Superette / Photo taken in Verona
Superette: Tiger LP | 1996
I saw Superette play for the first time on the Auckland Town Hall’s second stage at the Flying Nun 40th Anniversary show in July 2021. It was a big noisy set featuring songs from their album Tiger. Seeing them perform those songs live got me playing the album again. It is an album I first heard in London after relocating there to open the Flying Nun office in 1995. Listening to it again I heard a timeless marvel.
Back in 1993, Dave Mulcahy was in JPS Experience looking for an out - and he found it with the formation of Superette. The JPS Experience (who were known previously as Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and subsequently as JPSE) were a musically ambitious band with 3 songwriters, which can be a tricky setup to keep in balance. Bands can have volatile equilibriums and one with so many songwriters makes this a harder task to maintain than usual. Add the hard grind of overseas touring and a background sense of heavy expectation from Flying Nun’s new business partners Mushroom Records, and you have a band on its way to being well out of kilter.
Fed up and looking for an out, Dave started Superette with drummer Greta Anderson in 1993 just before he left The JPS Experience, who would continue without him into 1994 before breaking up. Dave and Greta had been in a relationship for a little while, one that would last for the duration of the new band. Greta knew Ben Howe from music classes at high school and he came in as the bass player. Greta and Ben had been the rhythm section in the post-punk styled Blue Marbles. Big Ross from Birds Nest Roys, and later The Tufnels, was also playing guitar for a while early on.
Superette L-R: Greta Anderson, Ben Howe, Dave Mulcahy / Photo by Becky Nunes
The band refuse to reveal their magical creative processes…
Dave came to the new band with a different kind of song, simpler ones designed to be played by a 3 piece. Dave’s material veered on the side of the dark and cynical, but that was very much part of the charm of his output. The band ‘worked as a creative democracy’ with Dave bringing ‘song ideas’ which were then collaboratively developed and arranged by the band as a whole in an effort to create the best songs possible. There were some exceptions to this method. Greta wrote the lyrics and vocals to ‘Saskatchewan’, Greta and Ben wrote ‘I Got It Clean’ and Ben contributed ‘Bye Bye’, all of which are excellent songs and add interest and variety to the album. Dave wrote and recorded ‘Waves’ solo in his bedroom.
Superette's sound is precise with powerful ‘muscular’ drumming locked to the emphatic bass playing which collectively supports the monumental slabs of rock guitar riffing. The synths of late-period JPS Experience have gone - this is a rock band and a dynamic sounding one to boot. The Pixies were a huge influence on alternative music in the mid-1990s with their crazy song structures and zany playing. Superette certainly steered towards that influence, but the band's material always maintained its own creative integrity. It's clearly music made by Superette - and it is powerful stuff.
The Rosepig CDEP was released early in 1994, marking the band and their sound as something special with ‘Killer Clown’ being the highlight. The release saw Superette generate airplay at student radio and start to build a live audience.
Eventually, they got back into the studio to record their debut album. Nick Roughan was producing the band and this time they were in the York Street Studio 2 on Shortland Street and mixing in the York Street Studio B with its beautiful Neve desk. Dave had met Nick Roughan when he worked on the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience The Size of Food album at Writhe Studio. Nick was to play an important role in the recording of this record; he produced it in the old fashion sense. He helped direct and shape the material to make a better record, rather than just doing the technical work.
Superette - Tiger Album Cover
When we think of Superette, the tendency is to remember the dramatic rock guitar songs such as ‘Killer Clown’ (re-recorded after initially being released on Rosepig), ‘Saskatchewan’ and ‘Kiss Someone’, but the band did much more. For those “big” songs to sound so immense, other contrasting material needed to be written and recorded to create a balanced album with a variety of song styles that worked well together. The band wrote a mixture of material anyway and they used it well.
On Tiger, the pace constantly shifts; the mood is always changing and the volume is up and down. It's captivating stuff; the gentle ‘Felo de Se’ with its big and grand choruses, the krautrock glam rock menace of ‘Cannibal’ and ‘I Got It Clean’ with its nod to the rock guitar grandiosity of Sonic Youth.
As is often the case, the listener initially passes over the quieter songs, but on repeated listens these often become the favourites. ‘Ugly Things’ (it does have noisy parts), ‘Bye Bye’ are quieter songs that supplement and complement the other material perfectly. But the best is the last track, the beautiful ‘Waves’ which gently and plaintively finishes the album with slowly paced acoustic guitar, subtle sympathetic background drones and withdrawn vocals that create a mood not dissimilar to the 3Ds ‘Spooky’.
Stuart Page (who has played in the Axemen and Bill Direen’s The Builders as well as made videos for Snapper, The Headless Chickens, Skeptics, David Kilgour and Princess Chelsea among others) became very involved in the Superette project by making all three of their music videos: ‘Killer Clown’ with its perverse party event, the clammy ‘Touch Me’ and ‘Kiss Somebody’ where the bass player is boiled alive. They all match and reinforce the dark humour of the band. The airplay of these videos on Max TV certainly helped build the band‘s audience.
It took 27 years for me to make sense of Tiger. When it came out I liked it, but I struggled to understand it. I was newly removed from the world it had been created in and was living in London, starting to drift to disconnect from my former life in New Zealand. It took a Superette live performance at the Flying Nun 40th for all of it to make sense. They were a big noisy rock band with heaps of character and attitude, doing it all on their own terms musically. Tiger documents all of that exceptionally well. They were a band of their time, but unique and good enough to last the test of time. Tiger is a testament to the band's dazzling brilliance.