Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Medium is the Message

Supersystem crafts dance pop songs that remain open to interpretation

Story by Chad Radford
Photo by Emily Wilson

It’s disorienting to be awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from an unfamiliar voice asking, “May I please speak with…” Whereas this dreaded greeting is usually met with a swift click of the receiver, half-past midnight is too late for telemarketers to be calling. Naturally it compounds confusion when those same six words are followed by, “Hey, this is Justin Moyer from the band Supersystem, sorry I missed your call earlier...” Nevermind that it was five hours earlier.

Moyer (A.K.A. Destroyer) had spent the evening in the basement of the Dischord Records house in Washington D.C. where he had commandeered Fugazi's 8-Track to record songs for one of his myriad other bands, Antelope. As any musician will tell you, when you're in the studio all sense of time is thrown out the window. For someone who also stretches his time drumming for fellow Dischord act Soccer Team, drumming with Fugazi bassist Joe Lally’s solo project and fronting the cross-dressing electroclash act, Eddie Sedgwick, time is impossible to manage.

But Moyer is not a busy body to quell some sort of high-speed neurosis, but out of necessity. One half of Supersystem’s members – keyboardist Pete Cafarella and guitarist Rafael Cohen -- live in Brooklyn while bassist Moyer and drummer Josh Blair remain in D.C. The hours that all four members spend together, functioning like a normal band are few and far between.

But sustaining a long-distance relationship is nothing new for Supersystem. The group has pulled this off in various states of personnel since 1996 when Moyer and Cohen formed the experimental post-hardcore band, El Guapo. The group released four albums, two of which appeared on Dischord. But rather than kick out the politically charged jams of the label’s traditional milieu, El Guapo moved into more abstract realms, tempering indie rock with an oboe, horns, a Glockenspiel and an accordion.
This skewed approach stems from the influence of free jazz luminary Anthony Braxton, under whom Moyer and Cohen studied at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut. “[Braxton] always encouraged us to do something different with music,” Moyer says.

And so they did. But over time the avant-garde wore thin. “We became more interested in dance music and writing songs with coherent structures,” Moyer explains. “You should always be able to work with the language of avant-garde music and improvisation, but after a while it gets kind of stayed. It became more of a challenge for us to write pop songs with a verse / chorus structure, but keep things exciting.”

In 2004 the group jumped from Dischord to the Chicago-based Touch & Go Records, and in the process, adopted the name Supersystem. “When we changed the name and changed labels we thought, ‘how can we take a traditional song structure and apply our system to it,’” Moyer explains. “’How can we lend our personal voices to a genre and make that a jump-off point to do our thing.’”

That “thing” which was formerly focused on experimentation shifted toward slick and cohesive pop rhythms.

The group’s sophomore T&G release, A Million Microphones blends a worldly pallet of Brit pop, Kraut rock and American indie-electronica influences. Whereas the album's first single, “White Light/White Light” is a bratty electro punk anthem, “Eagles Fleeing Eyries” builds an exotic, groove-laden pace around harp strings strummed with angelic majesty.

Other songs, like “Earth Body Air,” and “Not the Concept” incorporate elements of bombastic dub and hip-hop. Themes of drugs, the environment and vague personal and political relationships weave in-and-out of each song. But in maintaining the group’s longest standing traditions, the subject matter remains vague. “Music is much more powerful when it’s open to interpretation,” Moyer adds. “The album is oblique and somewhat bizarre but you’re locked into reading it as you will.”

This balance of coherent structures wrapped around songs where nothing is spelled out adds refreshingly meaningful depth to these dancefloor numbers, even when talking about them in the middle of the night.