This interview of John Davis of the band Superdrag was conducted via a correspondence of emails from September 21-22, 2000.
JM- Generally what do you think about the prevalence of mp3s and the whole Napster Phenomenon?
JD- To be quite honest, I’ve never downloaded a note of music off of Napster or any other file-swapping service, so I can’t really debate the pros and cons from a listener’s perspective. Supposedly our new record (street date: Oct.17) is already available in its entirety through Napster. That doesn’t really bother me at all.
JM- Why doesn’t it bother you? Is it because of a faith in music, that if the fans are listening to the music and enjoying it then you’ve done your job?
JD- I suppose. I guess I just feel like anything that generates more interest in the music can’t possibly be bad for us. And yes, I do feel like if people are listening to the music and enjoying it then we’ve been completely successful in what we set out to do. It’s part of our job to go to their town, play at their favorite bar, and make them WANT to go and buy the record. Right?
JM- Do you believe that the “record” is going to become obsolete in favor of structures like the subscription system that some labels are toying with, and how do you think this change in music delivery changes the way the public looks at bands.
JM- I’m sure there’ll come a day when every household will be equipped with a computer and a CD burner, but until then, I don’t think the “record”, as we know it will become obsolete. I work part-time at a “record” store in-between tours, and I can tell you we’ve got quite a ways to go. People are still buying cassettes, for Christ’s sake!
JM- Which record store? Which bands are selling the most vinyl records?
JD- It’s a chain store in Knoxville. In the year-or-so that I’ve been there, we’ve only had two vinyl LP’s darken the doors, ever. Something by Dub Narcotic, and “The Marshall Mathers LP” by Eminem. We have yet to sell either one.
JM- Do you believe the labels, both major and indie, had the responsibility to see the mp3 thing coming and should’ve prepared themselves better?
JD- Well, I guess most labels have taken full advantage of the Internet in terms of promotional campaigns, Enhanced CDs w/ free Internet access, etc. Seems like they could’ve foreseen any number of ways for the same technology to work against them. I guess it’s kind of a double-edged sword that way.
JM- Do you yourself prefer the sound of vinyl over the compression-ed sound of a CD? Does your band produce its albums knowing most of the fans will listen to it on CD; are you trying to best recreate your live sound?
JD- Well, I’ve always liked hearing the warm lows on LPs. I guess the analog medium just has a wider dynamic range or something. We’ve always tried to get that kind of sound. In fact, “In The Valley…” will be the first Superdrag LP ever pressed on vinyl. Hell yeah!
JM- What do you think is in the future for small labels in relation to Napster?
JD- They will join forces and rid the Earth of Imperialist Record Mongers!!
JM- You know everyone says that. But why is it that everyone is looking for management? It seems they and record distributors are the new power players in the careers of many bands. How bad of an experience with them did you have?
JD- It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been a lot better. We held up our end of the deal. We’ve never been short on material, but I’m just not willing to write to anyone else’s specifications. Especially if that particular person doesn’t know jack about shit. See Vitamin C.
JM- Do you believe there will ever be any regulation, any royalty paying system for downloaded mp3s?
JD- Seems unlikely, but like I said before, I don’t know much about it.
JM- How do feel about the elite colleges like Stamford and Harvard refusing to block Napster in the name of academic freedom?
JD- I’ll bet Lars Ulrich is fuckin pissed.
JM- Do artists lose credibility the more music becomes easily stolen and/or easily downloaded?
JD- Seems to me the only people who lose credibility here are multi- millionaires like Lars & co. or Dr. Dre who bitch and moan about lost record sales when they already have more money than their grand- children’s grandchildren will ever be able to spend.
JM- Do you sell CDs at shows? And have you seen sales drop, either at shows or through your label, or not meet your expectations?
JD- Yes we do, from time to time. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not any of this will directly affect our sales at shows.
JM- What influence do you think mp3s have on records sales in traditional music stores?
JD- It’s hard to say.
JM- Does music have a significant cultural value that is a necessary element in the survival in a culture like in the US?
JD- I don’t know if it’s a necessary element in terms of survival, but all kinds of people depend on it for all kinds of different reasons. I know I do. I can’t imagine a world without Rock.
JM- Do you think they should teach Rock in high school? Or at least a history of 20th century music?
JM- Where do you get most of your music? Online stores, traditional record stores?
JD- I’ve never bought anything online.
JM- What % is indie vs. major?
JD- I guess it’s roughly 50/50. Hard to say for sure.
JM- Can you name three of your favorite new albums?
JD- It’s not exactly new, but “New Parade” by The Sheila Divine is excellent. “The Pity List” by The Mayflies USA. And whatever Teenage Fanclub’s getting ready to put out. I’m quite sure it’ll be tops.
JM- What band do you feel isn’t getting the attention it deserves?
JD- Teenage Fanclub. They’ve never gotten their just desserts in this country, if you ask me. They’re too fucking good.
JM- What band, that has been around since your band began, gets way more credit than they deserve?
JD- Anybody who can’t sing in tune or play in time without a computer.
JM- If you were to make a family tree, what bands are your ancestors?
JD- The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Big Star, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Cheap Trick, Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Dinosaur Jr, Swervedriver, Guided By Voices, My Bloody Valentine, The Replacements, AC/DC (I’m trying to make sure all the guys are represented, too. Didn’t mean to write a book on the subject. )
JM- No MC5, Television, or Iggy?
JD- Brandon’s got the Television stuff, and you’ve gotta love the Ig (with or without The Stooges) & The MC5, but I don’t think we’ve ever been quite that funky. At least Tom looks a little bit like Rob Tyner. BTW, Tom’s band Flesh Vehicle has a record out that’s worth hearing. I think you’ll pick up a lot more of the Detroit influence in his stuff. In fact, they do a pretty raunchy version of “Search & Destroy.”
JM- How important is the element of “fun” in your songs? As instead of being called a Rock band, you guys can be considered a Rock AND ROLL band? Much in the way people write about the Stones or Cheap Trick.
JD- Man, we just enjoy playing. Usually, the songs that wind up on our records are the ones we have the most fun playing.
JM- How much do you consider yourself a southern songwriter in a southern band?
JD- 100%. I think it’s high time that the definition of “Southern Rock” be changed, or at least amended; there’s a lot goin on down here besides .38 Special, Black Oak Arkansas, & Molly Hatchet.
JM- Do you feel Nashville is overlooked as a rock city?
JD- Absolutely. Nashville’s got a thriving Rock ‘N’ Roll/Power-Pop scene. Tons of good bands, good writers, and good venues.
JM- What other bands from down there should we be listening to?
JD- Lifeboy, Who Hit John, 30 Amp Fuse, The V-Roys, Flesh Vehicle, Pegasi 51, The Shine, The Mayflies USA, Joe Marc’s Brother.
JM- How supportive is that city to keeping a band going. I ask that last part in relation to how impossible it seems to keep a band together in NYC due to lack of paying part time jobs, time, traffic, and the subway.
JD- There are tons of music resources in Nashville. Practice spaces, studios, etc. Knoxville, on the other hand, is more or less devoid of anything other than what the bands make for themselves.
JM- So, why Knoxville if there is less music-stuff than Nashville?
JD- Well, it’s always been cheap to live here, for one thing. Don and myself are from here originally and our families are still here. We’ve been thinking about relocating to Nashville; Sam lives there. I really like Nashville, actually.
JM- Does Knoxville have a sound like Seattle did back in the grunge heyday?
JD- No, I can’t really think of any two current Knoxville bands that sound alike.
JM- Is it because of Knoxville’s proximity to the other larger cities that makes it appealing? Much like Champaign IL, proximity to Chicago?
JD- Well, as far as touring the Eastern half of the country goes, I guess Knoxville’s as good a place to start a tour as any. We’re 8 hours from D.C., and once you get up there you can work your way all the way up to Boston, and most of the drives between cities are no more than 4-5 hours. Same goes for the Louisville-Chicago/Midwest run. Out of all the regions of the country, we’ve probably done the least amount of touring in the Southeast, but still there’s Atlanta (3 hours) Nashville (2 1/2 hours) etc. etc. etc. However, getting out to the West Coast from over here is a ball-buster no matter how you slice it! We finally made it back out there last month.
JM- Did you get your break there, in Nashville, or where?
JD- Our Darla seven-inch had gotten some attention from CMJ, which I guess in some ways is like a tip-sheet for unsigned bands, or at least it was at that time, and we started getting calls from labels. We were touring pretty steadily at the time, but we had been playing a lot of New York shows. You know, you’d get on one of those “showcase” type bills with four other bands, the whole Industry thing with all the A&R. I guess we got our “big break” in New York.
JM- How important is location to being “discovered”. So many bands move to LA or NYC or Chicago to make it. Is there a lesson to be learned by the success (musical, not financial) of bands like yours?
JD- I really don’t think it has all that much to do with it. It’s been my experience that a band’s willingness to work on the road is a lot more important. Granted, a lot of bands are willing to hang tight at home in a small town, be the big fish in a little pond, and wait to be discovered. It’s unrealistic. I think in some ways, being from a town like Knoxville works to your advantage. You’re kind of forced to do things for yourself. No label president’s gonna see your name in the local weekly and come down to the local truck stop/rock venue and sign you to a five-album deal!
JM- What genre would you consider yourself to belong to?
JD- Rock. No Post-Rock, no Indie Rock, no Math Rock. Just Rock.
JM- Do you feel a connection to the early power pop band the Descendents and that California/DC sound of the late 80’s? i.e. Swiz, Dag Nasty, Soulside,Bad Religion.
JD- The Descendents have always been one of my absolute all-time favorite bands. I don’t think you could ever find a better synthesis of punk energy and classic songwriting. I think “Milo Goes To College” is probably my fave Descendents record. I really like the All stuff, too. I always felt like Milo was one of the best punk singers ever, right up there with Glenn Danzig & Joey Ramone. You know, really aggro but really tuneful at the same time.
JM- How many bands that you have seen or heard remind you of yourselves?
JD- Not many, unless you’re referring to all the ones we’ve “borrowed” from!
JM- Do you feel like you are part of a music community, and/or tradition?
JD- I’d like to think we’ve earned our place in the Power Pop file.
JM- Where do you find your core audience lives? What part of the country?
JD- The Northeast/East Coast has always been good for us. Actually, the West Coast has always been great, too. We’ve probably been the least successful in our own neck of the woods. There aren’t too many places in the Midwest where we do exceptionally well, although Chicago & Minneapolis are generally pretty good.
JM- What band, from after 1980, do you think exemplifies the Power Pop sound?
JD- For me, it would have to be either The Posies or Teenage Fanclub. At the risk of sounding like a broken record.
JM- Do you believe in the theory that every band has to have a hit single in order to make it?
JD- Well, that depends on your definition of “making it,” and a particular band or artist’s goals for what they’d like to achieve. We had a “hit” and as a result, we sold just enough copies to be considered sell-outs by Indie Rock elitists who bought our first EP, but not enough to establish the kind of clout at the label that a lot of your platinum-sellers enjoy. It totally changes their expectations from there on out, and if you’re not willing to bend over backwards (or forwards) to do anything you can, jump on any bandwagon or assimilate any trend that comes down the pike into the music in order to repeat that phenomenon, then the honeymoon will indeed be short. And not necessarily sweet.
JM- I know of a few artists whose labels call them in for meeting and ask them to write stuff more like Limp Bizkit, or more like Ben Folds Five. My question is where did the Power Pop women go? With the contemporary Rock sound seeming to be so male, even though it really always has been, but it seems no one took over after Kim Deal and her associated bands. Will rock always be male?
JD- Well, I can’t think of too many female artists in recent years who have even approached Kim Deal’s songwriting and pop sensibility. The Lilith Fair women were doing something else entirely. Luckily for me, they were doing it someWHERE else entirely. I just didn’t get it, I guess. I like Rock Music. I like it loud and pissed off. I like Joan Jett. Kim Gordon. Thalia Zedek. It doesn’t even have to be pissed off; just loud. Bilinda Butcher. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be loud. Nico. Moe Tucker. Georgia Hubley. I don’t know if Rock will always be “male.” I’m sure there will always be great female Rock artists. Sleater-Kinney certainly brings the Rock literati and the Indie elite to their knees on a fairly regular basis, and even if the lead singer sounds like Geddy Lee (in my opinion) they rock. They don’t play acoustic guitars and they don’t fucking yodel, either.
JM- What would you tell up and coming bands, what tips would you highly recommend they follow?
JD- Buy yourselves a reliable van.
JM- How much of the year are you on tour?
JD- Well, it’s varied quite a bit over the years. We’ve been out for as long as 11 months at a stretch. It always seems to depend on how well the record’s doing.
JM- Have you seen a difference in attitude in the crowds since you started touring?
JD- This year, you mean? Not really.
JM- Have you found who your fan base base truly is after making the adjustment from a major label to an indie?
JD- Well, the 2nd Elektra album sold just shy of 20,000 units without a video, a big tour, or a Billboard single. I guess those were the people who actually gave a fuck about the band. We’d just like to build on what we have left through constant touring and good records.
JM- What was the major adjustment when you changed labels?
JD- Well, I managed to go five years without having to work at any other job. Of course, with a major, you live on advances. They give you lump sums of money against what you’ll earn through record sales, and that’s how you pay your rent, etc. Of course, that money comes right off the top of whatever you make. Most bands rack up serious debts this way. So, I guess the biggest difference in day-to-day life is having to work a job in-between tours. Believe me, it’s worth it. The flip side is you get to make your records the way you want to.
JM- What type of treatment did you receive from your former label during your tenure? I only hear horror stories from bands once signed to a major?
JD- I’ll just say this; there’s a very, very narrow window of time in between the Ass-Kissing Stage (when you’ve got a hit) and the No-Phone-Call-Returning, Rats-From-A-Sinking-Ship Stage (when you don’t.) Only one of my so-called “friends” from the label has ever bothered to contact me since this whole thing happened. Like I give a fuck, I hate most of those people anyway and I’m just thrilled about the way things have turned out.
JM- and finally…What lesson did you learn, take with you, from your experience being on a major label?
JD- Simple: I’ll never do that again. No way.
Don Coffey Jr: drums
John Davis: guitar, piano, organ, electric bass, vocals
Brandon Fisher: guitar
Sam Powers: electric bass, vocals
Visit them at www.superdrag.com