Interview: Superdrag

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Sisyphus was condemned by the Gods to roll a huge stone up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again when he reached the top. He was sentenced to perform this futile labor forever. No bathroom breaks, no cigarettes, no concerts, just a hill, a boulder and his gnarled, arthritic hands. Not a happy story and definitely not something to strive for in life. But when asked to sum up Superdrag in a metaphor, frontman John Davis said “‘The myth of Sisyphus’ comes to mind.” I agree and disagree. While Superdrag has worked as hard as the boulder-roller, their labor wasn’t futile. They have a huge fanbase, MTV credits, four solid albums and a fuzz rock sound that has been consistently good since they formed. After almost 10 years of pushing the proverbial boulder, however, Superdrag is getting a little older, a little wiser and a little closer to settling down. I’ll let Davis explain…

How is the tour going?
Well, as of right now, the tour’s over really. We were out playing for a couple months before the record came out, which would’ve been May of 2002. I feel like we’ve done all the good we can do for the record. But the shows were great! Our fans are great. They always make us feel welcome wherever we go.

What was the best show?
It’s hard to say. The Guided By Voices dates were definitely a highlight for me. I can’t really think of a better rock’n’roll band, you know? Maybe the best show for me was the last GBV date, in Knoxville, where Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, and Bob Pollard all ended up onstage with us at one time or another. I got to play “Echoes Myron” with Guided by Voices. I love that song.

How were the crowds?
Drunk a lot of the time.

How about Superdrag? Are you guys ever drunk on stage? Any backstage rituals before the show?
Well, I’ve been sober now for about 18 months, but we’ve been drunk onstage many a time. I can only remember a handful of times when we were too drunk to play the music right. At least I was. I don’t know about “backstage rituals.” I write set-lists and string guitars and usually that’s about it.

What is the best part about touring? The worst part?
The best part about touring is being able to get on a stage and play music every night of the week. The worst part about touring is having to leave my wife at home alone all the time. That sucks.

What do you guys listen to on the road? Where do you eat? Best hotel?
We listen to all kinds of stuff; everything form Johnny Paycheck to The Replacements, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., Big Star, The Louvin Brothers, The Band, Chris Bell, The Clash, Chuck Berry, George Jones, Rocket from the Crypt, Jerry Lee Lewis, all kinds of shit. We eat at your standard roadside places; Waffle House, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell. We’re all health nuts. You pretty much take what you can get in Livingston, Montana or wherever you might be. We usually stay at Motel 6 or Super 8. Only the finest five-star accommodations for the Superdrag.

This is old news, but how did your experience with Elektra and seeing the top of the music industry influence the songs you write today? There was a time when good music (like Superdrag) was floating all over MTV, but now it is hard to see a video.
I think anything you experience in life is going to influence what you write, if you write. I think some of my writing on the third album might have been a bit reactionary in that regard (“Keep it Close to Me” for instance) but I really don’t ever think about it much anymore, except when I do interviews.

Hope I’m not bringing out skeletons you don’t want to see. I remember seeing Superdrag on MTV when I was younger and really thinking ‘This feels good to listen to.’ I think you have sustained that feeling over your albums. Any artists that do that for you?
I really only listen to a handful of bands that are still actually making records. I’d put Teenage Fanclub into the category you mentioned, or Guided by Voices. I spend most of my time listening to records that were made 30 or 40 years ago.

Any plans for a new album?
It’s hard to say when we might make another album. Right now, both Mike Harrison and myself are planning solo records. He’s actually in the process of recording his, but I’m really still in the earliest stages of writing material. Don’s been doing session work and producing records for other artists. We’re compiling a kind of retrospective 2-CD collection of demos, alternate versions, unreleased songs, etc. etc. etc. So it’s still gonna be a busy year for us, even if we don’t get around to recording an album of new Superdrag music in 2003.

I heard small whispers of Superdrag breaking up. Is everything OK? What was going on?
Sam Powers is leaving the group. That’s huge. We’ve been through this kind of thing before, but at this stage in the game it has a big impact on our future plans. Eight years of hard-core touring has pretty well burned me out. I wouldn’t want to speak for the other guys on that. I think the days of us being out on the road nine months out of the year are over, but that doesn’t mean we won’t make records or play shows in the future.

The shows in Tennessee in June are shaping up to be the end of an era with Sam. How do you feel about those shows? Any emotions running?
Naturally, I feel sentimental about them. After four years I’ve really gotten used to having Sam up there. He’s a great player and a great singer and he brings a lot to the table in terms of the live performance and in all other respects. We’re practically neighbors. I mean, we live about five minutes away from each other here in Nashville. Sam and I are tight. I don’t worry about our friendship suffering at all. I think that’s probably the most important thing when it’s all said and done.

How do you feel fans are taking Sam’s leave?
I think people are bummed out about it, and with good reason, but I also think they’re very respectful of his wishes and of his reasons for doing what he’s doing.

On the positive side, what has been the most amazing part of being in Superdrag?
It’s a pleasant surprise for me to take a look around 10 years down the road and still find that people are interested in the band and looking forward to what we’ll do next. A lot of bands don’t have that luxury. Probably the most “amazing” part about playing in the band is that we’ve either gotten to open up shows or stand onstage and play with a lot of our heroes. We did “I Need You” with Ray Davies. We did “Diane” with Grant Hart. We opened for Big Star a few times. The list goes on. Those are times you never forget, as long as you live.

After these last couple shows what will you do in the hiatus? Any big plans at home, or just a lawn chair and a porch?
I do have a lawn chair on my porch, but only because I can’t smoke in the house anymore. I’ve been trying to write as much new music as possible. We have our archival-type projects and I’ll be spending a lot of time working on those. I take studio gigs whenever I can get them. My main priority right now is spending time with my wife. Making up for lost time, really.

How do you feel about the music world in general these days?
I feel completely out of touch with it. I really feel like we’ve spent the last five years trying to operate outside of it. I’d be hard pressed to name five bands that are on the charts right now. I really don’t care about any of it because none of it really speaks to me, or for me. I think the whole idea of “The Return of Rock,” or whatever, is laughable. “Rock” never really went anywhere.