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Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrag’s Head Trip in Every Key

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    Component is a section of Aux.Out for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Ben Wener offers an expansive look at one of the unsung should-be classics of the ’90s, Superdrag’s Head Trip in Every Key. You can stream the record here.

    In these overcrowded, Spotify-deluged times where everything is available yet hardly anything is really heard, more genuine gems than ever wind up languishing in obscurity. So when John Davis mentions that “it wasn’t easy to find their stuff” midway into a lengthy chat last week about his finest recordings, he might as well be speaking of his own group, the great on-again, off-again (but mostly off-again) quartet Superdrag.

    At that moment, however, we were actually talking about the legacy of Big Star, tragic gods of power pop, and the sound their Tennessean offspring purloined and purveyed. That band’s three essential albums were indeed harder to come by once upon a pre-Napster time.

    “I remember,” Davis says in a genial drawl more John Mellencamp Midwestern than Nashvillian, “that for a while the only thing I was able to find was that radio broadcast with John Lightman on bass, the one from WLIR [Live, captured in ’74, released in ’92]. By that point, the band had kinda been over. They had called it a day a couple of times but kept halfway getting back into it.”

    Sounds a lot like Superdrag’s brilliantly sputtering career, punctuated by mild highs and plunging lows. For 20 years, Davis, the group’s frontman and chief songwriter, has watched his lineup shed members – including co-guitarist Brandon Fisher and bassist Tom Pappas but never faithful drummer Don Coffey, Jr. – then soldier on with new players, re-team with original ones, and splinter yet again. Now, five years after the reunion effort Industry Giants, the group is on hiatus again, leading Davis and Fisher to launch a new project, the Lees of Memory, whose premiere set, Sisyphus Says, drops September 16th.


    superdragold001 Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrags Head Trip in Every KeyOther than a shared passion for melodic rock and the fact that they’re both from Tennessee – Big Star from Memphis, Superdrag from Knoxville – there really aren’t many similarities handed down from forebear to progeny, and the tale of the ’Drag isn’t nearly the same storied bummer. (“I mean, we’re all still alive,” Davis remarks.) Yet given his travails, from a boozing, drugs-indulging breakout to becoming a sobered-up solo act embraced by the contemporary Christian music community, Davis, whose work with Superdrag is ripe for reappraisal, knows firsthand how random and inexplicable music discovery can be. Like an unschooled kid wending his way back to Joy Division via Interpol or (worse) She Wants Revenge, he used to be just as in-the-woods about the heroes he cherishes now.

    Ultimately, the footprints he left on power pop’s lineage, dating back to Big Star and beyond, were initially formed by reading about another outfit, one from across the Atlantic: Teenage Fanclub. “I loved Bandwagonesque, and every review of it was pretty unkind about how much they borrowed from Big Star. So, I thought, ‘In that case, Big Star must be the best band of all time.’ When I heard the live thing, I loved the rawness of it, but I knew this couldn’t be what [critics] were talking about. So, I ended up having to special order the #1 Record/Radio City disc. And it just … I don’t even know why or how … but when I heard it, it just flipped a switch. It clicked instantly.”

    Now, thanks to a double-dip vault raiding by SideOneDummy Records that has yielded the remastering of an aficionado’s favorite plus a 23-cut assemblage of outtakes, there’s reason to think that same awakening and journey backward to crucial sources might happen again via an expansive second look at Superdrag’s sophomore album, Head Trip in Every Key, one of the unsung should-be classics of the ’90s.

    ~  

    What a grand time that decade was for power pop. So many acts, big and small, remapped that sublime terrain where harmonic sweetness meets just-hard-enough crunch, where it’s perfectly acceptable to flash your adoration of ELO and XTC, where Big Star and Cheap Trick remain as supremely regarded as The Beatles and The Kinks – and where an outfit like Superdrag could momentarily thrive within the sonic confines such legends wrought.

    Not only was it the most fertile period in the subgenre’s history – producing a smaller-scale parallel that coursed through Alternative Nation more or less alongside Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails – but that era of flannel and Fatboy Slim now can be seen for something else it was: power pop’s last hurrah. Only those of us who could find and savor records scarcely mentioned on MTV outside of 120 Minutes were acutely aware that these were years awash in a pipelining wave of new torchbearers attempting to crash commercial beaches. Amazingly, many of them flourished, at least cultishly, despite the dominance of grunge, hip-hop, electronica, and nü-metal.

    These days, outside of Weezer (whenever they cobble together a rehash, as they have this season), certain aspects of The New Pornographers and occasional efforts from Ben Kweller, the number of recording artists still dabbling in the form can be counted on two hands with missing fingers. (And they do indeed dabble: Typically four years or so passes between spurts from Fountains of Wayne or Matthew Sweet.) Back during Gen X’s transition to adulthood, though, one hardly could keep track of the litany of albums accorded four stars in Rolling Stone from bands worth hearing after a friend of a friend of a friend tossed a can’t-miss hook onto a mixtape.

    poptopia Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrags Head Trip in Every KeyIt certainly helped that critics, virtually all of them in thrall to Rykodisc’s early-’90s reissue of Big Star’s catalog, had stopped being power pop haters the way so many older scribes were toward The Raspberries and Badfinger two decades earlier. TFC’s Bandwagonesque, to cite the most famous example, a perfect slice from Scotland that more than one writer dubbed Big Star’s 4th, so enamored the minds at Spin that shortly after surfacing in November 1991, it was named album of the year, trumping Nevermind. Only a few months earlier came Girlfriend, the first of two masterstrokes from Mr. Sweet (1995’s 100% Fun would be the other), along with an aesthetic-upholding breakthrough from doomed trio Material Issue, garage fare ambitiously titled International Pop Overthrow. A year before that, while “There She Goes” wafted in from Liverpool, Seattle’s Posies and San Francisco’s Jellyfish had emerged with their own throwback beauties, the Hollies-tinged Dear 23 and McCartney-pierced Bellybutton, respectively – which they would nonetheless best with richer follow-ups, the grimier Frosting on the Beater and Jellyfish’s studio marvel Spilt Milk.

    By ’92, Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket were getting jingly-jangly on radio, and long-running groups like Redd Kross, Sloan, and Semisonic were finding their way out of alt-rock muck and into melodic bliss. By ’94, Urge Overkill signed to Geffen Records and covered Neil Diamond for Quentin Tarantino, Oasis’s emergence catapulted Britpop into American consciousness, and the Happy Days-spoofing success of a ditty dubbed “Buddy Holly” turned a nerd named Rivers into a future icon. The stage was set for a late-’90s power pop flowering – one that, true to form, would die out almost as soon as its petals began to show, leaving emo to scatter its ashes.

    Superdrag formed and quickly flickered into a major-label fluke for Elektra Records pretty much at that very moment. Dropped one baby step ahead of a summer-into-fall bumper crop of endlessly enjoyable 1996 nuggets – including debuts from Fastball and Fountains of Wayne, Brendan Benson and Jason Falkner – came Regretfully Yours, a rapidly recorded, distortion-heavy first blast, deeply indebted to the Pixies’ fury and My Bloody Valentine’s warped fuzz. Yet it also had winsomeness steeped more in the manner of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, and personality all its own, no matter how much Davis’s pained holler in the chorus of minor hit “Sucked Out” (“who sucked out the feeeeeeelinnnng?!?”) reminded of a certain anguished gunshot suicide.

    Bang it out – that was the approach, not too far removed from the sort of rush that led to early Beatles collections. “What did we have, John, about seven days to track that album?” Fisher wonders during our chat. “I think it turned out great, but with that record, we had already played the songs a bunch, and we worked quickly and had a tight time constraint.”

    Yet, when it came time to craft a sequel – the adventurous Head Trip, soon available in double-LP vinyl form for the first time – suddenly they were operating more like the Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper. “I think we took the whole summer,” Fisher remembers. “It was three months nonstop work at Sound City,” Davis adds, fondly recalling the rundown but ideal L.A. studio immortalized in Dave Grohl’s recent documentary. They had initially tried recording at the Mecca for Big Star acolytes Ardent Studios in Memphis. But then producer Jerry Finn, known for booming work behind the boards on Green Day’s Dookie, Blink-182’s Enema of the State, and the like, showed up with “a Ryder truck full of gear.” It was instantly obvious: They needed a bigger room.

    Wu-Tang-ForeverFocus shifted to Sound City, where tracking went on for at least a dozen weeks, before two more were spent layering vocal overdubs in Knoxville. Then an additional four songs were put to tape at Sony Studios in New York. (“We were working next to Wu-Tang Clan while they were laying down Wu-Tang Forever,” Davis recalls, stoked at the memory. “I didn’t even know they were there … until I ended up seeing the RZA in the men’s room.”) After that, still more post-production was scheduled, this time at a spot called Baby Monster on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

    Complicating the process, fortuitously, was that every piece of this puzzle was carved out via what’s now the Jack White way: strictly analog. “ProTools even then was the industry standard,” Davis explains. “Already tape was on the way out; nobody was making records that way anymore. But we told [Head Trip producer] Jerry Finn, ‘Dude, we will not use ProTools at any time.’” He’s more sheepish about that now. “I mean, it’s just a recorder: You can snap everything to a grid, or not; you can tune everything, or not. But at the time, we were just like, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ Until it was pressed on CD, we wanted it to be 100 percent analog.”

    “A lot of producers,” he notes, “would have just bounced at that point. But Jerry [who died of a heart attack at 39 in 2008] was like, ‘Okay, then you’re going to play and you’re going to sing until it’s as perfect as I can make it in Pro Tools.’ He threw down the gauntlet; nothing could be half-assed.”

    It grew into an experience that veered from almost Indian psychedelia (the cranky loathing of “Bankrupt Vibration”) to dreamy folk-rock (“She Is a Holy Grail”, inspired by Davis’s wife), and from the sort of neoclassic rock Ryan Adams would soon widely revive (“I’m Expanding My Mind”) to templates for Jimmy Eat World and its ilk (“Sold You an Alibi”). But the process became almost Kubrickian: For “Amphetamine”, a starkly aching piano-led piece that swoops to a magnificent, strings-saturated climax – arguably Head Trip’s high point – Finn required Davis to sing 38 complete takes.

    “And yet it sounds so immediate and naked, especially at the start,” I point out.

    “That’s what was lacking the other 37 times,” he replies.

    ~

    Before such meticulousness began, however, Superdrag had spent the late winter of 1997 whipping much of this material into shape in upstate New York, at Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Rehearsal Space in Bearsville. There, they conjured sounds and fleshed out demos in willful isolation, as if emulating The Band in the late ’60s – even if they had little idea at the time how much their experience mirrored that mythical past. “Of course we were aware of Woodstock and the Dylan connection,” Davis says. “But somebody took me to see Big Pink,” Davis recalls of the West Saugerties house where Music from Big Pink and other Americana staples were created, “and I had never heard the record at that point. I didn’t even realize how awesome of an opportunity it was to be there.”

    Both their manager and A&R rep at Elektra had homes in the area and suggested seclusion might do the four twentysomethings some good. “There’s a little town-center thing up there,” Davis remembers, “and a couple restaurants we liked going to. But other than that, it’s just beer and snow.” A steady 6-8 inches of it, in fact, coating the woodsy hamlet throughout a long February. “All four of us stayed in a cabin,” Fisher recalls, “and we’d just get up, go to the studio, spend all day there, then go back to the cabin and chill again. That’s literally all I remember doing. It was perfect.”

     Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrags Head Trip in Every Key

    The unfettered results were close to it, too, abundant and impressive. Remastered by producer Nick Raskulinecz (of Foo Fighters and Deftones fame, among many others) from his original on-the-spot DAT mixes, the dozens-deep assortment, finally getting proper release from SideOneDummy on August 12th under the moniker Jokers w/ Tracers, is a power pop treasure trove, raw and varied yet unified enough to be viewed as Superdrag’s Basement Tapes.

    Among the selections are alternate versions of nearly every song later enhanced for Head Trip in Every Key, from a horns-free take on the riff-chugging “Mr. Underground” (at the time called “Simpleton’s Make-Believe”) to far more MBV- and Crazy Horse-drenched renditions of mini-epics like “Pine Away” and “The Art of Dying”. Add to that enough sharp leftovers to fill another album – the raucous joy of “Here We Come”, the sprightly shimmer of “She Says”, the Big Star-nodding “Bristol Gurls” – all of which and more have been gathering dust in Davis’s cluttered closet of outtakes. (“It’s like this endless ball of string,” he says of his tape stacks. “You wouldn’t believe how many four-track recordings we have.”)

    Some castoffs had already surfaced in 2007 when Superdrag made them available on a compilation, Changin’ Tires on the Road to Ruin, while a tear through The Stooges’ “1970” wound up on an Iggy Pop tribute, We Will Fall, not long after those sessions. Why reveal more now? “I love hearing that kind of stuff,” Fisher says. “If there’s a band I like, seeking out those things matters.” As Davis puts it, “If there were a compilation of Chris Bell’s four-track demos, I’d be all over it.”

    “There’s always something about the first stab you take at a song,” he insists. “A lot of times it will have an energy you can never recapture.” That’s the predominant feel of Jokers: “We were kinda learning by doing all along the way. I don’t want to say I wrote a song or two every single day we were in Bearsville, but there was a LOT. It was so productive. From that point, there was nowhere to go but downhill.”

    Indeed, the fate of both Superdrag and its aptly named second LP seemed sealed before the Sound City sessions for Head Trip concluded. “I don’t even think we saw anybody from the record company until, I don’t know, the last couple weeks,” Davis says. “They started coming around wanting to hear the music, and I remember it being pretty awkward.” He started to chuckle. “They weren’t too enthusiastic at all about what they were hearing.”

    nada surf Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrags Head Trip in Every KeyThe folks from Elektra, a former vanguard that lost its way faster than most amid first the consolidation and then the steady erosion of the music industry toward the turn of the millennium, did to Superdrag what it would soon do with even direr consequences to indie rock survivors Nada Surf and their second effort, The Proximity Effect. “They should have known me well enough to know that I was never going to write them another 13 ‘Sucked Outs”, Davis points out. “It wasn’t like we came back with a klezmer record or a zydeco thing. We made a rock ’n’ roll record with guitars and drums.”

    Indeed, the label actually had something close to what it might have expected with “Hellbent”, another deceptively chipper tune with attractive minor-chord twists, not so estranged from “Sucked Out”, just more sophisticated. But the money men “came back saying, ‘We need more songs.’ And we were like, ‘Well, no, not really. We pretty much got what we need. Made the record we’re going to make.’”

    Against the band’s better judgment, it was decided they should return to Bearsville to concoct more material. Yet, though the driving single “Do the Vampire” emerged from those workouts, the mood from earlier in the year – the jubilance that leaps out of the Jokers takes – couldn’t be recaptured. As far as Davis and his mates were concerned, Elektra had tossed “a wet blanket on everything. When you’re trying to stoke a fire of creativity, that’s a good way to put it out.”

    “We knew when they chose to allocate our video budget elsewhere,” he continues. “That made it pretty plain that they had no intentions of going to the wall for [Head Trip]. Because, at that point in time, a video was the difference between selling 150,000-160,000 records vs. 25,000-30,000. It was very simple math. When they weren’t willing to commit any more tour support, we could have just gotten back into our van and run it into the ground in whatever way we could. But we basically chose to fall back and just write another record.”

    Head Trip in Every Key finally appeared in March 1998 to mostly strong reviews and virtually no sales, a wannabe-masterpiece worthy of headphones scrutiny (as modeled on its cover) that was nonetheless swiftly buried before anyone but committed fans could find it. The next album, 2000’s In the Valley of Dying Stars, their first for Arena Rock Recordings, would nearly equal its predecessor’s detail-oriented ambition. But its making would be Superdrag’s undoing: Only Davis and walloping drummer Don Coffey, Jr., carried on through an even-less-noticed fourth set, appropriately titled Last Call for Vitriol.

    superdrag justin peterson Alive on the Inside: The Making of Superdrags Head Trip in Every Key“A lot of the time we just had our heads down putting one foot in front of the other,” Davis reflects. “We didn’t have a five-year plan or a long-range set of goals. When we signed, we had only been a band for a couple years, which is kinda crazy in retrospect. We wanted to achieve as much as we could, but we didn’t really have the stomach for it. I try not to fault [Elektra] unduly, because we definitely didn’t make one decision that pointed to a long stay. We just weren’t any good at it. We were good at writing and recording and playing, but weren’t Machiavellian enough to survive in that environment.”

    What they do have is a glimmering jewel rescued from the death throes of the ’90s, a remarkable record that sounds as striking today as it did nearly two decades ago, and with a still-growing reputation to match. That’s enough to secure Superdrag’s place in the power pop pantheon.

    “I mean, Limp Bizkit was the biggest band in the world not long after the album came out. Were we going to assimilate ourselves into that? No. Nobody should weep bitter tears for us because our record didn’t sell. We knew exactly what we were doing, and we didn’t make one concession to anything [the label] wanted us to do.”

    He pauses for a moment, and then it really hits him: “You know, in retrospect … yeah, of course it didn’t sell!”

    Artwork by Justin Peterson

    ~

    For the better part of two decades, Ben Wener was the pop music critic at the Orange County Register. He is now a freelance writer based in Fullerton, Calif., reviewing for the Hollywood Reporter and more.

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