DEATHRAY DAVIES, THE LASHES
Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $8
9 p.m. Tues., Aug. 13
Some cretin once said that to write pop songs, all you need to know are three guitar chords. Technically, that may be true. But composing something like the Beatles' "Yesterday," a ditty that transcends what any roomful of monkeys with guitars might eventually churn out—without veering into harmonic and rhythmic gymnastics—is much more daunting. Just ask John Davis, singer-guitarist for Tennessee power-pop quartet Superdrag. He's been practicing his craft since his whiskers first started coming in, and the process is still something of a mystery.
"I don't have a set routine," says Davis. "I write a lot while watching television. I have an acoustic guitar that sits by the TV, and I'll just sit around and strum, maybe hit on a chord progression that I like and play it over and over until it starts to take shape. I get a lot of ideas in the shower or when I'm driving the car. Odd times."
Davis takes inspiration wherever he can find it. "I remember reading about the Beatles making Revolver," he recounts. "They were talking about 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and how it was based on The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, how there were phrases that were lifted directly from it. And I thought, 'Shit, I've got to get that book.'" He turned around and wrote "The Art of Dying," a track featured on the group's 1998 sophomore full-length Headtrip in Every Key, "and that's my song that I stole from that book."
At first, the mood swings of Superdrag's latest, Last Call for Vitriol (Arena Rock Recording Co.), which veers abruptly from crunchy pop ("Feeling Like I Do") to the acoustic longing of "Way Down Here Without You" and ends with the Southern rock-flavored "Closer to You," might lead some fans to suspect Davis has developed multiple personality disorder. And they're half-right; there is a second personality at play. Bassist Sam Powers wrote or co-wrote five of Vitriol's 12 tracks and sings lead on three. "Co-writing is something I'd never really had an opportunity to do before," says Davis, "and it's a lot of fun."
Formed in Knoxville, Tenn., back in 1993, Superdrag released several singles and EPs before coming to national attention via the MTV Buzz Bin clip "Sucked Out," from the band's 1996 Elektra Records long-player Regretfully Yours. While Davis says he's grateful for the national exposure they got by being on a major label, relations started to sour once they'd begun work on their third full-length and they were asked to submit demos of new material for approval from the record company.
"Submitting song after song and having nine out of 10 shot down" frustrated Davis, but he kept writing. "We ended up with 40 songs for that album, and nothing excited them." Did the boys in A&R eventually start telling Davis how to do his job? "No, but I would've preferred that. They couldn't tell me what the songs lacked, or what they wanted to hear, only that they weren't 'hearing it.'" Instead, inanities like "we need something that's more emotionally direct" were bandied about.
"I remember handing in 'Unprepared,' which is really special to me; it's a true story about being a pallbearer at somebody's funeral." Davis felt this was as "emotionally direct" as his writing would ever get; Elektra gave it the thumbs-down. (It eventually turned up on 2000's independently released In the Valley of Dying Stars.) Of course, as Davis dryly notes, "the same [A&R] guy ended up co-writing for Vitamin C, and the big song from her album sounded like an M&M's commercial to me."
While having a beef with the hack that co-wrote the sappy "Graduation" isn't hard to fathom, Davis' answer to the question "Who do you think is an overrated songwriter?" is surprising: "Rivers Cuomo. I'm dead serious." Never mind that the two bands have toured together. "I don't dislike the guy as a person," insists Davis. "The thing that bothered me about their last album— not Maladroit, but the one before it—was that in interviews he said he didn't give a shit about the lyrics. He just wrote whatever came to mind, whatever rhymed, it didn't matter. That's his prerogative, but why do I want to spend time listening to the songs if he didn't give a shit?"
And though Davis is a big fan of Guided by Voices' notoriously prolific Bob Pollard (who also guests on Superdrag's latest), he errs in favor of quality over quantity when it comes to writing songs. "I've got a pretty good archive of unused stuff on cassettes in a box sitting under my bed," he admits. "But I figure if a song doesn't get [on a record], there's a good reason for that. We always try to use only the very best."