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Headphone Revelations

Twenty years ago, Elvis Costello gleefully sang that he wanted to "bite the hand that feeds me." Costello's attack on timid radio programmers was hardly the first or last example of a rocker spewing venom at the industry that provided him with a living. In fact, the music-biz diatribe song...
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Twenty years ago, Elvis Costello gleefully sang that he wanted to "bite the hand that feeds me." Costello's attack on timid radio programmers was hardly the first or last example of a rocker spewing venom at the industry that provided him with a living. In fact, the music-biz diatribe song is a veritable rite of passage for frustrated artists. What set Costello apart was his youth. At 23, and with only one album under his belt, he had already accumulated as much bitterness as mere mortals need a decade or two to gather.

On the surface, John Davis doesn't have much in common with Elvis Costello. Davis, leader of the Knoxville, Tennessee, quartet Superdrag, speaks in a strong Southern drawl that couldn't be further from Costello's North England brogue. Whereas Costello spent his formative years watching his dad sing big-band music in British dance halls, Davis grew up in a strict Tennessee Baptist household where dancing and drinking were verboten. But anyone who saw the willfully snotty Davis shriek, "Who sucked out the feeling?" in his 1996 video for "Sucked Out" knew that here was another pop tunesmith who was jaded before his time.

"Sucked Out" worked as an ultracatchy pop-rock song, but it also exposed a fascinating love-hate relationship with the idea of rock stardom. In this song, Davis seemed to be mourning the idea that the dream he'd carried all his life ("playing out rocking routines") had been sucked dry of all its cultural potency. It's an idea he extends on Superdrag's new album, Head Trip in Every Key, with the radio-bashing "Bankrupt Vibration." Hearing this track, one tends to assume that Davis is obsessively angry with the state of modern-rock radio. Actually, in conversation he expresses an almost resigned acceptance that radio will never be what he wants it to be.

"The more we learn about the ins and outs of the radio scene, it becomes more and more reasonable, honestly," Davis says. "There are 12 conglomerates that own every modern-rock station in America. They have absolutely no control over the playlists, at all. It comes in on a floppy disk. And it's the same one that goes to the other 10 stations that are owned by the same company. And the playlists are figured out by these number-crunching automotons that know nothing about music.

"I'm sure that from the dawn of commercial radio, it's been similar. There's always been a narrow margin of what gets played. But it just seems to be a narrowing margin all the time. To be honest, I guess we had our 15 minutes of fame on commercial radio, and it really wasn't all that satisfying. Now we're sort of in the position of doing what we can do in spite of those people. It would be easy to get so depressed that you couldn't do anything."

Among Davis' recent disappointments was Elektra Records' decision not to finance a video for Head Trip. Indeed, the new album was released with all the hoopla of a pin dropping, a particularly strange occurrence since the band registered considerable airplay with its 1996 Elektra Records debut Regretfully Yours. The quiet initial response to the album is unfortunate because Head Trip is a much more confident, sonically ambitious offering than its predecessor.

It's no coincidence that the CD's cover photo depicts a girl with eyes closed, intently listening to music--presumably Superdrag music--on headphones. In the band's current bio, drummer Don Coffey Jr. describes Head Trip as a "headphones album," and he's not far wrong.

Working with producer Jerry Finn (Green Day, Rancid), Superdrag attempted to imbue each song with its own aural architecture. To do that, the band took the unconventional--and somewhat impractical--approach of recording each song from start to finish before beginning the next one.

"We went to great lengths to achieve that very thing," Davis says. "We would completely finish overdubs on one song before we moved on to the next one. I'd say a good 80 or 90 percent of records that you hear employ the assembly line method where you get 15 drum tracks down, you put 'em on the conveyer belt, and then you put the bass tracks down, and the rest of the band doesn't even have to be there."

Finn drove the band to abandon its bash-it-out mindset for a higher level of precision in its performances. The result is a kaleidoscopic pop soundscape miles removed from the eight-track demo feel of the band's self-financed 1995 debut mini-album. Even a straight-ahead rocker like the grungy "Shuck & Jive" briefly dissolves into a majestic Wilsonesque feast of harmony counterpoint.

"Obviously, Jerry Finn is a caliber of producer-engineer guy that we'd never worked for before," Davis says. "He went for a level of perfection that we'd never gone for before. Every note of every track of the song was made to fit exactly the specifications. Now, in retrospect, I'm really glad he did things that way. The way we did the first record, I'm sure there were a lot of mistakes left in 'cause we just couldn't take the time. So now when I listen back to that, all I can hear are mistakes."

A native of Knoxville, a college town that bleeds Volunteer orange, Davis grew up on the Motown and Stax/Volt soul records his parents played and Beatles albums handed down from his cousins. He subsequently went through a besotted SST punk phase before finding his way back to the British Invasion pop that turned him on as a kid.

"I sort of figured that that sort of godhead of rock is the source for so many other things," he says. "And once I heard Big Star, that's when I decided that I wanted to start a band, because they were like the perfect synthesis of the mid-'60s Brit Invasion with the Memphis Stax sound."

Of course, it can be tough to make your mark in the aggro '90s when your only calling cards are the subtle charms of melody and harmony. But Davis says his biggest challenge was finding like-minded people to play with.

"I guess I first started trying to put a band together when I got out of high school. At that time, there were a lot of would-be Pearl Jams and would-be Smashing Pumpkins. There wasn't anybody really interested in playing a Brit Invasion/Big Star-influenced type of thing."

Davis hooked up with the other members by playing drums in a Knoxville group called The Used, which eventually evolved into Superdrag. His ability to play drums and a variety of other instruments--guitar, piano, organ, Mellotron, sitar and theremin on the new album alone--might open up the possibility of some intriguing solo projects in the future, but for now he says he's consumed with exploring Superdrag's musical possibilities.

One nagging by-product of Head Trip's trippy sound and occasionally flowery lyrics is that critics are assuming that Davis has been altering his consciousness a bit lately, either with chemicals or religion. The sitar-inflected album coda, "The Art of Dying," borrows an old George Harrison song title and flirts with Eastern imagery. And the cryptic acoustic ballad "She Is a Holy Grail" is about as surreal as Davis has ever allowed himself to be: "Sweet darjeeling dream/Of sugarcubes and cream/In a bridal gown/Inhaling nicotine."

When asked about the possible influence of mind-altering substances, Davis merely laughs and says, "Certainly, the recreational habits of the writer have some bearing on the final product." He's a bit more forthcoming about religion.

"There are quite a few religious images, and I think those are pretty powerful images, because people have this reverence for them," he says. "I was brought up in a very strict Baptist environment. Anything that a person is exposed to or hears finds itself into songs that they do."

Superdrag is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, May 12, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Beat Angels. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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