BY VICTORIA MIDDLETON//
In November of 2019, WRGW Music Director Victoria Middleton got the chance to interview members of TC Superstar, including Connor McCampbell, Aaron Chavez, Julio Correa, Emily DiFranco, and Eileen Yuriko “Riko” Roby. Since then, the COVID pandemic has hit the music industry in all forms. Today, TC Superstar is having patreon live streams where you can continue to support their work. Check them out on instagram, and support their patreon here! Here’s the 2019 interview–enjoy reading something from the WRGW Music archives.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Vic: Your music is super danceable, obviously. But a lot of the themes that you explore on your albums are quite heavy. Masc is about toxic masculinity, and then Heat Death is about climate change. So wondering how important is it for you to have music that has meaning to it?
Connor: Oh, very important. I like some genres of music that don’t have that. There’s some stuff I like listening to… where it’s… you’re definitely getting no lyrical value whatsoever. It’s pure just dance music or ambient music or whatever. But yeah, for this stuff, and particularly for this band, it’s very important. We try and make our shows as cathartic as possible. And you don’t get that at all if there’s no real depth to the songs. Even if you put on a big show, it’s all just clicks.
Vic: Do you think it’s a different catharsis when the lyrical content is heavier than the music itself maybe would suggest?
Connor: Yeah… I think it is a different kind of catharsis from a lot of other genres that… Because a lot of dance music doesn’t focus on those kind of feelings. The lyrics are like, dance, dance, dance. You know? They’re like, “Everybody dance.” “This is how we dance.” A lot of that genre is mostly about dancing, and I like that kind of music. I love that kind of stuff. But it’s not really… it’s not this project.
Vic: Another thing with the contrast of the music and the lyrics is your sound is so eighties’ synth-poppy, but so many of the themes that you deal with are very modern.
Connor: They are and they aren’t. I think these things you probably should have been talking about more in the eighties, but maybe they just weren’t on people’s minds. And I even, just a little bit, I’m trying to make allusions to other times in history and trying to set the songs outside of timelessness. I got a line in a new song I’m writing about someone who picks up a corded phone, just little stuff like that, where probably no one would ever notice that, but if you hear that line and you’re not thinking about something today picking up a cordless phone, takes you back to another time when whatever the big dramatic thing I’m talking about is equally relevant, but maybe just not on people’s minds.
Vic: So when you were writing the most recent album, R&D, what was the message that you were thinking through when you were writing it?
Connor: I wasn’t thinking about it from a message standpoint, so much. It was more… Part of it was just the personal examination of, “What are the ways that I’ve felt or experienced love? What are ways that I… How do I want that to function in my life?” And the rest of it really just came from character perspectives. I think collaborating with people helped a lot on that. The more we… How many people did we interview probably?
Aaron: I’m not sure how many.
Connor: Probably 12-
Connor: We did these therapy session interviews. And honestly, their perspectives were probably more directly influential.
Aaron: Some of those interviews inspired stories, right?
Connor: Yeah. Some of the interviews directly just became songs that wouldn’t have existed. That, and then just the history of the past few years of talking to people about their love lives. That’s always a fun party conversation for me. I love playing nosy therapist. Be like, “Yeah. So what are you into? What’s your taste in people?” You know?
Connor: So historically like that, I think just built up to a point where I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got enough stuff here for an album. There are definitely enough thoughts for an album.”
Vic: So all of those sound bites, those are not scripted, they’re real?
Connor: No, no. Those are interview audio. I had a… The zine that we have for sale with our merch upstairs, downstairs, somewhere, has all the… a much greater deal with the interview transcripts that went into the album. But it has all that transcribed. I had 15 hours’ worth of interview audio or something probably. Which is not crazy, but it was a lot to go through and pick out three-second little snippets here and there for a 30-second story, at most. That was the research part.
Aaron: … of R&D.
Connor: The development part is what you do when you hear the music or read this stuff or whatever. I hope people develop into something. I certainly developed a lot in the process of making an album. I think it’s affected some of my friend’s lives directly.
Vic: How so?
Connor: Or I’ve been told. I’ve just been told a lot it’s a very meaningful album for a lot of people. And I think, because it’s emotionally heavy, if you’ve been through an intense romantic experience in the past couple of years it’s probably easy to project that onto at least a handful of the songs. There’s enough different perspectives on the album that it’s like, yeah, maybe this song about polyamory is not what you’re into right now, but maybe this song about codependency is something that you can really relate to.
Riko: I have been with a couple people at shows that have burst into tears and had an emotional breakdown.
Connor: It happens.
Riko: It does.
Connor: Some people cried at “Toyota Corolla” the first time they realize he dies at the end.
Riko: But they’re also dancing.
Connor: Yeah. People will be dancing when we stop and it gets quiet and two or three times literally someone yelled out, “Does he die?” And I’m just like, “He’s a Toyota Corolla…”
Vic: So at what point in the song writing process did the interviews come in?
Connor: Well, Aaron and I had talked about it, well… at most maybe a third of the songs were solidly written. And so just the idea of that informed the next third of the album. And then we actually did the interviews and it probably informed the last third of the album or something like that. I don’t know.
Aaron: We wanted to write a research paper for like-
Connor: Yeah. We want to publish a research paper in a fake journal or something.
Aaron: I think the way we did it is a lot better.
Connor: You and I always, when we have ideas, we start up here. It’s like when SpongeBob draws a circle. Everybody knows? (Affirmative!) All right. We started up here with the idea and then we’re just like, “Oh, wait. Actually, all of these things are totally unnecessary and we don’t need them. There’s a perfect circle. That’s easy. Clean, executable.”
Vic: It’s interesting because I feel like a lot of concept albums will feel like maybe an overarching narrative, but it feels almost more like an anthology. Do you think that’s fair?
Connor: Yeah. It’s not a linear narrative for sure. It’s more like a multiverse and then you just pick an instance. And how would these characters have met up if they had done this, or this, or this different in their lives? Why does it work sometimes and not other times? What’s going on here?
Vic: Are all the names real?
Connor: Of the characters on the album?
Connor: No. I make up everything. All the juicy stuff is purely fiction. I pull those details from life and spice stuff up.
Aaron: He’s very literary.
Connor: Yeah. Yeah. I used to write a lot and I don’t write anymore, so I have to channel it somehow. You know?
Connor: And I think it works well with the project.
Vic: Something else I was curious about, which goes into all of this stuff, is there’s a lot of you when you perform. And I’m wondering, how does that process go from the songwriting to the production to putting together what the performance looks like?
Connor: We wonder that too. I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that. Every album has been different.
Emily: Connor typically, I don’t know how the musicians do it, but at least for R&D, once the songs were just about done, I’d say January or February, we got all of them. We’re like, “All right, we have five months to choreograph 11 songs.” And so we were meeting once, twice a week for those five months and basically just vomiting out choreography and different ways of making the choreography. “Something Real,” I did an eight-count or two eight-counts, and then Riko choreographed two eight counts. We’re like, “Okay, put those together. And then Frances, two eight counts.” And so the whole dance is one dancer, another dancer. The choreography just goes like this.
Connor: Shifts a lot, yeah.
Emily: Where it’s just a way of being like, got to make a thing, make it happen. There’s a time crunch.
Connor: Yeah. We tried to give ourselves more space in the future. The first album, I think, was more like that for the musicians. And maybe part of the second and third albums. Because they did more substantial part of the recording stuff. We’re working on a new album now and I’m trying to… I still do all the song writing, but we’re trying to have them help arrange and play the parts together in the studio.
Aaron: Learning it earlier on in the process.
Connor: Yeah, just learn it before it’s made, rather than after it’s made.
Emily: With R&D, it works really well because love is something that everybody can relate to. So it’s like, I can make just choreography from my heart. It’s going to translate. But with the next album that we’re working on-
Connor: It’s heavy.
Emily: … it’s got to be much more thoughtful.
Connor: Yeah. Well, and I think part of that’s because every song on R&D has a very different perspective on love and romantic relationships, so there’s a different flavor of dancing. The next album? I don’t know.
Connor: I got a lot of work to do in the studio before.
Aaron: I’ll just go over to Connor’s house and… We hang out a lot, and so he’ll teach me the keyboard part whenever we’re hanging out. And he’s like, “Hey, you want to learn? What song do you want to go over today?” And then we’ll just sit at the keyboard and-
Connor: If it feels good, we track it.
Connor: It’s been good, I think. It’s just like editing. I’ve already vomited all the ideas up and then we can go in and edit together and turn it into something that sounds like a real song. Not like “Connor just did a bunch of single takes at three in the morning.”
Aaron: I like those versions of the songs. I wasn’t a part of the group when Masc came out, but I still have all of your old demos for those.
Connor: Yeah. The original demos, there’s something special about them. There is. It’s just a quality you could never get in a studio. The emotion and the energy, the first time you have an idea and you’re not sure if it’s going to work and then it does. It’s like, “Wow.” Just really beautiful, it’s hard to capture that.
Vic: So, how did you end up landing on the sonic aesthetic that you have now? Where did that come from?
Connor: This is gonna sound dumb––it’s just a vision, every time. We just have a vision for an album or whatever and I’m like “Yeah, that’s what I wanna hear, that sounds cool.” I don’t know.
Vic: Just intuitive?
Aaron: But there’s also like… I mean, [to Connor] you like coarse guitars. You like, uh, there’s a bunch of little things that you like individually and when you put them together it sounds like 80’s synth pop.
Connor: Yeah, the funny thing is, like, I didn’t listen to a ton of stuff in that genre. Every album that I make I’m just like, “Oh! Here are some sounds that I think are really interesting for this record.
Riko: He literally has like 10 synths in his bedroom. (Everyone chuckles).
Connor: But I use them all! Like all the time.
Riko: 20 guitars, like it’s ridiculous.
Connor: I have like 13 guitars.
Riko: It’s crazy
Connor: But, you need that to accomplish the sonic goals of it. ‘Cause if you just have the same keyboard and the same rig for everything it all sounds the same. Every album I’m intentional about, like, I might even just swap the pick-ups on the guitar I’m recording with. You know, or like, use a different set of amps for a different reverb, different chorus, or whatever. You get a different sound, different gear. Every brand of synth has their own, like, completely sonic different sound. Which I’m excited ‘cause our first record, our first two records, were like Korg, and then Korg and Novation synths mostly. And then after that we used a lot of Roland synths, which is why the last one sounded so especially 80’s because they’re all very 80’s sounding synths. And then we’re gonna use a Prolog, which is very modern, but it’s called analog synth. So, it’ll be a much different sound from the last record. I also work at a gear shop. So it’s like, every day you wake up and you see the instruments. Like, at work, all day everyday. When you’re making an album it’s like making a dish. You’re like “Ooh! So many ingredients!” You know? “Maybe I’ll just take some oregano, a little pasta.” (everyone laughs) “If I add this it’s really gonna spice it up! Secret ingredient! No one’s gonna hear this comin’.
Vic: What part of the process do the visuals start coming in?
Aaron: We’re already thinking about design stuff. Julio is.
Riko: Julio does the design. He has all of these, like, image boards of inspiration and things. So that definitely goes into costuming, or what the dance looks like-
Connor: I usually have an aesthetic vision for the album. By the time I’m ready to start looking at a set of songs as if they’re an album, I kinda have an idea for like, it’s these colors it’s these tones it’s like this kind of type or this kind of whatever. I think that to really have a holistic picture you kinda have to think about it all at once. And then Julio and I usually meet, we’ve been meeting for a couple weeks, and we talk about that vision, and then we translate it into an aesthetic that everybody can work with. And every album, like the visual aesthetic has turned out exactly like I imagined it early on, and, also surprisingly exciting. Julio does a really good job of taking that vision and then executing on it and turning it into what people see as the face of TC Superstar. Every album we’re trying to be a little more collaborative in different ways. I don’t think we’ll ever record or choreograph any two albums the exact same way.
Julio: It’s an evolving process for sure.
Connor: I think by the time we’ve been playing an album for a year, we’re like “Okay, let’s do something different.” Like, I was so in love with this when we started, not that we get tired of it, but it’s like you’ve created muscles you need to flex. So we’ll see what our next flex is.
Vic: Any ideas what that’s gonna be? What’s next?
Connor: Yea, I got––right now it’s a 19 track album. But we’ll see. It might grow, it might narrow down a lot. But it’s all about American culture. I’m trying to look at it through the same lens I did with the last album. So like, how is this self-reflexive, in what ways are people, myself included, too consumeristic, and spend too much time on entertainment and aren’t politically active, and don’t treat their neighbors nicely, and they’re selfish. You know, it’s all very real. So, we’re looking at that.
Vic: Are all of the themes for all of the different albums just stuff that kinda like (snaps) just comes up to you?
Connor: It’s whatever I’ve kinda just been thinking about for the past six months or whatever. I think about a lot of stuff and usually there’s a thread and I’m like okay, I can channel this. I can channel this and make something. My brain is a little hyperactive, maybe.
Vic: Well I appreciate it because it makes good stuff.
Connor: Thanks. (Everyone laughs)