Ever get that itch that can only be soothed by one specific and elusive thing? You don’t always know what that is until your tongue is lolling out and your foot is pounding the floor in appreciation. Often, the fix is something simple: a burger, a beer, a band. In Austin, Texas, last March, it was the latter—a good rockin’ New Orleans tornado called Supagroup—that soothed the people. The band played three shows, each packed like stretch pants on chocoholic conjoined twins. People wore stupid grins, spilled beers, mimed guitar solos, pumped fists, provided drunken “backup vocals.” It begged the question, Why don’t bands rock like that anymore? No better person to ask than Supagroup vocalist-guitarist Chris Lee.
“This band is founded on the principle,” he expounds. “What would we wanna go see? And we would wanna go see a band fuckin’ rock ass. There haven’t been that many bands that kick ass in the last 10 years,” he laments. “People are afraid to go for it, like it’s not cool to really wanna give it all. I don’t agree.”
Lee and his lead-guitarist brother Benji formed the band (rounded out by bassist Leif Swift and drummer Michael Brueggen) in New Orleans in the mid-’90s. Their first two albums, Planet Rock (Prison Planet, 1996) and the live We Came to Rock You (Chicken Ranch, 1999) laid bare their balls-out rock ethos; tours drove it home. Supagroup, the band’s debut for Los Angeles indie Foodchain Records, declares its gospel for their frothing congregation of fans, under Lee’s soulfully screeched creed, “Fuck off, non-believers!”
But the band’s three-chord, solo-smothered swagger (think 1980s Sunset Strip rock on Supersuckers steroids) is more than revivalism. It’s happiness sounded through the classic Gibson guitars/Marshall amps configuration—and the people are feelin’ it.
“We get a lot of people slapping us on the back and saying, ‘Yeah! I haven’t seen that in a while.’ And it’s cool. It’s rewarding. It feels like we’re not doin’ this for nothin’. It feels good. It’s exciting. People smile.”
Lee is quick to point out, however, that Supagroup is just one of several bands flying the flag for no-bullshit rock & roll. The Supersuckers, Burning Brides, Drive-By Truckers and a host of other bands all get supa-props from him for rocking and writing simple, yet awesome, rock tunes.
“You’ll actually take heat for that now, for writing a song that’s catchy. And today—and I don’t wanna be all negative and talk shit about other bands—but when I turn on the radio, I don’t hear that. You know what I hear? I hear some A& guy talking to his marketing person saying, ‘You know what? This scored this way with this demographic.’ They’re trying to find some middle ground where nobody’s offended. It’s like, ‘What’s gonna make people not change the channel?’ It’s not an accident that they’re all the same.”
To be honest, Supagroup’s albums can be called homogenous, too. The difference, Lee maintains, lies in that Supagroup’s songs come from the same visceral spontaneity as a one-night stand, or better, a bathroom quickie. For instance, the riff and rhythmic grind on “One Better” are nothing AC/DC hasn’t repeatedly committed to tape in the last 30 years. Ditto “Rock & Roll Tried to Ruin My Life” and “Woulda Been Nice,” with its supremely hot, gang-vocal background “yeahs.” Even the bluesy roadside saloon swoon of “Murder, Suicide, Death” is derivative. But why analyze? It’s just a lotta fun.
“When we write a song, it starts out with, ‘Hey, Chris!,’” Lee explains, saying Benji comes to him with a riff, he conjures a chorus, “something to sing over.” There’s “no fuckin’ second-guessing or playing it for focus groups. There’s nothin’ to it. I don’t understand how it got so scientific.”
So exactly how well does Supagroup scratch the itch for simplicity and soul, something real in the face of test-tube homogeny? Well, those sweaty, riotous Austin shows happened as part of the annual South by Southwest convention, thus the crowds were all jaded industry-types—notoriously tough to snap out of cool aloofness. It’s a trick they pull off often and with flair, even in L.A., the capital of façades.
“We were playing the Viper Room,” Lee remembers. “Like, the hardest crowd, maybe, in the country. It’s L.A., so everyone’s in a band and they’re just standing with their arms folded and judging you. It’s the Viper Room, where everybody’s gotta be all cool and shit. And it’s a showcase, so it’s almost all industry. And yet, we still fuckin’ got the crowd going. You could never predict that and if you wanted to make it happen, it never would.
“I don’t know what that means, but there’s definitely something that gets people riled up when the amps are on 11 and you’re playing Gibsons. There’s really no substitute for that.”