Supa-Rock! An On-The-Road Interview with Chris and Benji Lee of
Every year since radio started to suck, there’s been at least one or two true Rock & Roll bands — thank god in heaven above — lucky enough to break into the mainstream or make a big enough buzz in the underground to remind us of what it was like when music was actually fun and not all about complaining and senseless, misplaced anger. A few years ago Buckcherry gave us new hope for a Rock & Roll salvation with their Stones/AC DC/Motley Crue amalgam of blues, booze and tattoos. That was a fun ride while it lasted. Last year The Darkness crossed the Pond to incite wild nostalgia for glittery clothes, Freddie Mercury’s falsetto and all that was fabulous about big, bloated 70’s Arena Rock. Man, I miss those days. And while it’s still hard not to jones for Appetite for Destruction-era Guns ‘N’ Roses, now we have a sort of authentic tribute to the times we can’t quite remember but will never forget in the form of Velvet Revolver. You can’t deny that Slash still plays the pants off his contemporaries (if he even has any contemporaries). If Scott Weiland can stay off the junk, maybe they’ll stay together long enough to make a second album. And just recently Page Hamilton has resurrected his ’90s metal juggernaut, Helmet, with bassist Frank Bello (ex-Anthrax) and Black Sabbath-worshipping-tattooed-drummer-god, John Tempesta (ex-Rob Zombie). I, personally, can’t wait for that tour.
But for every Darkness and Velvet Revolver scoring a major label deal, there are dozens of hard rocking independent label bands that kick ass on a much more personal, grass roots level. New Orleans based quartet Supagroup — who truly are lovers of The Rock — make a living blanketing the nation with powerful, gritty, enthusiastic and fun live rock shows that make the crowds raise their fists and scream. Sure they think they’re the second coming of AC/DC, but what’s wrong with that? With song tiles like “I Need A Drink,” “Rock & Roll Tried To Ruin My Life” and “What’s Your Problem” these guys have the goods to extinguish all doubt that they are Rock’s Crown Princes of the moment. I know this because I’ve seen them live many times and their most recent album, Supagroup (released in Spring of 2003) makes a home in my CD player as I write this
Supagroup are lead by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chris Lee and his younger brother Benji on lead guitar. The Lees are then joined by the formidable rhythm section of Leif Swift on bass and drummer Michael Brueggen Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with the extremely delightful Lee brothers as they passed a cell phone back and forth to each other while Supagroup drove its van through Georgia on the way to another yet gig. It’s only Rock & Roll, but they like it. *
It’s been said that what Outkast did for ’70s soul in 2003, Supagroup will do for rock in 2004. How do you respond to that?
Chris: [Laughs] Well, we listen to the Outkast record all the time on the road because we got a free copy. We’re all about it, especially our bass player Leif, who is given to fits of dancing anytime that record comes on. A lot of people we meet say to us, ‘I don’t listen to the radio anymore. I haven’t bought a record in years and your band is the kind of music that I thought I’d never get to hear again.’ And these are college kids, who bought two records last year: Led Zeppelin’s How The West Was Won, and our record, which is fucking amazing. We’re always honored that anyone would buy our record. But yeah, it does seem to be connecting on the level that people feel a ‘You are Rock & Roll for our generation’ kind of thing. That’s pretty cool.
That’s exciting, because you know they’re saying Rock will be this year’s Hip Hop.
Chris: [Laughs] I don’t even know how to respond to that. I guess on a public consciousness level, Rock is coming back. The thing is, we’ve been doing this for five or six years, so to us Rock has never left. We have a lot of friends and contemporaries in Rock bands that no one’s ever heard of and most of those bands have died away already. We’ve always been immersed in Rock. To a lot of the underground rock fans it isn’t the newest thing.
Having played with bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Fu Manchu and Drive By Truckers, why do these bands give Supagroup the respect?
Benji: It’s because they’re all music dorks and we’re music dorks, too. It’s not like we’re some band that’s being pushed by some big publicity machine. We’re just a bunch of dudes in a van that play music. We’re all players, so other bands that are good, in my opinion, pick up on that. That’s why they like us, but we’re also nice guys and when they come to New Orleans we get them drunk at our bar [laughs].
Who are some of your rock heroes, as far as bands that inspired you to start your own band?
Chris: With us, of course, you have to start with AC/DC, especially the Bon Scott era. AC/DC is my favorite band of all time. My second favorite band is DEVO. Freedom Of Choice was the very first record I bought with my own money. I think what I liked so much about them was their really subversive view of the world and their sense of humor. I think that gets a bit into what we’re doing. If I were to describe us I’d say we’re [AC/DC meets DEVO].
Benji: I started playing guitar when I was ten. Malcolm and Angus Young are my heroes, of course. They pretty much taught me how to play guitar from me playing along to their records. Jimmy page is a big hero of mine, mostly for his pants, his open shirt and his magic — which is my next step. I’m a big fan of Chuck Berry, keeping it real. And Eddie Van Halen, you can’t forget him.
Chris: The [guys from the] Unband are some of our best friends!
You guys share that “Drink & Rock” attitude.
Chris: We met them at the Whiskey in LA, believe it or not. We were both on the same kind of underground circuit and had heard about each other. At first we felt like competitors but as soon as we saw them play we were like, ‘Oh! These are our brothers!’ We’ve been good friends ever since; too bad they broke up. But yeah, they were definitely our contemporaries, musically.
And your voice reminds me of Peter Frampton.
Chris: Really? I’ve never heard that. I’ve gotten Rod Stewart and Kim Carnes before though (laughs). But that’s cool. I’ll take it.
Your Bio refers to the band as being Rock & Roll Traditionalists. What does that mean to you? Do you have a basic philosophy or mission statement?
Chris: Yeah, I’d say that we play the type of music that we want to listen to. We want to fucking rock: that’s it. It’s a simple statement but it’s also kind of complicated. So many people claim to be “Rock” and there’s so many genres and sub genres. When we say “Rock,” people know what we mean. Even if you don’t like us, you’re going to get it. You’ll think, “Oh these guys listen to a lot of Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath” [laughs]. It’s pretty obvious what we think Rock is. And that’s our statement, ‘We just want to fucking rock.’
I did read a quote by either you or your brother about “Rock without the Roll isn’t valid.”
Chris: I think Benji said that, but I don’t think he said it isn’t ‘valid.’ I think he said that the ‘Roll’ is the part where it swings. Without the Roll, you’re a metal band that’s really stiff. If you don’t have the Roll, you’re a technician; you’re not feeling it.
What’s your favorite thing about playing live and touring?
Benji: Being on the road is so mundane. There’s only an hour a day when we get to do what we love, but now we have the van tricked out with movies and DVD player, so it’s getting a lot easier. Still, we’ve been doing it for so long; it’s like work, and when we’re actually playing is the only great thing about it. As far as women are concerned, I can’t speak for the action the rest of the guys are getting, but for me it’s all dudes that play guitar who talk to me after the show. And they want to talk about gear [laughs].
Which Supagroup songs are the most popular with your audience?
Benji: I like playing “Back By Popular Demand” a lot, because it’s the one we close our set with. We have this extended jam part where we get the crowd screaming and we do this whole back and forth thing with the crowd that’s really fun. Then I pretend to collapse from weakness and the only thing that will bring me back is the crowd’s applause…like what James Brown does. It’s not that fun when there are only three people there though.
Chris: The one that people always ask us to play is “Rock & Roll Star.” That’s basically twelve bar blues. It’s pretty weird that that’s so popular but it’s just a song about being on the road and not getting anywhere and playing rock music when nobody likes it. Not giving a fuck, just doing it because you love it. It’s interesting that that’s the song people connect with.
I do love that song. Some people might think it’s cliché but it really resonates with me.
Chris: I wrote that song years ago — in 1998 or 1999 — so it’s kind of an old song for us. I’d just broken up with a long-time girlfriend and I was home in Alaska — because that’s where we’re from — during Christmas. That’s the most depressing place on earth to be in the middle of the winter. It’s dark for twenty hours a day and twenty below zero. I was totally depressed and miserable. And you know, you take stock of your life at times like that; you’re like, ‘I’m a loser, man. I haven’t done anything with my life (laughs). I’m in this dumb rock band. What am I doing?’ That song was written in as long as it takes to play it. I wrote all of those lyrics in about five minutes and it was like, ‘Okay, here are all of the things that I’m complaining about, and yet, on the other hand I’m in a Rock & Roll band and that’s fucking awesome!’ I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s what that song’s about. As long as you’re doing what you want to do, it doesn’t matter whether you’re successful as defined by other people’s definition of success. When you’re happy, that’s what matters. And what makes us happy is rocking, rocking for people.
When did you move from Alaska to New Orleans?
Chris: We did it in two stages. I moved first, because I’m older than Benji. I moved in maybe 1995 and then Benji came a few years later when he got out of high school. He was a guitar prodigy and we both had our own bands. He had one in Alaska called Robot and I had one in New Orleans called Critical Dump, believe it or not [laughs]. But we knew we always wanted to be in a band together, so the summer before he got out of High School I went up there and we wrote a record as a trio. The music was much more poppy and not as heavy rock as it is now. Then he moved down here and we worked on that record and we’ve been doing it ever since.
Chris: I really am. I don’t miss it at all. I do think it’s a great place to visit in the summer, and my parents still live there, but for Christmas we don’t visit there, we make them come to New Orleans [laughs].
I like the song “Murder, Suicide, Death” which seems to be the most blues influenced song. Please tell me about that song.
Chris: That’s another straight up twelve bar blues song, but I kind of think of that as our country song. It’s all about murder and suicide and drinking and guns. You know that famous country song with the verse, “I was drunk the day my Momma got out of prison…”? The ultimate country song! To me, it’s that same kind of song, so I think of that more as like a Merle Haggard or a Johnny Cash song than a blues song, though it is a blues song. And I sing it as bluesy as I possibly can. That’s a fun one and another one where people sing along live.
It’s got a groove to it.
Chris: Yeah, it’s a blues song and a love song for someone you’re going to kill! (laughs)
Another good kick ass rock song is “One Better.” Please tell me about the inspiration for that song.
Chris: I’ll give it up for any band that can make a living doing what they do, but I just don’t see any genuine feeling or emotion in any of the stuff on the radio, particularly in the rap/metal genre. It seems that these guys have seen a formula that was set by Korn years ago and they’ve become cookie cutters — we call them ‘whiney brat rock.’ I just don’t agree with the idea that Rock & Roll is supposed to be therapy for you. Even if it is, fine, but I don’t want to be at your therapy session. Fuck you! I want to have a good time; I don’t want to hear about how mean your parents were to you. That song was just a reaction to the fact that I think most rock radio is a wasteland right now. I just don’t personally know anybody who would say, ‘Limp Bizkit is my favorite band!’ I’ve never met one person who would say that. I don’t know who these people are who are buying their records.
I’d also like to ask you about the bar that you co-own, The Saint?
Chris: Benji, Brueggen and I all work there. Leif works at Juan’s Flying Burrito about a block away (laughs). We all live and work in that neighborhood [laughs]. Come on down for a drink, we’ll be there.
Benji: We have the best rock jukebox and drinks are cheap. At midnight all the liquor is $2.00 and at Happy Hour everything is half off.