Their Noise

After ten years, Superchunk and Merge Records are still working. But they are not working for you.

For much of this decade, the members of Superchunk have preferred to make their music in the studio rather than perform it on the road, touring only when it couldn't be avoided. Maybe it's because it's difficult for a band with a notorious perfectionist streak to hand over its songs to a sound engineer they hardly know. Or maybe it's because spending weeks in a cramped van smelling other people's dirty laundry can make anyone a little cranky. Whatever the reason, at the height of Superchunk's popularity in the mid-Nineties, the band rarely concealed its displeasure with the potholes encountered along America's highways, whether it was a negative writeup, a muddy sound mix or just a bad mood. Anything seemed to set off the group back then, and even now, it has a tight grip on its grudges.

At a 1995 Denver appearance, frontman Mac McCaughan launched an onstage criticism of a profile Westword had run that week (strangely, the offending comment was: "Superchunk makes music. And -- oh, yeah -- that music is good.") and displayed generally bratty behavior. At a now-infamous performance at Dallas's Galaxy Club the previous year, McCaughan and guitarist Jim Wilbur traded barbs about the less-than-adequate accommodations of the venue. "It's too bad that Dallas has no good clubs and you've been forced to come to places like this," Wilbur said to the sweaty audience between songs. "The rest of the world would laugh at you for even attempting to have a good time in a place like this." (On its Web site, www.superchunk.com, the group has a clip of the pair's ranting available for download, listed under the heading "Dallas Fiasco.")

The prima-donna outbursts of that period are a bit more understandable when one considers that the band was then among a handful of dignitaries in the indie-pop world. At the time, Superchunk was coming off the album that remains the best-selling disc in its catalogue, 1994's Foolish, its first full-length for Merge Records, the label run by McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. The players had made the jump from the safer harbor of a larger independent label -- New York-based Matador Records -- and landed safely on the other side, doing better than ever before all by themselves.

Unfortunately, the safety didn't last long. Though the band just released its ninth album, Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk has seen its sales figures dip with every album after Foolish, which sold more than 40,000 records. Here's Where the Strings Come In, released in 1995, and 1997's Indoor Living didn't even clear the 30,000 mark.

"I don't know of anyone that hasn't had a sales drop since 1994 or something," drummer Jon Wurster says. "I was able to look up some sales figures for bands recently, and it's amazing. I would find this figure for a band that sold, like, a quarter of a million records in 1995 or 1996, and their new album that's been out for a year has sold 25,000. That seems very standard now. It's happening to everybody. There's a couple of bands in our town that were huge two years ago, and now they're...not," he says, laughing.

Superchunk might have had the same sort of success that its North Carolina neighbors the Ben Folds Five and the Squirrel Nut Zippers briefly enjoyed a few years ago if the band had stuck with Matador, which released its self-titled 1990 debut, as well as 1991's No Pocky for Kitty and 1993's On the Mouth. (Merge re-released all three records on August 10, the same day Come Pick Me Up hit the shelves.) When the group ended its relationship with Matador, the label was on the verge of signing a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, an association that might have given Superchunk a higher profile. But as the band realized when it began releasing its own albums -- Merge was formed in 1989 as an outlet for the group's singles -- selling your own records means you get to keep all of the money, and if you work hard enough, you can sell just as many without any help at all. Wurster wasn't so sure about that when the band decided to make the move.

"I think maybe we were a little apprehensive about whether the demand for the records could be met," Wurster says. "But it worked. I think that [Ballance and McCaughan] always hoped that that would be the end result. As far as I can tell, Merge -- and also the band -- has never had any long-term goals. And I think that that's good. In the case of the band, it's good, because you don't make these unrealistic scenarios and these goals that you want to reach, and then your hopes are ultimately dashed." He laughs. "But I think Merge always hoped it would be in the position it's in right now -- keeping its integrity and actually running a successful business."

The decision made more than business sense. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye gets more credit for what he's done with Dischord Records, but McCaughan and Ballance should receive equal billing for what they've achieved with Merge. They've turned yet another artist-run vanity label into one of the most influential independents in the country, releasing albums and singles by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, and Stephin Merritt's litany of bands, including the 6ths, the Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes.

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