Back From the '90s

Rock 'n' Roll Returns! Superdrag comes back for one more tour. Whatever happened to Knoxville's Next Big Thing?

For Knoxville rock scene-makers of a certain vintage, the soundtrack of our late youth is liberally interspersed with songs from indigenous four-piece power-pop outfit Superdrag—songs that spoke to catastrophic break-ups and unrequited loves; to affairs to remember and nights to forget; to warm and giddy springtime evenings at Fort Sanders backyard keggers and furtive puffs of cannabis in dim-lit back seats. Most of all they spoke to young love—and young love lost—in ways that no other pop singers and songwriters of the era could hope to, with awkwardness and honest confusion mixed with a doomed, smart-assed precociousness that took off some of the edge, if none of the pain.

In spring of 1995, Elektra Records finally recognized what we'd long known, and spirited our favorite sons off to a major label record production at Memphis' Easley Studios and a whirlwind fling with the heavy rotation bin at MTV. The Elektra affair ended after only two records—1996's hard-driving and irrepressibly melodic Regretfully Yours, and 1998's dazzling and near-mystical experimental opus Head Trip in Every Key—and Superdrag took to the salt mines of indie rock with 2000's acclaimed In the Valley of Dying Stars on the Arena Rock Recording Co. label, and then their last full-length on Arena Rock, 2002's Last Call for Vitriol.

By the time the Vitriol tour had wrapped, Superdrag had existed as an entity for 10 years, though down two original members, guitarist Brandon Fisher and bassist Tom Pappas, both of whom departed around the time of In the Valley of Dying Stars, to be replaced by former V-roys guitarist Mic Harrison and Nashvillian Sam Powers. The last of those years, during their indie-rock tenure, had been particularly brutal for the remaining members, marked by almost constant touring—sometimes as much as nine months on the road out of 12—and by rampant substance abuse issues that peaked around the recording of Last Call for Vitriol.

Those issues, combined with the zero-sum prospects of continued touring, combined with singer-guitarist John Davis' determined re-embrace of the Christian faith of his upbringing, finally brought Superdrag's decade-long run in the music industry to a screeching halt. In spring of 2003, with bassist Powers having departed to start a family with wife Laura, Davis along with drummer Don Coffey and guitarist Harrison announced they would take a lengthy hiatus from Superdrag, a pronouncement that sounded more like a good-bye than a call for time-out. Hearts broke in indie-rock-friendly cities, as Superdrag's years of road-warrior touring ethic had gradually won them enclaves of fans all over the country. But the sense of loss was most profound in Knoxville, where certain landmark downtown and campus-area Victorians sat suddenly sad and vacant, as if the animating spirit that had once kept them vital with years of house parties and yearning, joyous rock music had suddenly vanished into the ether.

Four long years later, and Superdrag have announced the reunion shows—featuring all four original members—that so many of us thought might never happen. While the weak-hearted among us sulked and brooded, Davis and the boys kept the Superdrag engine juiced and ready to rock by maintaining a booking agent, keeping up the band's website, and retaining a management team in place in the form of Boston-based Creamer Management.

"The door was always open," Davis says, "at least a crack."

The eight-date reunion tour began Sept. 22 in Cincinnati, as Superdrag served as a headliner of the city's Midpoint Music Festival, and continued Oct. 5 at Nashville's City Hall. Other stops include New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The band will play two Knoxville dates on Oct. 19 and 20 at Barley's Taproom in the Old City.

From there? Band members say that at least until the end of 2007, they're focusing only on the currently scheduled reunion dates. But they'll allow that the possibility of future Superdrag projects, perhaps even a new studio album, will linger, so long as the upcoming dates are successful enough to suggest interest in the band's continuance.

For those of you who were too young or insufficiently proximal or else simply too oblivious to tell, it's not at all unreasonable to ask us nostalgic partisans just what it was that made this particular raft of scruffy slacker twentysomethings (at least at the time of their founding) with their bad hair and their bad beer and their bad cars, even so much as one iota more interesting than the next set of jobless punks with vintage amps and dubious power-pop pedigrees. The easy answer to that question was/is Superdrag frontman and guitarist John Davis, the Farragut High School graduate who was by all accounts a musical prodigy from the moment of his arrival on earth, a preternaturally sweet singer blessed with perfect pitch, well-rounded guitar chops, a natural songwriter's instinct, and an uncanny ability to play, with at least some functional proficiency, nearly any musical instrument he laid hands on.

The teenage Davis was also a winsome lad, skinny and smooth-faced, sporting a Beatles-eque mop-top in homage to his number-one musical heroes. He had a commanding onstage charisma that could make sets take off with explosive hallelujah fervor even as it made girls along the stagefront titter and swoon.

The more complicated answer is that the 'Drag had a formidable band chemistry that seemed to vastly exceed the sum of its parts. With Davis serving as principal songwriter—on early records, drummer Coffey is the only other member to receive songwriting credits, as John not only wrote chord structures and vocal melodies, but constructed bass and second guitar parts for Pappas and Fisher—there would seem to be little room for anything other than Davis' own out-sized talent to shine through on a diminutive small club stage.

Yet somehow the other members seemed to assert themselves at some point along the way, usually with contributions that came to define the sound and presence of Superdrag in the setting of a live performance hall—things such as Fisher's impromptu Jazzmaster squeals and improvisational noise colorations during particularly chaotic moments of the show, or bassist Pappas with his Everest-sized mop of curly hair and frenetic pogoing, the molten punk-rock energy of which never failed to propel the band into power-pop overdrive.

But the best answer as to why Superdrag were head and shoulders above the vast majority of other outfits who mined the same familiar territory lay in Davis's flare for the stirring, indelible melody and an inerrant ear for a satisfying song.

When all of the band's element's clicked on an especially potent or moving Davis original—maybe the early seven-inch wall-of-sound yearn "Bloody Hell," or the barrelling and indomitable breakthrough CMJ chart hit "Seniorita"—with tight performances and the band members' restive personal energies sparking and girding Davis's soaring croon, Superdrag would fairly levitate above the audience, hovering as if caught up in the rogue swell of a powerful crescendo.

But the more prescient question in the mind's eye of many fans—some of whom may view signing a major label record deal as nearly synonymous with achieving major label success—is: Whatever happened on the road to becoming rock's Next Big Thing? Or was Next Big Thing ever a viable destination in the first place for three determinedly individualistic Knoxville boys—plus one freaknik Philadelphia mook—weaned on beer and Beatles records and indie rock, nourished into the full flower of adulthood on a steady diet of doing whatever the hell they wanted?

Confession: My own first exposure to Superdrag, via the regular rotation of their various DIY seven-inch singles on WUTK-90.3, convinced me that the band belonged in the same wussified category as Evan Dando, maybe, the weak-ass pop-punk pseudo-hipster Spin seemed to put on the cover every other month or so circa 1995, perhaps for fear of putting someone cool at the front of the magazine.

Then I heard "Senorita," the song that would eventually topple the first domino in the chain that led to the music industry bidding war that brought Superdrag to Elektra Records. An unabashedly squealy low-fi recording built around a punk-rock riff and an uncharacteristically fierce vocal by John Davis, it captured and vented all of the adolescent yearning I felt, inspired by some latent romantic misadventure. Pretty soon, I fell in love with all of the band's scrappy, fuzz-inflected melodic gems: "Whitey's Theme," "HHT," "Nothing Good Is Real."

It was also apparent that I wasn't the only guy whose heartstrings were tugged by "Senorita." At San Francisco's tiny Darla Records imprint, label impresario James Agren received a handful of Superdrag four-track recordings, mailed in on a lark by Davis after he purchased a Darla seven-inch from another band that had an insert soliciting "a tape of your groop."

Agren went on to release two of the band's early singles, "HHT" b/w "Nothing Good is Real" and "Senorita" b/w "Cuts and Scars." And thanks to Agren's lobbying, "Senorita" was included on a College Music Journal compilation, where it garnered several favorable notices. The good reviews attracted the attention of record label reps, and before anyone could figure how it had happened, record labels Mammoth, Restless, Warner Bros., Elektra, and MCA were all trawling for Superdrag. A round of industry showcases finally led to an offer from Elektra Records in the spring of 1995.

The band's time at Elektra produced two beautiful, sonically rich long-players: Regretfully Yours in 1996, followed by Head Trip in Every Key two years later. The former record is a dense, swirling, guitar-heavy modern-rock record, filled with delirious full-throttle rockers and heart-rending ballads. And "Sucked Out," of course—the afterthought, the late-stage songwriting addition that moved Regretfully Yours from a low to a high-priority Elektra release when company reps thought they heard the makings of a monster hit in the song with its direct, tuneful chorus, in which Davis belts out the catch phrase with a frayed intensity that sounds as if perhaps he is losing his mind.

"Sucked Out" received the promotional blessing of MTV when the station designated it a "Buzz Bin" video clip. The move guaranteed that millions of video viewers the world over who know little else about Superdrag have at least seen the "Sucked Out" clip, in which the band members appear as service employees at a fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, Elektra's own campaign for radio station "adds" never fully complemented the buzz-bin attention, and the label lost interest in the record shortly after the release of second single "Destination Ursa Major," a much more intriguing work, but one that lacks "Sucked Out"'s attention-grabbing sonic profile. Elektra cashed in its chips on Regretfully with the record having sold roughly 110, 000 copies, a respectable figure, but one that seemed to fall short of the promise of the buzz-bin promotion.

The second Elektra record, Head Trip in Every Key, was doomed from the word go, at least as far as any hopes of becoming a viable corporate contributor. The band's attitude going into the project, said Coffey in a 2004 interview, was something to the effect that, "We'll never get to do this again, so let's make this something we'll be proud of."

Which the band members did, exploiting the studio's every possibility, constructing an album that had more in common with acid-era Beatles and prog rock and freak-out psychedelia than '90s alt-pop. By the time the sitars and the grand pianos and ancient spiritual texts had been cleared from the studio grounds, disgruntled Elektra representatives realized they'd spent nearly half a million dollars on a record that featured almost no songs recognizable as radio-single fodder by current industry standards.

The Head Trip recording set the tone for negotiation on what was to be the third and final record of Superdrag's contract with Elektra. Perhaps still feeling burned by the excesses of Head Trip, Elektra A&R folk were determinedly unwelcoming when Davis brought in demo after demo in preparation for the recoding that would eventually become In the Valley of Dying Stars, repeatedly telling the young singer that none of the song ideas he'd bought to the table were "emotionally direct enough" for the record they had mind.

Sadly, Davis' paternal grandfather and namesake, to whom he was especially close, had just died of a heart attack. Davis reportedly sent Elektra 40 songs in all, aural sympathy cards with titles like "Unprepared" and "Some Kind of Tragedy," all of them rejected. Davis later told Metro Pulse, "It was a protracted pissing match... The relationship became completely non-productive."

All of which eventually led to Superdrag asking for and receiving its walking papers from Elektra in 1999, which in the end turned out to be a favorable move for the band, as Elektra's unexpected generosity left them with a whole album's worth of songs recorded at the label's expense, some vital pieces of recording equipment, and a small severance package. Then the band reconnected with an old friend, Greg Glover, operator of the NYC-based Arena Rock Recoding Company, and released its third full-length album of original material, In the Valley of Dying Stars, a record regarded by many fans as the best of the Superdrag oeuvre. The album's opening hat trick of "Keep It Close to Me," "Gimme Animosity" and "Baby's Waiting," in fact, is as strong as any grouping of three songs on any Superdrag record.

But there were casualties, too. Founding members Pappas and Fisher both departed shortly after the difficult separation from Elektra, to be replaced by Powers and Harrison.

The last years of Superdrag before the hiatus of 2003 were weird, wiggy times for anyone who served in or around the band. The departures of Fisher and Pappas were tough all around; and even though the studio albums on which they did not perform (Dying Stars: no Pappas; Vitriol: neither Fisher nor Pappas) are fine records, considered by many to contain some of the band's best recorded moments, the die-hards among us find it hard to make peace with a Superdrag record that was not influenced in some small way by Fisher's limey affectations or Pappas's Stooges-derived proto-punk energy.

Stranger still was the remarkable spiritual conversion that transformed the once-profligate and perpetually free-wheeling frontman Davis into a dependable husband and father (he and wife Wendy now have two boys, two-year-old Paul and 10-month-old Elijah), and a leader of men.

But more recently, Davis says he's finally made peace with those aspects of his religious conversion which had stood in the way of his returning to the secular music of Superdrag.

"I was having trouble with the material in Superdrag," Davis explains, "and being aligned one way spiritually and doing music that was out of balance with the way I felt about the world. I think a big reason why I'm kind of at peace now with the music and with what the songs say is that I understand and accept now that God was in control then just as he is now. I think the flaw in my logic was I tried to shun all the things that happened before I made this choice,"

In November of 2006, Tom Pappas began experiencing a series of "stage" dreams, all of which centered around jam sessions involving himself and his old mates from Superdrag. "I thought yeah, it would be pretty cool to jam together again," he remembers. "Then a couple of months go by, a few more dreams are happening. And they were good, man, I didn't realize how much I missed playing with the guys deep down.

"Then more time goes by, it's the beginning of March, and I'm talking to Brandon. And just kind of joking, I ask when we are gonna get together and jam. And all he says is, you should call up John. A couple of days later, John calls me up, so the first thing I ask him is, when are we gonna play? And he says well, Pappas, it's funny you should ask that...what would you think about doing a series of shows in October?"

What followed next was a tentative rehearsal, a rehearsal that went so well that the old friends could scarcely believe how long the band had been apart. "It was like crazy muscle memory, like we had never left," Pappas says.

According to Davis, the eventual reunion of Knoxville's fab four was never really in doubt despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by hardcore fans that initially greeted the band's decision to take a respite back in 2003.

"It kind of seems like it was a work in progress from the minute we walked off stage in Boston in September of '03," Davis says. "We always left the door open a crack. But I always felt the reunion would have to involve the right place and the right set of circumstances. And in the end, when those circumstances came around, it was a matter of making about three phone calls, and it was a done deal."

Now, with a grown-up John Davis taking the lead, the Superdrag management team will plan and orchestrate what promises to be an impressive stage show ("We got a massive Ramones/Arena Rock backdrop for the stage, lots of visual and detail-oriented stuff that will really make it something enjoyable for the fans," he says), as well as pulling together a new two-disc album project of old material.

And then there's whatever the future might hold—evaluating the success of the reunion shows, considering whether these fateful eight dates will warrant even more from a rejuvenated Superdrag, more shows, maybe even new music.

But for now, for the diehards among us, none of that matters. All that matters is John and Tom and Brandon and Don are back on the same stage, together again, pumping out "Slot Machine" and "Senorita" and "Cynicality" and "Bloody Hell," hitting all of those yearning and majestic high points right on cue, as if they'd never left.