Jake Popyura talks death, anxiety and Alex Winter – and the impact they all had on the excellent Supermilk debut
by Jade Curson
In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine sitting down to write a song like ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ and being able to fit 40 years of news events into five minutes. The proliferation of disaster, both natural and man-made, keeps on keeping on and has become something beyond comprehension in 2020. Those January wildfires that were all anyone could talk about at the time feel as far away to me now as the death of Diana. I have a hazy, sepia-tinted recollection of a time you could sit in a heaving room of friends and strangers, bumping shoulders, drinking fearlessly from a glass of dubious cleanliness – but the word ‘pub’ feels like a quaint anachronism today: somewhere you might hold a box social after your daily constitutional. Remember experts, and science? No, me neither. Now shut up and drink your Toilet Duck to keep away the poxes and agonies.
“I feel like this is the worst possible time you could put out a record,” laughs Jake Popyura. Four days before the release of his first LP under the Supermilk moniker, the UK went into lockdown. The measure, while long overdue from a public health standpoint, meant that hopes for a timely release show (amongst many other things) were dashed. That aside, there’s a convincing argument to be made that now is actually the perfect time for an album like Death Is The Best Thing For You Now. “I’m glad that it’s somehow become morbidly relevant,” Popyura says. “A lot of the songs are about death, and a lot of the songs are about entitlement, and there’s some kind of crossover there… a few songs about people and things dying as a result of other people’s entitlement, and the consequences that entitlement has on us as a human race.” The only difficult thing about finding the relevance to the here and now is which catastrophe to point at first.
Popyura is probably best known as the drummer and co-founder of Doe (RIP!) but he has been writing and recording since childhood, when his dad bought a four-track recorder and taught him how to use it: “The very notion of a solo project sounds narcissistic – a recording project may be a better word for it – but I’ve been doing those in different forms since I was nine.” His latest (solo) recording project initially came to life as an outlet for songs which weren’t the right fit for Doe, and so were “flung on the Supermilk pile.” When Doe announced their split last year, Popyura looked forward to throwing himself into some other, non-music projects. Instead, he wrote and recorded Death Is The Best Thing For You Now.
“When I get something in my head like that, it’s very difficult for me to let go. It’s kind of an obsessive thought where now I’ve got that idea, and I have to go through with it. Songs just started coming to me… they all kind of came about as a result of Doe splitting up, and then me having an urge to carry on doing it in spite of not really wanting to,” he explains.
Doe fans will find plenty to satisfy them on the record, which is laden with memorable hooks thrown over a grunge-pop foundation, layered with vocal harmonies that, deceptive in their simplicity, pack a huge punch. With Supermilk, Popyura has taken this formula and added his own distinctive twists: catchy, angular riffs that would be equally at home on a B52s song or one of the better mid-2000s indie outfits. There is an unavoidable sense of restlessness; while songs don’t exactly veer off in unexpected directions like you might anticipate from a record with this variety of fidgety energy, the build and embellishment of any given track provide an undercurrent of subtlety to a a collection of songs that could have rested comfortably on being a more straightforward variety of fist-pumping, singalong earworms.
“My vibe is very saturated colours and very kind of, maniacal 90s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it energy, and that works its way into my songs,” Popyura says. “I have a tendency to write parts that don’t really resolve, or they resolve quicker than they’re supposed to… I just get bored.”
Speaking of maniacal, oversaturated 90s energy: it would be thoroughly remiss to discuss Death Is The Best Thing For You Now without acknowledging the film from which it took its name. “It’s a quote from a deleted scene from Freaked, which is my all-time favourite movie,” Popyura begins. “I’ve shown it to a lot of other people and the thing that I’ve heard most is ‘this is you in a film.’” I have some questions about this, having watched Freaked the night before our interview (“is the entire movie on YouTube?” he asks, sounding excited in a way I cannot pretend to understand. “That’s great. I’m glad. It’s nice to spread the word about that movie even if most people are like ‘what the fuck is this?’”).
And reader, I hated it. If I had to describe my idea of cinematic hell, a wacky, schlocky romp through a stream of gross-out humour and comedy voices with a confusing array of celebrity cameos would be pretty much at the top of my list. Popyura pauses after I make clear my feelings about the film, before launching into a defence of the movie which seems… not rehearsed exactly, but definitely as though he’s had a lot of opportunities to hone the argument before now:
“Yeah, it just ties together everything that I like: horror, comedy… the gags are so quickfire and they’re so daft and silly. Alex Winter from Bill and Ted wrote and directed the movie with Tom Stern, and it was a huge budget movie that Fox were really excited about making because he was such a big star… and they were these two punk kid filmmakers who just wanted to do weird stuff. So they made this movie. The person who really liked it from the studio got fired, someone else came in and buried it. So it’s this weird thing where it’s a cult movie but with an insane budget and all these amazing special effects and no expense spared, but barely anyone has seen it. I was always quite happy that I was one of the few people that knew about it so I could show other people, but also I love the movie so much that I was annoyed that it never did better.”
On face value, there doesn’t seem to be much tying the movie and the record together, aside from that shared line and an abundance of barely-contained energy. But under the gags and the pricey-if-unpleasant prosthetics, the plot of Freaked rests on a valid (if over-the-top) criticism of capitalism and how it generates desire for profit with total disregard for human survival or quality of life. There’s that intersection of death and entitlement again.
Death Is The Best Thing For You Now also has a much more personal significance to Popyura: “The ‘you’ in the title is me,” he explains. “It’s a very succinct one-line summary of the kind of language that I use towards myself when I’m in a particularly dark place.” A mindset that will surely be familiar to any number of people who are prone to intrusive thoughts or a tendency to catastrophise. But Popyura is careful to point out the counterbalance of that mentality: at about the midway point of the record comes ‘Gut Check’, a gentle, mostly-instrumental reminder to take a step back and re-evaluate what might appear at first to be a hopeless situation in a wider context. “It ties into the album title as sort an antithesis, in that it’s basically saying ‘you always get to this place but you never go through with it’, talking a little bit about that turning point and then just getting on with the rest of it.” And a reminder to check in with ourselves and grasp for something positive is probably something most of us could use at the moment.
In fact, the entire process of creating Death Is The Best Thing For You Now reflects a concerted effort by Popyura to overcome the thoughts and anxieties which have been a significant part of his life. As the only member of Supermilk, he was able to write and record the entire thing in secret, without letting friends or family know that he was working on anything until he had a finished product to show them. “I was deliberately keeping it to myself,” he explains, “because I’m very unsure of myself a lot of the time. Nicola [Leel, from Doe] and I used to live together, and when I would start writing an EP or a new song, I would write half of it and sometimes want immediate feedback. And I’d find myself doing that with friends… I feel like I sabotaged myself in that way because it was taking away that self-conviction from the off and putting the approval in the hands of contemporaries.”
Taking a look around at big 2020, it feels increasingly easy to shrug off and step back from everything happening around us; easier to buy into the idea that death is not only the best thing for us now, but increasingly the most likely for a lot of us as well. With this record, Popyura explores those triggers, both personal and global, that lead him towards that headspace – the mantra that both exemplifies reaching a particularly low point, but also acts as a tipping point for him to reassess his situation and start to move forward. Given that, in Popyura’s own words, “there is no escape route, there is no reserve plan”, it behooves us all to try and do the same whenever we can.