Nine Songs: Superorganism
As well as being creators of their own brilliantly idiosyncratic take on pop music, Superorganism are also learned scholars of the art form.
The eight-piece of Robert, Emily, Orono, B, Harry, Ruby, Tucan and Soul are kindred spirits, pop music fans from all over the world who met on the internet, shared music and figured out the kind of band they wanted to be. They’ve all relocated to East London, where Orono, Emily and Harry talk us through their definition of pop music as they’re sat around the kitchen table of the house they all live in, which serves as a Monkee’s like abode where they write and create their musical and visual output.
Having created a huge stir last year with “Something for your M.I.N.D”, that created a frenzy of speculation about their identities, they’re about to release a debut album that’s a thrillingly unique take on pop.
Pop music takes all shapes, forms and definitions but for Superorganism it’s a broad church that runs from Jonathan Richman to Kanye West and the theme from Rugrats. As they talk through their pivotal pop songs, Emily explains that the constant theme is the pop hooks the songs share; “As in they have a chorus and you can whistle it when you’re on the toilet! That’s a major part of our interest in music, melodies that tickle your brain from the back. It’s that kind of access to your brain that’s entirely emotional, it feels like magic, it’s a version of modern religion.”
As well as the musical hooks, Harry feels what also links these songs is that they’re musical representations of their makers’ personalities. “You could be quite cynical about that if they weren’t for real or honest about the weird artists they are and I think that ties them all together”, before adding an observation about the nine artists here that neatly sums up his own band. “They’ve all got a lot of personality and that shines through in what they do.”
Emily: “Jonathan Richman is one of my all-time favourites. The wide-eyed naivety thing is really hard to do, it usually comes off as annoying, but he’s one of the only people that does it in a way that I really like.
Harry: “It can come across as insincere or contrived can’t it? But I genuinely believe Jonathan Richman is as wide-eyed and as sweet as he portrays himself.
Emily: “He has such an amazing discography to discover because he’s had such an unusual career. He went to Bermuda, changed his mind about the genre he wanted to play and moved to acoustic music. He performs without a PA now and they have to turn off the air-conditioning when he plays, I love how that’s such an unusual trajectory.
“He’s a singular kind of personality but ‘I'm Straight’ doubles, like how ‘Born in the USA’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ work two ways. It’s like a weed anthem, I don’t think that’s how he intended it at all but that was the way I took it at first. I love that type of double meaning, even if it’s not intentional. I thought the song was ironic when I first heard it, it sounds like he’s being sarcastic but once you delve a little more, start scratching off the surface and see him performing ‘I’m a Little Dinosaur’ you’re like “Oh, he really means it, he’s genuine that he’s not a hippy, he’s not smoking weed and he’s actually this children’s entertainer.” I love it.
“I discovered this song through a great record label in New Zealand called Lil' Chief Records. They’re the best label in New Zealand and they’ve been really helpful and supportive to a whole bunch of people in the band.
Orono: “That’s how I found these guys, I found Princess Chelsea’s music, I went down a wormhole of looking up Lil' Chief bands and I found them.
Emily: “Jonathan Richman is a spirit animal for the entire label. A lot of the stuff on Lil’ Chief shares the same kind of outlook and everyone takes an influence from him. The label introduced me to his work as ‘The Grandfather of their worlds.’
Harry: “It’s funny that you say that, that angle means you’d have gotten an insight into the overall world of Jonathan Richman, but I came across him listening to a lot of the New York stuff from the 70s'. Once you go down that path you get to the Boston end of things and The Modern Lovers. I came to Jonathan Richman as this slightly punk thing - whether the way you got into him was through ‘Roadrunner’ or ‘Government Centre’, it’s a lot more abrasive and punky. It was really surprising when I delved into his solo work and found he’s actually not really a punk like that at all, that he was doing all this sweet acoustic stuff.”
Emily: “Darcy Clay was a New Zealand musician who I assume is pretty much unknown outside of New Zealand. He’s very culty there, but he’s quite a well-known cult guy who had this very brief and tragic career. I heard ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ for the first time when I moved there as a kid from Australia, it was on the radio heaps of times. They’d tell the dark story of Darcy Clay, which was quite tragic and awful; it ends with him dying quite young and it doesn’t sound like a very happy story.
“‘Jesus I Was Evil’ was so extreme to my young brain, it seemed extremely real compared to the other stuff I loved and was listening to at the time, like 2001 by Dr Dre. This was kind of the other side of that stuff, which was quite dark, but this was even darker. Darcy Clay’s stuff isn’t even theatrical, it goes fully dark.
“I think ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ is one of the best New Zealand songs ever and he’s one of the best songwriters. Again, like Jonathan Richman, I guess he’s a bit of a weird dude but his personality comes through really strongly.
Harry: “It sounds unhinged, but it turns out that he really was unhinged, he made one EP and then he killed himself. It’s that similar thing, you could end up with an artist like that coming across in a calculated or cynical way, there’s so many artists that play the “I’m a little bit of a tortured or deranged artist” card and they’re not. I always find that distasteful, but with someone like Darcy Clay, he really was as wild and unhinged as his music sounds.”
Emily: “Rugrats was on TV when I was a kid and I loved it. I became obsessed with the theme song, it had a really unusual and bizarre synth arrangement, weird sampled voices and all kinds of weird stuff. On paper all of the elements should add up to something jarring, but it isn’t - it’s all glued together with a muzaky kind of vibe, it’s really cool and clever. It’s really hard to walk that line without making it sound plastic, but it sounds really alive.
“When I was growing up I found out that Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo wrote it; that led me down a massive rabbit hole of looking up his career and I’ve become so obsessed with him. All of his film writing is amazing; the Pee Wee’s Playhouse theme is really cool, he wrote the music for The LEGO Movie recently and scored some of Wes Anderson’s movies. A lot of TV and film music can end up sounding like it’s inspired by ad music, where it doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart, but he’s one of those guys that’s able to actually do that. It seems like the perfect place to express his unusual personality.
Harry: “It’s that sense of humour he’s got; when you translate that to a children’s TV theme the playfulness of his personality and his sense of humour really comes through. That comes through in Devo as well, but children’s TV themes is the perfect vessel for it.
Emily: “I was reading about how he did it. In the 80s’ he released a whole bunch of instrumental music that he called ‘muzak’, it sounds plasticky and like the Rugrats stuff, it’s got that kind of vibe. It’s a very familiar sound now but it must have been a lot stranger at the time. The Rugrats creator got in touch with him and said “I love the sound of this record, can I use something off it?” and Mark Mothersbaugh said “I’ve written this other thing for you, I think you’ll like this one more, it ends in a splat, children and milk bottles, it’s going to be good!”
Harry: “He ended up creating little bits of music for the show, the writers would hang out at his studio and they’d write in the control room while he was doing the songs. They’d play off each other; his music ended up influencing the direction of the show and vice-versa and I think that’s a very cool way of working together.”
Harry: “Kanye is one of my all-time favourite artists; I’ve loved his work since The College Dropout. ‘Bound 2’ is representative of his restless energy, willingness to be provocative and take new directions - even if it’s not necessarily what people are expecting or wanting.
“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a really meticulously crafted album, but with Yeezus it took me while to wrap my head around its abrasiveness, there’s a lot of density to it. There’s lyrics like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Hurry up with my damn croissants’ and at first I was “Man, is he taking the piss with this?” It started to dawn on me that actually yes, he kind of was, but he also wasn’t and that it’s possible to make fun of yourself whilst also taking the end product entirely seriously.
“I think that’s what he did with Yeezus and ‘Bound 2’ is an interesting one. It stands out on the album because it doesn’t have that extremely distorted, abrasive synth sound; there’s a little bit of that, but overall it harks back to his earlier stuff, with the high-pitched, soulful sample that drives the song. But whereas his earlier stuff was a little bit more conscious lyrically, ‘Bound 2’ is at points almost nonsensical, he’s dropping one-line jokes all the way through and it also sounds slightly amateurishly put together.
“I remember when it came out a workmate was going onto me about how much she loved him but she really hated ‘Bound 2’, especially the video. The video has a similar quality; it’s a few different elements stuck together in quite crude ways and it really reflects the nature of the song, he’s riding on a motorcycle with his celebrity girlfriend with all these sentimental backgrounds going past on a green screen. Again, it almost comes across like he’s taking the piss but once you get past the fact that it’s so unusual and strange, it starts to reveal itself as a work of beauty.
Emily: “There’s another thing that makes it the strangest song on Yeezus - which is quite an honour because it’s an unusual record. It’s weird, but the rest of the record didn’t seem to piss people off as much as ‘Bound 2’ did. I assume that’s because it’s really cheesily melodic as well as being abrasive and that crosses a line for some people who don’t like those two things together. It goes to show that making something really poppy on a really unpoppy record can actually end up being the most divisive thing, which is an unusual position to be in.
Harry: “I love it when an artist does something like that, where they feel liberated to just do something without necessarily taking themselves too seriously but they’ve poured themselves into it. With a lot of my favourite artists, whether it’s Neil Young or Paul McCartney, they’ve got to a point where they’ve got nothing left to prove, so it’s about amusing themselves, like with McCartney II or Trans. They take these weird left-turns that could potentially alienate their massive fan base but they actually end up being quite creative successes.
“I think Yeezus as a whole, but particularly ‘Bound 2’, represents that moment with Kanye West. To me he’s a modern equivalent of those artists.”
Harry: “Daft Punk are one of my favourite acts of all-time and Discovery is my favourite album of theirs. It’s one of those albums I remember from when it came out in my childhood that I still love to this day. I was born in the UK and grew up in a town called Burnley, my family used to go on holiday to France and I remember Discovery coming out and ‘One More Time’ hitting the radio and being everywhere. Discovery is one of those albums that instantly hooked me with the singles, but once I started to delve into it a bit more it revealed a lot of complexity and depth.
“‘Digital Love’ is a purely joyous song about love. It’s got this amazing, shredded guitar solo that I think is also partly sequenced with a synthesiser. They use all these different techniques in it - they’ve sampled some old track, sequenced a crazy synthesiser solo, there’s even a guitar soloing on it - along with great, simple lyrics and a simple pop song. They’ve used all these different techniques to create something that feels really natural, it feels like a perfect embodiment of their vision and that era of their band, it’s purely joyful.
“Some friends of mine got married in Oslo last year and I put ‘Digital Love’ on. It was one of those moments; you know how at a wedding there’s songs that one group will dance to and others that another group dances to? When I put ‘Digital Love’ on everyone was dancing. It was a beautiful sunny day and it was night at this point, there was clear sky and we were in Oslo, which is beautiful, and everyone was dancing together. You’re dancing with people you’ve never met before, but you’re sharing this pure expression of joy that Daft Punk came up with. It holds a special place on my heart because of that.”
Harry: ‘California Gurls’ represents something in modern culture that I think is a permanent feature now, it does that thing where it references the past. There’s obviously the fact it’s called ‘California Gurls’ and there’s a classic song called ‘California Girls’ by Brian Wilson, but it references the past without actually directly taking from it. It’s its own direct song and a nod to something that came before it, whilst being that’s totally alien from the ‘California Girls’ of The Beach Boys.
“It made me think a lot about arrangements and how songs can be put together. It’s a really simple song at its core, the chords and the instrumentation are really simple but it doesn’t sound simple, it’s quite a dense, big sounding pop song.
“It’s got a joyfulness to it. It’s a celebration of something that’s both nostalgic and the grass is always greener almost; the idea of California, that the girls there are beautiful and stuff, that’s the thing that I really like. ‘The Recipe’ by Kendrick Lamar is another one, there’s a central lyric in that - ‘they come for the women, weed and weather.’ There’s this continuity which I find really interesting from Brian Wilson, Katy Perry to Kendrick Lamar, these artists are all different but they’ve got this binding thing that they’re from California and they love California - its women, weather and lifestyle. There’s something about that that’s touching and beautiful.
Emily: “Katy Perry is one of the artists that everyone in the band particularly likes. Part of that is the songs are so good; they tickle your brain in a certain way and that’s a really impressive thing. It’s like watching a crazy movie, it’s that kind of overload. I also think Katy Perry is one of the more straight-up popstars; she’s not trying to be anything she’s not and seems really self-aware of what kind of popstar she is. I really like that she’s really comfortable with what she does, there’s no trying to be something weird that clashes with it. She fully embraces the popness and that feels honest.
Harry: “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in modern pop music. ‘California Gurls’ came out in 2010 and in the last few years a lot of pop music’s taken itself extremely seriously, but with a lot of my favourite pop songs they’ve not taken themselves that seriously.
“‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners is great example, that’s a fun song, it gets my Mum on the dancefloor. It’s made by serious artists but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it understands that pop music can be about having a good time and just enjoying yourself. I think that’s the thing, there’s no smoke and mirrors to Katy Perry, that she’s a serious artist or you should take her seriously in the vein of Radiohead or something. It’s just ‘this is a fun pop song and people can dance to it.’ I like it when there’s not any more pretence to it than that with pop music.”
Orono: “I came across Vampire Weekend when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, because I kept playing this really shitty Guitar Hero game on my iPad for two or three years and ‘Cousins’ was my favourite song to play on it. I never looked them up, but I was like ‘this song’s cool.’
“So then one day I decided to look them up and it was ‘Woah, this is so sick.’ I listened to all of their albums and ‘Diplomat’s Son’ was the song that I always had on repeat. I thought that the M.I.A sample was really, really cool and then that got me listening to M.I.A and also the indie-rock bands that were popular during that time, like MGMT and Tame Impala.
“But before that I was really obsessed with the TV show Glee, which brings me to ‘Wasted & Ready’ by Ben Kweller.”
Orono: “Growing up, Ben Kweller, Ben Folds and Weezer were my childhood heroes. I was maybe three or four years old when I started listening to those guys, my Dad was playing Weezer in the car and Ben Kweller as well.
"I was a four year old wearing teddy-bear patterned dresses, just jamming out to ‘Wasted & Ready’, I knew all of the lyrics but I didn’t know what they meant, I was just this tiny Japanese girl. My Mum didn’t stop me though and that’s all I did on the way to pre-school because it took me an hour to get there, it’s one of my favourite songs ever.
“And then I took a little break from that when I entered elementary school. I was six years old and I was still listening to Weezer but I also got into Avril Lavigne, Glee and all the Disney Channel stars like Miley and Demi. So Vampire Weekend brought me back into more tasteful music I guess, the more left-field, alternative music.”
Orono: “My Mum’s not that into hip hop, so I didn’t have a chance to listen to it in the car with my parents. She likes Eminem but she only listened to one of his songs, ‘Lose Yourself’ and that was the only song I knew of his. I think it’s because she watched 8 Mile and appreciated his backstory.
“When I was thirteen or fourteen I was listening to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis a lot and I was ‘Woah, hip hop music is so sick.’ It was all I listened to for a month straight; multiple times every day. With Vampire Weekend I looked up all the related artists, but with Macklemore I don’t think he’s a well-respected hip hop guy, he’s a pop guy that raps about thrift shops and stuff, so I didn’t really get to delve deeper into other hip hop stuff.
“But with Tyler, because he’s more of a well-respected hip hop kind of guy with ‘IFHY’ I realised how melodic hip hop music can be and I really liked how sincere the lyrics were; it shed new light on hip hop music and that’s what triggered me into listening more of the classics. Recently I’ve been listening to The Beastie Boys and when these guys were talking about hip hop a while back I didn’t really know what they were talking about, but listening to Tyler and with them being around I was ‘I need to educate myself.’
Emily: “Tyler’s one of our favourite artists. It’s really cool that he’s really unusual and also makes quite poppy stuff. For music fans his career path and the way he’s developed through his albums is fantastic, you don’t get that all the time, it’s like a different era. The vibe of Odd Future and that idea of a collective is inspiring to us, that’s a really great way to take control of your creative output and that’s what those guys did.
Harry: “Hip hop is the most popular genre in the world but he’s an example of a left-field artist who’s able to make a big career for himself. You wouldn’t describe him as a mainstream artist, you’d definitely describe him as a cult artist, yet he’s still got a huge fan base.
“Indie-rock previously had bands like that and before that post-punk and punk. Going right back to the dawn of Rock and Roll, there’s always been artists that sit just outside of the mainstream, that are working within the most mainstream genre but doing something a bit twisted with it, but because it’s the mainstream genre you can still have a really big audience.
“Tyler, The Creator is one of the modern examples of that. These days’ indie-rock bands don’t get to that level of notoriety without becoming a genuinely big band, like LCD Soundsystem or something. There’s no one that sits just outside and still has a big fan base, it’s a symbol of how times are different and Tyler, The Creator is a perfect example. He put his initial mixtapes on the internet and gained notoriety that way, he’s emblematic of the 2010s’.”