Track and video premiere: Mr. Softheart, ‘Surface Tension’

Mr. Softheart performs at the Maximum Ames festival. — Alyssa Leicht

It’s all part of the act for Mr. Softheart.

That’s because this local three-piece has no regard for the basic building blocks of rock bands. At one of their shows, you’re sure to spy the image of Bambi on a deltoid muscle or the late ’80s linebacker-inspired cut of a Jockey crop top. But what you won’t spot is a drum set and a stack of bass amps. Instead, these guys rock with one vocalist, two guitarists and, technically, three part-time synth players.

The Softhearts — Nick Fisher, John Fisher and Charlie Patterson — have set up shop in the liminal space of whatever, exactly, “post-punk” means these days. And they bend the shape of that sound around the logistical limitations of their lineup. The result, in person and on stage, is the closest the state of Iowa has come to a cinematic export since a corruption scandal killed our film tax credit in 2009.

You can watch and/or listen to the premiere of Mr. Softheart’s new single, “Surface Tension,” right here at Little Village.

The song was performed and recorded in the bowels of the Vault — an old bank vault in the city of West Liberty — for the band’s “From the Vault” video series. The series’ first installment, featuring a killer Springsteen cover, can be found on their YouTube channel. All footage was captured by the aptly abrupt handheld camerawork of Peter Mullaney and Dan Miller.

As for the song itself, “Surface Tension” is a Hollywood producer-sized bump of the Softheart sound. The chug-chug of Charlie’s lead muscles through the heavy fog of un-strummed screech coming from John’s pedal board, while Nick’s processed vocals shout about a psychotic break set in the kitchen, lyrics that very well could’ve been written by Julianne Moore’s queasy character in Safe (1995): “Question after question, no answer, nothing!/Function, function, I’m doing nothing/I’m down to the drop, I got surface tension.”

Hopefully, you’ve already hit play on “Surface Tension.” But keep scrolling because Mr. Softheart speaks below.

When people ask what kind of band you’re in, what do you tell them?

Nick: Depends who’s asking. We’re in a “dance-y kind of experimental band” to pacify someone who doesn’t really give a shit. But I do think [Mr. Softheart] is an art performance piece. It has roots in post-punk and some legendary folks we look up to, like Alan Vega of Suicide.

There’s something romantic about a three-piece band, but Mr. Softheart doesn’t look like the typical three piece. How did you end up with one vocalist and two guitarists?

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Charlie: The guitar stuff is inspired by Iggy Pop and stuff like that. You know, just in-your-face guitar riffs.

John: And we’ve been super inspired by synths. None of us know how to play piano. So, we just kind of stuck with, like, we’re gonna play guitar and synth. And, you know, program these beats in loops to go behind it.

So, who’s the de facto drummer?

Nick: That was one thing — over the pandemic, John got into beat production. He’s kind of the primary one, but we all contribute in some aspect.

John: Some people will come up and be like, “That was awesome. Do you guys want a drummer? Where’s the drummer?” I think I can speak for us all: We are really just chasing what is inspiring and what is exciting. We started writing these song ideas over quarantine, where they had these beats, and it was like … let’s go with this. Even if it’s scary, just go with what’s exciting.

Mr. Softheart songs quite literally build — because you’re building them, brick by brick, on stage — which creates a sense of anticipation for the audience. Is that dramatic structure part of the songwriting process?

Charlie: We’re writing the songs so we can play them live. That’s what we’re doing. We have to keep that in mind, because we’re only three people. And we don’t want to fill the backing track with a bunch of moving melodic parts. We want to keep the backing tracks to more rhythmic stuff. So, keeping a grasp on what we can each do live at any given time is really important.

Nick: Yeah, we build. We each have parts live and then what we can’t play, as long as it’s not a feature part, that goes in the backing track. That’s been the philosophy.

Effects are a big part of the Mr. Softheart sound. How do you use pedals and vocalizers to set the tone on a song like “Surface Tension”?

Nick: It’s all about building the arc of a song. I’m not a guitar player, but there are guitar players out there who really bag on effects, and I always just think that’s hilarious. Like, what a funny opinion to have. That’s why I love this band, why I think John and Charlie are some of the better guitar players in Iowa — because they know what to do with effects.

John: I don’t even play guitar [on “Surface Tension.”] I just mess with my effects pedals. I have a drive pedal that’s feeding my guitar’s idle signal into this pedal that is making it oscillate through all these tones, like screeching tones. And each knob influences another knob. So you start bending the tone, having it go up into squeals or down into low things. Then I turn on a tremolo pedal that makes it stuttery. I don’t program it to be right on. I just try to hear the song.

That’s one of the reasons why, when I’m listening to Mr. Softheart, I can’t help but see the song. How does the band strike a balance between playing music and performing music?

Nick: It starts with our influences for sure. We’re probably performance art insofar as the Cramps are. I mean, I’m not comparing ourselves to the Cramps — you know, probably the greatest, certainly the coolest band ever. But there’s an ancestry there that we’re certainly tapping into.

Mr. Softheart performs at Cedar Valley Pride Festival. — Alyssa Leicht

Mr. Softheart is a beautiful-looking band, too. Where does the emphasis on style come from?

John: I was big into the Kills a few years ago — another band who use drum machines and stuff — and they had a quote about how they dress. Because they look fucking awesome all the time. They were like, “You’re a performer. When you’re in a movie, you dress up. You don’t just dress like yourself. If you’re in a play, you dress up.” Like, you’re going on stage.

Let’s say someone is looking for the pure, uncut Mr. Softheart experience. Where’s the best possible place to listen?

Charlie: Basement shows are always sick.

Nick: That’s right. Somewhere between a basement show and the stage in Twin Peaks.

The band posted some studio shots on Instagram the other day. What are you guys up to?

Charlie: We’re working on a full-length. There’s not really a timeline on it, but we’ve got tracking done for, I think, six songs now. Very early in the mixing stages of that as well. The goal is to have 10 songs or so.

John: And that ties back to your question of what’s the ideal Softheart experience. Like, live, I think we’d all agree is the most intimate and fun. But we are trying to capture that in the studio in some way. So, if you’re sitting in your basement listening to it on vinyl in the dark, that it just hits the way it’s supposed to. Even if we’re not there in front of you.

Upcoming Shows:

Friday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. — Stranger Gallery EP release show with Mr. Softheart, Rra, Hyperkarma, Icehouse, Minneapolis, MN, $12

Saturday, Oct. 1 at 10 p.m. — Mr. Softheart, Alex Wiley Coyote, Calamity, Mickey’s Tavern, Madison, WI, Free

Friday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. — Eat Fresh Fest, Club Sandwich, Kansas City, MO, $15 donation

Saturday, Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. — Mr. Softheart w/ Bucky Stryke and the Bookworms, The Sound Pony, Tulsa, OK, Free

Saturday, Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. — Mr. Softheart w/ Art Monk, DIE MAD, Octopus College Hill, Cedar Falls, IA, $10

Saturday, Oct. 29 — Iowa City, IA, Details TBA

Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 5 p.m. — Mr. Softheart w/ Modeling, Gravity’s Constant, xBk Live, Des Moines, IA, $10