CHRIS LEE (SUPAGROUP) INTERVIEW:
August 24, 2011
What do think of when you hear the last name Lee? Maybe Christopher Lee, the actor who once played Dracula — or Bruce Lee, the martial arts expert who solved all problems with the palm of his hand? But I’d like to introduce you to some other Lee’s — namely brothers Chris and Benji of the band Supagroup. The American-Chinese born musicians moved from Alaska to New Orleans in the late ’90s, formed a band, played the club scene up and down, and released such fine albums as ‘We Came To Rock You (Live)’, ‘Rock And Roll Tried To Ruin My Life’, ‘Supagroup’, ‘Rules’, ‘Fire For Hire’ and their newest release ‘Hail! Hail!’. One of the band’s songs also appeared on the motion picture ‘College’ and on their website they have been releasing a collection of funny mini-films called Amped!, about the every day life of a crazy rock’n’roll band — made like a TV reality show. The music Supagroup play is funny and sleazy ’70s inspired riff-rock which puts a smile on your face. Before the band packed their bags to do a massive tour of Europe in October and November, Supagroup frontman Chris Lee sat down to chat with Sleaze Roxx.
Sleaze Roxx: How did the album ‘Hail! Hail!’ come together?
Chris Lee: We were talking with Foodchain Records about making the fourth and last record of our deal (‘Supagroup’ 2003, ‘Rules’ 2005, and ‘Fire For Hire’ 2007) with them. They had never made any money off of us and even had to pay another label to go away when their joint venture didn’t work out — poor guys. They asked us to halve our budget, which we were kind of expecting, but we thought in that case, we should get our masters back. We couldn’t resolve it and asked to be dropped. There was no animosity, they have been reaaaallllly good to us, especially so in an era where no one is making any money. But in any case we decided to go out on our own.
Then our longtime rhythm section of Michael Brueggen and Leif Swift tendered their resignations. They had both been with us for over a decade, and wanted to do grown up stuff — like, I don’t know, start a business, start families, and… pay their rent. Shit like that. We completely understood. I had recently gotten married myself, and Benji had two kids between the ‘Fire For Hire’ and ‘Hail! Hail!’ albums. Believe me, we knew where they were coming from, and we were probably thinking some of the same things. (In Danny Glover’s voice) “I’m getting too old for this shit.” But we did convince them that they should record the new record with us before they retired, and luckily, they agreed. We went into the recording with the idea that this might be our last record, and if it was, we wanted it to be our best.
We built our own studio and took about seven months to record around twenty five songs for ‘Hail! Hail!’ We got it down to eighteen by the time Kevin Shirley mixed them, and eventually whittled it down to thirteen for the album. We shopped it around, but only Foodchain was interested in putting it out! They didn’t really want to be the label anymore however, so we took on those duties and they became our distributor and just gave us a licensing fee for the album. We in turn put that money into our promotions. We had just been through the money black hole known as commercial radio, so we knew that wasn’t going to work for us. So we put our money into making music videos and a TV pilot called Amped!. We knew Amped! was a gamble, but we thought that if we could somehow get a show on the air… well everyone has seen what television can do for the talentless parrots American Idol spews up every season. We also planned on releasing it as a webseries if we didn’t get a bite from a network, which we have since done.
Sleaze Roxx: How did you get famous producer Kevin Shirley involved in the album?
Chris Lee: Kevin produced and mixed our last two albums, ‘Fire For Hire’ as well as ‘Rules’, which both came out amazingly. We have a great working relationship with him and love Kevin both as a producer and a friend. He is a true rock and roller and he really is the best, in every way. But we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford him, not as a producer anyway — he works in Malibu for Christ’s sake! He was also extremely busy with both Joe Bonamassa and Iron Maiden during the period we needed him. So we worked it out so Benji would produce the record and Kevin mixed it when he had a free day here or there. We were under no time constraints, for once, and it worked out great.
Sleaze Roxx: How happy are you with the way ‘Hail! Hail!’ ended up and how have sales been?
Chris Lee: I’m pretty happy with the album — it’s our best work. As far as putting it out and running our own label? It’s a lot of work — very tedious and thankless work, but it’s also very satisfying. I will say that I appreciate what Foodchain did for us more and more every day. We are also the production company that makes all of our videos. That’s a lot of work too, even if it’s more fun. We are planning to make a feature about our upcoming European tour if we can get some investors for it. There will also be a live soundtrack to go with it — it should be a really fun movie and a kickass album as well.
As far as sales, well, we haven’t made our money back yet, but I’m not too worried about it. We’ve actually never seen a dime from record sales in our entire career. We have been lucky because our music is seemingly tailor made for movies, TV, and video games. I always say we’re great for action sequences! But really, it’s the music that counts, and I couldn’t be happier with ‘Hail! Hail!’
Sleaze Roxx: Looking back on Supagroup’s music catalog, what songs you are most proud of?
Chris Lee: Wow, that’s a lot of songs to pick from. I guess it would depend on my mood that day. But if I had to pick one song from each of our albums that I always like to listen to they would be: “We Came To Rock You” from ‘We Came To Rock You (Live)’ (1998), “Tell The Millicents” from ‘Rock and Roll Tried To Ruin My Life’ (2001), “Hard Sell” from ‘Supagroup’ (2003), “Rough Edge” from ‘Rules’ (2005), “Bow Down” from ‘Fire For Hire’ (2007) and “Where’d You Put The Whiskey” from ‘Hail! Hail!’ (2011). I’m sure Benji’s list would be vastly different.
Sleaze Roxx: Being born American-Chinese and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, how tough was it growing up as kids with another culture background?
Chris Lee: Once in a while I was confused with the Alaskan natives and called a ‘Muk’, which is the equivalent to the N-word to Eskimos and Indians. Most people can’t figure out my background unless I tell them. They know something’s up, but they’re not sure exactly what. I’ve been asked if I was Mexican, South American, Indian (feather not dot), Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Samoan, etc. It doesn’t really bother me, in fact it’s kind of funny.
Sleaze Roxx: Your mother was a Pentecostal preacher and smashed all your albums, was that the reason for leaving Alaska — the typical rebellious kid vs. parents?
Chris Lee: I could not wait to get out of Alaska, and went to college a year early at 17. Yes, it was very much the typical rebellion, but I think our parents were a lot more hardcore than most. In addition to my record collection (twice) and Benji’s (also twice), my mom burned my extensive comic book collection because they were ‘demonic’ — and I was too into them. Similarly, she did the same with Benji’s toys. She was scary and had the weight of the Lord on her side. Our Father, a first generation immigrant, could be even more terrifying. What didn’t help matters was that I was a real hellion. My friends and I were always getting into trouble, petty stuff like shoplifting turned into selling drugs and stealing booze for resale. I was the guy who always came up with the bad idea and never got caught, while my friends seemed to get caught a lot and some even went to jail. My parents and I have a pretty good relationship now, but back then there were always threats of Christian Military School.
Sleaze Roxx: Why did you move to New Orleans? Also, it’s unusual for two brothers to like the same music and start a band — how did that come about?
Chris Lee: Everyone in my high school, if they left Alaska, ended up in Seattle, Eugene, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., or Arizona. I wanted to start over where no one knew me, so the West coast was out. I also wanted to get away from the cold, and New Orleans is about as far away from Alaska as you can get and still be in the USA. It’s also hot as a crotch, and almost never snows — that sounded good to me! I was sick of the snow, ice, cold, and darkness. I had never been there before, but I heard that the drinking age was only 18, where everywhere else in the country it was 21 — that sounded civilized. Once I got there, I knew I was home. I loved it. Also, when you grow up in ‘the sticks’, you think you’re a country boy because that’s all you know. Once I lived in a city I realized that, at heart, I’m a city boy.
While I was in college I was recruited to play bass in a band called Critical Dump. We played rock and roll. Benji was still in Anchorage and had his own band called rRobot — very influenced by Weezer. I would come back to Alaska in the summers to work construction out in ‘the bush’, places you can only reach by plane, and Benji worked with me. We brought a guitar out on one of these three-month camping/construction trips and wrote the first Supagroup album ‘Planet Rock’, which I consider our ‘practice’ album. We weren’t exactly sure what kind of music we were going to make so the songs are a bit all over the place and very influenced by what was going on then — mainly Nirvana, as evidenced by the fact that there are not many guitar solos on the record. I was also still playing bass, as it was a power trio. We toured in the Northwest on that album when Benji was just 15. I had to get a court order from a judge making me his legal guardian while he was out of state. The bars we played would not allow him or our drummer to hang out, as they were underage. They had to wait in the car until show time, play, and then get the fuck out. A few years later he joined me in NOLA and we started over somewhat, with me switching to guitar and the band unleashing Benji’s solos all over people’s faces. That’s when Supagroup really started, when Benji and I started playing in New Orleans, around 1997/98.
As to why we did this together? Well we both love rock and roll, especially the AC/DC, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin type of classic rock, and we are rock and rollers. It seemed natural and easy to start a band together.
Sleaze Roxx: What specific moments made you decide to start a career in music?
Chris Lee: A couple moments come to mind. Playing New York City for the first time with Critical Dump at Cafe Wha?, a legendary place that Dylan, Sinatra, Lewis and Martin, Joplin, Hendrix, and everybody played — and was even owned by David Lee Roth’s uncle. Also, opening for the Supersuckers in Atlanta for $75 and Eddie Spaghetti telling us we were pretty good and then taking us on tour. Watching Dash Rip Rock tear it up about half a hundred times in the late eighties/early nineties. I knew I didn’t want a typical suburban ‘get a job, wife, kids, retire, die’ life, but I wasn’t sure the life I did want until I was able to get on stage regularly.
Sleaze Roxx: You were studying biology in college, did you ever finish that? And what led to you choosing that subject?
Chris Lee: I studied Cellular and Molecular Biology, was on my way to a PhD, and maybe later an MD. Gene splicing always sounded pretty cool while I was watching Blade Runner for the hundredth time. But in reality, it’s pretty boring and I realized I was just doing it to make my parents happy and didn’t really know/have the balls to go for what I wanted to do — showbiz. My dad always dreamed of having a doctor for a son, and I didn’t have a better plan. I wanted to be a film director or rock star, but didn’t know how to make it happen. My dad always said I didn’t know anybody in show business so making movies was a stupid idea. Now, after making a TV pilot, and about to make a movie, I know he was right! I quit Biology, went to film school for a year, then Supagroup started touring, and now it’s more than a decade later.
Sleaze Roxx: I know a bit about the life of being on the road (for a while) and having a $10 per day meal allowance, 3000 mgs of Vitamin C pills, etc. Describe a typical day during a Supagroup tour.
Chris Lee: You wake up on the floor of the hotel hungover, still dressed from last night — really hungover.You wash down three Advil and 2000mg of Vitamin C while drinking from a gallon jug of water. Crawl to the van and start driving. Eat at a Cracker Barrel if you’re lucky, Waffle House if less lucky, McDonalds if even less lucky. Get gas, buy strange tchotchkes from local gas station, like a belt buckle with a rebel flag on it. More driving/sleeping in the van. Start to really have to piss, but we’re late so we can’t stop. Finish the gallon jug of water, then piss in it. Everyone says you’re going to spill it, but you tell them to quit whining. Pull into venue. Load in. Ask about meal buy out, but Promoter Guy says it’s not happening. When he says, “I told your agent weeks ago”, I know it’s a lie because I booked the show myself using a fake agent name. Ask him about beer/liquor, and Promoter Guy tells you, “Anything you want, just ask Jim The Bartender. He knows the deal”.
The Annoyed Sound Guy tells you you’re late, and to turn down before you even plug in. He says, “It’s a really live room, sound bounces around a lot. You’ve got to turn it down on stage. Turn it waaaaay down. Don’t worry, I’ll crank it in the mains and the monitors”. At this point, Benji tells the sound guy to, “Shut the fuck up and do your fucking job.” After a miserably uncomfortable sound check, I have to make peace with the now Pissed-Off Sound Guy. It doesn’t really work. Benji and I get in a fight about how now Pissed-Off Sound Guy is going to make us sound like shit because Benji was a dick to him. Check into motel, eat, maybe get a nap. Show up at venue late, trying to miss the opening acts, but the first one just started. Have to watch the drinking now, as there are many hours until showtime.
Jim The Bartender has no idea what you are talking about or even who Promoter Guy is, and charges you full price for beers and liquor. Walk down to local liquor store, spend last bucks on a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey. Sneak it into the dressing room. Opening bands are in there, and you don’t want to share your booze, but do anyway, so they don’t go telling everyone, “Supagroup’s a bunch of dicks”. They also make you remember what it was like to be an opening band all full of excitement and optimism, and it makes you hate them, which makes you feel bad. Then they play and are terrible, and you feel a little less bad about hating them. Once in a while they are good, however, and you are glad to hang with them.
Finally you get to play and it’s awesome! It doesn’t matter if there are 8 or 8000 people there, you rock as hard as you can and have a good time.
Afterwards you are very drunk and get drunker. Jim The Bartender is finally giving you booze for free, but in reality it’s more than you want or need right now. Pissed-Off Sound Guy is now I-Totally-Want-To-Go-On-Tour-With-You Sound Guy, and gives you his card. Someone gives you some weed, or a pill, or something else and you think you might throw up right in front of everyone. Loading the van is much harder when you’re wasted. When you get in the van you kick the piss jug all over the place and yourself. Everyone in the band is rightfully mad at you. Sometimes there is a drive through McDonalds at this point. You realize that you totally fucking rocked the joint and that life is good.
You wake up on the floor of the hotel hungover, still dressed from last night.Really hungover. Something smells like piss.
Sleaze Roxx: After finishing a tour is it difficult to return to normal home life?
Chris Lee: It’s always good to get home. We don’t even talk to each other for a while to decompress. But after a week, you start to miss it. Sure it’s the adulation, but it’s also the routine. It’s very satisfying to feel like you’re working, getting somewhere, doing something with your life. Making people happy through entertaining them is a gift and you do miss that high.
Sleaze Roxx: What are your fondest memories as a musician so far?
Chris Lee: I loved making this last album, ‘Hail! Hail!’ — I normally hate the recording process. I love playing big places with the likes of Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Whitesnake, and COC. Also the festivals are great — New Orleans Jazz Fest, Voodoofest, Azkenafest, Bonnaroo. I also love playing tiny places in Hollywood or Bum Fuck, USA. The live show is where it’s at.
Sleaze Roxx: Do you ever feel frustrated with the rock ‘business’?
Chris Lee: It’s always frustrating — now more than ever. It’s full of people who not only don’t know the difference between good or bad music; they don’t care. Music is simply a commodity to them, like sugar, oil, or pork bellies. But it’s worse than just that. They also don’t know what it takes to make good music, so they think that you should work for free and then give them your work for free or play for free. At least a farmer gets paid to raise his pigs. Sometimes you feel like the Golden Goose who keeps squirting out golden eggs and all anyone says is, “That’s it?!! Just another golden egg? I’m not paying for that!” It is a horrible business to be in, I highly recommend to any of your readers that are thinking about it to get out while they can. Only do it if you have no other choice, like me.
Sleaze Roxx: With so many rock musicians dying (Jani Lane being the latest), do you think rock’n’roll is healthy for one’s body?
Chris Lee: Not too healthy I guess. But also think about all the rockers who should be dead that are not. Do you think Keith Richards should be alive after all the drugs he’s done? David Bowie? Iggy Pop? I think that for some people, hard living makes you harder. Or maybe they were already hardened people who can handle that lifestyle and are therefore drawn to it.
Sleaze Roxx: The short films you put on your website are cool — do they represent the extrovert side of the band or just the logical follow-up of being a young band on the world wide web?
Chris Lee: We have not gotten a lot of attention despite our music being on the radio here in the States quite a bit. We also put out the new disc on our own label, so we thought we’d try marketing the new record through a visual medium for a change. As I said earlier, I’ve always been interested in filmmaking, and producing films is really not so different from producing music. You have an idea — a song or a script — that you first must imagine, write down, refine, then express, either aurally, visually or both. It does seem like a natural progression, actually. And yes, we are quite extroverted. Benji says that I’m not just a ham, I’m the whole pig! We are going to continue making filmed entertainment. We are producing a soft scripted movie that revolves around this upcoming tour of Europe. It should be good, funny, and will certainly have a great soundtrack! Benji wants to call it ‘Supagroup’s European Vacation’.