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By Tim Roberts
Mike O'Connell hitched the notchless lapels of his tuxedo jacket. "Man, I feel sexy!" The 22-year-old drummer for Superface smiled, his soft brown eyes crinkling. We were standing close to the stairs leading to the balcony at Headliners Music Hall on the third night of Harvest Showcase, the yearly multi-day music festival benefit produced by Chaz Rough and funded by a dozen or so Louisville businesses. The Showcase provides two forms of sustenance: several tons of food to Kentucky Harvest to help the needy, since part of the admission price was five canned goods, along with an opportunity for bands – local and otherwise – to show their talents to the invited music label reps who make their way to the city.
It was into the final show and growing late. Superface was to close it out sometime after one a.m. With me and Mike stood Chris "Mavus" Davis, Superface's lead singer, and bassist Jason Stepp, towering more than six-and-a-half feet tall with fingers as long and sturdy as new pencils.
It had been a long day for the band. Earlier that afternoon, Superface's rhythm guitarist Shane Spicer got married. The band had arrived at Headliner's in variations of their tuxedoes: Chris wore his trademark white crinkled silk French-cuff shirt with the lapels flaring outside his jacket, Jason was in a tee-shirt and tux slacks, Mike wore a semi-complete ensemble, forgoing the bow tie and wearing sneakers instead of black shoes. Shane, without his tie, waited by the front door with his bride, Erica. The only exception was lead guitarist Gene East, who arrived wearing a boxy Serpico-style leather jacket (boxy with raised piping down the front and lapels as wide as Nebraska) buttoned to the top over a flower-print shirt.
Superface looked snazzy, though they were ready to finish the evening and head back to their homes in southern Indiana. But lateness and wedding-day exhaustion didn't keep them from punching a hole through an intense, short set of their moody rock to a thinned-out crowd. After finishing with "Negativity," an angry piece about incessant criticism and cynicism, Chris abruptly said "Good night" at the tail end of the final chord and dropped the microphone. It made a loud thunk that blurted through the speakers. He stormed off the stage, quickly and without speaking.
During any Superface performance, Chris is the locus of the music. Instead of stage acrobatics like cavorting, twirling the microphone stand, or contorting his face into some mask of angst, he moves and gestures dramatically, as if feeding off the mood of the song being played, illustrating it with an accurately expressive body. The more intense the song, the more intense are his motions. Blue flames shine from his deep-set eyes. It seemed that night he had he drawn in so much of the song that he worked himself into a mild rage, combined with the exhaustion of the performance and the wedding.
The next evening, over appetizers at Ditto's restaurant, I wanted to check into that read of the band's performance. Turns out Chris was only fighting the last nagging little pain of a sore throat held over from a cold he had suffered the previous weekend. So what I interpreted as his angst was nothing more than a raw throat, irritated by his smoking habit, which he kicked after the show.
"I am not smoking cigarettes ever again," he declared that evening at Ditto's, both hands raised. "I haven't had a cigarette since yesterday evening. It's driving me insane, but I'm gonna do it."
His bandmates at the table clapped for him after he made his declaration. And he most likely will stay off the smokes. Chris is one of five cheerful, determined members of Superface, guys in their early- to mid-twenties who have found a vibe and are humming with it. It's an all-original vibe that blends a sensuous texture in the bass and drum lines, minor-key power chords, and tight solos, alternating with tunes that contain sprightly acoustic strumming from Gene East. Their lyrics are vaguely themed in smothering relationships ("Electric Cemetery"), retribution ("Landslide"), reaching out to those locked inside themselves ("Kicking the Brick Wall In"), and sacrifice ("Purity"). As a band, Superface is dawn-to-dusk, work-the-land cousin to the angry-white-middle-class alterna-punk sound that spread from Seattle early in this decade. The dramatic potency of their whole sound, their effect, theirvibe, is authentic.
"We actually didn't start out with that sound," Chris said. "It took about three years to get it. When we started out the sound was rough and the arrangements simpler."
The sound they have developed sound managed to get the attention of the Louisville Music Industry Alliance (formerly the Louisville Music Consortium), the organization that came up with the roster of acts that performed at City Stage, the weekly Louisville music showcase that ran from late July through mid-September. They have recorded demo tracks at Allen-Martin Productions and Distillery Sound but haven't released a cohesive collection of their work – nothing officially, that is, except "Purity," which receives airplay on Keith O'Lone's "Unsigned Prime Time" program on WFTX-FM.
So how can a band with a vibe all its own snag this kind of attention at two major showcases without a CD in the works and limited airplay of only one single? Two reasons: a regular gig to display their vibe and a manager who already represents a major national act.
As you travel south on Bardstown Road, just after you drive under the six-lane Waterson Expressway viaduct, the sign for the Toy Tiger slams your eyeballs. It juts up from the edge of the street, a gaudy trapezoidal monolith in carnival neon. The exterior of the club itself is bathed in lavender light. Inside there is a bar and a dance floor walled with mirrors. Through a pair of wooden double doors is a circular, tiered lounge with a large stage. A chandelier that looks like a nest of amber stalactites glows dimly from a recess in the ceiling. Feathered patterns on the dark carpet are painted in fluorescent blue, red, and yellow. Through a wide opening next to the stage is another bar and a line of pool tables.
It's as if a tiny seed from Las Vegas blew across the continent about three decades ago and took root in a business district.
The Tiger is known as a home for metal bands and hot-banana-eating contests. It is also the place where Superface makes frequent appearances, though no fruit – heated or otherwise – is consumed during their shows. The broad stage allows the band to spread out. Each member gets his own space to play, plus it gives Chris all the room he needs to display his theatrics to bring the audience into the band's vibe.
"He's not afraid at all," Gene said, nodding at his bandmate.
Chris acknowledged with thanks and said of his dramatics, "It's all natural. A lot of it is suppressed excitement and emotions that all come out at once. It took a lot of guidance from everybody on that [at first]. Everybody was saying, ‘Dude, you need to loosen up. Let's go up there and make it our stage.'"
"I think Chris keeps a lot of that bottled in," Jason added. "He's not like that on any normal day when we practice. Once he gets on stage, it's a whole different thing."
I witnessed that "whole different thing" during their show one evening at the Tiger. They were into their song called "Wispy," Mike's kick drum and Jason's bass rattling my lungs. Lighting operator Maggie Broughton bathed the stage in bright emerald. A burst from the smoke machine spread across and behind the band. Chris glided seductively from between Gene and Mike to the front of the stage, and approached microphone ready to sing in his sculpted baritone voice.
I snatched a quick glance around the room. Every pair of eyes was aimed at the stage. Two songs later, a trio of women in short black skirts got up from their seats by the stage and lay dollar bills at Chris's feet. "That's never happened before," he said with an uncertain chuckle. He then rolled one of the bills lengthwise and stuck it behind his ear where it stayed for the rest of the show.
"It is everybody [in the band] who has an influence on what I do," Chris said. "It's the vibe of all of us together that produces that energy. It's a lot about us expressing ourselves as people onstage and feeding off that. It's not about showing off."
The Superface vibe, then, is rich with sound and motion without being dense and bass-driven or gnarled with guitar noise and vocals that are nothing but screams with consonants thrown in. It rumbles from within the dark, moist places and invites you to stay awhile.
"We're not like one of those bands you can go and dance to," Jason said.
"We met Gary right over there," Shane said, pointing across Ditto's dining room to the raised bar area. He was referring to Gary Meeks of Wild Justice Management, manager of Days of the New (and father of Travis, their lead singer), the band that, arguably, put Louisville on the list of Music Meccas in the April issue ofPlayboy. Strong and supportive management from Gary is the other major reason for Superface's success.
"Ever since then there has been nothing but progression," said Chris. The rest of the band agreed that once they break onto the national scene, there should be a plaque affixed to the wall commemorating the meeting.
While Superface adamantly refutes any opinions that they are riding on the coattails of Days of the New, the fortunes of the two bands are peripherally linked mainly through Jesse Vest, current Days of the New bassist and formerly of Superface. Jesse left the band on good terms for a new outfit called Dead Reckoning, which later changed its name to Days of the New. Jason eventually filled the bassist slot.
Superface went through a hammering, stressful period of finding a direction, as all bands do. The result is either a cohesive unit or a crumbled pile of frustrations and anger. Usually what happens after that first result is what makes a band. In the case of Superface, it's what happened after thesecond result.
"About three years ago," Chris explained, "we played cover songs and wrote some of our own stuff as well. We went on the idea that in order for us to get out and play our own stuff, we'd have to do covers. Then we got to the point where it was getting frustrating playing other people's stuff, and we didn't have support from management. We had tried to get it a few times in the past. But we broke up in December of 1996."
One month later – January, 1997 – Chris received a call from Gary Meeks. Jesse Vest had shared a Superface demo with him. At that point, the band officially did not exist. According to Chris, Gary had said, "I was just seeing if I could get you guys into the studio to do some recording."
"Let me call you back," was Chris's reply. He then called the other four.
"We needed that time apart," Mike said, reflecting. "There were a lot of emotional boundaries, personal differences, attitudes."
"We were wracking our brains three, four times a week practicing five and six hours straight," Gene said. "Then we were working on finding places to play. It got to the point where nobody wanted to come to practice, nobody was concentrating on what they were doing. So we felt like we needed to break up."
"The call from Gary put the fire back in," said Mike.
Gary Meeks has been the band's connection to Louisville music and the industry for almost two years. He has helped Superface attract attention from Virgin Records and MCA. He's been a mediator and mentor for a band thankful for his direction and support.
"He's doneeverything," Jason explained. Everything short of playing their instruments for them.
The band acknowledges the indirect link between themselves and Days of the New, via their shared manager, but that's as far as it goes. They also acknowledge the Days of the New's part in getting Louisville onPlayboy's short list of Music Meccas.
"They started it all," Mike declared. "They were a new act that used the acoustic atmosphere to change, I guess, the style of the music. Nobody's ever attempted that."
Gene used a comparison to summarize what Days of the New had accomplished for Louisville music: "If it weren't for Bruce Springsteen, we'd all still be listening to disco."
When asked what new direction the band would like to take, the unanimous answer was "keyboards." Chris played them when Superface did cover songs. He said he'd like to get back into playing again.
"I don't want to be just a guitar head," Gene said. "I'd like to branch out and try different instruments. Add different textures." Others in the band talked about adding horns, strings, and some world-beat to a few selections.
There is also the possibility of a name change. Several Superfaces already exist in other cities.
Meanwhile, the Superface here is enjoying the attention from the music community, support from management, and each other. Gene told us, "You can have great tones, but you also gotta have management, people with guidance, instead of trying to do it all yourself. That's why a lot of bands give up because they work so much at it that they're worn out. You've got to stick together as a band, as a family."
"For a band to start getting recognition," Jason added, "you need to get your own sound and not sound like everybody else. I think we've branched off and got our own little groove going."
"I think it's important to cut demos - " Shane said.
"Good,clean demos," Gene emphasized.
" – cause you can get them out to a lot more people than playing a show where four people show up. But you also have to be on top of both recording and playing live."
Off show time or rehearsal hours, the members of Superface work, attend school, and live with their families. Shane and Erica have begun their lives together. Gene and his wife Toni have two children: Zack, age five, and a baby daughter named August Brianne.
For the five men of Superface, being in a band is like being married. The only difference is you don't have to worry about leaving shaving stubble in the sink or wet pantyhose slung over the shower curtain rod.
"It's gotta be high on your priorities," Jason said.
* * *
The author thanks Jason Stepp for keeping me connected to the band, and Kerry and Doreen at Headliners Music Hall for providing comfort and joy.