REBIRTH OF COOL "I had to be willing to lay down my life, which was rock and roll, if I wanted to gain it," says John Davis.
The pantheon of Where Are They Nows is populated with fallen and faded demigods, yes, but could've-beens, almost-weres, and also-rans crowd the wings. Here the sweet smell of success mingles with the petulant waft of successes unrealized, and fates of all kinds receive the same contemplative inquiry: "What the hell have they been up to?"
Each year, a few of these mislaid bands are returned to us, like alien abductees back from some parallel life, and the stories behind their absence often have as much plot as an Ozu film: got married, made babies, found the time to finish Infinite Jest. Such is the case with Superdrag, one of many so-called "alt-rock" bands from the mid '90s, who after a brush with fame and a decade-long run went on hiatus in 2003. The Knoxville band's original line-up reunited in 2007 to tour, and they've just released Industry Giants (Superdrag Sound Laboratories), their first studio album together since 1998. "The recovery time was pretty much nil," singer/guitarist/songwriter John Davis says via e-mail when describing the reunion. "The first time we jammed, it was happening."
Superdrag hit the ground running with their 1996 Elektra debut, Regretfully Yours, a blast of hooky fuzzpop that played like Hüsker Dü learning A Hard Day's Night. It yielded the hit "Sucked Out," a spiky pop tune with a larynx-shredding tantrum for a refrain. Their next album, Head Trip in Every Key (1998), was a classic example of a band discovering their inner studio geek. Full of new textures and ambitious instrumentation, it transcended the homogenized sound of '90s-era modern rock. Elektra thought otherwise, and Superdrag became another redundancy in a quick-to-sign, quick-to-drop industry. Bassist Tom Pappas and guitarist Brandon Fisher quit soon after, leaving Davis and drummer Don Coffey Jr. to carry on for two more records.
The break-up was precipitated by Davis's spiritual awakening, which lifted him out of a hard-drinking lifestyle. He has since released two solo albums that reflect in part his new-found faith. "I had to be willing to lay down my life, which was rock and roll, if I wanted to gain it. When Jesus called the fishermen to follow him, they walked away from their boats, their nets, their life's work, and followed him, little caring about what their old identities were wrapped up in. There's a lesson to be learned from that."
Industry Giants continues with themes of rebirth and redemption, as "I Only Want a Place I Can Stay" and "Filthy & Afraid" document the transition from one life to another. Even the band's recording process underwent a transformation. "For one thing, drugs and alcohol were not a factor in the studio," Davis points out. "Plus, out of necessity, we had to make the album in four short, strategic blasts. If sitting in the studio for three months making Head Trip was a siege, then this was guerrilla warfare. We didn't have much time for nostalgia."
It took Superdrag a total of 10 days spread out over a nine-month period to finish Industry Giants, and that sense of urgency is apparent in the breathlessness of "Slow To Anger" and "5 Minutes Ahead of the Chaos." Davis: "I don't want to soften up and be forced to play slower and quieter just because we've gotten older. I want to play harder, louder, and faster." Perhaps the idea of a pious man kicking out the jams is incongruous to some, but for Davis, it is possible to get your God and your groove on at the same time. "Just love God, I don't trust in man/Armed with the truth against the wickedness at hand," he sings in "Aspartame." And then the band dig in — not so much like men of God as like gods of thunder.
SUPERDRAG + CASSAVETTES + MIC HARRISON & THE HIGH SCORE | Paradise, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | April 11 at 8 pm | $20 | 617.562.8800 or www.thedise.com