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.
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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."
They didn't, however. All told, it took a year and a half before Arista and the Right Profile jointly agreed to a divorce. "At least we escaped without being hugely in debt," Wurster notes. The Profilers stuck together for several years afterward, but the thrill was gone. Says Wurster, "It was like banging your head against a wall. Finally, we did this tour in California to see if we could get something going out there, and it was a total disaster. But the day I got back, there was a message that Mac had called and was wondering if I'd be interested in joining Superchunk. It was like a sign from above."
Wurster's arrival marked the beginning of an important new stage for Superchunk. While Garrison was an adequate timekeeper, Wurster's playing is simultaneously steady and spontaneous--a good combination for a punk band. Combined with Ballance's growing mastery of the bass, these attributes have provided McCaughn with a solid rhythm on which to build his songs. Mouth, the first disc featuring Wurster, represented a tremendous leap for Superchunk in that it supplemented highly charged raveups like "Precision Auto" and "New Low" with several left-field entries, most notably the cleverly arranged "Mower," the deliberate, thudding "Swallow That" and "The Question Is How Fast," a sneaky track that suggests the Buzzcocks at their pure-pop best. Foolish continued this exploration: "Like a Fool," a four-and-a-half minute cut that relies more on nuances than riffing, is an indication that McCaughn has grown confident enough to do anything he damn well pleases. Better yet, his fellow Chunks are capable of keeping up with him.
In Wurster's view, Superchunk's evolution has had everything to do with its current vitality. "I think we're lucky in that the band has retained the basic sound that it started out with yet has moved forward to some degree," he states. "A lot of bands don't really work that angle--they'll keep the sound, but they won't really expand on it that much. Like with Bad Religion. I've heard their really early stuff and their newer stuff, and it definitely sounds pretty similar. That's worked for them, but to me, you need to change things up a bit to maintain your interest in a band."
Whether McCaughn would remain interested in the band was an entirely different question. The material he wrote for Foolish was far darker than anything he'd attempted before, in large part because McCaughn and Ballance were in the midst of breaking up during the recording of the platter. Were he to hit the road, Superchunk would be finished--and while the band likely could have survived Ballance's departure, this prospect was dreaded by the Superchunk cult. Even though her creative contributions were not nearly as vital as McCaughn's, Ballance was a key component of the act's live performances, as well as an object of lust for fans beguiled by what they saw as her resemblance to actress Julia Roberts. The New York band Surgery went so far as to write the Valentine-like tune "Dear, Sweet Laura" about her.
Obviously, no one wanted Superchunk to turn into a Nineties variation on Fleetwood Mac, but neither did anyone have an effective plan to prevent the members' interpersonal relationships from poisoning the music. Even Wurster didn't have a clue as to what would happen as a result of this split. "At that point, I just took a wait-and-see attitude to see what transpired within the band," he says. "I didn't know how people would get along. But then we went out on tour and everything was fine. Actually, it was one of the most enjoyable tours I've ever been on. That kind of reaffirmed my faith in the band.
"I don't think any of us wants to do this if it isn't fun," he points out. "You see a band like the Ramones, who've had a lot of tension over the years and yet they're still out there doing it. You wonder if they're having a good time at all. But our tour was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. It made all of us want to keep doing it, and everything's been great since then."
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Right now, Superchunk is focusing on its tour with Belly, a band whose major-label affiliation and presence on the current cover of Rolling Stone makes it seem like an odd match for an indie flag-waver. "It doesn't seem weird to us," Wurster counters. "Everybody else makes a bigger deal of the major-label thing than we do. We played a show with Belly in England about two years ago and got along really well, so when this came up, we said, `Sure.' It's perfect timing, because we want to start recording the next album at the end of May, and this gives us a chance to try out some of the new songs live in front of a lot of people who might not ordinarily hear them."
Not that Wurster is desperate for the Superchunk audience to double in size anytime soon. "I can't really see the band getting that massive, just because of the way we do things," he contends. "We don't have a big machine behind us. There are some bands where, when they put a new record out, they're on the cover of every magazine you pick up. We'll never have that--and I think that's a good thing. I like it when people find out about a band from a friend, or they hear a song in a club or see a video, as opposed to having it rammed down their throat.
"I mean, Jim and I open the mail that comes to the band--that's our job. And we've actually gotten a couple letters from Serbia, of all places. I'm not quite sure how they heard about us there, but the word gets out, much to my bewilderment. And that feels a lot more honest to me. Like people are into us because they found our music. And they like it."
Belly, with Superchunk and Cold Water Flat. 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16, 830-2525 or 444-