The Supersuckers: Still Not Suckin’ After All These Years
By Matt Ashworth
When you’ve been together as long as the Supersuckers, you get to a point where pre-show practice and preparation are an unnecessary drill.
The night I interviewed vocalist/bassist Eddie Spaghetti at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard, he and his band dusted off the cobwebs on the country-fied version of their live show about… well, about the time the sound check started. “We’ve barely practiced at all,” Spaghetti told me. “We’re gearing up for rock mode ‘cause the new album’s coming out.” (Motherfuckers Be Trippin’ was released April 22 on the band’s own Mid-Hi Recordings}. This country show was just a spur-of-the-moment idea.”
Like their six previous albums and handful of singles, the new album is a no-surprises rock’n’roll affair. It’s also got my vote for Album Title of the Year honors.
Spur of the moment or not, the country show that night was similar to the 16 previous Supersuckers shows I’d seen — it kicked ass. The band was tight, professional and customarily laid back. Spaghetti entertained the crowd with his witty between-song banter and, as usual, on stage was the most comfortable place they could possibly be.
Having performed music since high school, it’s no surprise Spaghetti feels so at home in a live setting. When I ask how many times he’s considered hanging up his bass for a more traditional and consistent line of work over the past two decades, he answers “Never. I’m gonna be playing rock ‘n’ roll until I die, man, ‘cause that’s all there is. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m what they call unskilled labor.”
Unskilled he isn’t; a rock star he certainly is. Anyone who’s seen the Supersuckers tear through a set of their custom brand of hyper-fueled riff-rock would most likely agree with both statements. Those fortunate enough to have met him don’t have a doubt about it. Spaghetti exudes the kind of cool confidence we rock writers used to think all of our heroes had in bundles. It’s the kind that lets you wear sunglasses indoors and at night during early February. The kind that affords you nearly two decades of consistently putting out music on your own terms. And the kind that comes from being a great writer, rock star, card shark and bad-ass all at the same time. Frankly, Eddie Spaghetti has the kind of natural cool that made me a little nervous sitting down to interview him.
Which is why, halfway through my explanation of why I ‘m so excited to finally meet him, Spaghetti looks like he’s about to either bust up laughing or split my skull. “So I’ve got this wish list of rock star interviews Eddie, and… um… and you’re just below Dylan and Prince. And, um… the first time I saw you guys at Sub Pop Ultra Lamefest you were wearing a ‘Licensed to Ill’ shirt and I thought that was so cool, and then one time you hit my friend Joe in the head with your bass, and another time I used a verse from ‘How to Maximize Your Killcount’ in a writing workshop I taught to state workers, and then I saw you on the Tonight Show with Willie fucking Nelson and well, um, so, how’s it going?”
Despite my stammering, Spaghetti allows me to remain in his presence long enough to suck down two double gin and tonics and relax enough to have an actual discussion. By the time his wife and Clay Baker, a friend and local musician who fills out the band’s country line-up, join us we’re already making lists of our “favorite bands we’ve never heard” and trying to come up with “five great Canadian rock bands.”
“Canadian bands are only good if they’re funny,” he says. “Humor is Canada’s gift.” He’s right. He’s also as funny as a Canadian himself and exactly like I hoped he’d be in person — no different than his rock star persona.
Despite being a real-life rock star, Spaghetti and his bandmates, guitarists Ron Heathman and “Thunder” Dan Bolton, and drummer Dancing Bear, haven’t ever been “pop” stars; their longevity and success hasn’t made them rich. They have, however, been able to live off their band since 1992, a fact Spaghetti’s body language shows he’s extremely proud of. For the first time during our interview, his hands move as he talks, and his voice raises a bit. Eking out a living when you’re 23 and traveling across the country half-cocked is one thing, but Spaghetti is in his mid-thirties now, and he’s got a wife and two-year-old boy to support.
“There are certainly some things that have changed since we had Quatro,” he tells me. “Sacrifice is a part of life, a part of everything. But you don’t have to sacrifice as much as other people think you do. A lot of times you can supplement instead.”
It’s a wise statement, and one that certainly applies to Spaghetti’s band, as well as his family. New tracks like “The Fight Song” and “Rock’n’roll Records Ain’t Sellin’ This Year” clearly show they haven’t sacrificed rock to be a country band, they’ve just supplemented their musical canon by splitting time between the two styles. Nor is Spaghetti sacrificing fatherhood for his music. Quatro’s already toured Europe with his father in a family-style van, and after sound check at the Tractor, daddy makes a beeline for son, picks him up, and doesn’t let him go or acknowledge anyone else for at least 20 minutes. Maybe starting a family even contributed to the development of the band’s more toned-down country sound. Whatever it was, people seem grateful. The Tractor is sold-out when the band performs later that night.
If the Supersuckers were to release their country albums under a different name, an apt choice might be “Black Sabbath Arkansas” or “The Ozark Heshers.” In addition to Barker, the expanded country lineup includes a local harmonica player rumored to have once been dubbed “World Harmonica Champion.”
“He met Ron while out drinking last week and they talked music, so here he is. I hadn’t met him until tonight so I basically have no idea what the fuck he’s gonna do,” Spaghetti tells me. The harmonica bits end up fitting in perfectly with the band’s country originals, covers and slowed-down versions of their classic punk rock songs, save for a couple mis-cues the crowd either doesn’t notice or aren’t concerned about. This is a Supersuckers show after all, and when you see a band enjoying themselves on stage as much as the Supersuckers do, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.
Spaghetti tells me it took awhile for people to take them seriously as country artists, assuming it was just an extension of the band’s cowboy-hat-wearing, synchronized-guitar-posturing schtick that saw them title their first greatest hits album, The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World. “I think everyone thought it was a bit of a put-on at first,” he says. “It wasn’t until people heard the song ‘Roadworn and Weary’ that I think they realized we were serious.”
It’s a song on 1997’s Must’ve Been High, the band’s first official country music album, and anyone who heard it knew immediately that the country Supersuckers were for real. With its chorus of “Roadworn and weary, I’ve gone one too many miles, got no one near me and it’s gonna be awhile,” it’s arguably a modern country classic — one that sees the band turn down their amps and replace their chugging riffs and classic rock guitar solos with a lazy twang while Spaghetti draws from the cryin’-in-your-beer-after-a-hard-day’s-work-cause-your-woman-done-gone school of songwriting.
Despite their ability to play both loud rock and traditional country, however, you won’t find any “alt-country” on a Supersuckers record. “We like good rock, and we like good country,” Spaghetti says. “But we don’t mix the two. They serve different purposes for us.” Which isn’t to say you’re not going to hear old favorites like “Creepy Jackalope Eye” in the band’s country show — they actually play several songs from each album.
Spaghetti agrees that the separation is primarily a musical one, as his lyrics lend themselves well to either style. The shining example might be “Pretty Fucked Up,” the best track on Motherfuckers Be Trippin’ and one that sounds as good on a rock record as it did live at the Tractor. This knack for good storytelling and efficiency of language were also on full display last weekend at the band’s CD release party at the EMP. In the set-closing “How to Maximize Your Kill Count,” Spaghetti moved his character through the preparation, planning, set-up and execution of a mass shooting in just six short lines.
Pulling off such a feat isn’t an easy task for any writer, and Spaghetti seems pleased when I tell him I’ve used the verse as an example in writing seminars and that their foray into country music has resulted in more credit being given to his long-overlooked writing. “People don’t necessarily pick up a Supersuckers record for the lyrics,” he says. “But we get comments all the time, especially from kids, that they enjoy the words as well. Just ‘cause we rock doesn’t mean we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, so it’s cool when kids buy the record to rock and end up liking the lyrics a lot too.”
It’s no surprise that they do — Spaghetti’s an educated writer who will be publishing his first book, a pseudo-history of the band, sometime later this year. In the meantime, the Supersuckers will tour Europe again in support of Motherfuckers Be Trippin’. I’m sure they’re practicing a lot more than they did before the Tractor show, but they don’t really need to, they’re the Supersuckers.
Motherfuckers Be Trippin’ is out now and available in stores. The Supersuckers are currently on a tour of the States and will be back in Seattle in late June.
Read Matt’s short Q & A with Eddie
More on the Supersuckers