Gary Sweeney Interviews Hyperbubble

Gary Sweeney and Hyperbubble, trying to think of ways to rhyme "tonight" with "tonight" - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Gary Sweeney and Hyperbubble, trying to think of ways to rhyme "tonight" with "tonight"

Hyperbubble is the San Antonio art scene’s favorite electro-synth-pop/cyberpunk duo. The husband-wife team of Jessica and Jeff DeCuir both came out of the University of Texas at San Antonio art department in the ’90s, played with various bands, met, were married and formed Hyperbubble. They played their first live show in 2003 during First Friday in the dark, cramped hallway leading to Cactus Bra and Three Walls art galleries at Blue Star. I was so smitten by their songs and stage presence that I had them perform at my art opening at the Southwest School of Art later that year.

Combining infectious dance grooves with smart but hilarious lyrics, Jess and Jeff have built a rabid regional fan base, and an even larger audience in the U.K., where they released CDs and vinyl with the label Filthy Little Angels and Glasgow-based Bubblegum Records.

One of the highlights of 2012 for me was when I was asked to perform with Hyperbubble at Luminaria—“perform” in the sense that I basically danced around, played drums using Barbie dolls as sticks, surfed a Bongo Board, drew Leon the cat, and generally acted like a jackass while the real talent played music behind me. It was huge fun.

A 10th anniversary show (“An Evening with Hyperbubble”) will take place at the McNay Art Museum on Thursday, November 14, at 7 p.m.

Check out Jeff’s top five favorite Hyperbubble videos here!

Which came first for you: Art or music?

JEFF: According to my baby book, my first two sentences were “Come on baby, light my fire” and “Donald Duck eats soup,” so I guess both.

JESS: For me it was music. I grew up playing the saxophone, and my sister still plays the French horn. We had a piano and we sang in church and school choirs. I got serious about art later in high school. Around the same time, at age 16, I got a Casio synthesizer and joined a cover band with high-school friends that played at parties and school events.

What is your first art or music memory? JESS: My first art memory is my dad bringing home huge maps that he designed at the county highway department—we’d use the bad side as drawing paper, so we always had something to draw on. I remember drawing with crayons at age 3 or 4, and he came over and showed me how to draw really fast and with confidence. My first music performance memory is singing “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” written by Piero Umiliani. It was popularized by The Red Skelton Show and later The Muppet Show. My mom would have my sister and I perform this song for guests, and I’d come in with a really low “mah na mah na,” while my sister would go “do doo do doo doo!” I couldn’t understand why everyone was laughing, as I thought we sounded really good!

JEFF: Stevie Wonder playing “Superstition” on Sesame Street—still the greatest seven minutes of TV ever produced.

First concert?

JEFF: It was a band in Irving, TX called SLUDGE. A true garage band. You’d always hear them rehearsing down the alley. Then one day they pulled up the garage door, played a set, and raffled off a watermelon with their logo drawn on it in Marks-A-Lot. I was probably around 10 years old, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

JESS: Adam Ant in St. Louis, Mo. The Romantics were the opening act. We were just kids, and were chaperoned by my friend’s mom. I remember being absolutely spell-bound by Adam’s frilly pirate blouse and tight leather pants. The fashion and makeup impacted me as much as the music. I bought the sleeveless sweatshirt with his giant face on it and instantly got a punk-rock mullet hairdo that was spiky on top with a perm in the back. That week, the boy I liked asked me out and I had the courage to say, “I’ll think about it.”

You have an amazing collection of vinyl record albums. Name your favorite five.

JEFF: ELO’s Out of the Blue is probably one of them. It’s on blue vinyl, has tons of fun electronic gadgets, studio wizardry by a guy named Jeff, and super-pop songs, plus a sleeve that folds out into a giant spaceship! We’re currently recording our version of “Concerto for a Rainy Day,” which is the entire Side 3.

Also, Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair. It’s a complete funk opera that takes place underwater. The gatefold sleeve opens up like a pop-up book of Atlantis, and comes with a collection of perforated sea critters to cut out, and stand-up in the city, with names like “P-Nut Booty Jellyfish” and “Mr. Wriggles, the Worm.”

Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s first album is packaged in a large cardboard box with a plastic view-hole, like a Japanese robot toy. It’s produced by one of my all-time favorites, Girogio Moroder, and is supposedly the first album in the history of music to have sold advertising space between songs.

I collect K-Tel compilation albums and Pin-Ball Rock is my favorite of them all. The die-cut album cover folds out into a pinball machine! Besides that, what I love about it is that most of the songs don’t clearly relate to pinball at all, except for the first song, “Pinball Wizard,” but not by The Who … not even by Elton John, but by the New Seekers!

I found the prize of my collection at a local thrift shop. It’s called Seasons Greetings. It’s sort of like an audio greeting card. Each track has a little jingle for each different special occasion, followed by the guy who did the 7-11 commercials back in the ’70s reciting a “personal message.” Songs include “Congratulations”, “Happy Birthday”, and by far the best, “I Love You” with lines like “Well, I guess that puts it on record, doesn’t it? I think about you … I miss you … Yessum! I do … I just flat love you.” Can you imagine actually using this record? Do you invite someone in to the room, put it on, then stand next to the record player and stare at them???

Jeff, you come off as being a little shy in real life. Do your sunglasses have superpowers that turn you into Maniac-Man onstage?

JEFF: [Giggles] Yeah … I like to dress like my synthesizers, in black plastic.

Who writes the lyrics?

JESS: Jeff composes most of the lyrics in long, luxurious bubble baths. I come home to find lyrics on Post-it notes and scribbled on napkins. The only songs I’ve written come out as lullabies for our cats, or each other. I’d like to do more songwriting. I once wrote a song called “Tonite” as a tribute to all of the hit songs that have the word or theme of “tonight” … it would have been an instant hit, Rick Springfield-style, but I misplaced the lyrics. Jeff created the vibe of a “tonight” song in our recent track “In the Movies.”

JEFF: The coolest thing a songwriter can possibly do is rhyme “tonight” with “tonight.”

Your songs address the universal themes of UFO beach parties, robots, teddy bear crime waves and 3-D space kittens. Aside from “I’m in Love with My Clone,” have you ever written a love song?

JESS: Definitely … but there’s usually a dark or comical twist. Like “Top 10 Lullabies” [in which Jess name checks Kenny Loggins, The Captain and Tennille, Peter Cetera, Lionel Richie, Sting, Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka, Michael McDonald, and Gino Vannelli], or “(Your Love is) Non-biodegradable Hazardous Waste Disposal.”

JEFF: There’s a massive pile of love songs out there. It’s well-covered ground. There’s so much other stuff to write about. But that said, “Another Ride” is a love song of sorts. It’s about hitting a bump in a relationship, and then saying, “Forget it. Let’s keep on driving and see what’s up the road.” “Synesthesia” is a love song to our synthesizers, and, of course, “Leon” is a love song to a cat!

The lyric department is where Hyperbubble is the most misunderstood. Maybe that’s on purpose. We like to use pop songs as a subversive tool, sort of a musical Trojan horse. Most of our lyrics are actually social commentary—More Kinks and Crass than Buggles and B-52’s. The meaning of the songs isn’t what they appear to be about on the surface. In fact, sometimes the meaning is the exact opposite of what they lyrics are saying.

Quite a bit of the early Hyperbubble songs were the result of [the Iraq Wars]. “Airbrushed Alibis” is about cover-ups (“What you are, so hard to see through Photoshop conspiracy”). Likewise, “Solid Pop” is about Bush using non-existent WMDs as a justification for going to war (“If you look too close, what will you find? You got a lot of nerve to ask the reason why.”) “Candy Apple Daydreams” is partly about Election Day (“Feels like a new beginning, this melody”). “Non Biodegradable Hazardous Waste Disposal” was inspired by the Patriot Act (“Another lonely cybernetic spy—You got a lovely pair of x ray eyes—Inside, outside, CIA”). It’s basically about government surveillance as a form of kinky voyeurism. My grandmother was a secretary in J. Edgar Hoover’s office, so I got to hear a few things first-hand that made me into a very skeptical boy.

A lot of our stuff is about dystopian society. “Commuter” is about mind control and a depersonalized workforce. “Pictures of Paradise” is about the gratuitous case of CCTV. “In the Movies” is about experiencing life vicariously, through movies and television. “Hyperactive” is about doping your children into oblivion rather than dealing with their issues.

But we do like to throw in an uplifting lyric every now and then. Like “UFO Beach Party,” which at first seems to be pure B-movie sci-fi fluff, is actually about equality (“This crazy little planet that we’re on is like a baby blue beach ball bouncing ’round the summer sun … and the sun will shine for everyone.”)

I guess the overall effect of the music, regardless of certain lyrics, is an optimistic one. The things is, we don’t sit down and say, “Okay, let’s write a campy, ironic song.” I mean, we actually like stuff like Xanadu and The Captain and Tennille, without a trace of irony. Our theory is that if you worry too much about being cool, then you’re going to miss out on a good time. So most of our fans turn out to be fun, friendly people, who aren’t afraid to be themselves.

What is the best piece of advice you give your art students?

JEFF: If you have an idea that makes you embarrassed, then you’re probably onto something.

JESS: Stay true to yourself, and never let anyone beat the art out of you!

San Antonio’s art scene has a huge percentage of artists who are also outstanding musicians. Why do you think that is?

JESS: Texas inspires music, and we do have a great college town for studying both with a solid art community and growing music scene. There’s a general school of thought that you have to choose either music or art, but if you go to art school, you’re inevitably going to meet people that want to form a band and create music, as it’s another creative outlet. In many ways, the art community has inspired the music [of] some of the groups that are out there, like Wolverton. It is interesting to see many visual artists that are now making more music than art.

JEFF: Music elicits a more physical response. I’ve never seen anyone stage dive to a painting.

It seems to be a truism that artists and musicians are never as appreciated in their hometown as they are elsewhere. You seem to have a rabid fan base in the U.K. How did that happen?

JEFF: A record label owner from England saw a YouTube video of us performing on KENS TV and asked if we’d like to record a CD and 7” single. BBC DJ Huw Stephens played the single on his Radio 1 show and that got us a lot of attention over there. The other bands on the label also liked our stuff and helped us set up shows in the U.K. In Scotland, the audience went crazy for the music and kept yelling, “One more ... One more!” After five encores, we started to think they were just messing with us! … After word got out about the shows, we were signed to the Scottish label Bubblegum Records.

The same thing happened with Winter Records, a label out of Toulouse, France. The French totally got off on this weird Texas band visiting their country. The promoter couldn’t figure us out. He said, “You two are a total paradox: Vegetarians from Texas who use drum machines!”

So, yeah. There’s some truth to what you said. If we were a European band, it probably wouldn’t be as big a deal to them. But here’s a Texas band, a Texas synthesizer band, at that, so it’s strange and special.

Is your worldview more Iggy Pop or Jonathan Richman?

JEFF: I tend to take the Iggy approach: Let’s kick this place around and see what we scare up! Though the shirt remains on. Jess has a more Richman-like dry wit and consideration.

Jess, one of the reasons you gave for bringing me on to your Luminaria gig was that you were getting burned out being the center of attention on stage. Do you go through phases where you want to be in the background?

JESS: I don’t imagine that I’m ever the center of attention when I’m next to Jeff on stage, as he’s the “Hyper” in Hyperbubble! I do have times in performing and teaching where I’d prefer to be low-key, but you do have to put on a dynamic performance, whether you play music, sing or teach, or even when you have an art exhibit. You’ve got to put on your best face and give them their money’s worth and leave an unforgettable impression. I have no regrets about being on stage, as real connections with the audience and fans are meaningful. I just can’t be that “turned- on” person every day.

Are people born with talent, or is it something you have to cultivate?

JESS: I do think there’s such a thing as the creative gene. However, all it takes is one parent, teacher, or mentor to encourage you when you’re young to follow that direction. I was lucky to have a dad that encouraged my drawing and showed me how to develop film and take photographs. My mother and grandmother encouraged us to pick a musical instrument and practice often. My grade school music teacher told me I could sing. If you don’t have that support and want it, create it for yourself.

JEFF: So, cultivation of creation from inspiration and motivation? Hey, that sounds like a song lyric!

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