When Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan sang "I'm working/But I'm not working for you" on their 1990 "hit," "Slack Motherfucker," nobody knew how prophetic it would be.
Superchunk burst out of Chapel Hill, N.C., 12 years ago with a handful of pogo-inducing pop punk tunes and a do-it-yourself attitude--an ethic that has yet to be compromised. Most bands of their ilk have long since bitten the dust; some, like Spoon and Seaweed, got gobbled by major labels, while others proved they just couldn't stand the test of time. Why didn't Superchunk sign to a major? If it was good enough for their indie rock peers, shouldn't it have been good enough for them?
Bassist Laura Ballance points out that Superchunk didn't consciously try to stay small. "If we were able to sell a million records and do it the way we wanted to, we wouldn't say no.
"It makes me sad sometimes when I think about the other bands that have come and gone," Ballance says. "And I wish they were still around and that we could still play together. But that's like wishing to be in high school again or something." She thinks one aspect that helped keep the band together is that the band has never been big, mainstream-wise. "Maybe we haven't burnt out because we never totally flamed up," she adds. Superchunk still functions as the flagship group for Merge Records, the label Ballance and singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan formed in her bedroom over a decade ago.
These days, Merge Records has left the bedroom operations behind and now runs things from downtown Durham, where the company purchased its own chunk of real estate earlier this year. The label has become a cottage industry, spawning critically acclaimed records by groups like Neutral Milk Hotel, Magnetic Fields, Third Eye Foundation and The Clean, as well as Superchunk's latest disc, Here's To Shutting Up.
"When we started doing it, I was just doing it to humor Mac," says Ballance. But what started out as something to "humor Mac" has gone on to last a dozen years, much to the surprise of those involved. Ballance attributes it to the disposition of her bandmates (drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur) and business partner (McCaughan). "They're nice people," she says. "I mean, sometimes I think they're jerks, but ultimately they're nice people. And I think that that makes a big difference.
"I guess I always thought that the band itself, and whatever it is that we seem to represent, or the way that we behave ... I can live with that. Like, if we were a band that did things that I found really embarrassing or that I didn't agree with, I probably wouldn't be in the band anymore."
And one thing that the band does do is operate on its own agenda.
Embraced by many independent music aficionados for shunning life on a major label, Superchunk is still as fiercely independent as the day they began. The new release, Here's To Shutting Up, finds the band standing on the perfect common ground for their fans: There's textbook 'Chunk ("Rainy Streets") mixed in with endearing chamber pop ("Phone Sex") and Shudder To Think-like art rock ("Out On The Wing"), where McCaughan tests his falsetto voice.
If there's one thing Here's To Shutting Up reflects, it's the sound of maturation.
"I probably wouldn't have stuck with it if we hadn't evolved," says Wurster about the band's adventurous outlook on music composition. The band began straying from pop punk's formulaic constraints with 1997's Indoor Living, the first record to add new instruments like piano and organ to the mix, followed by 1999's Come Pick Me Up, which found the band adding horns and strings. It was a direction that didn't please everyone: "Come Pick Me Up seems to lack strong melodies," wrote Matt Hickey in Magnet magazine. But it was also the record where McCaughan, as Heather Willis wrote in Pulse, "developed [a] vocal dexterity some may find surprising." The "surprising" aspect was due in part to the fact that the band chose to work in Chicago with Jim O'Rourke, most noted for his work with eclectic bands like Gastr del Sol and Tortoise. O'Rourke's presence can be heard on the album; he wrote many of the string and horn parts.
For Here's To Shutting Up, Superchunk enlisted producer Brian Paulson (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Slint) who first tackled the boards for the band on 1994's Foolish. The fact that Paulson and guitarist Jim Wilbur are roommates, or that the Paulson/Wilbur homestead is where the band practices, is reflected in the final product.
"It definitely helped that he's our friend," says Wurster. "Brian was able to hear us rehearse every day while we were working on these new songs. He's great at getting sounds and letting you know if something doesn't really need to be there ... if a track is getting too 'cloudy.' He's also very easy to work with."
And it definitely helped out the record's sound as well: The album is undeniably Superchunk. The band has always known the effect of melodies and the staying power of a hook.
Recorded this past spring in Atlanta's Zero Run Studios, Here's To Shutting Up keeps the band's foundation intact: sturdy rhythms, strong melodies and McCaughan's knack for penning pensive lyrics. But they're also allowed to breathe--to stretch out--as the band members flex their skills as composers. Heather McIntosh and John Neff of Japancakes add cello and pedal steel; Chris Lopez of the Rock*A*Teens lends his crooning vocals and Anna Balka of White Lights provides a touch of violin. But their contributions are subtle, never letting the melodic pop-punk get buried too deeply.
Wurster describes his experience making the new album as "effortless compared to past recordings." He attributes this to his working as a sideman for folks like Ryan Adams, Alejandro Escovedo and Jay Farrar as well as bands like Rocket From The Crypt and The Connells, which allowed him to build up his confidence. "In the past I would do four-track recordings of every practice and go home and figure out what wasn't working and labor over what I was doing," he says. This time, he didn't bring in the recorder until the band's second-to-last practice.
It's this comfort zone that can be heard throughout the record: The band plays their trump cards when needed, or relax and unwind with a breathy pop ditty if the mood strikes them.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Wurster admits that there are a few things he would have changed on Here's To Shutting Up. Like the album title.
"I wanted to call it Keepin' It Real With The Guys and Gal In Superchunk," says the band's resident comedian. "My only complaint," says Wurster, "is that there isn't one more song on it."
Acting as a companion to the album is Late-Century Dream, a limited edition 4-song EP that's sure to be scooped up by the band's diehard fans. Besides the title track, which is also the album's first single, the EP features an acoustic version of "Florida's On Fire" as well as "The Length Of Las Ramblas" and "Becoming A Speck."
Superchunk gave fans a sneak peek of their upcoming tour by tackling four in-store performances at various regional record stores to mark the album's release. "We don't do them very often because we hate them," says Ballance, who admits that they make her nervous. "But actually, when you get down to it and do a bunch of them, it's not so bad. It was kind of fun playing quiet and being in a different situation than a bar, where everybody is drinking and smoking and talking," she says.
For Ballance, it's hard to believe that the band has gone on this long. "Before I started playing in Superchunk, I never wanted to be in band," she says. "It was never a thing that I was like, 'Wow, I want to do that.'" Yet she's spent a good chunk of her life doing it, and in a way where she didn't have to compromise her integrity.
"A lot of times I feel lucky," Ballance admits. "I mean, we've worked really hard though, so it's not like it was just luck. I guess the combination of luck and hard work."
"I think our timing was good," she says of the band's history. "If we were to start right now, who would care?"