Time for one more drag :: Interview with John Davis of Superdrag
Fuel readers, you guys are lucky today to get an interview conducted by my new special correspondent in the field. It's an on-site, in-depth chat with Superdrag frontman John Davis at the latest reunion show in Chicago. Brian London is a musician friend of mine in the California Bay Area, and he has been a fan of Superdrag for a long and very intense time.
I sent Brian out armed with a tape recorder and his encyclopedic memory, and he turned in a really interesting look at the music of John Davis and reunited Superdrag (together again in the original lineup for the first time in 8 years), with enough arcane contextual history in the questions to make even the jaded chuckle at this enthusiasm. Remember, for the full stereophonic experience, you can click the little blue arrows next to the songs embedded throughout to listen as you read, and make sure to dig the zip file of all the tunes at the end. Enjoy.
INTERVIEW: JOHN DAVIS OF SUPERDRAG
METRO -- CHICAGO
BL: So the guitars are tuned, amps are humming, Don counts it in for the first rehearsal in eight years -- what was the first song you guys played back together?
JD: Slot Machine into Phaser.
Awesome. Did you just kinda look around and let out a grin?
That’s pretty much exactly what I did. Man, we were so fired up to be doing this. I was talking to someone earlier about this and I was saying that I wasn’t really worried about us pulling the set together. That actually was the least of my worries because while there are some songs in the show that we never played on stage with this lineup, and some songs come from the third album [In The Valley of Dying Stars] which Tom wasn’t even in the band when we recorded, there are songs that we literally played hundreds of time together on stage. It really becomes a very limited process of having to re-learn something like that. It was pretty weird actually how well it jived right off the bat, but it really was just like you described. We were all just so excited to get into it.
The progression from your last solo record (John Davis 2005) and into your new solo effort Arigato! (2007), seems to be a sound and energy that gels really well with the early Superdrag vibe. Would it be fair to say that that sound is where your head is at musically these days?
I think the first solo album I did in retrospect was me trying to push my writing in directions that I had never done before. I think it can be good for a person who produces any kind of art to every once in a while step back from what your default deal is and try to push yourself outside of that.
It sounded like you were starting to push the walls of the Superdrag sound certainly with the 2nd record, and with demos like "Doctors Are Dead."
It is still just rock n roll and pop music. I mean, its not like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless where there seems to be no precedent set before or since. It was just guys who bought Jazz Masters and learned to bend and hit chords at the same time and loved playing together.
But getting back to the first solo record, there seemed to a more rootsy, piano-led vibe. That record really turned out exactly the way that I had wanted. I would have liked more people to know about it, but it was kind of, on one level, ideologically swimming upstream, and on the flip side stylistically it was swimming upstream in accordance to what prevails in “Christian music.” “Christian” anything really is an irrelevant way to approach the Gospel anyway because it is not mean to be under glass.
The irrelevance of questions like “what does Christian music really sound like?” becomes apparent when referring to a piece of art like your first record because on one hand anyone who likes well-crafted rock n roll can get into it, and on the other someone seeking for a sympathetic voice or a joyful prayer could find that as well.
For me, it was the only honest type of music that I could have recorded at that time. I think the new record is no less bold, but it kind of comes from a different point on the line so to speak. That other record felt like the immediate aftermath after having that kind of revelation I had about even the smallest pinpoint realization about the nature of God is and how you relate to it. It basically smashed me.
Stained Glass Window - John Davis
[note: this is the classiest of chord changes]
I remember reading an interview where you describing how you pulled the car to the side of the road and you felt like you couldn’t even breathe. That happened as you were recording what would become Superdrag’s last album Last Call For Vitriol right?
It basically bisected that session.
Did any songs come after that and make it onto the record?
All the writing was done but I still had to do all the singing that led to me fixing some stuff because [long pause] I guess I was trying to drink myself to death. I don’t remember ever explicitly feeling like I wanted to die, but the life I was leading was not that of a person that wanted to live. It was so radical and blindsided me so much. I’ve met so many people since that have told me that they prayed for me everyday. [long pause] What do you say or do with that beside fall to floor and bust out in tears?
Looking at some of the lyrics and the title Last Call for Vitriol, would it be fair to say that in hindsight they read as cries for help? Lyrics like “What am I trying to prove/Every time I get too fucked to move” and “I don’t know if living's too attractive/I don’t know if God is interactive.”
I think there is a weight to it, in light of what happened after that for sure. But long story short, I didn’t even approach writing a song for a solid year after that. And I think the biggest problem I had what that I didn’t know how to express the joy I felt and be taken seriously. Because people have a much easier time taking you seriously if you’re pissed.
It really is easier to call a happy song "cheesy" than it is a sad or angry song.
But God eventually ministered to be, songs began to flow, doors opened and it became clear that I was going to get the chance to make a record and put it out with distribution. I was able to record where I wanted, work with the producer I wanted, and I got to play all the instruments which was so much fun. I think I secretly harbored that desire for a long time, and not because these dudes don’t rip, but because I wanted to try it as a new challenge.
Had you done that in the past with your demos before you brought it to the boys?
Totally. I did that for years.
A friend years ago gave me a disc of your alter-ego Johnny Flame covering loads of Beatles songs to arrangement perfection. Is that all you on those tracks?
All those harmonies? That’s amazing.
Thanks man. Some of them have good quality, but some of them really don’t sound so good.
But the fun you’re having really comes through even on those rough 4-track recordings.
Doing that was a big part of how I learned to record. Because if I didn’t have a song of my own, I would do a Beatles tune just because I wanted to record. And then if you listen to all of the 4-track records, there is sort of an invisible line from where I started mixing down to a real deal tape deck instead of a jam box and then after that I got a 4-track that improved things by leaps and bounds. Pretty much by 1997 the 4-track starts to sound pretty good.
The demo collection you just put out, Changing Tires On The Road To Ruin, along with the double disc of rarities available here at the show seem to be great examples of the process that went on behind the scenes and how you guys developed as a band.
Well that box on the cover really was just in my cabinet all those years. I just started going through it and I ripped all the music that would possibly ever want to hear. Some stuff I let sleep on those cassettes just because I felt like I never wanted to hear again and I’d just fast forward and see what’s next. But it was a lot of fun.
The double disc is really cool for the fans because when the band went of hiatus in 2003, you had talked about a 100 song box set, a book and a DVD, but when Road To Ruin came out, it seemed like such a small glimpse into such a creative band’s archives.
To be frank, we kind of bided our time initiating any of that until we were completely at liberty to do it the way we wanted to, and most importantly to do it ourselves. There is a projected series of releases that is planned. What we just did basically brings us up speed until the first Elektra record [Regretfully Yours] and we could turn around and do the same thing for every other record.
Is that the stuff from the Bearsville, NY sessions for Head Trip In Every Key and the Knoxville sessions for Valley of Dying Stars?
Because the fans have been treated to songs like “I Wanna Rock N’ Roll” live, which are great.
The demos are proof that we were always hard workers and put in time to write a lot of songs and be prepared to record.
You were definitely a band that could never be cited as underwriting for a record. It never seemed like you would show up with seven and a half songs to the first recording date.
What is amazing to find out is that there are still a good number of people interested in that stuff and want to hear it. Which is humbling and flattering to death.
There are some songs that you guys never recorded in a proper studio, which in my opinion rate as some of the best things you ever did. One of my favorite songs to play when I’m jamming with my friends is "Relocate My Satellites."
Relocate My Satellites - Superdrag
Man that song totally should have gone down. I think we felt it should have been arranged better and so it just kept getting pushed off to the side like ‘oh we’ll get to that later’ and we never got to it. But now with it coming out on the rarities disc, we mastered it up and it feels done. I really enjoyed mastering a lot of that stuff because you can really bring the music to life and compensate and temper some of the bad hiss and keep the good hiss when you want it and rescue whatever low end frequencies might be in there. So Lord willing, there is tons of music we could put out and we hope to make it super reasonable. We’re lucky for the fact that we are not obligated to anyone except the people who like the songs and want to hear more songs. That’s the first time we’ve had that luxury in about 13 years, so it feels really nice.
Going by your band’s extreme productivity in the past, in these latest rehearsals while you getting the set list ready, did you guys kick out any new jams and if you did, any chance of a new release?
I do have a lot of new songs and that’s mainly due to the fact that my new album was finished a year ago. It wasn’t mastered until recently, but it was recorded in the summer of 2006. Actually, the guy that mastered it was the guy who also mastered [Dre’s] The Chronic.
Yeah, I was pretty stoked on that. I mean, he’s done a million records, but that’s a record I love and get hung up on every once in a while.
Every time I drive through L.A, that’s one that has to go on.
It’s banging man, even after sixteen years.
I read that you recorded Arigato! at the Foo Fighters' Studio 606 in Los Angeles, and not only did you track the entire album in two weeks, but that your drummer Yogi Watts did all of the drum tracks in two days. Is that really true?
Yeah man, he’s just sick with it. He’s real funny because he doesn’t mind telling you how good he is. He’ll be wearing it out on the kit, playing something like a fast punk rock of the song “Never Changing” and from the neck up he’s not even moving. It was rad. He’d just take off the headphones and sit back say, “Well boys, I could play it again but I don’t really know why you’d want me to. I don’t really know what else you’d want.” And Nick [Raskulinecz, co-producer who has worked with Foo Fighters and produced Superdrag’s In The Valley of Dying Stars and earlier pre-Elektra work] would just lean in and say “Do it again and I want some different fills.” Those dudes got along really well.
Yogi has been playing with me on my solo tours and I just really love his drumming. He plays like Don [Coffey Jr] sometimes, like Bill Stevenson [of The Descendents] sometimes; he really can just play anything. His main gig is playing in a band called Demon Hunter. They are straight up metalcore with a straight up Gospel message. Their new album is called Storm the Gates of Hell and man, it is tough. Check out their Myspace page man, they’re very cool.
You’re the man who would have the answer about a question I’ve had for a while, when Superdrag went on hiatus you and Mic Harrison both put up songs on Superdrag.com that would later appear on solo records, but Sam Powers (Superdrag bassist from 1999-2003) also posted a tune, yet a solo album never appeared. "World Surrounded" is such a great song, are we ever going to get any more from Sam?
World Surrounded - Sam Powers
I love that song. I know for a fact he has more because a while back he gave me a cd with six songs on it and truth be told they’re some of my favorite he’s ever done. I’m such a fan of Sam’s music from when he was in Who Hit John and Everything Tool.
Let’s not forget The Disheverly Brothers.
[laughs] Yeah, The Disheverly Brothers. Yeah, that never really caught fire.
“The Emotional Kind” has always been one of my favorite tunes. I love that line “If I come on agnostic she makes me believe.”
That was meant to be the lead off track on the Disheverly Brothers album.
The Emotional Kind - Superdrag
The Emotional Kind (demo) - Superdrag
I do like the studio version you put out on the split with The Anniversary, there’s something about that demo you put out on the Rock Soldier EP. It sounds just like a lost track from the greatest ‘60s garage band.
Yeah man, that’s truly the 4-track sound. “Her Melancholy Tune” was meant to be on the Disheverly Brothers too. Sammy P and I basically tried to rip off the Beatles as much as possible.
Well, no two men are better equipped for the job or got better results in my opinion.
Yeah, not only Sam’s rock music, but him as an individual, a dad, a husband -- he’s a dude I completely admire to the fullest. The same goes for Mic Harrison. He’s actually going to support on some of these dates with his band The High Score. The fact that those dudes aren’t going to be involved with Superdrag, by no means should that represent a lack of respect or love because they are the shit.
I’m happy because this is the incarnation of the Superdrag experience I’ve never gotten to see. My first show was before Valley came out and Willy T (a temporary guitarist for the tour following the completion of Valley) was rocking the guitar.
[laughs] That’s another cool element about this thing because after the Elektra thing came and went, the second effort of the band began. We sat around and said ‘Wait, we’ve got a van, we know how to book a tour, lets go.’ And as a result of that, we kind of generated a new set of fans that weren’t on board from the beginning. It’s really just a win win win for all of us.
And the fans as well. We all get another chance to go out on a Friday night and rock out to one of our favorite bands. Speaking of your fans and giving them a chance to see you, looking on your message board you guys have fans as far as Israel. I know you took your solo record abroad to places like Amsterdam, any plans to take the Superdrag carnival international?
I would love to. Not just a business or rock level, but on a personal level it is life enriching to go to a place, take Japan for example, that really makes you feel alien. Something like 99% of the population there is native. I think any of us would jump at the chance.
Didn’t Superdrag record the much-coveted Greetings From Tennessee EP over in Japan?
Four songs of it were done over there.
That’s the one piece of Superdrag audio I’ve never been able to come across.
Man, I wish I could help. I don’t really know how the licensing works for that thing because it was licensed through Arena Rock to a Japanese label that I think is done now. But that was a wild thing. This record company in Japan licensed the Valley record and the deal was they would bring us over to play and while there they wanted us to record a 10 song Japanese-exclusive EP. So they booked this recording date the day after the last show and we all thought ‘cool, we’ll go in and treat it like a radio session and just blast through the ten songs live, no overdubs.’
Well we got in there and the room was like a tiny dressing room. And all they had were these little headphone amps, which meant that, even though there was no room for it anyway, there could be no isolation. Don’s crash symbol was right in my face and we were just laughing because there was no way we could sing, much less play, all together and get a decent sounding record. Also the two guys who were working the board were way more conversational in English than we were in Japanese, but needless to say there was still a huge language barrier. So when we said, “Dudes, we’re going to need to overdub” they just stared at us with very stern faces.
So anyway, we ended up only doing four songs instead of ten which was kind of a situation itself because they were afraid we would go home and not send then the other six. But we convinced them that we were honorable and would follow through, which we did in like three days.
And didn’t they mix it themselves, but there was a problem with that so you had to recall like 1,000 copies?
Man, there was some serious Pokemon keyboards on there. Some of the strangest processing I’ve ever heard. And they didn’t use some of the harmony vocals, entire guitar parts we'd recorded; it was just a mess. And they were pressing records before we had a chance to approve anything, so let’s just say that the lines of communication were sub-par and we ended up re-mixing it ourselves. That’s a cool artifact though.
Well, thanks for taking the time John, and I know I’m not alone when I say I’m really excited to see the band rock tonight.
Thanks so much for coming all this way and for the support. It means the world to us.
* * * * * *
And rock that night they did. There was a sticker attached to one of Superdrag’s albums that read, “If you don’t like Rock n Roll, you won’t like this” -- and that pretty much summed up the experience I had that night at the show.
Don Coffey Jr. pounding the drums as ferociously as he ever did, Brandon’s guitar work was airtight, John Davis was, well he’s John Davis, isn’t he….what do you expect. And Tom Pappas, armed with a mirrored pick-guarded bass and leather pants, scissor-kicked his way through a truly blistering show by one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. Three shows left, I can’t say more than this -- go beyond your usual effort to see a show, and this band will do the same for you in return. Head trip in every key indeed.
REMAINING SUPERDRAG SHOWS
November 02 - New York, NY @ The "Fillmore"
November 03 - Boston, MA @ Paradise
November 08 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
LISTEN TO SUPERDRAG
For the uninitiated, these are four songs that absolutely shoulda-would-coulda been #1 on the music charts of anyone with ears:
N.A. Kicker - Superdrag [Regretfully Yours]
I'm Expanding My Mind - Superdrag [Head Trip In Every Key]
Lighting The Way - Superdrag [In The Valley of Dying Stars]
Baby Goes to 11 - Superdrag [Last Call For Vitriol]
UNDER THE COVERS
Radio (Teenage Fanclub) - Superdrag
Bastards of Young (Replacements) - Superdrag
Brand New Love (Sebadoh) - Superdrag
Motor Away (Guided by Voices) - Superdrag
September Gurls (Big Star) - Superdrag
Wave of Mutilation (Pixies cover) - Superdrag
1970 (Iggy Pop) - Superdrag
IN THE VALLEY OF DEMOING STARS
(demo cuts from their third album)
Eventually - Superdrag
While The Rest Of The World Was Busy Changing - Superdrag
JOHN DAVIS SOLO
Tell Me I'm Not Free (live on BFN) - John Davis
I Hear Your Voice (demo) - John Davis
Never-Changing - John Davis [from new Arigato!]
TOM PAPPAS (bass) SIDE PROJECT
Gas Guzzler - WHIP! [from new solo EP]
ZIP YOURSELF SOME SUPERDRAG!