The Soft Pack storms L.A.


“Hello, hello, good morning,” Matt Lamkin says with a bleary grin, stepping up to a microphone with an electric guitar. It’s 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, and his indie rock band the Soft Pack is about to play its first concert of a day in which they’ll perform 10 shows across the greater L.A. area.

The quartet is gathered in the courtyard of a small Highland Park duplex for a humble but enthusiastic crowd of nearly 40 fans and friends. Beside them are boxes of doughnuts and a stone ashtray filled with cigarette butts. Drummer Brian Hill is already sipping a beer. He pounds a frantic beat for “Down on Loving,” an anxious anti-romance song in the straight-ahead rock tradition of the Modern Lovers. Bassist David Lantzman sways to the rhythm, and almost immediately Lamkin breaks a guitar string, but he keeps singing: “I feel the breeze in the air, it should feel nice / But blood’s running through my veins, as cold as ice.”

The gray-haired man watering his lawn across the street barely looks up.

It’s only the beginning of a 13-hour tour in and around Los Angeles to celebrate this week’s release of the band’s self-titled debut album, a collection of fast-paced tunes that pass through early rock, punk and surf, with vaguely pleased, lightly sneering vocals from Lamkin. The tour was the idea of Sean Carlson, co-founder of the annual F Yeah Fest and today’s navigator for the sprawling journey from L.A. to Long Beach, Westminster, Downey and back. Transport is the FYF school bus, fueled on vegetable oil and named Greased Lightning.

A roomy ride

This is luxury for an act accustomed to traveling cross-country in a van crowded with equipment.

“It’s got more room,” guitarist Matty McLoughlin says, sitting on a cooler filled with water bottles and beer. “It smells a little better.”

Driving is Donovan Lenker, a scruffy blond in flannel, and drummer for the band Skeletwins.

He’s carrying 17 passengers, with more expected later. The next gig is at Franky’s, a rock ‘n’ roll boutique and barbershop at Sunset Junction.

“We’re playing eight more shows after this,” says Lantzman, smiling in disbelief. “We’ll see what happens.”

The group got its start in San Diego in 2007, after McLoughlin returned from the University of Richmond in Virginia. He called up Lamkin, a friend from high school, about starting a band, and the Muslims were born. (The group relocated to L.A. in 2008.) A name change was inevitable once the band began drawing attention at home and during their first national tours. The reviews were great, but not everyone loved the moniker’s implications.

“It was totally misinterpreted,” says Lamkin now. “A lot of people thought it was a joke or that we were trying to be edgy. When we started the band we never thought we’d be on the Internet, much less print.”

What didn’t change was the band’s commitment to stripped-down indie rock, inspired by the Stooges, Jonathan Richman and San Diego’s early punk act the Zeros.

“I felt like no one was really making very simple rock ‘n’ roll at the time,” says Lamkin, who performs with the deadpan demeanor of a David Byrne or actor Charles Grodin. “I always wanted to make music that was timeless.”

After a quick gig at a house party in Venice, the bus heads toward Long Beach’s Fingerprints Music, where a line of fans waits outside.

“OK, you guys, we’re getting off the bus in about 30 seconds,” Carlson announces from his front seat. “Don’t bring any alcohol with you.”

During “Down on Loving” and “Pull Out,” a couple dances wildly in a crowd of about 150 people. When the show ends, band and crew rush out the back door to make it to the beach for an acoustic performance at sunset.

“You can’t make this turn, dude,” Carlson warns as Lenker pulls into the beach parking lot, squeezing between parked cars.

“I tell you I can make this turn,” Lenker insists.

The bus quickly empties out to applause for the driver, and Lamkin carries an acoustic guitar to the water. Long Beach police roll up in an SUV but leave when it’s clear there are no amplifiers. The band sings Lee Hazlewood’s “In Our Time” (a hit for Nancy Sinatra in 1966) and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” as the sun slips below the horizon. After a few minutes on the sand, Lamkin says, “That’s the beach show, yeah?”

‘Go fast’

Next is a Westminster house party, and the Soft Pack opens with a noisy instrumental piece, an unfinished song destined for its next album. Behind them in the kitchen, young men gulp Russian vodka with a Perrier chaser. During the angsty, danceable rock of “Parasites,” a fan climbs up to crowd-surf the living room, scraping the ceiling with a beer can.

In another hour, the tour lands in a Downey backyard under a full moon. The band is noodling quietly in the dark, but two police squad cars are out front, responding to noise complaints; the party hosts are warned of a big fine if police are called to the house again. Carlson informs the band, but the show must go on. The set will be short.

“Go fast,” Carlson says. “Pretend this is the encore!” Hill hits the drums harder than he has all night.

Waiting outside Vacation Vinyl in Los Feliz as the bus pulls up is Keith Morris, first-wave L.A. punk singer for Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and another co-founder of the F Yeah Fest. He’s received reports from the road. “I’m surprised it’s gone as good as it has,” he says, dreadlocks reaching to his knees. He glances at the fans overflowing onto the sidewalk. “I’m not going to see them here in that crowd.”

‘One more, man’

After a party in Silver Lake, McLoughlin paces outside the bus, decompressing for the ninth time. “That was good,” he says to Lantzman with a gentle nod. “One more, man.”

The final gig awaits on a beer-soaked stage at the Nomad Gallery near Dodger Stadium. For a moment, as Greased Lightning rumbles slowly up a hill, it seems the bus might not make it. Lenker leans into the steering wheel, virtually willing the tour into Sunset Boulevard traffic. The bus erupts to another round of cheers for the man who carried them all the way: “Dono! Dono! Dono!”

At Nomad is the biggest audience of the night, and the band’s longest set at 45 minutes. It’s hard to tell whether the four musicians are exhausted -- once it’s over, each of them scatters, finding escape away from the bus. But not before unleashing the urgent rock and twang of “Answer to Yourself” and Lamkin’s wail of absolute commitment: “You’re more talented than you know / If you give it a shot, and give it the time, you’ll be surprised by how far it goes / But I think I’m going to die before I see my time, but I’ll try it anyway.”