All or Nothing
Muscular funk, emotional rock and classic soul:
Super Hero Killer
Story: Jim Utz
Photos: Cory weaver
The definition of “lifer” is someone who has made a lifetime commitment. Donald Williams is a prime example of being a “lifer” in St. Louis’ music scene. Thankfully, that’s a good thing, as the city’s music culture has benefited greatly from his dedication to his craft going back to the 1980s.
While many might have first become familiar with Donald through skate- boarding and BMX racing, his musical contributions to the fabric of the music world are what will be his legacy. From the frenetic urgency of Sinister Dane in the beginning to the irrefutably cool Super Hero Killer that is now, a continual thread through Donald’s career has been excellence.
Muscular funk, emotional rock and classic soul are genre reference points for classifying Super Hero Killer’s sound. A deeper listen exposes a level of musicianship and interplay that comes from an incredibly deep knowledge and love of all styles and forms of music. The type of players that could effortlessly drop in a Charles Mingus, Meditations of Minute- men cover in the set, make it their own and not lose the soul of the original. When this musically literate, often an artist can become a genre all its own.
Super Hero Killer have a brand new album, Breathe You Up & Breathe You In, out on Calm + Collect. Their first album in almost a decade, Bands Through Town wanted to talk with Donald and hear where Super Hero Killer has been and what things happened to get them to now.
It has been almost a decade since the band has released more than a single. What things pushed the band to release a new record now?
Delays. We originally planned on releasing the record in 2017. Our guitar player Jay wanted to learn audio engineering. That’s a science with a very steep learning curve. He did a great job, but that took a lot of time and experimentation. The plan all along was for Far Fetched to release the record but then things started changing over there. Some of the founders were really busy with other projects. We met and talked about the logistics of releasing the record. It was going to be, possibly, the last release for Far Fetched, but then we never connected again and we all just kind of dropped it. In the meantime, I sent the record to several of my friends for feedback.
Maybe three or four months had passed then Nick Hook called me up and said “Yo, let me release your record on Calm + Collect.” Of course, I said yes. Super Hero Killer was born from ideas conceived at writing and recording sessions Nick, my drummer Grover, and I had before Nick moved to NYC. Once Nick got involved, he put the record’s release on a timeline, which pushed it back further. It probably could have been released last summer but he wanted to do a double release with his project Spiritual Friendship. Both records were released the same day. He also has a new Run the Jewels record coming out soon. Ideally, everything would hit within months of each other.
Something that can be said about your entire career’s musical output, and especially with Super Hero Killer, is a commitment to quality rather than quantity. None of your past bands had a large catalog of released material and Super Hero Killer seems to continue in that tradition. The upside in this case for Super Hero Killer is that all the songs have a purpose and are fully realized, none of the material seems like it was filler. Is this ‘less is more’ by design or from other circumstances?
That’s an interesting observation. I don’t know how conscious or deliberate I am about it. I’ve written a lot, so it’s not that we don’t have material. Part of it probably has to do with me not being happy with some of the past recordings my bands have released. Maybe I’m hesitant to go into the studio with someone who turns out to be the wrong person for the job. That can be extremely frustrating and a waste of time and money. That’s part of the reason Jay took it on himself to become an engineer. We can now keep the recording process self-contained, and we can make it sound exactly how we want it to sound. I am as proud of this record as I am the Sinister Dane album on Columbia. The sonic quality and energy are accurate representations of what the band sounds like and what I imagined when I wrote the songs.
What was the timeline in creating Breathe You Up & Breathe You In? When were the first songs written, when did recording start, etc?
The first song written was a drastically different version of Caught in a Storm, written way back when Nick, Grover and I were getting together. Maybe 2005? Recording began at the end of 2015. It started out as a way to record rehearsals and new ideas. Initially, there was a lot of experimenting with sounds. We were rehearsing in our drummer’s basement, so the acoustics weren’t ideal. As Jay became more confident, he bought new gear. At some point he got a new interface that he was really feeling, so he had us re-record everything. Once we were finished with the basic rhythm tracks, we moved the gear out to Jay’s house to record vocals. It wasn’t the ideal environment, as he has dogs, which led to a lot of extremely congested, frustrating sessions for me. I guess I’m kind of allergic to them.
We released one of the songs, "And Then You Came Along", on a FarFetched compilation, at the beginning of 2017. Then I wrote "You Against Me", and decided I wanted it on the record, so we all had to learn that and record it. That’s the only song we didn’t track together. I did the bass, drum loop, and original keys and guitars in my bedroom. Jay re-recorded the guitars in his basement, and Jesse re-recorded the keys at his place. Grover liked the loop, so we kept it.
We brought in additional vocalists for the background parts. Those vocals were recorded at Suburban Pro Studios. During those sessions I asked the engineer, Matt Sawicki, if he’d be interested in mixing the album. He said yes. He began mixing in February or March of 2020, right around when Covid hit. He sent Jay and I mixes then we’d provide feedback, he’d send new mixes back, we’d provide feedback, etc. He finished mixing and mastering in August 2020.
There is a definite theme that runs through the material on this release. With the songs coming from such a very personal space, were there any songs that were recorded but left off this release because thematically the songs didn’t fit?
No songs were recorded and left off. Most of the songs were written before we started recording. I thought it would be cool to tie them all together on one release since most of them, besides Caught in a Storm, are very romantic and sexy. At least in my opinion. I wanted it to be a lover’s record. The artwork, the font, the whole vibe needed to be classy and intimate. The songs all have different moods, but they all fit together for me.
The band was not completely dormant between music releases, Super Hero Killer did keep a sporadic live presence over the years. The shows the band did seemed to be for specific purposes, not just ‘let’s play another show’. With this album release, any chance of more frequent appearances knowing that geography and other member’s schedules with their other projects/bands are at play? Will there be at minimum a release show?
Our drummer moved to Chicago so, we’ll probably continue to play sporadically. He still wants to play, it’s just a little more challenging to make it happen now. No, we won’t be doing a release show but this fall, September 10th, we’re playing Music at the Intersection. We’re really looking forward to that. We haven’t played together in a room or stage since Cinco de Mayo 2018.
While you are the driving force of the band, each member’s presence seems equally important to the music. Each member is a monster on their instrument and has their own unique ‘voice’ to the Super Hero Killer sound. How much of the music comes from one member’s idea versus stuff coming from jamming?
Yeah, they are extremely talented and tasty musicians. Energy is a big thing for me and the four of us have a definite chemistry when we get together. I get really bored with musicians who are technically superior but have no personality or uniqueness in the way they play.
Most of the music starts with me writing a complete song. I play the demos for them, they listen a few times, and then start morphing my ideas into their own. I may ask for certain ideas to stay exactly how they are, they may have something better. We jam on sections until everyone is happy, then sort out the arrangements. If an idea isn’t working, we come up with something else.
"The Heat" is the only song from this record that was created from jamming. We were about to start a rehearsal and Jay was checking his guitar sound. He played the chugging, rhythmic thing he does on the intro and Grover started playing the beat. I think I was still setting up my gear. Once I was finished setting up, I had them run it back and after 10 minutes or so, I figured out the bass line. Jesse came up with the demented Prince type synths, we put together an arrangement and then I took it home and wrote lyrics and the middle section.
Breathe You Up & Breathe You In is the first Super Hero Killer release to feature artists outside of the core group. Can you talk about them and what made them perfect for their presence in the song?
There’s Blvck Spvde, Alexis Coleman, and Justin Barksdale. I played bass for Spvde in Preacher in the Trap, a project with his brother Tef Poe, then I was in his solo band for a few years. During that period, he had me play bass for Hawthorne Headhunters when we opened for Hiatus Kaiyote at The Pageant. Alexis and I played together in Mathias in the Pirates, and she sometimes sang background for Blvck Spvde. Having them on our record was simply a matter of me reaching out to two vocalists who I consider friends, who have great voices. Justin had joined Super Hero Killer as a second keyboard player. He was in the band for a few months but then he moved out of state, kind of out of the blue. He was still in the band when he recorded his vocals.
I mainly wanted their voices to fill out the mixes. Something in addition to me and Jesse. I’m a big fan of Blvck Spvde’s voice. I really liked Alexis when she sang in Spvde’s band, and I thought a female voice would be perfect for these songs. In the studio, I asked them to sing specific parts for each song then I told them they could do anything else they wanted. The highlight of the entire record, for me, is the middle section of "The Heat", when we trade back and forth.
Super Hero Killer has self released, worked with FarFetched and the new release is with Nick Hook’s Calm + Collect. You’ve had a long relationship with Nick, did he have any creative input for the release outside of helping release it? What are the plans, if any, for a physical release?
No, Nick didn’t have any creative input on the record. He became involved much later, only helping with the release. He and I have thrown around some ideas for a physical release but I’m not sure if that will happen. I think Jay would probably like to do vinyl, he’s been collecting a bunch lately but I don’t know.
What’s next for Super Hero Killer?
Well, there’s the band and then there’s me. We both use the name. The band will probably continue to operate the way we always have. At some point, we will record some of our unreleased material. Not sure when though. We’ll do Music at the Intersection and then figure out the next step.
In the next few months, Nick and I will go into the studio and begin writing. So, there may be a Nick and SHK record or maybe we’ll invite different vocalists to sing or flow over our tracks. It’s something we’ve been putting off for years but we’re ready to do it now.