Superdrag’s John Davis

Tuesday, 05 May 2009

Superdrag’s 15-year history is riddled with the familiar tropes that can make rock lore so compelling to the listener—and dangerous to the artist: the dizzying hometown buzz; the rapid ascent to national fame; the “difficult second album” and subsequent label fallout; the drugs and drinking and years on the road; the personnel changes; and, of course, the breakup. Anyone familiar with Superdrag’s story knows it was a difficult one at times—and was probably shocked when the Knoxville-via-Nashville band’s original lineup rejoined forces in late 2007. Considering where Superdrag left things several years ago, that they wrote and recorded a brand new album is almost miraculous. Superdrag’s John Davis took some time to discuss the new jams and to open up about the long process of reconstructing his band, his faith and the divine privilege that it is to rock.

Ground Control: Did you guys have any reservations kickstarting Superdrag after such a long time off?

John Davis: If I had any over the course of those four years or so, I pretty much worked them all out in my mind. This sounds like a cheesy self-help thing to say, but [I was] kind of making peace with it and being cool with the stopping point. I had to figure out where that part of my life really belongs, because it was all I really lived for for the longest time. My whole identity was wrapped around it, to where when I took myself out of it, I didn't know who I was or what I was supposed to do, [chuckles] and that's really not a healthy state. So I was thinking of a lot of stuff like that pretty much the entire time. And we used to get lots of offers to play. People thought that just on a dime we would reform and just show up somewhere and play, so I was constantly thinking about how not to do it. By the time I got to thinking along those lines, I kind of knew that we would do something again someday, if God willed it and we were all able and living and all that kind of thing.

GC: These sessions were the first times that the original four of you were in the studio in ten years or so. What kind of feelings did that evoke? Were you thinking about the past or just focusing on the task at hand?

JD: It's hard not to think about old times, mostly in the context of how different everything was. The working environment itself is completely different. There are no drugs involved, very little alcohol—Donnie drank some beers, that's about it. I hate to belabor that, but that's one way in which it's very different. The process was kind of hard because there was a lot of time between sessions and everything had to be scheduled to death getting everybody in one place at one time, but actually recording the songs was really fun. Everybody just brought the heat. Once we actually got in there, it was just about business—there was no slack.

GC: You weren’t the only songwriter on this album. After all this time was there a lot of material backlogged between everyone?

JD: I think Brandon's got a bunch of tunes that we've never heard. Don's actually got some tunes we'd never heard and we begged him to let us record one, but he was less than stoked on that idea. I think what really prevented that from happening was when I told him that he would have to sing it. He's a great singer. Nobody knows. [Laughs] I could get my ass kicked just for saying that in print, but it's true.

GC: Who came up the name, Industry Giants? People that have listened to you guys for a while know that you've always had a few things to say about the music business, so the title seems pretty old school Superdrag.

JD: I had a very short list. I only made up maybe four or five titles. One of the other ones I had was Black America. But that one could be taken in totally the wrong way or in some kind of negative way toward people of African descent, which certainly was never meant to be. It really had more of an anti-New World Order kind of intention. I pretty much knew [Industry Giants] was it from the moment it popped into my head. But then Jerry Finn died. His nickname for us was HIGs: “Huge Industry Giants.” If there ever was any doubt about the title, at that point it was like, “okay, that is definitely going to be it and it's definitely going to be dedicated to Jerry Finn.”

GC: His death was pretty shocking.

JD: Yeah, I just can't stand it. He showed up at the Troubadour [in May 2008]. I call him every time I'm ever [in Los Angeles], and we just happened to be driving by his street the night before the show. I wouldn't take anything for that 10-minute conversation now. If I had known that was the last time I would ever see Jerry, of course I would've just bear-hugged him and wouldn't have let go. The way he operated as an individual was the exact opposite of the way somebody on his level in the music industry is supposed to operate. When he did our record, he put 100% into it and really believed in it. When it didn't sell a certain number of records, he didn't abandon ship and start talking shit about it. That's how that generally goes—you want to distance yourself from the commercial disappointments or whatever, but he always took our side and stood behind it. To me that says a lot about his character. And not only that, we just learned so much from Jerry. He was always a true friend and so much fun to be with. It's really unjust and unfair that his life ended. He had a lot more to do.

GC: You’re self-releasing Industry Giants. Did you guys finally throw your hands up and go on your own path?

JD: We had some interest from some third parties. I don't think we ever seriously considered it. The tradeoff that you make for major label exposure for a short period of time versus total autonomy from the get-go…it's a definite tradeoff. We made the choice that we made, though [signing to Elektra in 1996]. It might be a much smaller thing now even than what it is or it might be a much bigger thing, I have no idea. But someone like Ian MacKaye or Greg Ginn—people that envisioned the system that they wanted to operate in and created it for themselves—to me that's really something to be admired. And obviously, we never did that; we didn't have the foresight. Even though we were big fans of those records, we didn't get the bigger picture. So it's almost like now we're retroactively trying to smarten up and just control our thing completely on whatever level. Even if it's just a small little corner of the world.

GC: Getting into the lyrics, what was inspiring you this time around? It seems to thematically pick up off of Arigato! It definitely has that spiritual feeling of your solo work.

JD: No question. In the way that [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme was conceived as a way of giving thanks, there are definitely a couple of songs that fit in that category. “Live and Breathe” is one, and “Try.” Especially “Live and Breathe” it kind of just gives thanks to God for life. I kind of got into this thing for a while in praying of just giving thanks for the most basic things. “I Only Want a Place” is about, in theology, the concept of mortification of the flesh and rebirth of the spirit. But at the same time it's kind of a love song that's about rock. Then obviously, there's some pretty boldfaced political statements. And I fully expect to take some flak for those—in what form, I don't know. I don't know if they'll piss people off or they'll think I'm a nutcase. It won't be the first time I've been accused of wearing a tinfoil hat. Usually, if someone uses that term with me, I just pull out a pocket Constitution and cover my head up with that [laughs].

GC: The religious songs might be more polarizing than the political ones. It seems rock and roll in most cases is accepted as maybe a political forum for a lot of songwriters, but everyone can think of, for instance, Bob Dylan's born-again period and what a bummer that was. I don't know if that's a concern for you or the band.

JD: Well, I mean it's not a concern to me, and if it is to anybody else, they've been pretty tight-lipped about it. Tom is a Christian believer, so I know it's not a big concern to him. Honestly, when I wrote all these songs, I really wasn't interested in proselytizing. I just tried to open my heart up and write about whatever came forth just like I always did. I haven't changed my songwriting process one degree since 1995. I definitely wouldn't fault anybody for not being into [some of] the lyrics, but you really just have to say what you have to say. Whether the consequences are good or bad, if you're willing to stand or fall with it, I think that's what art is.

GC: I was reading an interview with the singer from The Killers. He seems mystified that journalists always bring up his Mormonism. What do you make of the fascination with rock stars that bare their religious beliefs openly?

JD: It's an interesting phenomenon when you have any religious faith, but specifically Christianity has been kind of co-opted by a political platform, and people have this perception that it equates itself with middle-of-the-road mainstream-ism, when in fact nothing can be further from the truth. It's actually about the most countercultural thing you can align yourself with.

GC: Do you notice the same kind of thing happening to you now that you're doing more press lately? Obviously, we're talking about it now.

JD: Yeah, it's ever-present, and I'm cool with it because it's a huge part of the story. My personal view is that just the act of getting this thing back together is kind of an illustration of the kind of restoration and redemption that God does. But there's this abiding notion of rock and roll being the devil's music. That's a popular myth. That when dudes in bands embrace faith and God that it's like Stalin, year zero, everything that came before that is irrelevant or to be shunned or whatever. But the truth is, if God is sovereign now, he was sovereign in 1999, in 1993, in 1988—it's not like he suddenly took control of it on November 11, 2001. I started to look back into the past and see all these intersections where his grace covered me and sort of kept me going in a direction that I didn't even understand or perceive at all. Without turning this into the 700 Club—I'm just trying to answer a really good question, but it's hard to answer it briefly.

GC: Do you have anything you want to say about this album that you probably won't get asked?

JD: The only thing that really comes to mind is just how thankful that I am for the chance to make it. The clouds really parted for me big time when I realized that playing rock is not a right, it's a privilege. That sounds like a sound byte and it kind of is, but we did an awful lot in a short period of time and we never thought about what a privilege it was. That's something that I'm just personally thankful for. And I hope it won't be the last. I feel like we have more to say and more to do. In some ways, I think it's our strongest album, and as long as that's even a possibility, we ought to keep chasing 'em down.


Industry Giants is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

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