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Dirt Roads, Dead Ends and Dust

The Supersuckers look like satanic cowboys and sound like punks-gone-metal. Onstage, front man Eddie Spaghetti, guitarists Dan "Thunder" Bolton and Rontrose Heathman and drummer Dancing Eagle strike rock-god stances in black clothes and matching shades while ripping through gonzo anthems like "How to Maximize Your Kill Count," "She's My Bitch" and "Born With a Tail."

It's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek shtick, but sometimes the audience takes it seriously. Case in point: the group's 1997 show at Tempe's Nita's Hideaway. That night, the Supersuckers' incendiary performance was nearly extinguished by a mosh-pit melee that moved to the club's parking lot and ended when gunshots were fired wildly into the air, sending the capacity crowd into a panic.

Eddie Spaghetti shrugs off the episode with an "it could only happen in the desert" attitude. As an Arizona native, he knows what a potent cocktail of heat, booze and rock 'n' roll can do to people.

Until recently, the question record buyers had been asking about the Supersuckers was, "Where are they?" Aside from a "best of" compilation released in August, the band hadn't put out an album in more than two and a half years -- though not for lack of trying. Finally, last month, the group released its long-awaited The Evil Powers of Rock and Roll on Koch Records.

Formed in Tucson in the late '80s, the Supersuckers relocated to Seattle just as this decade's alternative explosion was beginning. Signing on with grunge's ground zero, Sub Pop Records, the band provided a welcome alternative to the self-serious, flannel-wearing shoe gazers of the era. Records like The Smoke of Hell, La Mano Cornuda and The Sacrilicious Sounds of the Supersuckers brimmed with wild musical romps fueled by coke, booze and a professed love for the Prince of Darkness. Then, in 1997, to fulfill a contract and satisfy a country jones, they released a split EP with country punk Steve Earle, and a genre exercise, Must've Been High, an earnest stab at sparse, plip-ploppy twang aided by a handful of guests including Willie Nelson.

"The country record was something that we always talked about doing," says Spaghetti, speaking from a tour stop in Memphis. "We actually recorded some countryish stuff with a side project called the Junkyard Dogs, and we figured if we were going to move on to a big label, then they're never going to let us do this. So we saw an opportunity to get it done."

The group had intended to follow up Must've Been High with a "regular" Supersuckers record on its new label, Interscope.

"The plan was not to take so long between the country record and the new rock record," says Spaghetti. "We were going to go make the country record and then make another rock record real quick. We wanted to have two records out that same year. But it didn't quite work out that way."

While the Supersuckers were busy readying what they thought would be their major-label debut, Interscope's parent company, PolyGram, was swallowed up in a merger with liquor giant Seagram's. The Supersuckers and their new album didn't rank high among the priorities of the restructured company, and their music was literally left on the shelf.

"I'm not a religious man," Spaghetti says dryly, "but I was praying to get dropped from Interscope."

Spaghetti's prayers were answered this past winter when the band was given its pink slip by Interscope. In the negotiations that followed, the label wouldn't agree to terms to give the group back the rights to its completed album. "We could have done certain things and gotten the [rights to the] record back," says Spaghetti. "They had their ideas for what should happen to make that possible, but my stance was like, 'Your ideas don't count anymore because we're not on your label.' We just went and decided to record the album again, from scratch."

The band signed with Koch Records, a New York-based indie with major-label distribution muscle, and spent the early part of this year recording the "new" new album at Studio Litho in Seattle, with garage-rock legend and Fastbacks leader Kurt Bloch as producer.

Bloch (whose credits include the Meices, Mudhoney, and Nashville Pussy) has a production technique characterized by a live-in-the-studio feel. Working with him proved to be a dream come true for the band.

"It's what we always wanted to do," says Spaghetti. "[Bloch's] a kindred spirit, a true rock 'n' roller. His talent is in letting the band do what it does and being able to pick out the best performances; getting out of the way and letting it happen."

The group emerged from the sessions with a raw and impressive collection of songs that Spaghetti claims is a vast improvement over the "lost" Interscope album.

"This record has a much better spirit than the other one," he says. "And a bunch of new songs."

Spaghetti is correct in his assessment. The Evil Powers of Rock and Roll sounds like a band making up for lost time. More than anything, it proves the group can still pull off the kind of rock anthems that would seem laughable, even puerile, in the hands of anyone else.

The Supersuckers' usual sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll ethos remains intact on songs like "Gone Gamblin," "Fisticuffs" and "My Kickass Life." But the album also showcases a depth rarely seen from the group, and a nostalgia for the people and places it left behind in its onetime desert home.

"Santa Rita High" -- the alma mater of all four band members -- is filled with lyrical reminiscences of being part "of a generation of insufferable freaks" stuck somewhere "south of the Escalante and west of the Pantano Wash/Sharing left-handed cigarettes."

Similarly, "Goin' Back to Tucson" reflects on those who never left the self-destructive security of the neighborhood bar. "I see how some of them got grounded/Stuck to the chairs they're sitting in."

If the sentiment on Evil Powers is occasionally wistful and nostalgic, the musical backing is less kind, an unending barrage of Les Paul-through-Marshall-stack power chords. "Dirt Roads, Dead Ends and Dust" is a mellow exception; its title alone could sum up the band members' youth growing up on Tucson's sprawling east side. While "Stuff 'n' Nonsense" is the group's closest attempt at a "serious" relationship song.

Earlier this year, Sub Pop pitched the idea of a Supersuckers retrospective.

"They were really cool about that," remembers Spaghetti. "They asked if they could do it, and we said, 'Sure, if we get to pick out the songs and everything.'"

The resulting 27-song compilation, humbly titled The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World, proved a welcome omnibus, including a number of unreleased tracks, Bsides and hard-to-find selections. Among the unreleased cuts was a pair of songs recorded during the group's early days as the Black Supersuckers. Those tracks, "Wake Me When It's Over" and "Monkey," feature the Jaggeresque vocals of original lead singer Eric Martin, who died of a drug overdose in 1994 after being kicked out of the band.

For Spaghetti, listening to the voice and songs of a fallen friend was a somber task.

"It was a real heavy experience to sit there and listen to those tapes again," says Spaghetti. "We hadn't listened to them in like 10 years, and when we sat in the studio and put up the reels and listened, it was real emotional."

The lingering memories of the band's complicated relationship with Martin permeates certain songs on the new record, specifically "Goin' Back to Tucson."

"It involves several characters, Eric being one of them," says Spaghetti of the track. "It's a 'you can never go home again' type of song."

While the Supersuckers have always maintained a reputation as compelling live performers and tireless road warriors, Spaghetti says the band will be upping its effort even further in support of the new album.

"We're going to work this one hard," he says. "We're going to be touring all next year."

Although Koch Records is eager for a follow-up to Evil Powers, Spaghetti says it will have to wait until after the band has spread its unholy musical gospel throughout the land.

"We'll record again when everyone has seen the show," he says. "And I do mean everyone."

The Supersuckers are scheduled to perform on Friday, November 26, at the Green Room in Tempe, with Other Star People, and Molten Leather. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: [email protected]