Kind of a Drag: The Jack Drag Interview
When I was small child, my favorite TV show was Dragnet. I especially loved the episodes where Officers Gannon and Friday busted in on some hippy drug nest, only to interrupt an acid freak-out party in progress. I didn’t know anything about drug abuse, but I was entranced by that ubiquitous wild music that accompanied their ill-fated trips: all spaced-out, melodic feedback, wah pedal and haunting mellotron lines. You know, music to watch faces melt by. And I wondered why such music existed only on TV show soundtracks and not in real life.
Last year, I found something that comes close to my beloved Dragnet drug freak-out music on an album called Unisex Headwave by the band, Jack Drag. Submitted for your approval: three handsome and hilarious guys from Boston who play old fashioned reverb-drenched, ’60s acid flashback rock and roll. Jack Drag could write the Handbook of Cool. Instead, they’ve reinvented retro-pop psychedelia poised to induce visions of paisley patterns on the air as your brain explodes with ecstasy. Appropriately, their new album is called Dope Box (A&M Records).
Crimson & Clover, over and over, and Incense and Peppermints for the 90’s: Jack Drag are a scene unto themselves. “That’s the best thing, I think,” says group mastermind John Dragonetti, 30. “It may work for us or it may work against us, but I’d rather be in that category than [be] another Pearl Jam or try to be the next whatever.” Master of the fuzz bass, Joe Klompus, 35 and drummer, Jason Sutter, 29 are in full agreement. As Sutter suggests, “Pearl Jam is familiar, so people buy bands who sound like them. I think Dope Box sounds enough like something you’ve heard before that you like, but you just can’t put your finger on it. With these other bands, [you] can totally put your finger right on it and say ‘That band sounds JUST LIKE this band.’ The scary thing is, they all sell records. I’d rather be something new and be somewhere in the middle.”
Dope Box, Jack Drag’s third full length release, expands on the sugar smack mellow vibe of Unisex Headwave while taking the band to the next level artistically. “We put the heavy stuff up front,” explains John, “and maybe [for] people who are used to the spacier, earlier Jack Drag albums, that might throw them off-guard. But I think if you really spend time with the rest of the album, there’s plenty of freaky sounds throughout. Radio to me is just the most evil, scary thing,” he continues. “If radio will just play the fucking thing, I think people will respond to it.” Dope Box, the band’s debut for A&M, was released September 1st.
John, you were raised in Egypt, so you lived overseas until you were in high school. What was your first exposure to western rock music?
John: It started with the American kids, most of whom were from Texas [or] Oklahoma… because of the oil connection, I think. Aside from hearing the obvious Beatles, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack [I was] into heavy stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Luckily, I was saved by a kid from Texas who was already into punk rock. He moved to Dubai (in the UAR)… and at that time I was like “Wow! The Clash!” and the Sex Pistols and Madness, it was great. Dubai is a pretty modern place, it’s just that, as far as music is concerned, they were usually three to five years behind. I was fortunate by the time I was in the ninth grade to become culturally aware in everything from music to food. I was starting to appreciate that I was in this unique environment.
When I first played Dope Box, it seemed so different from Unisex Headwave — which was in my top ten of great albums of last year. I thought “Oh No! A major label has ruined Jack Drag!” But the record grew on me and now I love it. It’s a great record.
John: Those songs [from Dope Box] were probably written about the same time as anything on Unisex Headwave. Actually, the version [of “Surfin’ the Charles”] on Dope Box is more electric than the Unisex Headwave version. It’s closer to the original demo.
Speaking of “Surfin’ the Charles” that song really conveys a mood of feeling out of place, doesn’t it?
John: Yeah, a little bit. It’s about being at a party and being stoned and wanting to go home, but feeling like you’ve just gotta be there. Again, [you’re] picking up on songs that maybe have an emotive quality to them lyrically or vocally, but they’re vague. I could probably say the same thing about “Where Are We.”
I know the previous Jack Drag records were recorded completely on four track. When you went into the studio for the first time as Jack Drag to record Dope Box, how was the recording process different?
John: It isn’t different. I think that, if we’d had an 8 track or 16 or 24 track at our disposal before, that’s part of what you would have heard here. What was different was working in a consolidated space and time, that was a challenge. You’re in a different environment and you’re out of what you’re used to.
Jason: Each song took about a month to come up with the basic track and then John would take about a month screwing around with it. Then we had two weeks to get the basic bass and drum tracks down
Joe: I had three days to play everything (all laugh).
John: I think maybe on the next one, we’ll do more of a mixture of what we did on this one, but [go] a little back to the earlier recordings. You live and learn, you know.
Jason: It’s always a progression. There’s lots of little fun things on this one. When I first heard Jack Drag for the first time, on John’s demos, I was like “This is great. It’s something new.” And that’s all. I started listening to it and then I understood where he was coming from. I think an important point to make is, if you just listen to one song, then you’re not going to get the full spectrum of what this is about, because you’re missing twelve or 13 others [that make up the record]. One song, independent, may be nothing like “Kung Fu Dub,” which is nothing like “Debutante” which is nothing like “Psycho Clogs.”
One thing I noticed is that a lot of your songs are very romantic.
Yeah, like “Tall Buildings” or “Best Friend” and the one about burning in Hell with your girlfriend, I like that one. Do you guys consider yourselves to be really romantic, sensitive men?
Jason: We’re really effeminate. We’re less likely to break bottles over heads or crush beer cans than we are to make sure our hair is okay and buy a shirt at The Gap from the girls’ side of the store.
John: [Laughing] I think everyone in this band has a certain amount of romanticism and sensitivity. Certain songs have a lot of sexuality or sensuality… something that makes you feel sad or sensual or whatever.
Jason: With “Debutante,” I remember my cousin said “Oh, that’s really sexy!” (all laugh) And that feeling can be a very hard thing to create.
Also, a lot of the — what I would call — love songs do have an underlaying melancholy about them. Like “Best Friend” is romantic, but kind of sad in the way that love makes you feel vulnerable.
John: You’re hitting the nail on the head, as far as coming from the singer or the songwriter’s point of view. Someone may interpret the Nrr Nrr, chugging guitar as hard rock, but they’re obviously only getting a portion of the picture. The love songs do have more of that melancholy feel, like “Where Are We”…
Yeah, there was some comment you made here about “Where Are We”: ‘This song is about fading love with occasional melancholy references to car racing.’ Please elaborate.
John: Oh, whoa, I didn’t expect you to ask me that.
Joe: I don’t even want to know.
John: The car racing thing is somewhat of a joke, but it’s open to interpretation. I guess it does have that feeling of something ending, even though maybe it’s not really ending. As far as the race car thing… I don’t know why that’s there, it just came out. Sorry [laughs].
How did you decide to use the name “Dope Box.”
John: The art director just plopped it on [the cover art] because we didn’t have a title and she was like “Oh, we’ll just put this on there and see what it looks like.”
Jason: There were so many incarnations that we were toying with [for a title]. Finally it just made sense, ’cause we were trying to do like an anthem… Dope Box can mean lots of things. It can mean a boom box — some people call it a dope box — or it can be something you put your dope in (laughs). It depends on who’s asking. If it’s Teen Magazine it’s definitely about your personal stereo. And if it’s High Times or Rolling Stone, it’s about getting high.
John: For High Times magazine, “Dope Box” made their “Pot Ten.”
Jason: Actually, my High School was Sandstone, so our mascot was the Stoner. The Pottsdam Stoner.
John: They had baseball caps that said “Pottsdam Stoner.”
Jason: And the jersey said “Stoner.” Do they still call themselves that?
That’s so cool. Would any of you say that you felt like outsiders or loners when you were growing up?
Joe: Oh, sure.
John: In my case anyway, we moved around a lot. It didn’t seem strange to me, it seemed normal, but I was going from one school to the next… kids were always coming and going, so it was even harder to connect. Then there were always the real popular kids, who were the sports kids and stuff like that. [That situation] sort of empassions you to want to go and do something else and be great at it, (stage whispers) be a rock star or something.
Jason: I think that’s how most rock stars start out.
John: Yeah, I think so too. [Laughs]
Jason: I was pretty popular in school actually. [John howls with laughter at this statement] It’s true, because I was playing drums — I wasn’t in sports but I was a drummer, you know. From playing drums, that’s how I would win a certain popularity.
John: You may be the exception to the rule, and luckily so. How about you Joe, did you feel like a geek growing up?
Joe: Oh sure, I mean, that’s what drove me into playing music. Ever since I was in the fourth grade, my music teacher, he was the conductor of the band and he also played the [accentuates each word] bass guitar. He brought it in to concert band one day and he sat in the front. We were playing the songs and he played the bass part along [with us]. I was the first trumpet and I was sitting there just focusing on this red bass guitar, “Wow! Wow, I want to do that!” As time progressed I thought, “I’m going to have to do this soon.”
“I’m going to have to get rid of this trumpet.”
Joe: I did. I moved on…
John: Do you play trumpet still?
John: Good, cause we can use that next time we record.
Jason: So, what happened?
Joe: There were all these people who just went out and wanted to play football. I didn’t want to because I just wanted to get home and practice playing the bass. So, I guess what happened was that everyone was looking at me as the geek, because I wanted to stay inside and not come out and play football. That just drove me to stay inside even more.
John: It’s like “Revenge rock!”
Joe: In a way it was. “I can’t do what you guys are doing and I don’t want to do what you guys are doing.” Then you can turn around and see these guys today, there is an irony to it. [All laugh].
What’s a fun thing you like to do when you’re on the road?
Jason: We love to play pool. Pool is our game. Most of the people we hang out with in Boston are all rock people who don’t have day jobs and are trying to find [ways] to waste their time. Pool is a great game to do that. So, we go out on the road and one by one I got [these two] into it. It was growing on John, and now we show up at a club and John’s looking for the pool table.
John: We play three-way pool.
Jason: John’s 1 through 5, Joe’s… I’m in the middle, I’m 6 through 10. Those are our code names too. John’s 1 through 5.
John: Call me “One Through Five.”
Jason: And that’s our code name and we try to knock each others’ balls in, and it’s fun [All laugh]. Now, take that out of context and we’re really in trouble.
Maybe we should have done this interview in a pool hall. You know, just play a game and get wacky. And speaking of wacky, what are some funny things that have happened to you on tour or at shows?
Jason: I have a whole list of great stories like this I could read off to you.
John: Well, what are some of them?
Jason: The first tour we ever did was going down to North Carolina.
Joe: That’s the story…
Jason: And we had five dates, I think. We had no money and we had an indie record out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We were going to go down there and the whole point was on the way down we were going to do this whole tour, do two dates in Baltimore and then meet our label and hang out with them — our first tour ever. So, we’re all set to go and right before we left, one of the shows got canceled. We’re like “oh bummer.” So we take off and we’re maybe eight hours out of Boston. We’re inches away from getting to Baltimore and we have two shows while we’re in Baltimore. Then one of the clubs gets completely closed down immediately and another club just decided at the last minute to cancel our show. Then the other show gets canceled. The only show we have — we’re already halfway there — is the show in North Carolina. We had all this time to kill, four days. Then we drove down and played the show to like four people.
It ended up being a four day drive down to a show, the farthest destination, to play to four people. It was miserable. There are so many more, I have like 20 of these stories written down.
John: We’ve only just begun though. I’m sure we have many more stories ahead.