Sky Pilots

I feel like someone is stepping on my neck, and it's time to let off," says Nick Midulla, the guitarist/songwriter/leader for Houston's modern rock band Superna. The injury is allegorical, but you can't blame the guy for feeling a bit stifled.

In its short history, Superna has had two lengthy forced layoffs. The first occurred when Midulla broke his hand shortly after the band's 1999 formation and lasted for almost a year. The second came when singer/lyricist Melanie Brink took some time out to have a baby, though she performed sporadically into her sixth month of pregnancy and continued cutting studio tracks into her eighth. (Her son was born May 20 this year.)

But all of that downtime has come to an end with the release of The Ending, the band's second effort on Houston's Solar Flare records. Superna is eager to "reintroduce themselves" to audiences both in Houston and surrounding states, and the six members -- who also include guitarist/percussionist Rey Garcia, drummer Rico Garcia (no relation), turntablist/keyboardist DJ Obi-wan Spinobi and bassist Steve Sharfa -- present a more-than-united front." Everybody is here because they want to be here and they share the vision for this band…not because they're going to make 50 bucks playing a gig," Brink says.

The band is squashed together on a well-worn couch at The Cryolab, the center of the Superna universe. Housed in a nondescript warehouse on Pease in Midtown, it's a combination recording studio, rehearsal space, concert venue and hangout.

As evidenced by the machinery in the back, it's also the headquarters for Midulla's business, NGM Systems, which produces custom pedalboards and road cases. (Clients have included Disturbed, Everclear and Peter Frampton). It's also Midulla's home. "I can never get any sleep. Everyone comes here," he mock-bemoans. "There's never a moment's peace!"

If Midulla is Superna's mad scientist, then The Cryolab is his, well, laboratory. It was here that he spent countless hours twiddling knobs and ProTooling The Ending, and the intricate and multilayered production job is obvious on the record's 14 tracks. All involved consider it a big step up from Reflect, their 2002 debut.

"The first CD was a lot more rushed," Midulla explains. "We had a lot of time on this one to make it punchier-sounding. It's also got darker stuff and bigger choruses. And it's definitely more of a collaborative effort."

The layoff also drove Midulla to a deeper level of involvement with the tracks.

"I get frustrated when presented with forced time off, so I have to use it wisely," he says. "Or the band will fall apart. And I won't let that happen. I won't."

"You can't break up. You've got to make it spiritual," says Brink, a native of Kaplan, Louisiana, who calls herself "deeply spiritual" and says she finds lyrical inspiration in everything from The Bhagavad-Gita to the teachings of Pope Pius X.

The music on The Ending is big. Really big. In addition to being huge, it could be described as catchy modern rock with just a hint of industrial and a slathering of the Apocalypse. Brink's highly metaphorical and slippery words often allow for multiple interpretations.

The record's first single is the title track. According to Midulla, its chorus ("Don't stop to wait for it / Travel at your soul's velocity") encapsulates the band's philosophy.

A number of other tracks including "Damned," "Hope" and "Lord of Lies" were penned for an upcoming film project. Though the band can't publicly discuss specifics, it can be revealed that some of the tracks will be featured in an animated movie about a popular underground female comic book character, one with "underworld" ties even more sinister than the mob's.

Brink's deep-toned voice throughout is versatile and commanding. When she intones "never question my sanity" on "Sanity," it's not a request -- it's an order, and one to be ignored at your own fucking risk. She's also the uninhibited band focal point/sexpot, as she favors stage outfits with black bustiers and stringy, revealing clothing. (Curb your enthusiasm, boys. She's happily married and her husband is large, muscled and heavily tattooed).

If you told Brink and company that they had their heads in the clouds, they'd probably take it as a compliment.

"The name Superna means 'otherworldly,' and that's where some of my [ideas] come from," Brink says. "I feel that I'm trying to convey messages from another plane of existence."

Not one other member seems to disagree or think this odd.

Brink didn't begin singing until she was 21. She jokingly cites New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli as early influences. "I'm trying to get the guys to learn some of their moves, but they won't do it!" she laughs. Actually, she's obsessed with Tool and admits to wondering "What would Maynard do?" when stumped. When it's suggested that "WWMD" bracelets could be a huge moneymaker, she brightens up. "That's great! I'll get it copyrighted!"

The origins of Superna lie with another band, Zero Gravity, which existed from 1996 to 1998. It included Midulla, Brink, Spinobi, Faceplant's Charlie Carlisle and the single-monikered drummer Brian, who currently bangs the traps in Pink Floyd tribute band Us and Them. Superna prefers people to remember Zero Gravity as a band that played "heavy current album rock." That's not all they were, though…

"Don't say we were a cover band!" Midulla implores, hesitant to even mention this period in the band's history. At any rate, Midulla and Brink decided to make a "clean break" in 1998 and began writing original material and gathering musicians for what would become Superna's original lineup. Their first two collaborations, "Who Knew?" and "Spiderz," appear on The Ending.

Oddly, the band didn't have to wait to become as washed up as Spinal Tap to tour Japan. In fact, some of their first gigs were in the Land of the Rising Sun.

"We learned a lot about how to present our music to an audience, to have something stay with you" when you leave, recalls percussionist Rey Garcia, Superna's eerily calm-voiced, most serious member. "When it comes down to it, we're a live band. And we wanted to bring a lot of that live feel into the studio."

They better have, because a lot is riding on the CD. The band echoes familiar complaints about Houston radio, more specifically the Clear Channel monopoly's lack of attention to local bands. Not a lot's changed on that front, save for Pam Kelly's Texas Buzz show, so Solar Flare's Bob Wilkinson has aggressively pushed certain tracks from The Ending to radio in other cities, and the band has far-flung hot spots in Louisiana and Arizona.

Despite the dense, heavily produced tracks on The Ending, the band plans to re-create as much of the record as possible live.

"I have over 15 effects that I control with my feet, as well as a foot-controlled sampler, so everything will sound like the record," Midulla says. Undoubtedly, he uses an NMG pedalboard to keep it all together. How many other bands do you know that can build their own tax write-offs? Superna appears Saturday, September 6, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak Drive. For more information, call 713-862-3838. The band also will perform an in-store at Cactus Music and Video that same day at 1 p.m. For more information on that performance, call 713-526-9272.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero