Supercluster is nothing if not aptly named. When roll is called at the Athens, Ga.-based band’s rehearsal, someone from seemingly every local act responds, “Here!” Vanessa Briscoe Hay founded the group and brought in Pylon bandmate Randy Bewley before his untimely death last year; Hannah Jones from the New Sound of Numbers sings and plays drums; Circulatory System’s John Fernandes plays assorted instruments; and Jason NeSmith and Kay Stanton of Casper & the Cookies do a little of this (backing vocals) and a little of that (bass). Atlanta neighbor Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound) was recruited to record final guitarwork in Bewley’s stead, and Bryan Poole of the Late BP Helium and Of Montreal recently joined the sprawling collective on stage.
On its debut LP, Supercluster covers an appropriate amount of sonic territory: the eccentric, excellent Waves (out now) mixes acoustic and electric instruments and seems to encompass every strain of Athens’ local sound, from the evasive college rock of the early ‘80s through the psychedelic experiments of late-90s Elephant Sixers. Paste recently spoke with singer and de facto bandleader Vanessa Briscoe Hay about the superdupergroup’s unlikely beginning, its place in Athens’ current musical landscape and how the local arts scene is bouncing back from a tragic 2009.
Paste: How did this project originate?
Vanessa Briscoe Hay: Pylon had started performing again, back in 2004 or so, but our drummer could be called out of town at any time and be gone for six to nine months, because that’s just the nature of his job. He works in the TV and movie business. I don’t know if it was just from working with Pylon and my girls getting older and me having more time, but I started to feel creative again. These little tunes started popping into my head when I’d be out in the yard or I’d be driving or whatever. I realized, “Actually, these aren’t Pylon-type songs, so maybe I should try to do a recording project.” I’d been to see some local people, and I saw one I loved, this band called the New Sound of Numbers. And their frontwoman, Hannah Jones—there was something about her, what she brought to her music and to her instruments and her attitude about the whole thing. In her band, she’s the guitarist, but she used to play drums with Circulatory System. I just really enjoyed it a lot, and I thought, “I’d really like to work with her. Why not? I’ll ask her. The worst thing that could happen is that she’ll say no.” So I asked her, and she immediately said yes.
I had one song already. The idea was in my head for another song, “Peace Disco Song,” but I’m a bit of a Luddite—I really don’t understand how a lot of this recording equipment works. I can work with people who are operating it, but I don’t know how to record anything. I‘d been talking with Jason NeSmith, and he said, “Just drop by the studio. If you have an idea, just come in and sing it.” So I went in and sang this primitive version of both of those songs, just to get the ideas on tape. We started assembling a band, and I decided I wanted to try to mix acoustic and electric instruments together. Everybody I asked to work with me wanted to work with me, so the project just grew from there. The first time we played live we only had three songs, so we tried to jam, which didn’t work out so well. But we just kept adding songs and eventually we had enough to record five tracks. I sent them out to see if there was any label interest, but all the labels I talked to said they liked it but weren’t signing anybody right now. So I said, “I’m just going to have to do this.” So we did.
Paste: So you’re handling all the label concerns as well as the music?
Hay: Right. It’s our label, but John Fernandes, he has Cloud Recordings, which has bands like Circulatory System and Olivia Tremor Control. We’re releasing it on our label under his label—Studio Mouse Productions under Cloud Recordings. He has really helped us a lot, like getting us a very good distributor, Secretly Canadian. And it’s doing okay. We’re selling some CDs.
Paste: What was Randy’s role in the group, and how did his death affect the album?
Hay: Randy was the guitarist for Pylon, but he also came on board after I got this project rolling. I thought, “Randy needs something to do, too!” (Laughs) He dragged his amp out there and started playing with us. It was a very enjoyable experience for both of us because the type of guitar playing that he was doing was really a little different from Pylon. Some other local musicians were a little surprised because they didn’t know that he could play that way. They’d only heard the angular, slashing style—the kind of sound that was an influence on other guitarists. He was a very naturally talented guitarist. Randy didn’t know anything about music—he was totally self-taught. If he could think of something or hear something, he could play it. He was just amazing to work with.
We’d nearly finished the project, and also he and I had worked together on the Pylon Chomp More project, getting that all together. We’d finished with the processing of the tapes with Jeff Calder, and he just suddenly died. For a while, I couldn’t even bring myself to work on Supercluster, and of course nobody else could either. I’d hear the tape and him playing, and it would just make me start crying. It was just too much. We had two more songs that we needed guitar work on, and I thought about it really seriously. We have a lot of great local guitarists, but the nearest one that I could come up with in sensibility was Bradford Cox. He said yes, although he’s not able to really play [live] with us. He came in and played guitar on two songs that had already been written but hadn’t been recorded yet, and we jammed on another song. All the musicians weren’t there that night—it was me, Hannah, Kay, Bradford, and Bob [Hay, Vanessa’s husband]—so when the other musicians came in to jam on this song, I wouldn’t allow them to listen to it ahead of time. I said, “You’ve got to come from the same place we were. You’ve got to jam, too!” So that’s what “316” came out of.
Paste: Was it difficult to play these songs without Randy, especially something like “The Night I Died”?
Hay: Oh, yeah. We couldn’t even play that song for a while, but we did start playing it again recently. And Randy plays guitar on that song. That’s probably one of the last things he recorded, right there. When you hear the guitar making those whale sounds at the end, it just makes me very sad. I think about Randy every time I hear it.
Paste: Did having this project to work on help you deal with that loss?
Hay: Yes, it was very therapeutic because it was a positive thing to do. It was very important for me and for the rest of the band to not just get these songs out—because I think they’re very good songs—but that people get to hear this other side of Randy.
Paste: 2009 seems like such a rough year for Athens, with Randy and Vic Chesnutt dying and the Georgia Theater burning down.
Hay: It has been a very tough year. There was a local young musician named Jon Guthrie [bass player for Vigilantes of Love and Love Tractor], who was only 26 years old. And Jerry Fuchs—I didn’t know him personally, but he was from Athens. He was in Maserati, and he was also connected to our New York label DFA because he played with the Juan McLean and those bands up there. After a while, it was very surreal. It was like, “What’s next? What’s going to happen next?” You realize that this is a part of life. Bad things do happen, but good things happen, too. Everybody’s moving on, but the community has come together. That’s what I really want to make a point to say: The community has come together like nothing I’ve ever seen, especially for the deaths of Randy and Jon Guthrie and Vic Chesnutt. Also with the burning of the Georgia Theatre. We’ve had all types of musicians who are very supportive of Wilmot Greene and his rebuilding of it—even musicians who don’t play the Georgia Theatre, because losing a venue that size in a town like this, it just cuts down on the places people can play. We’ve got close to 300 bands in this town, and that’s a huge loss. It’s not as huge a loss as losing a person or a friend, but it’s still a huge loss.
Paste: It’s interesting to hear Waves in that context, since it sounds like such an Athens record and captures that camaraderie and exchange of ideas.
Hay: It is an Athens record. Even Bradford was born in Athens. Atlanta may claim him, but we claim him too because he was actually born here. But that’s something that’s been going on here as long as I can remember—over thirty years. People are very supportive of each other. They see each other play. If you need some help and you ask someone, they’ll help you. It’s a very supportive, creative environment, and it is a small town and we have so many creative people here that are in one space, but that’s what makes it work. We have a lot of different types of musicians, and all age groups. It’s not uncommon to go to a show and see everybody from children to a grandma there. This week I went to an Athens Folk Music and Dance Society Show, and there were children sitting behind me and in front of me there was a grandma taking pictures. I think it’s wonderful. I feel really lucky to live here.
Paste: And that generational aspect is certainly reflected in the band, whose membership really does reflect three decades of local music.
Hay: That came about because it’s the people that Hannah and I wanted to bring into the band. It’s people that we actually knew. She’s from a younger generation than me, and there’s an even younger generation. We have two cellists on “Brave Tree.” One of them [Sarah Cabaniss], is a high school student, a friend of my younger daughter, and the other one is actually my older daughter. So we really do have just about every generation represented in the Athens music scene. My older daughter [Hana] plays with a band in Portland, Oregon, called Foot Ox. She’s in art school out there.
Paste: Are your daughters both musicians?
Hay: Yes. Hana plays cello and sings. She wrote the song “River” on the CD. I heard this little tape she made—not this Christmas, but the Christmas before last—with one of her girlfriends in her bedroom here at the house. I heard that song and thought, “I’m going to steal that song!” And she’s like, “OK, Mom!”
Paste: How fluid is the line-up for Supercluster? I know Bryan Poole of the Late BP Helium joined right after the recording, but does it change all that much?
Hay: It changes according to who can play when. For instance, when we opened for the B-52s, Jason and Kay couldn’t play because they were on tour with their band Casper & the Cookies. That same thing is about to happen here at the end of the month—Bryan has this group of shows with Of Montreal, so he’s being called out of town here at the end of the month, but Kay and Jason are going to be here. So it can range anywhere from five to nine people, but as long as we have drums, a bass player, me on the keyboards, and somebody else I think we’re fine. Writing-wise, a lot of the time starting out, when I’m trying to get stuff ready to present to the rest of the bad, it’s just me, Hannah, and Kay.
Paste: So they’re the core members?
Hay: Well, we’re all core members. I like to think that we’re a democracy. They say it’s really my band, but I think they all feel like a part of it, like we’re a family. We’re all pretty equal—to me, anyway. That’s how I feel. We divide everything pretty equally, as far as you can. As far as songwriting, if you’re present while we’re writing a song, then you’ve got a songwriter credit. I might have had the idea for the song or written the lyrics, but I didn’t do that whole song by myself.
Paste: What are your plans for 2010? Will you record more, or tour outside of Georgia?
Hay: We’re going to start recording more soon. I’ve got a new song that’s ready to go. We started on another one the other night at practice, but I don’t know if it’s for real yet or not. Supercluster is mainly a recording project, but if our schedules all work out, it would be great to do some tours, maybe go to the Northeast, California, and over to Europe. But it’s hard to fly five to nine people around, especially when everybody is in at least one other band. But it has worked out that we have played some fairly decent shows in the area, and some people have made a point to drive in to see us, like New Year’s Eve when we played with Atlas Sound. I don’t know what to say. There’s not any grand scheme. We’re all enjoying what we’re doing, and it would be great to get out there, but we just have to see how we can do that.