A Superhumanoid Interview

Superhumanoids bassist Max St. John talks to “Pollstar” about how Los Angeles has shaped the band’s dreamy electro-pop sound, what he calls the group’s shtick, and the best BBQ the group discovered in Memphis.  

Each of the members are multi-instrumentalists with St. John also playing guitar, keys, and drums; Cameron Parkins handling lead guitar and playing keys; and Sarah Chernoff on piano and the harp. Superhumanoids keeps things interesting by having Parkins and Chernoff switch off vocal duties.

The band formed in 2010 because of a mutual interest in synthesizers and drum machines, while bonding over a love of ‘90s R&B.

Although electro-pop may have once been criticized as being soulless back in the ‘80s, Superhumanoids has plenty of emotions to go around as displayed via its lyrics and haunting vocals. You could even say they wear their hearts on their synths.

After releasing two EPs, the band’s debut studio album, Exhibitionists, is due out June 11 on Innovative Leisure, featuring the single “Geri.”

Pollstar caught up with St. John earlier this month in the middle of the band’s tour with fellow Los Angeles-based band Local Natives.      

Photo: Shore Fire Media
Cameron Parkins, Sarah Chernoff, Max St. John

Last night Superhumanoids was in Asheville, N.C., playing The Orange Peel and tomorrow you’ll be in Chicago at the Vic Theatre. Where are you guys today?

We’re actually at the Moog Factory in Asheville right now.

Oh, neat.

Yeah, it’s awesome. … All the stuff they make here is amazing. And they have this room with pretty much all of it set up and they’re kind of just letting the band mess around in there.

You just played South by Southwest. What was that like?

It was a lot of fun. It’s a super-chaotic festival but we only did two shows this year and they were both excellent.

Did you get a chance to catch any other shows?

Yeah, we saw a few. I think our favorite, collective thing that we saw was this group called Rat King. Have you heard of them?

I’m not familiar with them. What kind of group are they?

They’re a hip hop group from New York. I think their record is coming out on XL. They were super-impressive.

Can you tell me how the band got started ?

We all live in Los Angeles and we all had a mutual interest in electronic music. And not many people we knew, when the group was getting started, were interested in synthesizers and drum machines and that sort of general instrumentation. So I think that’s what drew us together.  
What’s the songwriting process like? Do you all contribute?

Yes. We’re a very painfully democratic band. We’re all multi-instrumentalists and we all help to write lyrics and melodies and compose. Pretty much everything you hear on the record runs through the filter of every member of the group, if that makes sense.

Your debut album is coming out in June. Was it initially due out last fall?

Well, we finished it quite a while ago. And I think there was a moment in time where we were considering releasing it on our own. But because we got our record label involved things just took a little bit longer than expected.

How did you land your record deal?

That’s a good question. … We play a lot of concerts and a lot of them were in L.A. Innovative Leisure, our record label, is based there. I think that’s probably how they heard of us. Just from … generally hustling our craft around L.A.

You’ve been playing together since 2010? Have you been consistently touring since then?  

Yeah, we’ve been touring quite a bit. We recorded two EPs, early on, when the group got together. And we did some touring and then we took off about, I don’t know, three or four months to write and record the record. And now we’re back at it and we have plans to stay on the road, pretty much indefinitely as long as people will keep coming out to see us until the next album.

The band self-produced the album. Was it really important for you guys to do that?

We’re totally open to working with other producers. But … that was just the nature. At the time there were no producers that were interested in working with us so it was a necessity that we produce it ourselves if we wanted to get it completed in a timely fashion.

That makes sense. But that was nice you guys had control over that aspect, too.

Yeah, we really enjoy all of the audio stuff, from the engineering aspect and mixing, even though we didn’t mix it ourselves we’re really interested in all of that stuff. So it was a pleasure to produce the album.

Who would you say are some of your influences?

Well, we’re all really into these two radio stations in LA. One of them is called KDAY 93.5 and the other one is [HOT] 92.3. And they play ‘90s hip hop and R&B. And we all listen. I think that’s a gem living in L.A. – you get to drive in your car and you can turn on those radio stations at any time and they’re always playing great songs. And who else? I personally am a really big Trent Reznor fan – I like his film scores a lot, I love Nine Inch Nails. And who else? That’s always a tough question.

Yeah, I know. But you know what I was thinking? People are always asking bands about their influences but I’d like to know, what kind of group would you be proud to say that you had influenced?

That’s a good question. I would love to, I don’t know, inspire a band that is multi-faceted and also does production for other groups, and maybe film scoring or something like that. That would be pretty cool.

The Los Angeles Times described Superhumanoids’ sound as “conjuring up California harmonies and hand claps.” Could you see California or even Los Angeles having an influence on the band’s sound at all?

Oh, a massive, massive influence on the band’s sound. I was born in L.A., as was Sarah. I think that just driving around that city and living in that city, and being around the people that are there completely sculpts what our band sounds like.

Last week you guys kicked off your tour with Local Natives. I saw a post on the band’s Facebook page referring to Local Natives as your friends. So that must be really fun to be able to tour together. Have you known them a long time?

Yes, I’ve known them for almost 10 years. We were actually talking, reminiscing about that last night about how long we’ve been friends and how much things have changed over the course of our friendships.

Are there any plans for any collaborations on stage during the tour or filling in on each other sets during a song or two?

Not yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I think that’s definitely a possibility.

So, what is your live show like?

Well, we have one guitar player, Sarah plays the synthesizer and has a sampler, and I have a couple synthesizers and a MP3 [Key Shifter] and some fun pedals and amplifiers and stuff things like that. But I think the main thing that’s interesting about our live show is we’re primarily an electronic band but we don’t use a laptop onstage. That’s something that took us a long time to craft and figure out. But that’s kind of our shtick, I would say, is we’re an electronic band, without a laptop, live.

Initially, when you first started playing shows, did you use a laptop?

Not the first few, and then we incorporated it, and then we took it back out because it was a little bit too rigid for us to have to play to the grid. And if things go wrong with the computer, they go really wrong.

Yeah, I could see how that could be a big problem.

Totally. And we wanted the accountability of having human beings responsible for every sound that you hear.

In May you’re going to be touring with Cold War Kids. Are there any cities on that tour, or on your current tour, that you’re especially looking forward to as a band or as a return visit?

We always love going to Portland and Seattle, but we’ve never played in Santa Cruz and we’ve never played in Eugene. And we’re all very fond of both of those places.

When you’re on the road, do you have any favorite places that you like to eat?

We always try to try out the local greatness, whether that’s like a diner or whatever. We try to enjoy ourselves eating as much as we can on the road. I think that’s one of the perks of being in a band, that you get to experience all those different flavors.

Any favorites so far that really stood out?

Oh gosh. What did we have? We went to this place called Central BBQ in Memphis that was excellent.

Was that the classic Memphis-style BBQ?

Yeah, exactly. It was pork, I believe. Really, really good. And then … honestly, I’m really bad at remembering the names but everywhere we’ve had pretty great luck with food.

Do you have either a favorite tour story from the road or maybe a worst experience that made for a good story later on you’d like to share?

Um, that’s a tough question. I mean, we’ve been pretty fortunate. Everything’s been pretty smooth. No major disasters, no one’s died, no one’s gone to jail.

Well, that’s good.

We’ve been pretty spoiled. The shows have been really good. People have been very supportive and friendly and no one’s booed us off stage or anything yet. But I’ll keep you posted. If someone, like, you know, holds up a bank or something, you’ll be the first to know.

OK, it’s a deal! And finally, just for fun, if you could have any superpower, what would you choose?

Oh, gosh. Telekinesis.

Anything you wanted to add?

Our record comes out on June 11 and I hope you like it.

Photo: Shore Fire Media

Upcoming shows include support gigs with Local Natives in Montreal, Quebec, at Le National March 29; House Of Blues Boston March 30; Providence, R.I., at Fete April 1; and Philadelphia at Union Transfer April 4. Superhumanoids have a headline gig at New York City’s Mercury Lounge April 2. Dates with the Cold War Kids begin May 16 in Seattle at The Neptune.

For more information visit Superhumanoids.com