Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn are sitting on the floor of their hotel. The Canada-born twin siblings, who lead the post-punk/dream-pop/shoegaze project Softcult, are in a sleepy state of post-show bliss, having played a date last night the End — a venue on Nashville’s famed “Rock Block.” Today is a day off before heading to Memphis, and then, SXSW. How are they planning to spend the next 12 hours before hopping back on the road?
“First thing’s first: After this, we’ll probably shower,” laughs Mercedes (she/her). “Then definitely get some food and maybe see some more live music.” Speaking to Mercedes and Phoenix, even over a Zoom call with wonky WiFi, it’s clear the duo are currently active in the music industry in a way that suits their needs. No longer attached to a major-label system (the siblings have been playing together in various band formations for a decade), Mercedes and Phoenix (they/them) are not only writing hypnotic melodies steeped in political and social discourse (their third EP See You In The Dark is out Friday) — they’re building an empire.
This isn’t hyperbole. Together, Mercedes and Phoenix oversee nearly every aspect of the business of being Softcult. In addition to creating the band’s artwork, Phoenix runs point on production and engineering. Meanwhile, Mercedes directs and edits their videos. Both create and produce a riot grrrl-inspired fanzine called SCripture and participate in a Discord server where Softcult listeners from around the world can come together. “We made it because we thought it might be a cool thing for people — maybe they don’t live in the same area, they can’t all get out to shows, but they can still connect with each other. It’s another way to foster a community,” Phoenix says about the server.
“We’re not on it all the time, but we do check on it, make sure everything’s above board, answer questions about the band, how we recorded something, or [made] videos,” Phoenix continues. “The cool thing about it is that the people have made it their own. They can kind of talk about whatever they want. Some talk about recording and producing, pedalboards and guitar tones. Some share personal stories: There’s a channel called ‘Trigger Warning,’ and it’s all them having a place to share what they’re going through and feel safe doing that.”
Growing up together in Ontario, the siblings were homeschooled by parents (their mother is an English teacher) who encouraged them to think independently and pursue their artistic inclinations. “I always feel like there’s two types of homeschoolers,” Mercedes says. “They’re either super religious and want to shelter their children from the world — that was not the case [with us], it was the opposite. I think [our parents] were like, ‘The school system is going to kill your love of literature.’ They just wanted us to experience the school of life. That was a huge gift when we were younger because it did give time to really focus on our music.
“Both [parents] had been teachers in their life at some point,” she adds. “So they were already really good at making sure we knew the things we needed to know, then also giving us space to work on our passions… It’s not a typical band story. I think maybe they thought we were going to be concert pianists or something, but they’re happy that we’re doing something that we love, and they are really supportive with that.”
Launching Softcult in 2020, in the thick of the pandemic and that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Mercedes and Phoenix channeled their own frustrations around current events into the music, addressing everything from financial and gender inequality to late-stage capitalism and their experience(s) with the entertainment industry. They soon released a 2021 debut EP, Year Of The Rat, and followed up with last year’s Year Of The Snake EP, which kicked off with a propulsive guitar track wryly titled “BWBB” (“Boys Will Be Boys”).
Their new See You In The Dark EP opens with a My Bloody Valentine-esque “Drain,” which finds the band taking on corporate greed and corrupt politicians that enable capitalist structures for personal gain. The upbeat, chanting “Dress,” meanwhile, addresses sexual assault, feeling unsafe while out with friends, and the lingering trauma when your space has been violated. “See you in the dark/ On thе street, following me/ Watch it flash before my еyes/ All the things that couldn’t happen to me,” they sing over a wash of winding guitars. “It’s a dress, not a yes/ Not a fucking invitation.”
The irony that their EP’s darkest song is accompanied by their catchiest melody is not lost on Softcult, who liken “Dress” to Foster The People’s 2011 hit “Pumped Up Kicks” — a hook-heavy pop-radio track that happens to be about teenage gun violence. “The story we were trying to tell in the lyrics seemed appropriate to make a party song,” Phoenix says, describing “Dress” as “poppy” but with “lyrics that are actually telling a dark and like disturbing story” about “getting roofied or being taken advantage of on a night out.”
“You’re lulled into this false sense of security and then suddenly realize that you’re in danger,” Phoenix continues. “But it’s too late. Hopefully that’s what comes across with the presentation of the song. Because I’ve seen comments where [listeners are] like, ‘Oh, I was like dancing to this in my bedroom and then I realized what the lyrics were about and now I don’t know if I can party to this song anymore.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of the point of the song.’ It’s funny though, because I honestly don’t think we are smart enough to do that on purpose. I think it just kind of happened.”
Later, the mesmeric “One Of A Million” looks at predatory behavior within the music scene itself.
“There’s so much we could say,” Mercedes begins. “Just being female and female-presenting in the music industry, everyone is waking up to the fact that you’re being treated completely differently than your male counterparts. Your job description seems to [dictate that you] present yourself a certain way, you have to behave a certain way, and you have to put up with, quite frankly, a lot of bullshit and a lot of misogyny and sexism.
“Seeing how guys in bands sometimes behave, especially with their fans, they hold power over them, and they can abuse that power,” Mercedes continues. “It’s coming out more and more. A lot of our heroes that we looked up to as teenagers, they all turned out to be scumbags. And it’s just really eye-opening, seeing it from both sides — from being taken advantage of as fans, and then to also be in the industry and feeling taken advantage of by labels or even feeling objectified by our fans… I think, in any industry, you will experience a level of sexism and misogyny, but maybe it’s more on display in the music industry, and everyone has, for some reason, just accepted it for what it is.”
Softcult’s passion for exchanging ideas ladders up to their aforementioned zine, which is on its 25th issue after Mercedes and Phoenix started self-publishing in the pandemic’s early days. “During lockdown, everyone was looking for something tangible, that wasn’t digital on your phone. It’s another way of connecting,” explains Mercedes of SCripture, which was directly inspired by ’90s fanzine culture. “Yeah, it’s standing on the shoulders of giants, I guess, where they made this really cool scene by sharing ideas — whether it’s political, social, or even just art. Considering everything that’s going on in the world now, it seemed like the perfect time to bring that back.”
Phoenix adds: “When we were getting deeper into the riot grrrl stuff, we realized that if we were to do things through a riot grrrl lens today, we would want it to be a bit more intersectional and inclusive than maybe the original movement was.”
“To start a next wave,” Mercedes nods.
As much goodwill as Softcult have generated among their fans and the DIY music community, they have also faced a modicum of pushback. Before we sign off, they remember how, after one of their shows, a guy in the crowd approached their tour manager and commented, “Oh yeah, that was a great show — a lot of virtue signaling.”
Both Mercedes and Phoenix roll their eyes at that — after all, they’re only singing about, talking about, and writing about the issues that feel important to them. AKA: only what millions of artists, regardless of medium, have done since the beginning of time. “His ‘virtue signaling’ is another person’s raising awareness,” Phoenix shrugs. “If he had said it to me, I probably would have asked him, ‘What would you have me say on stage? What would you rather me talk about? What’s an important issue to you?’”