If you’ve been wondering where the loud, progressive punk music is in 2018, you haven’t been listening to enough Pill. The New York band has been pushing back against power structures, gender stereotypes and political complacency since 2015, when they released their self-titled debut EP. As the stakes on all these fronts continue to get higher, Pill’s frenzied brand of no-wave-inspired punk is more apt than ever — and their second album, Soft Hell (out October 26th via Mexican Summer), is arriving at exactly the right time.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the band’s practice space in Bushwick, vocalist and bass player Veronica Torres admits she felt lost for words after the 2016 presidential election. “I personally struggled a bit with this record, lyrically, just because I got really depressed,” she says.
Eventually she and her bandmates did what they do best: examined the sources of their discomfort and found inspiration in the chaos. For their recent single “Midtown,” they combed through the New York Post for ideas and ended up quoting headlines verbatim. With lines like “Welcome to hell/Hell is the subway,” the right-wing newspaper’s “twisted lens,” as guitarist Jon Campolo puts it, proved strangely illuminating. “I feel like it totally embodies [our] love-hate relationship with New York,” Torres says.
Where their 2016 debut album Convenience critiqued the corporate takeover of New York City and their follow-up EP Aggressive Advertising addressed the displacement of the city’s DIY community, Soft Hell escalates to a wider confrontation of the status quo. On the song “Power Abuser,” Pill question and reject systemic misogyny via Torres’ searing spoken word. She snarls over a current of jagged guitar and bass: “In a crusade over who owns the right to my body, what am I allowed to create or destroy?” Pill have always tackled inequalities, but on Soft Hell it becomes an all-out attack.
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As we talk, drummer Andrew Spaulding and saxophone player Ben Jaffe are hand-drawing a stack of cassette covers for a mail-out. “We’re huge on the DIY community, because we’ve all come up with it,” Spaulding says, looking up from his drawings. “We’ve all been going to shows for years. The first time I met Veronica was at a show I was working.” As DIY venues continue to be priced out of New York, Pill have maintained a passionate but pragmatic stance on the realities of maintaining space in the city.
“There was a lot of talk after [Brooklyn venue] Death By Audio closed about DIY dying,” Campolo says. “That is such bullshit! In this city, when one place closes, another one opens. Get out of your house if you think this city is changing, because it needs you to work!”
This rejection of passivity is a big part of what makes Pill so vital. They aren’t afraid to question and call people out for inaction or uninformed statements — and that includes each other. Throughout our conversation, they challenge each other’s statements on everything from DIY venues to male privilege to what their album’s title means to them. These back-and-forths are an important aspect of the band, Campolo says: “Some people are afraid to disagree with people they’re collaborating with. But I think if you can fight for what you believe and say what you stand for, that’s the best way to deliver a message.”
Pill’s members also understand that critical thinking and self-reflection make for good music. Jaffe provides the howling heart of Pill’s subversive punk songs via his saxophone parts, which he often improvises onstage. When Torres mentions that he can always be found front and center in the crowd, watching the bands they share bills with, Ben says this isn’t solely an act of solidarity: “I do that to try to get a sense of what kinds of harmonies they’re using. If anything resonates with the crowd, I try to use those notes later, and bring that into the music.”
Soft Hell is an album made up of contradictions, from the cover art (an eerie scene of a dog posing at a piano while a mushroom cloud blooms in the background) to songs like “Plastic,” where dark lyrics run over jaunty instrumentation to discomforting effect. The band covers New York’s cruel treatment of artists and the similarities between capitalism and sexual bondage in a way that speaks to these subjects’ complexities, rather than attempt tidy answers. “As a society, the more we make ourselves aware of those complications, the better,” Campolo says. “We need to be more self-aware of what the fuck we’ve built.”
Torres sums up the complications of late capitalism with a matter-of-fact aphorism: “You can’t get those jeans without fucking over another human being.”
For all its darkness, Soft Hell is ultimately a compelling case for continued resistance. “Our whole message is about community,” Spaulding says. “There are plenty of people out there who love you, and that you can trust. You just have to find them. You don’t have to stand up for yourself by yourself.”