Building the World of Superorganism

SUPERORGANISM, the eight-person, international collective operating a DIY pop production factory out of their London share-house, have been a band for barely a year now. In that time, they’ve gone from being a nebulous group of music-obsessed internet friends uploading their mysterious debut single to the internet at the start of 2017, to readying one of this year’s most hotly-anticipated debut albums.

Moreover, like the pop factories they admire and model themselves after, Superorganism have proven themselves adept at constructing entire worlds out of their project. The concept of world-building in music is usually reserved for auteuristic solo artists (think Frank Ocean, Kanye); for an eight-person collective to achieve something similar is impressive enough, and even more so when they talk about their commitment to collapsing their eight personalities into realising a singular artistic vision and maintaining a strictly in-house creative process.

If Superorganism is a universe, then their self-titled debut is the big bang.

Across ten tracks that play as colourfully oversaturated, almost cartoonish collages of pop pleasure, the record does exactly what all the best debuts do: It condenses this artistic vision, introducing the ever-burgeoning world of Superorganism and curtailing the band’s optimistic ethos of community. What emerges is a sense that what differentiates Superorganism is their genuine and unironic appreciation for and belief in the genre of pop music.

Ahead of one of the year’s most anticipated debut albums, we sat down with producer/songwriter/synth-player Emily to discuss what being raised on the internet does to your artistry, working inside a pop factory, why Katy Perry is the same as Radiohead, and why the group shouldn’t be described as “eclectic”.

The debut is this really playful, almost cartoonish collage of all these different styles – what were you listening to when you were writing and recording?

 We all have reasonably eclectic tastes, I think. We kind of fall into a lot of mainstream pop music, as well as a lot of weird, indie music and home-made music, stuff that kind of reflects strange, outside vibes. So I think for us, we made this big Spotify playlist and we just constantly update it – it’s got like a thousand songs on it now or something, and it’s amazing. Lately we’ve been listening to Cupcakke, who’s a fantastic rapper, along with like Car Seat Headrest. So much Magnetic Fields and Ween. Man, I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Regurgitator lately. I love that band. And then we’re listening to The Avalanches and I’ve been listening to a lot of Matt Stone and Trey Parker stuff from their various movies and South Park. Everyone’s kind of into stuff that feels like it punches you when you first hear it. Something that hits you over the head is what we like.

For sure. Because there’s moments on the album that hit me over the head, like the breakdown on ‘Nai’s March’, where I’m just kind of like, “How does anyone come up with this?”. But there’s eight of you all doing different things. How does the songwriting process work like that?

We kind of do it like collage style. So we’re all living in the same house here. Actually, there’s seven of us here and one of the other guy’s living around the corner cause we’ve run out of room. It’s way too full, this cursed London house. We’ve all lived overseas as well. I mean, we started the band with Orono in Maine and Seoul in Australia as well, so we’re kind of sending these files to each other. That’s the way it’s always worked. So it might start in one person’s bedroom, but then it gets sent somewhere else and somewhere else and everyone adds a little bit, and takes away a thing and adds a thing and talks about it and figures it out. And it’s kind of like this whole process of collage, I think.

I’m struck by the idea of your London sharehouse operating as this small-scale, DIY iteration of larger Swedish production factories. Was this a conscious decision?

 Yeah! Everyone’s really inspired by all kinds of pop factories, from like Andy Warhol and Motown and Brill Building stuff, through to like Cheiron studios with Max Martin and into that kind of L.A., modern style of songwriting. I think that people work better in teams, or at least we all do. There’s a certain type of person who’s a solo artist, but for us we’re all kind of filling in each other’s gaps in a symbiotic way, I think. So that teamwork element for us is essential.

I mean, in so many ways this idea of different individuals working towards a common artistic vision is the ideal of what a band looks like. But for some reason, it’s acceptable when Radiohead does it, but it’s disparaged when Katy Perry does it. Why do you think that is?

That’s an interesting question. I think that when production groups are commercially minded, like a lot of L.A. groups are, you start making products that piss various people off, I guess. I think that those two examples are fantastic, in that Radiohead and Katy Perry are two artists that when they’re writing big pop hits they’re quite similar, I think, in terms of their ability to channel a weird personality, as well as channel this crazy ability to write a memorable thing that hits you over the head straight away. I mean, with something like ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘OK Computer’, I feel like we’re talking about things that are in the same general realm. You’re talking about slightly different, warped, alternate reality versions of each other, but you’re looking at real, kind of hardcore artists in my opinion. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a controversial thing to say about Katy Perry for some people. But I mean, that’s the way a lot of us see it.

The landscape of pop music is pretty fractured these days. But your take on it feels like a return to the naughties, when your Katy Perrys and Britney Spears dominated the culture – I’m thinking particularly about the album’s closer, ‘Night Time’. I feel like what distinguishes you guys is this sincere, unironic, fun appreciation for pop music. Why do you think people need this kind of optimistic pop right now?

Well, I don’t know if people need it. I feel like it’s more like what we need. What we’re doing with the eight of us is making things that amuse each other, and when you have eight people, I mean that’s a lot of people to amuse. I don’t know, it’s dark times, man. But at the same time it’s always dark times. It’s crazy reading about history with all the things that go down, it’s very cyclical and intense. I feel like it’s quite a natural reaction, to try and make your life good. And that’s part of what we’re doing here – trying to have a positive outlook, and the future’s going to happen, so it’s cool to get involved and try get a positive thing going rather than maybe a negative thing. It’s going to happen anyway. We all share that optimism in that way, I think.

There’s a lot of dichotomies in your music, I think: between the light and the dark, between operating like a large-scale production factory but still maintaining a DIY feel. How do you balance these?

I think for us it’s a reasonably natural thing like that. We’re all really into a lot of DIY, homespun music. That kind of DIY, punk ethos. For us, it’s really important to create the whole creative process, from the first time someone’s whistling a song in the shower, a single melody idea, to writing it, recording it, then to mixing it, to making all the visuals elements and making everything come together. I think for us it’s really an obsession with trying to make sure that it’s the singular vision of eight people – which is maybe a bit of a contradiction – but rather than it being a thirty-person vision, like a Beyoncé record, for example. That’s also fantastic, but we’re trying to keep a hold on it, you know.

Yeah, so you’re trying to find the middle ground.

Yeah, yeah, I guess that’s right. It’s more just like we’re trying to figure out what we can do at home, because that’s where we are. It’s not really a choice, it’s dictated by where we’re living and what we’re doing. So, like, in London I don’t really know how bands could make studio records and also pay rent. It makes more sense to me that you pay rent and that’s your studio record fee and you do it all from home. It’s dictated by that I think.

How are you going about translating the record into your live show?

It was this really, really fun process where we just given this crazy opportunity to put a song up and it kind of blew up, and we put some more songs online and they blew up, and we were like, “Woah!”. And then there was this audience that wanted to see us play and we never thought we’d be in the same country at the same time, let alone on the same stage at the same time. So it was this crazy opportunity to do something intense and wide-screen and big, cause that’s what we’re trying to do with our music. So we were like “Yeah!”, and in our house came up with this whole show that kind of came together piece by piece, whether it was Seoul and Ruby, who are like the singers and back-up dancers, and they kind of came to the first rehearsal being like, “Hey, look, we’ve been practising this stuff and we’ve come up with moves”, and we were like, “Woah, moves?”. And then they were doing these moves and we were like, “Woah, cool, sick moves!”. And then Tucan’s on the drums and he’s like: “Check this out – if we hook up this trigger through this sampler and through this thing, check out what we can do”. And we were like “Woah, you are literally playing, like, this person’s sneeze from this small town in America that you found or whatever and it’s really cool”. For us, it’s very much just a bunch of kids fucking around and playing around. That’s what it’s like.

Robert Strange, who’s in the band, he does all the visual stuff for both the video clips and the visual projections, and he did this overwhelming, intense thing that’s really inspired by things like The Flaming Lips touring and Katy Perry touring, or a Kanye tour or something. It’s all about totally removing you from where you’re standing right now, and putting you somewhere else. It felt organic to us.

Definitely, having the live show as a communal event experience.

Yeah! And it’s kind of an essential part for us, this whole world building thing. It’s like a life that we’re sharing, and that’s a really big part now. We’re about to get in a bus all together – and the bus is a lot nicer than our flat, as well, so that’s cool – and we’re gonna get in the bus, and we’re gonna tour around Europe and go to America and we’re gonna come to Australia as well, we’re just sorting out the dates and making sure it lines up. We’re going everywhere, and it’s kind of this trippy, amazing experience, kind of like Magical Mystery Tour but the movie doesn’t suck, it’s totally badass.

A lot has been made of your guys’ internet-based conception and existence – what do you think being raised on the internet, both as individuals and as a group, does to your artistic and aesthetic choices?

I think that the main thing that it does is when you grow up with Napster and then through to Spotify, you have access to all music from the start of recorded music. I feel like that’s quite a different experience, when you’re like “Oh! This and then this” and “Oh, this person told me to listen to this”, you hear it really differently to, for example, people in the past maybe hearing it from going to a record store and going, “I really like this hip-hop record, what do you think?”, and the guy is like, “Here’s another hip-hop record”. Or if you listen to mainstream pop radio or indie radio, electronic radio, rock radio, rap radio – people like to put these things into genre categories that don’t necessarily reflect the outlook of the music or the personality, it tends to reflect the production, like it tends to reflect the sound of the hi-hat, some random little element like the sound of the kick drum or the way that the guitar works.

Something like, for example, Katy Perry singing ‘Firework’, for me, in terms of emotional content and outlook has a lot in common with Pavement singing ‘Cut Your Hair’ or Magnetic Fields doing ‘Strange Powers’. You’re talking about unusual people doing crazy, emotional pop music. I feel like that just changes the way your brain thinks about it. It’s really novel, people keep saying to us, “Oh, you guys are eclectic”. But I don’t know, we just like pop music, it’s not that eclectic. We’re not talking about experimental classical music or something, we’re talking about this very specific thing, which is like music that grabs a hammer and hits you in the head, over and over again, straight away. It’s very specific, I think.

Yeah, I don’t think – I wouldn’t describe it as “eclectic.” I think the way you describe it, to me, it’s all completely logical actually.

 Oh, well thank you very much.

I guess the flipside is, though, that you guys release your debut single and the internet kind of runs with that, and come up with this mythic origin story. This is something that a lot of other artists struggle with throughout their careers – how do you guys think about that now?

We didn’t realise that people would be so interested in it, because to us it seems reasonably mundane because that’s how a lot of people interact in the modern world. If you have really specific interests, like an obsession with music for example, that limits the number of people you can find like that who you can hang out with. So it’s such a no-brainer that you’re going to find them through the internet rather than the guy in your neighbourhood a few doors up who goes to your high-school. It’s going to be some weirdo from some other country who’s weird like you. It feels like it’s such a no-brainer that that puts people together. It’s not stigmatised anymore that people meet online to date, and I feel like if you’re putting romantic relationships together that way, it’s such a no-brainer to collaborate creatively like that too. We all grew up on MSN Messenger and chatting to our friends on forums and stuff, and these days it’s Reddit and Facebook – when that’s such a normal way to interact, you don’t need to stop with the people who are just in the same room as you.

What I’ve been trying to get at is that you guys seem particularly adept at world building – and you touched on this briefly already – through your music and your visuals and your live show, and Orono’s fan fiction series. Where does the debut fit in in terms of building the world of Superorganism?

Well I think for us these are the first ten songs we wrote. So we’ve just been crazily writing music ever since about the end of January last year when we came up with ‘Something For Your M.I.N.D.’. It’s been this creative explosion and all of us have just been obsessively all working together and making this visual art and music that comes together. So for us, in terms of the first album, it was really just about drawing a line after the first ten songs that we did. And it’s come together as a day in the life of Superorganism, where you wake up and start a record and go through this saturated media landscape which is modern life, and you come out at the end where you can’t really sleep the next night. That’s definitely all our experiences, so like for us that feels like the perfect introduction, this perfect little snapshot of what we want to do and we have all of this other stuff that we’re just going to continue to build with that. So it’s got this nice, little, simple peering through the hole in the door at Superorganism. That’s what this record feels like.

What does this universe of Superorganism look like in your imagination? Where would you like it to go from here?

I don’t really know because it’s eight of us so it all depends on what everyone’s into and what everyone’s up to. I mean, we’ve got lots and lots of ideas. We’re really into this idea that I feel like Elon Musk kind of represents in a certain way, which is this kind of positivity towards like, you know, humanity might end but it also might take off to the stars. It’s this feeling of trying to find that positivity and that forward-moving belief, because you know that the future’s going to happen, whether or not you engage with it, so you might as well try and shape it in your own little way to try and be a positive change. I guess that’s the way that we want to move our universe. We’re trying to get that little bit of positive, forward momentum –  that’s what we’re looking for.

So are we all part of Superorganism?

Yeah, man! Well I feel like the internet in itself is this weird superorganism that everyone is part of. The thing is that, if you can dig the music and get into that stuff, I feel like you can start to understand how we’re feeling as well as a distillation of these eight personalities. I feel like if you can get into the Superorganism world, well then you can be part of Superorganism. It’s that connection that we’re all looking for in a separated world. So absolutely.

Superorganism’s self-titled debut is out March 2 via. Domino – you can pre-order it here.

WORDS BY KYLE FENSOM

IMAGE: Supplied

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