Thursday, 17 May 2007

Rumors of Superdrag’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. Or at least intransigent fans of one of Tennessee’s finest purveyors of rock & roll songcraft can pretend as much thanks to last month’s Changin’ Tires on the Road to Ruin, an odds ‘n’ sods retrospective record par excellence. Featuring cuts culled from hard-to-find EP’s, unreleased demo sessions and Superdrag’s most natural habitat—live on stage—Changin’ Tires showcases the talents of John Davis, a songwriter with enough ideas for at least five bands. Born with an innate gift for penning memorable lines and unshakable melodies, Davis would go on to find himself mentioned alongside America’s foremost power pop bards like Alex Chilton and Paul Westerberg, but the toll of life on the road and his own changing values led the group to put a cap on things in late 2003. Ever the Southern gentleman, Davis reflects on the “road to ruin” that led us to Superdrag’s first release in five years and hints at what the future may have in store for him.

Ground Control: Changin' Tires was a long time coming. How did it finally get released? Some fans were waiting on this for years!

John Davis: Man…it took awhile! Of course, some of those recordings are 10 years old…I took it to Yes Master and put it together with Jim DeMain about three years ago. I know Stewart [Pack] turned the artwork around very quickly once the label approached him. He’s unstoppable.

GC: You claim in the liner notes that there are "hours and hours more where this came from… miles of cassette tape." How involved were you in selecting the tracks that made the cut? Were there certain criteria to meet?

JD: To tell you the truth, I had absolutely nothing to do with the track selection. Arena Rock chose the 14 tracks they wanted. All I did was put ‘em in chronological order. And I wrote the little paragraph on the back.

GC: The recordings are from all over the place. Proper studios, 4-track tapes, even live sources. How do you feel about Changin' Tires as a cohesive album? Or is it one?

JD: I think Jim did a great job on the mastering. It might’ve been a daunting task for some. [The record is] pretty random, I guess.

GC: The songs span Superdrag's career as both a major and indie label band. Is there a difference in the way you approached the songs depending on who you were recording for?

JD: I don’t think so. Maybe that’s why our stay at Elektra was destined to be kind of short-lived. Our whole process never really changed all that much. It still hasn’t.

GC: Listeners that only know you from "Sucked Out" or your later albums might be surprised to hear some of the experimentation on these tunes. Where did "Doctors Are Dead" or "No Inspiration" come from?

JD: Man, I have no idea. Brandon [Fisher, guitarist] and I were neighbors at the time; we lived in the same apartments. I had my upright piano there and he used to come down and we’d work on songs all the time. “The Warmth Of A Tomb” was another one we came up with around the same time. We were pretty heavily into The Beach Boys. That happens to me every few years.

GC: For that matter, "Here We Come" mines a glam rock vein that rarely surfaced on official releases. Did Superdrag suffer from a musical schizophrenia behind the scenes?

JD: For a couple of years there, we did, for sure.

GC: "Relocate My Satellites" has been a big favorite among mp3-trading diehards for years now. What's that song about?

JD: Literally? My wife, before we got married, and going out drinking. And then it’s also about figuring out the way you want your life to be, and going for it, and just going off.

GC: Some of these recordings are nearly 10 years old. What's it like revisiting these songs for Changin' Tires?

JD: Well, I enjoyed hearing some of these getting mastered and actually going out on record. Some of them I felt were better than other songs that actually made it onto our “proper” records or whatever. There are one or two on the record I don’t care if I ever hear again.

GC: Do you hear much different in yourself when listening to the songs that were chosen?

JD: Well, for me, whatever time period over the last 14 or 15 years is always going to be inextricably linked to songs I myself or we as a band were putting together at the time. That was our life. Writing, rehearsing, recording and playing. Only I remember what was going on in the background. I hear versions of the truth that were heartfelt under the circumstances then, but that I might not subscribe to now.

GC: The live tracks come from Superdrag's final home-state performance in Nashville, TN, which was also the band's penultimate concert. What memories do you have of that show?

JD: I remember fighting the entire time to get my voice back. We played for three hours in Knoxville the night before, as hard as we could…it never really came back until the encores. I remember people crying. I didn’t feel like crying, though. We were completely burnt-out to a crisp.

GC: In recent years, some of Superdrag's contemporary bands that shared the "one-hit-wonder" millstone—like Nada Surf and the Flaming Lips—have found mainstream success. Do you ever wonder if Superdrag was maybe a record or two away from that kind of a breakthrough?

JD: Man, I have no idea. I suppose we still could be. Sometimes I wonder how much different things would really be if we had never signed, or if we had founded our own record label in 1993.

GC: There's been some press already that additional rarities releases might be in the pipeline. Any comment on that?

JD: Sure…well, only to say that we are now in the very fortunate position of being completely at liberty to do whatever we want, with no obligations to anybody but ourselves and the people that care about our music.

GC: A little off-subject, but you recently recorded your second solo album at Dave Grohl's 606 studio in Los Angeles. Is a release coming up anytime soon?

JD: That’s a good question. I’d like to think so. We’re a lot closer than we were two months ago.

GC: You worked with longtime recording partner Nick Raskulinecz—did that rekindle memories from your days working with him in Superdrag?

JD: Absolutely. Nothing could be more natural or more comfortable for me than to take my songs to Nick and record them. He really, really went out of his way to help me out. I can’t wait for people to actually hear the work we did this time.

GC: On your website you're pictured playing on Kurt Cobain's gear. Was that a trip?

JD: Yeah. It made me feel really depressed, honestly, but I did it anyway. I knew right away I had a perfect place for the sound…and the feedback. He should’ve been around there somewhere playing it himself.

GC: Last question, shifting back. Looking at your time in Superdrag, does anything sum up the experience?

JD: I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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