A ladder rattles noisily in the back of the white Chevy Express van, which doubles as a work vehicle when not hauling band equipment around on tour. At night, only the van’s headlights illuminate a single, deserted road encased by the surrounding forest.
“We call this the tunnel,” Nathaniel Epp’s voice reaches through the rattle as he drives. It’s the end of another day on Gabriola Island for grunge band Dead Soft, where Epp (vocalist/guitarist) and Keeley Rochon (bassist/vocalist) work their respective jobs as a landscaper and cashier at the tiny island’s only grocery store. “Now I know everyone on Gabriola,” Rochon laughs. “It’s nice getting to know the community a bit more. People here are so different. It’s a different pace of life.”
It’s been three years since the musicians escaped the claustrophobic rental market of Vancouver and moved to an island of 4000 people off the coast of BC. It’s even smaller than their hometown of Prince Rupert, where the two met in high school and played DIY shows with their own bands. In 2011, Epp and Rochon formed Dead Soft while living in Victoria, before making the move to the big city. “All my life, Vancouver was like, the place,” Epp says. “I never saw anything past Vancouver.”
Parking in a gravel driveway next to old touring vans, the couple lead the way to a small cabin overlooking the Pacific ocean. Inside, it’s picturesque and snug, allegedly built in the 1970s by “some crazy hippy guy.” The walls are wood-paneled, covered by a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and collection of vinyl. Plants, quirky jars, and cameras decorate the room. The fridge is plastered with uniformly-styled US state magnets collected at various gas stations on past tours.
Rochon recounts their first Vancouver gig alongside Vancouver band Woolworm, which landed Dead Soft on the inside of the city’s “insular” music scene. They spent seven years working day jobs, funnelling their earnings into the band and struggling in Canada’s most expensive city to establish a music career. It paid off. “Vancouver made our band,” Rochon says. But the city eventually lost its glitter — they were unhappy. “It’s kinda funny because it’s partly because of the band that it was hard to survive.” Epp loads the fireplace with wood from a stash outside. “Moving to Gabriola was purely for ourselves. We were like, whatever, we’ll make it work or we won’t.” Curled up in an armchair, Rochon lights up — “And it did work!”
Last year Dead Soft signed with indie label Arts & Crafts, which boasts a roster of international artists including Feist, Dan Mangan, and Broken Social Scene (who Dead Soft opened for at SXSW 2019). The three-piece band (drummer Alex Smith lives in Abbotsford) will tour North America this fall to promote their debut album, Big Blue. Named after the dusk sky glow only visible without light pollution, the record hits notes of aggressive melancholy and dark humour clinging to upbeat melodic rock riffs.
The unconventional move away from a music epicentre has meant more travel — to the city to rehearse with the rest of the band or to work — and much more quiet. Last winter, a storm blacked out most of the island for six days. Without electricity or running water, the two kept their food in coolers outside and filled jugs from the creek. Rochon powered through a portion of her book collection and Epp whittled a bird feeder. “It was awesome.” Gabriola Island’s scenic retreat affords the musicians both time and freedom to focus on their art. “Not having a neighbour upstairs that tortures me makes a pretty big fucking difference to my world,” Epp says, perched next to the record player. Just out of sight from the porch window is a studio shed filled with old Dead Soft posters, instruments, and recording equipment.
Within the quiet stirs the chaos that an upcoming tour and new album inhabit. Yet touring holds a sense of normalcy the musicians look forward to — suffering and all. “It’s about being willing to quit your job and give up all of your creature comforts to be immensely uncomfortable. You have to have a sense of humour about it,” Rochon insists, glowing in the orange light of the room. “You have to be like, ‘I feel like shit right now. This is hilarious! I’m so overtired that I’m weeping and laughing at the same time.’” Epp nods earnestly. “If you’re all about security and comfort and doing what makes the most sense, then it’s not something you should do.” He is met with gales of laughter by Rochon.
It’s the same attitude that has landed them in the serenity and subtle seclusion of this little island — a dicey place for building a musical career. Epp and Rochon have assessed the risks and are willing to work through them. “You can’t get hung up on being in a certain place or in a certain scene.” Epp has taken to “burping” a jar of homemade sauerkraut. “Things that really matter aren’t where you appear. It’s what you do.” Indeed, when the power goes out, Dead Soft will be just fine.