[22 September 2010]
Superchunk singer Mac McCaughan laughs at the idea that the return of his band after a nine-year hiatus is somehow part of the current wave of ‘90s nostalgia.
“I gotta find out about that,” he says, joking. “Everybody keeps telling me about it.”
Considering the lengthy recording process that led to Superchunk’s seventh album, “Majesty Shredding” (Merge), which hit stores last week, the band obviously had no way of knowing it would arrive in the same season where high-profile comebacks from other ‘90s indie-rock heroes, including Pavement and Guided by Voices.
It’s an odd coincidence, especially since nostalgia ends up being one of the main themes of the album. “A lot of this is about music and nostalgia and the power of both of those things and how they work together,” McCaughan says.
The standout track, “Learned to Surf,” is about that tension for bands like Superchunk, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, featuring a chorus of “When I learned to talk, I found words that weren’t worth dirt/Heavy like the rocks we carry, I stopped sinking and learned to surf.”
“It’s about both resisting nostalgia and going along with it when it’s useful,” McCaughan says, adding that the band didn’t set out to tackle the idea. “We don’t really know what the themes or ideas of a record are until after it’s done and we’re standing back and looking at it and listening to it.”
The hilarious video for the album’s first single, “Digging for Something,” makes the nostalgia point even more clearly, though, centering around a pretend “reunion” of Superchunk featuring one original member, only to have the rest of the band — McCaughan, guitarist Jim Wilbur, bassist Laura Ballance, drummer Jon Wurster — find out about it and resume their rightful places.
Though “Digging for Something” is part of the album’s broader idea of acknowledging your past while still looking to the future, McCaughan says it became the first single for a more straightforward reason.
“We just really liked it,” he says. “It has a chorus that someone I sent it to said was ‘almost too catchy.’ Hopefully, we didn’t cross over the line. It just sounds like a single, and we also had some bells and whistles on it, in the sense that there’s horns and that John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats sings backup on it. There’s just a lot of cool stuff going on in it.”
McCaughan pinpoints the argument that veteran acts use when they put out new material. “Are you enjoying something because of nostalgia or are you enjoying a really good thing because it’s a really good thing?” he asks.
And “Majesty Shredding” is definitely a good thing, offering both songs that remind fans how the North Carolina band built its following while always putting out albums themselves. “Crossed Wires” is a nod to their earlier albums that offered pop hooks played at punk speeds, with McCaughan’s distinctive vocals leading the way. “‘Rosemarie’ shows the effect of McCaughan’s side project, Portastatic, as well as the influence of Bruce Springsteen.
For Superchunk, the goal is to always keep looking forward.
“We definitely wanted this record to be a direct-sounding record,” McCaughan says. “It’s not stripped-down. It’s not minimal or anything. It’s kind of just full on from start to finish and has some of the energy of some of the earlier records.
“We’re making a record after nine years, we’re hoping that it’s something you notice,” he continues. “We didn’t want to make something that was too subtle or too experimental. It would be such a strange idea, like, ‘Why’d you come back to do that?’ We wanted to make something that was surprising to people and fun for people to hear and fun for us to play.”
Everyone in the band has plenty to keep them busy. Wilbur is busy with McCaughan in Portastatic, as well as with his band Humidifier. Wurster is a drummer for the Mountain Goats and some other bands, as well as a comedian and writer.
And Ballance and McCaughan spend their time running Merge Records, one of the most successful truly indie-rock labels around. It so happens Merge is in the midst of a banner year, landing its first No. 1 album this summer with Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.” Albums from Merge artists Spoon and She and Him also have landed in the Top 10 this year. (“It’s awesome for the bands,” McCaughan says. “But we never planned for it to be this way. It just happened that three of our biggest acts put out albums this year. A lot of the industry is down, and that leaves a vacuum that can be filled by bands with a loyal fan base.”)
The juggling of all those projects, as well as family obligations, is what kept delaying the Superchunk album and may have continued to push it back if the band didn’t develop a new way of working.
“We’re all really busy,” McCaughan says. “We used to write together as a full band in the studio for 10 or 12 hours a day for weeks. No one has the time to work that way anymore. We can’t just camp out in the studio.”
When the band got together to record the single “Crossed Wires” last year, they found they enjoyed the process of recording three or four songs at a time. McCaughan recorded demos of the songs for the band to work on at their own pace, and then they got together on weekends to record.
“It gave it a really good energy,” McCaughan says. “Sometimes, you can really work the life out of something if you work on it too much. We did that three or four times, and we had an album. ... The only down side is that we have to learn a lot of those songs again from the ground up. There’s a little stress there.”
So, does this new way of working mean there will be another Superchunk album some time before 2020? “Well, let’s see how this one goes first,” McCaughan says. “Right now, we’re just focused on this and putting on the best shows we can.”
LOOK WHO’S BACK FROM THE ‘90S
Though Superchunk never officially broke up (simply a nine-year hiatus), a lot of its ‘90s indie-rock compatriots did. This fall, they are all back together with some of the most buzzed-about shows of the season. Here’s a look:
Peak: 1992-94, with the release of the two classic albums “Slanted and Enchanted” and “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”
Breakup: 1999, after singer Stephen Malkmus famously performed with handcuffs dangling from his mic stand, symbolizing what he said being in the band was like.
—GUIDED BY VOICES
Peak: 1994-95, with the release of the two classic albums “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes.”
Breakup: 2004, as singer Robert Pollard goes solo.
Peak: 1994-95, with the smash “Black Hole Sun” and the album “Superunknown.”
Breakup: 1997, after a stormy tour that led to singer Chris Cornell going solo and then forming Audioslave.
Reunion: 2010. Releasing new single “Black Rain” and retrospective “Telephantasm” Sept. 28.
Peak: 1992-94, on the strength of the “Imperial f.f.r.r.” and “Perfect Teeth” albums
Breakup: 1994, singer Mark Robinson and bassist Bridget Cross formed Air Miami
Reunion: 2010. The band toured to celebrate the 26th anniversary of its TeenBeat label in July.