Bruce Podobnik’s band honors impermanence

Courtesy of Superluminous

The long and storied history of the Portland indie music scene has played host to many bands and artists—none, perhaps, as rooted in the Lewis & Clark campus than Associate Professor of Sociology Bruce Podobnik’s band Superluminous. Their first album, “Summer’s Almost Gone,” came out last year and is a culmination of years of work from band members and contributors alike.

“I actually chose the title,” said Podobnik. “But it is a line from one of my friend Tom’s songs on the album. (I told him,) ‘Tom, it’s gonna sound grim, but we’re living in the last golden age, potentially, (of) human civilization.’  Things are difficult. I still believe there’s hope and everything, but summer’s almost gone. We’re living on the edge of some precipitous changes, and already they’ve been happening.” 

The recording process for “Summer’s Almost Gone” began in 2017, spanning a long hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now available on Spotify, the record is a blend of ’60s and ’70s hippie influences with a tinge of ’90s grunge. Each track builds upon the last to create a vision of alternative music rooted in the past, present and even the future.

When it comes to influences, Podobnik and bandmate Tom Johnson share some overlap—both cite the Grateful Dead and ’60s folk among their influences. But where they overlap is perhaps less interesting than where they differ. Podobnik expressed his love for The Beatles and Bob Dylan, where Johnson discussed local bands and previous collaborations such as Raymond Listen, Lettuce Prey and The Bugs.

The band, which relies on the songwriting efforts of Podobnik and Johnson, started as a jam between friends. Upon the encouragement of Podobnik’s roommate and Professor Emeritus of Counseling and Psychology at the LC Graduate School Tod Sloan, Podobnik formed the band to pursue sharing his original songs. Shortly afterwards, Johnson, a therapist and musician, joined.

Podobnik and Johnson share vocal and guitar credits on “Summer’s Almost Gone,” though Podobnik makes clear that Johnson takes lead on most guitar parts. The two write their own songs and separately combine songs into an album rather than combining their writing capabilities on a single song. 

Instead of offering input on content, their partnership relies on mutual encouragement and feedback, deciding whether songs should be included in setlists or the album.

“When one writes a song, it’s not like it necessarily came from you directly,” said Podobnik. “It somehow came through you. I always feel kind of weird about taking responsibility for the melody. So basically getting a little validation for that something I heard that I liked, which turned out to be what other people like as well, it’s very cool.”

The collaborative efforts of Superlumious go beyond those of songwriting. While the band has a full-time drummer, Luke Strahota, the album also features multiple bass players, miscellaneous guest musicians and a featured singer, Jenny Stenseth. To bring the songs to life, instruments including accordion, cello and Djembe drum were included.

“Finishing songs and at least partly experiencing them with the band is important to me,” said Johnson. “Bruce or the band are often the first audience. I remember on one occasion that someone shared that they had a strong aversion to one of my songs and it eventually was taken out of circulation, but we played it five or six times before it was sent into exile. The producer we worked with on the recording … often emphasized that the best stuff comes out of the processes of debate. I often agree.”

Another collaborator in the process was Drew Canulette, who served as the producer and engineer on the record. Canulette, who has worked with Nirvana and Neil Young, is known in many circles for his work with the grunge band Soundgarden.

According to Podobnik, it was Canulette’s influence that led to a more polished sound on the record, as opposed to the lo-fi sound the band had been considering. While the decision originally caused some tension among members, including the departure of their original bass player, it is one the members are ultimately happy with.

“The recording process opened my eyes in different directions,” said Johnson. “We ended up having time over lockdown to work on songs, and many of them went in directions different from originally expected. We were really fortunate to have so many talented contributors to the record.”

The only original member to not see the album’s release was Sloan. Tragically, the former professor passed away at the age of 66 in 2018. Though he heard some early recordings, the final product was not complete in time for him to listen to songs in their final forms.

While Sloan’s influence has largely faded into the backstory of Superluminous, the group’s creativity remains front and center. Podobnik and Johnson agree that Johnson is the more whimsical of the two writers.

“Sometimes the songs are fully formed ideas which I just expand on, and sometimes mumbled lyrics about feline astronauts or sentient woodland creatures,” said Johnson. “Sometimes ‘temporary’ lyrics used as placeholders become permanent … Of course there’s a song or two which falls into the cliché of being therapeutic, and other times I’m just trying to entertain myself.  ‘It’s Divine’ was inspired by a meditation experience and maybe too much caffeine.”

Podobnik’s own philosophies come out in his music. As a very spiritual person, many of his musings on life, nature and death come through in the lyrics. Death is an especially prevalent theme, through which Podobnik explores the transcendental nature of being.

“I hope the moment I die, I just open to that experience,” said Podobnik. “And then it’s like you get transported perhaps into a transcendent moment. You still die, you still maybe lose your consciousness. I have no idea what happens after that, but it still can be a beautiful fulfilling thing. I hope that I’m singing a song when I die.”

Beyond his personal ideas, Podobnik believes in community. The social act of being in a band, and of playing live, is one that he cares deeply about. He also expresses a deep connection to the environment, and what community means in a world on the brink.

“We live on a very fragile planet, you know,” said Podobnik. “And it’s beautiful, but it’s also under threat.”

Superluminous, as a band and collaboration, represents so much of what is beautiful about community. As the band slowly returns to playing live, and hopefully back to the LC campus, they will continue their mission of spreading good music and good feelings to the world.

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