Te Whanganui-a-Tara three-piece Soft Plastics have had a long journey to the release of their debut album ‘Saturn Return’. The trio worked with producer James Goldsmith during pandemic lockdowns and various other delays, finally releasing their debut in March 2023. Packed with glorious, moody, reverbed, shoegazey songs the result is an atmospheric journey through the highs and lows of life’s changes and challenges. Guitarist Jonathan Shirley talked with Amanda Mills.
Soft Plastics melded in 2020. Originally from Tauranga, Sophie Scott-Maunder (bass and vocals) and guitarist Jonathan Shirley (who had moved from the Waikato) had previously formed psychedelic surf-pop band Beatcomber, and everyone went their separate ways, but not long after Beatcomber disbanded the pair met up again when Scott-Maunder returned to Te Whanganui-a-Tara from Ōtepoti and they soon began working on something new, based on the indie-rock they had listened to in the past. Shirley was also working with his other bands Spectre Collective and Goya.
Wellingtonian Laura Robinson, a friend and also of the band EUG, joined them on drums. The band name came about, famously, from their Moon quiz team name. Do they still attend quiz nights under that name?
“We haven’t done one in a while… but it would be great to get back into it and still use the name,” Shirley laughs.
From early jamming the trio’s sound solidified. Their first recordings, I Love My Wife and Smokes Lets Go, were released in 2020 on the ‘Soft Plastics EP,’ funnily enough on the day of the country’s first lockdown announcements as Shirley recalls.
The EP was recorded with Oliver Devlin (guitarist/singer of Hans Pucket) and is intentionally garagey, with a rough mix. Lockdowns and social distancing meant a series of cancelled gigs, but in 2021 they released My World/Your Girl, a song Scott-Maunder had written during lockdown. Shirley considers it a pivotal song.
“I still think that was the shifting sound for Soft Plastics, that’s where we had the early ideas for ‘Saturn Return.'”
Recorded live by Lachie Noble at Pyramid Club, My World/Your Girl reached number one on the Student Radio Network. Featuring some emotional and cathartic lyrics, the song took off, and as Shirley reflects, provided the band with a new direction. From there they released Loozer, an atmospheric, minimalist song that continued in the same sonic vein.
The next Soft Plastics’ single, Day Job (2022) was an ironic dark disco track, a return to their earlier garage/indie-rock influences, and one Shirley describes as being left-field, “…very, like fuzzy rock, a bit silly in terms of the context and the lyrics.” Day Job marked Soft Plastics’ first time working with James Goldsmith as co-producer, and was a sort of testing of the waters for a future album the band had already begun to shape. They liked Goldsmith’s work and subsequently asked him to work on ‘Saturn Return’.
The album title refers to astrology, a phenomenon occurring when the planet Saturn returns to your astrological sign in the same place it was at your birth around 28 years later, creating change.
Sonically ‘Saturn Return’ is reminiscent of World/Your Girl and Loozer, as they were
“We were thinking about the textures, the instruments that would go on it, and the songwriting rather than doing something goofy and fun,” as Shirley explains. Recording sessions started in mid-2021, but were spread out quite a bit at both Bay Lair and Lee Prebble‘s studio The Surgery in Newtown, where Goldsmith later mixed it.
“The album was actually mastered by mid-2022 and ever since we’ve just been working out a vinyl release and prepping it for getting it out there.”
While it wasn’t a conscious decision to keep the recording and production local the casual nature of The Surgery suited the band well.
Robinson’s drumming is exceptional throughout, and the sound is something she and Goldsmith worked on a lot according to Shirley.
“James really knew how to work the studio, from having the drum kit set up, to the plate reverb which was hidden in the wall somewhere, he knew how to get that going so the drums really shimmered,” he enthuses.
“We specifically worked quite a bit on that during the record, we spent the better part of a day getting Laura’s drum sounds… we just did take after take… we were just experimenting with adding things to the drumkit… like tambourines on hi-hats, and just random things she was playing with. I think she was really into it.”
Drums and percussion are very important to their song process, and Darcie was a song created and written around the drums.
“Laura actually wrote Darcie, she wrote the riff, and then the drum beat is something that we did with Day Job as well, that classic kind of disco-y ‘inss-inss’. That song mostly revolves around drums for sure.”
He describes ‘Saturn Return’ as “layered, textured, fuzzy sad songs,” although beneath the reverb the sound is spare, and the drums, vocals and guitars have equal importance.
Sonically, shoegaze has been a recurring reference point when talking about the album, but Shirley is clear they are not influenced by anyone, or any style.
“James has quite a big production sound, which kind of fitted with the record as well,” he smiles. “We weren’t writing a song and being like, ‘Oh I want it to sound like this song or this band’. I think James kind of understood in a way some of the music that we liked, or the sounds that we were going for.”
Shirley says his own preferences and attitude had changed when they went into the studio.
“I was experimenting a lot with lots of delays on delays, fuzzes within fuzzes, reverbs, lots of reverb!” he laughs. “Obviously that goes back to a lot of the shoegazey bands and garage bands.”
While most of the songs on ‘Saturn Return’ were newly written, My World/Your Girl, and Loozer were re-recorded for the album as they wanted to get a better sound quality for the two songs.
“Musically I think they were part of that collection of songs. We re-recorded Loozer because the previous recording was done in Laura’s bedroom with the mattress against the wall and the drumkit set up and doing it all there. There was a very conscious decision around ‘we’d better get a studio recording of this’.”
The re-recording of My World/Your Girl went further, completely revisiting the song.
“The single that we released back in the day [June 2020] was extremely stripped back, so this one was adding those textures, those strings, and kind of pushing ourselves more about what we could add on it.”
Thematically, there is a palpable sense of catharsis and melancholy emerging from Scott-Maunder’s lyrics. Though not part of the lyric-writing process, Shirley was aware of their mood and tone as the songs were based on her personal experiences.
“The theme for ‘Saturn Return’ is just a concept like change, and a change that particularly happens in most people’s lives in their 20s. For Sophie, I think it’s a lot of retrospective looking at her life at that point and things that happened… I think a lot of the songs are about that.”
With a couple of upbeat exceptions, the album actually has a languid, stately feel.
“I don’t think that was a conscious decision, it was definitely a reflection of the music we were writing at the time,” Shirley reflects.
“It’s quite a moody album, you could say, in terms of the emotion of it… we do contrast between loud songs and quiet songs, and slow songs and fast songs. Sophie and I like those slower-paced songs, and we both like sad songs, so that felt right. We just went with what we wanted to do.”
Title track, Saturn Return, is particularly impactful, featuring as the final two words of the song, and the album.
“I didn’t envision it that way,” laughs Shirley. “I thought that Saturn Return was going to be the opening track to Side B, but James towards the end was like, ‘It’s going to be the last song I reckon.’ He convinced me!”
As a guitarist, Shirley was able to feed into the band’s light and dark tones.
“I never really want to thrash for too long on the guitar, I wouldn’t want to play a set where I’m just playing really loud guitar the whole time” he admits. “There’s a song on the album called Easy To Forget which is very different to all the others. The guitar in that has no fuzz, very clean, acoustic guitar… working around Sophie’s vocals..”
Scott-Maunder’s clear, melodic voice is an excellent conduit for her emotive lyrics.
“Sophie’s lyrics, or vocals I should say, do take the lead in a lot of the songs. It’s always been about building the song around that. Her voice crafts the song, it crafts the themes of the album, and the emotion of the album. I think in a lot of our recordings, the vocals are on top, and then we work around that.”
“You can kind of tell through the way she’s singing, or the fragility of the way she’s singing… the theme that goes throughout the album.