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Elegant Australiana: Superstar Interviewed

Based in Melbourne, Superstar is the duo of Esther Edquist and Kieran Hegarty. Together they create silky and sophisticated pop music, the type of stuff you might hear in more bite-sized portions on a classic hits AM station. Across a series of cassette releases the duo have slowly developed from their origins as a messier, more improvisational group into one disciplined enough to accommodate songwriting. Their forthcoming LP on Bedroom Suck, entitled A Toast To… Superstar, showcases their almost luridly relaxed and poised mode of operation. It’s very pretty music, but it’s not gratuitously earnest. Given the type of bands they’re known to share bills with (recently: Holy Balm, School of Radiant Living), they’re definitely doing their own thing. They describe themselves as “elegant Australiana”, and that pretty much sums it up.

While you’ve still got a little while to wait until you can listen to the LP, Night People have just released a live cassette that features two songs from that record, as well as several other cuts. As we said in our review, it’s the best representation of where the group is at in 2012. Listen to ‘Fine Wine’ below for a better understanding. We caught up with the duo over Skype last night. They’re very friendly and they make fun of themselves. A lot.

How are you guys doing?
Kieran: Pretty good, we played on the radio last night, on Triple R. We’d never been interviewed before, so that was our debut.

Esther: We had a warm-up.

How come it’s taken so long for you guys to release a proper LP?
K: Lack of interest I suppose [laughs]. We did release a few cassettes, and i suppose the Totem Tapes one was almost considered an album, but I suppose we weren’t happy enough with anything to really push it for an LP.

E: It just took us that long. They were the first songs we wrote because we’d always been improv, kind of. When we started writing songs the idea of a vinyl seemed more reasonable because then someone might actually want to put it out.

K: Also we recorded it a long time ago. We’re quite lazy. We recorded it mid last year and it’ll be coming out in 2013. I was afraid it’d be like the legendary lost album or something, the great unreleased Superstar album! But yeah, it’ll be good to have it out so we can move on.

How did you guys meet? Are you both Melbourne locals?
E: I’ve actually got this story down…

K: Esther’s been rehearsing [laughs]. I’m actually from Queensland, but I moved down here [to Melbourne] about seven years ago, when I was 18. I don’t know how Esther and I met, it was a hazy time.

E: We met because I went to England briefly and my room came up for rent and Kieran moved in – we had mutual friends. When we started the band we were at a party together.

K: The mutual friend is Chris Petro from Yes Nukes. Put that in.

E: I said to Kieran at this party that we should start a band, because I really wanted to start a band, and Kieran was in Deaf Deaf.  No Wave seemed pretty obtainable at that stage in my life, I thought I could handle that [laughs].

K: Deaf Deaf was Shaun South from Chrome Dome and Tara Green from White Hex.

E: It was a pretty typical No Wave noise outfit.

I think I saw them once in Sydney.
K: Try and erase that thought! [laughs]. I shouldn’t say these things, it was pretty fun.

E: So I said to Kieran that we should start a band and Kieran sent me a message the next day. I said I’d get the equipment, I had a bit of cash saved up, and I said I’d do anything it takes, just tell me what we need. And then Kieran sent me this long hilarious text the next day: “two times cowbell, one horn”…

K: Esther bought a trumpet, a cowbell, a distortion pedal and a delay pedal. That band’s gonna rock!

E: And a Jupiter [a Roland synth]. It was so analogue, it was so out of tune and out of time. Warpy beats.

K: I didn’t know Esther was studying music or could even make music. I discovered that, I think… a few weeks ago [laughs]. No actually, a little while after.

What kind of training have you had, Esther?
E: I did a bachelor of music, just classical music at the University of Melbourne. I finished that in 2009. That had some performance in it, but it wasn’t really my idea of music, so that’s why I got involved in the scene. It was at the Con, which was really boring and required you to practice, which we aren’t really big on in our band. We’re more about having…

K: …having some wine.

E: Having some wines. Playing some tunes. But definitely not going through a song twice in one night. That never happens.

One of my friends said, probably as a joke, that you called the band Superstar because it’d be really easy to sing ‘Superstar’ by the Carpenters over any one of your songs.
E: Yeah, probably. That’s fair enough! [laughs]

K: Yeah, that sounds like Chris Petro from Yes Nukes.

E: I think we did want to do a cover[of The Carpenters] at the start. Actually yeah, sure, it’s a very formative song for the band. The emotions of that song and the lyrics, that’s exactly what we’re about.

K: I think we named ourselves that, and then that became [an association] several years later.

E: It did take us a while.

K: Superstar used to mean cosmic, now it’s Superstar meaning the Carpenters. It makes sense whichever way you look at it.

“We aren’t rock dogs. We drink our rider and then we prudely go home. I guess we’re amping up that unique part of us, showing that we are daggy… elegantly daggy.”

You mention cosmic. I saw you guys in Sydney a couple of years ago and you seemed a lot more psych-influenced and thickly textured than what I’m hearing on the record. Why has the band evolved into what you sound like now?
E: Can I just say we’ve never been influenced by psych. Neither of us listen to that kind of stuff anymore. That was never an intended… we weren’t like a freaky rock out band.

I mean less the style of psych rock, and more psychedelic… more outrageous and colourful, I guess.
K: I suppose it’s just that the more we play the more refined we get, until we end up at that perfect Fleetwood Mac level of songwriting, which will hopefully come about in the next couple of years [laughs].

E: It’s quite stressful having to improvise at every show. Especially when you start having songs, because you tend to find a comfortable way of playing them. We could totally improvise. If someone said “can you play for another ten minutes” we probably could. It gets tiring though, especially if you’re not getting wasted before shows. The nerves wore off after a while and we don’t feel that same need to overplay and keep going.

K: We’re rock veterans now. [laughs]. We can play four-hour sets with all the hits. Whatever you want.

E: Even covers.

K: I mean, we’ve kept elements of when we used to improvise, but I suppose it’s just more song-based now, and we try to make it different all the time.

E: I think the overplaying was a big thing for us. I’ve realised that we don’t need to swamp each other in sound all the time. You can pull back and rely on the structure of a song.

K: …and allow me to play some epic guitar solos. [laughs]

Sophisticated is a good word to describe Superstar, I think. It’s a theme that keeps popping up. The album’s called A Toast To… Superstar. You have a track called ‘Fine Wine’. You self-describe as “elegant Australiana”. Why do you want to emphasise that smoothness or elegance? Is that something you want to assert?
K: I’ve got to say it’s slightly ironic.

E: It’s kind of a joke [laughs]. It’s a difference though. We come from a scene that’s quite edgy or experimental, or some bits of it are. A lot of the other bands we play with or admire have a rougher sound. Bands like Naked on the Vague and Circle Pit, who are friends and we admire them, but we wouldn’t want to buy into their image, because it’s theirs. Or we wouldn’t want to be a cult and do a Lakes / Sean Bailey rip off.

K: I think we’re just kinda being ourselves. We’re just drinking a nice bottle of wine, eating some cheeses, but at the same time keeping it fully real. [laughs]

E: We aren’t rock dogs. We drink our rider and then we prudely go home. I guess we’re amping up that unique part of us, showing that we are daggy… elegantly daggy. No one else is doing it and no one else is using elegant cursive in their profiles and stuff like that. That seems like the natural thing to do, to be us. We never had any interest in being in any other type of band.

It sounds to me like you guys are making this music quite sincerely. The songs certainly demonstrate that. But you did mention that there’s a sense of irony with your positioning the group as “elegant Australiana”. Is that just a humourous jibe at what people might expect from the group? How is it ironic?
E: It’s more just a joke between us.

K: Yeah, and I think it’s possible to take your music seriously without taking yourself that seriously, and we really don’t take ourselves that seriously. I feel like the music we make has to be sincere to matter at all to us. I suppose it’s that kind of balance. The best bands don’t take themselves seriously, and have a good sense of humour I think.

E: Having a joke at your own expense, rather than at the audience’s expense.

K: And that’s what I like about Australian music so much, it’s that everyone has a sense of humour and doesn’t take themselves too seriously. It’s more fun to hang out with them for one, but their music is so much better than someone who is quite career driven.

Fabulous Diamonds recently described their new album as adult contemporary, in a fashion. Would you feel comfortable with someone describing your record the same way?
K: We wish it was adult contemporary! Playing two chords for nine minutes isn’t adult contemporary I don’t think.

E: We’re like little kids dressing up that way.

K: It’s adult contemporary maybe for people we know, but in the wide scheme of things we’re not packing out the Crown Casino.

I’m curious about the term “elegant Australiana”, particularly the Australiana part. What’s so Australian about Superstar?
K: I can’t explain it, but there’s a certain something I like about good Australian music that’s really unique, even if it’s quite derivative of what is going on overseas. I think it’s that Australian sense of humour and also…

E: …that sense of space…

K: Yeah, that sense of space and a certain dagginess.

E: Yeah. I suppose a band we were influenced by, not sonically but ethos-wise is The Garbage and the Flowers. They were doing something that has been done a fair bit – another kinda epic Velvets band – but they weren’t afraid to have a bit more dissonance. They’re a little bit messy but they’re meant to be like that. They’re incredibly natural and free. I recently described us as free range. It doesn’t have to be studio quality, it doesn’t need to be perfect. We’re still improv when we play. We’ve got our structures now, but there’s still room to play the notes a bit differently, or to play in a different time. That ease between us and how we play, is us trying to capture that. Bands that are a bit wonky, even bands like the Triffids: there’s a dissonance there – it’s not punk, it’s not in your face. They’re doing it for themselves though, and it’s not naff but it’s a bit under-rehearsed.

K: That’s what happens when a band from Perth tries to sound like U2 [laughs].

Superstar seems to be a texture driven project, in that it’s all about sound and the way it unfolds. But there are lyrics as well. What are some of the lyrical themes in Superstar’s songs?
E: It’s funny because I wrote those lyrics kinda, not under duress, but we had always thought that we were going to put lyrics with the songs but I never really did them live. Then when the album came up I thought “Okay, now I’ve got to write some lyrics”. I’ve done a lot more work on the new songs. There’s a big lyrical part of the band, but that comes from the song titles that we have, and that part is far stronger than anything that I’m actually singing. On the album especially, the words have their own meaning but they’re not really about the band, they’re about something incidental: they’re a part of the band but they’re not there to describe the band. They’re not more important because they’re words, they’re just another texture. But the words we use for the titles are [more important]. They’re rhyming, poetic sort of phrases that we have. Kieran comes up with pretty much all of them, and they’re hilarious [laughs].

The song title ‘Pastoral Dirge’ is very evocative.
K: Yes, it’s a good one isn’t it [laughs].

I think part of the appeal of the record for me is nostalgia. It kinda reminds me of the type of music my parents would play on an AM radio during a long car trip. Groups like Fleetwood Mac and even the Carpenters. Is nostalgia a strong inspiration for the sound of Superstar, do you think?
K: I don’t know. When you play music you spend so long rejecting cliches, especially when they’re so obviously a part of what you know. But giving into an aspect of that forms part of what we do I suppose.

E: Definitely. We do listen to pretty much just old music. I kinda know what’s on the radio at the moment but I think it’s disgusting. I said the other day that if I don’t know who’s in the band I probably don’t like the band. We listen to some ‘90s music, but mostly music from the ‘80s and before that.

K: ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s. All the hits! [laughs]

E: It would be nostalgic because it’s distinctly rooted in all that old music in a way, I mean not necessarily Fleetwood Mac – I only got into them a few years ago, but I love them a lot now!

K: It’s just giving into the urge. The softest rock urge.

E: The idioms, you know them!

Superstar song titles are like mottos.
E: Give in to the urge. Give in to the blues. That’s going to be our new motto.

K: That’s our fourth album.

E: It totally is. Give in to the blues.

You mentioned before you’re working on newer songs. Can you tell me a bit about them?
K: Yeah, I suppose we’ve got some really nice equipment now, or better equipment than we had. We’ve got this drum machine that was used by Trent Reznor and the Pet Shop Boys, so it’s a pretty wild instrument.

E: It’s got a Nine Inch Nails setting. You know the song ‘Closer’? It can actually make that beat.

K: I suppose the rhythms are a little more hi-fi. We’re just kinda making our songs a little shorter, reworking old songs. We’ve been playing a lot more too so I suppose they’re a little more refined.

E: I like the whole process of writing songs now. It’s like picking up a few motifs that you’re going to use, and then getting used to them. Before we used to just experiment a lot with songs and then spend a year playing a song differently every single time. Now we’re more likely to say, “actually, these ideas are great. Let’s just stick to them”.

K: …and people are more interested in releasing us as well, and inviting us to do things. I suppose we have to fulfil that, and make records that we’ve promised to do and stuff.

You recorded the record mid last year and you had trouble getting someone to release it?
E: Yeah we did.

K: Yeah, we’re total losers [laughs]. We sent it around to some American labels, and I don’t know, if you don’t know somebody you don’t pick up on stuff. And we hadn’t released much before that people had heard, so no one had a reference point. These are all excuses, we suck! [laughs]. A couple of people offered to release it but only on cassette. Chapter Music was the other one that was a little bit interested, but we wanted it to be vinyl. Then we played shows for Joe Alexander [Bedroom Suck] and I’ve loved the stuff that he’s released in the past. He’s been amazing and supportive. He helped to make it a little quicker, because otherwise it’d take about fifteen years or something. How do people do this thing, it takes so much time!

E: We don’t really want to treat it like a job. We were like, we’ll take the album cover on a really nice day, when it’s ready. We always want it to be in that vibe, so that it’s never like “I don’t give a shit, get in the car and drive, we’ve gotta take that album photo”. It’s all got to be with the right attitude, and often that means just letting things go for a few months.

Finally, what kind of visual associations do you have when you listen to Superstar?
E: The rolling hills of Toowoomba? The rolling plains of Toowoomba?

K: You haven’t even been there! [laughs]. I don’t know. There’s certain feelings that I have that I can’t really explain. There are certain visual things that I can’t explain either. It’s kinda a nocturnal thing. Like a cool breeze? Also quite grassy?

E: Definitely grassy. ‘Pastoral Dirge’ for me is like driving up the Hume Highway. It’s a fair bit out of Melbourne, it might even be in New South Wales…

K: …eating a Chiko Roll…

E: ….and the sun’s just going down, and you’re driving past Canberra wondering “am I going to pull into Canberra or am I just going to keep going to Sydney?” That’s kinda what ‘Pastoral Dirge’ is for me. It’s that area of the Hume Highway.

***

Superstar’s debut LP will release in early 2013 through Bedroom Suck. Their live cassette The Softest Urge is available now through Night People.

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