Superorganism and the Charming Bizarreness of ‘Browser Tab Pop’

The multinational music-and-art collective embraces the anarchic weirdness of internet culture.

Photo by Jordan Hughes

How would you describe the nature of pop music today? Mainstream stars proudly brag about aping artists who toil in obscurity or who have long been forgotten. Indie musicians cite populist radio acts as their inspiration. The difference between platinum pop royalty and fresh-faced newcomers is indiscernible, as artists of all stripes embrace the boundary-less musical landscape of the internet.

So what to call this new phenomenon, where songs flit rapidly from one mood to the next, blending high and low in quick succession? Based on the musings of Christopher Young — aka Harry, the one-named producer and multi-instrumentalist for the pan-continental group Superorganism — the best label for this amorphous new genre could be Browser Tab Pop.

“I’m working on a song right now, and I have a massive amount of tabs open on my laptop,” says Harry, whose group plays the Great American Music Hall on April 16. “There are maybe five different articles where I’ve read between 30 percent and 80 percent of the story, and I’ll probably finish them all today. There is this constant context-changing that happens in our lives, and everyone’s attention span is affected so dramatically. It feels natural to cram a lot of different ideas into a two-to-three-minute pop song.”

No group defines the rapid tab-switching of today’s music better than Superorganism, a collection of web-browsing, pseudonymous music nerds from across the globe who met while geeking out over online forum discussions.

Superorganism songs are strange creations that meander loquaciously along, mirroring the laid-back approach of Orono, the baby-faced teenager who fronts the group (and who recently graduated from high school in Maine). Odd soundbites are inserted randomly into each track, and there is a motorik cadence that resembles post-rock pioneers Stereolab, only with the tempo slowed down to a molasses pace. Shockingly, it all works — there are hooks aplenty in the Superorganism oeuvre, with the weirdest bits of ear worms living in each song. Disarming upon first listen, these tunes beg to be played multiple times.

“I think we all like music that is familiar and accessible, but also a little sketchy,” says Harry, who grew up in England before moving to New Zealand as a teenager. “We are not into stuff that’s deliberately obtuse and discordant. We like music that’s almost sugary-sweet melodically, but also at the same time, it’s great to have subversive elements that throw off your expectations. It’s a weird contradiction, but it works for us.”

Saying that contradiction merely “works” is considerably underselling the success of the group. Superorganism’s oddly winning formula has attracted the attention of heavy-hitters such as Frank Ocean and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who were both early admirers. Their championing of Superorganism’s eclectic sound provided a credibility boost for a band that has struggled at times to shift the focus from their unique origin story to the collective’s inarguable talent.

To repeat (very briefly) that oft-cited background, Superorganism includes members from locales across the globe, including New Zealand, England, and Japan, and the group put together the material for its 2018 self-titled debut album from remote locations.

Yet Superorganism stands out not because its members grew up in different countries, but because of their embrace of the internet and its democratizing principles. As seen by Carly Rae Jepsen name-checking someone as obscure as the late (and great) Richard Swift, the virtual world flattens fame, putting pop stars on the same level as indie rock musicians. Harry and his pals met over their mutual appreciation for esoteric artists, but they shared just as much love for hit-making pop stars.

“I always think about when my dad was young, you either liked disco or punk. You couldn’t like both — well, unless you were David Byrne or Debbie Harry,” Harry says. “If my dad was going to spend money on a record, he wanted to make sure it sounded like The Stooges or The Ramones, because he was paying a lot of money. Now I have the luxury to not define myself like that, which means I can listen to a playlist that has both The Ramones and The Bee Gees.”

Further bolstering their reputation as Wagneresque devourers of culture, Superorganism devotes just as much time to the visual, written, and artistic elements, with some of the members’ roles listed as dancers and painters. The internet isn’t just a breeding ground for music exploration, but a place to indulge a love for cinema, art, and literature, Harry says. A Superorganism song could be just as indebted to a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode as to a Beach Boys album.

All of this could sound highfalutin or gimmicky, if everything about the music didn’t coalesce so naturally. There is a reason this group is playing Coachella and embarking on a multi-month tour this year — their songs are expertly crafted, lovingly developed, and impeccably reflective of the schizophrenic music culture of today.

“I think about a band like Daft Punk — they’re one of my favorite artists of all time, but they also have one of the most famous gimmicks in music history,” says Harry. “If it wasn’t for the quality of the music they produced, they would be just two robots.”

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s project is a great touchstone for Superorganism. Behind the masks, it always felt like those two Frenchmen were peering somehow into the future — looking at the musical landscape still to come. If they did have those visionary capabilities, Superorganism is the band they would have been: a fearless group, unbound by barriers or restrictions. In this limitless world, it is inevitable that one of your tabs will eventually find its way to Superorganism.

Superorganism, Tuesday, April 16, 8 p.m., at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., $20-$25, slimspresents.com

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