Interview with Super Unison vocalist/bassist Meghan O’Neil Pennie | By Ben Sailer
When Punch announced they were calling it quits shortly after releasing their critically acclaimed 2014 full-length, They Don’t Have To Believe, the hardcore scene was stunned. The dissolution of Philadelphia emo outfit Snowing caused a similar reaction; the band were rapidly rising to the forefront of their genre when they split up. The timing was unpredictable in both cases: one act fresh off their biggest release to date, and the other reaching the peak of their popularity. Each breakup also left fans with more questions than answers, building mystique around what might come next.
This backstory is essential for understanding the growing excitement around Oakland, California’s Super Unison. Featuring vocalist Meghan O’Neil Pennie of Punch and drummer Justin Renninger of Snowing, the noisy post-hardcore three-piece—rounded out by guitarist Kevin DeFranco—made an immediate impact with a self-titled four-song EP in the first half of 2015. News that members of two beloved yet stylistically disparate bands had started something new was enough to earn headlines by itself. It was also enough to get the attention of Rolling Stone, who named the band one of “10 Bands You Need To Know” in May of that year.
“Both of my bandmates are from Philadelphia, Kevin and Justin,” O’Neil Pennie says. “Kevin and Justin were playing music together, with our old guitarist Danny [Goot] too. I knew Kevin at the time, and he approached me—it was just after Punch broke up—about singing for the band, and I later said I wanted to play bass as well.”
If Super Unison felt any pressure to deliver under anyone else’s expectations, however, it doesn’t show. On their debut full-length, Auto—out Oct. 14 via Deathwish Inc.—Super Unison sound confident and self-assured, delivering a dozen sharp blasts of discordant post-hardcore. Abrasive without being metallic, melodic without being pop, and familiar without being derivative, it’s an aggressive yet accessible take on modern punk that isn’t afraid to color between the lines. Their sound channels everything from Drive Like Jehu—from whom the band derived their name—to Sleater-Kinney, infusing ‘90s post-hardcore and riot grrrl influences with tasteful rock ‘n’ roll swagger.
While traces of the members’ legacy acts are present, Auto makes it immediately evident that Super Unison is its own entity. Whereas Punch delivered punishing hardcore at all times, Super Unison opts for guitars with more breathing room, giving O’Neil Pennie space to expand her range while holding down a driving bass presence. DeFranco’s guitar playing adds pedal-driven texture, unafraid to carry jagged melody lines over serrated riffage. There’s no apparent template here, and as O’Neil Pennie explains, the band don’t shoot down ideas for not fitting any sort of mold. “We don’t feel like we have to limit ourselves in terms of genre or what it has to sound like,” she says. “Sometimes, Kevin will show us a part he’s written and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s a Super Unison song.’ But, I’m always like, ‘Well, it can be.’ I don’t want to have these clear-cut definitions of what’s a Super Unison part. It’s just more fun not to limit yourself.”
This sense of creative freedom and independent spirit makes it impossible to pin down Super Unison as a simple “ex-members of” band. In fact, attempting to understand their present by looking at their past may cause many to miss what makes them such a compelling outfit. While band breakups often result in members playing it safe and splintering into similar sounding acts, Super Unison have started fresh without concern for stylistic boundaries. And for a group with such a strong cross-genre pedigree and a debut LP on deck for one of hardcore’s most respected labels, their focus remains refreshingly simple…
Three friends playing passionate punk rock for its own sake and free from pretense. “We’re along for the ride,” O’Neil Pennie says. “What’s important to us is writing and playing shows. Of course, I’m sure all three of us have different goals, but I think it’s nicer just to see what happens.”
BONUS Q&A with vocalist/bassist Meghan O’Neil Pennie!
Going from Punch to Super Unison, the sound is definitely more melodic. How have Punch fans responded to the sound of Super Unison?
I’ve actually been very pleased that people have been onboard. I didn’t really know what to think. I remember the first time that we put up a song, and I had it shared on the Punch page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I don’t know, I just thought, with Punch, there were already people who were hardcore purists who—I don’t know, I just thought there’d be people who’d be like, “Oh, I can’t believe she’s singing differently” or “doing a different thing.” So, I was really pleasantly surprised how supportive people were.
It’s enjoyable to find a different way to express myself, to just try something different. It’s been pretty positive, but honestly, I do it for myself. We don’t do it necessarily just to cater to people. You know what I mean? I don’t know a nice way to put that. That’s why I’m hesitating [laughs].
That’s perfectly legitimate.
I’m glad the Punch fans are onboard. It feels nice to have that support. But. I joined another band because I wanted to be in another band and I wanted to continue making music. That’s the motivation.
From a lyrical perspective, were there any consistent themes you ran with on this record?
There is an overarching theme if you’re following along. I read a lot to get the creative juices flowing. There is an overarching theme, but not every song is on it, because I used lyric writing as catharsis to process things. So, I might be on-theme mostly, but then, have a shitty day and things I need to deal with, and then, go write about it and come back to the theme.
But, yeah, there’s an overall theme of expressing yourself and making space for other people to express themselves, taking other people at their word for their experiences.
Was there any particular inspiration behind the title for this record, Auto?
Yeah, but I’m going to keep it vague to be honest [laughs]. I don’t like to spell things out too much. It just loses a little bit too much of the—I can’t think of the word. Romance or whatever. I would rather people interpret it for themselves. I think it sounds really corny if I’m like, “It’s called Auto, because this!” I just kind of let things unfold a little bit.
People are going to interpret things the way they want.
Totally, and I’ve always liked that. I mean, there’s getting misunderstood, which I don’t want. But then, I had the experience with Punch when people said, “These lyrics meant this to me and helped me with this thing,” and although that’s separate from where I started, that’s a beautiful thing. I never want to take that away from someone and say, “No, that’s how you should interpret this, and this is how it should make you feel.”
What was your experience like working with Jack Shirley in the studio?
It was great. I’m really comfortable around Jack. We have a very great friendship. I just feel very at ease, and I feel like that’s a good environment for creativity. I don’t have to feel self-conscious about him or try to be cool or whatever. There’s not a lot of pretense there. I think he’s probably like that with most people, because he’s a very easy guy to get along with.
Because we are friends, he’ll give me feedback too, like “Try this” or “I want you to try to say it like this instead.”
So, there’s a little bit of collaboration there, maybe?
Yeah, yeah, on certain things, because he knows us. We’d definitely say, “What do you think, Jack?” A lot of times, he’ll just be like, “Whatever you guys want.” He kind of lets you do your own thing, but if you ask him, he definitely [offers input].
“Collaborate” is maybe a strong word, because this record is just so much of just Kevin’s and mine. He had very specific ideas of things he wanted to do, and I thought it was really fun to just let him loose [laughs]. With Jack, you have the space to do that. I lean on Jack a little more, being like, “What do you think?”
In terms of ambitions that go beyond just satisfying creative intent—how much you can tour and how much you can expect to record—do you have any set goals for what you want to accomplish or what you reasonably think you can do? Or is the aim to just take it as far as you can?
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of ambition about it. I’ve done so much more than I ever thought I could with music. We all want to keep writing, we want to keep recording, and do tours for sure. It’s just one thing at a time. It’s just like, “OK, we’re putting out our first LP.” What’s next? “OK, where have we not toured in the U.S.?” OK, we’re going to do that in October. Then, we’ll see what the next step is.
Super Unison will be touring on the following dates:
10/21 – Oakland, CA @ 1,2,3,4 Go!
10/23 – Los Angeles, CA @ All Star Lanes
10/24 – Tempe, AZ @ 51 West
10/25 – El Paso, TX @ DIY Punk Haus
10/26 – Austin, TX @ Shirley’s Temple
10/27 – New Orleans, LA @ Neutral Grounds
10/28 – Birmingham, AL @ Firehouse
10/30 – Gainesville, FL @ The Fest 15 at The Atlantic