The Making of Fire for Hire
The Interview: by Todd K Smith
“I’d like to think that, though we live in a city where they don’t seem to have rules we found our limits.” ~ Chris Lee (guitar/vocals)
Something about Supagroup’s debut made the summer of 2003 different than most. Here was a tailgate record that made you want to roll down the windows and crank it up. “Murder, Suicide and Death” had that nasty little riff with a sizzling solo, but is was the attitude that filled songs like “Rock And Roll Tried To Ruin My Life”, “I Need A Drink” and “What’s Your Problem?” that made the damn thing so special. Second record Rulers (’05) absolutely destroyed with “Bastard”, “Lets Go (Get Wasted)” and “It Tales Balls” which is still a set favorite. Now they sit on their third release Fire for Hire (released Sept 25th, 2007) and, by all indications, is gonna take the world by storm. A ramped up version of “What’s Your Problem?” is already basking in the late night monitor glow of internet fans the world over while songs like “Promise Land” and “Bow Down” prove the boys from New Orleans are ready to rock your town.
This is the band’s second disc in succession with legendary producer Kevin Shirley (Maiden, Rush, Dream Theater). His presence is undisruptive to the natural Supagroup chemistry and can only be heard in the sonic brilliance of the mix. Loaded with a dozen adrenaline-based Kung-Fu rockers, the Lee brothers (Chris and Benji) with bassist Leif Robinson Swift and drummer Michael Brueggen channel their Louisiana life-style into a mojo blend of voodoo magic. Though darker in theme and presence, the infectious humor of the group’s whimsical attitude still fills the gaps between heavy riffing and slap-stick comedy. Says guitarist/vocalist Chris Lee in our recent interview, “We like to have fun, write songs and play songs we could hear all night. That keeps our show high energy and exciting for both us and the people that come out to see us.” Chris sat down with us at their local college gig and gave us the following on the making of Fire for Hire.
The Cutting Edge: How many times have you been around the US?
Chris Lee: We’ve got to be close to a thousand shows over eight years.
TCE: You started in Alaska where your father emigrated from China?
Lee: Yeah, we formed Supagroup in 1996 while we lived in Anchorage. We played here and there and worked really hard recoding an EP called Planet Rock. Benji, my brother and the band’s real guitarist, produced it. To be honest, it was more like a demo but had some good songs on it. We were Supergroup originally but Ministry and Filter, who were really big at that time, had a side project called Supergroup so we bailed on the name and changed it to Supagroup. That’s how our Chinese father says the name. He would say “You are not a supagroup, you’re a pooper group.”
TCE: It doesn’t sound like he was very supportive of your rock n’ roll career path.
Lee: In his mind he is always looking out for us. He’s an immigrant and a firm believer in pulling up the bootstraps and working a real job - being a professional and all that. Our mom is a Pentecostal minister, so rock and roll is the devil literally. A lot of the things we write about are simply things that crack us up. We do it to make each other laugh. Yeah, we fight and disagree but at the end of the day we’re still brothers and blood is thicker than water. That now extends to Michael and Leif. We’re a band first we’re brothers.
TCE: How did you end up in New Orleans?
Lee: After releasing the EP we moved to New Orleans. Both my bother Benji and I went to college there. I was a Biology major and he got his degree in music. None of the band are originally from New Orleans. We all just moved there. Back then (1996-97) it was one of those places you moved too. Brueggen our drummer was one of my good friends but he was in another band at the time called Syrup. They were huge. We would help each other book our individual tours. Leif was a guy I bonded with over Devo. We’re both big Devo fanatics. When we fired our old bass player over his meth problem, Leif got the gig.
TCE: How long did it take to build a following?
Lee: We’re still doing it. Ha! Ha! We made some noise in the southeast after the first year or so. Then we’ve been lucky to be on some really good tours playing with Alice Cooper and the Supersuckers. The chemistry between us is amazing and really shows when we play live. Brueggen is a classic in-the-pocket drummer and Leif is totally an amazing guitar and bass player. The first show Leif played was on his birthday with Dick Dale. He might seem like the quiet guy in the band but when he gets going, he’s hilarious.
My brother is the serious guitar player. He plays this old guitar, a 1972 SG Pro which they only made in the early ‘70s. He’s had two stolen, which really sucks, but he loves playing them. I think his current one he got off E-bay. It took me a long time to come around to the Les Paul. I never played a Standard before. I tried other people’s guitars but I never liked the fat neck. One day this guy came into the bar that Benji works at and seriously needed drug money. He offered to sell his Les Paul for $500 cash. Benji called me and I gave him the money plus two free shots. It’s a heavy guitar but there’s nothing like its sound.
TCE: Is it true the band is based on dead rock stars? You mimic Bon Scott; Leif goes for that Cliff Burton look, etc…
Lee: Naw that’s just a joke that’s made it into the press. We have influences like everybody else. Bon Scott is my favorite singer. He’s who I listen to as a singer. You are a product of your influences. When I first started, I didn’t know how to sing so I sang like Lemmy (Motorhead). After a while I gravitated to a more distinct sound. Now I think I sound like myself but I do have some left over Bon Scott-isms when I sing. It’s more of an attitude thing.
TCE: As a producer, what does Kevin Shirley bring to the band?
Lee: By the time we got to Kevin we had made three or four records on our own with producers and without. We did one with Jack Edino (Nirvana). We were the only spec record he did in is entire career. He’ll always get paid but he just wanted to work with us. When Kevin came in we were under the opinion that we knew how to make records. He was, as Benji puts it, the guru we didn’t think we needed. It’s not like he tried to change us. He was like (in a snobby British accent), “You guy are good at playing together in one room. Don’t move the instruments to different rooms. You should all be playing together in one room.” That was the big difference. There’s a magic doing it all together.
He did help us with songs. On “Promise Land” we were missing the chorus. So he says, “For your homework tonight boys, write a chorus.” That night Benji wrote the chorus to that song. Shirley was right absolutely right. Now the song is a favorite. We did the whole record in twelve days including mixing, which was insane but we were well rehearsed.
We’re big believers in practice. We live in New Orleans, we party hard and rock hard. When we recorded the second record Rules we had just finished 20 months of straight touring so when we got to the studio we were tight. We’d practiced all those songs on the road in front of people. Our records represent different areas for us. The first record had the attitude but I don’t think we pulled it off that well. The second record was more focused and we pulled off the attitude and the songs.
TCE: With Fire for Hire the songs explode off the record. How much time was spent rehearing that set?
Lee: A lot. This album we did the same way only it is colored by the fact that we went through this crazy, once-in-a-lifetime, rollercoaster ride called Katrina. People we knew died. Our houses were destroyed. My dog of 15-years was killed. It did make the record a little darker and more serious. It was a reevaluation period where I faced myself as a grown man doing a young man’s game - living this fantasy of rock n roll. I have a biology degree. What am I doing with it? All those thing come into play. But after all that we came to the realization that we’re doing what we love and what we’re best at.
We’re still funny guys and even in the face of Katrina we deal with it using humor. I’d like to think that, though we live in a city where they don’t seem to have rules we found our limits. We want to have fun, have a good time. We play music we actually like playing. We’re not playing music just to get signed or to be famous or sell a lot of records. We play the stuff we love playing and it makes a big difference after you do the songs night after night.
TCE: Where do you see yourself as a guitar player and singer?
Lee: Well I have my brother Benji, who is absolutely amazing so I don’t have to work that hard. I’m a Malcolm (Young) guy. I’m a rhythm player. Most rhythm players don’t get a lot of credit but it’s crucial to hold that down. If you look in the pantheon of great band’s there’s not that many singers that also play guitar. There’s Metallica, The Beatles and Kiss. I’m not the biggest Kiss fan but I do listen to how Paul Stanley plays and sings and I admire that.
TCE: How do you and Benji get along?
Lee: We’re best friends but that doesn’t mean we don’t fight or have disagreements. He’s a little younger than me so he’s into Weezer, stuff like that - where I’m more old school Jane’s Addiction and Pixes. We’re both fans of really good songs. We write songs that are more closely related to Cheap Trick and Kiss DNA-wise. That’s our MO. If you can remember it after you hear it you can sing it back. We practice that with our audience. We would fit great on a bill with The Donnas, Mooney Suzuki, or Jet. But how great would it be to go out with Metallica or AC/DC!