Most folks out there in contemporary radio's target-market wasteland don't really think about Superdrag. Rather, some remember them, occasionally, as the band that did "Sucked Out." This usually occurs when yet another Creed single comes on and mainstream's vapidity becomes impossible to deny — at least until something marginally more substantial slips into the mix. A few inquisitive souls may go so far as to wonder whatever happened to the band. What happened to Superdrag is, in essence, what happens to most of the earnest, trend-eschewing outfits that sometimes fall into the maw of the industry machine. To wit: conglomerate "takes a chance" on an "emerging artist;" conglomerate is unsatisfied with the returns on its investment; conglomerate expends inordinate amounts of time and energy alternately ignoring and impeding an artist it could do without anyway.
This is standard operating procedure for major labels, and has killed off many a young band short on self-confidence and indie experience or credibility. But when these Knoxville, Tennessee-bred power-pop purveyors found themselves faced with bureaucratic indifference and promotional ineptitude — following critical raves and a Buzz-Bin debut single, mind you — they persevered, to find both a supportive home and a loyal following.
"For a while there, things were really tough for us. The easiest thing in the world to do would be to quit," confides guitarist/singer/headmaster John Davis. "It just seems like out of so many bands who had their first record come out at the same time ours did, a lot of 'em are history. They're not around anymore, because it's hard to come out the other end of that whole major-label thing intact. But we just enjoy what we do so much, any success we can have in spite of all that is fine."
Elektra Records snatched Davis and company up as Seattle-ites were giving way to Green Day during the mid-'90s. Their joyously raucous first full-length, Regretfully Yours, ably bridged the gap between AM radio influence and punk rock exuberance, producing "Sucked Out." However, Superdrag's honeymoon with the big money was short-lived; they soon found themselves butting heads with the label.
"I guess, ultimately, if there's a song that they want to push, one that they feel strongly about, it shouldn't make a difference," Davis allows. "But it did make a difference to us. They don't like for you to actually weigh in with your opinion; they just want you to go along with whatever they have in mind."
The band was further dismayed when their sophomore effort, the woefully under-appreciated Head Trip In Every Key, received what Davis considered a less-than-zealous promotional treatment. "I know there are artists on other labels that don't necessarily wind up the charts and get played on the radio, that still manage to get their music heard in other ways," he says. "But with Elektra, if it didn't get added to (Los Angeles') KROQ automatically, then they were just at a loss about what to do. They didn't seem to know any other way of promoting a record.
"We always felt like it was our job to write the songs and record them, and it was their job to sell them. They signed us; they should've known better than to think we would turn around and write a whole different album of carbon copies of "Sucked Out.' That's a cop-out. It wouldn't be fair to us, or to kids who went out to buy it."
Undaunted, Superdrag dove into sessions for what would be their third Elektra CD. It soon became obvious that the label was at best indifferent, and at worst opposed to what the band thought was its best material yet. The requisite semi-legal wrangling ensued. When the smoke cleared, the now-trio (Davis; Don Coffey Junior, drums; Sam Powers, bass) was free to take its tapes elsewhere.
Enter former Tampa Bay scenester and 'zine producer Greg Glover. He and partner Dan Ralph were longtime Superdrag friends and fans who had, over the course of several years, built a little dream called Arena Rock Recordings into a formidable New York City-based independent roster of artists (largely on the windfall of one signing in particular — does anybody remember Harvey Danger?).
"(Glover's) been a friend of ours for a long time, even before we signed with Elektra," Davis reveals. "We've known him since about '94, and he put out a 7-inch of ours in '95, the very first Arena Rock record. Once we got cut loose, and were able to go elsewhere with the record, he was the first guy we thought of. As a matter of fact, that was really the only phone call we made, and he was ready to put it out no questions asked."
From this (re)union came last year's In The Valley of Dying Stars, Superdrag's most cohesive and ambitious disc to date. Cutting the rudimentary charm and energy of Regretfully Yours with the texture and studio-savvy of Head Trip In Every Key, Valley takes distorted guitars, engaging three-chord hooks and personal melancholy to a grand scale. Sometimes lo-fi, often lush and always immaculately constructed, Davis' tunes perfectly balance sweet distraction with a compelling depth. Good rock is hard to find; rock that manages to touch both the cerebral and emotional is a rare thing indeed. Like conceptual peers Nada Surf, ostracism from the commercial realm seems to be the best thing that ever happened to Superdrag.
And it's timely, as well. Touring in support of Valley, the band found itself playing to those all-ages crowds which, over the past several years, have begun looking past punk's dogma to embrace any band true to its own ideals. The barriers between punk, hardcore and indie rock have eroded considerably, setting free the groups as well as the fans — kids are exposing themselves to any band willing to get in the van and play, while bands not necessarily thought of as "underground" are winning converts by touring DIY style. Davis is grateful to have found a caring audience, one passionate about music as opposed to image, though he still hasn't figured out exactly what "emo" means.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not really familiar with the music, but I know a lot of kids that like that stuff seem to like our stuff, too," he says. "I've heard a couple of Get Up Kids records, and they sound really good. Somebody was telling me that they were getting ready to do a show, and they soundchecked with one of our songs, which I thought was kind of funny. So maybe they like Superdrag." You might wonder if Davis, a man who once made heavy rotation on MTV, who appeared on The Late Show with Conan O'Brien, feels any bitterness about getting back in the van after having been on the bus. "We've been really satisfied," he avers. "We went out and toured for nine months, and we were really satisfied with the crowds, and the response to the record, even though it is on a smaller scale than the previous ones. I'm perfectly happy with where we are right now. And I'd like to continue to build on what we have, because there is that core of people that's still interested in the music regardless of whether or not there's a video, or anything like that. Those are the people that you'd really like to appeal to, people that decide which records to buy based on the music, and nothing else."
He adds with a chuckle, "I guess that's kind of a novel idea these days."