an interview w/ John Davis on Superdrag’s reissued ‘Head Trip In Every Key’ & the new Lees of Memory LP (stream here)
by Andrew Sacher
The Lees of Memory (photo by Elvis Wilson)
We recently profiled nine underrated ’90s bands, one of which was Superdrag, who last month (August) reissued their second album, 1998’s ambitious and unfairly overlooked Head Trip In Every Key, along with a two-disc set of demos from the era, Jokers w/ Tracers, on SideOneDummy. Superdrag members John Davis and Brandon Fisher also have new music coming. Their new band The Lees of Memory will release their debut album, Sisyphus Says, next week (9/16) via SideOneDummy, with the cassette coming out on Burger. You can pre-order that record and pick up the Superdrag reissues here.
Sisyphus Says has John and Brandon taking the shoegaze sounds they’ve experimented with throughout Superdrag’s career, and full-on embracing them for almost the entire record. It’s fuzzed-out, reverb-drenched stuff, and though fans of MBV and the like will find the sounds familiar, as the album goes on you can tell it’s the same songwriting team from those Superdrag records. A full stream of the album premieres in this post and can be listened to below.
We also spoke to John about the new record, SideOneDummy and Burger, looking back on Superdrag’s Head Trip In Every Key, and more:
You have a new record out coming out with The Lees of Memory on SideOneDummy and Burger. When you were in Superdrag, you wrote a handful of songs that sort of railed against the major label music world that you were once part of. How’s it been working with these two respected indie labels?
John Davis: Oh man, it couldn’t be easier. They’ve been so friendly and super helpful in every way, really easy to deal with. We couldn’t really hope to have the record treated better.
How did the relationship with those labels come about?
John: A couple of different ways. With the whole process of reissuing the Superdrag records, I think SideOneDummy in the beginning approached the Superdrag manager and kind of got the ball rolling with all of that. They did the first record [1996’s Regretfully Yours], and I didn’t have that much involvement with that one. I’ve talked about this elsewhere but I really don’t like that record (laughs). I mean, I’m glad that other people do, you know? I just didn’t have as much involvement in the whole process of bringing that one back. The second one [Head Trip] and especially the demos set that they put out, I had a lot more to do with.
Those reissues were such a long process, and this Lees of Memory record has been done for a year almost. I had the luxury of really not having to be in any hurry whatsoever to do anything about it. And even though Brandon [Fisher] and I both played in Superdrag, I didn’t want The Lees of Memory to be confused with any Superdrag business or whatever. When I got the test pressings for Head Trip it was the first time I had heard that record in a really long time, and I just kind of stood in there and listened to all four sides of it and I was like, man, I want the same care and passion to go into The Lees of Memory. So I sent them the music to see what they said about it, and I think they hit me back the same day. They wanted to talk about it more. It was just super easy and it kind of shocked me that they were down for it even though we’ve never played a show. But yeah, that was just great. We couldn’t be happier to have their help with it.
And we were sort of introduced to the Burger dudes through our friend Jeffrey Smith, who was helping out and kind of sending the music to anybody that he thought would like it. And they were interested and wanted to do a tape. I’m a big fan of a lot stuff that they did. They’ve done a lot of my favorite Nashville bands. I love Natural Child, I love JEFF the Brotherhood. Basically any band that I really like from around here has done something with them. And they also did Personal and the Pizzas, which is a huge win for any label. We were just stoked that they wanted to help us out and make the tape. I mean I still record on four tracks, that’s all I have, so that seemed like a cool fit.
The Lees of Memory – Sisyphus Says Full Album Stream
You mentioned that you’ve never played live yet. Do you have any plans for that in the future?
John: I would say yes. We have a couple of dudes who are ready to help us fill out the sound, so the lineup is pretty much there. And we got a couple offers to do some in-stores and some Cassette Store Day events that would tie into Burger, but we kind of feel like we want our first time out to be somewhere with a good PA, dark, loud, not during the day in the parking lot of a record store. We’re thinking about it but it’s not been the highest priority.
So the band started as a studio project?
John: Yeah I mean, we didn’t even know we were making a record. We were just four tracking a bunch for fun. I think the most ambition I had was to make a bandcamp page and throw it out there. But everybody that we played the songs for told me no you can’t just be that. August of 2012 was the first time Brandon came down and we did a few of his songs. That was the first thing we did. So that was a couple years ago, and little by little I kept sending all the material to my friend Nick Raskulinecz, who ended up producing it. He’s super busy so sometimes we’re not in contact for a few weeks. But one day he was like, dude we gotta make this record now, so that changed the whole trajectory of the thing. He’s the best there is, nobody does it better than him, so we felt like we’d be crazy to turn down Nick.
For this record it sounds like you guys took on the shoegaze sound for almost the entire thing. That’s poked through a bit on some of the Superdrag records, but what caused you to fully embrace that style this time around?
John: It’s hard to say really. There have been times where I’ve deliberately pushed a sound in a specific direction, like that band Epic Ditch that we had, there was a very specific influence in mind stylistically. With these songs, they just kind of ended up this way. I did watch both seasons of Twin Peaks at one point, I think that had a lot to do with it (laughs). I got the flu one time and I missed three days of work, so I didn’t do anything except watch Twin Peaks. Stylistically, when I think about this material, I kind of feel like it’s the record we would have made in ’94 if we had known what we were doing at the time. When I listen to it and think about it, I hear all those records that played in the house nonstop. There were other things obviously, but you know, Yo La Tengo‘s Painful. Always playing. The Jesus and Mary Chain‘s Psychocandy. Just certain ones that I feel like — you know besides the obvious like of course My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver — that they played guitar like that, that was huge to us when were trying to figure out what we wanted to do. I mean I don’t know, to me, I think a lot of what was kind of lumped in with shoegaze, I don’t know if we necessarily fit the profile. There were certain requirements for that style of music that I don’t think we necessarily bring, but I’m cool with it if that’s what people wanna call it.
The Lees of Memory – “We Are Siamese (official video)
So while Epic Ditch was a punk, or even maybe a hardcore punk band, you don’t necessarily consider The Lees a shoegaze band. Like your next record could be totally different?
John: Oh yeah, I can already tell you it is completely different. We’ve written 15 songs I think, and we’ll probably end up with that many more. What we end up with may even be different from this batch. There are definitely parallels, just in the way we play and stuff, but we’re definitely not trying to limit ourselves to any particular sound. Whatever comes out, I think that’s the best way.
You reunited Superdrag a few years ago, and then eventually ended once again. What gave you the feeling that band was done and it was time to start this new band with Brandon?
John: Well I think there were a lot of different factors. I kind of feel like with the record we made [2009’s Industry Giants] and the amount we were able to be on the road, that we took it as far as we could at the time. With all the others commitments and families, we just couldn’t drop everything and play 200 shows. I can’t speak for the other dudes but I know for me, with these reissues coming out and all and a lot of conversation about stuff that happened 17 years ago, I’m just kinda ready to let it be what it was. It’s really nice to be able to start something new with no attachment. I mean anytime people talk about The Lees, they pretty much talk about Superdrag because Brandon’s there too, but I think at a certain point you need to let it go. If the best thing you’re ever gonna do happened 17 years ago, then you should probably stop. I mean we don’t have any illusions about our place or whatever, but I kinda feel like the records are still getting better, so I wanna keep trying.
Superdrag – “I’m Expanding My Mind”
Looking back on it now, what was it like to be in an indie rock band in the ’90s during the time when major labels were looking for any band you could vaguely call indie or alternative, and just turn them into stars or drop them if they didn’t become that?
John: Oh man (laughs). It was pretty weird. We had only been a band for a couple of years when all that happened to us. All we knew was how to write and go out and play shows. We would go to New York and play these showcases, like at Brownies, with four or five bands. We had some recordings, we had a couple 7″s out, but we were still recording live on 8-track cassette and then overdubbing vocals. It was super raw, we didn’t have any studio experience whatsoever. But it got to this point where we’d go and do these little runs and every time we got back there’d be two or three calls on the answering machine from different record companies. I guess we talked to maybe a dozen different ones of all shapes and sizes. This is funny — I swear this is true — we trusted Elektra because they had Stereolab. Don’t ask me why. We loved Stereolab so much and we thought if they were on it, it must be a good choice. And also the fact that they signed The Stooges and the MC5, never mind the fact that that was 28 years prior or whatever. So that tells you how much we knew about the music industry.
That was way before Steve Albini published that ten-page open letter about don’t be a dumbass and sign a major label contract. At that time it just seemed like the next logical thing to do. We just had such tunnel vision with every step forward. Like okay yeah maybe now we can headline an out-of-town show, like all these little steps. By the time we got to 1995 or whatever, it was like yeah of course you’re gonna sign a deal. It was strange, there’s a part of me that’s really happy we did it that way because we had opportunities that we never would have had otherwise. Truthfully, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it hadn’t been for those couple of records and that exposure or whatever. But mostly because we got to make that second record with Jerry Finn at Sound City. Those experiences alone were worth it. You gotta take the good with the bad.
With the first record — like I said, we had no studio experience at all — probably about 85% of the work was banged out in seven days. We got to do a few little things at the 11th hour, “Sucked Out” was added at the last minute. But then we went out toured for 10 or 11 months, played 250 something shows, and that was where we really figured out what we wanted to do the second time around. There was a quantum leap forward just from having that much experience, and the writing definitely took a sharp left turn. You know, there were a few songs on that first record that just came out of us in the practice spot and we’d come in with something and just kind of jam it out. But the second time around was totally different. We really wanted to max out what we could do. Jerry was obviously so gifted and knew how to get the best possible sounds on everything. That studio — of course there’s a movie about it now and people know a lot more about it now — but it was amazing. Such a shame that it’s gone. I mean that’s a huge loss. The same thing happens here in Nashville all the time. Legendary spots get bulldozed all the time so they can put up condos that nobody wants. It’s like an epidemic around here.
But yeah that whole deal, I mean we sat in there for three months. I’ll never have that opportunity again, to sit in a studio like that nonstop for three months. At the end of the day, those are the things that last. At this point all the drama that happened at the label, and us eventually getting dropped and all that, none of that really matters now.
How would you say your perspective on the industry’s changed since then to where you are now?
John: Well I think my perspective on everything’s changed. We did that record when I was 23, I’m 40 now. Even on that record itself, a lot of the lyrics were kind of sniping at the music business or whatever. With the benefit of hindsight, a lot of it seems kind of silly to me. I mean people don’t wanna hear how hard it is to play in a band. Now I sit in a cubicle. That’s a lot more of a strain than playing in a band.
But I back it, it’s what I felt at the time. To make a record like Head Trip In Every Key and expect it to be a commercial success is a little bit unrealistic, you know? Given what did really well at the time — you know, that was kind of the peak of the whole alternative thing, and even by that measure it’s kind of a weird album. As far as perspective of the industry, or what’s left of it, it’s really not something I think about. I think the backlash was inevitable, that there’d be downloading and otherwise. You can only gouge customers for so long before they find some kind of a work-around and stop having to give you all that money.
Were you surprised at all when you heard SideOneDummy wanted to put out the record that Elektra kind of dropped you for? That years later people were into this?
John: Yeah I mean, it was unexpected for sure. It’s a weird phenomenon to sort of watch it become this lost artifact that people discover now, people who really had nothing to do with it before. That’s a weird feeling. At the same time, it’s a good feeling.