Led by the boyishly mischievous Stuart Bogie, the septet of Superhuman Happiness is probably one of the more accomplished bands I’ve come across in recent memory – you can practically play a rather dizzying game of “six degrees of separation” with the members of Superhuman Happiness as they’ve all played alongside the likes of TV on the Radio, Antibalas, Iron and Wine, the Phenomenal Handclap Band and others.
Over the last couple of years, while playing with their respective other outfits, the Brooklyn-based septet have released a couple of 45s and 7 inch singles and their 2011 EP, The Physical. As a result they’ve gained quite a bit of attention across the blogosphere – on this site, in particular, their GYML single was reviewed quite favorably and The Physical landed at number 20 on this site’s Best of 2012. But perhaps just as important for any band, they started to gain national attention opening for the likes of Rubblebucket, Marco Benevento, Sinkane and Red Baraat. And although it may have taken three very busy years for the band to write, perfect and record the material that comprises their full-length debut Hands, the album, which was released last week through Royal Potato Family Records, may well be the band’s coming out party on the national stage. I can’t say it enough but their debut effort is an impressive on several levels – as a band they’ve managed to accurately capture the unbridled sense of joy and fun that radiates from each member during their live sets. And much like Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Orb’s The ORBSERVER in the star house and Cody ChesnuTT‘s Landing on a Hundred, co-number 1’s on last year’s Best of lIst, Superhuman Happiness’s latest effort sounds unlike anything that’s been released to date. Not only are all three albums difficult to pigeonhole in the traditional sense of genre, they manage to be simultaneously complex and multilayered to the point that additional listens reveal something incredibly new but, they still manage to be as accessible and friendly as ever. I think that’s a unique achievement in a day and age when attention spans have become shorter and when super conglomerates force feed soulless, prepackaged bullshit. Additionally, in a similar fashion, Hands made an immediate impression on me – in fact, it’s an early on favorite for best album of the year…
I recently spoke to Superhuman Happiness’ Stuart Bogie via email about several topics including how improv clapping games inspired the bulk of the material on their latest effort; how they manage to write material with increasingly hectic schedules; and the improvised nature of their live sets. Bogie also talks about the band’s recent collaboration with the Kronos Quartet on the score for the Academy Award-nominated How to Survive a Plague and he offers some rather pointed advice for aspiring musicians. Overall, from this Q&A, I think Bogie will strike you as charming, passionately earnest and sweet-natured – it radiates from him and in his music. Check out this fascinating and pretty revealing Q&A below.
Band Photo by Nathan West
Hands album art by Joao Machado.
WRH: How did you get into music?
SB: For as long as I can remember music gotten into me. It introduced me to a world of nameless emotions through sound. Many of us feel this way, probably many of the people reading this. What’s more important than the introduction is what kept me in music, which is the friends with whom I love to play and create with. This is the case with the artists in Superhuman Happiness; the joy of connecting and creating together. So many of our favorite ideas just get played once, and happen when we are warming up or clowning around! The social experience of music is powerful, timeless, and extremely valuable to humanity. That what keeps me going.
WRH: How did the members of the band meet?
SB: I assembled the members of the group over several years of being on the scene in New York, met friends of friends, etc.
Only one musician offered to join the band, Jared [Samuel]. I was so honored I forgot to really check out his music first! But I knew he was great, somehow. We met at piano karaoke hosted by Joe McGinty at the Lucky Cat. I didn’t know Jared could sing, but as soon as I heard that [he could sing] I was totally blown away. He is in touch with the timeless poetry of good lyrics, and cranks melodies out of the keys like its nothing.
Miles [Arntzen] wrote me a Facebook message with a YouTube clip of him playing an Antibalas song I wrote called “Beaten Metal.” He sounded really good, and after meeting a few times I realized he had the feeling in his heart. Within a year, no like 3 or 4 months he was fucking unbelievable, and was breathing a subtle new style of music we were crafting together.
Luke [O’Malley] was a longtime friend through Antibalas, and we dreamed of doing different music together or a while. His positive energy is unique – he is my personal hero and makes the band work on so many levels. He was tied up with PHB [Phenomenal Handclap Band] when we got this line up together, so we held his place, and he wrote some ideas from the road that lit up the room as soon as we tried them. He is my production partner in making the records and the film scoring work.
Me and Eric Biondo were touring buddies in Antibalas, and his strange creative energy keeps us all on our toes. His songwriting is incredible and he is an original human – and iconoclast of bizarre energy.
Ryan Ferreira went to Eastman [School of Music] with Eric, and we met on the scene. He worked on the first EP with me (along with Eric, Luke and many others). Ryan has a distinct voice on the guitar and as an artist his approach is a balance to Luke’s, and often the whole bands, energy. Ryan tends towards ambient ideas, while Luke creates hooks and centered riffs. Of course they can both do both functions, but to see them work together is like watching a lava lamp. I knew from Fela [Kuti]’s music that 2 guitars was the sound for us – and that these two guitarists were the ones. But instead of two basic roles (Fela’s rhythm vs tenor guitars) I wanted to hear to basic philosophies at work.
I originally knew Nikhil [Yerawadekar] as a guitarist in Antibalas, but really wanted him in the project because of his attention to detail and his deep knowledge of specific musics. In addition to being extremely creative, he has a capacity to remember all the little details of a tune. He can play and sing so well together (he makes it look easy!) and writing tunes with him, like “Half Step Grind,” was huge pleasure. We all got to watch him create that sick bass line. What an awesome feeling it was to behold that.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
SB: In terms of influences we bring a lot of different personal ones to the band. Just the other day, Ryan heard Talking Heads for the first time! Ha! I know we go for that sound a lot, but I would never bother the other guys with checking out a band – they bring their own shit to the table and that’s that. So I would describe our band as “music made to bring people in touch with a sense of life’s momentum.” Tomorrow it will be a different description.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
I’m at a cafe and they just played Fela. Always listening to Fela. It’s not world music, it’s human music and you are allowed to feel it like you feel the Shins or Prince. Believe that, readers! These days, I listen to the guys in Superhuman Happiness’ music: EMEFE, Invisible Familiars, Biondo, Ryan’s solo music, Low Mentality, as well as this band Cuddle Magic, Rubblebucket, Neil Young, LCD [Soundsystem], Kevin Volans/Kronos Quartet, Peter Gabriel, Chic, Marco Benevento, Yellowbirds, Mystikal, Larry Levan tapes, Iron and Wine, Live Footage, and this awesome band called Sticklips.
WRH: Like a lot of musicians I personally know, the members of Superhuman Happiness are in several different projects simultaneously as most of the SH comprises the horn and rhythm section of Antibalas; your drummer is also a member of Emefe; other members have played with the Phenomenal Handclap Band, Iron & Wine, and others, and various members pick up studio and live gigs whenever possible. How do you all find the time to write your own material with such hectic schedules?
SB: It is a pain in the ass! Oh man, the real question is how do I creative[ly] vent scheduling frustration without being a total dick to my bandmates. You gotta plan, and you gotta be patient. It helps to have fantastic musicians in the group. If we had a little more economic fortune things would be a little easier, but in truth, we are extremely lucky to do what we do. We love it. We find a way. Having Kevin Calabro of Royal Potato Family on our team is probably the best thing that happened to us as a group. (P.S.: I have officially left Antibalas to pursue Superhuman Happiness and producing with Luke O’Malley.)
WRH: Superhuman Happiness has been around for a quite a bit – I remember the GYML 7" single, the Physical EP, and an appearance on Electric Cowbell Records’ compilation 101 Things to do in Bongolia. And I’ve seen the band live on a couple of occasions. Unlike the previous SH efforts, the new album really captures the energy and joyously playful spirit of an SH show. Was this a conscious effort or did it happen organically as you guys got to the studio and recorded?
SB: It was absolutely conscious. I wrote and produced the first record alone with guest musicians. I formed a band to improvise and play around with the ideas. Luke and I got serious about production and we produced a few more songs, and released them with Royal Potato Family. Once that was in motion, and we got the full line up together, it was full steam ahead! We made a true band and wrote and recorded a record that sounds like that. Phil Palazzolo recorded us at Seaside [Lounge Studios] in Park Slope, and he can make a fucking record. We did most of it live in three days, then vocals came after.
WRH: I recently saw an interview with SH’s Stuart Bogie and in the interview he talks about how a brief foray into improv comedy had influenced his songwriting. There’s a rhythmic hand clapping exercise the band uses to warm up and it actually is incorporated on the album opener, “Our Favorite Part” “Sentimental Pieces” and “Elevator Elation.” How has the hand clapping technique helped with the process of songwriting? Did it assist with every song or did it help more with some songs over others?
SB: I lived with Michael Herbst, a brilliant musician and student of the late Makanda Ken McIntyre. MIchael told me about all these internalization exercises that Makanda dropped on him. How you use extreme repetition to generate creative ideas. I had always loved clapping games and had learned a few from Chris Vatolaro. I wanted each rehearsal to send us away with 1) improved personal and collective musicianship 2) creative engagement 3) rehearsed and developed material. Many bands just go for number 3, I think that’s a drag. Sports teams run plays but they also do squats and what not, you know, huddles, etc. I wanted us to have a fulfilling experience making this music. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but it happens enough to make it feel worthwhile.
WRH: Your live sets manage to have a free flowing, almost improv feel as well. Does this improv background have a way of filtering through your live sets?
SB: We often improvise during sets, but the band has a way of making it sound composed. I sometimes like to think we make prepared compositions sound improvised, and improvisations sound prepared. We practice improvising and often stop to discuss things in the middle of it.
WRH: Superhuman Happiness’s material manages to be several things simultaneously to me. It’s initially joyful, mischievous, fun and funky but lyrically the material covers metaphysical and spiritual topics such as “First Heart,” “Second Heart,” and “Half Step Grind” while being accessible. What exactly has influenced the band’s lyrical concerns?
SB: It is very difficult to comment on the poetry. We write a lot of it individually or in teams.
WRH: There are songs throughout where the lead vocalist changes – some songs it’s Stuart Bogie, others it’s Luke O’Malley. There are others where it seems like it’s a tag team. Is that any way influenced why who wrote the song – or does it have to do more with what fits a particular song at that particular moment?
SB: We move the vocal duties around a lot. I like stories and bands with lots of characters, like the Wire, or Wu-Tang, P-Funk, the Muppet Show. We all do part of the thing, you know? Jared, Luke, Eric, Nikhil, myself, we all have different voices that fit into the music in different ways. There is definitely a relationship between lyric writing and who sings the tunes, but also to the vibe of the song, etc.
WRH: Your material sounds like it’s influenced by a rather eclectic variety of music. I hear elements Afrobeat, Afro-Caribbean music, jazz, pop music, free jazz/acid jazz, prog rock, funk put together in a fashion that defies expectations and makes it extremely difficult to pigeonhole the band. Has there been any point during the band’s existence that you’ve all dealt with someone who just didn’t know what to make of you and your sound?
SB: We struggle with the promotional problems of a band without a front person. The music industry is looking for idols. They need to put a tag on you, so you can compete on a shelf with other tags. They want a face, etc. They want a diva, or some super chops vocalist. We weren’t dealt that hand so we said fuck it, we are going to make the music that excites us and the people we perform for. The music itself, the sounds in the air, they belong to us all – and it is just as real for Pavarotti to sing for you as it is you friends on the school bus, your family, the drunks in the bar etc. The music industry, understandably, has to deal in fame and its construction. But the actual music doesn’t need that, and you don’t need famous people to have music in your heart. If you need a hero look in the mirror, cause that is who is going to save you, right?
WRH: The band collaborated with Kronos Quartet for the How to Survive a Plague Soundtrack. How did that come about? How does it feel to know that you’ve helped on an integral part of an Academy Award nominated film, and a film that’s been so well-received critically?
SB: It feels amazing to be a part of How to Survive a Plague. Working on the film changed our lives and taught us about ourselves as artists, and as people of the earth. Our friends at Red Hot got us involved. The soundtrack is now available here: (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/thats-us/id578492760) and all proceeds go to the Student Global AIDS Campaign.
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?
SB: At the risk of sounding like a dick, artists should lay off the hype and build their projects slowly and with dedicated patience. I have met too many younger artists who care about what Pitchfork says, etc., and that is dumb. If you have an idea, make it – period. Be honest and fair with your friends and colleagues, even when they think you are an asshole anyways, ha! And whatever you are working on, be sure someone else is doing it at the same time – and maybe better so make sure you get something out of the process that is its own reward beyond the thrill of competition. A creative life is satisfying, regardless of making a name for yourself