Words of Wisdom: Superchunk
After 21 years (and a nine-year hiatus), indie rock's indiest finally see their chariot arrive.
“Hold on,” says Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, eyeing a black stretch limo in front of a bougie downtown Chicago hotel. “I need to make sure it’s long enough.”
The Taste of Randolph festival, which Superchunk are headlining tonight, has sent the luxury ride as a courtesy, but for an act entering its third decade as a standard-bearer for indie stringency and modesty, the gesture is as embarrassing as it is flattering. Singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan winces. “Can we grab a couple of cabs, maybe?”
In a perfect world, this band that’s long since mastered the art of blending punk ferocity with pop songcraft would take stretch limos to the corner for milk. But after a nine-year sabbatical, during which the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse reached platinum heights by standing on Superchunk’s shoulders, a little celebratory pampering would not be out of line, just out of character.
Their last proper album, Here’s to Shutting Up, came out on September 18, 2001 — not exactly the brightest time for anyone — and its mellow, fussy songs were met with shrugs. “People would come out to the shows — not as many — and they were dazed,” recalls bassist Laura Ballance, sitting with her bandmates on an orange zebra-striped couch in the hotel’s lounge. “One night while we were playing, I fell asleep.” The band that found cult adoration with fiery indie-rock anthems such as “Slack Motherfucker” had painted itself into an overly mature corner, forgetting the energy that provided its core heat. Should it end up being their final album, the aptly titled new Majesty Shredding would serve as a much more fitting cap for a group that’s been both incalculably influential and inexplicably underappreciated by a subsequent generation.
“I didn’t want our last record to be our last record,” says McCaughan, 43. “It’s weird to say it, because it was our eighth, but it sounded transitional — not fully there or something. Beyond that, we’ve been playing three or four shows every year, and the idea of doing more was more appealing if we have new songs. Let’s not just play the hits.”
“But it had the perfect name to be our last record!” kids Ballance, 42. “Here’s to Shutting Up. It’s like [Fugazi’s] End Hits.”
“It wasn’t planned to be the last,” adds sweetly misanthropic guitarist Jim Wilbur. “It was those gosh-darned terrorists who ruined it for everybody.”
The key to Superchunk circa 2010 is a conscious decision to not treat the band as seriously as they once did. With Shredding, they made a record the way they used to — quick and dirty — and with the understanding that they’ll never do another backbreaking world tour. Superchunk, it seems, have become the world’s greatest hobby. “That’s why this was so refreshing,” says Wurster, 43, feet up and sipping a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. “We could just do it and not think it into the ground.”
“Laura was scared that once we made a record, we’d have to play shows,” half-jokes McCaughan.
“When we started working on it, I said, ‘I reserve the right at any time to stop,’?” says Ballance.
It helps that the Superchunks don’t need the band to keep them safe from the 9-to-5 world: Ballance and McCaughan run Merge Records, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, thanks to breakthrough acts like Arcade Fire and Spoon. Wurster has probably been in your town five times in the last year, drumming for Mountain Goats, Bob Mould, or Ben Gibbard, or you’ve heard his absurdist comedy bits with Tom Scharpling on influential indie station WFMU. And Wilbur, 43, who you’d think would be the most eager to rock — his day job is in a North Carolina bookstore — claims an ambivalence that belies his master-of-ceremonies stage banter. “I don’t crave [playing live]. I kinda find it uncomfortable. I’m too old.”
“The sun’s too hot,” teases Wurster.
At tonight’s lucrative one-off (“They didn’t have these street festivals that paid indie bands a lot of money when we were around before,” says McCaughan), Superchunk come off like giddy kids, aging gracefully not by adding strings and keyboards — they already tried that — but by resolving to pogo as long as their knees hold up.
Some of the new songs, McCaughan says, “are about what’s good about nostalgia, what’s powerful and fun about it. It’s like getting older: There’s good things, like psychologically being able to handle the world, but there’s bad parts, like feeling like somebody beat you up the day after you play.” To wit: Majesty‘s most frantic track, “My Gap Feels Weird,” sprang from something McCaughan’s daughter said about a missing tooth and quickly morphed into a double-time meditation on the generation gap. “It was such a funny, weird phrase, but the song is about being older than the people around you,” he says. “You go to a show, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know anyone here, and they’re all 19!’ At the same time, you think, ‘That’s awesome — they’re so excited!’?”
Expectations for the band’s future, though never stated outright, appear modest, but the prospect of seeing fans both grizzled and new elicits a twinkle even for the deadpan Wilbur: “In Denver these kids came up to me and Laura and were, like, crying,” he says, incredulous. “They might’ve been giving us the mickey, but it was like, ‘You saved my life!’?”
“?’I didn’t get into all that Disney shit because my dad was into Superchunk,’?” adds Ballance. “?’I was raised on Superchunk and the Clash and the Specials!’?”
That excitement pervades every minute of Majesty Shredding. And while it’s tempting to parse what this rejuvenation means to Super-chunk’s legacy or, by extension, to that of indie rock, McCaughan boils the band’s rebirth down to its simplest terms. “If you feel like you only have a certain amount of time and energy to dedicate to something,” he says, “why dedicate it to something other than what you’re really good at?”
WATCH: In the Studio with Superchunk