Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley and Brad Kopplin
A band like Superdrag is more than a band. To just call these four guys - John Davis, Don Coffey Jr., Brandon Fisher and Tom Pappas -- a band is to belittle all that they've done since they became one back in the mid-90s. It's a good line you say, it's a catchy, low-slung way to say that Superdrag means something. We get it, but shouldn't the thought be reserved for Radiohead or The Kinks or Pink Floyd or something - a band that nearly everyone appreciates for its genius habits?
Hardly. It belongs here, not solely because of the quality of work that the Knoxville, Tenn., band has released since its brilliant Regretfully Yours album in 1996, but because Davis has been a fastidious researcher of such very specific conditions and matters that he could be a keynote speaker at a symposium for infuriating dramas, subtitled "What Doesn't Kill Us Only Makes The Next Thing That Almost Kills Us That Much More Likely To Without Some Proven Venting Mechanism Oiled And Able To Function Repetitively."
Davis is a certifiable expert in agitation and the suitably effective release of tension, look it up, the facts shouldn't be hard to find. You're already in front of a computer that can do the legwork. Start from the beginning, those years when Davis was bored and pissed off, laying into various narcotics and experiencing immense longing for love, for hope, for destiny, for lasting stimulation and blue skies. There was no sweet insistence to be had. There were no signs, blinking arrows, smoke signals or highlights, just a map that was completely do-it-yourself - blank as a stare. The videos that were recorded for that first album's singles - "Sucked Out," lamenting the rock and roll dream appropriately enough as it was just getting going for the group, and "Destination Ursa Major," a song that sounds like a revving racetrack and comments upon the lack of truth and the flightiness of everything - show Davis with a permanently curled lip, a smirk that could slice glass and wrists and more fucking attitude than a senile old codger with a wooden head.
One thing you don't see rolling across his face, beneath a mop of Beatles hair and above his active legs is indifference. There's disgust billowing out of every syllable and blowing all of his sails, lacing his words with the strychnine that he sings about in "Amphetamine," one of 13 impeccable songs on one of the 90s' classic albums, Head Trip In Every Key. He's done his best over the years to delve into all of the caverns that make up the dark clouds, touring the disappointment and becoming something of a stronger person when the distorted guitar rings subsided enough that you could hear the long drag of his cigarette getting sucked into his heaving lungs and the beer bottles clinking their lonely song. He's never just lied there and let his life steam across him like a determined iron. He kicked and he screamed, letting it gnaw on him a bit before shaking vigorously and then lending words to the situations. As hopeless and desperate as anything - the future, the now - got, Davis smoked out what he needed to smoke out in order to keep from losing his mind.
The songs are augmented by the very real icing of Davis momentarily reaching over that line of sanity and not - just for a vacation. From the first record that the band put out to the newest solo album that Davis just released last month under his own name, there has been a running insinuation that nothing good is real and nothing good can last. Davis has been a pessimist - though a reluctant one. Even when he's been negative, throughout it all, there has never been a dispute that he's always hoped for the best. He's always wanted for the best and what could be misconstrued as a newfound religion of recent years, has been evident in particles for forever. He's always had a faith and just because it's been accompanied by fire and curled lips doesn't make it anything less than his own gospel. The bane of being cynical is knowing it, but if Davis had been any other way in the beginning this wouldn't have turned out the right way. Superdrag would have just been another band with fading color and no shelf life. What they are is more than a band. It will all make sense someday.
The Daytrotter interview:
*After eight years, what changed and made this happen?*
John Davis: So much has changed. It would be hard to single out one particular factor. In 1999, when Tom left the band, morale had sort of been at an all-time low for awhile. Brandon worked on the entire third album (In The Valley Of Dying Stars), and personally I've always felt his playing was a great asset to that record. He just couldn't tour anymore. He had no desire to at that time. I think it's probably abnormal for four people who basically live within a 10-foot radius of one another every day for years on end NOT to reach a point where they'll tend to want different things out of life like that. Obviously, Donnie and myself were very committed to keeping things moving forward; thanks to Sam Powers, and then Mic Harrison, we were able to do that. And then more or less from the moment we walked offstage in Boston on September 23 of 2003, we've fielded a steady stream of requests from people about when the band might work again. I felt it was inevitable. I'm glad the original band is willing and able to do it, because a lot of the newer fans never got to see Brandon and Tom.
*Was it ever really SUPER bad?*
JD: Thankfully, no. It could've been a lot worse, and a lot more tragic.
*What changed for you when you became a dad? Anything? Did the other guys go through similar things? Do you talk about it?*
JD: That changes everything. It's a great lesson in selflessness, probably the greatest one. Your wants and needs are never the priority, and you literally begin to live for another, or in my case, others. Ha. We have two fine boys, Paul and Elijah. Getting to know them has been the greatest joy of my life. My oldest son and Brandon's daughter are very close to the same age (about 2 months apart), so we're usually going through a lot of the same things at about the same time.
*Over those first three records, what were you feeling personally that was coming out in your songs? There was so much fire there.*
JD: Boredom, disappointment, frustration, longing, the effects of various drugs, confusion, grief, despair. That pretty much covers the songs, but not life, necessarily. (ha ha)
*What's the best song you've written and why?*
JD: I don't know if I can answer that. It's really not for me to decide, is it? This presupposes at least one of them is good. Hopefully, it's one of the songs on my new record!
*How have you been affected by death? Has it changed the way you think about life?*
JD: When I had no hope in the Gospel, it crushed me. It totally destroyed me, and I couldn't get past it for a long time. Paul once exhorted the readers of one of his letters not to "grieve like those who have no hope." I did that. It certainly changed the way I think about life. Every day we have with one another is a gift. Every breath is a gift. The breath of life itself is a gift. Every bite of food. Every drink of water. These are gifts for which thanks and praises are due, continually.
*Is there going to be another record? Maybe recorded up here in our friendly confines?*
JD: It's hard to say! I expect us to make a new album, I just don't know when, exactly. We've been having so much fun up 'til now, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a good excuse for us not to make an album. For the first time since 1994, we have no obligation to anyone except for the people who'd want to hear something new out of us. That's a great feeling. We certainly enjoyed recording up there with you guys! Going live to 2-track with absolutely no messing around and just playing the songs definitely has its advantages. Can't wait for people to hear the tracks!
*What did your solo record show to people, do you think? There was always faith and religious undertones in your music but you brought it all to the forefront. Did you feel changed? Are you still riding that?*
JD: Hopefully it was just an honest statement of how I felt at the time. I hope it showed people a different side of me musically than what they were used to hearing on the previous records. I was absolutely and permanently changed. It was a big challenge to go back to songwriting after that and to do so in a way I felt people would accept as being sincere. It's a lot easier for people to connect immediately with what you're saying when you're pissed-off! Rightfully so, I imagine. But it's much harder to express joy and be taken seriously. I didn't do any writing at all for a solid year. That had never happened before, since age 16 or whatever. But I'm glad I let it happen that way. I am engaged in a life-long process of becoming more like Christ. I will never get it right, but in God's mercy, that fact that Christ did is sufficient for me.
*Tom P. still can grow that hair, huh?*
JD: Oh, yeah. That's not going anywhere.