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Super Unison’s Meghan O’Neil On Life, Loss And Steve Albini

The story behind the Oakland trio’s new album, Stella.

Super Unison defies categorisation. The Oakland, California trio specialises in post-everything sonic onslaughts that swing seamlessly between raw emotional purges and urgent political indignation. 

For the band’s impressive second full-length, Stella, (their debut, Auto, came out via Deathwish back in 2016) vocalist/bassist Meghan O’Neil, guitarist Kevin DeFranco and drummer Justin Renninger holed up in Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago and worked alongside the legendary producer to capture the intensity of their live sound. 

Kerrang! caught up with O’Neil

You released Falcon, the first single from Stella, back in August, and I was struck immediately by how intensely touching it is. I was very moved by it, even though I have no idea who you’re singing about.
It’s for a friend of mine who lost a family member. It’s about how they dealt with that loss and how proud of them I was. Kevin wrote the song and when [he and Justin] were playing it for me for the first time, I got the text that this person had passed. So that song just became connected to that family and that person. It was always their song. It’s also about life and loss and how that happens to everyone. I tried to keep it broad and to over-arching themes, so other people can have their own interpretations. 

It’s interesting that as a band, you’re able to talk about those very personal things and then go straight into political songs like Parts Unknown and Virus. What inspires those moments? Living at this particular moment in history, under the Trump administration?
Yes. It’s hard. It’s very tough. Parts Unknown is an intersectional feminist song. And Virus was written around the time when there was much white nationalism activity in Berkeley [the famously liberal University town that neighbours Oakland]. I was just recently at protests when they tried to come to Oakland and we shut that shit down. That’s why [the far-right] go to Berkeley. Berkeley’s very left-wing, but it’s free speech as shit. So it was written around that time, just fearing the rhetoric of people who think we should hear both sides. They’re like, Let em talk.’ But when they talk, it’s Kill all the gay people.’ We cannot let that speech spread and be normalised. It’s just got to be shut down.

On Stella, it feels like there’s a theme of embracing your own vulnerabilities, but also wrestling with all the things it takes to do that.
It’s not even trying to be vulnerable. I’m not actively going for something. It’s not this forced thing. I’m just allowing myself to be. It was written in a pretty dark, two-year period and one of the dark things was the end of my marriage. And for the longest time, I was like I’m not writing about it. I’m not writing a divorce record. It’s been done.’ I really didn’t want to give any of my art to him. But then I just didn’t write. If there’s a shadow over your life and you’re trying to ignore it and write other things, you can’t. So I just had to finally give myself permission. There’s really only a song and a half about the divorce. But it was enough for me to get past it and make space for other things.

Super Unison Reid Haithcock Promo 6

Was this record a bit of an emotional purge then?
Oh yeah, totally. I came back from Chicago feeling so good. It’s so cathartic. 

Steve Albini has such an entrenched legacy in music (as a musician in Big Black and Shellac, and as an engineer for the likes of Nirvana, Fugazi and too many to mention), was any part of recording with him intimidating?
We definitely prepped a lot more before we got to the studio. We took it very seriously. We demoed stuff more than we have in the past. I think it helped to push us out of our comfort zone. I was scared at first, but that can breed creativity. And going away was good. I’d never gone away for a recording. I’d be in the studio 12 hours, I didn’t even stay with the boys because they would go out at night. I didn’t want to lose my voice, so I would go home to my friend’s house, watch one Netflix show, go to sleep, then do it again. 

Was working with Albini a longterm goal achieved?
Yes. Especially for Kevin, so we really wanted to make it happen. I definitely felt like the first couple of days, it was very business. Like Hello, yes, I am checking the mics.’ And by day two, three, finally, he started opening up to us because we were just silly and having fun in there. After that, [Albini] would just tell us funny stories about recording, and how he met his wife, and his cat. He was just super nice.

How long were you in the studio?
Five days. We did all the music and vocals in three days. And we mixed with [Albini] for two days.

Some bands take that long to set up their drums.
Yeah, we worked our asses off. We didn’t want to waste any time. This is serious, this costs money, let’s get it done. We did Auto in two days and that was more songs and less practice, so we knew we could do it. 

Didn’t that hurt though, with the way you scream?
Well, I wasn’t drinking. I would only text people — no phone calls. When I finished vocals on the fourth day, I was so excited, I did have a drink, and I did call my boyfriend, and I broke all my own rules, and I woke up the next day and my voice was gone — and then we had a show that night. We played the worst show we’ve ever played. I was opening my mouth and just nothing would come out. I’m so sorry, Chicago.

Two years ago, you told me you never had any expectations about anything relating to the band. Has that changed?
Whatever happens, happens. Making music and touring to me is not a means to an end. It’s just creative expression. We love writing and recording, but it’s like… imagine painting with the express goal of getting it in a museum. It wouldn’t be very good. If you just paint because you’ve got something to say, I think that’s going to be a better painting.

Words: Rae Alexandra

Super Unison’s album Stella is out now via Deathwish.

Posted on November 27th 2018, 8:00p.m.
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