There’s a famous Bob Gruen photo of the members of Led Zeppelin standing beside their tour plane. In the picture, Robert Plant’s arms are spread and his chest is bare as if he is welcoming girls of all ages, sizes and passions to his private, flying playground. John Paul Jones is on the left, shirt open as well, hoping some groupie will mistake him for Plant and give him some play as well, and between Jones and Plant are John Bonham and Jimmy Page, both seeming a bit more circumspect, perhaps with darker visions in mind. This photo is a vision of indulgence because Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods and its celebrated accounts of the band and its groupies make it impossible to think of that plane as anything more or less than a flying shag shack.
Flash forward from 1973 to earlier this year in Madison, Wisconsin, after a Supagroup show. According to drummer Michael Brueggen, “I was hammered, and if there’s a party going on and there’s nowhere to sleep, the crème de la crème spot to sleep is the van. I went to the van and I thought someone was in there with someone getting something going, and I didn’t want to bother them. I was hanging outside the van and I ended up lying down and getting comfortable waiting for them.” Comfort turned to sleep, and before he knew it, “I woke up about two hours later when it was getting light out and people were jogging. People were walking their dogs.” Supagroup may have a new album and a new van, but it ain’t Led Zeppelin yet.
Since Supagroup came out in July, the band has continued its 125-150 road dates a year schedule, though most recently the band spent time in western towns it had never been to before. The audiences aren’t the hundreds that show up in New York and Los Angeles; in a few places, they could be counted on two hands, and nights like those that test how hungry a band is.
On the road, you literally go hungry. “Eating is a big deal,” singer Chris Lee explains over beers in The Saint, the band’s home bar. “We usually get breakfast at Denny’s or Cracker Barrel,” and that’s often the only dependable meal in a day. Everything else is catch as catch can, and whatever you eat is whatever fits your food budget—in Supagroup’s case, $10 per day, and that usually means taking shortcuts. “If I think of it on the road, I do 3000 mgs of Vitamin C every day,” Brueggen says. “On the road, you’re getting two-and-a-half to three hours of sleep, drinking every night, you can’t get anymore unhealthy than that. Even if you’re trying to be healthy at Denny’s and get a salad, it’s like a burger.”
But that’s not the kind of hungry that the road tests. Bassist Leif Swift recalls one twelve hour day of “miles and miles of nothing—plains, sprinkled with small towns through Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, into Oklahoma City. The show was a last minute booking playing between two ska bands.” No one ever picked up a guitar and learned a few chords in hopes of one day driving twelve hours to be the middle of a ska bill. It’s far easier to play gigs in town for friends hoping to see a few new faces, have the usual people tell you you’re great, then get loaded, pack up and get a passable night’s sleep in your own bed. You’ve made music—you may well have made great music—but you’re no closer to getting somewhere than you were the day before.
A handful of people in Boise and a ska night don’t sound like close to much either, but it’s a step. “The kids didn’t leave and actually dug the show,” Swift remembers. And small steps like that matter. Talk to people who have seen Supagroup in other cities and the story’s pretty much the same: a few people saw the show, loved it, maybe talked to the band for a bit afterwards, got loaded, then told friends the next time the band came to town. Then they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on. That’s not as sexy as playing in front of a full arena opening for, say, Good Charlotte, but what have you heard from Buckcherry lately?
Glad-handing and boozing with fans and bartenders creates a lot of good will—“We shouldn’t even give this away,” Chris Lee says, “but if you tip like a normal person and not like a band, the club will like you and want you back whether you suck or not. It’s common courtesy, and people don’t expect common courtesy from a touring band”—but the show makes the fans. As the recent House of Blues show made abundantly clear, Supagroup is genuinely powerful live, and not “powerful for a local band” or “powerful for an indie band.” “Back By Popular Demand” defined the phrase, “hard rock,” hitting a blues riff with such enthusiasm and intensity that the song seemed to get harder as it came out of each pause. For all of its ferocity though, the performance was never out of control. Tightness may be one of the conventions punk challenged, but being tight isn’t bourgeois; being Marilyn Manson is bourgeois. In the case of Supagroup at the House of Blues, tightness meant the band had hot riffs, choruses you could remember, and a rhythm that moved your head, your ass, or whatever body parts were free at the moment.
. . . but playing like that night after night is a slow way to build an audience. After all, the guy who sees the show and raves to his friends will have to wait six months before the band’s back so he can show them what he was talking about, and on top of that, it’s hard to convey what good rock ‘n’ roll really sounds like and feels like live. Gimmicks and concepts are easy to talk about, but writing that last paragraph was no piece of cake, and I really doubt it reads as cool and exciting as the show felt. “It’s a slow, slow process,” guitarist Benji Lee agrees, “but every month we make a new step that’s going to make a big difference. We just got on college radio and now we’re getting on specialty radio . . .”
“. . . little steps,” Chris Lee continues, finishing Benji’s sentence as he often does, “but they’re big deals for us. We’re doing very well on college,” which came as a bit of a surprise. “I thought we’d be snubbed, but the ones who are into us are really into us. This guy in Tampa called up the label and thanked them for putting the record out.” Lee’s concern reflects the band’s weird position; on one hand, it’s as indie as they come, self-managed and self-booked, but it’s hard to watch them play and think, “That could be me.” You’d have to practice a hell of a lot—they practice almost daily—and find more talented friends before you and your buddies could step in their shoes, and college radio programmers haven’t always been kind to bands with big league aesthetics like that.
Unfortunately, getting somewhere requires adjusting priorities and reconsidering values. Nothing sounds less rock ‘n’ roll to me than a publicist, though I deal with a number of them daily. Supagroup has a publicist, but as Benji points out, “it’s good to go to a town and see your show’s in publications.” Before a recent show in Brooklyn, “The bartender showed me the New York daily paper and there was a huge picture of my ugly mug on the cover of the Arts section.”
Covers don’t, however, make everything easier. “We still stay on floors,” Lee continues. “Less and less,” Brueggen interjects. “If we did, it was somebody’s good friend and we’d have a barbecue. We stay in hotels pretty much 80 percent of the time.” Even progress like that comes with challenges though. “The PlayStation comes into the hotel rooms with it,” Benji explained. “Unfortunately, some hotels put this thing on the back of the TV to keep you from plugging stuff in, so at four in the morning . . . “
“. . . I’ll be like,” Brueggen interrupts laughing, “‘(slurring) Where’s your Leatherman [knife]?’ figuring out how to get it off. I’ve totally got the method down.”
“Let me clarify it,” Benji laughs, “It’s Brueggen ruining it and me fixing it!”
NOT DATING CHRISTINA AGUILERA
PlayStations and low-level property damage in hotel rooms sound a short step from dating Christina Aguilera, but after 12 hour drives to the show, there’s no point in a hotel room. “Screw it,” Brueggen says. “Show up, load onstage, get loaded and see who’ll take you home.” That’s a vision of rock ‘n’ roll people can identify with, and clearly, that sort of small win and small pleasure is a big part of the rock ‘n’ roll story. Being a major label success today has little to do with rock ‘n’ roll because you’re packaged not for mere stardom but for ubiquity. You’re shaped and positioned so that everybody wants you, and if everybody wants you, you’re not rock ‘n’ roll. “What is Columbia signing?” Chris Lee asks. “Nobody. They’re developing 17-year-old pop superstars, which they should. They can make more money off them than a band like us.”
That’s a truth no rock ‘n’ roll fan wants to hear; after all, rock ‘n’ roll sounds so good to us that it’s hard to believe not everyone gets it. I’ve said before that anyone who can’t figure out how to make money off Supagroup just isn’t trying, but it doesn’t even take thinking to figure out how to make money off Britney. Until the world becomes a better, fairer, juster place, we, like Supagroup, will have to enjoy simpler pleasures.
“We had this bottle we’d been saving forever since we started the band,” Chris explains, “this cheap bottle of tequila—Pepe Lopez. We got it at a Supersuckers show the third or fourth time we’d ever been out of town. We held on to it and put it in the rehearsal space.” The Pepe Lopez became a talisman not to be consumed until the band signed a record deal. “Some asshole using our space would take a swig off it and we’d say, “You dick! You’re not supposed to drink that! That’s the Pepe Lopez!” At the drinking ceremony, Brueggen was there, but he was not allowed to drink the Pepe Lopez: “I was technically still in Syrup at the time, and playing with Rock City Morgue.”
Traveling as a rock ‘n’ roll band tests a host of things: your guts, your scruples, your faith, but how you travel affects things. When Benji Lee says, “We got a hook-up in the van,” he beams like Christmas came early. “It has upgraded the quality of our lives. We put a TV in the van with PS2, so we can watch movies.” “We got a TV and bolted it down,” Chris continues, starting to crack up, “totally jimmyrigged it. We bought a power converter at a truck stop which may or may not blow at any moment. We have a whole box of fuses for it at any time because it’ll blow fuses completely arbitrarily. Everyone has their own theories as to what blows the fuses.” While he explains, “There are five different methods of how to turn it on and what should be plugged in, and how slowly things should happen,” Benji and Brueggen lay out their theories at the same time, talking over each other. Leif Swift stayed silent, though he no doubt has his own pet theories as well. “I don’t believe any of them,” Lee says finally.
Alas, even traveling in a cherry van is a double-edged sword when rock ‘n’ roll is concerned. With the precision of schoolyard quarterback about to tell a receiver to do an out at the bottle cap, Lee explains the seating rotation: “Say you’re the driver. You drive two hours minimum. I drive two hours. When you’re done, you get the bench behind you. The person who’s about to drive gets the back bench, which is where the PlayStation and the television are. And the person in-between gets shotgun so the same two people go forward and backward each time. That’s the only way it will work. Otherwise, if it’s not fair you get, ‘Bitch! You’ve been in that seat for two whole shifts!’ It seriously is like that.”
For Supagroup, aggression is frequently taken out on the PlayStation playing Madden 2004. “It’s the standard,” Chris explains. “You can be in any city in any situation and if you’re at a house party, and someone’s got it, ‘Oh, you think you can fuckin’ go?!’ It’s the universal game where everyone thinks they’re awesome. We were first introduced to it on the road. Kyle [Melancon] brings his PS on the road, and I didn’t even play it then and I killed him three times in a row. I almost made him cry, and was like, ‘This feels good.’ I was like, ‘You can have the 49ers; I’ll take the Bengals. You’re dead.’” And when virtual combat fails, actual combat begins.
“We fight when we play the disc from the show the night before,” Brueggen explains. “I like to hear that kind of shit because I’m still working my own stuff out . . . ”
“. . . we’re supercritical,” Benji interjects, knowing where this story is going.
“. . . and these guys were at each others’ throats two songs in,” Brueggen continues. “That was my first experience with being in the van watching the Lee brothers go at it. To make matters better, Chris is in the very back of the van and Benji’s right next to me. One’s in the front and one’s in the back and they’re screaming back and forth at each other.” Then again, as Brueggen observes, “You’re in a van, you bicker.”
You don’t always go to blows though, but it happens more than people realize. Lynyrd Skynyrd used the fistfight regularly as a decision-making tool, and in Supagroup, the Lee brothers are notorious for mixing it up. After I threatened to write him out of this article in favor of the more forthcoming, bass player Swift volunteered, “I don’t remember what the one in D.C. was about, but that was the worst physical one. I got rugburns on my knees from trying to separate them, rolling around in the hallway.”
At the mention of D.C., both Chris and Benji look up like they’re going through the mental Rolodex of scraps, then both start laughing and try to tell the story at the same time. “We were all fuckin’ wasted,” Benji starts, then, “Here’s what happens,” Chris continues, “It was a shitty show. We weren’t even at a real club and we’re altered with Jäger. We got cut off after three songs by the neighbors and we have to drive somewhere to get home, and the guy that we hired to come with us was way more coked up and fucked up than we were, so one of us had to drive. Benji decides to go off on the guy who got too hammered to drive because he said he’d drive, and I say I’ll drive. Wisely Benji says, ‘You can’t fuckin’ drive. You’re fuckin’ wasted, dude!’ ‘Well so are you’ and it escalates from there. I drive home and the whole time he’s screaming at me. We leave the guy there and when we get to the apartment, I’m trying to open the door with a key and I’m taking too long so he hipchecks me out of the way, and he used to play hockey, so he slams me to the wall. ‘Gimme that! You’re taking too long!’ ‘Fuck you!’ I forget the word he used; he’s like, ‘You should me on my side, not on his side,’ and it was on. The dumbest, drunkest fight ever.”
“I think I called you a traitor,” Benji adds.
“That’s it! It was totally on! I think that might have been the last time we got into it physically.”
Missing from the telling of that story is Chris’s impression of his brother drunkenly saying, “You’re fuckin’ wasted, dude!” His Benji impression doesn’t sound much like Benji, but he clearly loves doing it, and whatever the case, it’s funny. Missing from all these stories is the amount of laughter involved in telling them. I can write, “he laughed” or something like that, but that doesn’t make the text sound like people laughing. As meatheaded as some of Supagroup’s exploits are, they’ve dealt with them with a lot of laughing, which is pretty crucial because if there’s anything rock ‘n’ roll tests, it’s your sense of humor. Looking in magazines at bands you’ve blown off stages and seeing their record get reviewed when yours hasn’t been will test your sense of humor. Looking at dopey, pre-fab rock bands that haven’t played twenty shows getting their videos played on MTV will test your sense of humor. Seeing that people want jam and rave and hip-hop, but they don’t seem to want good ol’ American working class rock ‘n’ roll will test your sense of humor. So far, Supagroup has been able to keep laughing.
“It’s not a bad life,” Chris Lee sums up. “If we ever complain, it’s not like we’re thinking about changing careers. We’re very lucky. Better biz, better drugs, better poontang—that’s it in a nutshell.”