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February 18, 2008 | by  | in Features Music |
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‘Yeah, We Love James Brown’: The Return of Supergroove

In the 1990s, you couldn’t escape Supergroove. With their crazed blend of funk, hip-hop and hard rock, they caught and held the attention of a massive following both in New Zealand and overseas. It was a promoter’s dream; their debut album Traction shipped platinum, their 1995 world-tour delighted audiences in such varied spots as Helsinki and Bombay, and follow-up Backspacer affirmed what everyone had been thinking all along – Supergroove were doing something special, creating a unique crossover sound that really got crowds moving. Eventually though, with all the demand of playing constant shows and recording newer and better material, something had to give, and give it did. On the brink of a follow-up world tour in mid-1996, following the ejection of Che Ness (now recording as Che Fu) and Tim Stewart from the band, Supergroove decided to call it quits, leaving behind a formidable sales legacy and a cemented status as one of this country’s most recognisable and loved bands.

Luckily for us this separation couldn’t last forever, and in late 2007 Supergroove decided to jump back together for a handful of reunion shows.

Salient music co-editor Tom Baragwanath recently caught up with founding Supergroove member Karl Steven (vocals, keys, harmonica) to discuss the band’s legacy, whether or not Supergroove are still relevant, and the band’s upcoming university orientation tour.

“Well, before Supergroove formed around 1990, the horn section and I got together and tried to form a little blues ensemble,” Karl says of the band’s genesis. “We were young, 14, 15, and it was all very exciting. But we obviously needed more instruments to fill it out. We busked a lot, got kicked off the cenotaph at the public domain, that sort of thing.” With their volatile blend of driving funk rhythms, soulful crooning and hip-hop swagger, Karl and the rest of then-teenaged Supergroove chose to channel their various musical passions into a unified blend of various styles and sounds.

“We were totally oblivious to what everyone else was doing”, says Karl. “The band that was doing something vaguely similar was Red Hot Chilli Peppers. We saw ourselves as a bit different, though. They were doing the punk thing, and we wanted to do more hip-hop.” The then-novel combination of funk, hip-hop and rock made Supergroove an in-demand band, and they soon found themselves playing most nights. “Yeah, we love James Brown, and Parliament Funkadelic. But also, lots of hip-hop. We really adored Public Enemy, a bit of that early gangsta rap. But, playing to people of the night, you’ve gotta play harder. As we got better live, we got a harder edge to our sound.” This “harder edge” may have been what caught the attention of BMG records, who were quick to sign the band and get them touring.

Their rise to fame was about as meteoric as it gets in our wee isles. By 1995 the members of Supergroove were only just out of their teens, and had released the chart-topping Traction LP, made famous on the strength of singles ‘Can’t Get Enough’ (later to feature on a distinctly annoying Telecom ad), ‘You Gotta Know’ and ‘Sitting Inside My Head’. They picked up a generous swag of accolades at the 1995 New Zealand Music Awards, then had the chance to embark on a ludicrously ambitious world tour that would take them to such varied destinations as South Africa, Finland, Scandinavia, Belgium, France, Malaysia, the United States, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, amongst others. “We felt pretty ready,” says Karl of the 1995 tour. “It was definitely the right time for us to give it a go. It was a great experience, and even though it was hard at times, it was really important for all us, to go out and see the world. We were very lucky to be able to do it.”

As rewarding as it was, however, this insane feat of constant touring inevitably led to the destruction of the band. “It was just so intense,” says Karl. “In retrospect, it was what killed it. Just playing so many shows, the same songs, same set every night, just in a different town. It seemed like it was never-ending.”

In 1996, Supergroove returned home for the release of their second LP Backspacer, which debuted at #2 in the charts and picked up a second round of awards at the New Zealand Music Awards. Despite the album being well-received, things within the band were not so rosy. “We were all very messed up”, explains Karl.

“When we came back from the tour, we were absolutely exhausted. They had us tour Australia three times, and by the end we were just hammering away soullessly, playing every town, trying to convince every person in Australia to love Supergroove. It was a killer. It just put such a strain on the relationships between band members. We had no privacy, and we all got paranoid.”

This strain eventually got too much for the band, and at the beginning of 1996, Che and Tim (Stewart, trumpet, backing vocals, percussion) were axed. “You know, I get asked about it a lot, and, to be honest, I don’t really know why it happened” says Karl. “It was horrible and stupid. It’s really hard to think about our exact reasoning. I was beginning to get really freaked out that the band was going to break up. Everyone was clearly hating it, and I saw it as my job, rightly or wrongly, to try and keep this thing together, because I was very instrumental in putting us together. There was no logic. It’s similar to teenagers with boyfriends and girlfriends, you know, ‘I think she’s gonna dump me so I’ll dump her first’, that sort of thing. I started getting worried that people were going to leave the band, so I decided to beat them to the punch.”

Beating them to the punch, however, wasn’t the solution to the tension within the band, and things came to a head shortly afterwards on the brink of yet another Australian tour. “I just wasn’t feeling it,” explains Karl.

“I just thought, ‘do I really want to embark upon another tour, when I might not get back and see my girlfriend for months? Is this the way I want to live?’ The answer was no. I couldn’t see what I was getting out of it anymore.”

It wasn’t just about the touring either. Being promoted so extensively, the band felt themselves becoming distanced from their reputation and image. “We lost faith in the music, too” says Karl. “I mean, we were being billed in Europe alongside a lot of bands that we really didn’t enjoy. I guess we lost our sense of identity. Our album was released in Korea with these lengthy references to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers though the liner notes on the sleeve. We just thought, ‘Ok, this is very weird.’ We all got a bit confused, a bit jaded.”

So it was that the frenzied genius of Supergroove ended, leaving in its wake hordes of satisfied fans all over the world, a damned impressive album sales record, and a tangible stamp on the history of New Zealand music.

Che went on to embark on his own successful recording career, Karl shot off to the UK to take a PhD in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, Ben (Sciascia, guitar) formed Svelte, Paul (Russell, drums) went on to form the now defunct Eight, and Ian (Jones, drums) has recently found his calling with Sydney band Lost Valentinos.

But the band’s reputation for searing live performances couldn’t be ignored, and over the years they received many offers for reunion tours. It wasn’t until late 2007, however, that the guys decided to take up the challenge. “I guess it was just the right time for us,” muses Karl. “I mean, if you’ve got these old friends and you can make music that makes people happy, why wouldn’t you?”

The band initially found their feet again opening for Crowded House on a three-date tour of New Zealand, a fairly comfortable re-entry into the scene. “Those shows were great, they were a really nice way to come together again. When you’re riding the coat-tails of this phenomenally successful and loved group, to get to join in was a real privilege” says Karl. “There were a lot of receptive young people in the audience who had never seen us live, and that was really rewarding, that they even know who the band is.” Supergroove’s reunion shows opening for Crowded House garnered rave reviews, as did their recent swag of gigs up and down the country, including a spot closing out the Big Day Out.

Despite all of the reunion acclaim, the question must be asked: with all of the dub/funk crossover bands floating around in New Zealand at the moment, do we really need a Supergroove reunion? Is their sound still relevant? “It’s relevant if people still enjoy it, which they do” Karl responds. “Once people stop enjoying it I guess it’s no longer relevant, it’s over. Musical tastes wax and wane, they change. As long as the crowds are enjoying it we’re happy to play for them.”

Once all the hype of the reunion blows over, it’s difficult to predict what will happen. Will they go the way of the Clean and continue to write new material that garners praise and further seals the deal on the importance of the band’s legacy, or will they go the way of the Police and taint their backlog by shamelessly plundering the reunion circuit and charging ridiculous ticket prices, only to drive their old songs into the ground? “We don’t want to wreck it by overplaying, touring over and over and becoming a Supergroove jukebox. Nor do we want to come out with some new material that fans might think is really horrendous. We want to try and do it well. It’s a pressurised situation.”

Karl remains optimistic, though; “There are a few MP3’s flying around between band members, people are coming over to each other’s houses, that sort of thing. There could very well be some new Supergroove material soon. But, if it turns out to be no good we’ll just abandon the idea.”

With the band all set to play the university Orientation circuit, things seem to have come full-circle. Ten years after the band’s disintegration, Supergroove are back – bringing their stomping blend of frantic funk-tainted rock and hip-hop to the young masses; only this time it’s a different generation. “It’s really special that people still dig our music. We play shows now, and people are singing the words. It’s amazing, and humbling” says Karl. “Orientations are always great fun, we’re looking forward to it. The student crowd is a great crowd, but it will be interesting to see if anyone knows the material. We’ll put on a damn lively show either way.”

Supergroove play the Loaded Hog on March 3rd with support from Odessa and the Aviators. Tickets are $25 for students and $35 for non-students.

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