I want—Rock 'n' Roll but
I don't want to deal with the hassle
I know—What I know but
I don't want to feel like an asshole
Those cynical musings serve as a fitting introduction to Knoxville foursome Superdrag's upcoming release In The Valley of Dying Stars, due out Oct.17 on The Arena Rock Recording Company label. Taken from the new disc's opening track, "Keep It Close to Me," the lines speak to the searching disenchantments and creative wanderlust of a band entering an unknown and unanticipated phase of its career in the world of big-time rock ’n’ roll: life after a major label.
"That song is our statement of intent," says S-drag singer, songwriter and guitarist John Davis, draped over the back of a chair, Budweiser in hand, at the home of drummer Don Coffey. "It sets the tone for the whole record. We originally recorded it on Elektra's coin, and their A&R guy liked the riff, but he didn't like the lyrics; we referred to him as an insect in the song. (Insects have launched an invasion..)
"Most of your A&R guys are thwarted rock stars; some guy who played keyboards on a Hall and Oates album in 1984, and now he's got a few connections. I couldn't help it (the insect reference); he talked to me like a dog, and this is the guy who's supposed to nurture us."
After nearly six years as a major label recording act, Superdrag secured a mutually agreed-upon release from Elektra Records earlier this year. The parting leaves S-drag's members at once disillusioned by the experience and rejuvenated by the prospect of resuming their careers on some semblance of their own terms.
It could be argued that the aforementioned lyrics furnish a unifying extrapolation of sentiments begun on the band's first full-length platter, Regretfully Yours, on Elektra, and continued on its sophomore effort, Head Trip In Every Key. In effect, the lines chronicle a tentatively-essayed third chapter in Superdrag's odyssey as a national, rather than local, musical entity.
The band's budding disillusionment first surfaced on the near-ubiquitous Regretfully Yours single "Sucked Out," an angry trope on the capriciousness of hometown fandom that is still the band's only Billboard single. It continued on Head Trip with the cut "Bankrupt Vibrations," which raged against the vacuities of modern rock radio.
Since the last platter was released, the band has been wracked by discontent and upheaval; in addition to the break with Elektra, the last year has seen original members Tom Pappas (bass) and Brandon Fisher (guitar) replaced with Nashvillians Sam Powers and Willie Tyler. "Brandon played some great guitar on our new one, and he may still come back with us down the road," says Davis. "But right now, we need guys who would rather go on the road and rock than have health insurance."
In the calmer wake of those changes, Superdrag now finds itself in an odd and oddly refreshing position—that of refiguring its career after a long and largely unsuccessful relationship with the corporate giant that signed the band in 1994.
After selling more than 100,000 records and producing one radio hit with the succinct power pop of Regretfully Yours, the Elektra coupling soured with the advent of Head Trip. A complex and often challenging collection of epic stoner ballads, insistent crunch-rock, and single-serving pop treats, the record was generously financed by Elektra, then largely ignored. After an unsuccessful attempt at severing its ties with the company, the band began writing and recording songs for what was to have been its third major label effort.
"They looked at Head Trip as our little experimental trip, expecting us to do the 'Sucked Out' thing again," Coffey explains. "When it became apparent we weren't going to, they let us go."
"We sent them 40 songs and they didn't like any of them, told us to keep writing" Davis adds. "I told them 'If you're not hearing it in 40 songs, you're not gonna hear it in 80.' Their response was 'We're not in the business of selling 30,000 records. If you want to be Guided By Voices, go ahead.' That's fine with me. If (GBV frontman) Robert Pollard can still do it, I've got at least 20 years of rockin' left to do. Now I can do it in an atmosphere of freedom."
The sundering occurred roughly six months ago, and the label's contractual obligations left the band with about seven finished songs, recorded at Nashville's Woodland Studio. They also recouped seed money for their own studio facilities, which allowed them to finish the last of the 12 tracks that comprise In the Valley of Dying Stars at home in Knoxville.
Just as significantly, the ’draggers retained their old network of friends and contacts, including those at the diminutive but able indie, Arena Rock, the label that five years ago released Superdrag's "N.A. Kicker" single, and later released (then sold off) the break-out Harvey Danger platter Elf Power.
Given Arena Rock's distribution on ADA (the world's largest indie distributor), Coffey says the move has thus far manifested little or no drop-off from the level of attention the band received on the more powerful but far more indifferent major.
"We didn't do nearly as much press for the last record as we're doing right now," Coffey says. "We're getting blurbs in Rolling Stone, Spin, Magnet, Alternative Press...There's a comeback-story sort of element at work. We were stalled for five years through no fault of our own, and people are interested when you suddenly reappear."
Upon hearing the new record, it's difficult to conceive why Elektra grew to be so at odds with the pop quartet they found so fetching at their signing in 1994. Though the band remains proud of its sophomore record ("We had lots of big ideas; we were really fired up by that one"), In the Valley largely marks a return to the structural brevity and chiming, quick-strike melodies so evident on their inaugural disc.
Bassist Powers calls Valley "a perfect combination of the first two records," and that description might come as close as any to pinning down the new set. That admixture is decidedly heavy on Regret(fully), however, with sweetly tuneful rockers like "Keep It Close to Me," "Gimme Animosity," and "Goin' Out" seemingly stripped directly from those early Elektra sessions. (Look for the record's first single "Lighting the Way," to be released soon to college radio.)
It's only on a handful of moodier, more ruminative tracks—such as the six-minute epic "The Warmth of a Tomb" or the sadly crawling "Unprepared"—that Valley approaches the sort of dark, hallucinatory opulence evident on much of Head Trip. And even on those tracks, Davis says, Elektra flacks seemed to see more trees than forest.
"They wanted to hear 'a more emotionally direct pop song,'" Davis shakes his head in disgust. "'Unprepared' was about being a pall-bearer at someone's funeral. How much more direct can you get? I think we've got just as much pop sensibility (on the new record), but when we were first signed, there were a lot more power pop bands out there like us; Weezer, Matthew Sweet. Now, it's less fashionable."
And that reality is critical, says Davis, as Elektra's disinterest spoke more to the vagaries of major label politics than to the evolution of the band's music. As he speaks, he grabs Coffey's light-stringed Yamaha acoustic from a dusty corner, strums and croons one of his newer songs with all of the same soothingly perfect intonation and otherworldly sweetness that have always marked his vocal stylings. It's a lovely song, rendered by a truly lovely voice; a Memorex moment, to be sure.
"Major labels are in a constant state of 'riding the next wave,'" Davis says, setting the Yamaha aside. "At times (on Elektra), it was like 'Do you want us to sound like Superdrag, or do you want us to sound like someone else?'"
"What we've learned from all this is that it's all about self-sufficiency; that should be every band's goal," Coffey says. "From making a record to making your own T-shirts. On a major, it's all about dependency. They want you to be subservient. We want to be a self-contained unit."
Which is tantamount to the formula, one might well speculate, for Rock ’n’ Roll—without the hassle.