Interview with Meghan O’Neil Pennie of Super Unison by Nicole X
Since the release of their self-titled EP in 2015, Super Unison has quickly proven to be a great combination of seasoned musicians, capable of combining shared and disparate roots alike to form a path that feels both comfortingly familiar and refreshing.
Meghan O’Neil Pennie (vocals and bass, ex-Punch), Justin Renninger (drums, ex-Snowing), and Kevin DeFranco (guitar, ex-Dead Seeds) form a sound that brings to mind post-hardcore with riot grrrl leanings—think elements of early Sleater-Kinney and Fugazi—while tossing in a slight undercurrent of math and shoegaze.
I recently sat down with Meghan to talk about Super Unison’s formation, process, and making music in the San Francisco Bay Area. Known for myriad unlike things—punk and tech, high rent and 924 Gilman—the Bay Area has long been a unique backdrop for massive amounts of consistently relevant creative output. As prices continue to rise and feelings toward Gilman shift, I especially appreciated the perspective of a steadfast native on what it looks like to stay put.
(Justin and Kevin were scheduled to join us but were unable to make it across the bay as early as hoped. Once reunited at the venue, Super Unison played a great show.)
Nicole: Justin and Kevin are both from the East Coast?
Meghan: Yeah, they’re both from the East Coast and I’m from here.
Nicole: So how did you all find each other?
Meghan: Kevin moved here first and then Justin moved here. They’re longtime friends and had bands together in Philly. And I met Kevin through mutual friends. I saw him at shows and stuff, and actually met him at a Christmas party at a friend’s house.
Nicole: How did you all come together and start making music?
Meghan: They started playing music first. They had a singer that didn’t work out and a bass player that didn’t work out so they asked me to sing. Kevin moved from guitar to bass. And then I was like, “Well, if I do it, I want to play bass, too.” At first when they asked me, I was like, “I don’t think I’m ready to be in another band…” (Meghan left Punch in 2014.) and then I was like, “I’ll just come to one practice and check it out. It just really clicked. It was like, “Okay, we’re a band. See you next week!’”
Nicole: So, how did you choose the name Super Unison? It’s a Drive Like Jehu song.
Meghan: Naming a band’s really hard and it was one of those things where we were stumped, of course. And I was like, “Well, think of bands you like and look and look through their song titles…” and that one had a good ring to it. So we do like them but also, naming a band is hard. [laughs]
Nicole: The art is beautiful.
Meghan: Oh, thanks! For the LP.
Nicole: Actually, the EP too, but the LP is especially. It’s really cohesive—I like the pink silhouettes and obscured eyes.
Meghan: I liked how the 7” came out. They were all 35mm pictures I took while traveling. I think they were all pictures I took in Europe years ago. And then for the LP I just wanted to do something a little more high impact and memorable. I had presented the idea to have our—they’re almost like our author photos. Because the theme of the record—amongst other things—is telling your story, giving other people space to tell theirs; just taking people at their word on their experience. Telling your story—and telling your story through music—you can hide a little better. In lyrics you can use metaphor and such so that’s why I was like, “Okay, it’s our photo but our eyes will be covered,” and that’s all I told Justin. And I had our friend, Derek Yarra, take the photos and he really ran with it. He did so many different versions and different colors and different effects and I’m really happy with how it came out.
Nicole: How does it feel to have your face on the cover? Does it feel strange?
Meghan: I feel okay with it. I sell merch and it wasn’t until last night—our first show with it—I was like, “Oh, I have to sit here at the merch booth [laughs] with it,” so I kinda took that for granted. But, in general, I think there’s plenty of precedent with people having their face on a record. I really like how Justin made it monochromatic and the eyes are obscured and stuff so it’s not as simple as a photo of me, I really think he made it art, which is what I intended. So, I don’t really feel weird about it except I’m also the merch person, so I have to sit there like, “It’s a picture of me!”
Justin and Kevin also have their photos. It’s a gatefold so it’s all three of us. I was like, “Put Kevin on the cover!” because all the songs are so strongly influenced by him but then they picked me and that’s fine. I get it. [laughs]
Nicole: That kind of takes it back to the author thing. The image of you at the merch table, it’s like at an author signing.
Meghan: Oh, totally. And that was the inspiration. When you’re reading a book and you look at the back and it’s their photo and their bio. That’s where the idea came from.
Nicole: And I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but you could think of the lyrics as being the bio.
Meghan: Exactly! When you’re writing songs, it’s pretty autobiographical but you can hide a little. You don’t have to totally put yourself out there. So that’s kind of the idea.
Nicole: It seems like Kevin is the main songwriter?
Meghan: Totally. We had another guitar player on our last record. He wrote one song for this and everything else is Kevin. That’s why I was like, “Put him on the cover!”
Nicole: Does that mean Kevin wrote “You Don’t Tell Me?”
Nicole: Oh! That’s…
Meghan: I mean, not the lyrics! He writes everything musically. I write all the lyrics. No, Kevin did not write a song about mansplaining. [laughs] That would be too perfect. He did not mansplain me to write a song about mansplaining.
Nicole: Okay, that makes sense. The other bands you all have been in—Snowing is pretty different. Punch is pretty different. But Dead Seeds, I can kind of hear Dead Seeds in this.
Meghan: Kevin and Danny, our old guitarist, were both in Dead Seeds. This was pretty derivative of that. With the LP more than the 7”, we’re exploring it more and doing more of our own thing. More melodic and a little dreamier, and we’re going to continue to move in that direction but still have the same base.
Nicole: Did you play bass before Super Unison?
Meghan: I played bass for a little bit in a friend’s project. That was kind of how I cut my teeth and how I got started on it. But, it was definitely—I’ve grown a lot. I couldn’t really sing and play at the same time before this.
With the other project I was the bass player. I would sing little parts here and there but even before I started doing that I could barely play bass. It’s been maybe four or five years since I started bass. Leading up to the 7”—because we recorded before we played shows—I only played bass or I only sang because I wanted to be really practiced for recording. I really wanted to nail the recordings because between the time I started practicing with them and the time we started recording, it was just two months. So I had five songs to learn the bass parts to, write the lyrics, etcetera.
And then after we recorded, I started putting them together, but my bandmates put a lot of faith into me. I mean, that’s what practice is for. And I think because I practiced them so much separately it was easier to put together, because the muscle memory was so strong. But that’s how I get better at stuff, just doing it.
Nicole: Just toss yourself in the deep end.
Meghan: Exactly, because I’d wanted to play bass for so long. I’d taken lessons and played at home but I lacked the motivation. But to be in a band, the pressure’s on. I have a big thing with not wanting to disappoint them and to not be the one who holds us back. I always want to do my best for other people. For them, it’s a good motivator. Versus sitting at home going, “What song do I wanna learn? I dunno,” I do better with a deadline.
Nicole: Has it changed the way you write songs?
Meghan: No, no. It should change how I write songs. [laughs] It should. It would make my life easier. I write the melody for the lyrics and I don’t think whether it will be hard or easy to play with the bass. I’ll just figure it out. And leading up to a show or recording, I’ll just put the songs on my phone and just listen to it so much. Then you don’t have to think too much, you just know it. Rather than having to focus on the details, repetition is helpful.
Nicole: So you write the lyrics and melody. You take it to Justin and Kevin and then do they flesh it out alone? What’s your general process?
Meghan: Kevin brings the music to practice to show us. We might help with the structure a little bit. Justin will write the drum part. Kevin even helps me with the bass line and then I’ll write the lyrics and the melody. They have some input into that. At recording I’ll ask if they like it or not. There have been some things they didn’t like and I’ve taken out. I’ll come to them and ask Kevin if he imagined me singing over a certain part when he was writing it or ask if he’s okay with me not doing what he imagined. There’s working together, but we’re definitely different departments of it.
Nicole: That’s a good way to put it. Semi-connected to that—your performance style has changed. You have to hold the bass, so there’s less movement. But do you think the music itself also lends to a more restrained performance style?
Meghan: I don’t know—I do think about how it would be different if I weren’t playing bass and I could be a free-hand singer, would people be more likely to mosh or dance along? I think the answer might be yes. Because I’m anchored to a spot pretty much. But I also get a lot more fulfillment out of playing bass and singing. Then I think, “Would I get a lot more fulfillment if people were singing along?” But I’m happy with how it is now. So, yeah, that’s part of it, but the music is too. Probably a little bit of both.
Nicole: What do you mean fulfillment?
Meghan: I’m just happier. I mean, this is probably not valid, but I feel more like a musician than I did before. Before it was like, “I’m in a band.” Now I feel comfortable saying “I’m a musician.” I’m sure I was before and, of course, someone who vocalizes is a musician too, but for me, it feels good.
Nicole: You can define that for yourself!
Nicole: You write all the lyrics and, thematically, they seem pretty personal. They touch on a lot of things around gender and culture. Do you have anything you hope to get out of touching on those topics?
Meghan: It’s a way to process feelings and a lot of catharsis. It is pretty personal and I do try to veil it a bit just to protect people. If I’m going through stuff I don’t want to put people on blast, but it’s important to me to work through it. In terms of some of the more political stuff, it’s still me processing it. I don’t think I know all the answers, but if I can help people understand things or create a dialogue or something, that’s an important role of punk. Even if I don’t have the answers at least we’re all processing that stuff together.
That’s kind of part of the theme. A lot of those problems are people not listening to each other or making assumptions about what other people are going through. Whether it’s women or trans people or any other minority. Just feeling like we know what they’re going through or what their issues are. Like, just shut the fuck up and let people speak for themselves. They know. If someone tells you they’re experiencing x, y, and z, they are. So, telling your story for yourself but also giving other people space to tell theirs.
Nicole: So it sounds like you feel comfortable holding a certain space in “the scene.” Do you?
Meghan: I mean, I guess so. But also I know my place. I’m a woman. I can only speak for women and I’m white. I can’t speak for people who aren’t white. I’m straight. I can’t speak for people who aren’t. But I can say, “Hey, listen to those people, too.” I also want to practice what I preach and not take up more space than is okay.
Nicole: Do you think about how things will be perceived or received as you’re writing?
Meghan: Not really. I try not to overstep any boundaries, which I don’t think I have with this record. Because a lot of it is really personal or things I see going on around me. It helps if people don’t make assumptions, and that goes for me too. I don’t profess to have all the answers. I’m not better or smarter than anyone else. I just have a platform so I don’t want to use it to whine about my problems.
That’s not good enough, I don’t think. Yeah, I do some of that—it helps me get through stuff. If people are listening to me then I hopefully can at least encourage people to be more open-minded and caring and receptive to the problems of others.
Nicole: I definitely wouldn’t call anything I’ve heard from you as whining.
Meghan: Yeah, I guess it’s not whining. Some of it—there’s a song we play that’s hard to play but it’s a good reminder to myself that, “You felt this way. Your feelings are valid,” but I can help myself in my dark times by remembering that I wrote that and I felt that. I’m fine.
If I can do that for myself, hopefully I can do it for someone else who needs it. And if not, that’s okay too, I guess. [laughs]
Nicole: Do you keep playing that because your catalog is still growing or…
Meghan: No, I like the song but on bad days I’m like, “Fuck, this is too real.” But it feels good.
Nicole: Are there any artists that you feel fill that need for you? Recently, G.L.O.S.S. has been big for a lot of people, but now…
Meghan: G.L.O.S.S.’s so important in that they showed people they had a space, they had a role. They definitely did that for me as a woman. Hopefully, I’ve done that for people. Anyone who is helping broaden the contributors to punk is so important.
When there’s a bunch of straight white guys doing it, people think that they don’t belong and that’s not true.
Nicole: So, you’re from California?
Meghan: Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area.
Nicole: Oh, from the Bay Area specifically! What do you think sets this community apart from other places, based on touring or living experience?
Meghan: That’s hard because I’ve never lived anywhere else. But we’re spoiled for choice. Most nights you can have your pick of multiple shows to go to and I like that there’s a lot of crossover—a lot of different types of shows and people float between punk, hardcore, metal, indie, etcetera. I think it’s a good network of people. Things are fluctuating all the time but in a small scene where things are fluctuating maybe there’s not something like an all ages venue right now. Or the one guy who was doing shows graduated college and moved away. But in the fluctuation that happens anyway, at least there’s more of us doing stuff. I feel pretty lucky and supported.
Nicole: Can you think of ways things can be better?
Meghan: Things that are going on at Gilman. That’s where I went to my first show. That’s where Punch played our first show. And now for a lot of people to feel unwelcome there, that’s tragic. And that goes back to other people making assumptions about people’s needs or going, “Oh, you’re overreacting. You’re being PC.” But, no, their feelings are valid and I don’t know what’s punk about excluding people from the subculture. That could be better. It’s unfortunate.
Nicole: For people who aren’t local, do you want to give some background on Gilman?
Meghan: Some people expressed concerns about feeling safe there or hosting certain bands with dark and ugly histories. Other people thought they were overreacting in voicing those concerns. It’s just crazy to me to assume you know how people feel. If they say they feel unsafe, they feel unsafe. Now they don’t feel like they can go to a place that is supposed to be a haven—and they’ve been going for decades.
Nicole: The Bay Area is known for being really expensive and having a high cost of living. How do you cope with that while making music and art?
Meghan: I work all the time. I have one day off a week. Credit card debt. Hope that we can stay in our apartment forever. I think that people just work really hard. Sometimes I have days where I wonder why I work so much and is somewhere else better. But I’ve only ever lived in a twenty-five mile radius of either San Francisco, Oakland, or Walnut Creek.
I’m not really ready or willing to move somewhere else. So, this is what I have to do. I have two jobs and the band stuff—which I’ve never really made money from, or maybe a little here and there—but it’s way less than I would have made if I’d just worked elsewhere. It’s just making it work. That’s what everyone does, because what other choice do you have?
Nicole: Does the ebb and flow ever make you nervous?
Meghan: No, because I’ve lived here so long. I lived in SF for twelve years and the last two years were really shitty, but I was able to move to Oakland before the rents started spiking over here.
I think knowing people is helpful. If you were ever to just try to find housing online, that would probably be impossible. I guess I live my life knowing there are things I have control over and things I don’t, so the things I don’t have control over, what can I do? And the things I do, I just try to do my best.
Nicole: The album’s great. It’s one of my favorites.
Meghan: Thank you! It’s crazy because things take so long to come out, so the songs are a year old at this point.
Nicole: Do you feel like you’re ready for the next round?
Meghan: Yeah, we have five new songs, half a new record. So it’s weird because I have this thing where, it’s not like I’m over the record, but I’m thinking about the new stuff. It’s like I’ve moved on, but then I remember it’s new to everyone else.
Nicole: It’s like you had a child a year ago but everyone else is just meeting it.
Meghan: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. “Here’s our new baby. We’re thinking about our second!”
Nicole: Do you have anything that I haven’t given you the opportunity to say? Last words?
Meghan: Go vegan. [laughs]
Nicole: What’s a place someone can go in Oakland if they want vegan things?
Meghan: Oh, you mean Timeless Coffee? I’m kidding. [laughs]
Nicole: That’s exactly what I meant!
Meghan: Staff’s pretty nice, pretty good food. I’m just excited that the record’s out and people seem as excited about it as we are. I’m excited I get to continue to have a platform to express myself. That’s really what it’s all about.
And like I said, just make room for other people to express themselves in whatever way works for them in hardcore and punk. Whether it’s being in a band or writing or taking photos. Just listen to other people’s needs and make space for them. It can only help make better music and better understanding.
Nicole X lives in Oakland where she spends her time immersed in anything involving music, mental health, and/or libraries. https://www.nicoleverto.com/