By Drew Ailes
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By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
According to Jon Wurster, drummer for North Carolina's Superchunk, "We get mentioned whenever the big magazines do an article about vinyl or indie labels--that kind of thing. But they aren't usually that interested in the band."
Strange, but true. In many ways, Superchunk is among the more influential musical collectives of the Nineties--a thoroughly independent foursome that evokes more original punk-rock spirit than the Pearl Jams of the world ever will. But what's often lost amid the admiration directed at Wurster and his cohorts (singer/guitarist Mac McCaughn, bassist Laura Ballance and guitarist Jim Wilbur) is the fact that Superchunk makes music. And--oh, yeah--that music is good.
The quartet put out its first singles in 1989, and over the course of six years and a couple of personnel alterations, it's gotten more confident, more distinctive. Foolish, a CD released last year, was easily the finest Superchunk yet--a full-bodied punk-rock wallop that's as tuneful as it is biting--and Wurster allows that new material apt to appear on the combo's upcoming disc, set for release this September, is just as strong. Not bad for a group that, as Wurster remembers, was initially written off as "a Husker Du clone."
The idea for the band began with McCaughn, who entered what's now become trademarked as "the Chapel Hill scene" in the mid-Eighties as part of a punk outfit called the Slushpuppies. By 1987 he was entrepreneurial enough to compile and release Evil I Do Not/To Nod I Live, a boxed set of singles documenting efforts from the Slushpuppies and such Carolina contemporaries as Egg and Angels of Epistemology. Rather than building on this project, though, he took a break from punk and enrolled at New York's Columbia University. Upon returning to North Carolina in 1989, he formed a new act with then-girlfriend Ballance (a novice musician he nominated to fill the bassist slot), a guitarist known to the world simply as Jack, and drummer Chuck Garrison. Its original name was Chunk, a moniker chosen after Garrison received some junk mail that identified him thusly; when it was subsequently discovered that a competing Chunk was also playing shows in the region, the bandmates decided to tack on the word "Super." Wilbur replaced Jack in 1990, and Wurster took over the drum seat from Garrison the next year.
Like its lineup, Superchunk's sound took a while to come together. On first listen, its early cuts, collected on the CD Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91), represent entertaining if somewhat typical late-Eighties punk. Even "Slack Motherfucker," a defining moment that San Pedro's late, lamented fIREHOSE covered on its Live Totem Pole EP, is not nearly as singular as the material that followed. Even so, it was abundantly clear that McCaughn had a knack for oversized hooks, indelible melodies and sloppy, passionate performances. All he needed was the time to develop his own style. As Wurster puts it, "When younger kids form their own bands, the first thing they try to play is music like the stuff they've been hearing for so long. And then they figure out how to do their own things."
Initially, Superchunk's work was released exclusively on Merge, a label co-founded by McCaughn and Ballance. Then, in 1990, Superchunk signed a contract with Matador, a smallish New York imprint that's become the home for artists such as Liz Phair. The company released three Superchunk discs--1990's self-titled full-length, 1991's propulsive No Pocky for Kitty and the strong 1993 offering On the Mouth--but when Matador inked a distribution agreement with a major label, Atlantic, McCaughn took Superchunk back to Merge. If this move was a risk, it paid off: Foolish turned out to be Superchunk's best-selling disc yet. Moreover, Merge kept functioning throughout Superchunk's Matador period; among its successes were Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, both of which are now signed to major labels.
Today, Merge is in the middle of a considerable growth spurt, but Wurster says it remains very much a small-scale operation. "I'm facing two full walls of cardboard boxes," he reveals, laughing. "There are three rooms here, a couple of computers, a fax machine, people running in and out all day. And boxes everywhere."
Still, Wurster's not complaining. Merge's atmosphere may lack glamour, but he swears that he wouldn't trade it for the comfort of a music-industry behemoth. He's been down that road before.
"In 1985 I joined this band called the Right Profile," he remembers. "We were a cross between, I guess, the Replacements, the Rolling Stones and the Band. And it was a textbook example of what can go wrong when you sign a major deal. It's probably the main reason I don't have any interest in going to a major."
In the Right Profile's case, the company in question was Arista, which Wurster describes as "the world's worst rock-and-roll label. When we were there, it was set up in such a way that you couldn't do anything without the head of the label's consent. That was Clive Davis, and if he didn't like it, you were down the drain. A vice-president there understood us, but that wasn't good enough.
"Anyhow, we went into the studio with this producer, Jim Dickinson, who'd just made a Replacements record that had sounded really loose and great. But he seemed to be operating under the assumption that the label was looking over his shoulder, and he tried to make us sound like he thought Arista wanted us to sound--which wasn't the way we wanted to sound at all. This went on for a while, and when it became obvious that things weren't working out, the label started sending us these songs that they wanted us to cover, like an outtake from that Slippery When Wet album by Bon Jovi. We should have bailed right there."