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Family Values
After a long hiatus from recording, Super 400 return with their first album in six years, and find themselves with a growing family of friends and supporters

By John Brodeu

 

 


Photo by:
By Leif Zurmuhlen

 

Let’s pick up where we left
off, shall we?

The last time we caught up with the members of Super 400 (at least in this publication), it was somewhere around 1998. Their self-titled debut CD had been licensed by a subsidiary of Island Records (from local label Cacophone) and was just about to see international release. Not too shabby. They had quickly become one of the area’s most talked-about bands, due in large part to a busy live-performance schedule and a throwback sound that set them apart rather widely from the power-pop that dominated the local music scene at the time. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the trio until . . .

“They fired everyone that was involved with signing us,” says singer-guitarist Kenny Hohman.

“It was a great day,” quips drummer Joe Daley.

Through the modern miracle of the corporate merger, a company better known for making wine coolers than CDs bought Island, and Super 400 was, almost simultaneously, once again an unsigned band.

“We couldn’t even get copies of our record,” continues bassist Lori Friday. The band’s lawyer, Jonathan Horn, warned them to contact the label to try and recoup the remainder of their CDs, but they quickly found that, as label politics go, that is all but impossible.

“They wanted to charge us full price for our albums,” says Hohman, still more than a little incredulous at the process. “They ended up in bins,” adds Friday. “We get e-mails from all over the world from people saying ‘I just bought your record for 50 cents.’ ”

The loss of a record deal has been the death knell for many a rock band, and understandably so. While it doesn’t necessarily mean going back to the proverbial square one, it does require a lot of focus and persistence, not to mention a certain amount of goal reassessment. For Super 400, having the corporate rug pulled out from under them turned out to be a hard-but-necessary lesson, if not a blessing in disguise. While Friday admits to a short period of uncertainty—“What would anyone do if that happened to them? We just made this record that we really like, but what do you do?”—as it turns out, the conditions of a major-label-contract dissolution worked to their favor.

“We had a pay-or-play clause for our second record which helped out a little bit for a while,” says Hohman. That means the band was able to keep the monetary advance from their now-former label, which enabled them to upgrade their gear and purchase a van—well, a converted moving truck, actually. “That thing was a lemon,” Daley says. “It broke down, like, 14 times,” adds Hohman. (They’ve since moved on to a more conventional white van.)

So what exactly have they been up to for the last six years? Anyone up to speed on the local club scene would recognize that the band has continued to play out with some amount of regularity, but to an outsider, the absence of a new album might have cast some doubt on the band’s future. Needless to say, they’re still here, and they’ve kept busy.

“We just carried on and did a lot of side projects in the meantime,” explains Hohman. “Besides doing our own thing, we did a lot of backup work for singers in London and here.” Among those singers was British pop singer Jamie Benson, whose record was produced by Joe Daley’s older brother, Jack. The elder Daley also hooked Hohman up with a particularly high-profile gig—a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of Lenny Kravitz’s backing band for his performance on Saturday Night Live. (Daley is, in addition to being a sought-after studio bassist and producer, a longtime member of Kravitz’s touring band.)

“He comes in and goes ‘play’ and looks at you like, ‘Who the fuck are you, punk? Are you gonna fuck me over on TV; are you gonna get nervous?’ and you’re like ‘No,’ but you are,” recalls Hohman.

While such seemingly big-time opportunities might leave some players starstruck, ready to pack their bags and ditch town in hopes of pursuing “the dream,” Friday stresses that this band comes first for them, no matter what. “We turn everything down that comes our way if it conflicts [with the band’s schedule]. . . . Our priority has always been for the three of us to stay together. If one of us gets offered a session, we’re always like, ‘Do you need a bass player? Do you need a drummer? I know this guy, he’s really amazing.’

“That’s why it’s good that we did all these other side projects and cover bands over the last four years—it makes doing something like [the Kravitz project] a lot easier, ’cause we’re so used to learning songs. It’s so easy to go in and do something when you’ve been playing Zeppelin with Tommy Grier [the band performed with vocalist Grier as the Blue Machine for two-or-so years], or whatever. We would just get together and do our thing, make it kind of like us.”

This kind of solidarity is a rare find in a rock band. It’s clear when speaking with the band that they are close friends, first and foremost—a family, of sorts. Friday has been a part of the band since 1996; she and Hohman have shared a gear-cluttered home in Poestenkill for the last two years, and the house serves as the band’s homebase for rehearsing and recording. Hohman and Daley have been playing together since high school.

The chemistry that the three members share socially holds true when it comes to their music. Despite the potential misconception that Hohman is the band’s “leader,” the trio actually have a one-for-all, all-for-one approach to songwriting.

“With us it’s very even—everybody writes, everybody has a hand in every song, and the publishing is even with our records since everybody is equal,” says Hohman. “Sometimes we do it that way on purpose. . . . Everybody’s emotionally involved in the song. I think that’s why we’re still together. I think when one person writes and everybody else just kind of falls in line . . . they don’t have any emotional involvement, so there’s no real ties to the material and they just get bored.”

Friday adds, smiling, “Plus we’re still together because we just can’t get enough of each other.”

Hohman continues, “I get a chord change and go, ‘I know this is cool but I have nothing to talk about.’ I’ll give it to Joe, he’ll take it home and stare at a piece of paper
. . . for five days, rubbing his forehead, agonizing for something to talk about.” The lyric writing is “actually fairly even on the record,” Daley confirms.

The “record” they speak of is their long-awaited second release, Blast the Message, which will be released this weekend. Nearly two years in the making, the album finds the band taking the no-frills riff-rock of their eponymous debut and building on it in some very ambitious ways. That’s not to say they didn’t have it in them before:

“The first album would have sounded a lot more textured if we had the time,” Friday points out, referring to a late-season snowstorm that caused a lengthy power outage at the studio where they were recording, forcing them to record the entire album in less than a week. Needless to say, they took a little more time recording the new one.

Blast the Message was recorded and mixed by Jack Daley. “He basically assembled a studio and brought it here . . . and built it in the house. We recorded all the rhythm tracks here. He had to do all the setup stuff and figure out how to run it. He had just gotten ProTools and didn’t really know how to use it yet, and he got it together like that,” Hohman beams, snapping his fingers to emphasize the point.

“Then he brought it home and obsessed over it for a while,” Joe Daley continues.

The album was clearly a labor of love for Jack Daley, who saw this as an opportunity to assemble his own studio and get more into producing records for other artists. And where better to start than with your kid brother’s band? His enthusiasm for making the final product sound as good as possible was evident in some of his recording and production techniques. Daley essentially tricked Hohman into recording the uncharacteristically mellow “I Wonder,” a song that Hohman initially was resistant to including on the album.

“[Jack] was just trying to trick me into having a naked moment or something,” says Hohman. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want. But then we added the drums and bass—and I didn’t record it with a click because I wasn’t even considering it being a track, I just played the acoustic guitar—and he was like, ‘This is great. I’m putting strings on it.’ ”

If Hohman ever felt the slightest bit undermined by such, er, treachery, he
doesn’t show it. “It helps make the record more broad sounding. George Laks (also of the Lenny Kravitz band) did a really nice job with those keyboard parts, and,” he adds, gesturing to his bandmates, “these guys did a good job putting drums on an acoustic guitar track with no click after the fact. Must be my superb timing,” he kids.

It’s not all introspective balladry, of course. For the most part, it sounds like a band that has found its stride, as both a unit and as individual players and songwriters. “I See Tomorrow” has a pop-
fluent verse section that smacks of early Squeeze; “World is Bright” sports a larger-than-life chorus that is simply begging for a shot at commercial radio. “Say Goodbye” rides an Abbey Road feel, right down to the solo, where Hohman expertly channels George Harrison, or better yet, Cream-era Clapton. Throughout, the band maintains the warts-and-all live feel that makes them a favorite amongst area rock fans and clubgoers. In fact, the basic tracks for 10 of the album’s 11 songs were recorded live in the studio.

Notwithstanding the quality of the album and the devotion of their fanbase, a band without a support network might as well be playing to an empty room on a nightly basis. To this end, Super 400 have found themselves with a dedicated group of supporters to help with some of the non-musical aspects of being in a rock & roll band.

“The way independent music is right now, you end up having to be everything. You have to be the songwriter, the player, the promoter, the booking agent, the marketing person—everything,” says Hohman.

“I did it for a couple years and I started to lose my identity as a member of the band,” adds Friday. “I don’t want to be that person anymore. Luckily Jim and Charlie came in, and I don’t know what we would do without them.”

She’s referring to Jim Meaney, the band’s promoter—“Jim is responsible for 24-hour promotion of [our band],” she exaggerates—and Charlie Monroe, who designed and continues to maintain the band’s Web site, www.super400.com. (Word has it a redesigned site will hit the ’net today, to coincide with the record release.) Monroe is also a tireless follower of the band who, at last check, has attended and recorded every Super 400 show for the last two years—including the band’s July performance in Nashville, Tenn.

The band expresses their gratitude for their newfound “family” several times throughout the interview. “It’s a great team of friends that help us out a lot,” says Hohman. “Most of all Jack Daley, without him the record never would have been made. . . . Jack was the one who basically built a studio and said ‘I’m gonna record you.’ If he hadn’t have done that, we’d have three or four albums worth of stuff and one album out.”

The band’s musical family has also grown of late. The trio has been performing with singer Mike Farris (of the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies) under the name Lester Fury since February. Friday says, “That’s been great. He’s got a huge fanbase, and he’s always been so generous with trying to hand those people over to us as well, like, ‘Check these guys out, too.’ Sometimes he’ll have us play a Super 400 set before his shows—he doesn’t have to do that.” Hohman adds, “He’s always talking us up and wearing our T-shirt around. . . . He’s a tireless promoter of the band.”

A more recent addition is multi-
instrumentalist Finn O’Lochlainn. After speaking with him at a show in New York City and sensing an instant chemistry, the band invited O’Lochlainn to join them at the house and see what might happen musically. It’s the first time the band has performed with a fourth member and, after a handful of live shows, the results have been quite positive. While they’re obviously still figuring out how he fits into the grand scheme of Super 400, the band, it’s clear that he’s a perfect fit for Super 400, the family.

As for what lies ahead, the band is both enthusiastic and focused. Hohman wants to “get more into just putting stuff out there, now that we have a family of able people. . . . We’re getting a little bit more savvy with having more and more friends with more and more stuff, willing to help.”

Plus, clarifies Daley, Blast the Message has actually been complete for several months. “We were just trying to decide what we were going to do—put it out ourselves, or try to get somebody to put it out.” According to their Web site, the band has in excess of 50 songs in their repertoire, which ostensibly leaves them with a lot of material yet to be recorded.

“We’re ready to record the next one now,” says Friday. “One of our philosophies now is to get our body of work documented because all you have in your life is what you’ve done. There’s no reason not to do it. We’ve got this beautiful place to record and play and all be together and make music, and we’re pretty happy about it. Every day keeps getting better and better.”

To celebrate the release of Blast the Message, Super 400 will play two shows this weekend—Friday (Oct. 1) at Lark Tavern, 453 Madison Ave., Albany (10 PM, $5, 463-7875); and Saturday (Oct. 2) at the Ale House, 680 River St., Troy (10 PM, $5, 272-9740).


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