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CHUNKY STYLE

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"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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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts