Superdrag comes back.
By Ben Taylor
APRIL 6, 1998: The '90s started off as a sort of rock renaissance and turned into a novelty halfway through the decade. Early on, the Seattle scene championed the rise of indie rock and a fresh new form of artistic expression. All the while, though, major labels were nodding approvingly, signing every band in sight and cranking out as many one-hit wonders as they could before the whole thing blew over. This is nothing new, of course. From '60s psychedelia to '80s synth-pop, the recording industry has always capitalized on the public's eagerness to buy into the latest trend.
The difference with the '90s, some might argue, is that a few bands might have had a longer shelf life if they'd been given a chance. (Belly, Buffalo Tom, and Juliana Hatfield all come to mind.) But labels didn't often give bands much time once they'd released the follow-up to their big hit. Most sophomore records were poorly promoted, with a first single that lasted on MTV for maybe a week. It got to the point where going gold with your first record seemed more a curse than a blessing.
Enter Knoxville's Superdrag, the Volunteer State's entry into the '90s alternarock sweepstakes. Comprised of record store employees and veteran scenesters, Superdrag have kicked around in various lineups since 1994, when most of the members played in a Stooges-style punk outfit called The Used. The group came into its own after drummer John Davis, who had the most refined songwriting skills, moved to guitar and vocals. (Bassist Tom Pappas, guitarist Brandon Fisher, and drummer Don Coffey Jr. round out the roster.) After two EPs on indie label Darla Records, Superdrag was snatched up by Elektra, which put out the group's first full-length release, Regretfully Yours, in 1996.
The album was a so-so effort, getting by mostly on a My Bloody Valentine-meets-Beatles aesthetic. The single, "Sucked Out," was in a different league from the rest of the material. Even as the song snagged a spot on MTV's coveted Buzz Bin, it ridiculed the band's new audience ("in my eyes you've already spread my thighs and you're rockin' to the next big thing") and the corporate record industry ("this was my dream, a played-out rockin' routine").
The song stayed in rotation on MTV for 10 weeks--long enough to earn Superdrag appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and 120 Minutes. Then the group haggled with Elektra about its second single, opting for the less poppy "Destination Ursa Major." The song got little MTV play and dropped out of sight quickly, leaving "Sucked Out" as the group's only impression on the public.
Plenty of people would have just assumed that Superdrag were already down for the count, another group lost in the major-label fray. But this month sees their return, now older, now wiser, with Head Trip in Every Key. A year in the making, Head Trip indeed shows a band attempting to grow and to tighten its sound--something other flavor-of-the-month bands don't always try to do. Rather than rely on worn-out guitar effects, Superdrag has spent the last year learning to develop its songwriting. The record also displays a more textured sound, with slide guitar, organ, and an orchestra thrown into the mix.
The stylistic turnaround seems to be a conscious reaction to the stale, genre-specific programming of modern-rock radio. "It's just sad," Pappas says. "I know I could just turn on the radio and be disgusted by it from a listener's standpoint." But Superdrag know the stakes: They've got to keep their musical integrity and appeal to radio programmers. It's a dilemma that plenty of bands face, notes drummer Coffey. "I can understand why [programmers] think that the kids would like Matchbox 20, but what makes them think the kids wouldn't like Yo La Tengo?... They're making quality, comparatively fresh music, and it never gets heard except by diehard fans."
As with their lone hit single, the band's new material is none too subtle about their love/hate relationship with the music industry. "['Sucked Out'] was written before we knew how it was all run," Pappas explains. "So that's a perception from the outside of the modern-rock industry looking in. When you listen to the lyrics on this record, you get to hear what it is like when you actually experience all the bullshit."
True enough, singer-guitarist Davis spills enough bile to suggest that he's had his fill of the music biz. In "Mr. Underground," he asks, "How does it feel to be one of the novelties? You can ask me." On "Bankrupt Vibration," he's even more blunt: "Your alternative station is such a bankrupt vibration, counting on the confusion of an alternative nation."
Granted, that's a whole lot of attitude coming from one four-piece band, but the album does have a payoff: confident, smartly crafted songs like "Sold You an Alibi," "Wrong vs. Right," and "Antechrist," all of which suggest that Superdrag is concerned most with long-term artistic relevance. By their own admission, they'd rather be associated with their heroes--bands like HŸsker DŸ, R.E.M., and that all-important Tennessee band, Big Star--than with their MTV cohorts.
Going in to record Head Trip, they knew they wanted to create a record with a feeling of permanence. They settled on Green Day producer Jerry Finn, in part because of his refusal to use Pro Tools, a computer application prevalent in modern recording studios; producers often use the program to gloss over mistakes made during recording. Superdrag wanted a more authentic rock sound, so they stuck with trusty old analog recording methods--another testament to their discomfort with the trend of the moment (or trend of the decade, for that matter). "The only thing digital about our record is the CD," Coffey boasts.
This time around, the band also took its time in the studio instead of the brief seven days it took to bang out Regretfully Yours. Each track was built one at a time, allowing the members to experiment with drum sounds and with arrangements. "It's more thought out," Pappas says. "As opposed to saying, 'OK, weve got a track; let's make it sound really big, let's put 10 guitars down,' this time we thought, 'Well, we don't want to clutter it up.' "
Satisfied with the outcome of their record, the group members have decided to market it, and themselves, with some integrity. Already, they've refused to license the first single, "Do the Vampire," for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack. "I just kept remembering the Flaming Lips on 90210," Coffey grouses. Their desire not to be pegged simply as a harmless pop-rock band also prompted them to turn down an opening slot for 1997's one-hit wonder, Third Eye Blind. Coffey jokes, "John said he'd stick a hot pin in his urethra before he'd do that tour."
Ultimately, Superdrag make music because they enjoy it. And true to their convictions, Head Trip in Every Key is the product of a band that appreciates rock 'n' roll as an art form. Legions of fans may not flock to them; but their music will, like Yo La Tengo's, no doubt find a dedicated group of followers. To this end, Superdrag may not hit it big, but neither will they disappear in the '90s rush for the next big thing. If they can manage to emulate the modest success of their role models, they'll be plenty happy.
"We just feel lucky to do it and not have a day job," Pappas says.
Coffey chimes in, "If I could go back and play in Husker Du, I would."
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