Talking MTV with Superdrag's John Davis
They were MTV darlings, four cute Knoxville boys with Beatles cuts snaggin' Buzz Clips. And I hated them. Their hit song, "Sucked Out," drove me nuts, the way the singer screamed like Kurt. But the song had an undeniable pop sensibility, like the La's, and of course I start singing along despite myself. Then I see them open for Weezer. It's hard to fall in love with a band without knowing their songs, just seeing them live, but Superdrag made a believer out of me.
Two albums later, after parting company with their major label, they have their best album out yet, In the Valley of Dying Stars, on Arena Rock. Next Tuesday, Feb. 27 they play Village Underground (with the Mink Lungs). I interviewed singer John Davis on the phone.
So first let's boast about your record. I hear it's kicking ass on CMJ.
Well yeah, it may be on its way back down.
No, it's just resting. What's its highest position?
Highest position was six on CMJ. This last week on the Billboard independent chart it was number 10.
You make a lot of smoking references in your songs. Still smoking?
Is it true Superdrag is a front for the tobacco industry?
I wish. Pretty sweet. Get a lifetime supply.
You guys party pretty hard?
If we're playing we usually end up drinking.
Does that get hard?
Kind of becomes part of the routine.
Yikes. How did Superdrag come together?
Well, I knew Brandon, 'cause he dated my cousin Kelsey. Brandon was the other guitar player. But he was in a band with Tom. Tom was the singer and guitar, and Brandon was guitar. I ended up playing drums with them. I was starting to write more and more. They were doing New York Dolls, Iggy, Stooges. I wanted to do more pop, sort of power pop, and then met Coffey, the drummer.
How'd ya get a record deal?
We got a chance to put out a 7-inch with Darla Records in San Francisco. We put the 7-inch out and CMJ put us on their monthly sampler, which before had lots more unsigned bands. We were touring, we booked more and more shows, we'd get calls from labels, we'd showcase deals in New York where five or six bands play, a lot of label people hanging out. Once we got interest, it's kind of a grapevine effect. One thing led to another, we talked to a bunch of different people, and we had to kind of choose.
Like a bidding war?
Never got to that. Several were interested. We didn't sit back and try to stir up shit. Maybe we should've, but we thought that was a bad idea. It just escalates the more records you have to sell?if it doesn't sell five million, you end up racking up some debt.
You rack up debt?
Anytime you have a big advance you do.
You guys ever fight? Like "Go wash them stinky feet!"?
Nothing that bad. Sometimes we'll sit around after a show, bitch about something. Next day we're over it. We really get along.
How old are you now?
Which major label were you on?
Elektra. We put out two records, Regretfully Yours and Head Trip in Every Key on Elektra.
How many copies of Regretfully Yours did you sell?
Shy of 150,000. I don't know the exact figure. Second one just shy of 20,000. Might have done better since then. For Head Trip we didn't make a video. Regretfully Yours had videos. See, that's the difference in selling 20,000 and selling 150,000.
Why'd they not make videos? MTV played the shit out of your videos.
Well, they went through the process of sending treatments back and forth, wasted the director's time, then all of a sudden we're not gonna make a video. I don't know why. Maybe they had a new head of programming, or only for certain ones that only had X number of spins on the radio. By some whatever strange set of circumstances, we had this song MTV was willing to play. I always felt kind of weird about it. That was a whole 'nother way of?I mean, going to the MTV Beach House was strange. For one thing, you had to drive forever to get there. It was out in Malibu, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, this big fence you drive through, and this prefab beach party, like a set, really strange, and all these people hanging out playing volleyball, like extras.
Why did you guys get dropped?
Lotta legal negotiations, we had delivered the two records in the contract, plus they had option periods which they picked up. After a long time it was pointless. They didn't like anything we were doing, and they wouldn't send us back to the studio to finish the record. So finally our A&R guy said if you want off, you can be off.
Y'all must have felt freaked out.
Not really freaked out. It just got really frustrating after a while. Well we got 25, 35 songs here, they're telling us there's not a record, so we said, "Let us go. We'll put it out with someone else." We ended up being entitled to a little bit of money, which we invested into our studio here.
Were you worried you'd have to go back to day jobs?
Only time we had to do that was during the whole standoff. They weren't sending us anything to help us out, we weren't in the studio, we couldn't tour 'cause Tom quit and no bass player. I mean during that time, I worked at a record store for a while.
Was anyone harsh, like, Hey big rock star dude, what are you doing here?
No. If they had been, wouldn't have mattered. Just a matter of time, just kind of like turning a corner and getting things moving again. We would write a few songs, kept writing, doing demos.
I saw you perform on MTV, "Who Sucked Out the Feeling." And in the chorus you changed the lyrics to say, "Who sucked out the feeling, Music Television." Do you regret that? Do you think they got pissed?
I don't know.
We heard that?were like, oh my God, God man that takes balls. But Jesus Christ, that's like seeing someone shoot himself in the foot. Did anyone ever say anything?
It was like 9 a.m., had to get up at 7 a.m. It's pretty miserable to try to rock at 9 o'clock in the morning. That was like the fifth or sixth time we had played the song.
We noticed. One minute you were all over MTV's shit, then after you did that, we hear crickets chirping. You ever see yourself in that VH1 Where Are They Now? Or does your family ever say, "What are you gonna do now?"
If I got to the point I wasn't writing or doing my own records, I can see going to Nashville and doing sessions instead of selling insurance. Can't see not playing music. I don't care about doing anything else.
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