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If we lived in a perfect world, all the bands would be like Superdrag: undeniably talented, unbelievably hardworking, and in control of their own destiny. Despite being less than 10 years old, the Knoxville Tennessee quintet has been through the rock wringer. At first the band’s saccharine-fueled power pop was an equation that could do no wrong. Forming a union of Beatles harmonies with Dinosaur Jr. dirty guitar fuzz, their first single “Sucked Out” off Regretfully Yours on Elektra Records, was an instant hit. However, fame was fleeting and when their sophomore effort Head Trip in Every Key did not yield a similar radio sensation, the band was placed under incredible pressure from their label to produce an album filled with more MTV friendly fare. The band resisted and Elektra, displaying an amazing inability to recognize talent, released them from their contract.


The affair, along with the passing of frontman Jonathan Davis’s grandfather, led to the creation of the masterful In the Valley of Dying Stars. Having been freed of major label shackles, the current lineup of singer/songwriter Jonathan Davis, singer/bassist Sam Powers, guitarist Brandon Fisher, drummer Don Coffey Jr., and recent addition guitarist/singer Mike Harrison recently released Last Call for Vitriol. Ironically, without having big brother constantly looking over their shoulder for anything that smelled of a hit, the band has released their catchiest most rocking album. Last Call combines the harmonies of the Byrds with the snarl of the Replacements, leaving you with a record that makes you want to get up to get down. Recently I had the chance to chat over Instant Messanger with Jonathan Davis.



PopMatters:

You guys seem a lot happier on the new record, or at least less bitter than on In the Valley of Dying Stars. How’d that come about?



Jonathan Davis:

Well, I think the atmosphere that this record was written and recorded in was a lot less confrontational, for lack of a better term. We didn’t have anybody looking over our shoulders or second-guessing the material for us. We just wrote a bunch of songs that we liked and recorded them!



PM:

The new material seems more Replacements less Teenage Fanclub—what were some of your goals and influences with writing the new materials?



JD:

I think the main goal that we always have when we get ready to make a record is to create something honest that we feel good about. We always try to bring something a little bit different to the table each time. We always try to go with our instincts and let the songs take shape naturally. As far as influences . . . we listen to a lot of music in the van, of course . . . all kinds of music.



PM:

I thought it was just The Beatles.



JD:

I hear a lot of influences coming through on the record.



PM:

You mentioned atmosphere before—where did you record the new album?



JD:

We did the recording at our place [Stealth Studio] here in Knoxville. We did about half of In the Valley of Dying Stars here as well.



PM:

It’s funny, the new record just sounds more “Knoxville” than the past records—there’s something very American rock n’ roll about it.



JD:

Well, whenever we’re asked to “classify” our music, our drummer Don always describes Superdrag as “an American bar band”.



PM:

How did you hook up with Guided By Voices frontman, Bob Pollard? And whose idea was it for him to do backing vocals on “Baby goes to 11”?



JD:

We first met Bob years ago at a private party that we played with GBV in Columbus, Ohio. We’ve all been rabid GBV fans for years and years. Greg Glover [founder] of Arena Rock struck up a friendship with GBV’s management, and at one point he was trying to sign GBV. He sent the song to Bob because he thought he’d like it—turns out, he did!! Him liking our songs, would’ve been enough, y’know? Coming from him, one of my favorite songwriters, it was a huge compliment. But to make it better, he was interested in singing some harmonies on it, and we jumped at the chance to make that happen.



PM:

As a fan I sometimes forget that bands are fans of other musicians.



JD:

When it comes down to it, we’re all just lifetime rock fans. We geek out over bands all the time!



PM:

It seems like with Arena Rock Recordings you are in a much better environment. Do you have a healthier view of the music industry as a whole or is it that you feel better about the niche you’ve carved out?



JD:

Well, it’s nice to have found a space in the music business that we can occupy and feel like we belong, and a way of doing business that we feel comfortable with. With the exception of booking the tours, putting out the records, and printing the t-shirts, we do everything ourselves. And that’s something we take great pride in.



PM:

Is that the only way for a band that doesn’t rap or dance to survive in the current state of the music industry?



JD:

It’s a great feeling to work hard and get what you get by the sweat of your brow, rather than living or dying by your latest video or whether or not some huge global corporation is throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at you. We’re perfectly content to operate outside of that whole universe, like we used to do before we got “signed”.



PM:

Is the song “The Staggering Genius” off of Last Call for Vitriol about anyone in particular?



JD:

When we first started working on it, Sam Powers had a completely different song titled “Your Goddamned Miserable Life” that had some great lyrics in it. And it was all about a specific person that he knew. We then started to adapt some of those words into the framework of what would eventually become “The Staggering Genius”. And all that time I thought we were still writing about this same guy, which we weren’t, so it turns out that it could’ve just as easily been about me. I’m no “genius”, but I’ve done my share of staggering.



PM:

How collaborative is the song writing process?



JD:

The process tends to be a little bit different from song to song. Sometimes we’ll write individually and bring something that’s more or less finished to the rest of the band. Sometimes we’ll come in with half of a finished song and the other guy will add to it. Other times we’ll come in with half of a finished song and the other guy will add to it.



PM:

Everyone refers to you as the “front man” but judging from songwriting credits and how much your band has been through, it’s obvious you’re a whole band—does the “front man” tag ever make you uncomfortable?



JD:

It doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but I’m glad to finally have that added depth that only another singer/writer can provide. With Mike in the band now, we’ve got three writers and three singers, which was secretly my master plan all along just like so many of my favorite bands.



PM:

So you’re deviating from the Lennon/McCartney model? Well, Ringo sang—so maybe not.



JD:

Let’s not forget about George Harrison. Now we’ve got our own “Harrison”! But he ain’t from Liverpool, he’s from West Tennessee.



PM:

Does that mean he’s going to get spiritual on you?



JD:

Depends on how many beers he has.



PM:

Would you say you’re more Lennon or McCartney?



JD:

Vocally speaking, my voice occupies more of a Lennon-type range. While Sam’s voice is naturally a little bit higher, like McCartney’s, plus he’s the “cute one”.



PM:

The new album seems a bit grittier, which I’d say is more Lennon’s territory.



JD:

I always seem to gravitate towards John Lennon’s songs. A lot of times there’s something sinister right below the surface. I think “Her Melancholy Tune” (off Last Call for Vitriol) has a kind of Revolver era Lennon type sound to it.



PM:

On In The Valley Of Dying Stars it was pretty close to the surface.



JD:

Yeah, that record came out of some hard times. Feelings of loss, pain, bitterness, anger, hatred, and a lot of bad things seemed to happen all at once.



PM:

It’s good to see that judging from the vibe on the new album, you’ve pulled through intact.



JD:

Well, you can only harbor that many negative emotions for so long, and it either eats you up from the inside out or you pull yourself up out of it. I remember when we lost my Grandpop, I had one of these “Grief Management” brochures, with the “7 Stages Of Grief” or whatever. And I think every stage is represented on that record, from denial to anger to hurt. And, maybe with “Vitriol” we’ve finally reached the final one, “acceptance”, or something to that effect. Maybe not the most upbeat topic to make a record about, but . . . it was something I felt compelled to do for him.



PM:

I’m glad you were able to.



JD:

[My Grandpop] always supported us, in what we did, no matter what. The guy was 70 years old coming to rock clubs to see us play!



PM:

My grandfather passed away when I was five; so I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have him around today.



JD:

That’s why I feel like it’s a “universal” kind of a record, because that’s an experience that almost anybody in the world can relate to on some level. But yeah, the new record, looking back on it now, seems to be all about finding a better place, moving on.



PM:

I think people think songs about death and loss have to be depressing, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that last step of “acceptance” as being a major part of the process. Not that you’re celebrating death, but you’re celebrating the life of the person.



JD:

Absolutely. That’s what “Way Down Here Without You” is all about. That “choir” at the end, and a train pulling into the station….



PM:

I never thought about it like that. I never realized what it meant.



JD:

Maybe I’m the one who’s fixing to get all spiritual!



PM:

On to a lighter note—if you were to have a Beatles trivia face off with Oasis who would win?



JD:

I would. Hands down. Can those guys actually read? Those guys have written some undeniably great songs though.



PM:

Yeah, I’m a sucker for it. What’s the scene like in Knoxville?



JD:

There are a lot of good bands in Knoxville like The Bitter Pills, The High Score, The Superlatives, Scott Miller & The Commonwealth.



PM:

I have this image of them all being bar bands who drink a lot of Jack Daniels and rock out behind a cage like in the movie “Blues Brothers”.



JD:

You may be right about the Jack Daniels, but I have yet to see any chicken wire. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many good venues, and there isn’t much of a “network” for local bands.



PM:

How did the split EP with the Anniversary on Vagrant Records come about and was it weird being on an “emo” label?



JD:

As far as the Anniversary split, it was something they did to coincide with a tour we were doing. Those guys really don’t seem to fit into that whole “emo” scene based on my extremely limited knowledge of it; they sound like a rock band to me. So far, we haven’t been able to find anyone yet who could tell us what the fuck “emo” is, anyway!



PM:

I’m not sure either, although I’m convinced some of it is evil.



JD:

If it’s supposed to be “emotional,” shouldn’t all good music be “emotional?” I thought Fugazi was “emo” or are they “emocore?” It’s ridiculous.



PM:

I think it’s just a tag labels use to sell crappy pop music to the supposed alternative community.



JD:

I assumed Dashboard Confessional had to be “emo” because the majority of the crowd supposedly bursts into tears at their shows. If that happened at a Superdrag show, we’d pack up our shit and leave.



PM:

That would be awful; crying at shows is very un-rock. You never saw Johnny Cash cry at a show.



JD:

Fuck no!



PM:

He’s the standard I hold all rock musicians up to.



JD:

As well you should. I love Johnny Cash. My dad loves Johnny Cash. My Grandpop loved Johnny Cash.

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