TC Superstar on creating a conceptual album, collaborating remotely, and finding alone time while on tour


Photo by Mauricio Castro @themauricio

Annie Dempsey

I met up with Austin based synth pop band TC Superstar at their sold out show at Comet Ping Pong to talk about their process of creating an album start to finish, thematic inspirations, and embodying music through choreography. Fronted by Connor McCampbell, TC’s sound is rooted in 80’s synthwave and late 70’s dance music. I’ve been a huge fan for a while, so I was really excited to be able to chat with them and learn more about their process.


Annie (A): The new album, As Seen on TV, covers some heavy topics about American culture including consumerism, media consumption, and obsession with technology. How did you decide on this theme?


Connor: It was a journey, we had a whole album, mostly the same material. But we had an album to put together about, you know, just kind of American culture and stuff. Over the course of the pandemic, we just kind of shifted our priorities and what we wanted to write about. So we ended up rewriting some stuff, adding a tiny bit of new stuff, and kind of just reshaping it into an outlet more reflective of the pandemic experience. So we had a mostly done record. And then we had a year to kind of workshop it mostly remotely with each other, which was definitely an interesting, trying experience. It was fun–it was really neat to have something collaborative going on at that time. There was just not a lot going on in our lives. That was super exciting.


Aaron: Through zoom meetings, especially for those first few months of the pandemic was when we realized that we wanted to pivot on that concept. There’s a lot of stuff that stuck through like that that’s still there. But it was like a reframing of those concepts, so that it felt like it was more in line with the way things are now. And so yeah, there were a lot of Zoom meetings. We’re just trying to figure out how we all feel about things conceptually, even before we’re going into writing lyrics or choreographing any of it. It was about trying to get everyone on the same page that took a little while.


A: Something I’ve noticed about your music is that it’s very dancey, poppy, and high-energy, but there tend to be some bleak themes throughout a lot of your songs. With the last album, R&D, there were a few quite sad songs. Are you aware of this juxtaposition?


Connor: Yeah, we’re very aware. Even our first album had a lot of those kinds of heavy themes about toxic masculinity on top of dance beats. From the genesis of the project, we were wanting something that could give people a kind of cathartic show experience. So I think having high energy where you kind of have fun and express yourself, but also be experiencing something more depressive in not a depressive context provides a nice outlet.

Photo by Mauricio Castro @themauricio

A: On the previous album, R&D, you used somewhat of an anthropological method of interviewing to conduct research about peoples’ experience with love to use as snippets throughout the album. Do you see yourselves doing anything like that for future projects?

We’re doing it right now, actually. Not right right now, but we’re in the process. We’re working on a record about experiences related to death. I mean, I say we’re working on it–it’s like, barely started. So it will be forever. We’re gonna get it done. But there’s been a couple interviews. All the interviews for R&D were with people that collaborated on the project in some form or fashion to just kind of get their experiences. So we’re doing a similar thing, interviewing other people, as many people as we can collaborating on this next album. And then we’ll see what we get and use that as creative material for the genesis. {motions to Aaron} Wanna talk about your experience being interviewed?


Aaron: Well, I want to talk about how we got into doing interviews and stuff in the first place. It was related to research and development. It’s the R&D aspect. We thought that it would be fitting for the concept of that album to actually do some research, in the form of getting to know people’s experiences and thoughts about relationships and love. And so we didn’t do it for this album, but I feel like that was a process that was really beautiful, informative, and inspiring. And so with the theme like death, we wanted to bring that element back into it because it just felt like it fit the process. I did my interview already, and I actually felt really bad about my interview. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I said things that I wanted to say, or it caught me at a weird time’ because there was a family member who had recently died. And so in hindsight, now thinking about it, that was just capturing that moment in time when it was a sensitive subject for me. And I actually felt bad about the R&D interviews too and they ended up on the record–it’s my interviews on “Into You” and on “One and Only.” So I’m interested to see what we select from these interviews for the next record.

Photo by Mauricio Castro @themauricio

A: I think something that’s so captivating about you guys, is that everything you do is very holistic. Everything seems really intentional. From the lyrics, choreography, even down to what you wear on stage, to color themes, and art direction. I’m wondering how that starts from an idea to the final results?


LB: I think it has a lot to do with the way that we come together and get all of these parts done and cohesive is just because all seven to nine of us care a lot about it. And we’re constantly thinking critically about it. Constantly asking questions about what would look the best or what was defective and where everything is going to make us feel good and also communicate to an audience. And so I think it’s just a lot of really smart, talented people. Honestly, we got lucky.

A: There are quite a few of you in the band. I’m wondering what role collaboration plays in the process. What’s great about having so many people collaborating on one thing, and what are some challenges that come with it?


Emily: I think through every album we’ve kind of progressed to try to be more and more collaborative. So like with Masc, Connor kind of had this vision, brought LB in, and LB did most of the choreography. Connor was doing the color schemes and all the design, and throughout every album, every phase we’ve gone through, we’ve become more collaborative. And with that there have been more challenges. Because everyone has a very different perspective on what we think the “thing” should be. And especially with this last album, that was probably the most collaborative we’ve ever been. And it really took a toll on us–it tested our friendships, like, ‘Can we do this as a group?’ And moving forward, I just think that we’re continuing to learn how to do this thing. And with the dance specifically, we’ve kind of had a balance between saying, ‘Okay, this is your dance.’ Giving someone full creative freedom. So like, this is LB’s dance to choreograph. And she has the right to say whether she wants input from others, or if she wants to make choices. So maybe LB says, ‘Hey, everyone make an eight count in order to get this section done.’ But then she can even say, ‘Okay, well, let’s do this eight count differently.’ And that’s kind of helped to create a structure so that you can feel safe in that space, like what is mine to own. And you kind of trust that person to own that portion. So, especially with Julio with design, we trust Julio to take care of the design, and then he welcomes our input in that. So there’s a lot of trust with it, and also being forgiving with the other people to allow their input. Yeah, so it’s kind of a little bit of letting go of your ego, accepting, and compromising. It’s a good life lesson.


A: Connor–I read somewhere that you use different gear for different albums, and even different songs. Could you talk a bit about what went into this most recent album sonically? What kinds of sounds were you going for with the different equipment used?


Connor: So I wanted to reference a lot of different parts of American culture and stuff that have become, like, really mainstream, thematically. So I pulled from a couple different eras, I used a lot of DX sounds from the 90s for a little bit more of R&B chords. I used a Korg prologue for most of the synth stuff on the record which was kind of full versions like 70s analog synth that I could wrangle up to kind of get that like Electric Light Orchestra kind of vibes seeded in there. I think all the guitar on the record I did line in because I wanted that kind of 70s Nile Rogers dance guitar straight into the board sound and put chorus and stuff on it like always. But there’s some guitar that doesn’t have chorus on it I think. We still play live with chorus–it’s just juicy. And then all the drums–all the kick, hi hat and snare samples are indirect samples for the whole thing because I wanted to have like a late 70s vibe as if you had all the technology that was available in 1978 plus this DX7 kind of sound and later. We just love the Yamaha CP synth from that era as well. Like, you could have theoretically made this record back then. Even though a lot of it sounds like modern production styles.

A: What inspired your interest in music/dance?


LB: Well, I can speak for the dancing part. We all were in the University of Texas dance program, so we were very much inspired by that–by our professors. And some of us came from really heavy ballet backgrounds, some of us came from competition dance backgrounds. So, that is a part of it, but also a part of what we wanted to step away from at the same time.


Emily: Also watching Britney Spears music videos as a kid, our favorite pop bands would do choreography on stage–that seemed awesome. So I think it’s kind of wild that we’ve landed into a perfect scenario where you’re not really a background dancer, but you kind of get to be a little bit of a star at the same time. Yeah, it’s like a dream come true.


Aaron: I’ve been playing music with Connor and Julio, and Mitch, in different projects for a number of years, like, pretty much the whole time we were in college. 2014 I think is when I first started playing music with y’all. So we went through different phases of learning how to play music together, and after a while, it became a pretty intuitive process. I feel like when I sit down at the piano with Connor, we become like one brain and can anticipate where the other person is gonna go. I feel like we’ve influenced each other in a lot of ways. And me personally, I had a background in playing classical music, writing my own stuff, and church music. And so I hadn’t really touched a whole lot of synthesizers before that, so I was very much like, ‘I am a pianist and dabble with electric piano.’ I feel like being a part of this project and knowing Connor has really turned me on to synthesizers, and I have a deeper appreciation for gear in general. In my heart of hearts I’m like, ‘I’m a songwriter, and I’m a keyboardist.’ But it’s been fun to expand into these new sonic palettes and get to play with new toys and stuff.


Connor: The first time I met Aaron, I just looked at him and I was like, ‘That kid plays music,” and there was a synth in the room and we were talking a bit and he was like ‘Yeah, I do piano–I’m doing a music degree, and I gotta do a performance for this and that,’ and I was like ‘Try Bach on this thing, you’re gonna fucking love it’ and then he was hooked.

Photo by Mauricio Castro @themauricio

A: Have you guys heard any albums recently that you think have gone under the radar and deserve more recognition?


Connor: So not recently and impossibly hard to find, but there’s an album by a band out of LA called Body Parts. They’ve got one album online that you can find anywhere on the internet, and it’s decent, but they released an album before that in like 2011 or something called On Purpose, and it’s one of my favorite records of all time. I played it at Julio’s place back in college at some parties. I love it–I think it’s a great record, and I only say this so that if anybody else out there has a copy…back those files up, put them online somewhere because I have yet to find it in the world.


Aaron: Julio actually just put out an album of his solo music that’s called Mora / Mulberry, and it’s such a sweet listen, especially knowing Julio–that album actually has a lot of field recordings and stuff too. I didn’t know Julio when he was a child growing up and stuff, but I’ve known Julio for a while, and I’ve heard a lot of him talking about that time, and so it’s really nice to hear it expressed in such an intimate and vulnerable way. It was really, really nice to see him recording it in his room and then he moved away and put it out. I helped him make one of the music videos for it for a song called ‘Rainbow Wheel.’ His album is one that I think would make a lot of people’s days and lives better if they heard it.


LB: I’ll just use this to shout out some Austin bands real quick. Being Dead–they don’t have a full album out currently, but they are incredible, hilarious and amazing. And then Daphne Tunes–they have a couple albums out. And then also Van Mary.


Aaron: Indoor Creature’s album Living in Darkness.


A: Lastly, how do you make time for yourself while on tour?


Emily: I would say that I’m an introvert, but I’m relatively comfortable around these people. You find some really good time in the back of the van during a long drive. Also, the bathroom is a great place to find yourself. We all respect each other, and we know when people just need to take a few minutes away or like an hour or two. Also, when we find the time to have an off day or even just off for a few hours, everyone’s very respectful. You wouldn’t realize that spending 24/7 with the same people, like, I never get tired of you guys, you know? Because I feel like we give each other space.