Kind of a Drag

Knoxville/Nashville band sees release of long-awaited album

“I want rock ’n’ roll, but I don’t want to deal with the hassle.—“Keep It Close to Me”

This simple comment opens Superdrag’s new album, In the Valley of Dying Stars. The past four years have indeed been a hassle for the Knoxville-based band. Listening to the members talk about their trials with their former label, Elektra Records, is exasperating.

It all started in 1996, when they had a minor hit with “Sucked Out,” a song they hadn’t even recorded for their major-label debut, Regretfully Yours, until the record company told them to go back in the studio and lay it down. After that, Superdrag followed the normal routine of a band with an MTV hit: They hit the road, made another video, and then toured some more. A year or so later, they found themselves with a little bit of money and in no hurry to finish their follow-up album. “We seem to get the best results if the clock is ticking all the time,” singer John Davis explains. With Head Trip in Every Key, “there was never any kind of pressure to do anything in any kind of hurry, ever.”

The band delivered Head Trip to Elektra in 1998 without an obvious single like “Sucked Out.” Superdrag’s A&R man decided on “Do the Vampire” as the radio single because it “sounded the most like what was on KROQ at the time,” as Davis puts it. Whether it was a sign of record buyers’ changing tastes or whether it was simply poor promotion on Elektra’s part, “Do the Vampire” fizzled. The band never released a video for the song, though they did go through several treatments. (“Basically, we just wasted a lot of [the director’s] time,” Davis says.) At a certain point, Elektra decided not to throw any more money into promoting Superdrag. Of course, no promotion budget practically guaranteed that the record wouldn’t generate much interest with buyers. Head Trip didn’t get any bad press, but without any support from the label, it was dead in the water.

It didn’t take long for the band to figure out that the record wasn’t going to catch on, so they started work almost immediately on their next album. Not wanting another Head Trip, Elektra kept making the band go back in the studio, waiting for the hit single to appear. In the midst of all this, late last year, bass player Tom Pappas quit the band to focus on his own group, Flesh Vehicle. The departure was amicable, but it didn’t exactly help the band’s sagging momentum. The remaining members quickly recruited Sam Powers, former ax-slinger for Nashville’s Who Hit John?, who helped reenergize the group. They did a brief tour and returned to the studio one last time before Elektra finally dropped them early this year. It was a weight off their shoulders.

The breakdown between Superdrag and Elektra is best exemplifed by the song “Lighting the Way,” easily the catchiest, most radio-friendly tune on the band’s new In the Valley of Dying Stars. Once Superdrag presented the track to Elektra and the label didn’t bite, they pretty much knew the deal was over. “The whole dispute with the label was over a marketable single,” Davis says. “I don’t understand why that one couldn’t work.”

Listening to the song, it’s pretty clear that Elektra had completely given up on the band—“Lighting the Way” sounds like it should be on the radio. Its simple melody begs to be sung out loud, while the driving beat will have you pounding on the steering wheel, with the car radio turned up and the windows rolled down. It’s that kind of classic-rock great. But instead, as the band stayed holed up in the studio searching for “the hit,” they were told that Elektra didn’t hear anything “emotionally direct” enough and that the label was “not in the business of selling 30,000 records.” These were hardly words of encouragement to spur the band on to greater heights. “It was just like a total adversarial relationship, man,” Davis says. “There was nothing happening on a friendly level; it was totally us versus them. And that’s a really shitty atmosphere to try and do music in.”

The break with Elektra turned out to be “the best move we could make,” Davis says. “We wasted so much time. We could have easily done two records in the amount of time that we just sat around while they second-guessed every move we made.”

Once Superdrag was dropped, the band members began the often painful struggle to get back their master tapes from the previous two years’ studio sessions. Amazingly, they succeeded and even got a small severance as well. Released from their contract, they were picked up immediately by Arena Rock Recording Co., the indie label whose first release six years ago was also Superdrag’s first release, the 7-inch single “N.A. Kicker.” Together, the band and the label moved quickly to finish the album, doing a few final days of recording and then mastering the collection in Nashville. Arena Rock will release it in September.

Even though it represents two years of tedious labor on Elektra’s dime, In the Valley of Dying Stars is clearly the product of a band happy to be working for an indie label again. It sounds dirtier than the two previous Superdrag albums, and the guitars are just a little bit rougher around the edges. On “Keep It Close to Me,” they buzz and chug as Davis sings about rock ’n’ roll and insects launching an invasion, while the bridge brims with hopefulness: “Let’s make the most of it right now,” he sings. With its power chords, rumbling bass line, and spit-fueled lyrics, “Gimme Animosity” recalls some of the songs on Regretfully Yours. Elsewhere, Superdrag hits on power-pop with “Baby’s Waiting” and “Bright Pavilions,” and their own brand of down-tempo songs with “Ambulance Driver” and “Warmth of a Tomb,” before getting to the album’s centerpiece, “Lighting the Way.” As drummer Don Coffey Jr. puts it, “I feel like [the new record] is kind of a cool combination of the first two records.”

There’s no question that getting dropped from Elektra was the best thing that could have happened to Superdrag. As a result, they’ve made their best record yet—and they’ll have it out sooner than the major label ever would have. New blood in the band has reenergized them; they’re already talking about recording another album before year’s end. For the moment, though, their goal with In the Valley of Dying Stars is to outsell Head Trip in Every Key despite being on an indie label once again. Most important of all, though, they’re not bitter. “I’ve been a lot happier,” John Davis says he as sums up the last few months, “working at a record store to pay bills and being able to do the kinda songs that we wanna do, rather than depending on a record label to keep me alive.”