According to documented history, a mere few successful bands typically hold six or more members. Orchestras are off the grid. For right or wrong, Blazin’ Squad count. When they’re touring, Arcade Fire have so many strangely named cohorts it’s hard to decipher how useful some of them are. And then there’s Superorganism, a new band of eight musically obsessed couch surfers who appeared (seemingly) from nowhere in early 2017 and within a year had put out their debut album.
Listen to them through teenage ears and they sound like no one else. You can imagine stumbling on them, fresh NME in hand, awestruck and amazed – ready to be converted into the cult, already forgetting the music of the past and looking to them as the future: the kind of band to pull out at a party. But if you're not a teen in 2018, you may recognise that while Superorganism do sound like no one else new right now, they also have some clear touchstones: the slow drawl of Stephen Malkmus; the give-a-shit attitude of “Drinking In LA”; Beck when he still smoked weed but before he wore wide-brimmed hats; MGMT with the acid but also an iPhone. “Steal My Sunshine” by Len falls somewhere in there too.
Despite this, Superorganism have assimilated sounds they may or may not have heard and weaved them into their own potpourri – a fever-dream of hyperactive lilts, slouching samples and references to prawns. Kids will instantly gravitate to sounds that are perhaps new to them, adults might hear the references, but ultimately Superorganism have achieved the grand feat that’s eluded so many other bands. The music they create is peerless, of its time, absolutely fun but also not throwaway. Depending on your experience they’re addictive, a musical gateway, a breath of fresh air – or all three.
“It’s rare to get it right. But this band has the right balance,” says Soul, one of the band’s backing singers, when we meet. He’s joined by 18-year-old singer Orono, drummer Tucan – and, without us today, the band are completed by Harry (guitar); Emily (synths); Ruby and B (backing vocalists); Robert Strange (visuals) – almost all of whom are involved in the writing and production process. The cafe we’re currently sitting in is gentrified-Hackney-chic of the highest calibre – a warehouse type space that includes a hairdresser and so many plants it may as well be a bohemian hang-out-cum-garden centre. The band only come here, they say, to do interviews – to “get free breakfast”, which in this case includes the now millennial standard of avocado on toast with some eggs, bacon and a round of lattes.
Things have moved so quickly, from complete anonymity to the free breakfast promo circuit, that some members had to practically put their lives on hold. “I was going to go to college; I still want to go to college… I will go to college! Just not now,” Orono says through mouthfuls of breakfast, speaking about how she cut her education short when she upped sticks and moved into a house the Superorganism members share in Homerton, east London. The extortionate capital city rents – and the fact six of the eight members were living in the same house – meant Orono slept on sofa in the living room for the first few months. Since January, though, she’s upgraded to “a shitty bed from Amazon”, still in the lounge – but at least with a mattress. “I’m very cheap, that’s why London isn’t very compatible for me – everything is expensive,” she says, before pining for a Walmart-like superstore.
On paper, Orono (who neatly tops off Superorganism’s quirks with lackadaisical rendering of lyrics such as “I’m the K Mart soda jerk”) falls into the typical mould of Generation Y: struggling for rent, obsessed with Instagram and born into the deep HTML forest of the world wide web. In reality, she’s the voice of a band whose hype built so quickly (more on that later) that Superorganism’s first shows took place in relatively high-capacity venues. Their debut was in Hamburg, around the corner from a spot previously frequented by the Beatles in the 1960s, and their second at Village Underground in east London, which holds 700 or so people inside its walls. At that first London show, in October 2017, a palpable sense of nerves permeated the air. “Back then I was like, ‘play it cool, play it safe, it’s cool man,’” says Orono – who, despite not touching a drug, speaks with the elongated pronunciation of a Richard Linklater character who’s had more than their fair share of weed. “But now it’s more, ‘yeah, let’s have fun!’”
That sentiment – of having fun, but also some of the band members formative relationship with mind-enhancing drugs – was more than apparent at their March headline show in east London’s Oval Space, a venue significantly bigger than those they’d played previously. On the drug side of things, a Superorganism live show’s set design is akin to what Soul describes as “kind of like an acid trip or something” – apt, since the performance includes large-scale projected visuals that veer into everything from space to video game loading screens, often warping and intensifying in colour and form in tune with the music. Tonight’s concert begins with the following words on the screen, “This is Superorganism for you / you will be one with us”, before dissolving into a maelstrom of strobe lighting.
Then, in terms of fun, Orono has evolved significantly since those early performances. Entering the stage wearing blue-and-red old-school 3D cinema glasses, she projects directly to the crowd, testing and asking them questions – eg: “What’s the name of our band?” (Crowd: “Superorganism!”) “What’s the name of our album?” (Crowd: “Superorganism!”) “What’s the name of my mother?” (Crowd: *laughing but unable to give a proper answer*) “Fuck you guys! I’m only joking, that was a hard question.” At the end of the show she brings out a bag of crisps and various things she’s found in her pockets – “a pen, two candies, a piece of paper, a broken plastic spoon” – and offers them to the crowd, staying on stage long after half the audience has started to leave.
Watching Superorganism live, several shows in, is where they truly excel. Opening track “It’s All Good” is empowering (things are, after all, good), curiously sublime, slightly left-field but also not so deep in the woods it can’t be tied up with a deliriously uplifting chorus befitting any replayable pop song. Tonight, it’s shouted back at the band in full, ecstatic jubilant force. Ultimately, from start to finish, the performance is an elated, unified release of emotion. All seven members on stage – and eighth member Robert Strange, who provides the visuals – bring forward an undeniable sense of energy.
Recounting mythical formation stories of bands is tiresome AF, especially when they’ve been repeated since day dot. But it makes sense to untangle all the strands of a story for a band of this size. So: four members of Superorganism (Harry, Emily, Tucan and Soul) started out in a different band. When the opportunity came to leave their home of New Zealand and tour Japan, they packed their bags and hopped across the Pacific Ocean. They met Orono after a show in Tokyo. Too nervous to introduce herself, a friend pushed her forward – something Tucan, Soul and Orono (the three members here today) agree as being an act of fate. Later they hung out at a zoo in Tokyo and stayed in touch using the internet, something Tucan describes as good (it’s how the band formed) and bad (“there’s a lot of negativity. I just like finding pictures!”).
Some time later a few of Superorganism’s members (none of whom are British, except Harry who was born in Burnley but grew up in New Zealand) moved to London… a switcheroo of the age-old story of British graduates moving halfway across the world to sink beers in Brisbane. For the first 18 months, different members worked various jobs: selling studio equipment, doing admin at universities, working at a book publishing company. Then one day they thought: ‘fuck it, let’s record a song.’ That song was then sent across the world to Orono – at the time studying at a high school in Maine – who then added some vocals. And bing-ba-da-boom-fast-forward-a-little-bit and that same song – “Something For Your M.I.N.D” – was being played by Frank Ocean and Ezra Koenig on their Beats One radio shows before being taken offline as offers from labels piled in.
Perhaps the best thing about Superorganism is the fact they are all music obsessives. Of course being interested in music doesn’t make a good band – if it did, I would be asking Bob Dylan and Brody Dalle to join my commercially unviable supergroup. But when you speak to Superorganism about music, they become most excitable. They love pop music, Katy Perry and Charli XCX, old classics like The Beach Boys and readily enthuse about everything from T-Rex to rare cover songs by Weezer. Orono especially is a music nerd: brought up on Ben Folds Five and Ben Kweller, she then later moved “into lots of Disney channel, Glee stuff” in her tweens, then “indie music like Vampire Weekend” before “going crazy”.
Born with unprecedented access to music’s back catalogue online, Orono sources new finds through videos such as Amoeba record store’s ‘What’s in my Bag’ – a series where alternative artists scour the Los Angeles shop in search of some of their favourite records. It’s an updated take on looking back through CD liner notes and seeking out the records mentioned, and is something that’s served Orono well. For example, at one point during our chat, the band briefly discuss Steve Albini. Orono asks “if he’s pop?”. Tucan and Soul disagree. “But it’s catchy,” she replies. “I think about this everytime I get this question, ‘Oh pop music? Is Steve Albini pop?’ Well, his stuff is really repetitive and it resonates in your brain and that’s kind of pop.”
And if she’s right – which I think she is – then Superorganism are pop too; they’re a band who produce tracks that creep so deep into the crevices of your brain you might absent-mindedly find yourself muttering the words “I wanna be a superorganism” while washing dishes just as you might with, say, T2’s “Heartbroken” or the B-52’s “Loveshack”. They’re different, but they’re familiar. They’re an eight piece group – a superorganism (of creative people) who survive better when they’re together, as the dictionary definition goes. More than anything however, these music nerds want to get an interview sorted out with Nardwuar.
“I want to interview him. Did you listen to his band the Evaporators? I’m a massive Nardwuar fan,” enthuses Orono, toward the end of our chat. “I don’t know how he finds everything out but I think he’s connected to the government in some sort of way. Because how the fuck would he know all this stuff, it’s crazy?” She pauses, then knowingly and sarcastically murmurs “ FBI… 9/11… Nardwuar”, as though these things are all connected. The band laugh and I make a mental note to tell their PR he absolutely must find a way for them to speak to British Columbia’s most famous and eccentric journalist, because there’s a whole lot more to find out about this eight-piece band – especially since half of them aren’t even here. Blazin’ Squad be done, orchestras be relegated to the balded – Superorganism are here for everyone, representing elements of the past, the sound of the future and bringing it into the present.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.