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Speed Racers

Superdrag singer/guitarist John Davis is too young for this shit.
Ten minutes ago, Davis was right where he wanted to be--passed out in his Nashville hotel room. But then his band's road manager started pounding on the door, yelling something about a phone interview and get your ass up now. Oh, yeah, and John--can you please not slam Oasis this time?

So now Davis is on the phone. Whether the 22-year-old Knoxville rock musician is also awake remains a matter of interpretation: Awake as in able to successfully dial a number, ask for the right name and mumble, "Jesus, I'm movin' slow here--any idea where my cigarettes might be?" Yes. Awake as in possessing the power of conscious, coherent, cognitive thought? Afraid we'll have to put a fat Nike mark in the negative category on that one.

Check it out, straight from the tape:
New Times: You know, Superdrag, you guys soak your guitars in distortion, and you've got that indie-rock aggression thing going on, but you cram all that sound into really tight, melodic song structures. Is that a best-of-both-worlds situation for you, or what?

John Davis: Yeah, well, the Beatles on speed in the Cavern Club, you know. (coughs, pause) Man, I'm sorry, but I'm not really with it just yet.

NT: Late night last night?
JD: So it would seem. Yes, indeedy-do. Hold on, I need a smoke (23-second pause, followed by sound of phone being picked up and dropped, then picked up again) Sorry 'bout that.

NT: No problem. I understand your band just shot a video--how'd that go?
JD: It's for "Sucked Out" [the first single off Superdrag's debut album Regretfully Yours].

NT: I'm sorry?
JD: "Sucked Out." We're all working in this restaurant, and it starts out with just me singing and then we go into the song and everything gets crazy.

NT: Okay, the chorus to that song--"Who sucked out the feeling"--are you talking about rock 'n' roll there?

JD: Yeah.
NT: So who did suck out the feeling?
JD: (six-second pause) MTV.
JD: Yeah.
NT: MTV sucked the feeling out of rock 'n' roll?
JD: Partially it was MTV, yeah.
NT: But you just made a video for that song.

JD: (four-second pause) Hmmmm. I'm afraid the key is turning, but the engine's not quite fired up yet.

NT: We'll come back to that one.
JD: Sounds good on this end.

Trust the critics--Davis really is brilliant when he's not stupid with drink and fatigue. Among the surplus of "super" monikered up-and-comers (Superchunk, Supergrass, Super Deluxe, the Supersuckers--how many more can you name?), Superdrag takes the checkered flag. Regretfully Yours is a come-from-nowhere debut with the power and elegance to remind you what great rock 'n' roll really is. The band's sole songwriter, Davis, forges an exquisite alloy of postpunk guitar fury fused with classic Brit-pop songcraft. Kurt Lennon? Meet John Cobain. For a guy who just turned 22, Davis is scary good.

And he's from Knoxville. Go figure.
Here's the deal: There's this part of Knoxville called Fort Sanders that's sorta the wrong-side-of-the-tracks part of town. Pimps, dope peddlers, derelicts, struggling musicians--you get the picture. Anyway, two of the guys in Superdrag used to live in this old, huge, run-down house in Fort Sanders that doubled as a makeshift Knoxville rock club. The household would buy a few kegs, book a few bands, charge a few bucks at the door and throw a concert in the basement. Since half the band's lineup lived in the house--Davis says he also "kind of unofficially lived there"--Superdrag naturally turned into the club's house band.

"We still play there when we can," says Davis. "That place made us into a band. We're talking about a cement room packed with four or five hundred people, it's so hot there's condensation drops on the walls, everybody's swilling beer and the audience is right there in your face, crammed together and expecting to get rocked. You can't be a weak band and play in a situation like that. You've got to just tear the fuck out of your music."

Before there was Superdrag, there was The Used, a brute-force rock band fronted by bass player Tom Pappas. The group made an evolutionary leap when Davis, who had been playing drums, passed the sticks to Don Coffey Jr. and focused on his singing and songwriting. With Brandon Fisher on guitar, the new lineup clicked the combination into place like tumblers in a safe. Superdrag came off the line in early 1995 with the indie EP The Amazing Eight Track Sound of Superdrag, which immediately screeched to a commercial halt but caught the ear of Elektra Records.

Which brings us back to the debut album, the accompanying video and the MTV question. "I don't know what I was talking about there," says Davis from Nashville once he has 20 minutes of wakey-wakey behind him. "I think I meant the whole phenomenon that so many bands you see on MTV, they may be video-friendly but, man, they just don't rock. You've got bands out there claiming to be the next Beatles that don't have the balls it takes to be a rock band."

Say John, might you be speaking of, oh, I don't know, Oasis?
"Well, I've already been quoted too many places talking trash about that band. That's a habit I'm trying to break."

But, hey, what the hell.
"Let me just say this much: The minds behind Oasis don't seem to comprehend that the reason the Beatles spelled their name b-e-a-t is because of that hard backbeat. You don't have that, you tell me how you're supposed to be the next Beatles. It's gotta have a beat, and it's gotta have guts. That's rock 'n' roll, and nothing else will do."

Superdrag is scheduled to perform Monday, June 10, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse

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