For those keeping track, Supersystem used to be El Guapo. Not the Chicago El Guapo. They’re just some bar band who’re sponsored by Budweiser—and happened to have the foresight to trademark the name.
Supersystem’s El Guapo sprung out of Washington, D.C., changed musical styles like a fashionista, and always lived on the fringe. The group dodged structure. They played with sound like it was a chemistry set. Occasionally even ventured into that dreaded free-jazz zone. And was most definitely the oddest band to ever release an album on hardcore stalwart Dischord Records. Even Fake French, the group’s last of its four discs as El Guapo and maybe the only one that even shared an apartment with conventional, was still a few degrees from center.
It was an important moment, though. The band had discovered jerking dance-punk a couple years before the rest of us; the addition of Rapture keyboardist Pete Cafarella helping the group get their groove on. The only problem was, they forgot that it was supposed to be fun, not fusion. Not that it mattered. That other El Guapo was still out there, slamming back tall boys. And since the band from D.C. had decided to switch from Dischord to Chicago indie Touch & Go, the quintet was forced give up their claim on the name El Guapo. Eight years and four albums just doesn’t trump a trademark. And that sucked.
“No one wanted to do it, but we didn’t have much of a choice,” says singer-bassist Justin “Destroyer” Moyer. “Changing a name is just traumatic.”
But the newly dubbed Supersystem—the title of El Guapo’s third record, by the way—decided to look at the name-swap as a chance to remodel. The group was going to clean out their cluttered songs, maybe chuck their tendency to noodle, and put in one hell of a stereo. It was basically going to be rock’s version of Extreme Makeover, just without Ty Pennington and some little boy with no bones. The basic foundation was already there: The epileptic rhythms, the plastic sheen, the computer burps. They just needed lose the superior attitude and built up the kind of spastic hustles that would work like mind control, forcing you to shake everything even when you didn’t want to.
“We decided that at some point you have to stop worrying about whether something is new or not and go for something good,” Moyer says. “It’s something that I’ve really had to come to peace with. A lot of the music I’ve made with this band was new, but it was either flawed or pretentious. Now I think I’ve gotten some perspective, and the band has too. We realized that this is supposed to be fun.”
And Supersystem’s debut, Always Never Again, is definitely that—a record to cause random street parties and maybe a few illicit acts. Songs strut along on pogo beats and Rafael Cohen’s choppy, world-beat-fused guitar work. Keyboards hiccups melodies. And Moyer’s chanting vocals come off more like Simon-Says commands than actual singing. It makes a track like “Defcon” seem like a Junior Senior disco romp, just set on hyperactive. Or “Everybody Sings” a dance anthem for the disenfranchised, Moyer asking over and over “if you feel a connection with the people on the street.” The answer is generally, “No.” But with the Middle-Eastern shimmies of “Miracle” pumping through your iPod, you probably could care less. There are more important things to do, like make your ass wiggle.
And so far, that seems to be exactly what Supersystem is causing people to do. While the moniker change has meant some setbacks when it comes to name recognition, the few shows the group has played—and at three so far, we do mean few—the response has been better than Moyer would have hoped. A coming-out gig at this year’s South by Southwest was a big success. And with Supersystem’s inaugural tour just getting under way, Moyer is hoping for more of the same, though he’s not getting his hopes up too high.
“Right now, everything is sort of too early to tell,” he says. “You read the articles about yourself and some of them are good and some of them are bad. But I really measure how we’re doing by the shows, whether we have a real connection to the people and if they buy our record and want to come see us again. That’s how you really know how you’re doing. And so far, that’s been really good. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but we’re excited. Maybe this whole adventure will have been worth it.”
SUPERSYSTEM Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Thursday May 5, 7 p.m. 320-9887