Throughout the '70s, James Bond films set a stylistic precedent in music that captured the '50s' fascination with lounge artists mixed with the orgasm-in-progress of disco. Bond's sensual spy chicks were each ushered in over the years by siren theme songs by artists like Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey.
The vibe was high-class sensuality. It was about sex with a bowtie and cocktail dress casually laid over a plush hotel chair, danger as near as the lobby downstairs. That cosmopolitan, mysterioso aesthetic has survived into the '00s, primarily in the form of electronica music-the most sophisticated and informed genre of our day.
Last year, Shirley Bassey returned to the spotlight, with her multiple Bond hits recontextualized by electronica artists like Groove Armada and Nightmares on Wax. Three years earlier, in a small Los Angeles studio, the new James Bond series had also brought together a Japanese-Iranian hip-hop DJ and a talented songbird.
“James Bond was one of the geneses of the whole band,” says Geri Soriano-Lightwood, vocalist and songwriter for Supreme Beings of Leisure. “Ramin [Sakurai, keyboardist-programming] got an opportunity to submit a track for a James Bond film. So they took this hip-hop track that sounded kind of ‘Bassey' and gave it to me and I wrote ‘Nothing Like Tomorrow.” That was the first thing we ever wrote together.
“It's a classic, timeless cosmopolitan sexiness,” Soriano suggests of the mood established by Bond's legacy.
At the time, the band was Oversoul 7, which contained a myriad of computer wizards: guitarist-programmer Rick Torres, bassist-programmer Kiran Shahani, and Sakurai. Though “Nothing Like Tomorrow” would become an Oversoul 7 song, the new combination with Soriano evolved into the Supreme Beings of Leisure.
“The bass player at the time was watching a National Geographic episode on lions,” Soriano says of their lofty moniker. “And I guess, as Mama Perkins said, ‘The lions are the true supreme beings of leisure.'
Soriano says she wasn't thrilled with the name in the beginning, given the inherent campy overtones. But, she says, “I think we've kind of transcended that. [The name] is about enjoying your life, creating that space where you have mastery of your universe and you're fulfilling your passion.”
Their 2000 debut largely made waves because of the way it was marketed-almost exclusively on the Internet. It was a test on the marketing power of click of mouse: SBL pop up windows, SBL click-throughs, SBL promotional giveaways on music sites. The music-a collection of soulful trip-hop with international pop overtones-showed promise, though arguably not a full realization. Soriano's vocals redeemed a lot of the mediocre songwriting.
“I'm kind of all over the map, I'm not a trained vocalist,” Soriano says. “I have had vocal coaching but it's not like I went to Berklee and studied opera. I started singing in rock bands when I was 17, and started singing all kinds of stuff from new wave to punk to funk to jazzy stuff.”
Soriano had sung in various L.A. bands, inspired early on by Rough Trade Records and bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, and new wavers like Echo and the Bunnymen. It makes you wonder how a girl raised on punk ended up fully embracing the sophisticated disco of SBL's new album, Divine Operating System?
“I was a classy punk rocker-I had the safety mo, I didn't have the full Mohawk,” she jokes. “I'm lucky I grew up in a very artistic family. My uncle is a pretty well known painter in Europe and the Dominican Republic. My mother sang, my father played cello and drums. I was always exposed to the arts. I think the sense of class that I get is because of that exposure.”
The decision to embrace disco for the new album-a synthesized string experience that imagines the singer as a new breed of divas like Donna Summer and, of course, Shirley Bassey-split the band, leaving Soriano and Sakurai to their own devices. Happy with the freedom, Soriano says the duo took cues from French house bands like Daft Punk and Air.
“We noticed that they're deconstructing disco and skirting around it,” she says. “And we decided, ‘Let's go full on. Let's go back to the source and try to recreate it.'”
Recreate it they did, although tweaked and updated with a very distinct modern flair. DJ Swamp appears on seven songs, applying the same quirky electronic flair that he first gave to Beck and Morcheeba. Sakurai's lush orchestration matches Soriano's dreamy lyrics, which are robust in flighty, hopeful imagery.
“I'm a very optimistic person, but I'm also a very direct person, so I don't live in a land of full time metaphor,” she explains.
“There is a spiritual side. Not that we claim to be the supreme beings, but both Ramin and I do believe that ‘divine' sums it up for us.
“We are all divine.”