From the mid 90s through the early 2000s, Superdrag commanded respect from just about everyone. But drug and alcohol abuse took frontman John Davis out of the show, physically and mentally. After praying alone beside the highway one night, he put Superdrag on hiatus to recover from substance abuse. In 2007, Davis began restoring relationships within his band, and they played several reunion shows in the later months of that year. Now, they’re officially back together and working as a team: every member except drummer Don Coffey wrote songs for Superdrag’s new album, Industry Giants, which released on March 17. We sat down with Superdrag before their performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn earlier this month. (Click here to read Patrol’s review of Industry Giants, and here to read previous interviews.)
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Patrol: So what is Superdrag is all about?
Tom Pappas (bass/vocals): (joking) We just love to party man! We don’t care about nothing, or nobody.
John Davis (lead guitar/vocals): I’m a family man, father of two, and a musician. I’ve been playing piano since I was five years old. All I ever wanted to do with my life was start a band, make a record, and go on tour. I’m a native of Tennessee, the birthplace of rock and roll and country music. Guess that’s about it. Wikipedia it.
Tom: Try to get four words out of Brandon.
John: Brandon likes to maintain plausible denial. “I’m a man, I live in a house in an undisclosed location, and I work at a job.”
Brandon Fisher (rhythm guitar): Superdrag plays the music we like and enjoying doing it. But it’s a totally different situation for us from when we were twenty-five. Our lives are different now, but the music we play and the enjoyment we get from it is the same. It’s very special to go out and play because we can’t do it very often.
Tom: What I remember of those early shows was going out there vibing out to the music. You felt the tingle come over you and you get in lost in it to a certain degree, you let it take you up.
Patrol: Do you live to play music, or do you play music to live?
John: I view myself as a “lifer.” I think of somebody like Muddy Waters or Charles Mingus, somebody who pursued it till the end. Buck Owens, he played a gig, went home, went to bed, and never woke up. His last night on earth he was on stage at his club. For a long time my whole reason for living was consumed by it. It was like a golden calf to me, basically. I found my hope and my worth in it, my identity in being part of Superdrag. For a solid two years I struggled against rock and roll as an idol. I still do. It took me a long time to realize, and I’m still trying to sort this out: when Jesus called the fishermen they dropped their nets, walked away from their boat and left their whole life’s work there and that was it. They didn’t try to drag the boat behind them on shore and follow after Jesus.
That didn’t dawn on me for a long time. But I’d just been consumed, really, my whole life, I was consumed by music. It’s still very much apart of me, like flesh and blood. You gut me and that’s what comes out. But even when I made a gospel record, I decided if I was going to serve God with the best of what I have as a human being, surely his purpose for me must be to make another record. Not leave the boat in the water and follow him first. Even when you take the music and dedicate it to giving honor and praise to God, it can still be an idol just waiting to be worshipped in God’s place. I think I play music to live, I don’t think I live to play music.
Tom: When you don’t play it’s a bummer at times. But it’s not who you are, it doesn’t define you. The perfect example is when you have a band and you’re trying to do something with it and nothing happens. Sometimes you just have to put it down for a while. You just have to go with what life gives you. I remember a friend from the Legendary Shack Shakers told me, “Rock and roll is not the Devil’s music, it’s the people’s music.” Any person can go out there and make music because it’s like therapy. When you have talents you can tell when they’re supposed to be used. You can put it down when you get too consumed.
Patrol: Is that why you quit in 1998?
Tom: We were going through all kinds of stuff, we were all in a bad place. I just spoke up one day. The cool thing is that years later I realized how much I missed it. It didn’t occur to me that today I would be recording new music. It’s great to be back.
Patrol: You once said that Superdrag was a side job this second time around.
John: Well, Brandon works at Scripps Networks, they do tons of programming. Don is a stay-at-home dad. He operated a studio for seven years. But it’s close for the time being. I work at a company called Landmark Digital which is owned by BMI, and I do database work and broadcast monitoring. My boss Pat Meusel—this is synchronicity at it’s finest—used to play in a band with Sam Powers, who replaced Tom on bass. Sam was helping me “birddog” for work, so he called Pat. It just so happened the day before I filled out an application for the temp agency they did their staffing with. Strictly by coincidence. Not really, it’s God’s providence, no question. The temp agency said “choose this guy.” I can go away for a week, play in Superdrag, and go back to a job.
Patrol: At your show at Bowery this week, someone was talking to you about the gospel. Before you became a Christian, did people talk to you about your nihilistic lyrics?
John: Never. People would ask me why I wasn’t drunk. Tom and I were talking about this the other day, we’ve done a lot of press for Industry Giants, and people will ask the other guys, “Did you guys have any say so about the spiritual content of the album?” Ten years ago they didn’t ask, “Did you have any say so in the alcohol and drug intake and the complete spiritual bankruptcy that went into making this record?” (laughs). That’s just that status quo, I guess.
Tom: John used to be atheist about stuff and I would be like, “What’s your deal? You don’t believe that shit!” I’ve always been pro-Christianity, I just didn’t bring it up. It’s funny now that it’s come full circle.
Patrol: Has anyone in the Christian music industry tried to make you (John) a poster child for conversion?
John: I think there were some half-hearted attempts, but they failed. My first solo record sounded like a compilation of twelve different bands. None of them fit into the convenient bags of Christian music. Sadly, and this typically an unspoken thing, it reminds me of one of those cologne dispensers at truck stops. Like “Try our blend of Polo Sport.” “If you like Coldplay here’s whoever.” Unfortunately there wasn’t a bin at the Christian store that said, “If you love the Replacements…”
Tom: “…you’ll love John Davis Brand music.”
John: It was doomed to fail in commercial terms. The company who put it out did a god job. They got it out in stores. The problem was we were from two different universes. I can remember conversations we had that probably should have tipped me off that it we were in for trouble. When I asked if we were going to do a South by Southwest showcase, it was literally like a guy with a clipboard going, “South… by… Southwest… yeah, we’ll look into that.” They weren’t aware of it. There was another time I made a reference to Rubber Soul because there was a huge Beatles influence on my album. The general manager didn’t know that was an album by the Beatles and he didn’t know that Rubber Soul existed. So I bought a copy from Tower Records and mailed it to him. It was probably hateful of me.
When I made my second record, Arigato!, I got to record at 606, which is the Foo Fighters’ studio. Our friend Nick Raskulinecz recorded Superdrag’s first demos, and assisted when we were on Elektra records. He’s had an integral role in just about everything we’ve done. After that he ended up doing a bunch of work with Dave Grohl. He’s produced several of their records and helped design the Foo Fighter’s facility from the ground up. And it was basically sitting vacant for two weeks. Nick said “bring your drummer out and we’ll make your record.” The guy who ran the company producing this record was going through a world of misery. He had me call in favors with Nick, spending money he knew wasn’t going to be there. I still don’t have bitterness in my heart towards him because I feel so much compassion for what he was going through in his personal life. So in the end Nick paid the mixer, the mastering and talk about grace, he just covered all of it.
Patrol: Is that why the record took so long to come out?
John: I had to fight for a solid year just to get it back. But I got both of my masters. It just took a long time. I’m just stubborn, number one. On something like that I was not going to let go. ut God used that whole experience to expose a lot of my own sin. He used it to instruct me about the motivations in my own heart and why I wanted to be there. I’m so glad that I made that record. Up till that point it really was my favorite thing I’ve ever done. No disrespect to the Superdrag guys, but every time you make a record, best case, you get better and better at communicating and completing an idea from nothing until it exists in it’s most fully realized form. And that record I had super clear idea of how I wanted to do it. So now, graciously, Nick is just allowing me to pay as I go to get his money back. And if God will honor that and make that possible just to sell enough CDs to make things right again I would be stoked beyond belief. And hopefully I would be beyond retirement age by the time that happens.
Speaking of good guys, I wouldn’t mind hearing Head Trip in Every Key all the way through, because I like to remember Jerry Finn, the guy who produced that record. He died last summer. He was one of the good guys, man. This business is full of turncoats and scumbags, people that want to be your best buddy and can’t wait to just… the protocol is if you produce a record and it doesn’t sell you don’t associate with that artist because it pulls your stock down. So you abandon like rats from a sinking ship. Jerry didn’t do that. He was always proud of the work we did together. The experience of making a record with him was something I’ll never forget. His friendship is something we all really cherish. A reporter once asked him who is the most gifted musician he’s ever worked with and he said “John Davis.“ I don’t know why. So the title of this record is a tribute to him. He used to call us “HIGS: Huge Industry Giants.”
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