Superchunk never tried to be the biggest band in the land, but it did make music on its own terms and became an iconic outfit in its own right by embodying what it means to be an indie rock band. While the band didn't enjoy nearly the same level of commercial success as many of its peers, unlike many of those acts, Superchunk is still around more than twenty years later, and has consistently released solid albums, including the upcoming Majesty Shredding to be released on September 14, 2010 on Merge Records.
Merge is a well-known and respected independent label that has been home to some of most interesting artists around for the last twenty years. The label was launched -- and is currently run -- by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk. According to the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, Merge got its name from a street sign that Mac and Laura saw while driving through Colorado.
In advance of Superchunk's appearance at this Saturday's Westword Music Showcase (Main Stage, 07- 8:15 p.m.), we had a chance to speak at length with the band's long time drummer, the gregarious and witty Jon Wurster, about some of the outfit's adventures (and misadventures) over the years, his own background in underground music prior to joining Superchunk and his infamous interview with Glenn Danzig in 2002.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Did that Chinese fishing boat converted into a nightclub have a name, how did you end up playing that show, and what was it like to play there?
Jon Wurster: It's funny, I just got an email from a guy who is also in a band who told me he was playing there tonight, so it still exists somehow. It's on the Seine and it's called Lady of Canton or Cabaret Pirate.
I'm told that in a former life it was a Chinese fishing boat and somehow they turned it into some kind of club, which was not good by any means: There wasn't enough room for everyone to stand. There was no stage. There was a place where the bands played, but there was really only enough room for three people and the rest of the band had to stand up on the deck.
Jim Wilbur -- up on this raised platform that served some kind of function on the fishing boat -- he was a foot taller than the rest of us that night, and stuff kept moving around because there was a little bit of turbulence. Definitely the oddest venue I've ever played.
WW: You were involved in underground music from an early age. How did you first get into that sort of thing in the beginning?
JW: That was during a period that if you were going to get into it, you had to seek it out. I was instantly taken by bands like The Ramones and The Clash. Those first couple of Police records I loved and stuff like The Boomtown Rats. This would have been 1979, I guess.
When I was super young, I loved AM radio and pop hits of the mid-'70s, and then I got into KISS and Aerosmith. I read Creem magazine a lot, and I didn't really get to hear a lot of those bands, but you'd read about them, and they looked so cool. It seemed like this weird other world that was inhabited by The Dead Boys, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Damned and things like that. You didn't really know what they sounded like, but it seemed like it was maybe your world, too, in a way.
Eventually a friend of mine had a copy of the first Ramones record, and I borrowed it, and loved it, and then I got into The Clash. I went to see Rude Boy at the Tower Theater when that came out in 1980. That's how I got into it, and when I was fourteen, I got into a band called Hair Club For Men. That was 1981, and we played a lot of that stuff. We had a lot of original material, but we would play stuff like The Plasmatics' version of "Dream Lover." And Clash stuff. It instantly felt like home to me.
WW: As you're also a comedian, how have you handled hecklers at shows with the band, and is it different from how you might take one of them down in another setting?
JW: I have rarely done anything resembling stand-up. The stuff we do on the radio show is a little different. With the band, there have been a couple that we mentioned in the tour diaries. There was a show we did at an experimental community in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was something they set up in the '70s where, "We're going to self-police and have our little world here." It was terrible. But a lot of bands played there and I think it still exists.
We were playing with Seam, this was February, 1996. There was a guy there who was out of his mind, and we were all kind of watching him before the show and thinking he would be trouble. Sure enough, in the middle of the show, he jumped on stage, and I'm getting madder. Then he started messing with Laura Ballance's tuning pegs, so I jumped over the drum set and tackled him. It was so out of character for me. We didn't get in a fight so much as we were rolling around. Then he gets thrown out, and after a while we see him again and think, "Why is he here?!" He lived there.
Eric Bachmann was opening for us once, and this guy got on stage doing something similar, and I jumped down again, and we both tackled him. I think we demanded he give us his Simpsons t-shirt in exchange for the time of ours that he wasted. Creative ways like that.
WW: Did you ever see The Misfits as a teenager, and had you ever met or talked to Glenn Danzig before that 2002 interview you did with him for The Independent? Sounded like he wasn't in a good mood that day.
JW: I missed them by a couple of weeks or so when I was really getting into that scene. This would have been on their last legs. The summer of '82 maybe, playing with Die Kreuzen. I saw Danzig on the first tour a couple of times with maybe a hundred people and it was good.
When I interviewed him, he was in the worst city in America, in my opinion. He was in El Paso. Although we did a session for this last record in a town just south of El Paso, and it's wonderful. I think if maybe you're not in the city proper, it's pretty cool. The publicist I had talked to earlier that day, and asked if it was okay if I mentioned The Misfits at all, because I had seen him kind of be not so into that era. She said he doesn't always talk about it, so who knows?
The tape of this interview is so funny because I think he had mentioned The Misfits and I go, "Hey, speaking of The Misfits...." Click. I guess my fifteen minutes were up to the second, and he had another interview to do right then, but the timing of this thing, you couldn't have written that either. I admire him in some weird way. I think he's hilariously awesome.
WW: Maybe this is a misperception on my part, but I think of Superchunk as one of the most important, most influential bands of the '90s, but your relative commercial success is less than that of many of your peers from the same time period. What do you think accounts for this and is that something you ever even think about?
JW: I don't think our records ever sounded especially great. It's how they were made. It was no one's fault. You had a budget,, and you had to do it all in one shot. The last record we did over the course of a year, and I think it sounds really good. I think it sounds like what I had hoped we'd sounded like all those years ago, and it was done in a relaxed manner.
I would four-track all the rehearsals and things and over think what I was doing. On this record, I hadn't played most of those songs until we rehearsed it the day we recorded it. I kind of did that on purpose because I wanted to wing it and just go with the initial idea that I had instead of thinking it into the ground. I think there's a lightness and brightness to it on my end that the other records don't have.
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Our records didn't sound big against other bands' records. They always sounded kind of smallish, which is fine. But in terms of commercial success, not a lot of the bands sounded like that. They sounded bigger and produced -- which isn't always a great thing. I think we always sounded kind of little. We didn't really go for it in a huge way either and I think that had something to do with it as well.
WW: I think in some ways that may have worked in your favor long term.
JW: Totally. If two of the people hadn't had the label, it would have been over way sooner than it was.