Interview: Soft Blue Shimmer come into their own on their debut album ‘Heaven Inches Away’
I’ve known Soft Blue Shimmer for a relatively short amount of time (or forever if we’re considering 2020 time). My first exposure to them came from Gaby Chiongbian’s kaleidoscopic picture of the band playing the Echoplex way back in February (almost a lifetime ago). “Surely this band must sound as dreamy as Gaby’s picture,” I thought to myself.
They did and they didn’t. Lofty guitar hooks juxtaposed with Meredith’s nimble vocals in 2019’s Nothing Happens Here EP were unlike any type of dream pop I knew before. It was incredibly impressive for a debut EP, especially for a band that was still getting to know each other and find their footing as a group. Seven months, 83 scrobbles, and a couple of memes later, it’s safe to say I became a fan.
So when Soft Blue Shimmer announced the release of their debut album, of course I was excited, but I also had questions. How much can a band change in a year? Will it be more of the same? Well the answer to the former was a lot, but also not a lot.
Heaven Inches Away is, in many respects, the total opposite of Nothing Happens Here, but it is Soft Blue Shimmer in their most realized form yet. They still have those blown out hooks, and Meredith (plus Charlie)’s vocals are as dreamy as ever. But there is an unquestionable air of confidence here that was absent in NHH. While NHH thematically floated around stagnation in multiple aspects of life, HIA actively reaches out to contradicting, but coexisting states of hope and despair.
Heaven Inches Away makes it known that it is not Nothing Happens Here Part II in the 23 second opener “Space Heater.” Swelling synths stun, then reel listeners into the commanding drum fill which begins “Emerald Bells.” “Chihiro,” named after the Spirited Away protagonist, counters “Shinji” (of Neon Genesis Evangelion) from their debut, tapping into longing and a burning desire to bring back memories of happier times. Even in the album’s slower moments, there’s no shaking off an ever-present sense of hope. And that hope reaches its climax on closing track “Adore The Distance,” where an ethereal chorus surrenders to the unknown. Although HIA thematically sits at a point on the brink of a breakthrough, the project truly marks a milestone in which Soft Blue Shimmer come into their own.
We talked with the members of Soft Blue Shimmer (consisting of Charlie Crowley on guitar and vocals, Kenzo Cardenas on drums, and Meredith Ramond on vocals and bass) about their beginnings, releasing material in Japan, and the creative processes behind Heaven Inches Away.
From the Intercom: I’ve seen you guys play around with your band name [Soft Blue Shimmer, Soft Blue Shim Sham, Soft Blue Shim Sham Wow, etc] on Twitter. How did you guys finally decide on Soft Blue Shimmer as your band name?
Charlie: It was a lot of brainstorming cause we had a different name, Yume. We were like “Oh this name doesn’t really work for us anymore”, and we sat with–How long did we think of names for, like a month? A few weeks at least.
Kenzo: Almost two months, I feel like. It was a long time.
Charlie: Yeah, we played with names for a while and I think it was one practice where we had all the names we liked. Then we stopped playing and said “We’re not leaving until we at least have the best contender and we walk out of here thinking about one name.” By the end of that practice, we had Soft Blue Shimmer. We sat with it and then we were finally like yeah. Is that right?
Meredith: Yeah, we had riffs of words and different phrases we all liked and we were trying to figure something out. When we finally got to Soft Blue Shimmer we were like “let’s sleep on it and see how we feel” and we were really jazzed about it the next day.
Charlie: Kenzo was the first to be like “YO I FEEL IT, I FEEL THIS NAME!” and when Kenzo gets hyped, I feel a lot better. Oh, I remember. We were looking at movie titles. So we had said Blue Is The Warmest Color; then Heat Shimmer Theater, which is a Seijun Suzuki film; and I don’t know where Soft came from but it just fell in there somehow.
FTI: How would you guys describe your sound? Would you call yourselves a dream pop band? Shoegaze? Slow gaze? All the above?
Meredith: I don’t know, I’m really bad at genres and like labeling stuff, but yeah, I guess like dream pop is a safe bet to call ourselves. Shoegaze, noise pop?
Charlie: I think like shoegaze sometimes, but like, we lean towards pop a lot. Dream pop and noise pop are easier. A tenant of shoegaze is to not really care about melody so much but we really care about melody in choruses and stuff. We do a lot of shoegaze but we probably fall close to the stuff Meredith’s saying. I feel like we don’t think about it that much. We tend to not be like “We’re THIS kind of band” you know. We all like a bunch of genres we play. Just like whatever we listen to and what feels good.
FTI: Who are some of your influences?
Kenzo: Some bands we’ve mentioned before: Pains of Being Pure At Heart, I feel some Yuck, which is like a far end of the spectrum but uh, take it from here Charlie.
Charlie: Pains is like the first thing that comes to my head. I feel like we’ve talked about them a lot when we first started writing together. Definitely Slowdive. I think- Meredith, do you like Asobi Seksu?
Charlie: Yeah I would say Asobi Seksu definitely for production and like the total center, like we gravitate towards that a lot I bring that up a lot when we’re recording. Stuff like that for sure. And then I feel a big inspiration for us is like moods. I feel like we talk about movies a lot and other stuff that kind of helps inspire what we do.
FTI: I noticed you’re also releasing stuff with Galaxy Train (a label in Japan) in addition to Disposable America. Is there a pretty sizable audience in Japan compared to the US?
Charlie: I’d say it’s pretty good. We connected with GT around the same time we connected with Disposable America. Early on, when we were talking about releasing, we were talking about bands like Asobi Seksu, Luby Sparks, Say Sue Me, and there was a lot of cool shoegaze and dream pop music happening outside of the US. So being able to release ‘Nothing Happens Here’ in the US and outside felt really important. So we reached out to GT, which was a label I really liked. I just like Toru’s aesthetic and the way he does things. And he’s been a part of our group since then the same way Corey (Producer/Engineer) and Dustin (of Disposable America) have been. Toru did tapes last time and he offered to do CDs also in addition to tape. The CD’s look really awesome.
Charlie: He does such cool stuff and he does everything himself. He posts photos of him putting stickers on the tapes. He’s cool, he’s really cool.
Kenzo: Yeah, I feel like from the beginning we always had plans and goals to release in Japan, get a fanbase there, and instead of just targeting the US we wanna go around the world and that kind of goes with our aesthetic. I’m part Japanese, Charlie’s not Japanese, but he’s super all these Japanese things. A lot of the song titles are Japanese names or just a lot of the aesthetic revolves around that. It’s something we never talk about out loud, but it’s just part of it. Our first merch has Japanese writing and it’s just part of the vibe but I like that we don’t tell people that it’s part of the vibe cause I feel like it can get kind of trendy or cool, and I don’t think a lot of people think I’m Japanese. It doesn’t say that anywhere, but it’s cool vibes .
Meredith: Yeah, I’m still pretty shocked, well not shocked, but amazed that there are so many fans that we have over in Japan because of him. It’s pretty cool.
FTI: What does the album title Heaven Inches Away entail? How does it relate to the music?
Charlie: So Heaven Inches Away, in terms of the album, encapsulates a lot. It was actually going to be called “Hold You In The Warm” first, then we decided that Heaven Inches Away encapsulated a lot of the themes of the entire album. This idea of something being this close to you, being so close and how hopeful that could feel and how wonderful and sublime, whatever heaven is, being like “I can almost touch it,” it’s right there. But then it also means you still don’t have it and it can be so despairing to live on that line. So you have this beautiful feeling and also desperation and how those two things can live together. It’s meant to be a complex title in that way where it’s both hopeful and horrendous. That’s just kind of like the human experience. So I think the album kind of goes through that in a lot of different ways like in a relational way, in a personal way. Then there’s also literal distance, personal distance, emotional distance, there’s a lot to do with distance and that idea of being two things at once.
FTI: I did notice when I was listening through the album, it had a hopeful sound and this energy that wasn’t on Nothing Happens Here. When I was reading the FLOOD premiere for NHH you guys mentioned how there’s a stagnant type of feeling. Then with HIA, it’s totally on another level. How was the songwriting approach different with HIA compared to NHH?
Charlie: It was pretty different. In NHH we had another member, so we were writing with four people, but with this album we were writing with three. We obviously know each other a lot better now in terms of songwriting.
Kenzo: The process came around last December or January. We had already booked our recording dates in advance for March this year and we’re like, “Oh shoot, we only have like two or three songs,” but we have like five or six ideas. It wasn’t until we were demo-ing where all the magic came. We were writing without the idea of pleasing anyone or pleasing a genre. “Cherry-Cola” was one of the last songs we wrote while “Hold You In The Warm” was one of the earlier songs, but they kinda sound different. I think we were just writing for ourselves and we took a lot of time writing. We wanted the most perfect melodies, perfect lyrics, perfect parts. With the first EP, you had to put something out, like we weren’t a band. This was the first release ever so we were just like, “Yo, let’s write some songs and release it.” But with this one, [HIA], we had time to sit with it.
Meredith: I feel like for the EP, we wrote a lot of the stuff while we were together in a room, so maybe it felt like we didn’t have the comfort of doing whatever we wanted. But then for this album it was a lot of working on our own and then bringing it to each other and then layering on top of everything and then being, “Okay do you like this?” That’s kind of how we did it right?
Charlie: Yeah I think it was definitely more like that. I know Meredith and I met up quite a bit and just work on parts and then start to write stuff. Then we would take the things we started to write to Kenzo and flesh it out a little bit. So yeah, when we started to demo January, I think through most of December, Meredith and I would write little parts of things and have sheets of lyrics we were writing and be like, “Ok, this is an idea, this is an idea, this is an idea, and this is an idea.” Then we would bring something to Kenzo, I’d play it through, Meredith would play it through and then we’d be like, “Alright, we like that chorus, that verse needs a lot of work. Let’s scrap that part, that part, that part,” and then just start to work on it. When we demoed it really brought everything together and we would have parts way more solidified and have a better idea of the structures of the songs because once we had started to demo we saw what the other songs were looking like. I feel like we try pretty hard to not make too many songs on the album have the same structure or be super similar. Once we hit “Musubi” we were like, “Ok, we got a nice sweet short song. We don’t need to write five more sweet short songs,” cause we had one we really like. Then some songs fell together. “Adore The Distance,” I still don’t know how we wrote that song. *laughs*
FTI: I really like that song. It’s one of my favorites.
Charlie: Yeah, the thing I remember the most was that I was just noodling on my guitar and Meredith was just like, *snap* “What was that thing? Write that down right now!” and I was like “What?” and then I wrote the intro and that little riff on the side and nothing else was written. Did we say this would be an interlude or something? We were like, “Those riffs were nice. We’ll figure it out,” and then we figure it out and it’s still kind of compounding. Yeah a lot of stuff like that happened.
FTI: How did you guys decide on “Cherry-Cola Abyss” and “Hold You In The Warm” as your singles? Looking at it from a PR standpoint is really interesting because they’re two of the longest songs on the album and people tend to be wary of new songs that are longer than four minutes. But I definitely didn’t feel that time at all with both of those songs.
Meredith: Cherry-Cola wasn’t our first choice, but I think some feedback I’ve gotten was that it was a really big favorite and we thought it was a good fun one. We were like “Who cares, we know it’s long and that is kind of like a ding for our singles, but let’s just do it.”
Charlie: Yeah, that’s like the chorus of this entire release. Us being like, “Fuck it, we wanna do it, so we’re just gonna do it.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a bad PR thing or if it’s not the smart thing to do. We were like “Whatever, we like Cherry-Cola, it’s a big statement. If people like us they’ll like it,” and a lot of shoegaze/dream pop fans are probably okay with it.
Kenzo: Yeah I don’t think it crossed our mind ever that it was six minutes long. I think that’s how much we didn’t think about it. I think Dustin mentioned “Woah, woah. Have some other options.” He threw in a couple options like “Emerald Bells,” but I think we picked Cherry-Cola because “Hold You In The Warm” was definitely going to be a single, possibly our first one, but then Cherry-Cola came out of nowhere cause we thought it was the most unique sounding song and a lot of it had to do with that 30 second little intro where we were like, “Yo this is gonna mess people up.”
Charlie: Yeah that’s a direct quote from our decision. “This is gonna mess people up.”
FTI: Was “Chihiro” named after the character in Spirited Away?
Charlie: Yeah. On the EP there’s a song called “Shinji” (from Neon Genesis Evangelion) and the album speaks a lot to the EP and develops off of it even though it’s completely different. “Shinji” was so much about stagnation and inspired by the idea of feeling a lot and ultimately feeling shut down because you feel so much. So I liked having a character who reflected something in the EP. I listened to this podcast called Blank Check (a movie review podcast) and they were talking about Spirited Away while we were in the process of writing the album. I was already thinking about the sublime and the idea of “What is the sublime? Can you grab it? Is joy something you hold on to? Is it something attainable?” Like all these ideas of sublimity and happiness. They talked about Spirited Away as being a movie that captures the essence of the sublime and art which really struck me. When they were talking about Chihiro as a character in that context, it really struck me. That’s such a wonderful sentiment and it just felt really nice to just pull another character and have it be something people could look at and point to for the context of the album. Like art pointing to other art.
FTI: It looks like the photo for your album cover is set in Manila! I was wondering if the city or the Philippines had any influence in the songs?
Kenzo: Yeah… Yeah, I don’t know!
Charlie: Lupe (@_lupe) was our photographer and all the photo assets for the entire release are his work. He was gracious enough to give us access to this big folder of photos that are like from his trip to the Philippines. He posted a photo and we actually had a different photo from that pile in which we were like “This is the album cover”. We played with it for a long time until we got to the photo we have now. It really speaks to what part of what the album is. It came where the songs spoke into the photos more than the photos speaking to the songs.
Kenzo: Yeah, the photo’s from Manila. Lupe did a tour with The Maine over there.
FTI: There are a lot of shades of bright red and orange hues on the cover, which is the opposite of the soft… blue colors of the EP. Was that a conscious decision that went along with the themes of hope and desperation?
Charlie: I think it was pretty intentional. A lot of the album speaks to the EP in that it is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of the EP. Like stagnation, all those things, and then over here we have extreme feelings and going towards something really big with a lot of motion. In the EP there’s still water and then the album has a car driving and a blurred person in motion. And then you have the stark reds and all these opposites to where we were before.
Kenzo: Busy photo too. Like rush hour, like the pacing, yeah something about it is like a moving photo.
Charlie: Even like our promo photos have us running, like we’re in motion. Everything was just meant to be like a completely different feeling. We didn’t wanna put out the same thing again at all.
FTI: Do you guys have a collective favorite song on HIA or do you each have your own favorite?
Meredith: At the count of 3.
Charlie: *laughs* Ok, who’s counting?
Meredith: 1, 2, 3 –
Meredith: “Hold You In the Warm”
Charlie: “Emerald Bells”
Kenzo: “Space Heater” (the 23 second opener)
Meredith: “Space Heater??” Oh man. So I guess-
Kenzo: Wait, wait, what?
Charlie: Did you mean “Space Heater” Kenzo? What was- Why was your favorite “Space Heater?”
Kenzo: That’s hard, dang. I think I like… You know what, yeah that’s a hard question. I low-key really like “Sunpools.” Those slow kinds of songs are really in my wheelhouse. But maybe “Hold You In The Warm” if we’re talking about a longer song. Maybe if you come back to me in 10 years, If I’m alive…
FTI: Do you y’all have anything in the works for next year or in the coming months?
Meredith: Umm we have stuff in the works. We got ideas percolating. No like concrete plans when.
Kenzo: Yeah, we have nothing *Meredith laughs*. We have a music video- We’re talking to somebody from NY, possibly collaborating with Lupe too. And then we’re planning to do-
Charlie: We have a music video done… already.
Meredith: Yeah have a little thing.
Charlie: We have a really nice music video that’s already done!
Kenzo: Yeah, whoops!
Charlie: It’s been done for like months! *laughs* C’mon guys!
Kenzo: Yeah, Meredith did this stop motion music video for “Musubi.” You get the inside scoop. We’ll see when it comes out.
Charlie: We’re gonna try and do some live – like we haven’t really talked about doing an Instagram Live, those kind of live performances – but we wanna do like a nice quality live recorded performance of the album.
Kenzo: Yeah, Audiotree, Kissup, and uh- no I’m playing.
Charlie: It’s gonna be a Netflix special.
Kenzo: HBO Max. Same day Wonder Woman comes out!
FTI: Back-to-back with the Animaniacs reboot!
Kenzo: LP2 next month!
Charlie: Yo, why not! It won’t be too long before we put something else up though. I feel like we’re not gonna wait around forever to put this out. The pandemic will be cured in a month you know. Get right back to it!
This interview was conducted via Zoom by Karolyn Jaranilla in November 2020.