Relax Your Boundaries:
An Interview with Stuart Bogie and Luke O’Malley of Superhuman Happiness
Words by Joey Zoldan
Photo by Nathan West
The latest offering from Brooklyn-based dance funk ensemble Superhuman Happiness opens with “Our Favorite Part.” The sound of many hands clapping, in a tribal rhythm reminiscent of Akron/Family’s earlier psych folk adventures, quickly evolves into a frenetic textural party blend drawing equally from P-Funk and DFA.
The communal vibe of Hands is no happy accident. Antibalas expatriate Stuart Bogie aimed to cultivate a familial vibe in studio sessions, employing icebreaking techniques culled from improvisational theatre to foster a convivial atmosphere in which compositions arose organically. Though in reality, Bogie believes, “All composition is improvisational to some extent.”
Antibalas’ extended run as the house band for the successful musical Fela based on the life of the Afrobeat progenitor offered the bandleader a spate of free time during the day to pursue studio experimentation on a regimen uncommon to most working musicians. That relative freedom spawned a fully-formed vision of a burgeoning group.
A project that began almost haphazardly, with jam sessions at the now-defunct Williamsburg experimental music mecca Zebulon and consolation studio time courtesy of TV On The Radio, began to take on a life of its own as exercises in clapping and singing begat catchy sing-along tunes to comprise the resultant album.
Bogie’s overarching musical philosophy is clearly one of collaboration. “There are as many ways to do something as there are people who want to do it,” he says. And the recording process clearly pushes this maxim to the logical extremes. He likens the songwriting method of the group to “creating a sculpture or something tangible that you look at in different ways from different angles.”
The innovation in the studio manifests itself in dance music with uncommon depth, arisen from many minds trained to act as one. One of Bogie’s main co-conspirators in the project, guitarist Luke O’Malley, describes sessions as “painstakingly prepared” towards the goal the improvisational ideal of “group mind.” Every exercise is designed to “relax your boundaries, develop trust, play in the moment and…look outside yourself.”
The quixotic pursuit of counter-intuitive inspiration, when executed to perfection, results in effortless compositions flowing freely through the group, the proverbial music playing the band. Bogie admits that the ultimate goal of “creative time with every member of the group…is never rationed equally; there is ebb and flow.” But the process is nearly as important as the end result and the final product shows a labor of love. When everything falls into place, O’Malley says, the band can “play to what is happening rather than what we want to make happen.”
As if all the studio exercises weren’t enough to occupy Bogie’s imaginative impulses, he also tried his hand at directing a music video for the track “Sentimental Pieces.” He drew inspiration from David Byrne’s How Music Works in crafting the decidedly lo-fi piece featuring blue gaffer’s tape and iPhones. Also aiding the cause was Tatiana McCabe, who is responsible for the band’s name and much of their previous effervescent visual efforts.
For a band whose members are deeply entrenched in recent genre revivalism, from the Afrobeat of Antibalas to the funk of the Budos Band to the disco of the Phenomenal Handclap Band, it is no surprise that inspiration is drawn from across the gamut of musical influences. But from the bouillabaisse of source material, a fresh new sound developed – a pleasant hypnotic pastiche of harmonic pop melody and off-kilter rhythm.
The group is rounded out by Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Jared Samuel on keys and bass, Eric Biondo on trumpet and keys, Nikhil Yerawadekar on bass and Miles Arntzen on drums. Multi-instrumentalists abound and everybody predictably pitches in on vocals. As the group schedules more performances, it will be interesting to see how the carefully honed interplay will play out in a live setting, where improvisational musicians truly cut their teeth.
Hands was released earlier this month on Royal Potato Family. The record release party will be this Friday at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, joined by Afrobeat collective EMEFE and electro-acoustic duo Live Footage. They will also be performing throughout New England next month.