“I think that maybe at first, when you start out making music, there's a certain romance to playing and being in a band — there's a lot of firsts,” muses Rafael Cohen, guitarist/vocalist and one-fourth of the genre-bending D.C.- and Brooklyn-based Supersystem. “As you move on, that romance gets replaced. Once the novelty wears off, it's not as much, ‘Wow, we're playing a show!’ You get more into the nuts and bolts of what you're doing, and it's more interesting. It's more of a craft.”
A Million Microphones (Touch and Go, 2006), Supersystem's second full-length album, definitely benefits from the band's decade-long history. As El Guapo, they created head-scratching, obtuse post-rock edged with electronics; after a bit of lineup shuffling, band members Cohen, Justin Destroyer (bass/vocals) and Pete Cafarella (keyboards/vocals) got together, changed their band name and enlisted Josh Blair on drums. While their first album under their new moniker, Always Never Again (Touch and Go, 2005), tackled dance punk with sharp, stripped-down rhythms and percolating percussive effects, A Million Microphones is far more representative of what the band aspires to do live.
A change in approach certainly helped. Instead of using their full-on Digidesign Pro Tools studio setup as a songwriting aid, Cohen and the band prepped raw demos and limited their studio time. “When you have this infinite amount of possibilities, it takes a really long time to explore them,” Cohen says. “Sometimes having those infinite possibilities can be a little bit maddening. I think with this one, there was this sense sometimes in the studio where we just had to move on. That leaves some more conditional, haphazard things that maybe we didn't have time to work out, but it also makes it sound more organic, which is what I think we wanted.”
Fleshing out songs required a change in their rehearsal style as well. “We had some very strange band practices where we had the demo song going through a P.A., and we'd mute each of our parts,” Cohen explains. “It was kind of like reverse karaoke or something. The vocals were recorded, and we'd be playing our instruments live along with a drum track, trying to figure out the parts.”
Cohen and Cafarella both live in Brooklyn, so they collaborate and send ideas to D.C. for Blair and Moyer to work with, and vice versa. Cohen, himself a hip-hop head, starts with a beat — usually programmed in Propellerhead Reason and rerecorded with live percussion. For instance, on “Prophets,” a song littered with Latin instruments like agogo bells and a güiro, Cohen had a particular sound in mind. “I wanted it to sound like a bunch of Brazilian guys playing percussion rather than just percussion overdubs,” he says. “All the percussion is set up all at once and recorded on a stereo mic, so it's looped with all of us playing together.”
Judicious use of a variety of instruments, such as the harp on “Eagles Fleeing Eyries,” is evident throughout, and the band distorted and delayed the heck out of an Elektron SidStation and vintage synths like the Roland Juno-106 and SH-101. “The phrase we used all the time was “character,” Cohen says. “We wanted keyboard sounds that were really distinctive, with some sort of dimension to them, not just [Clavia] Nord Lead presets that everyone else with a Nord Lead can recognize.”
In tipping their musical efforts toward bolder electronic and dance-oriented beats, the band managed to create a tuneful album that practically begs for rattling bass bins but holds up just fine without. “The whole thing' s boosted in the midrange to get the kick drums and the bass less in the stomach area and more in the chest, a little higher up,” Cohen notes. He adds that resisting the temptation to stack up the low end took some effort. “When you first start to make beat-oriented music, you're like, the low end's gotta be huge; it's gotta rattle your stomach in a club, [but] I still think we did an alright job getting that across.”