Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn are sitting on the floor of their hotel. The Canadian-born twin siblings who lead the post-punk/dream-pop/shoegaze project Softcult are in a sleepy state of post-show bliss after playing a date last night at The End — a venue on Nashville’s famed “Rock Block” .” Today is the day off before we head to Memphis and then SXSW. How do they plan to spend the next 12 hours before they jump back on the road?
“First thing’s first: We’ll probably take a shower afterwards,” laughs Mercedes (she/her). “Then definitely get some food and maybe see some more live music.” Speaking to Mercedes and Phoenix, even during a Zoom call with spotty WiFi, it’s clear that the duo are currently active in the music industry in a way that matches to their needs. No longer tied to a major label system (the siblings have been playing together in various band formations for a decade), Mercedes and Phoenix (they/they) not only write hypnotic tunes steeped in political and social discourse (their third EP See you in the dark out Friday) — they’re building an empire.
This is not hyperbole. Together, Mercedes and Phoenix oversee almost every aspect of Softcult’s business. In addition to creating the band’s artwork, Phoenix works on production and engineering. Meanwhile, Mercedes directs and edits their videos. They both created and produced a riot grrrl inspired fanzine called Holy Scripture and participate in a Discord server where Softcult listeners from around the world can gather. “We did it because we thought it might be a cool thing for people — maybe they don’t live in the same area, they can’t all go to shows, but they can still connect with each other. It’s another way to foster a community,” Phoenix says of the server.
“We’re not on it all the time, but we’re checking on it, making sure everything’s OK, answering questions about the band, how we recorded something or [made] videos,” continues Fenix. “The cool thing about it is that people have made it their own. They can talk about whatever they want. Some talk about recording and producing, pedalboards and guitar tones. Some share personal stories: There’s a channel called ‘Trigger Warning’ and they all have a place to share what they’re going through and feel safe doing so.”
Growing up together in Ontario, the siblings were homeschooled by parents (their mother was an English teacher) who encouraged them to think independently and follow their artistic inclinations. “I always feel like there are two types of homeschoolers,” says Mercedes. “They’re either super religious and want to shelter their children from the world – that wasn’t the case [with us], it was the opposite. I think [our parents] they were like, “The school system will kill your love of literature.” They just wanted us to experience the school of life. It was a huge gift when we were younger because it gave us time to really focus on our music.
“Both [parents] have been teachers in their lives at some point,” she adds. “So they’ve already been really good at making sure we know the things we need to know, and then giving us the space to work on our passions… It’s not a typical band story. I think maybe they thought we were going to be concert pianists or something, but they’re happy that we’re doing something we love and they’re really supportive of it.”
Launching Softcult in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests of that summer, Mercedes and Phoenix channeled their own frustrations with current events in music, addressing everything from financial and gender inequality to the late stage of capitalism and their experience(s) ) with the entertainment industry. They soon released a debut EP for 2021, The Year of the Ratand followed last year’s The Year of the Snake An EP that opened with a propulsive guitar track ironically titled “BWBB” (“Boys Will Be Boys”).
Their new ones See you in the dark The EP opens with the My Bloody Valentine-esque “Drain,” in which the band confronts corporate greed and corrupt politicians who enable capitalist structures for personal gain. Meanwhile, the upbeat chant “Get Dressed” addresses sexual assault, feeling insecure while out with friends, and the lingering trauma of having your space violated. “See you in the dark/ On the street following me/ Watch it flash before my eyes/ All the things that couldn’t happen to me,” they sing over the sound of winding guitars. “It’s a dress, not a yes/ It’s not a fucking invitation.”
The irony that their EP’s darkest track is accompanied by their catchiest tune isn’t lost on Softcult, who liken ‘Dress’ to Foster The People’s 2011 hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ – heavy pop radio piece that happens to be about teenage gun violence. “The story we were trying to tell in the lyrics seemed like the right fit to make a party song,” Phoenix says, describing “Dress” as “poppy” but with “lyrics that actually tell a dark and like disturbing story” about “to to be covered or to be used when going out at night.’
“You get lulled into this false sense of security and then suddenly you realize you’re in danger,” Phoenix continues. “But it’s too late. Let’s hope that happens with the introduction of the song. Because I saw comments where [listeners are] like, “Oh, like, I was dancing to this in my bedroom, and then I realized what the lyrics were about, and now I don’t know if I can party to this song anymore.” And we were like, “Yeah, that’s what the song is about.” It’s funny. however, because I honestly don’t think we’re smart enough to do that on purpose. I think it just happened.”
Later, the hypnotic “One Of A Million” examines predatory behavior within the music scene itself.
“There’s so much we can say,” Mercedes begins. “Just because you’re a woman and you represent a woman in the music industry, everyone recognizes the fact that you’re treated completely differently than your male counterparts. Your job description looks like [dictate that you] present yourself a certain way, you have to act a certain way, and you have to put up with, frankly, a lot of crap and a lot of misogyny and sexism.
“Seeing how guys in bands act sometimes, especially with their fans, they hold power over them and they can abuse that power,” Mercedes continued. “It’s coming out more and more. A lot of our heroes that we looked up to as teenagers, they all turned out to be villains. And it’s just an eye-opener, seeing it from both sides — from taking advantage as fans and then also be in the industry and feeling taken advantage of by labels or even objectified by our fans… I think in any industry you’re going to experience a level of sexism and misogyny, but maybe it’s more on display in the music industry and everyone has, for some reason I just accepted it as it was.’
Softcult’s passion for the exchange of ideas extends to their aforementioned zine, which is now in its 25th issue after Mercedes and Phoenix went self-publishing in the early days of the pandemic. “During the lockdown, everyone was looking for something tangible that wasn’t digital on your phone. It’s another way to connect,” explains Mercedes of Holy Scripture, which was directly inspired by the fanzine culture of the 90s. “Yeah, standing on the shoulders of giants, I guess they’ve made this a really great scene by sharing ideas – whether they’re political, social or even just art. With everything going on in the world right now, it seemed like the perfect time to bring it back.”
Phoenix adds, “As we got deeper into the riot grrrl thing, we realized that if we were to do things through the lens of riot grrrl today, we’d want it to be a little more cross-cutting and inclusive than maybe the original movement was. “
“To start the next wave,” Mercedes nods.
As much goodwill as Softcult has generated among their fans and the DIY music community, they’ve also faced some pushback. Before we sign off, they recall how after one of their shows, a guy in the crowd approached their tour manager and commented, “Oh yeah, that was a great show – lots of virtue signaling.”
Both Mercedes and Phoenix roll their eyes at this – after all, they only sing, talk and write about the issues they think are important to them. AKA: just what millions of artists, regardless of medium, have done since the beginning of time. “His ‘virtue signaling’ is raising awareness for another person,” shrugs Phoenix. “If he had told me, I probably would have asked him, ‘What would you like me to say on stage?’ What would you rather I talk about? What is an important question for You?’”