In the midst of the rock ‘n’ roll showground, Superdrag have skidded up and down the music industry mudslide, wafting from label to label, including a stint with major recording group Elektra, which propelled them to MTV status with their buzz video hit, “Sucked Out” in 1996. The song gave them early exposure to a vast fanbase that they might not have reached would they have stayed on indie labels their whole career. Besides, from their first EP in 1995 The Fabulous 8-Track Sound of Superdrag to their current release on Arena Rock Recording Company, Last Call for Vitriol, the band has coalesced euphonic melodies with punkish grittiness to create a distinct sound of pure, uncooked rock ‘n’ roll, whether they stayed on major labels or did their own thing. The new album is a motley brew of sound with songs that could have been picked out from each of their earlier works-lenient ballads, raw post-punk blasts and even alternative country tunes.
The group opens tonight for Guided By Voices in Fort Lauderdale at the Factory, so we caught up with frontman and multi-instrumentalist John Davis from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to give the Life & Art readers a more personal report on Superdrag.
Q: So you just put out a new album. What were you trying to do with this record in comparison to older ones?
SD: Well, this was the first album without any outside producers. We pretty much did everything ourselves. Our drummer Don did the majority of hands-on work, spending a lot of time in our smaller studio. We’ve made records in great expensive studios (like at Sound City where Nirvana’s Nevermind was recorded) with 30-feet-high ceilings, where the drums sound huge and Don wanted to get as close as possible to that kind of fidelity. We just didn’t want to be under the gun constantly and deal with the prerequisites of a big record company like Elektra. We wanted to take our time and make the album sound as good as records that we listen to in the van and that we think kick ass, like Dinosaur Jr. for example.
Q: How do you feel about the separation with Elektra? What was the problem?
SD: It can be complicated on a lot of levels. The biggest problem was that we were constantly writing songs, submitting 30-40 tracks just for one record, and then we’d sit around and wait indefinitely for a response. We couldn’t just not tour and not have a new album to support us. The indie level elevated our band to a new plateau of expectations. It was non-productive for us to stay with Elektra.
Q: Most journalists have described your group to have a Beatle-esque sound. What do you think about that?
SD: To a certain extent, we brought that onto ourselves. It’s kinda flattering actually. Don does play drums like Ringo but hits harder and Sam’s a real melodic bass player, but any time you got a rock band with two guitars and three guys singing, it’s gonna be Beatles influenced. On Vitriol, “Her Melancholy Tune” is lifted straight off of Revolver. There was a time when I was obsessed with the Beatles and knew all their records by heart.
Q: And so you seem to incorporate elements from older rock records and tangle them into your own sound. Besides the Beatles, where do you find inspiration for your music and why this retro feel?
SD: Well, there’s the untouchable pantheon of music from the 60s and I’m into bands like Big Star, My Bloody Valentine and The Replacements, a lot of mid-80’s post punk. We identify with records that were made 15-30 years ago, but we’re not really a retro band. There’s this good quote I once heard that goes, “You try to emulate your heroes’ bands, but you fuck it up enough to make it sound like your own.”
Q: What prompted you to add bassist Sam Powers to the band?
SD: We were in the middle of a pissing match with Elektra in ’99 and our old bassist Tom got fed up and just left. Don was responsible in finding a new guy and when Sam came along, he already knew all the songs, it was perfect. Plus we were fans of his old band Who Hit John.
Q: How was the recording process for the new album? Did it all go smoothly?
SD: Well, there was a shitload of drinking up to mid-way through the record. We were working 17-hour days, just boozing, not eating or sleeping, but eventually I had to stop and sober up.
Q: Why’s the record named Last Call for Vitriol?
SD: I guess it has a nice ring to it and has a drinking connotation, but there’s also a certain finality to it. It has something to do with what was going on with me personally at the time and with the fact that I sobered up. It was the last hurrah for me. (laughs)
Q: What do you think about the new rock hype with bands like the Strokes and the Hives, who wear matching mod suits on stage?
SD: There’s always a backlash whenever a buzz happens. Bands like that have to live up to that hype. The Hives walk on stage and say, “We’re your new favorite band,” but I’d like to see where they’ll be five years from now. About the dress thing, I don’t know how much latitude they’ll have to spread and do something different. The whole thing is very showbiz, very calculated. But the way the hype machine works is that next week, there’ll already be a new band. For us, it’s not like that. It’s more about longevity.
Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com