Superhuman Happiness are one of those entities’ whose profound beauty and/or genius is matched by how maddeningly difficult it is to characterize them as an entity in the first place. The project, led by writer/arranger/player Stuart Bogie – known for his work with the likes of Arcade Fire, David Byrne, TV on the Radio, and Antibalas – write hyper-dancey, but super– heady pop music largely revolving around the postmodern condition and the role high technology plays in governing the human experience. However, they have also regularly appeared as the soundtrack to multimedia works and as various improvisational projects that have included a plethora of recent history’s most impressive musicians; you can read a pretty comprehensive history of the band here. This Friday, September 18th, will see the release of Superhuman Happiness’ second full-length LP, Escape Velocity, courtesy of Royal Potato Family. The seven-song album boasts a ridiculously epic, yet concise, brand of dance rock, reminiscent of both the ‘80s funkiest intellectuals and the most poignantly snarky electropop of the past decade and a half. Superhuman Happiness have an album release show this Saturday at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and a string of October dates that wrap up on the 22nd at the Admore Music Hall. I recently got a chance to have a pretty extensive chat with Stuart about all of this.
Izzy Cihak: You’re about to release Escape Velocity and I’m curious, how do you feel this album compares to previous releases? All of the Superhuman Happiness releases seem to be pretty different. How did this one come about?
Stuart Bogie: This album is very different in a few ways, and similar in others. This album was made while the road of life was turning for both myself and the band. It’s like when you try and have a conversation or change the radio station while driving around a clover leaf in the highway – gravity is shifting and a familiar act gets pushed here and there. Things are shifting around without our control or even knowledge.
So I began writing this material before Hands, our previous record, came out and this is material that simply never got addressed in the group sessions for Hands. Hands was an exercise in “Intentional Collaboration,” which means that we employed a series of group activities to create the music. Formal and deliberate practices like clapping drills, improvisational games taken from the comedy and theater world, as well as musical improv as a regular activity.
When I started recording Escape Velocity the band’s activity had been stretched out, time-wise. We spent about a year cultivating the music and the complete group, then another year and change finishing the album with details. By the time we released the record, in March of 2013, many of the members had started their own group under a more traditional leadership/composing model. Luke O’Malley, my close friend and co-producer on Hands, had a son, and Ryan Ferreira, our mysterious guitar genius, was moving into other musical career areas. So instead of putting everybody in a room and formally sourcing our collective musical impulses, I was left to my own devices, along with dear friend and musical hero Eric Biondo, to continue down the musical path that is punctuated this week by Escape Velocity. It is the musical product of posting up in a little studio across the street from a dumpster drop off site with flocks of seagulls hovering around. (Maybe that’s where we got all that New Wave 80s sounds from.)
So the primary difference is that the nature of the collaboration went from formal to informal, and from a large group (Seven people writing together!) to rotating pairs. Biondo would come by and we’d get some food then we’d hit record and start throwing ideas around. Jared came by and worked on lyrics with me some, and Ryan and Miles Arntzen (drummer) came by and recorded a few times. It was fun to work on but I was very much in my own head – which (it’s so typical, I know) paralleled big changes in my personal life, including a break up, leaving Antibalas (I had been a member for about 12 years.), moving a few times… You get the picture. So that’s why it feels like a record made amidst a dramatic turning point. It has more loneliness, because I was alone for so much of the work. That being said, you can also hear how friendship plays a new role in this record (I’m just realizing this in retrospect.) For instance, on our song “Super 8,” listen to the solace and comfort in Andrea Diaz’s voice at the end – she is the benevolent aspects of the holy spirit putting an arm around a sad an emotional child of the universe. Or the way Sarah Neufeld and Ryan Ferreira improvise together on the end of “VHS.” This is friendship distilled in sound.
So how is it similar? That is mostly mathematics and methods. I am slowly developing an approach to songwriting/composing that involves many reoccurring themes, including avoiding traditional songwriter harmony and continuing to embrace collaboration. Compare “Drawing Lines” to “See Me On My Way,” they are made from the same mold – different paintings of the same sonic scene. Listen to the dark groove of “Date and Time” next to “Half Step Grind” – both of these songs explore lyrically and sonically the sense of being seduced in the night by dangerous forces – with “Date and Time” it’s much more literal. It is about getting sucked in by the internet (something we all know about, I am sure).
Izzy: I really like the inspiration behind this batch of songs being very sort of academic, like scholarly analysis of high technology that you can dance to (Now that I’m thinking about it, have you ever played a show with YACHT?) I actually teach a class at Tempe University that’s basically and intro to semiotics and media studies, so I’m curious, are there any particular theories or theorists that you think are especially important for people to study up on these days?
Stuart: Years ago I got into conversations with the drummer Chris Vatalaro (who appeared on our first EP and gave me tips for writing “Drawing Lines”) about Marshall McLuhan and that fascinated me, but I won’t pretend to be an expert. In 2004 I tried to write a song for Antibalas based on Noam Chomsky’s five main points from Manufacturing Consent and that predictably didn’t make it past a few sketches and charts. I have discovered that, when incorporating theories, you just need a little nudge to get moving – at which point it’s best to let the imagination fly without trying to convey someone’s theories. That is best left for the original author. Actually, now that I think about, I practically quote Pema Chodron in “VHS.” Her book, When Things Fall Apart, came into my life and changed me. So I guess there are some influential theorists. Also, there is a great doc about Zizek that opened my mind to him. His language style can be strange if only read – once I heard him speak it opened up and I gather a lot of inspiration from him.
As far as making dance music goes – I have been addicted to trying get people moving since I can remember playing music. There is so much pleasure in it. Unlocking your body (like Jeff Tweedy said). When I moved to Pittsburgh I started meeting up with some great artists there including, E Dan of I D Labs (who mixed “Super 8”) who is probably best known for his work with Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. I also hung out with these producers/DJs called Pittsburgh Tracks Authority who make great house music. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago I had a small but significant exposure to house music in the ‘80s. It has remained in my musical vocabulary ever since, and probably is what drove me to appreciate the extended textures of Fela and electric Miles. I also love funk music, and groups like Parliament and Chic took songwriting and dance rhythms into new places. While I appreciate the slower Led Zeppelin jams, I was really into it for the big beats, like “Immigrant Song,” etc. Couple that with a long term practice of playing wind band music, where the repertoire is very march heavy, I was getting music to move by from every side of my life.
I’d love to stop by a watch a lecture at your class!
Izzy: I especially like “Drawing Lines,” which is probably my favorite song to dance to this month. It reminds me of the most elegant kind of synth-pop, blended with yé-yé-inspired twee (Hopefully that’s not insulting.) How did that particular track come about?
Stuart: Thank you for getting down to the sounds! It warms our hearts to know someone is taking joy from a song.
“Drawing Lines” is funny because I meant for it to be the most acoustic sounding track on the record! Crazy, right? The road leads elsewhere sometimes!
I’m not sure what yé-yé is, but I love twee. Lemme look it up now… [listening]…ah, yes! I can hear the comparison for sure. It’s light and frolicking with straight forward vocals.
I rewrote that song about four times over the course of three years. I got really into how the bass could subtly dance around specific notes that shape a simple seeming but also tricky musical scene. The bass line went through many changes – three different people played it – I kept refining my thoughts for the line. That’s Matt Lux on there now – he had an amazing band called Isotope back in the day. They were on thrill jockey records.
Luke and I wrote a version of the song that I eventually reworked because I wanted a specific bounce in the verse (this was Vatalaro’s advice). While on tour with Arcade Fire I would get up early and stare at the road go by on the tour bus. The initial ideas for the words came to me then and I kept at them.
Religion and faith are important to me, although the shape of that importance changes all the time. Sometimes religion feels like it gets in the way of faith, sometimes it knocks down walls. I wanted to have a song whose lyrics discussed a media subject older than the others (movies, comics, etc.) so I went down the road that became “Drawing Lines.” There are parts of the lyrics where I am paying tribute to a young musician I am friends with whose path had some high hurdles, and the faith she drew upon in her journey to get over the obstacles. Watching her perform is like watching a high priestess in some ancient/future ritual where life is affirmed and reality is embraced. She becomes a living symbol of these things – so there is a parallel between that scenario and the development of holy scriptures and myths. I believe those stories to be based on real things and people.
Izzy: You seem to take a lot of pride in your music videos, which I really like (especially “See Me On My Way”), and I realize you also often work in cinema so, I have to ask: Who are some of your favorite visual artists, or possibly just those that you feel most inspired by?
Stuart: I’m glad you like the “See Me” video! A lot of people were freaked out by it. People can get simple on you, tell you things like, “You’re supposed to make happy music because of your name,” and sometimes they are right, but sometimes it’s fun to go another way because it’s the other side that defines the existence of an emotional object. The introduction to Jeru the Damaja’s first album has a great set of opposites that recalls this principle. It makes for poetry.
The “See Me” video was made by an anonymous director who loves horror and sci-fi and is great at making his own props. He was amazing to work with. We pasted crape paper on that costume for hours and hours.
Visual art is something I have to make sure to stay aware of, because I can get stiff in the sound world and an image can break you out of a mental tailspin. I had this experience with Rothko in the past. These days I love the work of Joseph Allen, who is an old friend of the band, as well as Toby Goodshank who makes these beautiful and sometimes even gross drawings. The metal artist/jeweler Gabriel Urist has been a close friend since I taught him clarinet lessons 21 years ago. He made the cover of Escape Velocity, which incorporates ancient symbolism with an eye towards the heavens, or outer space. The cover of Hands is a collage by the artist Joao Machado, and I love the interplay of maps and pastel childhood. Kids playing on a geodesic dome, in a collage made from maps, seemed like a perfect visualization of our playful but mathey approach to music.
Most of our videos were made by the brilliant Tatiana McCabe, who has worked with us for years and actually named the band. She has an eye for these emotional connections that make things feel like family. She has blessed us with a lot of great videos! We have a new one by McCabe coming out any day now.
Izzy: And I realize this is a pretty big question but Superhuman Happiness has not only achieved a whole lot since its inception, but you’ve just plain done a lot of really cool and really different things (with a lot of cool people who you also wouldn’t necessarily or immediately think of as being exceptionally like-minded). What have been some of the highlights of the band so far?
Stuart: We have been blessed with so many great opportunities, many of which came through our friends Paul Heck and John Carlin at the Red Hot organization: scoring How To Survive a Plague, performing at Lincoln Out of Doors with Tony Allen/Kronos/Angelique Kidjo/M1 of Dead Prez and so many more. Our manager, Kevin Calabro, has stood by us through some big changes and working with him continues to be inspiring and a pleasure to me that I have to count it as a major highlight. Over the last two years I’ve gotten to know Sam Levin (our drummer) and Andrea, who along with my main man Eric Biondo, have become the musical family that are carrying Superhuman Happiness into the next stages of its life.
Izzy: You have a handful of upcoming live shows. What can be expected of the live experience? I’m imagining something pretty interesting…
Stuart: If you have any ideas, please let us know!! Just kidding – but for real – our blueprint of how we approach sound and rhythm, melody, and song has not changed at all. It has only deepened and progressed – but our approach to playing the music has changed very much. We have new blood in the group and new ideas in the mix – and the music has less of a direct relationship to the pantheon of improvising artists we drew from when creating the Hands album. Escape Velocity, and the live band that performs it, is very different in that regard. There is minimal shredding. There will be shenanigans and moments of humor back to back with gentle expressions of human beauty. There will be melody and beats that make you move and lyrical intent that shows our love for life and contemplates the mental and spiritual aspects of being a person. We are creating a songbook with this album and as the band performs and grows that songbook grows and grows.
It may seems obvious, but it is worth noting that the addition of Andrea, our principle vocalist, has dramatically changed our live show. We’ve incorporated what Anthony Braxton refers to as “the feminine vibrational dynamic.” Our ability to tap into a variety of human situations was at 50% when it was all dudes, now our family reach is greater. She approaches melody with a vocal style that delivers you the information without any exaggeration or put-ons, it’s really something different and I have to confess when I first heard her sing I caught myself wishing I could sing like her. Straight forward melodic expression, less showing off, less ego-driven moments in the show.
So our focus this year is to perform the songbook – of course there will be some hi jinx and playful engagement as well, and there will still be horns blown! Don’t worry about that! We want our listeners to step into the songs with us and get into it in real time.
Izzy: And what’s next for Superhuman Happiness? I get the impression that you’re constantly working on a ton of different things simultaneously.
Stuart: We are touring all over the North East and planning on getting out West and overseas before long. We are trying out a new processes of writing, too – we actually have done several recording sessions for the next record and might be close to done with the next one, too! So it’s full steam ahead with developing our songbook and finding new ways to address the lives we share in music.