Inside the Wonderful World of Superorganism

Hey Orono. This might sound a bit weird at first, but me and the rest of the house are starting a new band and we’d really love for you to be in the band and do some singing for it”. This is an excerpt of the first message sent by Superorganism’s Emily Turner to vocalist Orono Noguchi at the start of 2017 (6 January, to be precise). Little did either party know that Orono’s agreement to Emily’s suggestion would lead to Superorganism becoming one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hype bands of the year. Early demo Something For Your M.I.N.D. set tongues wagging and got minds racing as to who exactly the mysterious collective were, with months and months of speculation finally coming to an end when it became known that Superorganism are eight highly creative individuals from all over the world. Having met through various music forums, their shared love of music and creation eventually saw them move in to an East London house together, which is where they conduct all of their operations. Now, with a Domino record deal and support from the world’s media to boot, they’ve emerged with the sprawling Superorganism, a debut album to end all debut albums. We caught up with Orono, Harry and Emily during a monotonous and rainy press day in the heart of Amsterdam, just days after the collective impressed a crowd of industry executives at Groningen’s tastemaker heaven, Eurosonic.

Hey there guys. The world still doesn’t know an awful lot about Superorganism, so let’s get to know you all.
Harry: I’m Harry, and I’m originally from a town called Burnley in the north of England. I grew up there until I was thirteen, and then we all moved to New Zealand. That leads to me feeling neither British nor being from New Zealand in a way, even though my passport says I’m British. In terms of my musical background, I started playing trumpet when I was a child. I got bored of that after a while because the teacher only wants you to play all of this pre-war music. How is that relevant to a kid who’s listening to Robbie Williams and the Backstreet Boys at primary school age? I eventually quit that and then picked up the guitar. I was shown how to read tabs and stuff by a couple of people, but I’m mainly self-taught via the internet. I listened to stuff like Nirvana and the Ramones, which put me onto the keyboard and eventually how to write songs and produce music.

Emily: I’m Emily! I was born in Sydney, and my family and I moved over to New Zealand when I was about ten years old, and so when I go back to Australia people don’t really think that I’m very Australian. I have something similair to Harry in that sense. Musically, my Dad used to play on the piano for himself a little bit every day. He played a lot of musical theatre and stuff like that, like Gone With the Wind and other wholesome musicals. It cures his migraines, playing the piano, which is why he does it every day. Mum used to sing a lot. I played loads of brass instruments when I was younger, so I ended up in lots of brass and jazz bands, and then I moved on to guitars and rock bands and stuff. At home I moved onto synthesizers, computers and making electronic stuff. I was extremely curious about lots of different types of music.

Orono: I’m Orono, and I’m from Japan but I went to school in America halfway through middle school. I got really into music thanks to Weezer, because my Dad used to listen to it a lot in the car. There’s that. My mum forced me to take piano lessons when I was in first grade, but I hated it because the teacher was a bitch. Then I quit, and after that we were forced to learn the recorder in school. Then it was the saxophone, which was kind of cool even though I hated the teacher. I played saxophone in a pit band, and then I taught myself how to play guitar from a video posted by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. He was teaching me how to play A-Punk, which was cool.

Last week you kicked off your year with some big shows, including the important Eurosonic Festival. How was it?
Harry: It was the very first show of the year! We’d just come back from a break, too. Not a break from the band, as we’d been sending each other stuff over the holidays, but Orono went back to Japan and some of the others went back to New Zealand and Australia. The day of the show was the first time we’d all been together since the Christmas break, so it was all very exciting to get back onstage and playing. There was this huge crowd of people who couldn’t even get into the show. When you get into those situations it’s always cool; and when you get up there to do your thing in front of an intense crowd like that it’s a lot of fun.

You met on the internet. How did that come about?
Emily: It’s a variety of things, I suppose. It’s a process which lasted about ten years. Harry and I met through this local, New Zealand-based music forum when we were young teenagers, and other people in the band also met us and each other in the same way too. It’s like, you’re at school and you don’t meet people who quite click with your music taste, so you take to the internet to search for it. Then you come across various music forums, get chatting, send each other videos and memes and eventually start to share music that we like. After that, we got a bit more serious about sharing music which we were working on ourselves. From that, it became giving each other advice before eventually meeting up with one another to actually make some of that music and show each other what we’d been working on. It’s this long process that happened. A group of us moved from Auckland in New Zealand to London in 2015, and before that some of us were playing in another band which was more of an indie rock project. At one point, we went to Japan to play a handful of shows and it was here that Orono was back from school for the summer. That was coincidence number one, and then it turned out that she discovered our music through YouTube recommendations down a rabbit hole of obscure music from New Zealand.

Orono: I think it started because I was watching one of Kimbra’s videos. Maybe that’s why YouTube recommended a song by Princess Chelsea called The Cigarette Duet, which is a viral hit.

Emily: It’s amazing.

Orono: Through that, YouTube recommended me The Eversons.

Emily: We ended up meeting up the rest of the band through other weird musical connections. There was another guy in Japan who discovered our music and wanted us to come and play there, so we said we’d do it if he organized it. We showed in Japan playing these really cool shows in really small venues. Japan’s a crazy place when you’re from Europe or New Zealand or whatever, so we went to play there and Orono came down to one of the shows. She found it through YouTube, and then we hit it off and became friends. We became Facebook friends, and eighteen months later we’re thinking of putting together a project when we think it would be cool to include all these people who slowly became part of our friend group over this long period, including Orono. That’s when we put together Something For Your M.I.N.D., the first song that we worked on and the one which started the gun for what became Superorganism.

Orono, live at Eurosonic. (c) Jack Parker
Orono, live at Eurosonic. (c) Jack Parker

When you worked on Something For Your M.I.N.D., did you always have Orono in mind as a vocalist?
Emily: Yeah, it was part of the process. It’s that process of sending a file around, so it was like gathering ideas and sending them around before changing them up a bit. Then we’d add some bits and remove others. It wasn’t like writing a song for someone else, it was more collaborative.

Harry: It isn’t Something For Your M.I.N.D. until you introduce Orono, do you know what I mean? It wouldn’t become that song without her.

Emily: When Orono sent the file back I had no idea what she would do with it, I was so curious. A lot of collaborations are dead-end so I had no idea what to expect.

Orono: I didn’t even have that. I wasn’t sure what to think of it at all as I’d never been in bands before. Like, “this could be cool, I’m in a rock band; woohoo!”

Emily: Haha.

Orono – what impact did the whole enclosed boarding school-slash-educational environment have on your role within Superorganism and general songwriting?
Orono: Hmm, interesting. I’ve always been in inbetween situations, so the school that I went to wasn’t exactly a boarding school as it’s technically a private school with separate boarding programme. They call it a private school, but most of the kids there go for free because the towns nearby are too small to have their own high schools. The state pays for them to go to a school of their choice. It’s thus not a boarding school in the classic way that you’d imagine it, like with temp schools in the States.

Emily: It’s not like Hogwarts.

Harry: Hahaha.

Orono: I wish it was like Hogwarts! Even the dorms that they had are scattered around a neighbourhood near the school. One of them is right next to a halfway house, which is really weird. It’s super weird that they have these big houses just for kids to stay in, especially because they then don’t feel at all like a dorm. In terms of how it influenced me, I guess it’s because you meet so many people from all these different countries. There’s kids from China, Vietnam, Spain, Germany and all these different places. You talk to them and observe the way they act and stuff, because most of them were from pretty well-off families. Most of the students didn’t really care about being in school, and didn’t care about learning English. They were just like, “Oh, my daddy has money so I’ll just spend that all at the mall”. That annoyed me, so on Something For Your M.I.N.D. I was kind of describing that and complaining about those people.

Let’s talk influences. What impact do each of your personal musical backgrounds have on the music that you’ve created with Superorganism?
Emily: The music is the sum-total of our musical backgrounds, as well as our lives and what’s happened in them. We share those lives with each other now, quite extensively even. Even more so than our musical backgrounds, I feel like one of the things that we all have in common is our shared love for all different kinds of music. From squeaky pop music to really weird, idiosyncratic and unusual stuff. That comes about because we all grew up with streaming and the Internet. It really changes how you look at stuff, because when you hear people talk about the particular genres they listen to it really makes no sense to me. Like when they say, “I like punk!” or “I like disco!” and “I like funk!”; it all just sounds like the same world to me. Everyone in the band feels that same way; you just start following the thread through pop music history and the personalities, outlooks and philosophies rather than the particular sounds people try to pigeonhole them into. The context is gone with the internet, and that’s why our music comes out sounding like a washing machine or something similair.

Harry: Take a Fleetwood Mac and a Pixies song, for example. When you strip everything away, you’ll hear that they have a lot more in common than just the basic, superficial elements which make them sound like they do.

You also make use of various samples in your music. How does the sampling process pan out?
Emily: It’s mainly the world around us, but also the internet. We tend to try and take the whole world around us, quite literally. For example, our flat really sucks and the shower downstairs has a shit tap which creates a constant drip in our house. We thought it was super interesting, and as part of our experience in that house we decided to sample it. Also stuff like cars pulling up late at night, people getting out and talking loudly.

Harry: People slamming the door!

Emily: Also birds chirping. We’d then look on the internet for stuff like rockets taking off and grand things like that before combining these different areas in our music. We take these things and put them in different contexts; for us, it’s a very visceral thing. The feeling that it gives us is ultimately what guides us. You’re dropping samples almost like some sort of collage, and then you send it to someone else who suggests you add something and chop another. It’s a very instantaneous process as well, which is how we approach sampling.

Harry: I also think that the untrained nature of how we got into music plays a part, too. None of us got into tertiary musical education or anything like that, which means that we see these things in a way where there are no rules for it. The sound of a child laughing is actually just as much of a tool and evocative element as that of a distorted guitar, and these things aren’t really separate. It’s just like this with all art – if you can’t find anything ‘wrong’, then that’s when you break through the barrier and move forward.

What about the lyrical side of things? What do you look for in that?
Orono: I tend to just put together all of my observations and hope that they make sense, to be honest.

Could you suggest that the buzz which surrounded Superorganism when you first emerged was something easy to deal with?
Emily: When we put Something For Your M.I.N.D. online we didn’t expect the reaction which it ultimately got. We were hoping for like one hundred listens, and we were just proud of what we’d put together in the first place. To us, it was just this really exciting thing. We got so much attention in the first few days after putting that song up, so we decided to just say nothing until we figured out what kind of band we were. That’s partly down to the shock reaction we got, as well as the crazy demand sprung upon us all of a sudden. We didn’t want to say that we were one particular thing over another before we even knew what we were, because that’s really bad. We just wanted to play with the music and then look back on it and see what we thought it was. That kind of reflection has to be retrospective.

Harry: Otherwise it influences the whole process too much.

Emily: And that just doesn’t work. We did that whole figuring out bit for a little while, and then we popped up and hoped people weren’t disappointed that it wasn’t Damon Albarn.

Harry: That ends up resulting in a situation where we decided to put ourselves out there and introduce ourselves to the general public. There’s eight people in the band, so from the outside world it all felt weirdly insulated. We’re our own society in a way, and we can laugh with each other and get along. If anything annoys us then we’re able to bounce off each other and vent it. If you’re a solo artist, you’ve got it all on your own shoulders. That can be too much pressure for some people, so we’re lucky that we can spread it over eight shoulders.

Emily: Especially when you live together. You can be as insular as you want to be, really. Most of us aren’t super into engaging with a persona, we’re just interested in engaging with the music that we love to write.

Harry: That’s the thing we want to be known for, you know? We want to be known for our work. There’s two ways in which people can become well known, and if you get well know for your work then that is way more fulfilling than just being well known for the sake of it. That’s not our motivation or interest, we’re doing it for the music.

(c) Jack Parker
(c) Jack Parker

How long have you now all been living together?
Harry: Umm. Orono moved into the house in late July, so it’s been several months now.

What’s it like spending every minute of every day with one another, both on and off stage?
Emily: It’s funny, because we’ve been this group who coalesced over such a long period of time. It’s not like we were strangers moving in; I think we’re more of a family who have grown together.

Harry: You know when you see those X Factor groups who get put together in a house? Like, the One Direction guys. Do you know how hard that would be for them, especially as they don’t even know each other? They were forced to spend every day together for five years. With us, it’s nothing like that and it just feels extremely natural. This is our life and we’re just super used to it, and we like it like that. This is a tribe we’ve built over the course of time.

Emily: And the music is just an extension of that, too. It’s this whole shared life, and we love the whole communal aspect.

The way you’ve formed is on paper relatively unconventional, but at the same time it’s a fantastic sign of how society has moved forward and become so dynamic. Do you think you’ve opened the door for musicians to work with each other on an equally global scale to how Superorganism came to be?
Orono: We’ve assumed the door was always open! It’s weird whenever people think it’s super interesting how we did it, because we thought that people always did it like this.

Harry: It seems like this mundane thing to us, but that’s just because it’s our lives and we’re so used to it. Moving forward, I think it’s an inevitability. Look at BROCKHAMPTON! We thought it was so weird doing things the way we did them, and then we came across them and thought that the whole thing of meeting on a Kanye West forum wasn’t too dissimilair to how we did our thing. It brought us, and them too, all together. I think that these kinds of things are just an inevitability, and I’d also like to think that the way we did it is going to play a key role in the future of artists. I don’t think we can credit, though, because it’s just a feature of a more interconnected society.

Emily: It’d be really interesting to see how, one day, algorithms put people together. Orono, for example, found our band through YouTube recommendations. I wonder whether or not these kinds of things will happen more in the future. It makes a huge amount of sense, because it’s super unlikely that you’ll find all the right people in your own little neighbourhood or city. Like, the exact people who match your tastes and interests as well as pertain the ability to make something fantastic. It makes a lot more sense that you look over the whole world.

Harry: If you look at Tinder, Grindr and even LinkedIn, people are already finding their romantic partners and friends through algorithms which bring them together. Even LinkedIn – which I don’t use. Why would I? I’m a musician.

Orono: I did!

Harry: They all bring people together and find other people with the same skill sets that they’re looking for, so it just stands to logic that the next step is something similair in the arts world. It surprises me that such a thing doesn’t already exist. Superorganism is out now, and you can stream it below.