Valentine’s Day By the Soft Moon — Or, How I Fell in Love with Music Again

Carlos Dengler attended his first show in five years on New York's coldest Hallmark holiday yet.

It’s been two months since Valentine’s Day 2016, and I still can’t forget the evening. No, there was no candlelit, raspberry chocolate truffle cake with a hot date. Nor did I cavort with fellow bachelors, conspicuously condemning the Hallmark holiday like lonely wolves under sour grapes. My Valentine’s Day this year was as solitary and chaste as a dental checkup. But far from the routine invasiveness of a tooth cleaning, the evening was full of openness, the kind of rare alignment with the cosmos we experience at a favorite concert or at a best friend’s wedding. My stomach was aflutter with butterflies. And despite record-setting frigid temps (it was the coldest day in Manhattan since 1994 and the coldest Valentine’s Day ever recorded), I felt a toasty internal warmth — that inner, feverish heat that ensues after Cupid’s arrow strikes.

This year I fell back in love with music. For the past five years, I’d let the line go cold on my weightless love sprite, and this would be the year I’d rekindle our long-lost, but not forgotten flame. Frankly, I’ve been a bit lost without her. She was my spiritual lodestar and I’d turned away from her to pursue other passions. But now on Valentine’s Day 2016, as the stars would have it, I was dead set on redirecting myself to her beckoning light.

Back in 2010, I’d already been with Interpol for ten years. It was a decade of touring, recording, and performing that I look back on with pride — and a great deal of awe. Then I became an acting student. I spent the ‘00s as a proverbial rock star only to make a sudden left turn into the dramatic arts. (Well, there is a lot of drama behind the music — at least if VH1 and HBO have anything to say about it). I was no stranger to the clichés: “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” fighting with band mates, etc. There were also external factors like major label prevarications and a frustrating absence of imagination within certain quarters of the commercial sphere (duh). In the midst of it I was losing my personal identity, all while my ego was inflating into a bulbous, air-filled dirigible of empty swagger and choreographed posturing. All of the perks, quirks and sundry occupational hazards of rock stardom applied to me more readily than I am sometimes comfortable admitting.

Then, my relationship with my band mates deteriorated to new lows, and I became more and more reclusive. When MP3s took over, it was the final stroke. The industry clamped down, and I gave up. Fear was everywhere, and I became so lost and frustrated I didn’t know which way was up. I had to cleanse my spirit and get better. I left the band in 2010 and, in 2012, I was accepted into the graduate acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I checked in my keys, my phone and picture ID at its gates, and hid within its cloistered studios, where I could run around like a five-year-old, emoting and spouting gibberish to my wounded heart’s delight.

So strange that now, on Valentine’s Day, I was going back to the scene of the crime. After all the schooling — after I’d graduated from five years of relentless training in theater — I was now headed back in the opposite direction, defying 50-m.p.h. freezing winds in upper Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on my way to St. Vitus Bar to catch the sold-out performance of — what’s this, my new favorite band? — the Soft Moon. Alone and jobless, my career in limbo, I traveled back to my spiritual home base, like a weary pilgrim returning from a half-decade long excursion into the pit of my soul.

The bouncer at St. Vitus checked my ID. He was a kind of Saint Peter, welcoming me into a familiar afterlife. I walked into the club and the reek of moldy beer taps and the humid musk of sweat and hair product ushered me into an immediate time machine to 2005, when this unique, malodorous funk was my nightly kick in the chest, foretasting an evening of substance-induced oblivion and risky sexual congress. Now, at age forty-one, having hung up my libertine ways, there was no chance for reenactment, but the flashback was nonetheless acute.

I took in what I’d been doing for the past five years, and it occurred to me that something had shifted, like a part of me had died and a ghost had been banished. The Carlos D. that I was in Interpol was a kind of apparition, a well-manicured storefront to a dark and disorganized inner warehouse of unresolved grief and anger. Those trapped feelings were my The Picture of Dorian Gray, a locked-up chest of feelings I had to keep pushing further and further up into the attic in order to maintain the facade of unblemished youth and success. But at NYU, nobody cared about Carlos D., so the simple, daily tasks and assignments meant leaving his baggage of rock star arrogance at the door. It was a psychological trial-by-fire, and a daily wooden stake into Carlos D.’s vampiric heart. I did the things that dutiful students do — tried not to be late, had few absences, graduated on time — and this helped me banish the ghost of Carlos D. that had been haunting me post-Interpol. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do in acting school: I discovered who Carlos Dengler was, and that he was decidedly not Carlos D.

And yet, here I was: back “home” inside the dark, cavernous womb of a minor castle within music’s throbbing kingdom, surrounded by a small sea of black clothes, my eardrums registering the familiar indie standards from the club’s soundboard. I was nervous and hyper-vigilant, wondering if the noisy, musty environs of a late-night rock club and its shoegazing, cooler-than-thou denizens might awaken my old ghost’s spirit, like an occult incantation raising a dormant wraith from an overlong hibernation. I looked around feverishly. Would the spirit be raised? It seemed not. I was in the clear. Though I, too, was all in black, thankfully, Carlos D. was nowhere to be found.

I compromised with St. Vitus’ sauna-like conditions and stripped down to one top layer of thermal clothing. This meant removing about twenty pounds of wool and cotton, from my ski hat to my sweatshirt underneath my pea coat, and piling it all on top of my backpack, all of which I had to leave by my feet. I leaned back against the back wall of St. Vitus Bar’s live room and took in the Soft Moon’s brief, blistering barrage of darkwave masterpieces.

The sound was beautiful and painful at the same time, like a cross between Skinny Puppy and Phill Niblock. Whatever advances I’d made against my tinnitus these past five years were for naught. The electrified dagger of the Soft Moon’s overdriven Moogs and guitars pierced the humidity like a razor-sharp filament of titanium inside the humid cauldron of a blacksmith shop. Each song in the set further distilled the original message of late-‘70s/early ‘80s post-punk into an essential, focused, modern, art house paean of cold isolation and passionate decay. Although my ears suffered, my eyes rolled to the backs of their sockets, and I leaned my head against the wall.

The heat was truly otherwordly. With just one excruciatingly woolen layer of clothing against my broiling skin, I held myself against the wall lest I succumb to the purgatorial conditions. Those in the audience who had braved the furnace in the front row were now retreating to the cooler room at the front of the club, soaked head to toe in their own sweat, eyes glazed and dizzy, as though returning from the frontlines of guerrilla warfare. I couldn’t believe that anywhere in the world there existed cold, much less right outside the door on Manhattan Avenue’s record-setting iciness. And yet, in some kind of cosmic irony, the Soft Moon’s glacial music flowed on stage, like a defiant iceberg amidst the club’s roiling lava flows, retaining its frozen angular crevasses through some unseen, perhaps subterranean, conduction with the greater arctic environment just outside the club’s infernal rooms.

Less than an hour into the set, the real-life sonic fever dream of the Soft Moon’s set collapsed before our eyes, finally surrendering to the heat. We were coming into contact with a vital, external force. As the feedback and echoes dissipated into fizzled, impotent squeals and screeches, I realized why I was there, why I had traveled back in time, why I had to return from the quieter seclusion of academia, back into the dark heart of New York’s underground music scene. I’d left something behind. Tonight, through the spontaneous, post-punk defiance of this performance, as it valiantly tangoed with two Goliaths — crushing humidity and ear-piercing overdrive — I was now retrieving it.

In acting school, I purged myself of what I knew of Carlos D. Now, I was free to bathe in music’s radiant, omnipotent glow without fear that I’d be seduced back to the rock star lifestyle. I could be in love with music for music’s sake, and not for the endgame of a narcissistic fantasy. Here at St. Vitus Bar, in the Soft Moon’s flawless integration of my favorite genres — my de rigeur post-punk, industrial, Goth defaults — I reunited with the reason I got into music in the first place. I could not resist this beacon, and for the first time in half a decade, I was ready to surrender to music again.

After the gig, I paid my respects to Luis Vasquez, the wunderkind behind the Soft Moon’s recordings and shows. We talked of an old Interpol show in L.A. I’d unsurprisingly lost from memory, the indignities of van-touring, and possible collaborations. Praising his consummate artistry and artisanship, I left the club at a wholly respectable hour, electing to take an Uber in the hopes of avoiding frostbite. As I rode back into the city with a good friend, we extolled the power of the Soft Moon, chuckled at ribald, long-gone, halcyon days, and wondered what could life bring next.

The driver dropped us off outside her place in Union Square and, after saying goodbye, I walked to the L train to begin my journey up to Upper Manhattan to my apartment. It was past midnight. Valentine’s Day was officially over. My love affair had concluded. It was freezing. I had an audition the next day. I wouldn’t get the part. But a shift had happened. Now things were more complicated. Mr. Vasquez and the coincidence of his show on Valentine’s Day had inadvertently dismantled my fantasy of a life in the theater — devoid of contact with music — like a young Mozart flicking the bottom row of a house of cards with his violin bow. Whether I liked it or not, I’d now received a clear, although indefinable, mission to return to music. In which capacity, I’ve only since begun to ponder.

Valentine’s Day can be sweet, maybe even hot, depending on how you decide to spend it, and with whom. But it isn’t usually this momentous. I could never have predicted this Hallmark Holiday’s deeper potential.

Carlos Dengler was a founding member of the band Interpol. Carlos played bass and keyboards with Interpol throughout the ’00s, recording four records and touring the world three times. In 2010, Carlos began a hiatus from the music industry to pursue theatre training, garnering his MFA from NYU Grad Acting in 2015. He appeared recently as a guest musician for the 8G Band, the house band for Late Night with Seth Meyers. Carlos‘ one-man show, Homo Sapiens Interruptus, will be participating in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival in August. Find him on the Web here.