Cover Feature SOFT PLAY: Big Softies

A pair of tattooed, moshpit-starting punks with hearts of gold, Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent have always been about the duality. Back under fitting new moniker SOFT PLAY, with a new album that embraces both sides more than ever, ‘HEAVY JELLY’ might be 2024’s sweetest comeback.

It took Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent a lot more than a name change to get the band back together, but it was an important piece of the puzzle. Formerly known as Slaves, the duo went on hiatus in 2019; having formed as a two-piece in Kent back in 2012, they’d made three studio albums together by the time they accepted that the name didn’t have the connotations they wanted associated with their band. And so, returning in December 2022, they announced their comeback as SOFT PLAY.

“We’re two quite soft people trying to make a heavy band, so [in the beginning] we felt like we needed that aggression and that cutting edge, and Slaves felt really in your face and harsh,” says guitarist Laurie today. “But as you mature, you realise you don’t need to prove anything. It was always gonna be hard to change our name, but I feel more like SOFT PLAY. I don’t associate with Slaves anymore.”

SOFT PLAY spoke to who they feel they are at their core, encapsulating the juxtaposition between the pair’s heavy sound and appearance, and their soft, gooey nature. That, and both of them are parents – they spend an awful lot of time in soft play areas. They call the decision the best thing they’ve ever done, but some fans were up in arms. When they posted on Instagram about the decision, explaining that they’d only ever intended Slaves to be a reference to the day-to-day grind of life, they expected people to be angry that it was too late. Instead, they got the opposite: “The other side came in and said we were woke babies,” laughs Laurie.

In response, the pair crafted last year’s single ‘Punk’s Dead’ – a tongue-in-cheek comeback featuring none other than Robbie Williams. “Soft Play, more like soft cunts,” sings Isaac, quoting their Instagram comments verbatim and poking fun at both themselves and the fans. “It’s like the 8 Mile final battle. Go in on yourself and say everything that needs to be said,” notes the vocalist and drummer of the decision to come out of the gate with the track. “What more can you say? Let’s clear the slate before we start again.” “The song is just bemusement,” Laurie adds, “and I think the way Isaac and I deal with stuff as a friendship is with humour when we’re in really hard situations.”

SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide
"When you watch us on stage, if you were to mute it, this album now sounds like how we look." - Laurie Vincent

SOFT PLAY’s just-announced fourth album ‘HEAVY JELLY’ – due for release on 19th July – marks both their first album in six years and a wholehearted return to that trademark humour. There’s a track from the perspective of John Wick; one about Isaac’s compulsion to pick worms up off the floor and save them, and another about feeling insecure in the gym (recent single ‘Mirror Muscles’). “We’re just having so much fun together that what other people think and how they react starts to feel less significant,” says Laurie. “That puts you in a really powerful position. If we’re making music that we think is funny and is striking a chord with us, then all of the interactions we’re getting outside of it are just a bonus.”

It’s been a tumultuous journey to reach this understanding of themselves and what makes them truly tick. At some point during their first stretch together, says Laurie, they lost what makes their chemistry unique. “Our band is an anomaly. There’s no one that makes that racket in such a weird way, playing funny tongue-in-cheek songs, that has managed to penetrate the mainstream,” he suggests. When they did reach the mainstream, they found themselves comparing their band to more traditional indie bands, with disappointment and self-flagellation the inevitable result. “I think I completely lost sight of who we were at our core,” Laurie continues, “and then we stopped trying to make the music that made us great.”

Along the way, they also stopped having fun. “I really wasn’t enjoying it towards the end, and Isaac was having really bad mental health problems, but neither of us were communicating about it,” the guitarist picks up. “We were just lost in such a clichéd, rock’n’roll existence of turning up, playing a gig, rehearsing. We weren’t engaging with it properly; albums were being made for the sake of it.”

With serious life events like Isaac’s ongoing mental health struggles and the loss of Laurie’s partner in 2019 also putting huge hurdles in their way, the pair needed to recalibrate across the board. They were determined, however, not to be rushed into it. “We’ve been doing it at our own pace and trying to do it how we want to do it rather than how the system would like you to do it,” says Laurie. “It was quite difficult to make our way back to each other because so much shit had happened. We both had shit going on, and with the name change and everything there was a lot of noise. We had to find our friendship again. But I’m really proud of this record, because we’ve done that and we’ve embraced the ridiculousness.”

The result is an album that sounds how they’ve always imagined they’d sound. “I’ve realised that the last two records don’t sound like us,” Laurie concedes. “When you watch us on stage, if you were to mute it, this album now sounds like how we look. That’s such a satisfying feeling. It’s like when you finally find an outfit you like wearing and you feel comfortable. It feels like a real coming of age and like this is ground zero. Everything begins here: new name, new record.” Isaac chips in: “We’re having fun, and it comes across. It feels like really good fun again. It feels like when we started doing it.”

When we chat, Isaac is on his way to therapy. It’s something he’s diligent with after learning a few years ago that he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Left unchecked, it ran rampant over every area of his life. “I’d been struggling quite badly. When I got diagnosed, it was completely debilitating. I couldn’t do anything,” he says. Woven through with the humour on ‘HEAVY JELLY’ is a sincerity and vulnerability, such as on ‘Isaac is Typing…’ – a track about his OCD and indecisive nature.

On the track, he sings “external factors must be controlled”; a reference to the way OCD forces your hand. “When everyone is about to sign off on something, I’m overthinking and I’m just like, ‘Hold on a minute…’” the singer explains. “I pick shit apart and find problems where there aren’t problems. Compulsive behaviour is trying to control something. It’s chaos. You feel like you have to do this thing just to have some sort of order. It’s so hard to fight those compulsions.”

With OCD still a misunderstood disorder, initially Laurie struggled to empathise. “Before we went onstage at Glastonbury in our final year in 2019, I think I watched you try on two different pairs of shoes 20 times, but I wasn’t very compassionate about it then. I had my own shit going on, and I was like, ‘This is doing my fucking head in’,” he admits to his bandmate. “What’s different now is that we couldn’t have those conversations back then. I would just be like: ‘He’s doing my head in’. Then Isaac wouldn’t be able to tell me what he’s feeling. We just used to ignore each other, then walk on stage and play a gig, which was really horrible.”

Now, after therapy and a whole lot of talking together, they’re in a different position, and reigniting that intrinsic connection has been as essential to the band as to their friendship.

“I think if you can find what you connected over and rekindle that, the feeling is the same,” says Isaac. “On this album, it feels like when we first started the band again. We’re having discussions, and I feel brave enough to say something.”

SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide SOFT PLAY on their new album 'HEAVY JELLY' for DIY's 2024 Festival Guide
"We’re just having so much fun together that what other people think and how they react starts to feel less significant." - Laurie Vincent

On ‘HEAVY JELLY’, Laurie describes them as walking a tightrope between “completely preposterous” and “deadly serious”. “Putting yourself across with humour can make you feel like you’re not taken seriously sometimes. But we don’t want to just play funny songs; we want to play heavy songs, and we want people to lose their shit. With this record it’s been really important that the humour always has the contrast,” he says. ‘Worms on Tarmac’, for example, is a funny song about “underrated, underappreciated, frequently amputated” worms. Beneath that, it’s a reference to Isaac’s battle with OCD. “I literally have to save them. My brain starts going on, saying if I don’t turn around and pick that worm up, he might die. I get five minutes down the road sometimes and have to turn around and find the worm,” the singer says, laughing at himself.

With heavy guitars and guttural vocals, the record is deceptively aggressive, but there’s a softness in the lyrics and in their relationship. With that in mind, ‘HEAVY JELLY’ was the perfect title. It came from nowhere for Laurie, and he felt like he was being “struck by gold” when it dropped into his lap. “I was in a Japanese Jiu-Jitsu lesson and this instructor was trying to teach ground fighting. He was like, ‘Resist your opponent but you’re not actually fighting, so just pretend you’re heavy jelly’.” Inspiration hit: “I was like, fucking hell, that’s the album title.” After texting his mate and seeing that familiar ‘Isaac is typing…’ at the top of his screen, he got a resounding ‘Yes’. “We built the record around the name,” Laurie nods. “Which felt great because we had a direction to go in.”

SOFT PLAY have long been a fixture of festival season and their first proper year back in the fold is no different, with high profile slots at Download, Pohoda, Truck and more all confirmed. However, although Laurie admits to recently putting the dates in his wall calendar and being “intimidated” by how many are planned, after years of going too hard, the duo are looking forward to entering Summer 2024 with a fresh perspective. “It’s more about looking after yourself and you’ve got to do your job at the end of the day. I don’t have the desire to get off my head anymore. I want to feel good and get up and do shit. It changes when you’ve got people at home,” says Isaac. Laurie caveats, however, that he still likes the occasional big one. “I’ve got three kids at home so sometimes I’m like, ‘We’re on the tour bus, fuck it, let’s have a party…”

Taking care of themselves and finding the equilibrium between wellbeing and having a little fun is key. “It’s about trying to get that balance, like, have a couple of drinks, but then go to bed,” says Isaac. It’s tough changing their schedules and going from being a dad in bed by 10pm to a nocturnal touring musician that’s still onstage at that time (“I find it increasingly hard to switch between Dad Laurie and Tour Laurie,” the guitarist admits. “It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out now”). But crucially, it’s something they’re figuring out as a strong unit, together.

It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but Isaac and Laurie have found their way through the noise. And on ‘HEAVY JELLY’, they’ve rediscovered what makes them special; what only the two of them can do. “As a kid, I was obsessed with subcultures, and I’d look at mods or rockers or whoever and be like, ‘Oh, I want to belong to something’. Then we made this band and no one wanted to join, so there’s only two of us,” says Laurie. “But as we get older, we’ve realised that’s so special. Only me and Issac can do this. When we’re having fun, and when we allow ourselves to have fun and we don’t overthink it, we make really good art. That’s such a special thing.”

‘HEAVY JELLY’ is out 19th July via BMG.

SOFT PLAY play The Great Escape (15th - 18th May), Bearded Theory (23rd - 26th May), Rock For People (12th - 15th June), Download (14th - 16th June), Pohoda (11th - 13thx July), Truck (26th - 28th July), Tramlines (26th - 28th July), Y Not (2nd - 4th August), Boardmasters (7th - 11th August), Bludfest (11th August) and Victorious (25th August).

As featured in the 2024 Festival Guide issue of DIY, out now.

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