Seated around a table at the Lawrence Beer Company, fueled by beers and waffle fries, the members of the new indie rock band Radar State discuss a conundrum:
What defines a rock supergroup?
The question inspires both heated debate and flailing confusion.
“I can’t think of one supergroup right now. I’m blanking,” says Jim Suptic, who, before joining Radar State, founded the Get Up Kids, one of the most successful bands to emerge from the KC area. “Are the Eagles a supergroup?”
“How about the Traveling Wilburys?” Josh Berwanger — singer-guitarist of the dear departed Lawrence band the Anniversary — offers to head-nodding approval.
“The best supergroup has got to be the band on David Lee Roth’s solo album,” suggests Adam Phillips, drummer for the Architects, stalwarts of the KC music scene.
Fellow Get Up Kids singer Matt Pryor counters: “Whenever anyone says ‘emo supergroup,’ I say, ‘Just like Chickenfoot.’ Although I wouldn’t know a Chickenfoot song if you held a gun to my head.”
It’s clear none of these veteran musicians have given much thought to this concept in advance.
“Almost goes to show that we don’t think of ourselves as a supergroup,” Pryor says.
Radar State formed as a means of uniting three primary songwriters. Stylistically, the quartet incorporates the ’90s-driven sounds of Pryor and Suptic’s Get Up Kids, one of the seminal acts to fuel the “second-wave” emo scene. Combining Berwanger’s more classic rock leanings and Phillips’ penchant for grittier grooves, the result is tight, energetic and accessible.
Radar State likely won’t alienate fans of the members’ previous works. The group is not so much reinventing the wheel as rotating the tires.
“I don’t think (Jim) wanted to start another band with me,” Pryor says. “He wanted to start one with Josh. I was just at the same table.”
Is Radar State a side project?
“In the sense that it’s not our main occupation, then sure,” says Pryor, who uncustomarily handles bass guitar in this lineup. “Can’t it just be a fun band? Does it have to have a label?”
Berwanger adds, “For most people, playing music at all is a side project. We wanted to do it, so it’s a ‘real’ band.”
Their debut album “Strays” comes out Friday, Jan. 11, on Wiretap Records in the U.S. and Disconnect Records overseas. A coast-to-coast tour accompanies the release, which includes a hometown date on Feb. 1 at the Record Bar.
A 7-inch single was recorded before the ensemble even had a name. But prior to the naming chores, Suptic sought something even more emblematic to establish the act’s identity.
“At one of our first meetings, I remember saying we need to have a cool logo. Like a symbol. Like Black Flag has that thing,” he says of the uneven bars that represent the stylized flag of the iconic punk act. “It was more important to me than the songs.”
So they adopted a black-and-white circular design cribbed from the symbol NATO uses on maps to denote radar stations. This eventually led to the name.
“If you’re in a radar station and declare your independence, then you’re in a radar state,” Pryor jokingly clarifies.
Adopting a move from MTV bands of old, Radar State released a video months before the album’s debut.
“The video was inspired by the classic Universal monster films,” says director Patrick Rea, the veteran KC filmmaker best known for horror features “Nailbiter” and “Arbor Demon.”
“Josh Berwanger approached me with the full story he wanted to tell in the video and knew it was definitely something I would be interested in. Each of the bandmates played a role, such as the Mummy, Wolfman and Dracula.”
The video for their buoyant single “Strays” premiered on Billboard.com just in time for Halloween.
“It was pretty obvious I should be a werewolf,” the hirsute Suptic says. “And Adam kind of looks like Dracula.”
Phillips adds, “Yes. I’m the sexiest, so …”
“I’m dust and dead inside, so a mummy makes sense,” Berwanger deadpans.
They shot for six hours at the Riot Room. Rea employed his go-to team of horror makeup professionals to achieve the individual looks. Most of them, anyway.
“I don’t want to be in videos ever, let alone wear makeup,” asserts Pryor, who portrays a bartender serving a club full of creatures.
Berwanger says, “Whenever I come up with a video idea, I always consider, ‘How do I not have Matt in it very much.’ I actually don’t like doing a video either. But he really doesn’t like it.
“That’s why for the second one (the song ‘Anywhere’) I got my tortoise out. The video is just him with comic book captions coming out as if he’s singing the words. I built a little set for him and shot the video on my iPhone.”
The tortoise is named Lenny after basketball player Len Bias, a former Maryland Terrapin.
Unlike Lenny, Radar State approaches things quickly. The songwriting process in particular.
“This is something simple and fun, and ‘let’s not think about it too much.’ It’s kind of a first idea/best idea sort of thing,” Pryor says.
“We would approach practice with the notion that everyone comes to practice with a song. So I would sit down that morning and treat it like a songwriting exercise. ‘What can I come up with today to bring to practice tonight?’”
Pryor, who lives in Lawrence (as does Berwanger), admits the record ended up with more of a power-pop element to it than he was anticipating.
“It’s like hearkening back to the influences of our childhood we all have in common,” Suptic concurs. “Whether it be the Ramones or punk rock to Poison and power-pop.”
Suptic claims having multiple songwriters makes playing live much easier because there’s a round-robin quality to their performances. So far, they’ve notched 20 live appearances already, including a slot at Chicago’s Riot Fest with headliners Nine Inch Nails.
Pryor says, “When you present the concept of having three lead singers, it can sound like it’s going to be schizophrenic. But it’s pretty cohesive. Jim and my voice aren’t that different. Josh’s is kind of breathy. But we’re both singing on songs Josh takes lead on.”
The band members range in age from 36 to 41. All of them are parents. (Pryor boasts the oldest kid: a 16-year-old daughter who also plays in indie bands.)
Whether this supergroup represents a “side project” remains to be seen, but it definitely is viewed by the participants as a “fun project.”
“The Get Up Kids weren’t really doing a lot, and I needed this for my own sanity,” Suptic says. “I want to be creative with friends. I want to have a beer once a week and know this is my night. Go play some music. Hang out with people I like.”
Hanging out includes touring from Boston to Los Angeles during the next month. After that, the Radar State members will get a sense of what’s next on their professional radar.
“I can’t wait to where we’re big enough that we can sue each other like Fleetwood Mac. That’s the goal. That’s when you know you’ve made it,” Suptic says.
“That’s the definition of a supergroup!”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”