On March 24th, 1998 Knoxville, TN’s power pop stalwarts, Superdrag released Head Trip In Every Key their 2nd and final album for Elektra Records. A stunning and captivating LP that sounds just as good today as it did the day it was released and my personal favorite in the Superdrag canon. The album is a logical next step from their debut, Regretfully Yours and finds the band pushing their sound to exciting new heights, producing an album overflowing with hooks and superb instrumentation. An album as good as Head Trip is should’ve have been met with wide open arms by the label, but shamefully that’s not what happened. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with former Superdrag chief songwriter and co-founder, John Davis to discuss the albums 20th anniversary. Over a couple of days of e-mails John shared a good deal about the writing and recording process the led to the release of Head Trip In Every Key, his recent recording project, The Lees of Memory and we even touched on his long term sobriety.
The Ash Gray Proclamation: March 24th marked 20 years since the release of Head Trip In Every Key, what are your initial thoughts on the albums platinum anniversary?
John Davis: Ah man, wow… my thoughts are all over the place. ha ha On a day to day basis, I don’t think about Superdrag all that much. As somebody who tries to stay in a constant state of creating, I find that too much of the nostalgia tends to muddy the waters a bit going forward. But I take a lot of pride in the work we did on that album. We definitely swung for the fences creatively. I immediately think of our producer, Jerry Finn. He died almost 10 years ago. He was taken way too soon. On that level, there’s a sadness surrounding Head Trip in my thoughts now. Jerry should’ve been a Jim Dickinson or a Jerry Wexler. he should’ve been one of those guys that makes records for 50 years that they write all the books about. He was that good. Of course, that album cycle sort of ended up being the beginning of the end of our tenure at Elektra Records, so inevitably I end up thinking about all the things they could’ve or should’ve done about it, which is completely pointless now. ha ha Still, if they hadn’t been so risk-averse in their choice of singles and if they hadn’t withdrawn our video budget for no good reason, who knows what might’ve happened? The Art Of Dying should’ve been the single. Something that emphasized what made the record unique & special. It definitely stood apart from the Commercial Alternative field of the day. Nobody else was cutting songs like that in 1997. I have to give a shout-out to our old friend Mr. Jim Cortez, the one person at the company that wholeheartedly believed in Head Trip In Every Key. He had 14 stations in his territory, and he got both the Head Trip singles added to 13 of them. We must’ve done something that really pissed off #14. His success proved that it wasn’t impossible. I mean, the perception is that the record came completely out of left field, but it wasn’t that weird. It was just different. That should’ve been celebrated rather than feared. Meanwhile, over at Warner Bros., they were manufacturing and distributing Zaireeka for The Flaming Lips, for God’s sake! But Pine Away was too adventurous to be a single. What people don’t realize is that so many of these decisions are driven by people’s ego games. If you think the artists have big egos, you should meet the A&R guys. They’re not even creating anything, but they’re the key players because they have the ears of the people who ultimately control your destiny, the ones that control the money. So in our case, because this guy once sat on a piano bench and meddled with one of our songs for 15 minutes, of course that had to be the obvious choice for the single! That’s how it works. They don’t tell you that. Well, Steve Albini tried to tell you, but nobody listened. One other thought on Head Trip though, right off the bat, is that I’m really glad somebody finally put it on vinyl, SideOneDummy Records did it up right. The entire project was conceived for vinyl from day one. I didn’t even own a CD player when we made that album! That’s the truth. It’s to Elektra’s shame that they couldn’t be bothered to put it on vinyl. Believe me, we tried hard to get it done. They flatly refused. So getting to see that happen definitely felt like a small victory and a wrong being reversed.
The Ash Gray Proclamation: What was the writing and recording process for the album?
John Davis: Well, it happened over time. I had several of the songs demo’d up in 4-Track form before our first album came out. I write a lot, always have. Annetichrist, Sold You An Alibi, I’m Expanding My Mind, I wrote all of those in ’95. Don Coffey Jr. used to keep a kit set up in our kitchen, we’d set the 4-Track on the stovetop and go to town. We’d get on a hot streak and record a song every day for a week or something. Those songs came from one of those hot streaks as I recall. The intro and verse riffs on The Art Of Dying came out of a period of intense personal discovery. ha ha with a few enhancements. Pine Away I wrote when I was about 17 years old. My Mamaw lived in the house with us, and she had a key to our church because she served down there a lot. It was about 50 yards from our back door. She let me in to record the drums on the first demo version of Pine Away. The piano I learned to play on (and still have and use in my home studio today) was hers, also. Thank you, Mamaw. We toured for about 11 months behind Regretfully Yours, we were completely mentally and physically zorched after that. So, we went home and took a month off, then we set up shop in Bearsville, NY for the entire month of February 1997 to finish writing the album. We rented out the Utopia Rehearsal facility owned by Bearsville Studios. At one point in time it was Todd Rundgren‘s practice space. Nick Raskulinecz flew in from L.A. with his 8-Track cassette recorder and the necessary outboard stuff and we spent a whole month writing and recording in there. That’s all we did, to be honest, there wasn’t much else to do! I think that was probably the point to get us isolated someplace where we could focus on nothing but new music. That month in Bearsville might be the most fun I ever had playing in the band, it was super-productive, too. We got to hang out with Sally Grossman while we were there, that was pretty cool. She’s the lady sitting in the chair on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home! She also took me to see Big Pink. We also met Jerry for the first time while we were up there. It was a hell of a good time.
The Ash Gray Proclamation: How did Jerry Finn come to produce the album?
John Davis: Well, we had a couple of ideas for producers we wanted to talk to initially, most of those were vetoed. I wanted to talk to Don Fleming, that was vetoed. Jerry Harrison came to Knoxville to talk to us, but we really didn’t hit it off. He was a nice dude, and he’s obviously a legend and a Hall Of Famer and everything, but had some non-negotiables that didn’t jive with our ideas, namely recording to ProTools and tape at the same time. That was a line in the sand we were unwilling to budge on: no Pro Tools. We wanted to make a 100% analog recording. The one digital concession was manufacturing CDs. Jerry Finn was the only guy on the short list who was willing to come all the way up to Bearsville to talk to us. He already had some huge successes under his belt by that time, but I think he was drawn to the idea of making a completely different kind of record than the ones he was best known for. I’m pretty sure he had already listened to some of the demos beforehand. We just knew almost immediately that Jerry could help us realize what we wanted to do with the record. He was a beautiful guy man, always fun to be around. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved to laugh. He had a heavy reputation as being one of the best engineers and mixers in the world, even according to our know-nothing A&R. Homeboy was right about that much. We started out at Ardent Studios in Memphis, but after the first day of loading in and starting to build our world Jerry could see that the room just wasn’t big enough for his recording scheme, particularly in terms of mic’ing the room for drums. You’ve heard Head Trip, so you already know the benefits of his drum methods, especially in the room we ended up in at Sound City. You won’t see us in the movie, but we were definitely there! It doesn’t matter. We made our own fuckin’ movie at Sound City.
The Ash Gray Proclamation: I read once that you feel that Headtrip is the best sounding Superdrag LP, could you elaborate on that statement?
John Davis: I mentioned Sound City already, but there’s a list as long as your arm of classic recordings that were made there. The big room was just a magical space for sound. So, you put us in there, I guess I’m boasting but we definitely had our shit together by that point, we’re in there with Jerry, who’s a boss, Mike Fasano, the best drum tech in the business, Bobby Schneck, the best guitar tech in the business, Nick Raskulinecz assisting, who is the total “5th Beatle” with Superdrag and now has a resume of his own that shows how incredibly gifted he is, we’ve got 5 different drum kits that can be mixed and matched to cater specifically to each song, about 25 different guitars, each one being the best-case example of its make and model, a room full of vintage, Custom Shop & boutique tube amps, the capability of renting a Mellotron or a sitar or anything that came to mind, one of the world’s greatest Neve consoles, a closet full of Beatle mics and a 2″ tape machine. You really couldn’t invent a better scenario for recording music.
The Ash Gray Proclamation: How do you feel that album has stood up over the past two decades?
John Davis: I think it speaks for itself.
The Lees Of Memory
The AGP: How did the your new project The Lees of Memory come about?
John: It was really Brandon Fisher‘s fault, I blame him. ha ha Seriously, besides my wife I’d have to say that Brandon is my best friend in life. We’ve been friends since 1988. When I started playing music seriously, I wanted to play it with him. He quit Superdrag in ’99, he played on In The Valley Of Dying Stars, but he didn’t want to tour behind it. It was a major bummer at the time, but I understood why he had to do what he did. That’s the thing, it’s just a band or a record or an ego game for some, but when you’re in it it’s also real life and people want different things out of it at different times. Same with Tom Pappas, it was a bummer when he left, but I understood why and I respected the decision. We were struggling at that point to keep it going, and I always figured if he was gonna have to struggle he preferred to do it under his own banner. I get it. Fast-forward a few years and we ended up doing the Superdrag reunion tours, and eventually working on new music together, but I’ve always stayed in contact with Brandon. He’s a member of the family. What happened was, the Fishers came to visit us in Nashville for the weekend in August of 2012, and Brandon had a new song he wanted to record on 4-Track called Deliquesce so, we recorded it and we were super-stoked on the way it turned out. The recording is out there online, on the High Bias!!! A Cassette-Based OperationTM Bandcamp page. So I had been writing a bunch of stuff, semi-aimlessly, with no real concept for what I wanted to do with it, but Brandon’s song lit a fire under me and I kept writing more and so did he, sort of on parallel tracks for a while, but the 2 batches of material were very sympathetic to the point where we were like, “dude, let’s just work together on these.” Enter Nick Raskulinecz and Nick Slack, and that’s how Sisyphus Says happened. We had already been working with SideOneDummy on the Superdrag vinyl reissues, so I sent them the finished record on a whim just to see what they’d say about it. They hit me back the same day wanting to do something.
The AGP: Will you tour behind the latest LP, The Blinding White Of Nothing at All?
John: No, our lives are such now that any kind of an extended absence would kind of turn everything upside down. But, we do have some shows on the books. I can’t say more than that for the time being but shows are happening.
The AGP: What does the rest of 2018 have in-store for you and your latest songwriting vehicle?
John: I’m working on a full-length project with my friend Mike Armstrong we’re calling ourselves The Rectangle Shades. It’ll be 6 songs from him and 6 songs from me. If people follow the Lees on social media we’ll make it known when and where to get the record. A couple of the tracks are up on the High Bias!!! Bandcamp already. I’m really excited about everything we’ve got so far. Mike owns Lost And Found Records in Knoxville. I worked there from 1993 until Superdrag signed. Best job I ever had!
The AGP: You’ve been sober since the early aughts, would you mind sharing what brought you to the point where you decided to stop drinking?
John: It was what I recognized to be the Holy Spirit. People have different names for it. But, it was the light of truth shining into an impenetrable darkness. People have tried at times to convince me otherwise, like it was some inner strength or power I had within me. No, I had no power. I had my senses and emotions effectively turned off. It was the living God, who I didn’t even think I believed in at the time. It was the kind of experience that makes you believe. I was changed in an instant and I’ve not been the same since. It sounds crazy but I could keep a straight face and call it miraculous. It was a miracle. I’m almost 17 years in and I still get off on the clarity.