Superchunk's return melds old sound and new maturity

(Erin Williams - Twp)
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By Dan Kois
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Time to call the rock star for his rock-star interview. In what state will he answer the phone? He has spent the past 20 years in a modestly successful indie rock band, not packing arenas with heavy metal fans, so he probably won't be snorting coke off a dozen groupies or anything. But will he be hung over from a night of revelry? Still asleep at 2 in the afternoon? Unreachable, on an ashram in India?

If you know your party's extension, you may dial it at any time, or dial nine for our directory.


Please dial the first few letters of the person's name.


"Mac McCaughan." To dial this extension, press one.


Please wait while I try that extension.

"Merge Records," the rock star says. "This is Mac."

Mac McCaughan is both a rocker and a suit. He's the frontman of Superchunk, a band that has weathered a career of being the Next Big Thing, being the Same Old Thing, and being No Big Thing. For the past eight years Superchunk has barely been anything at all, as its four members -- fed up with a disastrous European tour and dwindling sales -- took a break, playing a show or two a year but otherwise not recording or touring.

During that time, McCaughan and his bandmate, bassist Laura Ballance, have concentrated full time on growing Merge Records, an independent label that the pair founded in 1989, the same year Superchunk got its start. Merge's years of steadily building success -- not just with Superchunk but with indie faves like the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel and Spoon -- peaked this summer with the label's first Billboard No. 1 album, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs."

And just when business is booming at Merge, McCaughan and Ballance -- along with drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist James Wilbur -- have reconvened Superchunk, releasing a new album, "Majesty Shredding," and playing their first real tour since the last one made them all crazy. (The band plays the 9:30 Club Friday night.)

From the Merge offices in Durham, N.C., where he has just finished a budget meeting, McCaughan explains the loud, straightforward sound of "Shredding," a departure from the band's more ornate, poorer-selling pre-hiatus albums. "If you wait nine years to make a record," he says, "you don't want people wondering why you bothered."

The sound of "Majesty Shredding" is reminiscent of Superchunk's mid-'90s heyday, when for a brief moment the band was the standard-bearer of Chapel Hill as "the next Seattle." Back then, the guitars were so loud and so constant that the band semi-jokingly named its music publishing company All the Songs Sound the Same Music.

But the lyrics touch on issues of nostalgia and maturity within a scene made up mostly of the young. In "My Gap Feels Weird," McCaughan sings about "the kids down on the corner, with the look that tells you: You don't even know them and you never will." The song's title -- something his 6-year-old daughter said while feeling the space where a baby tooth had fallen out -- is itself evidence that McCaughan is no longer the youngster who wrote an iconic, profane song about the lazy jerk he worked with at Kinko's.

"I don't want to live in the past," McCaughan says, even as he acknowledges that loving a band for a long time means, to some extent, doing just that. Other songs on the album pluck at that tension. "If the past proves tough to resist, you'll keep a loose grip on my wrist, won't you?" McCaughan asks in "Fractures in Plaster." And the album's magisterial closer, "Everything at Once," sums up the band's career rather nicely, with a wall of wailing guitars and propulsive rhythm backing McCaughan as he sings a song that, like much of Superchunk's discography, is about "nothing and everything at once": "The minutes and the months, the feedback and the drums, the feeling noise becomes."

Not everyone immediately sparked to recording new material and going back out on the road. "I struggled with it," says Ballance. "I'm kind of a homebody." Her daughter has started kindergarten, and Ballance enjoyed the past eight years of helping to build Merge into an indie music powerhouse -- and not sleeping in vans. "Touring can really suck," she says. "Even when we toured all the time, a day or two before we left, I would think to myself, 'If I broke my arm, would I not have to go on this tour?' "

But the band's occasional shows during its hiatus helped Ballance remember what she loved about playing music, too. "On a good night, it's the most amazing feeling," she says. And as a parent with a day job, she no longer feels that she has to pour all her passion into Superchunk.

When the band returns from its short fall tour, Ballance and McCaughan will go back to work at a label with a reputation for treating artists well. That attitude stems from the label's co-presidents -- "We used to take turns with one as the president and the other as the vice president, but then someone told us we could just be co-presidents," Ballance explains -- and their experience as musicians. "We're aware of both sides of putting out records, from a band's perspective and a label's perspective," she says. "So we have sympathy, and we understand."

But the bands' affection for Merge also comes from the pair's ability, in an industry in which artists regularly wind up in the hole to their own labels, to be frugal with albums that won't hit No. 1 or sell 150,000 copies in the first week. "A record that sells 10,000 copies can make money," McCaughan explains, "but not if you spend as much on it as an Arcade Fire record. It's about knowing when to scale things up and scale things back accordingly."

What will the band's fans think of the revived Superchunk? "It's hard for me to get excited about new records from bands I've been a fan of a long time," Ballance admits. "We can't worry about that. If we wanna make a record, we should just make one."

Luckily, she and McCaughan own the label. "Right!" Ballance says with a laugh. "No one can tell us no."

"It's nice not to worry," she adds. "We'll be fine. I tend to worry about other people's records more than ours."

Kois is a freelance writer.

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