"There Could be the Greatest Review of a Band on Pitchfork...": A Weekend with Superchunk

by Seth Colter Walls


Mac McCaughan was in the middle of singing a song at a record store while his wife was struggling to keep their 3-year-old son from tumbling headfirst out of her grasp. This took place yesterday, a little after 1 p.m., during an acoustic set-the sort of thing reliably advertised as “intimate”-which McCaughan was playing with two of his Superchunk bandmates, over at New York’s Other Music. (The band’s bassist, Laura Ballance, appeared to only have electric gear on this trip, and so was watching this performance from the back wall.) McCaughan’s wife and their two children (ages 3 and 7) had been either standing, hoisted or seated on the floor about two feet in front of him, along with nearly 100 semi-early risers who all waited in the deceptively strong September sun for over an hour.

Superchunk’s weekend in New York was already fair to describe as a success.

Just 13 hours ago, the entire band had completed a ripping, double-encore set at the sold-out Bowery Ballroom. And like their new record, “Majesty Shredding,” the whole thing was a startlingly alive sort of thing for a band this deep into-and oh, wait a second, it wasn’t time to write the story yet, because this 3-year-old, all limbs and shoes in motion, was preparing to dive from his mother’s arms and fall right on top of his sister, seated on the floor below. McCaughan had been noodling his way through a solo, his face curled skyward in that thoughtful-but-blissed-out way of playing acoustically, but then the song became McCaughan’s second order of concern, at least according to the scorecard of wrinkles right above his eyebrows. Would he ditch the tune altogether, if it looked like something really bad (and preventable) was about to happen?

The situation does not play out so dramatically. McCaughan’s partner handles the kid-juggling act like a pro, guiding their 3-year-old to the floor with a practiced grace that drags his fidgeting gestures out into what looks like slo-mo speed. “I just felt bad that she was having to deal with them crawling all over her, by herself,” McCaughan said later.

We walked to McCaughan’s hotel on Rivington, and we did all the boring “how did getting the band back together for an album after 9 years work?” questions right away. (Boilerplate answer: it all took some doing, since the Superchunkers don’t live in the same town these days. McCaughan cut demos and sent them to the other members, all of whom reconvened over a stray weekend to record a single — “Crossed Wires” — which went well enough for everyone to sign on for enough weekend recording sessions to complete a full record. Then they found a mutually agreeable time to squeeze in a short tour, and targeted the release date to drop just before that run of dates. The end.)

“Can we walk in the shade here?” he asked, on Bowery, between answering these questions for the unknownth time on this trip. “It’s hot out.”

* * *

Here’s something like a thesis: the understated way that Superchunk goes about being great frustrates the act of criticism. There are no large upheavals or aesthetic tear-down jobs from album to album, merely well-thought-through tinkerings and evolutions. Not many bands can sound so much like themselves whether it’s Steve Albini or Jim O’Rourke behind the boards. But then this radical dependability, presented once and again over many a year, tends to be peg-resistant and “take”-discouraging. I suspect there’s a reason — contrary to the up-and-down, many-bullet-pointed arc of his Sonic Youth appreciation — that Robert Christgau has only had two things to say about Superchunk in his Consumer Guide over the last 21 years. (That would be one correct observation — namely, that “Slack Motherfucker” is a keeper of a single-and one questionably ho-hum assessment of the album “Foolish.”)

So, what? You like Superchunk? So do I. What else you got? Lotsa critical reaction to “Majesty Shredding” focuses on what, at first blush, appears to be the band’s reinvigorated, early 90s-sense of themselves: up-tempo and hooky — supposedly at the expense of those progressively delicate arrangements on the band’s final, pre-hiatus albums. But then Superchunk’s two full, electric sets in New York argue against a clean division between their old and less-old sounds. For instance, they show us there are a few corkers on “Indoor Living” we might have forgotten. And that a song from “Here’s to Shutting Up” can work in a stripped-down arrangement.

“If it is maybe more in the punk rock mode than the last couple records, that made sense to me,” McCaughan said. “If we were going to make a record for the first time in nine years, I wanted it to be this thing that people couldn’t just be like ‘Oh, I waited for this?’ You might not like it, but I wanted it to be pretty relentless, sonically, from start to finish. But at the same time, when I hear our music, I don’t think: ‘Whoa, it’s old-sounding!’ When I see these people writing ‘it’s ’93 all over again,’ I think … well, our records in ’93 kinda sounded kinda like records in ‘78! So, to me, it’s a weird thing. I don’t really think of stuff in that way. I acknowledge that that’s how some people have to think about that stuff. But if I hear a record and I like it I’m less concerned….”

It seems reasonable to place a reminder here that McCaughan is, along with Ballance, also co-president of Merge Records; he stops and thinks for a second.

“If I hear about some band,” he said, “and someone tells me they’re part of this whole blah-blah scene, I kind of assume I’m not gonna like it.”

Is this a band’s fault, usually?

“No, it’s not the bands, it’s just….”

Music writers.

“Exactly! When I say ‘some people’ have to think about it that way, I mean: You.” He laughed.

“Whatever, people writing about it need labels to refer to things,” he said. “And ‘indie’ is the same way. It’s a convenient term; it gives you a very general idea what they’re talking about.”

* * *

McCaughan never uses the “shuffle” feature on his iPod. “It’s not interesting to me,” he said.

Curated playlists are acceptable, however. “One of the appliances I don’t want to let go of is my 5-CD changer. I mean, it’s not very good. If I really love CDs so much, I’d get a fancy CD player. But they only make those for one CD. I like having five in there: it’s a good, reasonable amount for my brain to handle… to concentrate on at a time. A friend of mine recently just said: ‘Fuck it, I can’t bring my iPod with me. Whenever I’m listening to it, I think, I bet there’s something else that would be even better to listen to.’ Now he travels a lot, and he brings CDs in a wallet with him. That’s not appealing to me, either, carrying around a CD wallet. But I understand the mindset.”

“The physical world is still really important,” he said. “Not just for bands and labels and whatever — but as consumers of music. One of our jobs as a record label is to create music fans. And that’s harder to do without music stores.”

One of the jobs of a record label is to create music fans? That is a charming idea! But now, it seems it is also time to talk about the Internet.

“It’s weird. In some ways things just balance out,” he said. “When we first started, we went out on a tour with just a 7-inch, or two 7-inches. It’s hard to do that now. It was easier to get people’s attention then. Now you have the tools to access a wide group of people, but so does everyone. So it’s a wash. It’s not as though ‘the Internet is bad’ or ‘the Internet is perfect for this.’”

But isn’t it still true that — even as everyone has access to more tools, and bands draw from larger and larger pools of influences — there is an ever-narrowing amount of attention paid to the not-new? As in: there’s lots of pressure to really be up on the new Flying Lotus record, because it supposedly (though not really) embraces “free jazz” as an element, and because he’s related to Alice Coltrane. Though good luck getting anyone to listen to…

“… an Alice Coltrane record. Yeah,” he said. “Well, I think it’s hard to get people to pay attention to something for any length of time. And something like jazz requires more attention.”

“Like, there could be the greatest review of a band on Pitchfork,” he said. “And the next day: there’s five new reviews. And what I think that transmits is: ‘this is great…’ and then the next day, ‘this is great…’ and the next day, ‘no, wait: this thing’s great.’ Which projects this idea that you don’t really need to pay attention to for anything for too long, even if it’s great. Because there will be something else great tomorrow. How are people supposed to be invested in anything when that’s the attitude that’s put out there? Going back to our job of creating music fans: I think people become attached to things and invested in things when they can learn about it and focus on it. Go in a record store. Pick it up….. You’re making a real decision there. You don’t get that from looking at shit online.”

* * *

One thing that some people do get attached to and invested in are those old Superchunk songs. On Saturday at Bowery Ballroom, our long-held attention spans were proven out by the crowd falsetto that filled the room during the exposed notes in “Like a Fool,” and by our in-key contributions to “For Tension.”

But the odd thing is how, even though the band’s first three records have just been remastered and re-released, the Bowery show featured more songs from 1997’s “Indoor Living” than, say, 1993’s “On the Mouth.” McCaughan says the band started making a Google Doc of songs to have ready for each and every show during this tour, but after they hit 75 songs, “Laura said, ‘we’ve gotta stop adding songs.’”

On Sunday, after the acoustic in-store performance, I helpfully remind Mac that the band neglected to play “Skip Steps 1 and 3” the other night.

“Oh, we didn’t? We did it in D.C.” (That D.C. show, you might like to know, is currently available for download from NPR Music.)

Later on Sunday night, in Williamsburg, one man screams for “Precision Auto” right from the drop — another number that didn’t make Saturday’s setlist. And yet, the second song, much to my bliss, is “Skip.” Once it’s over, the “Precision Auto” guy screams for his favorite again.

He asks for it all night. And when he finally gets it, a lot of us cheer for him and what we hope is his satisfaction. During the encore, comedian Todd Barry gets behind the drums to beat out The Misfits’ “Horror Business” with the band, while Jon Wurster takes over lead vocal duties. “Psycho ‘78!” we all sing, delighted by something we wanted that we didn’t even know about. This thing’s great! No wait: this other thing’s great! We’re all wriggly little kids, jostling and kicking with inarticulate desire, right up until the moment Superchunk sets us down on the floor and we’re all exhausted from doing the pogo. So what if it’s not a springboard for a lot of impressive, timely, well-packaged critical insights? Superchunk is playing again.

Seth Colter Walls is a fan boy.