After more than two decades in an ever-growing panapoly of potent Rawk outfits, one might think that Tom Pappas would lose track, lose focus–hell, lose a whole @#$in’ step, after so many years playing the role of ravenous , rock ‘n’ roll animal to the bottom of the hilt.
One might think so, if one didn’t know the man they call The Senator very well. The truth is that Pappas–whom many will recognize as longtime bassist for Knoxville ’90s power-pop indie stars Superdrag–revels in exploring the depths of his impressive catalog, in finding new ways to vent his bestial id through the clangorous medium of guitar, bass and drums.
And as to the staying power of his famously frenetic performance chops? “People see the shows and pretty much lose their minds,” Pappas says in an interview from his East Nashville home. “So I’m going to say, yes, the passion is still there. Really, playing is like therapy for me. It’s an expungement of sorts.”
A Philadelphia native, Pappas moved to Knoxville during his college years, where he set about establishing himself as one of the city’s scrappiest rockers, an ardent acolyte of Iggy, Keif and Johnny Ramone. Upon joining with local boys John Davis, Don Coffey, and Brandon Fisher in the aforementioned Superdrag, Pappas brought elements of grit and ferocity to the band’s brew of dulcet melodies and caffeinated Big Star pop.
He moved to Nashville in 1999, after leaving Superdrag. And the years since his departure have seen continual revisions and revisitings of previous projects–a 2003 reunion of Knox punk-rock act The Used; a Superdrag reunion; more releases from his indie solo side project Flesh Vehicle–interwoven with a handful of new ones.
Pappas’ most recent endeavors have been issued under the moniker The Tom Pappas Collection. That included the 2012 compilation 20 Years of the Senator, 20 songs–some original versions, some re-recordings–from across the spectrum of his career, from the Used and Superdrag to Nashville trio Rock City Birdhouse. Now he’s recording 10 new tunes, also for release under the TPC name.
“I wanted to write something with a little different sound than what I usually do–which is loud guitar rock, punk rock,” Pappas says. “I wanted something with some jangle to it, but still intense. It sounds kind of like [the Rolling Stones’] “Street Fighting Man” meets the Violent Femmes. Plus there’s some British Invasion, some Ramones, some Dick Dale. It sounds a little like a demented Everly Brothers.”
In performance, his present power trio–featuring Toby Penner on bass and drummer Nate Moran–burn through a crackling mix of new rockers and Pappas classics. Pappas says he usually plays a heavily-distorted acoustic guitar for the early portion of the show, before switching to electric midway through, “when things start to get louder.”
Pappas says he enjoys the freedom of having so many projects, such a large catalog. And many of his former bands–including Superdrag, which happens now at the pleasure of singer/chief songwriter/fellow East Nashvillian John Davis–reside in that modern-day rock limbo where a reunion is always possible, if not always imminent. “I’ve got a weekly gig at a Nashville bar called the Five Spot,” he says. “They say you’re not supposed to play too often in the town you live. But I can feasibly feature a different band I’ve been in every week, and not repeat myself for months.”
The biggest difference between Pappas now and the Tom Pappas of his Knoxville years is that the mop-topped rocker no longer counts music as his main gig. His day job now is something called Pappas Construction, a small contracting outfit that sees the Senator do everything from carpentry to remodeling to handyman/maintenance.
His change in approach is partly due to a change in perspective. “When I was in Superdrag, and we ‘made it’ for a while, or whatever it is we did, it just kind of happened,” Pappas remembers. “We did an awful lot of hard work, but in the end, things happened because things just suddenly fell into place. And I realized there are lots of people who work just as hard, and nothing ever happens.
“Plus, I enjoy what I do at work. There are times when I’m working, and I’ve got cuts on my hands and I’m doing dangerous things, where, yeah, I’m probably thinking about how I’d rather be playing a rock show. But then there were times when I played 250 shows in a year with Superdrag, moments where I wouldn’t have minded being off the road, doing some home improvement. It’s all about staying in balance.”
The Tom Pappas Collection will headline the Preservation Pub Saturday, Dec. 28 in the Smokeasy along with local Americana stalwarts Mic Harrison and the High Score. Show starts at 10 p.m.