Supergroove: The Low Down and Dirtage
Author: Richard Thorne
Supergroove's look-back-in-wonder double CD 'Postage: The Best of Supergroove'was concocted on the basis of the band selecting a set list for their ultimate live gig. Disc one has 18 tracks of faves and b-sides including one remix, while disc two includes three live tracks and four new designer remixes.
NZM featured Supergroove on the cover of our April 1994 issue, the year of their debut album 'Traction'. Missing was Che Ness, who added smoothing soul vocals to the frenetic funk/ rock that saw the seven-piece scale heights hither to unknown.
Innovative music, energy, talent and creativity, hard touring, brilliant marketing and dedicated management propelled a teenage Supergroove into the nation's consciousness. 'Traction' went into the album charts at #1 and held on to the top spot for over a month, the Top 15 for over three months and has gone on to sell over five times platinum - more than 75,000 copies.
By 1995 they became a 'priority act' for BMG worldwide and were ushered onto an eight month/22 country tour - a tour that effectively broke the young band's back. They were a bunch of teenage lads sent into a battlefield that few other Kiwi bands (Pacifier the one current exception), have ever experienced.
Not long after the world tour ended, Tim Stewart (trumpet) and co-vocalist Che left the band in circumstances which, by agreement, have never been explained. Having recorded and released their second album 'Backspacer' (a deliberate change in direction that really didn't fire), they found themselves again in Australia in 1997, preparing to play a record company gig in Sydney, ahead of a second world promo tour.
At soundcheck for that first gig the band's charismatic vocalist Karl Steven had a reality check and quietly quit. Meeting later over a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, the band agreed that chasing the record company dream really didn't suit them, and toasted to the memory of Supergroove. They had sold 200,000 albums worldwide and might have sold millions, but wanted their lives back.
We asked three former 'groovers: vocalist/academic Karl Steven, guitarist/designer Ben Sciascia and trumpeter/chef Tim Stewart about some of the highs and lows, ups and downs, best and worsts.
Worst in-store gig?
Tim: My worst one was in Timaru. playing in the mouth of an arcade with a wind coming through directly off Mt Erebus! It was so cold my trumpet went a whole semitone flat and I just couldn't tune it up so had to just dance around. I remember Joe [Lonie] could barely play his bass solo.
Karl: The worst without question were on the Backspacer tour when we were debuting a totally different style of music to our fans - they didn't know the music and couldn't even recognise us as the Supergroove they knew.
Best on tour poverty story?
Tim: Apart from all the early tours when we were constantly in poverty and the anecdotes would be too thick and fast - for me it would be after I'd spent up in New York and had US$15 to last four days (including food) in LA. I got to eat three $5 slices of pizza over that time.
Karl: For most of our local tours we were on $15 a day each. Storage, the in-store tour, was $12 a day. If you could get a $3 breakfast then you could have a $5 dinner! It was all walking up and down supermarkets looking for the cheapest . We would join forces to buy alcohol - we drank Marque Vue every night!
Most surprising single success?
Karl: Next Time. It wasn't a single but it got onto the 'Tractor' EP and had a video made for it. That song I wrote on a walk on my way home. Joe and I had this songwriting 10 days in Portobello in Dunedin when we were meant to come up with songs for the EP. Instead of doing that we started smoking and drinking regularly for the first time and had a ball - being teenagers I guess! What little we did write was total shit (and a lot of that shit ended up on 'Tractor'!).
Tim: Apart from that we were so cold and calculating, our singles generally went where we wanted them too! Can't Get Enough was written to be a number one, and we said that every line had to be a hook.
Karl: We just really wanted to do the things you're told you want when you're in a rock band - have number one singles!
Best Stuart Broughton marketing idea?
Karl: I reckon it was for the release of Here Come The Supergroove. The night before he got the Euro scooter club to ride us (with cameras) around on this long route ending up at the DTM club in K Rd. On the night they played that footage in the club, we waited outside with helmets and while one came on stage on a scooter we ran upstairs and onto the stage!
Best crowd you played to in NZ?
Tim: The best must have been the 12,000 people packed into the tent at the BDO in Auckland in '95. It went off!
Karl: The BDO was special particularly because we didn't think the audience was there to see us, but it turned out they were.
Worst song that Supergroove released?
Karl: Can we have three? Basically 'Tractor' - the whole EP except Next Time! That was the first time we had written stuff, worked it up in the practice room and taken it into the studio without any road testing.
Ben: There were plenty of other songs that were crap but we'd always made the transition live.
Best Supergroove video?
Ben: For me it's Next Time. It was a happier time when we were touring and used to doing videos and it was natural.
Tim: The thing about Next Time that's cool is that Joe handed around the cameras so when you watch the video it's a great reminiscing trip! It captures the personalities and what we did. And it was hilarious - putting Che on a bike was just crazy! We actually had to do the whole video covert because in Sydney once you put tripod feet on the sidewalk you start paying $200 an hour!
Tim: It wasn't the normal absolute fucking torturous 20 hour piece of pain that Joe came up with. He had the worst luck with weather on shoots.
Karl: For the If I Had My Way video it was four in the morning in the sea at Cornwallis! Poor Ian had his cymbals poking out of the water and had to squat down in the freezing cold water.
Worst record company showcase?
Ben: I had a weird experience in South Africa. We did a soundcheck and after I went out to the van to get a shirt before the gig. Coming back there were two lines - like girls and boys, each going through these kind of air lock doors. I waited in the boys' line, moving forward one at a time and when I got to the door this woman said, "Have you got any guns to check?". It wasn't male/female lines, it was 'anyone with a gun get in this line' and ALL the males had guns! Every day in Johannesburg it got worse and then we got robbed on the second to last day!
Best festival experience?
Karl: The one in a really beautiful town square in Belgium where we were on the bill with Paul Weller and M People.
Tim: The artist accom was a C17th five- storey house and you got like a floor each. We wound up sitting in Paul Weller's dressing room smoking spliffs and watching him play - and he was unbelievably good.
Most into it crowd overseas?
Tim: Indonesia was haaardcore. We played a nightclub called Volcano or Eruption! It was sponsored by the Gudang cigarette co. and Salem cigarettes sponsored our tour. It was packed.
Karl: Every person who came through the door was given a free packet of clove cigarettes. Che asked for a cigarette as a joke and there was this rain which lasted literally 20 minutes - just constant!
Tim: We were escorted in and out by gentlemen with machine guns. There was heavy censorship at the time and the tour people put on a 20-course banquet for the censors and their families and friends in the daytime. We had to play a set for them.
Karl: They didn't even turn their heads to look at us and after they were paid off they left!
Tim: Our tour manager said the censorship board had said we can't take our shirts off or excite the crowd. We went 'Oh yeah, whatever', then she said 'No, you don't understand'. Apparently Metallica did a gig the year before and loads of fans had tried to climb over the fence to see them and something like 17 of them were shot by the security forces!
Most unhappy period for the band?
Much laughter before they chorus, as if rehearsed, "The whole tour!".
Tim: The thing is that the life on the road when you're not loaded and aren't making any money is hard and often really boring. There are so many periods of waiting and your circumstances leave you in these really depressing situations. So it's not necessarily that we didn't get along, it's just that the average run of the day involved slots of boring waiting and it made us depressed.
Ben: Added to that, being the age we were, trying to grow up in this weird atmosphere of being in a band.
Tim: With very little support because whenever you wanted to bare your soul you had to bare it to six cynical fuckwits.
Karl: But the worst time was definitely the last Australian tour. We'd already toured there, then eight months on the road, and then 'Hey guys, let's finish off this world tour with another Australian tour!'. It felt like we played every single venue in Oz too, every rugby league club...
Tim: I actually got a nervous condition during this time. There was a particular show in buff-fuck nowhere and I had an attack of nervous shakes so I couldn't even hold the horn to my lips. Back stage I was given a glass of beer to scull and I was fine again. But those fits of nervousness carried on for months after the tour - a sense of incredible dread about playing small towns. It's the worst I've ever felt in my life. Winning over crowds who don't know who you are in small towns is much worse that the big city venues.
Karl: You can see how stupid it was to have the first gig of the Backspacer tour as 'welcome back to Australia!' That plus it was to the record company, and I just didn't want to leave NZ at the time.
Ben: We really were staring down the barrel of another 10 months travelling around the world.
Karl: They said, "It may be a year, it may be two. We don't know." It was wrong, you can't expect people to live like that. I didn't know I would leave the band that evening but I was aware of how unjust the whole record company system was and how it worked well for the company but not for the artists. I had discussed it with Joe that day, then blew my week's food money on an expensive second hand book! I must have known I wasn't going to be touring that week!
Best royalty cheque to date?
This one also draws gales of laughter.
Ben: The Euro $1.22 I received two weeks ago.
Tim: I beat that, I got 67 cents! The greater amounts are pathetic too! The recording budgets totalled less than $100,000, but the tour support costs were huge. Eight months of seven band members plus crew, hotel rooms, plane tickets, per diems, hireage, Stanbridge (a month writing songs in a 1420 Tudor farmhouse in Sussex) - all that recouping out of our 12%. Let's just say we are hoping this Best Of does well! We finally recouped a year and a half ago (I didn't think it would ever happen), and so we do actually have an interest in this album doing well!
Ben: We will be turning up for the record company gold award with renewed enthusiasm!
Karl: Believe it when you see it man.