The power pop auteur talks about the curious trajectory of his old band, and the recent takeoff of his new one.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Knoxville’s Superdrag went into the studio in 1997 fresh off their wildly popular debut Regretfully Yours, an album that made a big impact thanks to the infectious single “Sucked Out,” ironically, a not so flattering song about the music industry and the perfect foreshadowing device for this article…
Their record label at the time, Elektra, was expecting more of the same with Head Trip in Every Key. The guys in Superdrag, however, decided to do what they’ve always done: simply make a record their own way without any considerations of how the label would sell it to the masses. And as this story has played out time and time again, it ended up being one of their career-best albums, lyrically and musically a fantastic record from start to finish, as well as a financial disappointment to Elektra who quickly dropped support for the album and walked away from the band.
Head Trip may have ended the band’s major label stay, but it has gone on to inspire numerous groups across the globe and built up a pretty fervent fan base. The tastemakers at SideOneDummy Records, a few individuals in a very long line of Superdrag fans, released Regretfully Yours on vinyl last year and just put out the first vinyl issue of Head Trip in Every Key. Doing a poor job of hiding their inner fanboys/girls, the label is also releasing Jokers With Tracers, a double LP of demos [reviewed HERE]; and Sisyphus Says, the debut from the band Lees Of Memory (reviewed HERE), which is a new group comprising Superdrag frontman John Davis, Superdrag guitarist Brandon Fisher and drummer Nick Slack.
Davis was cool enough to take sometime recently to talk about the recording of Head Trip, pissing off their old label and starting up the Lees of Memory.
BLURT: One thing that’s been hinted at for years and I wanted to find out once and for all – this was your second record for Elektra – did you intentionally try to piss off the label and not put an obvious single on this album? Did you just go in and record what you wanted without listening to what the label wanted?
JOHN DAVIS: That’s always what we did! They should have known we were going to do that. Honestly, I was just sitting here thinking about all that stuff right before you called me and it’s not like we sat down to write a song to spite them. We might have done that a little bit later. We were never short of material and that particular time period, in between those first two albums, I wrote a lot. I would say maybe four or five of the Head Trip songs I had before the first record came out. That first record was mixed and mastered and it was done, done, and then I wrote “Sucked Out” in the same batch of some of [the Head Trip songs]. I threw four or five of those songs on a cassette and sent them to the A&R guy and it was almost kind of sort of to be a dick, “Here’s our second album.” Ha ha.
I wanted him to know we were working hard. Obviously that changed everything and we added “Sucked Out” to the first record and then they wanted a video. They actually were going to license that first record to a smaller label.
I’d never heard that before.
Yeah, there was going to be no video, no radio budget; that song kind of changed everything. But, that was just another song out of 13 or 14 other ones that went down on the four-track. We always just kind of did “us.” We would be the last dudes trying to discover some kind of hit formula. That was just never us, and obviously that second record, we had just got done touring for 11 months and played 250-something shows and really grew as an ensemble of players. I feel like when we went into the studio to make that second record we really wanted to show what we could do. When we signed and made the first album, we had no experience in a studio. We were used to recording the band live on an 8-track cassette and overdubbing vocals. That was it. That new batch of material obviously lent itself to that more studio head approach. We just kind of wanted to go all out. We never thought that would make the label’s job harder.
Did you ever get feedback from them while you were recording?
Not until really late in the game. A bunch of the stuff was already written and knocking around and they were aware of it. We went up to Bearsville (NY) and posted up there for a month. The A&R guy had like a house up there and we would chill at his house. He knew what we were doing. It wasn’t top secret or anything. He didn’t hand out a whole lot at the practice spot. Fast forward a few months and we’re in the studio for three months non-stop and we rarely saw anybody from the record company until the last week or two that we were in the stages of making final overdubs. And I just remember like there was a super awkward feeling in the air when they were listening to the stuff. Nobody was uncool, they just never really seemed too stoked about any of it.
A little bit later we started getting, “Hey, you need to write some more.” They kind of started to panic. We tried to go back to Bearsville a second time, but it was never the same. They had already doused the flames of any creative stoke, by then. We kind of worked up “Do the Vampire.” Then they told us to go and support Green Day for a little bit which definitely put us in a whole other frame of mind.
Were you still writing new songs at that point?
I never really did a lot of writing on tour. But we ended up going back in and adding “Do the Vampire,” we added “Mr. Underground” and we cut two other songs – they were full instrumental versions. “Do the Vampire” was the single.
I was always surprised that “Mr. Underground” wasn’t the obvious single from that album.
Well, they did “Do the Vampire” and then “Hellbent” and then that was it. There was one guy at Elektra, named Jim Cortez; he was a radio promo guy and I think in both cases he had 13 or 14 stations in his region and he had both songs added to all but one of those stations. So it could be done. I’d give him a high five if he was here right now.
So did that experience start to sour your relationship with Elektra?
Well, it definitely was on the downside of the bell curve, I would say. We went round and round about a video treatment with a friend and they pretty much wasted his time only to say they were not going to make a video to promote the record. In retrospect, we wasted a period of time feeling sorry for ourselves, but looking back on it now, it’s really not that surprising. How was that ever going to be a hit album? If it had come out in 1973 it would have had the same problems. I don’t really want to talk down on the record label because we didn’t make any choices that made it easier for them to do what they do. It was kind of crazy that we ended up in that kind of situation to begin with. In 1994 -1995 the whole playing field was completely different.
You’ve obviously had experience since then working with other labels, different sizes. Is there any part of you that enjoys watching the major label dying out right now?
(Laughs) Not really. It’s just not something I think about much. In any business, if you gouge your customers over and over and over again for years and years and keep charging more and more for a product that costs less to produce each year, it’s bound to happen eventually. People are going to find a workaround when you start charging $18.99 for a CD that costs something like $1.20 to produce.
I’ve been thinking more about 1997 recently than I ever thought I would. And I’d be the last person to make the comparison between us and Big Star, but a lot of people have. Like there was some kind of cosmic injustice that happened to us, but honestly dude, where is the justice ever in the music industry? Muddy Waters ended up being a maintenance guy at Chess Records. It’s funny, because I was 23 years old when we were making Head Trip and I didn’t know anything about anything, except playing instruments writing songs and doing shows. That’s all I knew and back then to thrive in the cutthroat environment of a corporate record company you’ve got to have some business acumen. I had zero. I don’t want to speak for the other guys, but I’m the guy that made a setlist on the back of the contract. Literally! The last thing I was spending any time thinking about was how do I please Sylvia Rhone (CEO of Elektra Records in the mid-‘90s). When I was writing music, the last thing that crossed my mind was making chess moves… The whole time we were on that label, four years, we spent a total of 20 minutes with Sylvia.
How did the relationship with SideOneDummy come about? They re-released your first record on vinyl, they’re putting this one out on vinyl, releasing a record of demos and putting out a record by your new band.
Well, they reached out to Superdrag’s manager about wanting to reissue the Elektra era stuff which was really cool. Honestly, I had a lot less involvement with the first record they put out because I have a lot less love for that album.
What involvement did you have for this one?
They started reaching out about creative choices like the packaging and “are you guys cool with these side breaks?” that kind of stuff. That Jokers With Tracers album I had a lot more to do with that one. The designer made it look so good, but we bounced a bunch of ideas off each other. I ended up taking the photos and the little icons of the cassettes on the inside are my actual cassettes.
Had it been awhile since you last listened to those demos?
Oh yeah, dude. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had heard them from start to finish. I just kind of stood in here between two speakers and listened to all four sides. It had been such a long time, I kind of forgot that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. It kind of bummed me out really hard too because of Jerry [Finn, producer]. He’s gone and that’s just wrong. He was a super gifted dude and such a fun person to be with. I just remember laughing a lot. He gave us a hard time, busted our chops, but he was always so funny. He was a total pro… One last thing I’ll say is that he never backed away from that record. A lot of industry dudes, when a record doesn’t sell, they’re pretty quick to abandon ship and distance themselves to save face, but he never did that. He backed it all the way. (Editor’s note: Jerry Finn was a widely respected producer who worked with Morrissey and a lot of punk bands throughout the 1990s. He produced Head Trip in Every Key and died in 2008.)
Do you want to talk about The Lees Of Memory for a few minutes?
I’d love to talk about it.
Let’s start with how the band came about.
Well, let’s see. Really, Brandon [Fisher, also with Superdrag] had a bunch of songs he was working on and he’s not really a drummer and doesn’t have a full kit set up, so he wanted to come down because I did. He had this one song called “Deliquesce,” and he wanted us to see what we could do with it. He came down here and his family came with him so the kids could play, our wives are tight and everyone was just hanging out and we spent an entire weekend just working on that one song and he was really pleased with how it came out and I loved it and we wanted to do more.
Not too long after that I got on a roll and started writing a bunch of stuff at that point still separately, but on a parallel track, two separate projects. It just seemed obvious at a certain point that we needed to join forces and just do this. We kept writing stuff and just about every weekend I’d fire up the four-track… All along the way, I just intended to do a bunch of four-track recordings and get an album’s worth, try and talk someone into mastering them just to make them loud and then just finding a way to throw it on the Internet and let people have it for free.
I always send [producer] Nick Raskulinecz everything I do. He’s just a super busy dude. Some years he’s making three, four, five records a year. One day he hit me back with an e-mail and said, “Dude, you’ve got a record here. When are you going to make it?” Nobody does it better than him and you’d be a fool to turn down his help… but at the same time, I really don’t have that fire in my belly to run my own record company. As much as I admire Ian MacKaye and all the dudes that did it all themselves, I’m not going to do that.
So you took it to SideOne?
They were so friendly and easy to deal with on these Superdrag things and we were already well into the Head Trip and Jokers records when I decided to finally send them a SoundCloud link just to see what they’d say. I’m pretty sure they hollered back that day and said “We need to talk about this.” From there on it just kind of happened… They also never really sweated the fact that we never played a show.
So what’s next for you?
For the future, as far as any energy I have to rock, it’s all going on the Lees Of Memory pile. And we already have another record’s worth of songs, so SideOneDummy, if you’re reading…
Lees Of Memory photo credit: Elvis Wilson. Further reading: our 2009 interview with John Davis, in which he talks about the Superdrag reunion that was going on at the time. Below: check out a little surprise we found on the web….