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A Well-Known Drag

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

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?"

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 Yours sold 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.

"It wasn't easy for them and I don't think they could be bothered to do much with it," says Davis of the album. "Things were a lot different in 1998 when the second record came out. In '96 you could actually hear Weezer or whatever, power-pop stuff on the radio. Matthew Sweet even. But you certainly don't hear it now and you wouldn't have heard it in 1998, either. Which is unfortunate because I think Head Trip was a better album than the first. It's a shame that all the people who were exposed to the first one never really got a chance to get into it."

Head Trip truly qualifies as a classic from its shoulda-been first single, "I'm Expanding My Mind," to its psychedelic closer, "The Art of Dying." Elektra probably wasn't too thrilled about songs that were biting the proverbial feeding hand of alternative radio stations ("Bankrupt Vibration") to corporate co-opting of the Beach Boys' catalogue ("Shuck & Jive"). And ending a pop album with a number whose mantra is "Forget the song/Forget the show" is akin to Andy Kaufman opening up his TV special by telling viewers to shut off their sets.

Nevertheless, the dance continued. By April of 1999, Superdrag had roughly half of its third album in the can before Elektra overstuffed the suggestion box again.

"They would never come out and say, 'Look, dude, we want you to sound like Limp Bizkit.' And maybe that's not what they wanted. They were always a little more vague. Maybe they just want you to sound like whatever's in the Billboard Top Ten." Adds Davis, emulating his former bosses in an airy-fairy voice, "'We need something that's more emotionally direct, something that's going to really grab hold of the kids and tear their fucking heads off.' That was the kind of stuff I was hearing on a daily basis -- apparently that was what we didn't have."

"Months go by, we're dying to get into the studio and finish our record, and they're not gonna allow us to do that until we come up with whatever this magical lost chord was; it was ridiculous."

Predictably, the label proposed that Davis begin collaborating with outside writers, an idea he says was doomed from the start.

"In any kind of musical dialogue, you have to have a mutual respect for the other person and their ability to write music that sounds good to you," says Davis. "It's pretty hard to take songwriting tips from the guy who wrote the Vitamin C album. Because that's a whole other universe from what we're doing. I can't think of anything that's more further removed from my idea of good songwriting."

He pauses, his Southern manners kicking back in. "Normally I don't make it a policy to slag off other people's music, and I guess I just did, but I just got fed up with that whole mentality. It's like, 'Look, man. You need to be doing what you do, and we need to do what we do, and never the twain shall meet. Never, ever again.'"

Davis did actually take up the label's suggestion to co-write a song with the Fountains of Wayne's resident bard, Adam Schlessinger. "That one I really enjoyed. We didn't end up using the song probably more for political reasons. I agreed to the thinking that it would be a smart move -- that if I did it we could get back in the studio and finish our record. But of course, that wasn't the case. They liked the song but still wouldn't put us back in the studio.

"Then their idea was, 'Why don't you go to England and sit down with [Echo & the Bunnymen's] Ian McCulloch. Or Laurence Tolhurst from the Cure.' Now, these dudes are well-respected and made lots of awesome records. But what do they have to do with us? Nothing. It was like, 'You people are crazy. You don't know where you shit last. You're just clutching at straws.'"

That particular straw proved to be the last one.

"Finally it was like, 'Well, we have 40 songs. If you don't hear one good album out of essentially four albums' worth of material, then you're never gonna get it out of us, so let's just pack it in. We'll take our tapes and go elsewhere and get it put out.' And," he adds, "that's exactly what we did."

 

Meanwhile, Superdrag was busy building its own studio in Knoxville. When the time came to finish In the Valley of Dying Stars for Arena Rock, the group had enough gear to do the job properly, and on its own terms. (Notably, longtime guitarist Brendon Fisher, who plays on the new record, is not touring with the band; axman Willie Tyler is taking his place on the road. Also new to the Superdrag family is bassist Sam Powers, who replaces the departed Tom Pappas.)

More recently, the band used the studio to record an album by a new, as-yet-unnamed outfit comprised of three-fourths of the now-defunct V-Roys. "As a matter of fact," says Davis of the twang-poppers, also veterans of the major-label ringer, "outside of them, I can only think of two or three bands I feel a kinship with in Knoxville. Power-pop type stuff. There's not a lot of that here, not to the extent of other places.

Despite his close proximity to Nashville, little of what passes for country these days strikes a pleasant chord with Davis. "Country now is basically '80s pop. That whole outlaw element is gone. The whole Shania thing -- take a chick that looks like that and it doesn't matter what it sounds like. That's the whole deal nowadays, the boy-band thing and Britney Spears. Do you really think any of the kids buying those records care about the songs that they're hearing?" he asks, adding sarcastically, "I'm sure they're sitting around trying to figure out the diminished chord behind Justin Timberlake."

Unfortunately, power pop is caught in the extreme middle between teen pap and backward-baseball-cap rock. To the industry, power pop has always been the sound of a burst bubble. Now, whenever the odd pop record makes it onto either Top 40 or alternative formats, it's considered a novelty, its creators stamped as one-hit wonders before they can entertain any thoughts of a career beyond next week. Superdrag makes such pop records -- brilliant ones. The kind that have genuine melodies and only come off as novel when placed in the context of Korn and the Kottonmouth Kings.

Not willing to accept the tag of one-hit wonders, Superdrag frequently drops "Sucked Out" off its set list, concentrating instead on better, newer material. "Yeah, we don't really play the song live that much anymore," adds Davis, with an ironic laugh.

With In The Valley of Dying Stars, the band hasn't changed its sound all that radically from its last disc. "There's only a few songs that have that full-blown overdub sound, layers and layers of different instruments, which was kind of our calling card on the last record," says Davis. "We wanted to get back to that live-band feel that we had on the first one and the EP (1995's The Fabulous 8-Track Sound of Superdrag). The new album kind of just sums up everything we've done up to this point."

Everything but one. This is the group's first long-player to be released free from the meddling of an unfeeling corporate parent.

For Davis and company, the situation echoes the opening salvo of Dying Stars. Superdrag's gotten rid of the hassle. All that's left to do now is rock 'n' roll.


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