Music: Rock & Roll Supaheroes

New Orleans' Supagroup are out to revive the classic Hard Rock sound

Mar 9, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Supagroup does not mince words. The New Orleans-based quartet shows its stripes right from the outset with "It Takes Balls," the first single taken from their soon-to-be-released new album, Rules.

Even Supagroup's avowed influence, AC/DC, obfuscated the word "balls" behind its dual meaning of "grand parties" and tittered lecherously at their naughty double entendre. Not Supagroup. "It Takes Balls" is classic Hard Rock anthemics, gloriously thunderous riffmeistering as a basalt-heavy soundtrack for lyrics that outline the pitfalls of choosing the Hard Rock life. And when Supagroup talks about "balls," they're not laughing behind their hands at their cleverness. They're talking about big, brass thighknockers as a metaphor for the creative courage to play Rock that is shamelessly, admittedly, wonderfully self-referential, stupid and loud.

"That has always been our manifesto; we wanted to write songs that we weren't hearing and that we loved," says Supagroup lead singer Chris Lee, en route with the band to an Atlanta gig. "All of our favorite bands were gone or irrelevant, and even if they weren't gone, they weren't being played on the radio."

Reflecting and contemporizing influences like the aforementioned AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, Supagroup harkens back to a time when Rock celebrated its own good fortune at every opportunity with volume knobs turned all the way to the right and fists raised permanently in testosterone-fueled defiance.

Even with all these reference points rattling around in the Sherman tank of Supagroup's sonic presentation, they manage to update the sound to include their own twisted personalities and perspectives.

"I've never stopped loving Rock & Roll and what it means," says Lee. "We definitely are living it now, so all those songs are based on what we do with just a little bit of exaggeration thrown in here and there. I'm a storyteller and I'm just gonna tell you exactly what I'm trying to say. There shouldn't be too much interpretation."

The band was started back in 1996 by Lee and his guitar-playing younger brother, Benji, in their home of Anchorage, Alaska. Both brothers had been in bands; Chris was dividing his time between Anchorage and New Orleans where he had a band, while Benji remained home and worked in a teenage outfit.

"I was just kind of waiting for Benji to get out of high school," says Lee. "We'd always wanted to do a band together. He was a guitar prodigy. He was awesome when he was 13, so I was like, 'I'm gonna exploit this kid.' "

During Chris' last year back home, he joined Benji on a long summer construction project in an isolated area ("Bumfuck, Alaska, where you could only get to us by float plane ... ") which gave them plenty of time to consider the band they were planning. By the time they actually assembled Supagroup, it had been months in the planning.

"We were working 12 to 15 hour days, and we'd come home totally exhausted and just talk about what we were gonna do in our band," says Lee. "We saved all our money and wrote and recorded our first album in Alaska. We had already done a record before we really had a band. We used a friend of ours on drums and I played bass."

The pair decided to move operations to New Orleans, where they met bassist Leif Swift and drummer Michael Brueggen in 1998, determined they would be a perfect fit for the kind of music they had in mind. Supagroup began a relentless five-year schedule of touring, taking opening spots on bills with Drive-By Truckers, Fu Manchu, Queens of the Stone Age and Supersuckers. In between, the band put together a couple more self-released albums to help spread the word.

After fending off several approaches from major labels — some of them blatantly offensive for suggesting that the Lees dump their band — Supagroup finally signed with indie Foodchain in 2002 and released their first widely distributed album the following year. The self-titled release created a decent buzz around Supagroup, which the band stoked with even more varied and tightly booked touring.

When the band was ready to work on their next album, they decided on a few changes. Their Foodchain debut had been made at home in New Orleans with Pop producer Trina Shoemaker and, while they were happy with the result, it presented some issues.

"When you're at home, you can see your girlfriend and your dog," says Lee. "It's more like, 'Oh yeah, I'm making a record.' "

For the follow-up, Supagroup solicited veteran Rock producer Kevin Shirley, who recorded the band in New York. The change of scenery made a huge difference.

"We were in another city, we had to go to work every day, and we didn't really party because we were trying to keep it together," says Lee. "We were a lot more focused. And we had everything pretty much written. We came in ready to record."

The other big difference was in the actual recording process. On the previous album, the band played the basic tracks and then Chris and Benji went back in and overdubbed the majority of the finished guitar parts. Shirley insisted on Supagroup playing to their strengths.

"Kevin was like, 'No, that's bullshit. You guys are a good live band, and you know these songs. I'm just gonna make you play them 100 times in a row and then we're gonna pick the best take,' " says Lee with a laugh. "That was the biggest difference. We did everything live; even Benji's solos were live. And you can hear a lot of mistakes in there ... at least we can. But I'd take mistakes over perfection any day, because Rock & Roll isn't perfect."

SUPAGROUP plays Sunday at the Southgate House with Disengage.