Tom Pappas with Flesh Vehicle: “Perfect State of Grace”
There’s more to singer/songwriter Tom Pappas than just his connection to erstwhile Knoxville indie rockers Superdrag; and if you didn’t know that, you simply haven’t been paying attention the last 10 or 15 years.
Truth be known, there was always more to Pappas than the ‘drag—the former Elektra Records/MTV buzz-bin outfit that made his mop-topped profile something of an icon, at least in certain circles. Because prior to Superdrag, Pappas was leader of seminal ‘90s Knox punk-rockers The Used; and it was during his time with the band that he birthed his ongoing solo project Flesh Vehicle.
Then again, for every fan who still clings to that particular portion of Pappas’ past, there are others yet who don’t remember it. “There are lots of people who have no idea about Superdrag,” Pappas says, on a break from his latest construction job back home in Nashville.
“They know I was in some band that had some success, but they have no idea what that was about. It’s kind of an interesting situation.” For the record, Pappas was the original bass player in Superdrag, the four-piece local power-pop outfit founded in 1992 over the course of countless Fort Sanders keggers. The band eventually signed to Elektra Records, put out a couple of beautiful big-budget releases and one well-traveled alterna-rock video and single (“Sucked Out”), then got kicked back to the ranks of indie-dom where they issued another handful of fine records on Arena Rock Recordings.
Pappas served on four-string until the late ‘90s, when he left to pursue his own music, though he took up the mantle again in 2007, part of a three-year reunion stint that saw the band issue yet another LP, Industry Giants, on their own label.
In the meantime, Pappas has been a busy guy, starting a construction company, yet still pursuing his artistic muse with more fervor than most careerists. The last few years have seen a veritable onslaught of Pappas-related releases—records by his Nashville outfit Whip in 2008 and 2009; Industry Giants in ’09; Flesh Vehicle releases in 2010 and 2011; the latest from his Rock City Birdhouse project in ’12; and a couple of releases under the name Tom Pappas Collection, including a 20-song anthology covering the spectrum of his recording career in 2013, and his latest effort, Bomb Shelter, self-released in 2014.
With so much history behind him, it’s small wonder that Pappas has decided to issue new work under the TPC moniker. “It gets pretty confusing,” he chuckles. “I’ll come to town with a band, and people say, ‘I’m going to see Tom play.’ And somebody asks, ‘Which configuration?’ ‘I don’t know.’ So this way, you get the best of everything, and I can play the songs I most want to play.”
Pappas’ new record, Bomb Shelter, bears all the tell-tale signs of Pappas’ solo projects—the Stooges-esque propulsion, the Wayne-Coyne-on-bad-acid vocals, the occasional glam and psychedelic flourishes to lend the rough-hewn punk edginess some glittery sheen.
But there’s a twist this time around, inasmuch as Pappas recorded the whole record on an amplified acoustic guitar. He says he was inspired to do so by his love of the Violent Femmes and the Rolling Stones—think “Jumping Jack Flash,” or “Street Fighting Man”—and by a desire to see his vocal tracks thrust higher in the mix, at least for this go-around.
“Every time I’ve made a record, it’s usually really loud guitar music, and the vocals tend to get stepped on,” Pappas says. “This time, I wanted something where you can really hear me sing. There’s a little bit of jangle, and a little bit of distortion. Sometimes the guitars actually get lost; but I kind of dig it. Even though I doubt I’ll do it again.”
Pappas adds that he nonetheless performs the Bomb Shelter songs on electric guitar at live shows: “I had a lot of friends come up and say, ‘I don’t like it when you play on acoustic; it doesn’t look right.’ And truthfully, it was kind of a pain in the ass.”
Pappas’ live set consists of songs from his entire recorded output—including a number or two from a certain erstwhile Knoxville four-piece. The Los Angeles-based SideOneDummy recently re-released Superdrag’s Elektra debut, Regretfully Yours, and now the label is preparing a reissue of its second Elektra record, Head Trip in Every Key, as a double-album vinyl set. All of which has kicked up a new round of Superdrag revivalism.
Pappas embraces his past—he says he enjoyed the limo rides and tour buses for the couple of years they lasted—but he says he doesn’t much care to relive it. “I do this stuff for fun now; I don’t put a lot of effort into getting onto labels and that sort of thing,” he says. “It’s a depressing sort of mindset to get into.
“I mean, if there’s a label out there dumb enough to put some money into a rock band, sure, I’m your Huckleberry. Otherwise I’m happy doing what I’m doing, making some authentic rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Tom Pappas Collection will play Preservation Pub Saturday, Sept. 13 at 10 p.m. along with Knoxville’s Crumbsnatchers.