“Check one, check one, check, check, check …”
The sound man just can’t seem to get rid of the feedback, which is humming like some kind of ancient Chinese torture method just beneath the low ceiling of the 9:30 Club. On stage, Superdrag is tired and hungry, having driven nine hours straight from Knoxville to Washington, D.C. and then loading their equipment in through the rain.
It was only when they finally got inside that they discovered they were not, in fact, playing the club’s main stage, but the second—and much smaller—stage ... in the basement. Looks like a basement, smells like a basement, sounds like a basement. Right now, the floor is littered with a maze of cables, power tools, guitar cases and backpacks, making this hole in the wall seem even smaller than it probably is. The official fire code capacity for the room is 100, but they’re going to have to be 100 really skinny people.
“Check two, check two, check, check, check ...”
Finally, after an impossibly long sound check, the static is removed, and the band is free to kill time before the show begins.
“‘Ooh, you’re signed to a major label, you must have a big bus. Roadies to carry your stuff,’” bassist Tom Pappas mocks as he stuffs a pedal into his bag and struggles to zip it shut. “Right.”
Despite what you might have heard, inking a contract with a major record label does not automatically constitute a Cinderella story. Bands are guaranteed the “Once upon a time,” but no Artists & Repertoire man in the world can promise a “happily ever after.” And these days, one-hit wonders are here today and gone tomorrow as quick as the MTV Buzz Bin can spit them out.
Superdrag, Knoxville’s own pop stars in the making, are “busting ass” to make their fairy tale come true since signing with Elektra Records, an arm of Time-Warner, last April. The past few months have been a whirlwind of recording, touring, pumping hands, ringing phones, industry schmoozing and basically spreading their name to anyone who will listen. In other words, the Great American Rock ’n’ Roll Dream.
Superdrag has gone from being the biggest fish in Knoxville’s little pond to fresh bait in the sea of sharks that is the music industry. Will they sink or will they swim?
ANTICIPATION IS MAKING ME WAIT, KEEPING ME WAITING ...
“Damn it, Tom, move over! And give me that pillow,” guitarist/ vocalist John Davis grouses inside the Chevy Beauville van as it rolls along I-95 en route from D.C. to the Big Apple, slowing down only long enough for the driver to toss exact change into the hands of yet another vacant-eyed toll booth attendant. Pappas hurls the pillow at Davis, who is sprawled high atop the amps and guitar cases and suitcases and sleeping bags stacked behind the back seat, his nose inches from the roof.
Drummer Don Coffee is searching the floor for a tape that “rocks,” discarding the Beatles and the Zombies in favor of Foo Fighters. Brandon Fisher, guitarist and “the literary one,” has put down the pages of Oscar Wilde for his turn at the wheel. An anglophile of sorts, whose near-translucent complexion has earned him the nickname “the Limey” from his bandmates, Fisher is chatting with sound man/engineer Nick Raskulinecz, whose boots are toes-up alongside a menacing pair of plastic rats holding court on the dash. Outside the grime-streaked and insect-stained windows, the landscapes of Maryland, then Delaware, then New Jersey zoom past.
Much of the “glamorous” life of a major league-yet-small potatoes rock ’n’ roll band is spent cooped up in a van littered with Starburst wrappers, used McDonald’s cups, assorted magazines, equipment catalogs and a mountain of cassette tapes. There is never enough room. Napping calls for the talents of a contortionist. Meal times are nearly impossible to coordinate for five people, to say nothing of bathroom stops. There are no secrets in a touring van; everything, every bodily function, is a subject for conversation.
And it seems that for every minute spent cooped up in the van waiting to get to a club, the band will spend equal time cooped up backstage in said club waiting to play. After the show they’ll have to wait around for the headlining band to play, wait around to collect their money from the club management (Pappas, with his imposing afro, monotone baritone and penchant for dark glasses, is the designated “hard ass” in charge of this task), wait around to load out their equipment.
“The way I justify the waiting around is that the alternative is sitting at a desk or washing dishes from 9 to 5,” Fisher reasons. “I’m perfectly happy to drive all day and then work a few extra hours. Our days may go from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., but I’d much rather do this than sit at a desk.”
It was that logic that finally convinced Coffee to hang up his badge and holster. A former investigator for the public defender’s office, he was the only one in this mod squad who actually forsook a health plan for a life in the biz.
“For me, it’s always been a dream to do this. I’ve played with some really shitty bands and people I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for because I thought they might be able to get me here. I’ve always looked to other people to get there, ’cause I couldn’t do it by myself. No one’s signing up drummers to make records,” Coffee admits.
“And from the very first day I heard John play guitar and sing, I knew if anybody was gonna get out of Knoxville it was gonna be him.”
John Davis, 21, grew up in West Knoxville (as did Fisher, 24, and Coffee, 27; Pappas, 25, is an expatriate from Philly), graduated from Farragut High School in 1992 and spent his adolescent years alternately on a skateboard and a Gibson Les Paul guitar. A self-admitted Beatles fanatic, Davis boasts an incredible knowledge of trivia—both useful and useless—about the Fab Four, and he’s even been known to tote Beatles biographies to the barber shop as a style reference.
Though he did time behind the drums for local junk punk outfit the Used (which, at one time or another, included every single member of Superdrag) and wielded bass for the short-lived Punch Wagon, Superdrag is, for all intents and purposes, Davis’s first real band, at least as a frontman. The main songwriter and melody maker behind the Superdrag sound, it is Davis who makes those bittersweet love-hate-love songs ring true. And, according to Boston-based record producer Tim O’Heir (who’s also produced albums for indie rock darlings Sebadoh and Come, to name but a few), it is Davis who will sell Superdrag to America.
“He’s it. Period. The kid’s a rock star. Who knows how he rehearses, by watching Beatles videos countless times or by practicing in front of a mirror, but he’s definitely got his own act,” O’Heir says. “He’s got these guitar moves, he pulls [the guitar] up and cradles it and gives this sickly sweet look to the crowd. And all the girls are standing at the front of the stage just staring at him.”
The fact that Davis hit a home run on his first try gives his bandmates cause for at least occasional concern.
“He’s 21, and I don’t know if he realizes what a big deal this all is. To him it was the next logical step. Ten years I’ve been trying to do this; it took John not even three years,” Coffee says. “John’s not having a chance to really grow up. He went from living in his parent’s house to this. In a way, Superdrag’s like a family. We try to take care of him. Not that he can’t take care of himself, but I always want the best for John. If he ever says, ‘Man, I’m sick of playing shows, I’m sick of traveling,’ I would say what I told myself when I quit my job—do something that makes you happy.”
Right now, Superdrag is one happy band. Their major label debut, which is as yet untitled, was originally supposed to be released on an independent label, paid for and distributed by Elektra. Instead, it’s now slated for Elektra’s roster of beginning-of-the-year releases.
“Their expectations were not really big,” Davis admits. “When we were done, we sent a work tape to Sylvia [Rhone, chairwoman and CEO of Elektra]. She was on vacation and had a tape of just ‘Whitey’s Theme,’ but she listened to it over and over again. And she called from vacation and said ‘We’ve gotta do this. We don’t wanna share the toys, we want all the toys.’”
SO YOU WANNA BE A ROCK ’N’ ROLL STAR ...
So what sold Superdrag to Elektra? Four out of four band members agree—the songs.
In the most convenient terms available, Superdrag makes power pop, with classic echoes of the Beatles as well as modern nods to British “shoegazers” My Bloody Valentine and Chapel Hill indie rockers Archers of Loaf, perfectly suited for college and commercial alternative radio—not to mention MTV. An audio embrace of teasing guitar build-ups, atmospheric riffscapes, punch-drunk rhythms, and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics expressed alternately in a jilted sigh, starry-eyed plea and pissed-off wail, Superdrag songs possess the magic element of infectious melodies that cling to your memory and refuse to let go.
“They’re catchy as shit, and Elektra knows they can make money off of them,” Pappas reasons. “People sing them in their head. They [Elektra employees] sing them in their heads. People who work at the studio were humming the songs. That’s what freaks me out, when I see the reaction people have. It’s definitely not background music.”
Fisher admits, “Whatever musical trend is happening right now may have helped us get where we are as easily as we have. Just as of late, songs have become popular again and people are remembering that songwriting is good. I think if you dissect our songs, we may not have cool riffs, but when you put it all together it works.”
“One of the things that really helped is that we’re not all lunatics,” Coffee adds. “I mean, we have our moments. But when we sat down at the table and we knew what we wanted, and we knew how to talk to people and how to conduct ourselves ... that sold us, too. We try really hard to make sure we know what we’re talking about before we meet with anyone. We don’t want people to think we’re a bunch of idiot band guys.”
Of course, a little luck and a whole lot of talent doesn’t hurt, either. Superdrag had only been together seven months or so when they got their first lucky break in the spring of ’94. Inspired by the lo-fi aesthetic of the Grifters’ “Holmes” single on Darla Records, Davis sent a batch of his own homemade four-track recordings to the address on the back of the sleeve. James Agren, founder, owner and operator of the tiny San Francisco independent record label, loved what he heard.
“I was a little worried when we sent him the eight-track demos ’cause the fidelity was totally different,” Davis says. “But the next time I spoke to him, he said, ‘Do you wanna do a record or what?’ Famous last words.”
Then, later that summer, Superdrag ventured off on a mini-tour of the Southwest and West Coast, playing their first and so-far only L.A. gig—to a total of five people. They were paid with a pack of Marlboros. Ironically, that seemingly uneventful show became one of the most important of their burgeoning career—out of the five paying customers who showed up, the band gained a manager, a lawyer and a major label A&R rep who later courted them, as well as Agren, who agreed to release some Superdrag 45s in a "no strings attached" deal.
From there, there was no stopping the Superdrag express. Their first single for Darla, “Senorita,” came out in September of ’94 and garnered positive reviews in magazines from Alternative Press to College Music Journal, as well as inclusion on a CD sampler of buzz bands CMJ sends out monthly to college radio stations. That’s when the labels started nosing around. Mammoth Records requested a show. Reps from Caroline Records and Sub Pop Publishing flew into town to see the band play on their home turf. Restless Records offered a contract, which they turned down (“It was crap and anyone would’ve turned it down,” Davis says. “They wanted to take everything and offer nothing in return.”).
Suddenly, Bill Berrol, the lawyer Superdrag shares with label mates the Afghan Whigs—and who does not solicit his bands to labels—began getting calls.
“Around the fall of ’94 it became evident that we weren’t going to have any trouble getting a record deal,” Davis remembers. “Our worries changed from ‘is anybody going to give us a chance to do this,’ to ‘who can offer us the best opportunity?’”
By the time major players MCA and Elektra Records were laying deals on the table, “we really started to think about the future a lot,” Davis says. “It wasn’t later, it was sooner. We knew we had to get our heads together and present a united front. And anyone who thinks we made decisions by the seat of our pants is crazy. We thought things out to the point where we were going nuts.”
In the end, Elektra Records, home over the years to such modern rock favorites as the Afghan Whigs, Stereolab and the Pixies, won out simply because, as Davis puts it, “They were the best label we talked to. Period. We were totally turned on by the tour support and promotion that a major [label] can offer, and Elektra offered us the best deal at the right time.”
But for the past year or so, internal rumblings have been shaking the Warner Music Group—the world’s largest record company and parent to Elektra, Warner Brothers and Atlantic, among others—to its hit-making core. Power struggles among label heads and Time Warner exec Robert Morgado lead to the departure (some would say forcing out) of legendary label patriarchs Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers and Bob Krasnow of Elektra. Atlantic chief Doug Morris won the much coveted seat at the head of the Warner Music table, and used his new power to appoint Rhone, the first black woman ever to head a major label, to the CEO position at Elektra, while former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg inherited Morris’s old seat at Atlantic.
As simple as it sounds in this context, the shake-up was in fact the biggest news to hit the music business in years, maybe decades, setting off a storm of controversy within the entertainment industry and the media. When Morris was fired from his post in July, rumors immediately began circulating about the stability of his protégés; in fact, Goldberg announced his departure just weeks ago. Rhone is still in her office at the Time Warner Building, though one has to question the status of Superdrag should their highest-ranking cheerleader leave.
“My biggest worry is that we’ll get lost in some sort of shuffle,” Pappas says. “I don’t want our February release date to be pushed back.”
“I’ve heard rumors,” reports Jake Ottman of Damage Gods Management, who manages the band along with West Coast partner Scott Cymbala, and who worked radio promotions and marketing at Elektra from 1991-94. “People on the inside say Sylvia is about to be ‘blown out,’ industry-speak for ‘fired.’ I think the worst thing a band can do is get caught up in that stuff and worry themselves sick over it. If Sylvia was to leave tomorrow, it doesn’t put them in total jeopardy. We’re doing as much as we can on our own to sell Superdrag and not be dependent on the label. The goal is to push the band as far as we can, then go to Elektra and hand them the hit single on a silver platter.”
One of the big questions buzzing its way through the smoky air at the Mercury Theatre and the Longbranch is: How much money did Superdrag get? The answer isn’t simple, and it’s also not as much as you might think.
The money is referred to in terms of “periods” for each record, with $75,000 allotted the first record. That lump sum is then broken down into budgets for recording, touring, equipment and personal expenses. For instance, $28,000 was the band’s original recording budget, spent during studio time at Easley Studios in Memphis and mixing time at Fort Apache Studios—famous for the power pop sounds of Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr. and others— in Boston. That pays for everything from studio time to tapes, the producer’s fee and even his rental car, the band’s hotel bills and other necessary expenses.
The current touring budget is $20,000, including a $20 per diem for each member of the band. Ten thousand dollars is allotted for equipment, ranging from new guitars to road cases, amps and repair work. As for living the big life, the band currently gets monthly checks from Elektra for $500 each to cover rent, groceries, Cuban-heel boots and foosball replacement balls—all the necessities of life.
“The money is overseen by accountants who know where every cent goes,” Davis explains. “They put the money back that was to be used for the record, so that couldn’t be touched. Taxes are already computed so we don’t overspend. And we have to send in reports and receipts for everything.”
The “real” money comes in once they start selling records—Superdrag will earn about 75 cents from each record sold. In other words, if they reach the remarkable goal of going “platinum,” or selling one million records, they would earn $750,000. The band is still hammering out the songwriting royalties, and how best to give credit where credit is due.
“John wants the record to say ‘All songs by John Davis, arranged by Superdrag,’” Fisher says. “The way we’ve got it worked out is a 70-10-10-10 split.”
Of course, although Elektra pays for all of these things, the band must later pay them back—that $75,000 is an advance against royalties. (However, if the band should break up, Elektra would not hound them for the balance, but simply consider it a tax write-off.) Every time their manager “takes them out” for dinner, that receipt finds its way back to their account and they pay for it later. All of the hotel room bills Elektra charges actually come out of Superdrag’s pockets in the long run. All of the hours and days and weeks they spent in the studio they will pay for. The music industry takes no one for a free ride.
GIMME INDIE ROCK?
The band and what could be called their entourage (girlfriends, Ottman, their A&R rep) are lounging around the shabbily chic lobby of RPM Studios in New York City, half-listening as O’Heir and Raskulinecz play the first guitar lick of “Slot Machine” over and over and over. By the time remixing is complete, the song will have been played more than 90 times. Raskulinecz, also known around town as the bassist for HyperTribe, recorded the band’s first DIY release, Stereo 360 Sound, and has sat by O’Heir at the board throughout the recording and mixing of the new record. (The band calls the creative team “the Tick.”)
Someone has brought in a copy of the fresh-off-the-presses Entertainment Weekly, which is making its way around the room. Right there, on page 58, is a photo of Superdrag’s single “HHT” (Darla), accompanying an article on the resurgence of independent 45s. Everyone is psyched, but they have no idea how EW got a hold of the record.
Although most all of the musicians pictured on the page are major-label players—Courtney Love, Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe and even Mariah Carey—every single one of the record sleeves shown was released on an indie. Josh Deutsch, the band’s A&R rep, breaks into a sly grin and a knowing chuckle. “They think you’re an indie band.”
Indie credibility is a hot commodity within the music world, with small labels admired for their do-it-yourself ambition and unflinching ethic of supporting artists they believe in, rather than who they think will sell the most records. (The truth is, bona fide independent labels are an endangered species, especially since Warner Brothers purchased 49 percent of the venerable independent Sub-Pop Records earlier this year.) Indie rock purists frown upon corporate rock and all its trappings, and turn their pierced noses up in a second when bands they once worshipped go for the forbidden fruit.
However, for a band that craves excellent tour support, studio budgets, promotion and distribution, and, yes, money, major labels are the irresistible temptation. Superdrag sold out and they’re proud of it.
“For anyone who would slag us about signing to a major—talk shit until you’re blue in the face, have a party,” Davis implores. “We don’t care. We’re totally unapologetic for breaking the ten commandments of indie rock.”
“None of us ever had any delusions of being a cooler-than-thou indie band,” Fisher adds. “We’re not. We play what we like and, fortunately for us, it’s pretty accessible.”
THE NIGHT IS FINALLY WINDING DOWN outside the New York City lounge Brownie's, where Superdrag has wowed the mostly industry crowd during the last evening of the Macintosh New York Music Festival. Four sweaty, exhausted band members sprawl on the sidewalk outside as tonight’s headliner gnashes through her radio hit.
Yellow cabs create a constant blur on the corner, a revolving door of short skirts, go-go boots, eyebrow rings and the festival’s laminated passes. No one in the band is really sure where they’re spending the night or how they’ll get there, and it’s at least another hour before they can pack up their equipment. The bouncer is hassling them about having open beverage containers outside the club, the trendy bar next door is too packed to bother with, and an eager young woman is pressing her card into Davis’s hand, telling him “You guys are really good, you should give me a call when you think about getting a manager.”
As the band’s manager quietly pockets the card, Coffee wipes his brow with his shirt sleeve and grins. “We drive all day, wait around three hours before we play, three hours after we play ... just for this.” Looking up the cigarette butt-littered sidewalk, where the woman is desperately trying to make eye contact with another Next Big Thing, his pause lasts only a second. “I love it.”