A Well-Known Drag

Pop purveyors Superdrag keep the fight for artistic freedom alive with In the Valley of Dying Stars

Jennifer Love Hewitt, someone with "actress" stamped on her passport, is on TV telling Rosie O'Donnell she's never seen The Wizard Of Oz.

Shouldn't that be mandatory viewing for someone of her chosen profession? Shouldn't you be able to name at least three characters from that Hollywood classic before you're even allowed to cash a Screen Actors Guild check? Fetuses in the womb could do as much. One of these nights you're sure to see Hewitt on Celebrity Jeopardy! blowing it for some charity because she couldn't put enough brain cells together to blurt out, "What is the Lollipop Guild?"

Sadly, there's no mandatory testing in the music business, either. How can a label rep be put in charge of a power-pop group and not know who Big Star is? And yet that's just the sort of intelligentsia who imparted their questionable rock wisdom on Tennessee pop quartet Superdrag. Reps who couldn't hear the single if you melted down all nine volumes of The History of British Rock and funneled it into their auditory canal. That said, you don't have to look far for the answer to Superdrag's 1996 musical question, "Who sucked out the feeliiiiiiiiing?"

Superdrag tripping back into view: From left, John Davis, Don Coffey Jr., Sam Powers and Willie Tyler.
John Arsenault
Superdrag tripping back into view: From left, John Davis, Don Coffey Jr., Sam Powers and Willie Tyler.

It's the kind of frustrating reality lead singer John Davis endured for the better part of four years dealing with the maroon squad over at Elektra Records. The band recently joined the ranks of artists ecstatic to be freed from the major-label deal they were so ecstatic to sign in the first place.

The group's long-delayed third album, In the Valley of Dying Stars, finally hits stores on September 26 on New York- based Arena Rock Records. Though the imprint is a well-regarded independent label, Davis, for his part, isn't all that concerned about the notion of "indie cred."

"All it means is that Superdrag is back to getting things done on its own timetable. There's 99.9 percent less bullshit. It's as simple as recording an album, figuring out a title and a cover, putting it out and going on tour," he marvels.

"(Elektra) dropping us was the best possible thing that could've happened. We never had that attitude of, 'We're so desperate to have a hit album we'll do anything you say, oh swami. You're so wise in your wisdom of the rock business. You signed Megadeth in 1984, that makes you a paradigm of rock knowledge.' Now we can work and do what we do and not wait around for a year. It takes more effort on our end -- we've gotta tour and tour. But what's wrong with that? That's what bands do."

The new album's lead track makes clear Davis' intentions: "I want rock and roll, but I don't wanna deal with the hassle/I know what I know but I don't want to feel like an asshole . . . I'm gonna figure out what's mine and keep it close to me."

The band's tenure at Elektra started off under relatively ideal circumstances. Originally, the band thought it was being signed to a major-distributed indie. But because groups with guitars were still "in" on most big labels' 1996 calendars, Elektra decided to make Superdrag its alternarock priority. The resulting single, "Sucked Out," became a heavily aired MTV Buzz Cut. Few songs from the postgrunge era were as memorable on first listen as that one; who hasn't wanted to scrape up his or her larynx emulating Davis' pissed-off and urgent catch phrase?

The urgency was perhaps fueled by the song's last-minute addition to the group's debut, Regretfully Yours-- done at the behest of Elektra's team of "we don't hear the single" execs. The way Davis placated company suits was brilliant. He pressed the label's déjà vu buttons by borrowing melodic content from The Cars' first single, "Just What I Needed." (The Cars, you'll remember, went platinum with their debut album, also on Elektra.) Then he wrapped it in a ball of angst that any slacker could understand. While Kurt Cobain's ashes may have already settled, melodic rage was still worth its weight in gold and platinum in '96. After 10 weeks of heavy rotation, Regretfully Yourssold more than 300,000 copies.

Things soured when the band was allowed to pick the second single, "Destination Ursa Major," a song that quickly tanked. Elektra was determined not to make the same mistake with Superdrag's sophomore album, Head Trip in Every Key. Again, things began promisingly enough, with the label allowing the group to spend three months in an L.A. studio with producer Jerry Finn (Green Day, Rancid).

"A couple of months before it was supposed come out, everything was great. Then, all of a sudden, Elektra started panicking because there's 'no single.' We had this new song we had demoed ("Do the Vampire"). I guess they thought it sounded the most like what was getting played at the time. So that was gonna be the one. We had to go back and add the song, much the same way we added 'Sucked Out.'"

After strong-arming the "Do the Vampire" single out of the band, Elektra reneged on plans to shoot a video for the track, having already moved on, and decided to put its money behind the next buzzworthy genre -- electronica.

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