The central focus of Superchunk‘s Crowding up Your Visual Field is documenting the band’s career thus far through the 12 music videos that they’ve made. These show Superchunk’s evolution, their route from a ramshackle and noisy blast of energy to a band that injects their often-copied form of guitar rock with well-crafted melodies, sonic atmosphere and above all raw emotion. They also show musicians with a do-it-yourself, non-corporate attitude seeing what they can do to keep the inherently commercial entity that is a music video interesting. Most often this means simply capturing the band doing what they do—playing their style of loud and fast rock and roll—and then adding in vaguely conceptual elements or unusual visual tricks to keep things from being boring. The videos are directed mostly by either Phil Morrison, Norwood Cheek, or Peyton Reed (except one by Jesse Peretz), are mostly quite low budget, and suit the songs fine, without being particularly cutting-edge. The best of the early videos either find images that fit the songs just right, like the racing-through-the-streets fast-paced images of “Precision Auto” or the grainy performance/fireworks footage of “Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus.”
As the years have passed, the band members have become more comfortable with making fun of their (non-)status as rock stars and do so to great effect in more recent videos, particularly in the mock inner-band conflicts and subsequent band therapy session in the video for “Hyper Enough” and in the hilarious video for “Watery Hands,” which features David Cross and Janeane Garofalo as video directors with big, wacky concepts.
A DVD like Crowding up Your Visual Field is first and foremost a gift for the die-hard Superchunk fans—but through the videos and the DVD’s other features, one gets a pretty complete picture of what the band is about, from their music and personalities to what the experience of being in an independent-label rock band for 15 years is like. Viewers get the basic musical story of Superchunk from the videos and a collection of live performances which range in date from the band’s first show in 1989 to songs from shows supporting their most recent album, 2001’s Here’s the Shutting Up. But there’s also a story here that goes beyond the music—through the friendly yet candid audio commentaries for the videos and a fascinating tour documentary called Quest for Sleep, you get a sense not only of the rewards of being in a band but also the hardships.
In his audio commentary for the group’s most recent video, “Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)”, drummer Jon Wurster (who has a welcome “class clown” presence throughout the DVD, yet on the commentary tracks offers heartfelt opinions about life in Superchunk), talks openly about a rough time in the band’s history when he was sure that they were going to break up. That time was a world tour Superchunk went on in the fall of 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which Wurster describes as a “disheartening trek across the globe,” where fans weren’t showing up and they were left to deal with the drudgery that accompanies touring. That tour is documented in the hour-long film Quest for Sleep, essentially a home movie the band made while on tour in Japan, Europe, and the US.
In the DVD’s liner notes, the band states “hopefully the movie conveys some of the fun, the tedium and the rock and roll involved with touring,” but the rock and roll is shown only in second-long snippets and the focus is mostly on the tedium, plus moments of fun and humor that seem to be mostly in self-defense against the tedium. Quest for Sleep doesn’t overplay how hard touring is, or make over-explicit the post-9/11 context; instead, it’s an in-the-now document of what it was like. As such, it holds a moment under glass for posterity, a moment where the band seems nervous about what’s to come but is doing their best to cover it up by indulging in the routines of a tour, from answering rather silly questions from journalists to meeting new friends and soaking up local culture. Quest for Sleep has a nervous casualness to it—there are no explosions of emotion yet things are often on edge within the band. The film rounds out Crowding up Your Visual Field nicely—as a result the DVD stands as a compelling human portrait, not just another videos collection.