Jack Duckworth’s Discogs page is a hefty scroll-through, and even that is incomplete. Born on Vancouver Island but currently based in Glasgow, the multi-hyphenate’s back catalogue runs from teenage punk (Forgotten), to wiry, danceable hardcore (The Measure), to darkly romantic post-punk (Radio Berlin), to industrial-tinged landscapes (A Luna Red, Primes), and more — no Discogs listing for his mid ’90s emo band Slough of Despond, though it’s possible they never recorded.
Soft Riot is Jack’s current and longest tenured guise, first formed as a solo project while living in London, England in 2011. While acts like Radio Berlin, A Luna Red, and Primes poked at synth-forward sounds, Jack was also primarily handling guitar and bass duties in those earlier projects.
With Soft Riot, he fully submerged himself into frazzled sinewaves, fanciful synth patches, and dense layers of digital percussion. Along the way, he’s delivered twitchy, post-apocalyptic terrorscaping (2013’s Fiction Prediction), avant-pop anthems (2018’s The Outsider In The Mirrors), and evocative electro ambiance (2020’s elegiac Chin Up).
This summer, Soft Riot celebrates a decade of music-making with Second Lives, a collection of unreleased cuts, alternate versions, and an unlikely pairing of covers from Canadian musicians Bruce Cockburn (“Lovers in a Dangerous Time”) and NoMeansNo (“We Are The Chopped”).
Ahead of Second Lives’ June 28 release date through Soft Riot’s own Possession Records imprint, Jack got into revamping his early work, how hardcore initially helped him break the synth barrier, and how running synths through guitar effects might have inspired a recent return to the six-string.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’d started off playing guitar in punk and hardcore bands in Canada during the mid ’90s, but by the time you were playing in Radio Berlin—and defintiely with A Luna Red—you’d started experiementing with synths, as well. What drew you towards those sounds, initially?
Jack Duckworth: I used to think it was something I got into in my late teens and early twenties, but looking back on it the interest started a lot earlier. Growing up on the northern end of Vancouver Island in the ’80s, I was surrounded by a lot of “classic rock” from that time and the decades before — a lot of those bands being the standard ones everyone’s heard of, along with a lot of artists that were uniquely Canadian. And with living in a small town, you didn’t really hear anything counter-cultural just because it was so far away from anything like that. Hearing anything like punk or oddball synth stuff was sort of rare.
Any music with synthesizers I’d hear on the radio, or maybe MuchMusic; I’d watch films from that era that had soundtracks featuring electronics (John Carpenter, Howard Shore, etc.) that I was really into. It all sounded very alien, sophisticated, urban, and mysterious. My uncle Rick left a cassette tape at our house, unlabelled, that had stuff like Depeche Mode and Ultravox on it and I was really into that, without really knowing what it was at the time.
My parents split in the late ’80s, and my mom started seeing my stepdad—who are together to this day— and his taste of music was oddly Toronto-centric (he being from Ontario), so with that I was hearing albums by bands like The Parachute Club and the ’80s albums of Rush, Saga, and that sort of thing. A lot of synth action going on there, so that probably had some influence in some way.
Going into the ’90s, we had moved further south on the island and I got into the punk/hardcore stuff happening at the time. That was when I started getting active in music — things like talking to other friends about music, playing in bands, playing shows, being part of a community, and all that comes along with that. And with being involved in that, there was a point in the mid ’90s onwards where punk and hardcore bands started experimenting with synths. Bands like Six Finger Satellite, Satisfact, The Audience (later known as Vue) and The VSS, to name a few.
Before hearing that shift in punk/hardcore, synths and electronics seemed like an interesting but unreachable thing from a higher popular culture. But it was at that point that it seemed accessible and done by people I could relate to, so that was an important time for me, spinning me off into the trajectory I’ve been on ever since.
What was your first synth, and did you end up hanging onto it for any of your Soft Riot work?
During my time playing in bands in Vancouver I actually didn’t really own much of my own electronic gear, with a lot the synths being owned by other members of the band — like my friend Bill [Winslow-Hansen] who I played with in A Luna Red. He had a pretty impressive arsenal of stuff.
I think the only two synths I owned at that time were a Roland RS-09 string synth and a Korg Poly-800 with reverse keys. I managed to score a Simmons SPD-8 in a thrift store in North Vancouver — something that happens rarely these days. I sold all that stuff off right before I moved to the UK in the late ’00s and started from scratch again.
For some people familiar with what I do: I’m somewhat associated with having a lot of synths, but I’m actually not really that much of a gearhead or an analogue purist. I’m rarely looking at buying new synths or reading up on them. I probably don’t even know of the majority of new stuff there is out there.
I usually seek out something new when I’m looking for certain sounds that I know my synths can’t do, or if I’m wanting to freshen up the sound palette a bit. As I tend to get all the song ideas in my head to begin with, I don’t really need a bunch of unnecessary gear to do that for me.
How much has your synth/programming set-up changed over this past decade of making music as Soft Riot? And through it all, what’s been the piece of gear you keep coming back to?
Well, a lot! The first EP, No Longer Stranger, came out just over 10 years ago now. I don’t even remember what I used on that, but it was very minimal. With the record itself, I had no grand plans for at all. It was just tying up a collection of songs from the preceding years that were very personal to me. It sounds very different than the records that came after it.
I had been a guitar player when I first started playing live, so playing a bunch of synths at once [as Soft Riot] was completely new to me. I had a few old analogue beasts, but they didn’t like being knocked around in travel, so those I’ve just kept as studio-only.
A lot of gear choices have actually been made based on their durability on the road, actually. I needed to keep my touring kit as compact as possible, for mobility. There were a number of tours I’d do around Europe on my own, travelling on buses, planes, and trains carting around 60 kg of gear in two giant cases on wheels and a large carry bag. Every bit of weight you could cut down made the difference, so that mainly meant acquiring some of the newer synths that were a fraction of the weight and size.
Two synths I’ve had from the beginning that I still use are the Dave Smith Tetra and the Roland JX-3P. The Tetra is a bit of a workhorse for me, in terms of sounds. The JX-3P I still love for a few reasons. It’s one of the first synths to use MIDI, so the MIDI timing on that one is somewhat loose and erratic, therefore having a bit more of an organic feel— far less of that strict quantising and accuracy of newer synths. The timbre is nice and warm, and it’s got this goofy little LFO accent button on it that I use a lot— I call it the “Electro Funk” button. It’s a synth I rarely use live, but it still gets a lot of action in the studio.
I also got a Novation MiniNova a few years ago, mainly as a performance synth. On the surface it seems a bit garish and laughable, but it has a lot of these grainy FM/wavetable sounds that none of my other synths do. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it for more textural stuff, especially on more ambient releases like 2020’s Chin Up album and the upcoming Sudden Vision Zones album I’m releasing under the name Ostrofti. That’s out next month on the new US label MediTape run by my friend Billy Sprague.
Finally, I’ve been using a lot of guitar effects on the synths over the last couple of years to colour the sounds in different ways. My friend Tim Anderl in Ohio, who does some PR for me, hooked me up with the fine folks at EarthQuaker Devices, and with that I added a few of their devices to the effects chain, like the Disaster Transport SR, the Afterneath, and the Plumes overdrive. They’re super fun to use. I guess that’s my EarthQuaker plug right there!
On top of some unreleased tunes and covers, Second Lives presents a few alternate versions of songs from the Soft Riot discography. “Cinema Eyes,” in particular, is a song that’s popped up on a handful of releases before arriving at this fourth version. While structurally similar, you’ve taken the song into some different directions with various synth tones — I’m thinking of the ascending solo, in particular. On the early Fiction Prediction version, the tone is almost fanciful, like a digital flute, but on “Cinema Eyes (Version IV)” it’s a bit buzzier, almost bending between the notes. Are those different patches on one of your synths, or are these different instruments all together?
Aside from a “digital flute,” I’ve definitely made a lot of weird patches. If anything, I’ve been spending more time over the past few years getting exploratory with the equipment I have. Some of these new versions of songs use the same patches, some don’t. Some are running through more external effects than what I would have done previously.
A number of these new versions have come about mainly because of how I play them live in more recent times. I’ve been playing “Cinema Eyes” and “Another Drone In Your Head” regularly for over eight years, so they’re naturally going to change with each passing year. I had a major stylistic change, at least to me, between the Fiction Prediction and You Never Know What Might Come Next albums, so that’s taken into account. This was due to being more confident, and how I found myself naturally doing things in a live setting.
The whole idea for doing this Second Lives release was mainly to take a break from writing songs for a proper new album. I lost a touring cycle on 2019’s When Push Comes To Shove because of the pandemic, so I just started working on new songs. I’ve been coming up with a lot of ideas I’m very interested in, but due to the lack of social interaction, inspiration, outside stimulus, and life experiences over the past year or so, some of the key mental ingredients to pull all those ideas together into an album aren’t quite there yet. They’ll come in time, so I’m not that worried about it at the moment.
I’ve actually done a lot over the past year without realizing it, and earlier this year I just switched gears to prepping all the tracks for Second Lives, which was a nice little detour.
Which of these songs went through the most drastic overhaul—whether through the arrangement, vocals, or instrumentation—and did updating the track better represent your initial vision?
For me it’s a tie between “Write Yourself Into The Void (Second Version)” and “Your Back To The Stone (March Version)”. I’ve always liked “Write Yourself…” but the original version on Fiction Prediction sounds a bit flat and unrealized. I’ve had the intention of bringing it back to the live show, and with working on a new version for the live set in random chunks over the years, this second version is more how it should be, to me. It won’t sound too different to the casual listener, but to me the energy and vibe is very different.
As for “Your Back…”, the version on Second Lives originally came about due to being asked back in 2016 by a French label to contribute a track in an “instrumental/martial” style for a compilation. That comp never got off the ground, so I reworked that version a bit for this release. Sometimes I enjoy having limited parameters to work within, as it’s oddly liberating and not overwhelmed by endless choices. You just make something out of the given limitations, and sometimes the result is something you wouldn’t usually do. This version almost has a chamber-like, Michael Nyman quality about it, which is cool.
What’s your most recent piece of gear?
J: I got a Novation Bass Station II last autumn, mainly to just have a hands-on synth for bass lines and things like that. Previous to that I’d been milking the Tetra for that sort of thing. It has its own identifiable sound, so the acquisition of the Bass Station was just to mix things up a bit.
Right before that I bought a guitar — a cheapo ‘80s white SG I got for a steal, just to see how I’d get on with it again. That has been a lot of fun! There were a few things happening at the time that moved me to make that choice — one of those was being egged on by some friends to pick it up again. Oddly enough, the passing of Unwound’s Vern Rumsey last summer was a bit of a factor, and I sort of went on a little musical voyage listening to a lot of guitar bands I hadn’t really listened to in years.
I am originally a guitar player, and at that point that I’d barely played one for the better part of 10-15 years. I guess I sort of felt it would be a waste to let that skill set evaporate over time, and also with all that time away from it it’s almost completely fresh to me. Some of my old style is there, but I look at playing it differently than before. As much as synths offer a lot of sound opportunities, there’s just some things that work way better on a guitar!