"Music is my day job," said Stuart Bogie, a musician, composer and producer from Brooklyn, N.Y., and founder of the band Superhuman Happiness, which will perform at MASS MoCA on Feb. 2.
For each member of the seven-piece band, music is literally a full-time job, with clients from all over the world and projects ranging from documentary film scoring to voiceovers for animation.
Superhuman Happiness is a creative melting pot, made richer by the experiences of its members. "Anything you create is going to be informed by your life experience," said Bogie. "So as wide as that is, as it deep as that is, you want it all to go in there some way."
Most members of Superhuman Happiness also are involved with the Brooklyn-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, which has inspired listeners around the world since the 1990s and helped re-popularize the Afrobeat genre created by Fela Kuti and others in the 1970s. The style is a mixture of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music, funk, jazz and chanted vocals, all held together by high-energy, syncopated rhythms.
Bogie joined Antibalas as a saxophone player when he moved to New York in the late 1990s. He and guitarist Luke O’Malley, also a member of Antibalas, formed the production company Physical Music in 2007, and produced the first Superhuman Happiness album, "Fall Down Seven Times Stand Up Eight," in 2007.
Physical Music recently produced the soundtrack to the Academy award-nominated documentary film "How to Survive a Plague," which follows the work of AIDS activist groups ACT UP and Treatment Action Group in pressuring drug companies and other groups to improve policies surrounding AIDS treatment. The score features music by Superhuman Happiness and Kronos Quartet, and blends electronic and live sounds. The film is currently showing at independent movie theaters around the country.
Since 2008, Superhuman Happiness has explored all kinds of musical ideas and recording techniques, combining electronic and traditional elements - all while retaining the driving, integrated rhythms of Afrobeat.
In forming Superhuman Happiness, Bogie wanted to bring together a focused and compatible group of musical voices. "And I think the significant thing is that the personnel was chosen by who they are as artists and people, as opposed to, ‘we need a guy who can play this instrument’ or ‘we need a guy who can fit into this costume,’ which is how some roles are filled. This one was by personality."
Good chemistry is essential in maneuvering the complex rhythms of Afrobeat, which require members to tune in to each other and respond as a group. The style often requires the entire band to act as a rhythm section.
Superhuman Happiness consists of Luke O’Malley on guitar; multimedia artist Ryan Ferreira on guitar; Minerva Lions frontman Jared Samuel on keyboards; Eric Biondo, touring member of the Monkees and founder of Beyondo, on trumpet; Nikhil Yerawedekar, founder of Low Mentality, on bass; and Miles Arntzen, founder of the ten-piece Afro-rock band EMEFE, on drums.
"In rehearsal there’s a lot of instrument switching," said Bogie. "In performance it really just depends on the circumstances. But the band is so ridiculously talented that everybody onstage could make the album playing every instrument. I mean, we wouldn’t have each other, which is a key component, but everybody in the band plays many instruments."
Bogie plays saxophone and percussion, but sees his main role in the band as that of an organizer. "I think my main instrument is kind of keeping the guys together, and watching the magic happen," he said. "My favorite moments onstage are when I’m playing some percussion, and watching these guys create something incredible."
Despite its collective experience, Superhuman Happiness is still in its beginnings, Bogie said. "We gigged for a few years at Zebulon, a famed club in Brooklyn Š and we did some experiments with different sorts of recording, but three years ago, we found this membership and committed to writing an album together. So this is really the coming out of the band."
The performances at Club Zebulon, which often coalesced into ecstatic dance parties, helped the group develop its live personality and explore songs and ideas through extended improvisations.
While each member brings a range of musical expereinces to the band, the idea is not simply to catalog a wide range of styles, Bogie said. "It’s more that Superhuman Happiness is an organization so that we don’t have to play all these different musics. It’s a concentrated point, as opposed to one that’s spreading out. It’s a coming together of everyone’s intensions."
The band’s newest album, "Hands," to be released March 5 on Royal Potato Family, is the result of a yearlong experiment in collaborative songwriting. The band used a process they call intentional collaboration, Bogie said, "which is a balance of musical games, and generating creative ideas together, along with some structure. So there’s some oversight and a lot of collective composition."
"We’re pursuing the construction of compositions the same way you and I might improvise a shelter in a forest," he said. "We talk about it and we share goals together artistically."
While improvisation plays a central role in the band’s music, Bogie hesitates to give it the full spotlight. "Improvisation is an exercise. It helps us explore textures Š and we’ll also improvise in performances," he said. But there are performances where the band will not improvise at all, apart from the solos, he said.
Within the band’s more structured approach to music, especially in the studio, improvisation is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. When recording an album, "We want it to feel live, but we also love records that have a lot of production on them, with all the electronic music," Bogie said. "But there’s nothing like the touch of a human hand on the instruments. You get addicted to home cooking."