What ‘you gotta know’ is that these guys sold more copies of their single last year than any other local act – by about a truckload. That they didn’t win big at this year’s Music Awards is a failing of the system. If you haven’t yet seen Supergroove live it’s a mistake of your own making. Ahead of their (as yet un-named) debut album release, Richard Thorne spoke with songwriters Karl Steven and Jo Fisher.
Few bands of recent years have been more comprehensive in their touring coverage of the country. Even fewer treat their audiences to a more energetic and enjoyable performance. And even rarer still is the commitment that these seven young musicians show to their cause.
Karl Steven and Jo Fisher, vocalist and bass player respectively, have that easy familiarity that allows one to take over a sentence begun by the other – without dispute – which is probably lucky since they share attitude, and the songwriting. In addition, Karl co-produces the band’s music while Jo directs their videos. Indeed, as bands go, Supergroove are remarkably self-sufficient. The seven members also look after their artwork, merchandising, fan club and most other things themselves. Despite the diverse weight of roles, any rewards are evenly split among them.
Jo: “Because we are in the band, we don’t have to try and explain to someone else something which might be unexplainable – as far as our ideas go. It’s almost impossible to communicate artistic ideas to people and then get them to go and do it.”
Karl: “Completely impossible!”
Although they’ve already been together for about three years, the average age of a Supergroover is still below that allowing access to licensed premises – unless accompanied by a legal guardian of course.
“We always play at pubs,” says Karl. “You can get pissed at pubs! They’re the good live venues. People being able to drink makes it rock more, which is what it’s about. If a few people can’t get through the door it’s a shame. It sucks that 17, 18, 19-year-olds can’t get a drink, but that’s a separate issue.
“School gigs are good if you want a younger audience. The singles market is younger, and some bands don’t appeal to young people, so they might do a whole lot of school gigs to sell some singles, whereas TV’s how we get to our younger audience. I think Scorpio was the second-most-played clip of last year.
“We’ve met fans who are over 30 (yes, it’s true, over 30) – who sneak up to get us to autograph their CDs in their business suits – and kids of like three and four. We don’t aim for any of them, we just do what we do and try to do it well. We’re not a marketing exercise, I don’t think we’re quite clever enough to do that.”
Jo: “Maybe it’s because we started out young, people do tend to stick it to you. Really though, we don’t care, it’s just a bit of an annoyance to read in a magazine that you are a kids’ band.”
With the release of Can’t Get Enough Supergroove have four singles behind them, and their debut album waiting in the wings. Here Comes The Supergroove came first, reaching #21 on the national charts. You Gotta Know followed in ‘93, selling over 8,000 copies to become the 17th top-selling single of the year, and the biggest NZ single by a mile. (Headless Chickens’ Juice followed, ranking 45th.) Scorpio Girl, their third single didn’t sell quite as well, yet easily went gold, selling more than 6,000 copies and becoming the sixth biggest local single of the same year, 65th on the overall chart. Those two join the other eight album tracks which were recorded at Auckland’s York Street studio between late November and the end of January this year.
What’s the album going to be called?
Karl: “Good question. Any ideas?”
Jo: “That’s a little bit of a sore point that question.”
When will it be out?
Karl: “In a few months, how does that sound? A month away maybe.”
And the next single?
Jo: “It’s kind of a new slant on our older style of songwriting I think. Gotta Know was the second song we ever wrote, and that was the biggest NZ single last year by a mile (and didn’t get to be in the Music Awards). Can’t Get Enough is kind of from that breed, but it’s got more of a glint in its eye. It’s a bit less naive. It was written later, but we went back to our good-humoured roots!”
Unlikely as it seems, given their frenetic funk musical nature, they say that they’ve written some pretty sad songs of late, and that these probably work better live because of the emotions in them. Progressing from songs about food to subjects less superficial, but still making people dance.
“It needs to work on all levels,” observes Karl. “You need to have people who own it to keep getting to know it more, and also people who just listen to it once live, and go, ‘Ooh yeah, funky’! The trick is, I think, to get the same mood across on all levels as well. The person who’s listened to it a thousand times, and the first time listener, need to get that same thing from it.”
Jo: “We are completely equal in our songwriting, it’s very much a 50/50 thing. We write in spasms, five or seven songs [Karl: “or 10”] in a month, in the downtime when we’re not touring.”
Karl: “We write them in close succession, and work very hard at it for that time. Writing songs is probably the favourite part of my life!”
Jo: “That’s the reason I got into music in the first place, to write songs. All of my influences are songwriters. For me if there’s some stress it seems to be really good for my songwriting. For each song there’s only one idea. That’s why they come in bunches because you only take one idea for a song but usually there’s a series of ideas that comes from an emotion. You can turn each of those ideas into songs.
“The other reason why it comes in spasms is that when you are writing songs you can’t do anything else, you just can’t let yourself. The worst thing you can do is forget an idea – which we have done before. We’ve actually written whole songs and lost the bit of paper we wrote them on and that’s it!”
Karl: “I guess it’s such a formative stage in youths’ lives. In the mid-to-late teens you do go through a lot of changes, and the songs changed so much for the better in that time. It became that we needed to write songs rather than just we wanted to play music and writing songs was something you have to do to be able to play fast guitar lines!”
No flashy home studios for these boys – at least not yet. Recently they’ve been using an old acoustic guitar to compose, but mostly they use Jo’s little sister’s Fujitone, “…this keyboard thing with drums on it.”
They take a recording of that to the band, leaving it up to the other guys to write their own parts.
“We can’t write music, so it’s not scored,” says Karl. “We have some words and a melody and a form. We decide what key its going to be in, and we say, ‘Go’. (Unless Che can’t sing it in which case we change the key!) We’re all getting much better at writing our own parts. Now we get closer, as a whole, to what the song is about. Before it was, ‘Yeah, well, I’ve always wanted to play this sax line’, but now it’s so much more to do with the song.
“Because we’ve been together for a long time we all understand what the song is trying to do. Often it takes months of arguments and debates and different attempts, but we always get there.”
Jo: “Karl and I write the songs, so we do, to a certain extent, call the shots as far as peoples’ performances go. Mainly in the things that get the song closer to our original vision.”
Karl: “At the same time we’d rather argue for six hours and reach a conclusion that we’re all happy with than have any one person with a niggling doubt. That’s really important when you’re a band, you have to all be totally committed to every song.”
Live is the ultimate testing ground, and they like to thoroughly road test songs before recording. Their early (short) set lists included song titles like Here Comes The Supergroove and You Gotta Know, which was only the second song they wrote. In the studio, unlike the on-stage mayhem, it’s apparently very organised. Karl co-produces most songs with York Street’s Malcolm Welsford and is “dogmatic” about rushing things through in the studio to capture the energy. Welsford won the Engineer title at this year’s Music Awards for his work on Shihad’s ‘Churn’ album, and was also a finalist for You Gotta Know – which Karl reckons featured the worst engineering of any of their singles. Apparently the rhythm tracks were Dolby encoded at Mandrill, then finished at York Street where they were not first decoded.
“It’s an engineer’s nightmare, Malcolm was in hysterics when he found out he was nominated for Gotta Know! Malcolm and I do the most out there things, we get away with murder. We blow up speakers left, right and centre and do all kinds of strange technical things which break all the rules, and which Malcolm won’t let me tell anyone about!”
On stage Supergroove is as lively a band as you will see. Their act is non-stop, drummer Paul Russell the only one to stay in one place for more than a few seconds. Wireless systems allow the rest of the band the freedom to run, jump, crash and burn through their set. Those others are Ben Sciascia on guitar, Nick Atkinson on sax, Tim Stewart on trumpet and Che Ness sharing lead vocals (missing from our cover photo).
Karl: “It used to be very much seven different people all bringing in separate influences, now as a band we’re all very much the same basically. On stage, we’re all moving in the same direction, which increases the music’s power. Now you get swept away by it on stage and you don’t think, ‘Should I strip butt naked and dive into the audience?’, you just have to do it.”
Jo: “That’s right. There’s no immediate thought processes, it’s all instinctive. Until the last tour, we were always extremely good at dodging each other, but I think we forgot about that and just started totalling each other – which is a hell of a lot more fun I think. In Nelson we destroyed the stage and a few band members – fortunately, it was the last song, and we had the next day off.”
Karl: “I did a knee slide across the floor in Waikato and nearly set my knees on fire – I’ll never do that again! The last couple of tours more than ever we are really enjoying. We spend a lot of time with the audience, and the more confident we get the more we want to get with the audience more. We used to stand all at the back of the stage with our backs turned but now we feel more at home on stage and we kind of rock out with the audience.”
Jo: “The last gig we did at Sammy’s was the first gig of our Orientation tour. We had about 1200 people, which was more than The Exponents and Jimmy Barnes got there!”
They followed that with another 2000 at their Otago University Orientation gig.
Jo: “We always seem to have a release, a single or something we have to tour, because of course you don’t get any radio play. We get a lot of TV play – television is really supportive. Radio on the other hand couldn‘t be less supportive. They’ll play your ads, but they won’t play the song! Without the radio play you have to go on the road to support your single.”
Former manager Stuart Broughton organises their touring, currently planning a record store-only one to promote Can’t Get Enough and then a major national tour supporting the album. They take a road manager, one driver/door person/roadie type, and sound and light people, so that’s seven in the band plus four others. They don’t own a vehicle, PA or anything, preferring to avoid such big investments. As Karl explains, if you have to fly to a festival in the South Island, then owning anything becomes an expensive waste.
Broughton started managing the band in the early Dog Club days, when they were defining their sound. (Supergroove’s origins were as the Lowdown Dirty Blues Band when Karl was just 15, and had no interest in looking after business aspects.) He organised a series of gigs on the ‘-age’ theme, Funkage, Rampage, Skankage, continuing it with tours for the band under titles like Coolage, Damage and Salvage. He was responsible for getting BMG interested in distributing the young band’s music, and for organising their own Age Productions label, on which the singles have been released – so ensuring maximum return for the band.
As the teenagers grew up they’ve become interested in exerting more control themselves, and some conflict developed. It was reported that the band fired Broughton, but Karl prefers to describe it as a reshuffling of roles.
“We’ve got more responsibility now, and feel we have something to do with our own futures. Before we had no part in our own band, apart from in a purely musical way, which isn’t enough. It would have been okay if we hadn’t disagreed on a few fundamental creative things. Stuart, like anyone outside the band would, wanted to turn us into something we weren’t. We’ve never had to compromise before and we weren’t about to. We want to do Supergroove as Supergroove – not as a mixture between NKOTB and Straitjacket Fits.”
For Broughton, the ‘reshuffling’ was felt as a painful attack on his integrity. He had done the hard graft and taken initiatives that have brought Supergroove to the point of releasing a potential hit debut album internationally. His collaborative involvement in the direction of the band, artwork and videos etc. was, he says, suddenly challenged by the band late last year.
After the very successful Damage tour in mid ‘93 the Supergroove members decided to become more professional, increasingly giving up other work, and so finding time on their hands. Things were on a roll, and Broughton chose then to present a management contract proposal to the band. On advice about the proposal and existing company structure from a commercial lawyer, the band went to see him, pointed out a number of differences and effectively dismissed him from his role as company director of Age Productions Ltd, and hence his managerial role with the band.
Issues quickly got messy (as they inevitably do with money and lawyers involved), but within a week the band backed down. The result was that Broughton was ‘reshuffled’ to a “… strictly perfunctory” involvement – handling promotions for releases and tours, as well as bookings. Fortunately, though it’s now all very amicable, and both sides have left their cards on the table for the future. For the new single and album releases, the hope of getting international release has necessitated a more full arrangement with BMG. The exact nature of that contract remains a bit of a mystery – even to the band.
“It’s still a bit floating around at the moment,” evades Karl. “We’ve signed stuff, (‘heads of agreement’) but it’s not the final. The finicky details still need to be sorted out. It’s basically a two-album contract, but it’s really difficult to say without having the final contract signed because things change.
“We have a good relationship with BMG, they’re pretty cool. They were really shocked that we didn’t make it to the Music Awards finals. To them it matters more you know, they want people to tell them the band they’ve signed is wonderful. Whereas we know we’re wonderful, we don’t need people to tell us!
“The potential NZ audience, I think, is so much bigger than anyone has yet given it credit. Everyone takes off overseas as soon as they are arrogant enough to think they’re successful, whereas if and when we are successful, we will be more keen to put the money back into the NZ industry. Like recording, it can be done here. I think the whole business can be based here. All that the NZ music industry needs to put it over the edge is for a few successful bands to stick around and do it here. Be a NZ band, don’t let the Australians kidnap you.”
Jo concurs. “That’s what will make the bands we are talking about successful – that they’re from NZ, from the bottom of the world. It’s a good look I think.”