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."
Wurster agrees that the Chapel Hill hype helped plenty of bands get a foot in the door. But he also notes that the aftermath has been somewhat grim. "Now it seems people are less interested in going out to see bands," he says, noting that Mike Watt's recent concert in Chapel Hill drew a measly 100 people. "Maybe they're bored with it. And it seems that there are not too many bands locally that have members under the age of 25, or even older. I don't know if kids are not interested in playing guitars or drums, or if they just want to make music on their computers."
Even more depressing, says Wurster, are the bands that do draw the young crowds: Hootie, Blues Traveler, Tonic, and Matchbox 20, bands that dominate commercial radio. "I saw Matchbox 20 open for the Lemonheads," recalls Wurster. "It was right when their album came out. I could not believe how utterly generic they were and how he [lead vocalist Rob Thomas] sounded just like the singer-of-the-late-'90s. They're massive now, and I don't understand it. But that's what radio thinks people want to hear, and if that's all people get, that's all they think they want to hear. We'd made small inroads with the 'Hyper Enough' single a few years ago, but things have closed so much that no one's willing to take a chance anymore. They hear a voice like Mac's, and they say, 'That doesn't sound like what we're playing.'"
McCaughan's ardent, high-pitched warble and Superchunk's well-crafted pop make for the perfect antithesis to the beer-gut grunge that now defines "alternative" music. For a sound that's considered out-of-date, it's incredibly refreshing. It could be that Superchunk's indie-rock aesthetic is due for rediscovery.
"I think it's starting already," says Wurster. "Do you know the band Seaweed? They were on Hollywood Records for a few years, which is under Disney. Their next record's coming out on Merge. And I think you'll see a lot of that. I think a lot of bands are going to go back to tiny labels, thinking, 'If we do it right and not spend a fortune, we can make a living doing it.' Sure, we'll probably sell less records, but maybe not any less than we might sell on a major. If you have an independent label with good distribution, you get your records everywhere. We get our records in Best Buy, Circuit City, places I never thought I'd see our records. It can be done."
Superchunk plays with Ladybug Transistor at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, February 10 at Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $9. Call 561-832-9999.
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