Interview: Tobias Grave (Soft Kill) – Shining a Light On The Reality of Life On The Streets

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You know it’s a good interview with it starts with: “I’m a habitual over-sharer, so don’t worry.”

The story of Tobias Grave is one of addiction, mistakes, loss, almost losing everything, and the sobering effect of being a present father that would pull him out of the darkness, into the light.

The theme of this interview is so important, that I felt it needed as much room to fully express itself.

Addiction is a cruel master, and maybe Tobias has the key to unlock the door of the freedom to be yourself again.  

Tobias Grave is the lead singer of Soft Kill, a band from Portland Oregon.

With an impressive 110K monthly listeners on Spotify, and the fact that they appear in 50 playlists, means that if you enjoy this genre of music, you have already heard them.

We can’t classify Soft Kill as Post-Punk, as that category is just too wide.  It’s not really Goth, too narrow.  

If we look at the last album, it could be considered like a Broadway Play, with a whole cast of characters, but instead of Broadway, it’s Skid Row.  A Skid-Row Musical.

“The joke we made was that it’s the Breakfast Club soundtrack taking place at a Methadone clinic.  It’s supposed to feel like a mix-tape, like a soundtrack.”

There was an obvious evolution to the sound, as Tobias explains that after the 3rd record, the band understood that Tobias’ voice is what pulls the songs together.  It is the “signature for the band.”  

That becomes apparent when you listen to those first albums and can notice how his voice was faded or hidden behind effects and the music.  

“I don’t think we really executed that, until this record.”  

On Dead Kids R.I.P. City, Tobias’s voice is at the forefront and infuses emotion into the songs, making them stand out from their peers.

What I found, is that time and time again, on a Darkwave or Post-Punk playlist, I would rarely look at the band playing.  When I did, it was Soft Kill.

Origin Story

“I grew up in a musical family.  My father and his brother both worked as roadies for bands.  My dad was a front of house engineer, and my uncle was a guitar tech.  I grew up over-exposed to Aerosmith in particular, because that was the band they both worked for.  In a way, I became desensitized to the traditional Rock stuff that was happening.”

Then, Metallica came along and took its place on the pedestal of importance in his life.

Tobias saw the …And Justice for All tour.  

“They had a crazy stage.  It was theatrical in the way Kiss was interesting to me.  Even if I didn’t have any attachment to Kiss’ songs, I thought they looked cool.”

Not only did he appreciate the intensity of the band, but gave them props for the bands they covered, like The Misfits.  

“It started to pull me down the path that became my home.”  

Yes, he had a rattail and denim jacket, but he also opened his musical repertoire to a broader spectrum.

It was the 80s, and MTV had a big influence on Tobias.  The Psychedelic Furs, and the Soundtracks of the movies of that time, mostly the John Hughes movies, had an impact.

“What it bore into my subconscious is that I always associated music with a cinematic edge.  I always pictured a scene from a movie, since there is kind of a normal scripted flow to most 80s movies.  I would go:  This is the song where the person realizes how they really feel.  This song is the montage song, where we tell the next six months in two and a half minutes.”   

Tobias still approaches music as a cinematic experience, “like what part of a movie, that doesn’t exist, is this?”

Blessure Grave

Blessure Grave was one of Tobias’ first bands, back in 2008.

I must admit, that as half French Canadian, I said the band name with the English pronunciation, not realizing that it was in fact, the warning on the flip-down visor of American made cars, in French.

“That sounds like a Goth band!  They are technically in the story arc of my life, artistically the same band.”

In 2010, he was asked to do an album on a label based in Portland.  

“The ups and downs and tumultuous existence I was stuck in, drugs and other stuff…that segwayed into the people that I built up to play the songs I had been writing and collaborating together just felt like a new thing.”

It was a last second decision to rename the band Soft Kill, during breakfast with the person putting out the record, just before going into the studio on the first day.

“So…I decided to maybe have this be a different band.”  

It was an awkward request, but they loved it.  

Blessure Grave was lo-fi, recorded at Tobias’ home in an era where you could pick up an 8-Track for a couple hundred dollars.

It was the Wild West of music.

The bands would put their songs on Myspace and labels would ask to put it out.  

Blessure Grave would also attract publications like Fader, Vice and Stereogum, without having a publicist.

“For somebody, such as myself, that’s always unrealistically believed that I can accomplish anything that I try…which has been the result of most of my failures and some of my successes”, reinforced his belief that he could make it in that exciting new world of music.

Someone was willing to pay money to craft the sound they were looking to create.

It was fascinating, as Tobias now heard the songs “through the filter of somebody else’s vision.  You get something much different.  I think more powerful and impactful, as subjective as that might be.”

The result was a more polished sound…finally.

Savior

Savior was a more personal album, dealing with the near loss of Tobias’ wife and newborn son Dominick.

Tobias was on the verge of losing everything.   

“It sets the foundation for us to do Dead Kids because when my son was in the hospital, I wrote and recorded the first song in the hospital room that my partner Nicole was recovering in.  She had an emergency c-section, she almost passed away as well.  It was just a pretty brutal experience.”

The situation was that they had no money and were renting a room in Sacramento.  

“I was a very small blip of sober.  It was hitting me full force for the first time in my life.  I look back on it…I remember that I really felt like I was being punished for a lot of the mistakes that I’ve made, how I treated my family & people I was close with. My drug addiction and that lifestyle controlled the narrative of literally everything in people that came into my life.

Really, what that record is about and what is wells up in my brain?  It was really a coming to God moment.  For the first time, I was looking in a mirror and I was seeing somebody so terribly scared to get clean.  Somebody who had never fully come to grips with addiction.  

The record is brought on by my kid, but there is very little that is about him.  It’s very autobiographical.  I would sum it up as fear:  I was really scared.  I was scared in one capacity to lose my son and to lose my partner.  I was also scared because I realized that even if they both survived, what was I able to offer and provide for them?”

As he was writing the songs, they almost felt like they were not Soft Kill songs.  It was different than Choke, a collaborate effort with the band.  This was different.  This was personal.

The songs, being so unique, was the new direction for the band.  

Substance Abuse

Tobias was now starting to take control over the substances that had control over him and his actions.  Now his actions were of his own doing.  

He once said:  “My kid is a wall between me and bad decisions.”

Now, an incredibly healthy 4-year-old kid is a lot of work.  

“He’s incredibly smart and incredibly manipulative.  He’s full of energy.”  

For Tobias, to slip back into a night of drugs, would require a two-week period of recovery, he admits, just to have the energy to compete with his son.  

More than that, as Tobias looks into his son’s eyes, he realizes that by the age of 6 or 7, what Dominick will really need, is a father.

Being a latch-key kid and from a broken home where his parents followed their own selfish desires, he realizes the importance he can have in his son’s life, by just being there for him.  

From Facebook

“I don’t ever want him to question his mom or question me.”  

Luckily, Tobias was able to rebuild a relationship with his parents, but why waste the time tearing something down, to rebuild, if you can avoid it in the first place?

Dead Kids R.I.P. City

The album shines a light on addiction and those whose lives it claimed during a dozen years, in and around 82nd Avenue in Portland.

Like a movie, each song is a story about a supporting character in the vignette that was the life of Tobias back in those days.

Pretty Face

“I’ve personally been really excited to see that it has become one of our popular songs.  That song is so meaningful, it’s the reason that Dead Kids exists.”  

Zachary Delong, a graffiti artist named Lamer, is the main character for this song.  

It all started when Tobias was laying on the couch and Nicole said: “Your friend Lamer, is that Zachary Delong?  He just died.”

“I remember jumping of the couch and screaming:  What?

Then, immediately falling to pieces internally, walking into a room and creating Pretty Face.”

Owen, a former band member was there, and they wrote the song on the spot.

IN 2011, Tobias, along with his girlfriend, met Zach and his girlfriend at a studio apartment, that was like a substance abuse meetup.

What ensued was a whole night on the town smoking crack, on Skid Row, around 6th and Flanders and all along Broadway on the West side.  

Tobias paid for the whole night, spending $500-$600.  

The next day, Zach asked how Tobias had so much money.

Tobias introduced Zach to “some of the criminal activity I was taking place in, which was a lot of hitting stores and selling it to specific people.  He and I went on this really heavy criminal spree, but there was a lot of moments of us on the edge of abandon, very close.”

To outsiders, it might look like two junkies out of control. 

“The veil gets lifted.  You really see people for who they are when you see someone at the core of their addiction, which is all consuming.  I got to see Zach in the light where there was no hustle or lie or story that could be told.  I was connected to him by rope.  We could hang each other; we could keep each other afloat.  There were many different ways it could go.”

Tobias eventually got locked up.  When he returned, Zach was in prison in a different state.  

They stayed in touch and talked all the time.  

“When he came home, I thought he was clean.”

One of the last conversations was when Dominick was in the hospital.

“Yo.  When am I going to meet my nephew?”

“I was excited.  Even if I had no grasp on sobriety, that I was going to surround my child with all these broken, tormented, brilliant artists.  Zach was a brilliant artist under a different light, one that wasn’t dangerous.  Losing him created a massive hole.  

It was also the song that inspired me going to rehab and getting clean.  It inspired the concept of Dead Kids.  Zach is Dead Kids.  Dead Kids is about a lot of people, but he is the core of that album.”

There is a saying that we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with.  When trying to break free of addiction, it’s important to surround oneself with those that will help in the recovery, not drag you back down.

“As true as that is, at that time, we were both at the bottom and somehow lifted each other up.  Even if we were actively on Heroin at the time, I think we kept each other alive.  I beat Zach back into life after an overdose.  We were that intertwined with each other.  I think both of us would be dead if we hadn’t met in that moment.”

With such a friend, the sense of loss must cut like a sharp knife.  

David Rugh

Zach’s life intersected with a select few who he let get close to him.

As time goes by, Tobias is extending that inner circle, meeting these close friends, after the passing of his friend.

Tobias met David Rugh, the one who designed the band’s script logo and did all the art for the album.  Rue ran with Zach on the streets, at a different time. 

Zach was the connector.  If he vouched for someone, that was something special.

“So, I’ve been able to build relationships with other people who are clean and sober, who weren’t, back in the day.”

Songs With a Story

“When I talk about this genre of music, and a lot of the bands that are influential, I don’t know really what a lot of these bands are talking about.  So much of it feels very meaningless.”

While respecting these bands, Tobias sought to infuse meaning into his songs.

“That’s how you make brilliant songs.”

Because of his punk heritage, he thought that the “visceral, in your face presentation was really impactful.”

He mentions a song by Zero Boys called Amphetamine Addiction.  As they repeat the chorus…amphetamine addiction…OK…I get what this is about!

“I pride the fact that we present a raw, potentially even offensive glimpse into a reality that I don’t think should be simply summed up through Instagram reposts…like…give a coat to someone who is homeless.”

While some will put blinders on, or keep these issues at bay, Tobias is not afraid to shine a light on reality.

“It’s hard for me, to navigate through the world, being politically correct at times.  I know how a great contingent of the world is living and what they are going through.  I knew what it was like to come back in, in terms of being full of that darkness, and trying to talk about my life with people who haven’t lived it.”

To some, it would seem like Tobias was out of his mind.  It wasn’t because he had insane opinions, but instead his life experiences were so “on the edge of abandonment and insanity.”  

Yet, these were normal, on the street.  He would interact with hundreds of people who were in the same sinking boat, so to speak.

“I’m not necessarily releasing my inner darkness.  What I’m trying to do is shine a light on darkness that still exists.”

Soft Kill are the vehicle that is parked on those shady streets, and we, the audience, get a glimpse behind the safety of the windshield of what could be our life, if our chosen paths would have be different.

It could be a cautionary tale of just how insane and short a life can be, when bad choices are taken.

How The Origin Of The Name Soft Kill Helped Tobias Fight Addiction 

The band name Soft Kill comes from the divide and conquer tactic in war.  

Tobias used that same technique to conquer his war on drugs.

“A safe starting point with addiction is:  Take the drug out of it.

There are so many, from a scientific level, that think about the physical dependency of a person and a drug.

I thought that all the time.  

I’m addicted to heroin.  I would get locked up, sit in county jail for three weeks.  I would get out and I was technically no longer physically dependent on the drug, but I would get right back to it.”

The lesson he got from Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous was: “Free from the obsession of use.”

“What trapped & suffocated me was that I was obsessed with the use.  Nothing else was important to me.  

There would be getting these demos wrapped up for this next album and doing this interview.  All of these things would feel like obstacles, if I was still using, because literally, all I wanted to do, was use.

Your world and your box become so small.  It’s simultaneously a very safe place because I don’t have to explore my traumas, my resentment, my insecurities…so you are not doing any self-work.

The big thing for me, and why it crushes a lot of people is that they get clean and face a world where they don’t necessarily feel very prepared to deal with and resolve the issues that existed before they got sober.  Be it issues at home, lack of support, being molested…a lot of stuff that I can relate with. 

I had to say to myself:  I’m ready to feel the world.  I’m ready to deal and process through it.  

There comes a time where no matter how much you do, you never get past a certain point of high and you never feel something new.  

The second it clicked to me that I realized that I wasn’t going to stick a needle in my arm, or put a pipe to my mouth, that was to give me a different experience that I had already felt…I kind of went mad.  What?  This is it?  We’ve hit a ceiling and we’re at the end of a road?

By the time you fried all your dopamine receptors, and you are cooked…there is no place you go to.  It’s literally the same place.  

You are basically a mouse in a cage. 

There is no new day, no new feeling. 

For someone, like me that is self-absorbed enough, that seemed really troubling, that reality to be stuck in.  It was time to snap out of it.

I had a literal look to the sky and say:  Please help me, whatever is there.  Please…I’m at that point.

I just lucked out too.  I’ve never gone to rehab as a punishment from court.  I never went the other times people tried to send me or drag me there.  

I went when I was truly ready because I hadn’t felt anything else.  

I went in like a ball of fury…so fried, and so cooked…that I came to days later and I felt incredibly safe in this place where all that was required of me was to start doing a little better.  

One day at a time.  It worked for me.”

What is sad is that some musicians feel that they can’t create unless they lose themselves in some sort of addiction.

“I hear that all the time.  I thought that too.  I felt that Crystal Meth, in particular, gave me an incredible ability to harness melody and sound, that I would not be able to grab sober.”

At the risk of getting slapped in the face by his wife, now 11 years clean, he admits: “It’s true.  There are certain places that you go to, on certain drugs, that you don’t go to clean.  

I just don’t need to write those songs anymore.  

I have plenty of those recordings.  I look at them and I go:  Whoo.  There they are!  

I can feel what it felt like to make it.  The whole Premium Drifter record, which are demos.  Songs like Build Your Prison Walls, I Left You Hanging.”

Yet, that is so far gone from who Tobias is now.

Dead Kids R.I.P. City is the band’s crowning glory, an album that was created sober.  It’s the sound the band has been aspiring for, and fully identify with.

Yes…I would say that being sober was the best thing to ever happen to Tobias, and the band.

“Dead Kids is undisputedly our best record in terms of songwriting and realized vision.  I totally called my own bluff, that I couldn’t do it without drugs.  Now, there is no turning back.  It does feel like me.  There is nothing on that record that I would change, which I can’t say for any of the other records.”

Connecting With Fans

“I’ve had so many people come up to me saying:  I was literally on death’s door, and I found your guy’s record.  I felt for the first time that somebody understood what seemed so uniquely broken about me.  It has pushed me to go to rehab, or to do this…or do that…or be better.”

Soft Kill are laying it raw, and that is what is connecting with people on a level that we simply can’t fully comprehend.  

“The reason that is powerful to me is that addiction really robs you of your uniqueness.  It brings you to a place of:  I’m my disease.  

The disease is a literal disease.  If you’ve got it, and I’ve got it.  We are our disease.

So, I love when people realize that what they think is uniquely wrong with them is not unique.  There is the ability to become enlightened and understanding about it.  That’s beautiful.”

There is a power in vulnerability, and Tobias has the strength of character to go all in, both in his personal life, and on record. 

Who knows how many the band has helped on their journey to self-discovery and to overcome addiction?  

“It’s a gift, far beyond monetary or whatever that we’ve gained from this.”  

Tattoos

If Tobas could only keep one tattoo, which would it be and why?  His choice was both surprising and not.

“None of them.  If I could only keep one, it would be Lamer, which is Zach Delong’s tagger name on my hand.  Just a little reminder because he’s my right hand.  The rest can go!”

Fantasy Rock Band

When asked to create the ultimate fantasy rock band with members dead or alive, Tobias chose:

Vocals:  Ian Brown (Stone Roses).  “I love his voice.  I love that it’s flawed.”

Guitar:  John McGeoch (Siouxie and the Banshees, PIL, Magazine) “He’s the pivotal guitar player, to me, of shifting to something different.”  

Guitar:  Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins). “Let’s see what they can meld together.”

Bass:  Simon Gallup (The Cure)

Drums:  Paul Ferguson (Killing Joke)

“I think that would be a pretty remarkable band.  Those are all the elements I love.  I love tribal drumming, interesting bass lines.”

He also likes dualling guitars like The Chameleons.  “The dreamy with the gritty, that a big part of Soft Kill’s sound.”

Conclusion

Tobias made bad choices but did not let them define him.  

He’s made great choices, the biggest is to remain clean, and be a positive presence in both his relationship and as a father.

The band have evolved their sound to where they feel it is truly the sound needed to reach.  It might change again, but for now, this is the right sound, for the right album.

If you are in the West Coast, you can catch Soft Kill supporting X, followed by a full US tour to support Dead Kids R.I.P. City.

Let’s hope their tour takes them to Montreal.


If you are having issues with substance abuse, it starts with one small step or phone call. Get help here.


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Writer: Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music.  You can follow him on InstagramTwitter and YouTube. His Podcast RockStar Today helps musicians quit their day jobs with out-of-the-box advice from Ted Talk Speakers, Best Selling Authors and other interesting Entrepreneurs and Creatives. He created the Rock Star Today MasterMind Experience for musicians. Randal also is a collector of signed vinyl.

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