none other than Robbie Williams. It’s someone Laurie says he spent his whole youth listening to, and with whom the pair have previously had what the guitarist calls “an online bromance”.

“It’s not even a guilty pleasure,” he says. “I think he’s fucking great. When we grew up in the UK, you had to be this or you had to be that, and that wasn’t cool. Are you a chav, are you a grunger, are you a skater? And that all seems to have lifted. Like, we’ve given ourselves permission to be like, ‘Yeah, I fucking love Robbie Williams and I love Fleetwood Mac, but I also love System Of A Down and Bullet For My Valentine.’ It doesn’t have to be this or that.”

Although they had publicly embraced their unlikely celebrity fan online, wearing it as badge of honour (but presumably because it also pissed people off), Laurie was still surprised when, one early morning last year, he woke up to a voice message from the former Take That member.

“He was like, ‘Hi Laurie, it’s Rob,’” says Laurie, imitating Robbie’s voice. “‘I hope you don’t mind, I got your number from someone. I want to make music like you.’ And I was just like, ‘What the fuck?!’”

Even now, he still sounds surprised. But they kept in touch, and eventually asked him if he wanted to sing on Punk’s Dead. He leapt at the chance. It was a quintessentially SOFT PLAY move. After all, what’s more punk than having Robbie Williams sing on your song about punk being dead?

“We had a moment,” admits Laurie, “where we were like, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ And we were like, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’ I only have myself to live with. I don’t have these trolls in my bedroom. I don’t give a shit."

In the midst of the SOFT PLAY’s unofficial hiatus, both Laurie and Isaac had embarked on their own solo projects. The former’s was called Larry Pink The Human, the latter’s Baby Dave. Both were projects designed to fill the ache and lacuna that the demise of the band – not to mention everything they’d been through personally – had left in their lives. For Isaac, the reason for doing so was to also help him regain his confidence in, well, everything. Because it had totally vanished.

“I had to just get my confidence back with writing, to be honest,” he admits, “because on the last record, Acts Of Fear And Love, I was so fucking self-conscious and had no belief in what I was doing. But with working on myself and doing that side of stuff, it made the music easier. I think it was all connected with how I felt about myself and my ability to do it.”

Part of working on himself meant Isaac being honest about what he was going through, and he was. He made numerous posts on social media about his mental health problems, and also spent time expressing his emotions through his Baby Dave project. Much more tender than SOFT PLAY, it saw him both sing and rap gently, and afforded more nuance and confidence in his art. Gradually, that afforded him the confidence to get back to the thing he loves most.

“I feel like I had just hidden shit for my whole life, pretty much,” he begins. “I’d had this mask on, and it felt good to just fucking lay it all out. The band being back together has definitely given me a sense of purpose again, because obviously we didn’t do it for ages. I got a job as a gardener and while I was doing that I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ But I definitely feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing again with my life. And having Laurie back in my life fully just does wonders for my mental health anyway.”

“You’re going to make me well-up,” gushes Laurie. And he almost does.

“The band being back together has given me a sense of purpose again”

Hear Isaac on the importance of SOFT PLAY in his life

Thankfully, both Laurie and Isaac are in much better places now than they were over the course of the last few years. Getting back together has helped a great deal, as has the resolidification of their friendship. Even over Zoom on an occasionally wonky connection, you can feel the positive nature of their friendship when they talk. After Emma’s death, Laurie has found love again, and, with his new partner, has fathered a third child. Isaac is also in a happy relationship and has, he says, “stepped in” to being a dad. That’s something Laurie immediately refutes.

“No, you are, mate,” he assures his friend. “Being a parent doesn’t come down to biology. You’re the one that’s there.”

It’s a beautiful moment that demonstrates the intense love, respect and admiration between the two. It had fizzled and faded and stuttered for a bit, but it’s back at full force now, and is borne out in their new collection, especially on closing track, Everything And Nothing. For while this is an album that’s as playful and piss-takey as anything they’ve ever made (there’s a track about John Wick on it, after all, and one called Bin Juice Disaster) Everything And Nothing is SOFT PLAY simultaneously at their heaviest and most vulnerable. It ruminates on profound loss and the ravaging, devastating effects that that has on the human heart, but also the strength that can come from it – as well as all the joy and fun that, despite everything, is still to be found in life.

“It’s the culmination of lots of stuff that led up to the record,” says Laurie. “People really struggle to accept that you can write a really fucking raging song and be deadly serious, but it can be funny. I wouldn’t wish bad things upon people, but unfortunately, it’s this paradox that really fucking awful stuff and grief and tragedy allows you to level up in a way like nothing else does. Having to deal with really tough shit and get through it takes you to a new realm of understanding, and people that haven’t gone to that dark place and crawled back out of it, unfortunately it’s a lot longer journey for them to get there. Awful shit gives you shortcuts to the next level – and we’re both at the next level.”

He rests his chin in his hands. Isaac doesn’t say anything to confirm that statement, but he doesn’t need to. There’s a brief moment of silence, during which some birds in the tree can be heard chirping. It’s no longer raining…

Heavy Jelly is released on July 19 via BMG

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