They Did It Their Way

Remember when indie rock was totally cool? The place to be was Austin, Texas -- make that Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which was even cooler. All anyone cared about was the Archers of Loaf, whether Unrest was going to tour again, and what Kim Gordon was up to. Major labels were bad, small labels were good, and everyone listened to college radio. When was that, like 1992?

The brightest star of that brief era was undoubtedly Superchunk, the Chapel Hill quartet who recorded such postcollegiate anthems as "Slack Motherfucker," "Cool," and "My Noise." Mac McCaughan, the band's chief songwriter, singer, and guitarist, also owned the band's label, Merge Records. He and his bassist, Laura Ballance, were "going out." James Wilbur (guitar) and Jon Wurster (drums) both left their day jobs (teaching and window-washing, respectively) to join the band. The four twentysomethings were true indie celebrities: laid-back hipsters in thrift-store shirts singing about the low-rent life and saying "no thanks" to every label exec who came knocking.

"In terms of the music industry, we were able to not come in contact with a lot of it," recalls Wurster, packing his bags in his Chapel Hill home before heading out on the second leg of Superchunk's U.S. tour. "We were able to bypass it, and that's been great. I think it definitely kept us alive as a band. I think if we had signed with a major we'd just be back to where we are now. I don't think we'd have sold any more copies than we have already. And most of the bands who were our contemporaries back then are gone."

Superchunk, however, is holding together. The lineup remains the same, despite the fact that McCaughan and Ballance ended their romance some years ago. McCaughan still owns Merge, and the healthy little label's roster includes Verbena, the Magnetic Fields, and Neutral Milk Hotel. The band's following is as loyal and fanatical as ever: One devotee runs an e-mail newsletter keeping tabs on tour dates, upcoming videos, and where Wurster's dad eats pizza. More importantly, Superchunk's eighth and latest album, Indoor Living, is arguably its strongest yet.

Today's Superchunk comes with added sugar, though it's still bittersweet. On Indoor Living, the 30-year-old McCaughan has stopped shouting, and his nasal voice sounds heartbreakingly fragile. Behind him the band is no longer hammering out chord after chord but threading together a necklace of uniformly beautiful pop songs. Indoor Living opens with "Unbelievable Things," in which the dramatic verses are broken open by a wistful chorus, and closes with "Martinis on the Roof," a brief attack of nostalgia ("Cigar smoke in the room/You were leaving way too soon/Cheetos and 100 proof/Martinis on the roof"). The nine songs in between range from precious ("Marquee") to ardent ("Watery Hands") to poetic ("Under Our Feet").

"There's always a good amount of angst in our songs," allows Wurster, "and I think it's still there on this record. But it does sound a little lighter, which I think is good. Who wants to hear somebody moaning for the length of eight albums?" He adds, "We wanted to throw some new things into the mix on this one. We were lucky to have enough time to experiment with vibes and keyboards, and Mac got to experiment with a lot of vocal harmonies that he never attempted before."

Though the band has broadened its sound, Indoor Living is unlikely to draw a broader audience than previous Superchunk releases. Chapel Hill is yesterday's news, and today's buzzword is electronica. Indie rock has had its fifteen minutes, and Wurster knows it. Frankly, he's glad.

"There was that one period where people were really fixing their eye on Chapel Hill as the new Seattle, the new Mecca," says Wurster. "Luckily that only lasted a couple months. It was strange, because there was a reporter from just about every magazine down here over the course of six months -- Details, Interview, Spin, just everybody. And nothing happened.... There were only about ten or twelve bands around. A lot of them got signed. I remember Alias records signed three bands all at once: Archers of Loaf, Small, and Picasso Trigger. Once that all died down, everybody was able to get back to being in a band and trying to do their own thing."

Superchunk watched the major-label gravy train roll into town and right back out again without ever thinking of hopping aboard. "I'm 100 percent glad we did what we did," Wurster says. "I think if we'd gone with Atlantic or whoever in 1993, we'd be back to making records with Merge now anyway. The only advantage would have been big advances."

But as Wurster knows from experience, wads of record-company cash are not the golden eggs they appear to be. At age nineteen Wurster was in a band called the Right Profile that signed with Arista Records for $100,000 -- an impressive sum at the time. "We ended up with maybe half that, probably less. Our managers got a piece, the lawyers got a piece." Wurster laughs. "We never put out a record, but we got started, and I got my major doses of big-label B.S. out of the way then."

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