Knoxville alt-rock favorites Superdrag enjoyed an astonishing rise to success in the mid-’90s, then became yet another cautionary tale about how major labels can stifle promising young careers. A strong-selling 1996 debut album, Regretfully Yours—featuring the MTV/radio hit “Sucked Out”—gave way to the more baroque and experimental Head Trip In Every Key, which was beloved by critics and fans, but neglected by Superdrag’s label, Elektra. After some label and personnel changes, Superdrag called it quits in 2003. Since then, frontman and Nashville resident John Davis has embraced his Christian faith on two solo albums—the second of which, Arigato, is just now becoming available, more than a year after it was recorded. And Davis has recently discovered that he’s not done with Superdrag. Earlier this year, the indie label Arena Rock Recording Co. released the B-sides and rarities compilation Changin’ Tires On The Road To Ruin, to be followed soon by the demo collection 4 Track Rock!!! 1992-1995. The original lineup also has reunited for a short tour, which began last week in Cincinnati, and continues in Nashville at City Hall this Friday, Oct. 5.
Davis spoke with the Scene about revisiting past glories, as well as his new, more relaxed and pragmatic approach to the music business.
Scene: What prompted the reunion?
John Davis: We’ve gotten a lot of offers to get back together and play over the last three or four years, but you know, I felt like I needed to do my own record, which I did, and I toured with that. My wife and I started a family. Life just kind of moved on. But I really never stopped thinking about Superdrag. What could’ve happened. What should’ve happened. You spend that much time devoted to a thing, and when it’s missing, you definitely think about it. Then Changin’ Tires On The Road To Ruin came out, and kind of brought the band back to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and prompted more offers for us to come and play. The more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me how fun it would be, and what a privilege to play for people who still care. We’ve all kept our expectations pretty modest, but I think the response has been more overwhelmingly positive than we had a right to expect.
Scene: In the early ’90s, in the wake of Nirvana, radio seemed a lot more open to new music, while record labels seemed to be rushing to distill that burst of creativity down to a comprehensible formula. How did that impact Superdrag?
Davis: For us, we wanted as many people to hear our music as possible, and we wanted to try recording in a big studio, so we just kind of went along with everything in a really naive way. I mean, I remember thinking it would be really cool to be signed to Elektra because they put out The Stooges and The MC5. And it never occurred to me that, you know, that was 30 years ago. [Laughs.] That really has no bearing on what they do now. But man, when when we signed our deal, I was 21. I knew next to nothing about the music industry. We were pretty impressed by Elektra, and really I have to say, in their defense, whatever nefarious methods they employed to get our record played and get us on MTV, they did a good job at it. We went from playing to 200 people a night to 2,000 in a pretty short time.
After we had some success with the first record, I don’t think Elektra necessarily cared about us trying to grow as a band. They would’ve been perfectly happy if we’d submitted a record with 12 re-writes of “Sucked Out.” But by that time we were smart enough to know that you have to live with that stuff for the rest of your life, if you put out a bullshit album. We wanted to do something that was more creative, and we didn’t want people to feel cheated. We ended up writing this really weird bunch of songs that Elektra didn’t know what to do with, and really, they didn’t care.
Scene: It’s hard to pin down a definitive Superdrag sound, though. How would you define it?
Davis: There’s a pretty broad range of influences between the four of us. As far as the writing goes, from the beginning—and I feel like overall—there’s been a real melodic, Beatles-influenced side, and at the same time a lot of SST Records, like Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü. Plus My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver…all those noisy guitar bands. But there were certain records of ours, like Head Trip In Every Key, that don’t really fit in with the others. That one was kind of from a Bizarro World. [Laughs.] It didn’t really connect with what came before or after, except in a couple of places. When we started, I remember I would listen to the Help! soundtrack three times a day and then I’d listen to Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock by Sebadoh. That was kind of the deal.
Scene: Sebadoh’s an interesting reference point, because the demos on 4-Track Rock suggest a direction in which Superdrag could’ve gone. Did you ever give any thought to ditching the polished sound of your major label records and going lo-fi?
Davis: That was kind of how we started. I’ve always recorded on four-track, and to this day, that’s the only mode I have of recording at home. I don’t really care about learning anything else. The 7-inches and EP we did, that was all eight-track, and our original idea was to release our first album in eight-track form. But this whole chain of events was set in motion and we just kind of went with it. In hindsight, we could’ve bailed, and not signed, and not made that first record the way we did. It’s kind of like that Marvel comic, What If? “What If Superdrag Had Just Recorded On Eight-Track?” [Laughs.] I personally love the sound of four-track recordings, and to hear that stuff mastered, that was a lot of fun for me. If we do another record, maybe it will be four-track. That would suit me just fine.
Scene: Where does Superdrag go from here?
Davis: You know, I’ve written a bunch of new songs that sound a lot like Superdrag. [Laughs.] I don’t think we’re trying to look too far ahead, but I think we’re down for whatever, as long as it’s fun and everyone’s involved. I can definitely foresee a time when we make an album as a band again. I don’t see us spending nine months of the year in a van, playing. I kind of feel like those days are over for me. I can’t stand to be away from my children that much.
Scene: The technology is such now that you could make a record, put it out yourself, not tour behind it, and still not lose money. In a way, that’s kind of what you’re doing with Arigato, right?
Davis: Yeah, well I recorded that record in August of last year, and then for all intents and purposes, the company that was supposed to be paying all the expenses and putting the record out pretty much disintegrated. So it’s taken me a year to work my way out of that mess and get the record back. As it turns out, the guys in the band really like the record, and when I suggested the possibility of playing one of the songs in our set and putting it out at the merch booth, they weren’t only cool with it, they were into it. I’m not trying to get people to show up to the Superdrag show so I can have a captive audience for my gospel music. I’m going to go out of my way to make sure that things aren’t that way. But the truth is that the record does sound a lot like Superdrag.
I’ll make the music available, and do everything I can to let people know about it, and hopefully they’ll tell a friend. [Laughs.] I guess in my own imagination I view myself as kind of a lifer. I hope that God grants me that wish.
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