This week, Superchunk released its ninth album, and first in nine years, Majesty Shredding. It marks the recorded return of not only one of the Triangle's most beloved and influential bands but also a '90s indie rock flagship act and exemplar of the style's DIY ethos—at just the right time.
The band's punky power pop evolved over its first dozen years and eight albums but could generally be relied on for tuneful bursts of distortion, energetic rhythms and frontman Mac McCaughan's hoarse warble. He negotiated the pain and discovery of growing up, getting wiser and older. What's more, Superchunk's attitude and work ethic may have been as influential as their sound: They released five terrific albums in their first six years of existence. The band was the bulwark on which McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance launched Merge Records, too. In the intervening years, Merge has become one of the finest indie labels in the country, hot on the heels of Sub Pop and Matador. They've not only served as an example of what's possible, but the label's given a leg up to several local acts, helping make the area as synonymous with great music now as it was then, when they came up alongside early-'90s stalwarts like Polvo and Archers of Loaf.
Nevertheless, the songs come first. Indeed, Superchunk's decades of vigorous, catchy songs land them in the company of the best guitar rock acts of their time, like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill and Yo La Tengo. Their early influences—Hüsker Dü, Buzzcocks, Dinosaur Jr.—shape the band's road map. They weren't looking to break new ground so much as produce something infectious.
"The uniting thing of all of them, besides the fact that they were all sort of loud bands with distorted guitar, is that they are all very poppy bands underneath all those layers of stuff. That's what we were always going for," McCaughan says from the Merge Records office in downtown Durham. "Something we all always really aspired to was not to be remembered or not noticed so much for our sound as the songs. You want to hear the songs again, because at a certain point, if you just have a sound but don't have songs, people lose interest—I lose interest, anyway."
Well, here we are, still interested.
Superchunk formed in 1989 as Chunk—taken from some misspelled junk mail sent to drummer Chuck Garrison—and released their first single, "What Do I," sharing an unconscious thematic resonance with the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get?" They soon added the prefix "Super" to distinguish themselves from a New York avant-jazz troupe.
During the early sessions that would eventually yield their 1990 self-titled debut, guitarist Jack McCook balked at McCaughan's voice, offering an incredulous, "He's singing?" McCaughan's vocals were, indeed, a bit unsteady, aspiring to a tenor but sounding like they might tumble at any moment. It's not a traditionally pretty voice, but it kept with the spirit of the times, echoing artists like J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) and Lou Barlow (Sebadoh). Its tremulous quality, which many later artists would pick up, expresses a self-doubting earnestness and an emotional authenticity that peaks with Conor Oberst, a young songwriter who eventually signed to Merge. No surprise really, given that his first band, Commander Venus, was deeply informed by Superchunk.
Their goals were modest—just to play some house parties at first. It didn't feel like something that would become as seminal as it did.
"I don't remember feeling like we stood out as being remarkably different. I think about Angels of Epistemology, Polvo, the Black Girls and Zen Frisbee; we were different from them, sure, but not in any sort of radical way. If anything, we were less radical than any of them," Ballance laughs, chasing it with a slight sigh.
Development came quickly: McCook took his leave after a few shows behind the band's self-titled debut. Jim Wilbur stepped in. This was the time Ballance developed her signature pogoing bass-playing move, too, encouraged by tour mates Seaweed on their 1990 "Wet Behind the Ears" tour.
"I was very shy when we first started playing. I would kind of go into panic mode when we would be playing and I would feel like I couldn't breathe and I'd have tunnel vision," Ballance recalls. However, as unknowns playing to venues that were basically empty but for the other bands, her confidence slowly built. "These are my friends, and here's Aaron [Stauffer, of Seaweed] like, 'If you don't fucking start moving, I'm going to jump up onstage and knock you over.'"
Eventually, she settled on the pogo bounce to express the music's energy. It became a bass player's best friend: "Pogoing does not necessarily coincide with accurate playing," she says, laughing. "Pogoing can be used to disguise inaccurate playing."
This signature move helped establish her personality and contributed to her emergence as an inspiration in what was all-too-recently a boys' club of underground rock. Alongside artists like Marcy Mays (Scrawl), Kim Deal (The Pixies), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) and all-girl groups Babes in Toyland and L7, she symbolized college rock's increasingly equal-opportunity outlook.
"Women of all ages would come up to me and say it was so great and inspiring to see you there, and I appreciated that, of course," she says. "I remember how Jennifer Barwick [of early Merge band Erectus Monotone] and I would laugh all the time at how irritating it was being a girl in a band and how when you'd walk in to a club with everybody else, the assumption was that you were someone's girlfriend, a groupie or maybe you were going to sell T-shirts."
This wasn't the domain of groupies or sex symbols, really. "The whole groupie thing was hilarious because in our world there were no groupies. These are dorky smelly guys, there's no sex appeal going on at all," Ballance continues. "Those assumptions are obviously gone now. We were breaking ground, it's true."
All of this, combined with the acclaim for Superchunk's first album, brought more opportunities, including interest from major labels. But, coming out of the underground, signing to a major was the kiss of death and a sign that you'd completely sold out. Instead, they stuck with Matador, which had released their debut, as well as 1991's No Pocky For Kitty. Shortly before the album's release, Chuck Garrison was replaced by Jon Wurster.
Along with No Pocky and the 1992 singles compilation, Tossing Seeds, 1993's On The Mouth—the band's first full-length released on Merge—helped turn Superchunk into one of indie rock's biggest acts. Archers of Loaf released their debut, Icky Mettle, in 1994. Suddenly Chapel Hill began to be viewed as an indie rock hotbed like Athens and Seattle before it.
"I kinda thought, they're just going through this cycle," McCaughan recalls. "But once we started touring and playing a lot of these places, I came to see that it was different around here in the sense that we have the Cat's Cradle and the Fallout Shelter, the Brewery and the Local 506. We have great radio stations, great record stores. A lot of these college towns had some of these things but very few of them had all of these things combined. So I think we were lucky to be from where we were, especially when you're first starting. Nobody's making any money; they're just doing it for fun, so it's good to be in a supportive place."
But Superchunk's profile had grown, as had their ability to be a financially successful band and label. They left Matador after On the Mouth and released 1994's Foolish on Merge, only reinforcing their indie cred. It would go on to become the best-selling album in their catalogue.
"I think I became aware of how much impact they were really having nationally after Kurt Cobain died in 1994," writes producer/ musician John Plymale in an e-mail interview. "There was a big section of quotes from music industry notables in either Rolling Stone or SPIN, and one of the people that was quoted was Mac, along with all these other giant names. I remember thinking to myself, 'Well, I'll be damned!'"
But while the band was reaching its peak of popularity, Superchunk was fraying internally. Ballance and McCaughan's relationship had ended, a breakup that found expression on Foolish, and caused enough tension to nearly end the band.
"It was hard on everybody for a few years. There's something unhealthy about breaking up with someone and not being able to be separate. Still being in each other's faces. We'd pick on each other or just be crabby with each other," recalls Ballance. "It wasn't good. And I'm sure there were moments where various members were, 'Fuck it, I'm over it. I can't deal with this,' but we made it through."
Perhaps navigating that breakup as a band was the first sign of real Superchunk maturity: Though the next four albums—1995's Here's Where the Strings Come In, 1997's Indoor Living, 1999's Come Pick Me Up and 2001's Here's to Shutting Up—continued to touch on their adrenalized, hooky punk roots, they diverged into moodier arrangements, longer songs and more expansive instrumentation. Sales and interest in the band slowly began to recede. They were still underground icons, but none of those albums had the impact of the first four.
"We were always trying to do something different with our records, and I think that started with On the Mouth, really," McCaughan says. "I think that we kept pushing that as far as we could, but at a certain point I think you have to realize what you're good at and what you're less good at. Just because you want to try new things, you're not going to be as successful at it as some other things."
The title Here's To Shutting Up proved an omen. Released on Sept. 11, 2001, it was accompanied by a seemingly unending tour that took them to Japan, Europe and across the United States, all with less than a week of downtime. The tour, Ballance says, was "exhausting and just not very rewarding."
"We had already started getting a little bit frustrated, because it's like your band peaks and then it starts to go down. You start to see it gradually diminishing, and it adds this tension to how you feel about the band," she says. "You don't want to relate commercial success to how you feel about the band, but one way or another it's hard not to ... We just decided after that tour that it's time to put this on the back burner for a while."
The band didn't break up, and they've played a handful of shows each year—anniversaries, festivals, big free gigs. Until last year's five-track Leaves in the Gutter EP and a duet with cartoon character Meatwad, Superchunk didn't release anything for eight years. But in the meantime, Merge released a lot. Between Superchunk albums, the label helped make the Arcade Fire, a bombastic, ambitious rock band from Montreal, the best-selling band in America.
"Superchunk was more well-known than the label for a long time, and luckily the label kind of caught up," says McCaughan. "At a time when Superchunk was doing less and less after 2001, the label was getting bigger and bigger. In some ways, they switched places."
Superchunk had talked about doing a new album for years, but Wurster had moved to New York, Wilbur had gotten married and both McCaughan and Ballance had started families of their own. They needed a new approach, since the idea of writing as a group was rendered impossible by Wurster's relocation. Eventually, McCaughan took it upon himself to create some demos, which he shared with the band.
They got together at Plymale's Overdub Lane Studio in Durham, laying down basic tracks in sets of three to four over the course of a few days, with weeks between sessions. Then McCaughan would take them to his home studio to finish working on them. He describes it as a leisurely, low-impact way of recording that allowed the songs to retain their crispness and energy.
It pays off in an album with a terseness, vibrancy and simplicity that harks back to the earliest albums. The aging-gracefully ode, "My Gap Feels Weird," and the swooning "Crossed Wires" are propulsive anthems, the guitars bristling, the structures plunging and soaring. Designed for the upcoming tour to give Superchunk something suited for the stage, the record is a total success.
"Coming back, we didn't want to try to one-up [Here's To Shutting Up] in terms of arrangements, and I think it was more like, 'It's just as different to go the other way and strip things back a little bit,'" he says.
They've chosen a fortuitous time for both a return and a simplification. The underground's witnessing a bloom of acts interested in rocking out after years of alt-country and overwrought baroque pop. Indeed, two of the hottest acts to emerge in the last couple of years, Japandroids and No Age, have mentioned the influence of Superchunk, drawing on a similarly overcharged guitar approach dipped in sugary hooks.
"It's funny because they're both duos, which is different from us—they don't have a bass player—but I do feel some affinity with those bands in terms of the sound," McCaughan says. "To me, what they're doing that's interesting and that I like is that there are interesting sounds and the songs are really catchy good songs. I don't think that kind of thing ever really goes out of style."
And that's why Majesty Shredding—which doesn't reinvent Superchunk but instead simply finds them doing what they do best, better than they've done it in more than a decade—matters. The songs are, once again, unflinching, unrelenting and unavoidable.
"The thing I think that's special about them is that they truly seem to do 'just' what they want to do, and 'only' what they want to do, and stick to their beliefs more than just about anyone else I know," writes Plymale. "The popularity and success that they have had over the years has 'found them,' and not the other way around. So there's nothing stilted or mis-fitting about their music, their approach or their attitudes."
Indeed, where they sit in the annals of indie rock and how they measure up to other acts is the furthest thing from their mind.
"I think that one reason we still exist as a band and a label is not trying to think about stuff like legacies, and just kind of doing what we're doing," McCaughan says. "I think that the other stuff can be a distraction and that energy and time is better spent working on records and songs and the show."