Fighting fit, Superfamily return with a new single and album that will hopefully raise their profile to newer heights.
The noise is deafening as the crowd scream and holler at the two pugilists slugging it out round for round with the intention of taking home the greatest prize in their profession. The year is 1964 and we are ringside watching a young contender, who would later go on to be the greatest of all, and one who, despite an impressive record, would later be remembered for being on the receiving end of a punch that never was. That of course is another story confined to the annals of history and one which doesn’t concern FLW or the bespectacled office clerk sitting alongside us. What is of concern is the outcome of this brutal spectacle unfolding in front of our very eyes in the humidity of Miami’s Convention Hall.
“That would definitely be it,” says Steven Wilson, lead singer of Norway’s most intriguing sons Superfamily. “The first Ali – Sonny Liston fight with a ringside seat in Miami in 1964.”
Of course we are not really in the year 1964 as that was more a case of wishful thinking. We are in fact in the present, 2012 to be exact, and sitting comfortably in the confines of Mr Wilson’s research unit due to his daytime profession of scientific researcher. Talk of a 1964 reunion with one of the year’s most compelling sporting spectacles is due to a recurrent theme of nostalgia and, in particular, time travel; the latter of which certainly echoes throughout Superfamily’s second album ‘Warszawa’. Therefore, witnessing firsthand the fledgling talents of Cassius Clay, as he was known then, battling for supremacy during the early sixties, is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the passions which compel Superfamily’s spokesperson to reflect on times gone by.
“I have been overly nostalgic,” responds Steven Wilson. “I have tried to keep that a bit more at bay in the last couple of years, but I think escape is a desired feeling to have. I enjoy escaping into movies, books and music or whatever. Well, I have a very strange feeling of time as I feel that time and space is very linked to each other. I think everywhere a person is, you leave something behind and it might be stuck in time but I think we…” his voice trails off before resuming. “I believe in time travel is what I’m trying to say,” laughing loudly. “I am a firm believer and advocate of time travel and I think it exists without one really thinking about what one is doing.”
Any notion of a longing for pastimes would appear at odds with the lyrical content of, for example, the aforementioned ‘Warszawa’, as issues range from sleep deprivation, depression, paranoia, and the usual suspect of unrequited love. Therefore, despite basking in the exuberance of the early eighties sound, Wilson moves quickly to dispel any such notion that the band would have been more at home in the aforementioned decade.
“No, I don’t think so,” he responds. “I think the times we’re having now, at least here in Norway, are the best that it has ever been. I wouldn’t want to live in any other time, but escape is always a nice alternative sometimes.”
Despite Wilson’s reassurances helping to ease the somewhat furrowed brow of FLW, the jury, it would seem, remain slightly out due to the various contradictions at work here in the Superfamily household. Seeds of doubt remain as discussion held prior to this interview suggested a definite unease with issues occurring in the present such as the Americanisation of Norway; continual financial crisis worldwide, to likes and dislikes in the Norwegian music scene, which all suggests that Wilson’s tendency to a notion of escape is not too far from the truth. Yet this is the complex nature at the heart of this ‘lille’ family hailing from Moss, as Superfamily have been described as ‘Norway’s most intelligent band’ due to the different members possessing academic disciplines in varying fields, which no doubt adds to conflicting ideas and interests when it comes to recording new output. Even Wilson admits that, “Superfamily is a pretty hard band to work with,” evidence of which can be garnered from their departure from record label Propeller Recordings:
“I think we are pretty demanding and have strong personalities and stuff like that, and we couldn’t be on the same wavelength any more. So we parted on very cordial terms, but I think it was best for both parties that that worked out.”
Without this conflict of ideas and levels of tension rising from such debates, Superfamily would not be the band that they are today, and that is one striving for perfection, evidence of which can be heard from their albums ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Guns Tonight’; both reaching for the stars in a very grandiose fashion of 80s influenced synthpop meshed with an indie sensibility. However, despite such observations, Superfamily is a difficult proposition to try and pigeonhole because they are clearly at odds musically and visually with their peers.
“I hate it when people say that we sound like The Killers when, in fact, I don’t have a single ‘Killers record! ‘Let’s Go Dancing’, the first single we had on our last album, we got criticised by journalists for trying to sound like Simple Minds…SIMPLE MINDS!!!” laughs Wilson almost hysterically. “I have no idea what you are talking about?!”
FLW also fails to see such comparisons due to Simple Minds earlier work (if that is what we are referring to here) being of a more obscure nature compared to anything Superfamily have ever recorded. The Killers reference is simply lazy journalism of the highest order. However, it is perhaps wise at this juncture to ascertain, once and for all, where the 80s-inspired sound derives from.
“It’s about how we write songs”, explains Wilson. “We write songs on computers from the start, and we always write songs with just a synthesiser connected to a computer. So already the song writing part is synthesiser based with electronic drums. In addition, we grew up in the 80s with MTV and stuff like that, but I haveto admit that I hated MTV and most of the songs. I hated Duran Duran and all those bands…I think I even hated Joy Division. We have tried to not sound like the 80s,” he continues with a hint of incredulity, “but [every time] it sounds even more eighties! So I think it’s something in the back of our minds from when we were young and it has just stayed there. Of course Joy Division and The Associates and stuff like that have become big influences, but bands such as Duran Duran, The Fine Young Cannibals or The Waterboys we have acknowledged.”
The Fine Young Cannibals! But there again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the aforementioned contradictions running throughout Superfamily and their recorded output to date.
“We actually wanted the guy [singer Roland Gift] from Fine Young Cannibals to sing on one of our songs but we never got aroundto doing it,” laughs Wilson. “So we [Superfamily] have quite different music tastes. Actually, the eighties was a pretty good time for making music amazingly enough. There was something about those punk guys who became more New Wave and started learning more and more chords.”
With all of this discussion rooted in the past, it is worth noting that Superfamily is actually operating in the present, as the band has enjoyed a fertile period of late working with producer Yngve Saetre (Dumdum Boys, Kaizers Orchestra) in the rain soaked surrounds of Bergen’s Duper Studios applying the final touches to their new album. In addition, FLW has had the privilege of hearing three of the band’s new songs – one of which is recent single ‘Pay The Price’ – and it is safe to report that not only will diehard Superfamily fans bask happily in these new efforts, as the change in musical direction is not too dramatic due to the usual Superfamily traits present, but there is a rawness and a more constrained feel about these songs. All this, and a new record label to boot, Das Kirurg, it would appear that Superfamily is ready to reach for the stars once more.
“On this record, in contrast to the other records, we have recorded in Bergen with producer Ingve Saetre, who is the producer of Kaizers [Orchestra] and Dumdum Boys, and he is much more of a kind of rock & roll guy than the other producers we have used before. So the sound is a lot more direct and there are fewer instruments used per track, and we have recorded it live in the studio so that it has got much more of a band feel to it. The songs have a little bit more rock & roll in them, and it’s not as big a cream cake as the other albums were but it’s a little bit more naked. The songs are also good for live concerts because they are very easy to play,” laughs Wilson.
Has it been a difficult process, though, with this change in musical direction as the albums ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Guns Tonight’ were very similar in parts?
“Yes it has been a difficult process,” reflects Wilson. “It took us a long time to have the guts to write music again. The reason for this is that the last record, ‘Guns Tonight’ was a very frustrating record as it took a long time to make. It actually has some very good songs on it, but the process was so tough and strenuous that music [in terms of construction] became very scary. Then we started to get our confidence back, which took a while. So, getting confidence and money to record the [new] record, were the two things that took a long time, as we’ve had to perform a lot of concerts in order to pay for this album.”
Was there ever a moment during this period that the band thought about calling it a day?
“No…I mean, we could have thought that, but it was never that,” he says after a little consideration. “After we did that record [‘Guns Tonight’] we had a wonderful tour. I mean, we had just a fantastic tour with a lot of sold-out gigs and it was such fun! So the live part makes it all worthwhile.”
Do you think there was too close a gap between the two albums ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Guns Tonight’, and was there pressure from your record label to finish the latter album sooner than you did?
“They have a lot of similarities but there was no pressure,” is the immediate response from Superfamily’s vocalist. “We just didn’t quite get the mojo going on that record [‘Guns Tonight’]. We weren’t at the top of our game communication wise. But now we have a completely new approach and when I listen to the stuff we have done now, it just feels different. I actually feel that we have a little bit more of the spirit that we had on our first record, ‘Back in Paris’, as it’s a little more fun and a little more simple pop songs in the stuff we’re doing now.”
With the new Superfamily album imminent, it would seem that the band have managed to rid themselves of any lingering self-doubts in terms of their music by simply getting back to basics in order to create a fresh approach. This change of direction has also influenced the lyrical musings of chief lyricist Wilson, due to a conscious decision to write the fourth album on a more personal level.
“We like going big on the themes and stuff like that, but this time around this record is a little more on the personal level and there aren’t so many grand scenario songs,” explains Wilson concerning the band’s fresh approach to song writing. “A lot of stuff which has been going on around me…” He pauses for a few moments before continuing. “It’s funny when you get to my age now, people start breaking up with each other. A lot of this record is about breaking up and it’s over and then something new is going on. When I think about it, it’s pretty similar to our band as we are kind of breaking up from our past and going for new stuff. So the songs are much more focused in terms of one-on-one scenarios, as the songs are lyrically more intimate.”
Such personal reflection can no doubt be attributed to Wilson’s transient past due to his father’s stint in the US military and his subsequent upbringing in Germany and then California before finally settling in Norway. With such a colourful upbringing, it is not difficult to understand why Superfamily is viewed, in some quarters, as a difficult proposition to work with because – at least from Wilson’s perspective – the band is bringing something different to the table due to a broad palette of influences and cultural differences which no doubt sets them at odds with their peers. But has this experience of living in several different countries had a bearing on the band’s music?
“I think so, as being half American I am a little less afraid of English,” replies Wilson in reference to the experience of living in several different countries. “I write songs in English and I could never write a song in Norwegian as I dream in English and English is my first language, in a way, so I couldn’t write good poetry in Norwegian. But when I write in English, I think I have an advantage as I am not afraid of the English language. I have always felt different somehow, and I think it’s because I always thought that when I moved to Norway as I always thought that I felt I was different…and I was different! In the eighties, America was a very exotic thing for better or for worse. So I had different interests; I wasn’t that interested in soccer and stuff like that as I was always looking for different things. I felt like I got into punk music and alternative stuff faster, and I think that has been an advantage from that I had a really different upbringing than all the other pupils in class. I was seven when we moved to Norway but still, it was quite a difference.”
As the interview begins to draw to a close, there remains a nagging injustice in terms of where Superfamily currently finds themselves in terms of the Norwegian music scene and the music industry as a whole. Surely the grandiosity and, at times, indie-pop exuberance of such songs as ‘In The Night’ (FLW’s personal favourite); ‘I Could Be A Real Winner’; the cleverly named, ‘The Radio Has Expressed Concerns About What You Did Last Night’ should have pushed this band to the brink of stardom a long time ago. What remains baffling is that Superfamily is still ploughing through the undertow of indie mediocrity when they should be sipping cocktails somewhere in Beverley Hills. Part of this lack of recognition can be attributed to the band’s hardworking ethos of juggling the life of the everyday professional with that of wannabe pop star but also, and more alarmingly, a lack of promotion outside their native surroundings which, considering the aforementioned array of stellar songs, one can only guess at the kind of reception such songs would have received on British shores for example. But there again, maybe it’s just the state of the current market which seems to favour the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ popularity of ‘Idol’ et al.
“I think a lot of bands could probably be more aggressive in getting their own sound, but there are a lot of good indie bands out there like John Olav Nilsen and Gjengen; Heroes and Zeros, and there are a lot of great bands from Bergen,” enthuses Wilson whilst opening the nearest window due to the escalating humidity of his science den. “But I think there are far too few people in the music industry who are investing in Norwegian talent and using way too much energy on, you know, these programmes like ‘Idol’ and stuff like that; which are these talent shows and a complete waste of time and other people’s time as well. I mean, it is wonderful fun to watch a talent show but to put that much energy on stuff like that I think it’s kind of weak. But there is no one who is really investing good time and developing strong songwriters in Norway. A lot of times they [the music industry] have taken the easy way and just invested in these one hit wonders but they’re not looking at the long run. I think both our musicians and a lot of record companies should be a little bolder and should try to be more themselves.”
I have been overly nostalgic. I have tried to keep that a bit more at bay in the last couple of years, but I think escape is a desired feeling to have."
Steven Wilson, Superfamily
FLW - From the Tapes
Name: Steven Wilson
Favourite current band: John Olav Nilsen & Gjengen
Favourite albums: Rolling Stones ‘Exile on Main Street’; Tom Waits ‘Rain Dogs’; The Doors ‘Strange Days’ and ‘The Chess Box: Willie Dixon’.
Films: “I like Pulp Fiction very much. I think it’s a really good movie; a perfect movie. But in terms of old movies, I like Lawrence of Arabia because I think it’s a really grandiose movie. Also, I like films such as The Producers and Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks.”
Passing the time of day: “Right now I am reading a book about the boxer Floyd Patterson. Most of the stuff I read is about boxing…I am a big fan of boxing! For me, Rocky Marciano was 49 – 0 [wins and no losses]. Ok, great achievement but it was too perfect and there is no story to it. But with Ali and Frazier, and all these guys, there are fantastic stories too.”