The Cover Story

Softcult: “In order for the world to change, there has to be some change within yourself”

With their dreamy, shoegazy alt.rock, Softcult are channelling the history and impact of riot grrrl for a new generation. Armed with righteous indignation, DIY attitude and a superb new EP, twin siblings Mercedes and Phoenix are shining a light on the climate crisis, toxic masculinity and why change comes from within…

Softcult: “In order for the world to change, there has to be some change within yourself”
Emma Wilkes
Pearl Cook

If Mercedes Arn-Horn has to hype herself up for something, she’ll watch The Punk Singer. The 2013 documentary traces the life and career of Kathleen Hanna, legendary frontwoman of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, documenting her journey from performance poet to riot grrrl firebrand and the personal turmoils in between. Mercedes first watched the film when she was 20, having never heard of the riot grrrl movement before – indeed, she was only a child when Bikini Kill and their peers were confronting the oppressive misogyny of the music industry in the 1990s. The world she discovered, of empowered women making noise and fighting for inclusivity within punk, set her on fire.

“We’re trying to bring about another wave of riot grrrl,” Mercedes says of her band, Softcult, sitting shoulder to shoulder with bandmate and twin sibling Phoenix (who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns). While riot grrrl was a short-lived movement, dwindling by the mid-1990s, the issues the bands tackled – sexual assault, slut-shaming, empowerment, toxic beauty culture and more – remain starkly relevant, if not even more so. In a time where Andrew Tate has made a cult out of misogyny and Roe v. Wade lies in pieces, voices like Softcult’s are even more vital.

Sonically, however, they have a bit less in common with riot grrrl bands. While there is some overlap, Softcult’s trade isn’t so much in unkempt three-chord punk as it is a twinkling melting pot of grunge, shoegaze and dream pop – closer to the sounds of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and The Cure, than, say, Bratmobile. “I love edgy, angsty punk; it’s just not really what we make,” Mercedes explains. “It’s weird – every time we sit down and write, it just comes out sounding dreamy. We do have some heavier, punkier sounds, but I think we just like playing both sides of that coin.”

Phoenix and Mercedes haven’t always written this way. The siblings cut their teeth in pop-rock band Courage My Love, which got them signed to a major label when they were still teenagers. During the pandemic, however, they quietly brought that project to a close after 10 years, and used the opportunity of enforced downtime to start anew. “We always wanted to have political and social themes in our music,” Mercedes says. “We thought, ‘Let’s make this project all these things that we wanted our previous project to be.’”

Fittingly, for a band so influenced by artists who were DIY to the core, Softcult’s new approach has been executed far more on their own terms, on indie label Easy Life rather than a major. Similarly, Phoenix handles production and recording duty, while the pair design their own single and album artwork.

This reclamation of their independence was nothing short of empowering. “We don’t have to go through all these channels to get records out,” says Mercedes. “We just do things on our own terms a bit more, and that has its challenges, but given the choice of the two, I think we would pick this almost every time. It used to feel like we were begging for permission constantly, almost begging for some control over our art. Now, it’s so far the opposite. It’s 100 per cent us.”

When asked what their years in Courage My Love taught them, Mercedes – the more outwardly vocal of the siblings – doesn’t point to what they learned about artistry or musicianship, but to the misogyny of the music industry. “We learned a lot about being feminine people in the industry, the way you get treated, the situations you find yourself in and the power dynamics,” she notes. “Like any industry, you’ll find a level of sexism or misogyny, but especially in the entertainment industry. It’s not hidden at all. We had our minds blown, having these experiences as literal children.”

Indeed, in their ideal world, they’d be the last generation to face the level of sexism that they have. They’ve spent years navigating a world where women and non-binary people have to work twice as hard to get a look-in, placed closer to the bottom of festival bills than the top, and offhandedly compared to Paramore or Evanescence just by virtue of being female-presenting. Furthermore, it’s a world where they often aren’t even safe – whether they’re in a crowd or on a stage – subject to abuse, harassment or even violence. Understandably, they have had enough.

“We always wanted to write about it and talk about it,” Mercedes continues. “The goal is hopefully to make it so that the next generation of women and feminine people coming up in the scene don’t have to deal with some of the bullshit that we did.”

One of the most striking things about Softcult’s new EP, see you in the dark, is that their anger is pronounced yet almost silent. The music isn’t aggressive, but rather their fury is veiled in a dreamy, atmospheric sound. It draws you in to listen closer and give them more attention, like when you crane your neck to look at something far away. It’s demonstrated best by the EP’s second track, Dress, whose grungy sensibilities collide with a hazy wall of guitar, in a sharp contrast to the bite of its eerily calm refrain – ‘It’s a dress not a yes / It’s not a fucking invitation.’

“It’s really interesting playing with the dichotomy of [those] lyrics with a pretty-sounding song,” Mercedes comments. “If you listen deeper, it becomes dark and jarring. Dress sounds more like The Cure or Beach House; it’s very dreamy and I think it served the song better that way. It’s like being lulled into this false sense of security, which pairs well with the lyrics.”

Said lyrics confront the perversity and prevalence of rape culture, especially on nights out that suddenly take a turn when a drink is spiked or someone is groped. In the five years since #MeToo, however, do Softcult think there is progress being made?

“I do think we made a lot of progress, because a lot of people weren’t even aware of how serious this issue is,” reckons Mercedes, becoming more animated the more she says on the subject. “I would bet every woman has experienced some form of harassment, whether they’ve come forward or not.”

“I like the dichotomy of our music”

Mercedes and Phoenix explain the joy of mixing darkness with light

Then again, #MeToo hasn’t come without backlash, and neither has Softcult’s own quest to raise awareness. “We get a lot of flak [from] people being like, ‘Oh, this band hates men.' It’s not true. I hate misogyny, I hate sexism, I hate rape culture, but I don’t equate that with being male.” Mercedes has, however, seen more men making an effort to listen to women’s experiences. “Men can be a part of the solution as much as women are. You’d also be surprised how receptive a lot of guys are when they hear that, they’re like, ‘That’s disgusting, I’d never do that, I’m going to be looking out.’”

Elsewhere, the darkly fuzzy mid-EP highlight Someone2me tackles a different angle on how misogyny manifests, but with a more personal slant, speaking of an incel who was harassing and threatening Phoenix and Mercedes online for three years. It scared them at first, but when they thought about it, they began to see through this person and wrote Someone2me as an attempt to cut them down to size.

“There was this turning point when we realised, ‘This person is so fucking sad,’” recalls Mercedes. “They have nothing in their life; their hate is what sustains them. They have so much time on their hands because no-one wants to be around someone like that.”

“Honestly, I think that the reason [incels] hate women who reject them is because they cannot accept the failure within themselves to actually be in a relationship with a woman,” adds Phoenix. “When you put the blame on someone else every time you get rejected, you miss the opportunity to be like, ‘What could I learn from this?’ [They think] it’s all women’s fault.”

“There’s nothing powerful about them, nothing strong about them – it’s quite the opposite”

Hear Mercedes on Softcult’s “personal vitriol” toward incels

Another major issue that see you in the dark takes interest in is climate change, with opening track Drain coldly criticising the billion-dollar corporations whose activities are responsible for the bulk of humanity’s carbon emissions. “As an individual, sometimes the onus is put on you to make a change, but what can I as an individual do to change something that huge conglomerates contribute to?” Phoenix questions. “It feels like you’re screaming into a void.”

“The frustrating part is there’s been a climate emergency since our parents [were growing up]. Because of corporate greed, or maybe because it’s inconvenient, we don’t want to think about it,” adds Mercedes. “Fast forward 40, 50 years, we’re still talking about this shit. It gets scarier the older you get. Touring a van with no a/c in Arizona, you’re like, ‘Okay, I feel it, I can’t bear it one second longer.’ Imagine if your whole existence was like that!”

The alt. music world’s dialogue on climate change and how to respond to it is picking up in volume, with bands like Gojira, Architects and Enter Shikari acting as some of our scene's most vocal advocates. Never ones for empty words, Softcult are playing their part. They’re more than happy to pay a little extra for merch made from organic, recycled fabric; they don’t eat meat; they enthuse over the fact that UK venues are good at offering hospitality, so they don’t have to rely on takeouts and consume more single-use plastic.

Crucially, however, they know that saving the planet is too weighty a task to rest on just their shoulders. “Travel is the big one,” Mercedes asserts. “That’s on the corporations – they need to make it more efficient and greener. A band can’t be like, ‘We’re never going to fly anywhere.’ It’s on the companies to care about making it a greener ride or flight.”

The rest of see you in the dark muses upon more intimate subjects. The achingly delicate One Of A Million offers an antidote to the world’s division by suggesting that humans are more similar than different, while the EP’s final two tracks turn inward. The woozy Love Song delves into the simmering anxiety that accompanies falling in love, while Spoiled asks the critical voice in our heads why it’s allowed to speak freely, when we wouldn’t dream of treating anybody else with the same lack of compassion.

There’s a diverse array of subject matter on show, but the personal and political sides of Softcult are more closely intertwined than might appear. After all, the political, very often, is personal. As a species we’re drawn to fight against the injustices we’ve personally experienced, or witnessed others we know suffer against.

“Pointing the finger doesn’t do anything. To be able to relate to a message, you have to be able to see yourself in it,” Mercedes reasons. “If you don’t get personal with it, it’s in one ear, out the other, or you feel completely closed off from it.”

After all, when people change, society changes. “In order for the world to change, there has to be some change within yourself. Blaming everyone else for problems doesn’t solve anything,” says Phoenix.

“Do we perpetuate the things we talk about? Could we be better?” adds Mercedes. “see you in the dark is when you’re alone with your thoughts, staring into the abyss. What do you see when you really stare into your soul?”

“I want Jeff Bezos to look himself in the mirror,” Phoenix laughs. “I want Elon Musk to look himself in the mirror. I want Trump to look himself in the mirror and think, ‘Yeah, I can do better!'”

Well, we can only hope.

Once again, it comes back to Kathleen Hanna. She put her performance poetry to music because, she was told, it was a better way of making people listen. Not everyone cares about poetry, not everyone cares about activism, but a hell of a lot of people care about music. If there’s something you have to say, a song’s not a bad way to do it – it’s fun, it’s digestible, and it’s beautifully communal.

Being in a band gives you a way to make yourself heard. It gives you power. Softcult know this, and they’re determined to use it wisely.

“Whether you realise it or not, [when you’re in a band] you have influence over people,” asserts Mercedes. “They’re listening to what you have to say, and how you choose to influence people is very important. You can’t take it lightly – you have a responsibility to use that power wisely.”

Softcult’s thirst for change isn’t just confined to their music – it spills onto paper. In a further homage to the riot grrrl era, they started their own zine as a way of expanding on their message and connecting with their fanbase, when they couldn’t see them staring back from the crowd. “It’s funny, because when I was a kid, I always really liked doing collage,” recalls Phoenix, whose childhood hobby has since grown and changed with them. “We started it in quarantine, so it’s not like we could really outsource too much, so Mercedes and I just did it ourselves.”

Inside the zine, Softcult expand on the meanings and context behind their music, as well as the issues that inspire their songs. They signpost relevant charities and resources and invite fans to be a part of it too, recently allowing them to submit art for inclusion in the zine. It can be accessed online and ordered in the post, and when they were finally able to play live, they handed them out at shows.

“It’s a piece of nostalgia, because a lot of people who were our age in the ’90s, that’s how they discovered new bands and ideas,” says Mercedes. “We read so much news and, honestly, propaganda on our devices. We like having something [like a zine] that’s tangible.”

“You feel more connected to something when it’s not on a pedestal”

Mercedes on why artists shouldn’t be seen as “mythical figures”

They’ve forged community in more modern ways too. They have a thriving Discord channel, where they’ve brought fans together from their own separate corners of the world and formed their own friendships. Though the fans mostly make their own conversations, the band pop in from time to time to chat and answer questions. It’s a useful way to augment the bonding experiences that play out at gigs, which was how Phoenix and Mercedes made most of their friends as teenagers.

The Discord also enables them to make the boundary between artist and fan less rigid, and by putting themselves on their fans’ level, they humanise themselves. “I do think it’s important to remind people that artists are human and not to put anyone on a pedestal,” Mercedes continues. “We’re nerdy, we get acne! [We shouldn’t be seen as] mythical figures, especially when it comes to power dynamics. We wouldn’t get to tour or do anything if people didn’t make the choice to support us. It’s important for us to know who they are so that they can do it too – if they wanted to start a band or a zine, they can do it.”

Ultimately, Softcult are here to unify people. They offer a world to dive into and learn from, a place to feel safe, and that collective action can work. To quote one of their own song titles, they provide the feeling that you are never lonely, but one of a million.

“You’re only an individual ’til you find your community,” asserts Phoenix. “All those voices are stronger than your individual voice.”

“You’re a drop in a bucket,” Mercedes echoes. “When there’s millions of other drops in the bucket, you make waves.”

Softcult's new EP see you in the dark is released March 24 via Easy Life

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