If you’re panning for a new punk band to adore, Super Unison are pure gold. Vocalist/bassist Mehgan O’Neill Pennie, guitarist Kevin DeFranco and drummer Justin Renninger produce a hard-hitting, empowering, complex sound that nods briefly to its predecessors while moving forward to a scene of its own. We sat down with the band and talked about writing their first album, Auto, confronting feelings and moshing to Korn.
This is your debut album on Deathwish Inc. As a band you’re pretty young, but you’ve all been involved in other projects and you’ve worked with Jack Shirley before, so was this kind of an easy record to put together?
Meghan O’Neil Pennie: Kevin’s very prolific, so I think that we had a lot of material to work with. It was easy in that sense and working with Jack was really easy.
Kevin DeFranco: People do albums differently, like a traditional band that has a lot of money will go into a studio for a month or two at a time and they’ll write the album in the studio. We did this full-length in like three days.
Meghan: Two and a half.
Justin Renninger: Didn’t we track everything in a day?
Meghan: We tracked everything in a day and a half and then I did a day for vocals.
Kevin: Even a band like our label mates Oathbreaker — they had three weeks booked in the studio. Every band has a different process.
Meghan: We went in there pretty ready to go.
Kevin: I had the record completely written already. Front to back. The way I envisioned it was like, “This is the opener song, this is the closer song.” I pretty much had it written in the form, completely as a flowing record already. So, all we had to go in there and do was record. It’s crazy. I think some of the songs on the record are one-take. Honesty, they’re my favorites.
Meghan: Some of the vocals, too. Not all of them, but there was a lot where we were like, “Okay! Next!”
Kevin: I would say 40% of the record is one-take vocal and guitar shit. That’s how Jack works and that’s kind of how we work. We would record a song and then look around and Jack would be like, “You feel comfortable with that?” and we were like, “Yeah”, and [Jack]’s like, “Alright that song’s done. Move along.”
Meghan: We did kind of bang it out.
Justin: He set up super quick, too. I’ve done records where it’s like 8 hours of getting snare sound. Jack’s just like, “Oh, cool.”
Meghan: “You like that? Okay, next!”
Kevin: So basically the process was more before the recording. Getting everything really, really super tight so by the time you go in there it’s second nature. You can bang something out in one take and feel completely comfortable with it. Pretty much every song went like that unless you made some type of flub. And even minor flubs, you can copy and paste. Unless you did something major, everything was one-take, that’s it. That was this record. That’s not the approach I want to take on the next one. I don’t know if that’s part of the question.
(Drawing comparisons to Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, we talked about the two groups—Super Unison feel much more akin to Sleater-Kinney.) Who are some artists who inspired you all early on?
Kevin: I’ll at least take this question [laughs]. From the beginning definitely Nirvana really inspired me to pick up a guitar. My uncle was really into Nirvana. I have a really young family and my uncle was a young person when the whole grunge thing was going on. He gave me my first guitar and also my first Nirvana CD and then would teach me to play those songs. I would lock myself in the room teaching myself to play those songs. And from there, it was looking at Nirvana’s liner notes and seeing the bands they thanked. They were thanking bands like The Wipers, Melvins, stuff like that. So I’d check out that stuff. That was my young guitar playing. The stuff that really inspired this record is what I’ve been listening to for years. My music taste really hasn’t changed in the last, I want to say 15 years. The bands that really inspire me are from Olympia in the 90s. Unwound is probably one of my favorite bands ever. Polvo. Just really unique, weird guitar stuff. Stuff that stands out. I want to use the word discordant. I like simple, straightforward punk, but the stuff that has caught my ear is a mix of straightforward punk but also has a very weird… Sonic Youth has some weird tuning. Anything interesting that’s a little bit different. Almost unsettling to the ear. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to the band Polvo very much. They were weird, Sonic Youth-esque and a lot of it is unsettling. There’s nothing straightforward about it. Some of the strings are tuneddown to an ungodly level where you can hear the strings shaking on the recording but the others are tuned perfectly and ringing out nicely. It’s a dichotomy of chaos and beauty at the same time. That really appeals to me. I try to do stuff like that. Play a real heavy chord, but put a fucking really watery chorus pedal over it. It seems like it shouldn’t be. This really heavy part, but it has this pretty pedal over it. I like weird dichotomies of things that shouldn’t coexist, kind of chaotic. That’s what really inspires me.
Shouldn’t work, but it works.
Kevin: Exactly, music that gives you anxiety.
So, in Punch you were at 1,000%. Is it ever hard to dial back?
Meghan: [Laughs] No, it’s not.
I know some people I’ve talked to are uncomfortable doing the lighter stuff. Are you like that?
Meghan: I think that 10 years ago when I started playing music, if I had started singing the way I do now I would’ve been really uncomfortable and never able to do it in front of people. Like, I could only sing in my car or when I’m alone kind of thing. Doing 10 years of screaming in front of people has made me more comfortable and made it possible for me to even sing cleaner. I just feel more comfortable as a performer and trying out different things and I just want to continue to do that. Try different stuff.
The “You Don’t Tell Me” lyrics — I feel like that’s something every woman relates to. I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but was there a certain event that inspired that?
Meghan: Well, there was. There was a day when I got really frustrated with being belittled by an older dude for no reason. But the offense itself is so minor. It’s those little micro aggressions that add up. So was that particularly horrible, the way that guy talked to me? Yes and no. But when it happens all the time and adds up. That was just the day it boiled over. And so it makes me think of a particular instance. I process a lot of things through lyrics and it’s a good way to almost empower yourself. So maybe in that moment you can scream at the guy or whatever you want to do or tell him to fuck off — depends on the situation. To be able to write it and process it and tell other women, yeah, we all go through this. It fucking sucks to be underestimated and belittled and we’re better than that. For me, I’m like maybe that guy doesn’t know my deal or what I’m capable of, but I do and that’s good enough for me.
Has it always been important that your music means something? Listening to the album it felt like it meant something.
Kevin: I’m sure it’s different person to person, but I just want to music to be really good and timeless. That’s all I care about. I just want to the music to be good because that’s me as a musician.
Meghan: And that’s meaningful.
Kevin: I appreciate good music, that’s just what I like. I don’t care about art or anything.
Meghan: That’s your art! No, but that’s meaningful to you if you don’t want to just put something out there that’s been heard before or that doesn’t resonate with you.
Kevin: When I write a song I don’t go out of my way to do something that somebody’s not doing. I want to say it in the least pretentious way… I try to be cognizant at this stage. I’ve grown up playing in punk bands my whole life and I’ve gotten to a point recently where I’ve focused my energy on trying to create my own niche of, “What can I do that’s distinct?” I’m not saying that I’ve done that, by any means, but that’s my end game. I would love to be able to as least try to accomplish something that’s unique I guess. To me, that would be the greatest compliment that I could receive.
As far as song-length, the closer/title track (“Auto”) is over twice as long as some of the other songs, mostly because it has a long instrumental outro. Are you going to do longer songs? This album in general is longer than the EP…
Kevin: Absolutely. There’s going to be a thematic thing. Should I give that away, about the next record…?
Meghan: Yeah, I mean I don’t think that there’s a limit where we would sit down and be like, “This song needs to be a least 2:13!” I’ve noticed that when we’re writing now the songs are longer.
Kevin: There is no songwriting process, honestly. It’s just I write whatever comes out.
Meghan: Exactly, there aren’t rules on it.
Kevin: I guess there’s probably some type of internal reason why songs I was writing a year ago were 2 minutes and songs I’m writing now are 5 minutes.
Justin: I feel like we come from a place of short songs though, too.
Meghan: That’s what we’re used to.
Justin: Yeah, brevity is a good thing. Don’t overstay your welcome kind of deal. I was talking to Kevin the other day about how Metallica songs feel like they’re 4 minute too long.
Kevin: They’re very repetitive.
Justin: Very repetitive. You could cut those songs in half.
Kevin: That’s the funny part. As long as the parts are really good, you don’t even notice the repetition. You can listen to a good part ten times in a row. To answer your question directly, we have talked about this. The new songs on whatever we do in the future are going to be longer. They already are. That’s the direction we’re going.
“I want it to be like, this is how I dealt with the situation and someone can feel that and it empowers them. It’s not only about empowering myself to get through things. If it could help other people too that’s great.”
When recording, do you think you spent a lot more time on one specific song compared to the others?
Meghan: Not really.
Kevin: Maybe the last one. Whatever songs have two guitar parts on them. All of the songs that have two guitar parts on them on the record, I literally wrote those parts in the studio. There were a couple of trial and error things. I knew I wanted to have different, concordant melodies on a couple songs but I didn’t have them planned out. There were definitely a couple of songs where I knew I wanted to do something but didn’t know what it was. Maybe I should have been more prepared, but it worked out fine. The last song, the ending, the second guitar part — there was a lot of, “I’m gonna do something here but I don’t know what it is.” There were a few takes where I’d do this and then that and we chose one and then more straightforward songs that we played all the way through. Anything but the second guitar part I wrote on the spot in the studio, so we spent extra time on that trying to figure it out. I did a couple of different things and we chose whatever was best. The whole outro on the record I had in my head but didn’t know how it was going to go. I originally wanted to do it on acoustic guitar and there was a take of acoustic guitar. I feel like the last song is probably the one, because there were two guitars and I was trying to figure out that outro for a while and how to place the sample in there.
Meghan: Otherwise, we went in with complete songs.
Kevin: Other than the second guitar parts, everything structure-wise was completely written. Little nuances were added later.
Meghan: When you hear it back, you’re kind of like, “Oh, plug something in there, this is missing…”
Kevin: As far as the meat of things, everything was 95% to 99% completed.
This record was mixed in February, so did you record in February too?
Meghan: Yeah, vinyl takes a long time to be pressed now…
Kevin: It took forever to come out.
Since you did that so fast, and the EP was just a little before that, have you started working on album #2 already?
Kevin: Absolutely, it’s half written already.
So, next year? Very soon?
Kevin: April’s when we want to record it.
Meghan: We’ll see. We like to be prepared. And, like we were saying, we want to put more time into it.
Kevin: It’s gonna be different than the process for this one.
Meghan: Yeah, it’ll be a different process. Just take the time to make sure that we added what we want to add, have all the texture that we want and just make sure that it’s not rushed so that there’s no regret. I just want it to be really full and, you know, a lot going on so I want to make sure we have the space and the time for that.
Kevin: This record I’m very proud of, but when I listen back to it now… There hasn’t been a time I listened back to it that I haven’t caught something that I wished I could change or something that I wanted to add or something that bothered me. It’s been nonstop. So I’ve been taking notes of all that and I’ve made it a very cognizant thing in my head that the next record isn’t going to be like that because this record is like that when I listen back to it because it was recorded in two and a half days. This next record is going to be at least a week, but same deal–totally rehearsed songs
Meghan: Yeah, we’ll go in ready to go. But then listen back and add more guitar sounds, add more instrumentation, add more vocals. Really make sure that we have everything we want.
So now you just have a plan that next time you do this better and that better?
Meghan: The thing is, even though we’ve done a lot really fast, as you said, we are relatively young band so it’s like when I have moments like, “Oh we’re touring and we’re getting this right and people are hearing us.” It’s our first record and we’ve been a band for two years. We’re still growing and all really looking forward to the next one because we’re still hashing some stuff out.
Kevin: But to answer your question, the process — I never look at it like, “Did you start writing this one already? I never stop writing.” I don’t look at it like, “This song is going to be on this record.” My process when I look at that type of stuff is I just write constantly and record and demo my stuff that I write and then it’s like, “This is what I have and whatever’s good will be on the record.”
Meghan: Whatever fits together thematically and all that.
So the first song and the last song on this record, you had the song, but the intro and outro… did you add that later?
Kevin: That was very cognizant. The way that I write, that was very calculated. I contradicted myself… It’s weird because I wrote that record writing a record. It’s different. I had songs that I wrote, but we decided to do a record and I still had all these songs that I had written anyway ‘cause I just write songs. So it was like, “We’re going to do a record, and I just focused on that.” I took the songs that I already had and the ones I was going to write in the future and decided that’s what I was going to focus on. It turned into, “Okay I have all these songs that I’ve been writing and I’m writing songs currently. Now I’m going to focus on a full length.” And when I focused on that it’s like, “Alright, now I’m going to write this full-length and here’s the opener song and this is how the record’s going to open. This is how the record’s going to close. This is the outro for the record.” Once I have the task of, “Okay, I’m writing a record now, that’s what I’ll focus my attention to.”
Meghan: The moment we recorded, the next day you were like, “Next!” and just kept writing because you are always writing. So you had all these songs, put a parentheses around 12 of them and focused on those and when they were recorded it was back to your creative process continuing. It’s hard to keep up with you, Kev.
Justin: You’re literally already writing another release.
Meghan: It’s constantly us getting voice memos of Kevin doing riffs on his roof.
Back to lyric stuff, in the past your lyrics have been confrontational and direct. You can tell what they’re about. Do you feel like these songs are more personal and vague?
Meghan: Yeah, because I do write personal stuff because it helps me process my feelings and if it’s personal and I may be writing a song about someone to help me process my feelings about them, I don’t want to put them on blast like, “This song is about this person!” That’s not fair. If shit’s going on, I have to deal with it and this is how I’m going to do that. I think the most personal and confrontational song on the record [“Broken”], while I may keep the subject matter private, it’s so good for me to sing it. I was going through shit, I wrote a thing and sometimes I may wait and forget how I feel about it or feel unsure and then I sing it and I’m like, “Fuck yeah.” Your feelings are valid. You felt this way. You still feel this way. It’s a good reminder to myself. I can only write about what I’m thinking about and I don’t set out to write a song about this and this, you know?
“… because I do write personal stuff because it helps me process my feelings and if it’s personal and I may be writing a song about someone to help me process my feelings about them, I don’t want to put them on blast like, ‘This song is about this person!’ That’s not fair. If shit’s going on, I have to deal with it and this is how I’m going to do that.”
All of your songs are in the first person, so…
Meghan: [Sighs] I know!!
No! It’s not a bad thing! I feel like when you listen back to them and you’re listening to it and you’re thinking “I” it makes it more relatable.
Meghan: Totally, I want that to happen. Even when you’re staying a little vague, if you were to say, “This song is about my friend or my thing, Meghan’s thing”, I want it to be like, this is how I dealt with the situation and someone can feel that and it empowers them. It’s not only about empowering myself to get through things. If it could help other people too that’s great. And that’s also why I like not spelling things out. I read a review the other day that really got into lyrics and what songs meant and they got it wrong. Not wrong, but that’s not what I meant. But that’s a positive message too, so that interpretation I’m fine with that. Unless someone was like, “This song’s about being an asshole!” or something shitty, I would be like, “No!” Otherwise, they are up for interpretation and that’s more than okay with me to be like, “Maybe she was singing about this thing that happened to her and it empowered me in my own situation.” That’s a beautiful thing. That’s amazing. I wasn’t trying to be confrontational before and I’m not trying not to now. I don’t have a plan.
I feel like confrontational wasn’t the right word. Honest? Not trying to bury it beneath metaphors.
Kevin: Confrontation’s good though. Music is so boring. Honestly, music is so boring… It really is. I get bored so often, but anything that’s striking, confrontational music is great.
Meghan: I’m not going to shy away from that stuff, you know?
Kevin: It depends on what you consider confrontational. You can say GG Allin was confrontational. [laughs] It depends. There are levels of that for sure. Good confrontational, something that brings up something that actually means something that could connect to multiple people.
Meghan: Working out issues. Processing your feelings and that kind of stuff.
Kevin: There’s so much that’s so sterile. I don’t know how to describe it. All that comes to my head is white sheets on a bed. So boring.
Meghan: If Super Unison were a pair of sheets…
Kevin: I don’t want to be white sheets.
That was actually the next question! [laughs] If you were a duvet cover, what color would you be?
Meghan: [Laughs] Burgundy… I don’t know!
Justin: Make sure that’s on the record.
Kevin: What type of sheets would we be?
What duvet would you be? Or sheets? Twin? Double king? [laughs]
Kevin: Oh don’t get me started with my bedding. [laughs] I don’t even want to start breaking that down. I have a mattress topper, multiple body pillows…
Meghan: [Laughs] I think what he’s trying to say is, you know, some music does play it safe and I don’t think, when it comes to music or lyrics, that we have rules about what it should or shouldn’t be.
Kevin: And life in general. I like my music how I like my life.
Meghan: Fucked up? [Laughs] Just kidding.
Kevin: [Laughs] No! I just don’t want to be bored. I just want to be comfortably engaged and interested and that’s few and far between the older I get.
Justin: There’s not much challenging shit out there.
Kevin: I want to be challenged. I want to be engaged and, it just might be getting older, but the older I get the less engaged I get. When you’re young and getting into punk you’re super fucking impressed and it’s like, “Oh my god this is a new thing.” I’m in my fucking thirties now and there’s a part of me that’s like, “Oh man I’ve heard it all and I’m constantly seeking something that’s going to engage me, surprise me, something that’s dangerous, anything that’s discordant…”
What have you been listening to on the road?
Justin: [To Kevin] Hold on, hold on! You don’t get a say in this, I get to tell it. This is every time you tour with.
Kevin: There are different sections. This tour started out with a section…
Meghan: We haven’t done nu-metal yet!
Wait, like Korn and Limp Bizkit?
Kevin: I lost my tooth moshing at Korn.
Justin: Exactly one year ago on Halloween, Kevin and I went to see Korn and he got his tooth knocked out.
Meghan: Being without a tooth really suits you.
Justin: Okay, what we listen to on the road…
Meghan: So, Kevin DJs and sometimes he takes requests, but mostly he just tells us to unpair with the speaker so he can DJ. [laughs]
Justin: There’s always a riff section. It starts with Metallica.
Kevin: There’s hip-hop in there.
Justin: Big L comes on at some point.
Kevin: Yeah, I love Big L.
Meghan: He tells us we don’t know shit about it.
Justin: There’s definitely a section that’s just Kevin. Kevin playing his old bands.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s true.
Justin: Kevin and I were in a band. We’ve been friends for 15 years and we were in a band years ago.
Kevin: If you want to listen to riffs you might as well listen to your goddamn own. [Everyone laughs]
Meghan: And there’s always the Philly band section.
Justin: We grew up in this area in Pennsylvania called the Lehigh Valley and they had a really awesome punk scene there. Like, Pissed Jeans is from there and they had a band called Ultimate Warriors and Gate Crashers. So we’ll always listen to that.
Meghan: And then there’s the Olympia section, like Unwound and Hole and all that. All the voice memos on Kevin’s phone…
Justin: We listened to our new record to make sure…
Meghan: We did?!
Justin: Sorry, not the new record. The demos. New songs.
Meghan: Oh yeah, we did.
Justin: Because we haven’t listened to those as a group. I like to try to sneak in bands. Like, I really like the new Mannequin Pussy record.
Meghan: Yeah you do. [To Kevin] We got an eye roll on that one. We got two eye rolls! [laughs]
Justin: Why?! That’s a good record.
Oh, now three! How many can we get?
Meghan: Ahh the night is young in Kevin’s eyes. It’s old as shit to me, but…
Kevin: You wanna hear some songs from the new record?
Meghan & Justin: No! She does not!