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.
McCaughan and Ballance have never compromised, putting out records they like and not just the ones that will sell. Yet they have sold, to the point that Merge doesn't have to rely on Superchunk records to keep from drowning in a sea of red ink. The label recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary on July 23 and 24 with M10K, a festival featuring performances by most of the Merge roster.
This year was also Superchunk's tenth birthday, and the band's celebration of that milestone was much less raucous. It happened earlier this year at Chicago's Electrical Audio Studios, where the group was recording Come Pick Me Up with Jim O'Rourke. The union of Superchunk and O'Rourke, who has worked with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to Sonic Youth, initially seemed one of the most unnatural pairings since Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. O'Rourke's penchant for abstract pop was not quite in tune with the band's more straightforward guitar rock, even though Indoor Living had proved there was more to Superchunk than it had shown in the past. But, Wurster says, that's exactly what the band wanted. They already knew how Superchunk made records -- maybe a little too well. What they wanted, and needed, was someone to show them another way.
"I've always been a fan of records where bands take a different approach and try things they hadn't before, like London Calling, by the Clash," Wurster says. "Or that Ramones album, End of the Century -- that had some neat stuff on it. We definitely wanted to try new things and put strings and horns on it, but Jim O'Rourke was really instrumental in actually helping us realize that. None of us actually knew him before we worked with him. We liked the records that he'd done, and knew that he was kind of...not weird, but coming from a different place than we were coming from, and I think we really needed that. This was someone that probably didn't really even know our records very well -- which was good."
O'Rourke took home cassettes of the songs that the band wanted strings and horns on and wrote parts out for them in one night. "I was impressed that he was able to do that just kind of off the top of his head and running on no sleep," Wurster says, laughing. But the result is no joke: Thanks to O'Rourke's contributions, Come Pick Me Up is a lush -- and, at times, beautiful -- album. The band that began its career recording intelligent pop-punk anthems such as "Slack Motherfucker" is still present on Come Pick Me Up -- "Good Dreams" is as infectious as anything in the group's back catalogue. But that side of Superchunk appears far less on the new release, leading to a disc that you can call mature without meaning boring.
But even as the band moves forward with its music, it is taking a backward step when it comes to touring. Superchunk hasn't done much road work in the past few years, stepping back from the rigorous pace it maintained early in its career. Ballance and McCaughan have been busy with Merge, and everyone besides Ballance has had side projects to fill their time. McCaughan records solo under the name Portastatic, and Wilbur keeps busy with Humidifier. Earlier this year, Wurster released an album based solely around a prank phone interview he did with a friend who has a radio show on WSMU in New York.
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"We thought up this scenario where he would interview me, and I was calling into his show as the author of a book called Rock, Rot and Rule," Wurster explains. "It bills itself as the ultimate argument-settler, where you'd open the book, and it would just be band after band or artist after artist listed alphabetically, and it would just say whether or not they rocked, rotted or ruled. So it was just the stupidest idea for a book. And people actually called in believing it was real and arguing with me."
In support of the release of Come Pick Me Up, the group is undertaking its busiest touring schedule in five years. Other than that, Wurster and the band haven't made any plans for the future just yet. Most likely, they'll record another album in a year or two, but even that has yet to be determined. It's the way the bandmembers have operated since it formed, and Wurster doesn't think they should tamper with success -- at least its version of success.
"I know, early on, I kind of wished that we had more of a long-term goal," says Wurster. "But it seems like the bands that actually did have a long-term goal and maybe met that goal originally..." He trails off, trying to find the point he was trying to make. "A good example is a band like Urge Overkill. They kind of came up from the same ranks that we did in a way, and then had a huge record -- which is probably what they wanted -- and then they haven't been heard from since. Doing it the way we do it is right for us.
"I mean, you always want to sell more records and reach a wider audience," Wurster continues. Then he adds, laughing, "I think we're coming to the conclusion now that that probably isn't going to happen -- and that might not be such a bad thing."