Like little stars.
Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan so does not hate music. He just might be his generation’s ultimate tastemaker. Let’s say you’d decided to only listen to music on one record label, and you picked Merge, which he has run with Superchunk bandmate Laura Ballance since 1989. Well, you’d have the Arcade Fire, the swoon-worthy Magnetic Fields’ epic “69 Love Songs,” the bristling fervor of Spoon, the luscious balladry of the Clientele, both of Neutral Milk Hotel’s magical albums. Oh, and Wild Flag, Teenage Fanclub, Bob Mould, Lambchop, She & Him, Camera Obscura, Ladybug Transistor — late career genius from masters, orchestral Americana chamber-pop, psych-drenched sunshine, we could go on and on.
But “I Hate Music” is the name of the terrific new Superchunk album, the band’s 10th, and the second after a long hiatus throughout the aughts, during which time McCaughan continued recording as Portastatic, and, oh, helped Arcade Fire to the most surprising Grammy win since, I don’t know, Christopher Cross bested Pink Floyd and Frank Sinatra in 1980. Superchunk’s joyous punk-pop fueled by hypercaffeinated pop rocks has hewn closely to what works for decades now: giddy, breathless, anthemic, road-racing, hookalicious. But the band that delivered slacker anthems like “Slack Motherfucker” and “Cool” more than 20 years ago — the latter featuring the lines “There’s nothing new/And we know it’s true/And we’re cooler than you,” all Frankfurt School and postmodernism you could pogo to — is on the other side of 40 now. Still pogoing, to be sure, just go see them live — but also wrestling with bigger questions of life and loss.
“I hate music, what is it worth?/Can’t bring anyone back to this earth,” McCaughan yelps on “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo.” “Or fill in the space between all of the notes/But I got nothing else, so I guess here we go.” Here we go, indeed — “Overflows,” “Breaking Down,” “FOH,” “Trees of Barcelona.” It’s gem after gem, until the slowed-down beauty of the album-ender “What Can We Do?”
Superchunk has been part of my soundtrack for more than 20 years; as a student in Chapel Hill, N.C., the band’s home base, back in the early ’90s. I spun too many of their singles on college radio, and have fashioned each brilliant moment of every Superchunk/Velocity Girl show from those days into the purest nostalgic diamonds. And I watched as the band turned down what would have been alt-rock riches from major labels in the post-Nirvana age in order to put out their own music and begin shaping Merge into the powerhouse it has become. So an album about aging, and about how your relationship with music evolves over time, felt like the perfect excuse for a wine-soaked lunch with McCaughan in New York’s West Village last month.
Our generation, coming up with ‘80s indie-rock, feels complicit to me in this idea that dinosaur rockers were clogging up the scene. R.E.M. wrote about not being able to see yourself at 30. It makes perfect sense: We came of age with stultifying radio and classic rock and, generally, felt like the new music that was the most interesting got ignored by radio and Rolling Stone.
But you get older and you’re less willing to push people off the stage! The new album, and “Majesty Shredding” before it, are both driven by this idea of what music means to you as you age, as you move on, as scenes move on, but music nevertheless maintains this powerful grip. I’m curious about how you felt as a teenager, or as a college student at Columbia, as part of the punk rock and hardcore scene: Did you see music as something young people should be making and that it was being clogged up by boomer geezers who would never go away?
No, actually I think it’s because of how I got into music — which was through my parents’ records or listening to album-oriented rock. It wasn’t called classic rock at the time; it wasn’t classic yet, it was just rock. In other words, the most exciting bands to me when I was 12 or whatever were the Rolling Stones, the Who, and AC/DC. So to go from that into punk rock, I never stopped liking those other bands. I never felt like, “Oh, that stuff sucks now!” because, really, it’s not a long jump from the Who to the Sex Pistols.
You don’t necessarily understand that at 15, when so much energy is tied up in identity and opposition.
I just liked loud guitar. And there was more crossover in the media for a 13-year-old at that time. I loved Creem magazine, because Angus Young was on the cover. Inside they had those little profile things, and there’d be one of, like, Paul Simonon, and I’d be like, “Who’s that?” Or Pearl Harbour, or Patti Smith. They were kind of straddling both worlds – they’d have Van Halen on the cover because it sold a lot of issues, but someone cared about punk rock enough to have someone from the Clash in there, too. So I feel like if you’re that young and it’s all presented to you as being in that same world, you don’t start making those designations.
The rock radio station that I’d listen to in Fort Lauderdale — that my clock radio was set to and would go off in the morning — they would play “Police on My Back,” I guess ‘cause someone liked the Clash. It was mixed in with hard rock and Journey or whatever else was going on, but I guess they had the freedom to do that at that point. So obviously I didn’t think of that as totally separate, and once I started going to hardcore shows, I was like, “Well, this is different.” But being in North Carolina, you didn’t have the luxury to be like, “Fuck all that, I’m just going to listen to one kind of thing,” because there wasn’t enough of that one thing. You had to be like, “Anything that’s cool, I’ll take it.”
We saw a lot of shows that way in Hartford. If it was coming to town, and you didn’t have to be 21, you went.
Exactly. If I can get in. Most of the hardcore shows were all ages, whereas we had to sneak in to see the Meat Puppets, ‘cause they were playing at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, which was 18 and up. But, for instance, I remember the Replacements, they came through on “Let It Be.” They played the Cradle, so they let me in for a song, and then they were like, “We know you’re underage, get outta here.” So then we drove to Richmond where they’d play all-ages shows. Bands like that had enough punk rock connection to play an all-ages show in some towns with hardcore bands
That’s why I did my first interviews. Talk to the band for the school paper and hide in the club until the show.
I tried to do that, too. I’d go to the Cradle really early and I’d be like, “If I can just sit here until the doors open …” They’d be like, “I know you, you’re in high school.”
But sometimes there’d be that person at the club, or in the band, who related. They’d draw the big Xs on your hand so you didn’t drink, then stash you in the sound booth.
I remember one time the Meat Puppets came on “Meat Puppets 2,” and I’d heard it on the radio station, and was like, “OK, I’m gonna go to this.” Tried to go and get there early and that didn’t work, and was like, “OK, I’m going to hang out outside.” One of the Kirkwood brothers was like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m trying to get in.” He’s carrying these guitars and he hands me one, so I walk in and it’s, like, so stupid — of course, the people at the club knew who I was. They’d let me go in and watch a couple songs. I mean, it was still great – I was happy with whatever I’d get to see. But the point was I never felt like “these old people gotta get outta here” for two reasons: I had an interest in Bruce Springsteen and Cheap Trick and the Rolling Stones, but there was also a feeling, like, if that stuff exists, then what’s the point of all this new stuff? If there’s nothing to be against, where would the friction be? Plus I think we’re all realistic enough to know you weren’t going to hear Corrosion of Conformity on the radio. It was separate worlds.
So from this perch in your 40s, it must be really interesting to examine all of this, and to still have music playing a central, passionate role, to have it still be your life and career, and to be playing some of these clubs. “My Gap Feels Weird” on the last album takes that on, and this time so does “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo” and “FOH” and “Your Theme” and “Trees of Barcelona.” These are all songs that use music as a metaphor to go deeper into what it feels like to be alive and passionate about things at a time when maybe your peers or cohorts have dropped out, and you’re trying to explain and connect with people in new ways.
Right, because at a certain point in your life, all you need to know about someone is, what do they like? That they’re at the same show as you, or you like the same record or whatever, and that’s a pretty good shorthand when really you’re not old enough to express yourself in any more complicated way than that anyway.
You like the Smiths, I like the Smiths. Let’s be friends.
And so there’s that, and also just – I don’t want to say just nostalgia, because nostalgia’s kind of a dead end in some ways, but just the feeling like, wouldn’t it be great if that was all you had to worry about still, or think about? “How are we gonna get tickets to see the Replacements at City Gardens, because the Ritz sold out?” What can we do, can we call them on the phone, can we go out there and hope they won’t be sold out?” All those things were bonding moments, and those don’t exist so readily anymore.
Right – and what role does music play in your life when it’s not that role.
You still like it, it’s still a job to some extent, so it’s kind of like trying to find a way in, but more like trying to keep it vital in some way.
The title of the album is “I Hate Music.” Do you ever?
Sure, there are times when I do. It’s not like here’s some record that I used to love and I go, “Oh, I hate that now.” It’s more just like working in music and being inundated with promos and links and streams — and you hear something that maybe you read about, maybe you’ve heard talked about in glowing terms, “This is awesome,” and you listen and go, “Oh my God, this is what people are excited about?” That’s not a good sign for me.
It makes you feel like you’re the crazy one. If everybody else is so excited about this, I must be too old or too out of touch; what am I not getting. But it might just be overhyped and bad. Or a carbon copy of something we loved in 1987. Which was itself probably a copy of something from 1978, which made some old person like us scowl then.
Really, it’s very short-sighted – it’s a momentary feeling, because then you really think about it and go, “There are a lot of bands I still love.” There are a million great bands. We get sent music at Merge all the time that’s great but we can’t put it out because we have too many bands we’re working with, too many records we’re putting out. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of music; you just feel like you’re inundated with stuff that’s not so good. And it’s frustrating, because it makes you want to step away from the whole thing in that moment. It’s like, “This is the thing? I don’t want to be a part of this.” So it’s more about finding the stuff that is still exciting, and in terms of making music, making it in ways that are still exciting.
I feel like in some ways, “Me and You” is thematically the first song on the record, and it opens with the question “I hate music: What is it worth?” So what’s the answer to that?
I mean, that’s a good question. I’ve never written songs thinking, “I’m gonna express some undeniable truth by the end of this song.”
Two and a half minutes later, I’ll explain the world to you.
It’s just like fleeting moments. If you grow up being involved in music and loving music all the time — there are moments in life when you just rage, where it’s like, that’s not going to make you feel better. So that’s something to get your mind around.
Suddenly something that would get you through a hard time emotionally does not register in the same way or at all or it doesn’t rise to the occasion. If a song rose to the occasion of getting you through a heartbreak at 19, it might not be enough to get you through something more serious later. And that’s dislocating, to feel like the thing you rely on on a soundtrack can’t play that role anymore.
Then it’s like, what do you do? In the song, you keep doing it anyway, and not like there’s some sort of triumphant victory over grief through music or something, but it’s like, what else are you gonna do?
You look to the things that matter and try to find meaning in new ways.
I think having kids also makes you realize everything is a phase to a certain point. When we had our first kid, who’s a girl, we were just going, “Oh my God, is it gonna be like this forever? Is she gonna cry like this forever? Is she gonna not sleep like this forever?” And then you keep in your mind that it’s just a phase, because things change, and then it doesn’t stay in your head the next time some crazy thing is going on. In some ways, it’s that same idea: trying to get your mind around the fact that stuff is never gonna stay the same, for better or for worse, it keeps moving forward. And obviously when you’re as old as me, you think, “Oh, it keeps moving forward: oh shit, it’s moving forward towards death.” (laughs) Holy shit. That thought never entered my mind when I was 25. You see your parents get older, your grandparents die, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s me now. Fuck.” So my advice is don’t do the math, if at all possible.
There are a lot of moments on this album that make reference to the past — to piles of magazines, and newsprint on your face, and popping a tape in a cassette deck and “Box Elder” playing. Do you worry those moments won’t mean anything to anyone else?
I’m not a Luddite, obviously, with my iPhone – but I will readily admit that I would much prefer to read something in a newspaper than on a tablet. I do like a connection to physical things that are real. In other words, we live in a physical world, and I think that even an 18-year-old would say, if you send them a download or give them an LP, and they have the turntable and the sleeve and everything, I think they will have a more fully formed thought about that experience or that record, positive or negative, from the experience they get with the vinyl. It still resonates with people who don’t need to do it at all. And I don’t think that’s just a throwback response; I think it’s just a thing that people like.
So a too-big-to-answer question: Do you see technology and the Internet as a net plus or minus for the way people experience music? Growing up in Hartford, I would’ve killed to have been able to download the music that we learned about in the one copy of the NME we passed around. Imagine having Pitchfork and iTunes and not having to sneak onto a bus to New York to rummage import bins. But then what would I be nostalgic for – you had to work for it then. If you wanted an album on a small label, you’d write away to Parasol or the ad in Maximum Rock & Roll and wait for the mail to come. But how great would it have been to just pay 99 cents and there it is. I wonder if it would have mattered less to us if it had been easier.
I feel like there is an effect when something is too easy or too plentiful and it’s more easily dismissed. There were no record stores near Columbia. So if you were going to go record shopping, you go to Sounds or something like that, so you’re gonna go down there and maybe buy three records. Until the next time you go down there, you’re gonna listen to them a lot. And it’s part of the reason why I still buy vinyl to this day — if I buy vinyl, it stays in the record player, you listen to it over and over again, you become familiar with it. I don’t have as much time on my hands as I did in college, so I’m not going to sit there for hours, but still I feel like it’s a different experience. And I think that if you do have to work for something, you do appreciate it a bit more. That’s true for whatever.
But it is such a big question, net plus. I feel like it’s hard to say it’s not a net plus, even in the way we make records now. We still go to a recording studio and track everything on tape and all that, but since we couldn’t afford to stay there for as long as we might want to, I can take all that music home and listen to it in ProTools and add some overdubs here and there and listen to things in a way that I couldn’t have done 15 or 20 years ago.
Those technological changes have affected record stores, of course. The old days were not easy for independent labels trying to get their albums into the hands of people that wanted them. It’s a lot easier to get a Ladybug Transistor album to some kid in Nebraska today. It can be downloaded. But half, or more, of those great stores are gone. Sounds is long gone.
It’s easier to reach people now, sure, if you can get their attention. I feel like, again, there’s such an onslaught. Now, people are much more likely to go where they know they’re going to find things that they already like. Go to the blog or the Tumblr that already focuses on their niche, what they’re into. You can find out about anything, but there’s so much out there that it forces you to go down a rabbit hole in a direction that you already know. Whereas if you’re in a record store, of which there are still many, you sit there, look at the front rack, be like, “What’s this?” And then ask someone, “What’s this?”
I think in some ways, that’s one of the things that defines our job as a record label, to still get people to make a connection with music that is longer-lasting and form a relationship that feels more meaningful — both because it’s a better experience and also because it makes people want to support this thing.
Does that fight feel more uphill to you today?
Yeah, because people do buy fewer records than they did five years ago. There are outliers, obviously, but when Arcade Fire sold out Madison Square Garden, played there two nights, the record did No. 1, which was awesome, and it has sold about 750,000 copies to date. But what Michael Azerrad pointed out is that “Breeders’ Last Splash” sold a million records in its day and they would never have considered playing Madison Square Garden, no way.
It was never on the table. You could be big enough to sell a million records and not be able to do that — and now you could do that and not be able to sell a million records. That’s how it’s changed.
It’s like people getting excited about a No. 1 record that sells a couple hundred thousand copies the first week when 20, 30 years ago – even five or 10 years ago — No. 1 records were selling a lot more. It doesn’t mean that record stores or record labels can’t survive, but it does make you feel like you’re in a fight to get people engaged.
So is this a better or worse time to be an artist, in the middle of all this change? Because on one hand, Superchunk certainly had this opportunity in ’93 and ’94, to sign some big five-album deal with a major label for a lot of money.
We probably would’ve made two of them. (laughs)
Lots of bands didn’t survive that money or influence. But you also look back at that time and say, OK, Stereolab made 10 major label records, and Built to Spill and Luna and Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr. – there were plenty of examples of bands that made really interesting, or had the opportunity to make really interesting albums on big budgets. Maybe they still owe high six figures back to their labels, on paper. But those pieces of art exist.
These days, I imagine if you’re the next Built to Spill – maybe it’s easier to make a manageable living. Maybe it’s by selling 80,000 records with a smart 60/40 revenue split with an indie label and the Internet to help you. But you have to wear all those business hats – and maybe you never have the budget to make your “Soft Bulletin.”
A lot of that was just mind-set on our part. A lot of other people were just like, “OK, I’m gonna take this money and not spend it all on making my record, and I’m gonna figure out a way to live on that for a while, and buy a house and do whatever.” That was never really our mind-set, and in terms of when there’s a better time to be an artist, I don’t think there really is a bad time. I think it’s just how you approach it, how you work.
I think there’s times when it’s probably more difficult to get people’s attention. When we started Merge, we managed to get people’s attention with 7-inch singles, and I think that’d be very hard now. We still put out singles, but we’re not trying to get started and get people’s attention. I think there were fewer steps to pay attention to. If you put out a single and you got a review in Your Flesh, Forced Exposure, Conflict, Maximum Rock’n’Roll, Puncture, Option, Magnet –– you got 10 reviews in these things, people would know about your single and they’d go to the record store and they’d find it. Now, it’s like – it’s basically like putting something out in a tornado and just hoping, “Whoop, there it goes.”
But if you’re just being an artist – I think that how I feel about the people we work with on Merge and want to be on Merge, most of them will be doing what they’re doing regardless of whether Merge existed. They’ll just be doing it. So for them, I don’t know if there is a better or worse time, as far as what they produce, but there may be a more difficult time now to get people to notice it and buy it.
So what is it that you and Laura figured out about how to make a label succeed artistically and financially in this environment? What you’ve managed to build is an incredibly amazing thing, and it also spits in the wind of every prevailing trend. It’s not just Arcade Fire and She and Him, it’s Spoon and the Magnetic Fields, which majors or major-affiliated labels never knew what to do with. It’s career artists like Bob Mould and Richard Buckner and Eleanor Friedberger. It’s Neutral Milk Hotel and Versus and Butterglory and Lambchop and Hospitality …
Believe me – my wife is a chef, so I’m always saying to her, “People can’t download food, so it’s a good thing you’re in this business, because I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years.”
I’m not saying it’s not hard. It’s your consistent success with both the artistry and the business side that makes people think you know the secret!
What you’re saying is true. It’s spitting in the wind, because you see the direction in which things are going, and we’re just going, “Maybe it won’t go there …”
It feels like you’re doing more than hoping! You’re winning Grammys, while finding an audience for some really adventurous new bands, and providing a stable home for others.
We’ve had awesome successes at our scale. I think that, you know, our business savvy amounts to being super-conservative about spending money, and I think that we just feel lucky that we’ve gotten to work with the artists we work with. When we started the label, we started as bands, you know. These bands, other bands. And so, it’s exciting to us just to get to do stuff with these bands, right? We have record labels that were our models that seem to be doing the same thing. And so … in other words, it wasn’t like there was no example out there for us. Like we had people to look at, right?
But, there’s examples out there and there’s a model to follow, and not many people are doing it.
Right. I know what you’re saying, but I guess I feel like it’s not super-mysterious in the sense that, you know, it felt … maybe this does exist. I mean, I think it does exist. There was like a line of discussion, or people would write articles or talk about “who needs record labels anymore?” And my feeling was like, record labels do exactly what you’re saying — have a point of view, even if it’s not dogmatic about any particular type of music or anything.
If I’m hearing you right, you’re suggesting that other people could also be doing this, replicating it, if they wanted.
I feel like it’s very valuable to have something that you kind of have a handle on, to be like, “I like these other 10 records that Matador(?) put out, so I’m going to listen to this.” I mean, Flying Nun. It’s like hugely influential and you feel like, “Wow, I want to re-create that feeling.”
And I think that’s a really cool service to provide if you can, and as a record buyer, that’s a great thing to happen. Maybe that’s us for a certain amount of people. It has only taken 24 years to get through!
Let’s get back to the album. You took almost a decade off, and now a second album follows pretty quickly. You’ve talked about this as kind of a darker cousin to “Majesty Shredding” …
No one wants to be like, “Oh, a record about getting old and dying? That sounds great.” “I’m going to get that. Awesome.”
You want the music still to be the main thing. With “Majesty Shredding,” I feel like that took us a while to figure out, like, how can we make a record — not how we can we write songs, because I was writing songs all the time. But it was like, “How can we do this as a group that like makes sense for everyone?”
Everybody lives in different places …
Yeah, at least a lot of the time. Now we all live in North Carolina, but Jon Wurster was living in New York for a lot of that time, and playing with other bands and, you know, Laura wasn’t especially enthusiastic about touring and stuff like that. So once we figured out a way to do it, and it was well-received and worked and we were all happy with how the record came out, for me it was, “Why not do that again.” I’m not going to all of the sudden stop writing songs anyway, so I’ll write some songs with another Superchunk record in mind. The shows were really fun, and we figured out a way to record in a way that worked for everybody, because we weren’t about to go to a studio for six weeks.
In some ways, I thought it would be wasting a little bit of momentum to take another five years, or however long to make another one. I don’t think that we all share the same urgency, but I did, and at a certain point it’s like, if you write the songs and start harassing everyone else in your band …
C’mon, let’s make a record!
Let’s make it happen. Present it in a way that’s like, “Well, here’s how it can happen.”
Music is one of the few worlds where you’re constantly coming face to face with the work you did 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. No one goes to a Dave Eggers reading and calls out, “Read something from ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.’ ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ motherfucker!”
You know, or goes to a Scorsese screening and screams “Play ‘Raging Bull’!”
[laughs] I think comedians have to deal with it.
Yes – and Steve Martin stopped doing stand-up because it got no fun to have to be the wild and crazy guy anymore. So how do you play to the expectations of an audience that loves 20-year-old songs, songs you wrote when you had different lives and perspectives, and balance that out with songs you’re perhaps more excited by now, but which fans perhaps have a different connection to?
You know, we went through a long period of time where we did not play “Slack Motherfucker” and that was probably like ’93. We had enough records out by then that we didn’t need to play it to have a whole set. But at a certain point, you just kind of relax, I think, and it becomes … you’re taking it less seriously in some ways, but you’re taking it more seriously in other ways. You’re taking seriously why people are there, and what things mean to other people as opposed to “this is our new work. This is what you should be here to listen to now.”
So as a fan and a musician, you understand where all of those impulses come from?
Yeah. Totally. Totally. If I go see a band that’s been around for a long time, I’m not going to begrudge them playing new songs, but at the same time like, if I go see Nick Lowe, I want to hear new songs because they’re good – but I’m not gonna be bummed if he’s playing, like, “I Love the Sound of Broken Glass.”
So, I think that you just have to take it all into account. In some ways it’s like, we’re in a great position because we have … you know, this is our 10th album, plus a million other songs. So we can write set lists drawing from hundreds of songs. And, it allows us to mix it up, but also play the songs that people want to hear, and for the most part, those songs are fun too, at least partially because people want to hear them. You get an energy back from the crowd and an excitement back from the crowd and you can’t discount that. If you play a song that everyone’s waiting for you to play, you feel that register with them. Then those songs that people want to hear change over time, so it’s not just like we have one song that people want to hear.
You know, the live thing is really what’s kept us going between albums. Even between 2002 and 2009, we weren’t making records, but we were playing a handful of shows every year, and it was always fun. I think bands break up when they’re like, “This sucks.”
Had it stopped being fun for you by 2002? Had making the records and going on the road and being in whatever box you felt like you were in sort of stopped being enjoyable?
I think it was really hard. “Here’s to Shutting up,” and the tour that followed that — our record came out basically like a week after 9/11. No one wanted to go see rock shows. No one was in the mood. So that was rough … we had some amazing shows. We went to Japan, we went to Europe. People were very much like, “I can’t believe you came over here on an airplane, at this point in time, in history.” It was definitely very grueling, the whole thing. We did Japan, the U.S. and Europe in the span of like eight weeks, 12 weeks or something like that. And so by the end of that, we did a couple of tours the next year. I think we took a break, but we definitely fought the impulse to break up.
Because we were like, “It’s not like we hate each other. It’s not like we can’t envision ever doing this again. We just don’t want to do it now. We didn’t want to have a thing where it’s like, “We’re done,” and then like a year later, “Reunion!”
[chuckle] Yeah, so, we just kept doing stuff here and there. And I think that playing live and writing a set list, and all that stuff, knowing that we have all the songs to draw from is a really great thing. The fact that someone gives a shit and still wants to see you, you should just be happy with that.
It’s almost like the best of both words — knowing that people still care, while not having it taken for granted that every 18 months, there will be a new album, and you will be back in town. It almost seems like the bands that held it together and kept working — people got bored. The ones that went away and came back through these massive reunion tours …
Yeah, it’s not really fair. Someone like the Mekons are really inspiring. I remember seeing them on … what was the record that had a weird name? Like a late Mekons record. I remember seeing them in Chapel Hill. They played an amazing show. It wasn’t a full club, but there were enough people there. They were having fun. It was like, “This is how you do this.” If you’re making good records still and playing great shows, people want to come see you.
Are you intentionally playing with our expectations at the very beginning of the record with that silence and the slow fade-in? It’s so quiet for almost 25 seconds. I just feel like I had to turn it up a couple times and then it finally kicks in.
Oh, I got you? [laughs]
“Majesty Shredding” announces a return with an aggressive, Superchunk-y record, then put on the next one and it’s “silence, silence.”
I think I knew that that was going to be the first song pretty early on. This is a weird way that I think about things, structurally. I think like, well, if that’s the first song, I have to write another song to be the last song, which is “What Can We Do?” They’re not exactly mirrors, but they’re related in some way. There’s a similar keyboard thing that comes in right at the end of the first song. We think a lot about sequencing, and so there has to be a logic, or a feeling about how everything flows. We went through a lot of different permutations, but those were always the first and last songs. Those were like, how does everything in between fit between those two things now. So that was always going to be the first song from when it was written, I think, just because of the way it starts so minimally. It’s not really meant to blow your speakers or anything, but I think it’s good if the first song on the record isn’t just like one, two, three, four … here we go, we’re playing a song.
And then you’ve got “Staying Home” hitting cleanup, which is about as aggressive a song as there’s been on a Superchunk album.
Definitely, I think it’s our fastest song. We all grew up going to hardcore shows, you know. So we’ve been playing a lot of covers — hardcore bands. Like in Detroit, we were playing Negative Approach songs. We’ve been playing covers of bands that we love from that scene. So I was just like, “Why don’t we have one of our own songs instead of only having this be covers,” you know?
I think something weird happened in the ‘90s that I don’t even have a handle on, in terms of like what was called punk rock, or what was called hardcore. It changed, and I wasn’t into it. And even now bands will get back together that I didn’t even know about the first time and someone’s like, “They’re awesome,” and I sit there and I go, “That’s not what I like.” So I wanted to have a hardcore song on the record that still sounds like us, but is more like what feels right to us. I agree that it’s like an outlier in some ways, but we tried to put it in the record in a way that didn’t feel like an afterthought or “You’re not really supposed to notice this,” or “Isn’t this funny.” It’s not supposed to be funny.
What is going on in North Carolina politically right now?
Ugh, it’s fucking horrible.
North Carolina elected Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth. But there have always been Democratic governors, some of them pretty progressive. There’s John Edwards. This is not the North Carolina I recognize.
This is the first time in a hundred years that the governor and the Legislature have been in the same party. There’s been a lot of Tea Party-style challenges to the right by conservative Democrats, and they’re pushing everybody further right. But it seems like people are pushing against it, or trying at least. These “Moral Mondays.”
You can get a good handle on what’s happening by following Superchunk on Twitter. You all seem willing to sort of jump into these political fights.
Everyone else in the band asked me to stop tweeting about politics and hockey, and then I was like, “Well, how about if I just put my name on it?” And they were like fine, so now it says, “Tweets by me,” unless otherwise noted. Even though, I think we’re all politically on the same page, they’re like, “That’s not about music.” Well, we don’t live in a world of just music, but, yeah, it’s a weird thing.
So, in the last two days, stuff has just gotten really nuts. The voting stuff … the plan is to take away all of early voting, and Sunday voting, and same-day registration, because minorities and other people they don’t want voting — that’s when they vote.
Well, it’s also, if all of the people live in the cities, and you don’t send up enough voting machines in the city intentionally, the lines become hours long, so you need early voting.
It’s voter suppression, and then last night, while they were in the middle of passing a really important anti-Shariah bill, because what the fuck, they added on all these abortion things onto that — literally with no warning. No one even knew that that was going to be the bill. And so last night, at 9 o’clock, people were like, “What just happened?”
It’s really depressing because 2008, when the state went for Obama, felt like, “Oh, things are moving in the right direction,” but you know, it’s like we live in a fairly sheltered part of the state, politically, a liberal part of the state. When I was phone-banking during the Amendment One fight, which was the anti-gay marriage — which was already illegal, by the way — amendment, you know, you talk to people in other parts of the state, and they’re just like, “I don’t know what you people are up to, but, you know, this is against the Bible —
It’s a long-term struggle like everywhere else, but you know, you have to hope that some of the moderates see that that’s getting out of hand
It’s an educated state. It’s a smart, technologically savvy —
Sure, there’s a lot of great stuff that happens there, obviously, but then shit like this happens, and frankly it is embarrassing.
You’d think pro-business Republicans would understand your tech company in Research Triangle Park is not going to thrive if people feel like North Carolina is Alabama.
You’re not going to attract people who live in an area that’s more progressive.
Back to the album again. One of the most fun songs on the album is “Trees of Barcelona.” That’s about playing the Primavera festival?
That’s actually a conflation of several different trips to Barcelona, which is one of my favorite cities, including a time when we played at Primavera. It’s such a great city and it’s a great festival, but I mean being in Barcelona any time of the year is pretty awesome. We went when our daughter was like a year old, and even with a kid, you could be in a tapas bar at 11 o-clock with an infant in a stroller, they don’t care. It’s all part of the scene. We played some of our best shows in Spain. That’s been the place that, even we were like, “OK, Europe doesn’t want us, we’re done with Europe,” Spain was a place where we could go and just have amazing shows, crowds were going crazy. I felt like they kind of stayed with rock ‘n’ roll in a time period when everybody else was going to dance, whatever.
So was this album easier to make than “Majesty Shredding”? The first album in nine years has pressure, there’s a legacy attached. You don’t want to screw up a return!
Well, I feel like it was recognizing, well, what’s fun for us? What are we good at, what’s fun for us, what’s going to be a fun record to make, and to go play live?
Is that different from the way the way you were making the later Superchunk albums, whether “Shutting Up” or “Indoor Living” or “Come Pick Me Up”?
Yeah, and so it gives the stuff an energy. I feel like I was very inspired by bands like Telekenesis, and then people my own age as well who were just making records, writing songs, making records, not over-thinking it and producing it.
I was thinking about this the other day — some records when I hear them just sound — even if I like the music — there’s something stultifying about it, and that goes against what we’re trying to do. I feel like you hear a lot of records now that because someone can make them, and spend as much time as they want on them, stuff feels overworked. I don’t want to say it’s not a human doing it. But there’s also records that are made by an actual band playing, but you still hear it and you go, “Oh my God, the whole thing feels like it was made in one box.” When I go back to a record like “Kid A” by Radiohead, which I really loved when it came out — I still like it. I don’t listen to it, but I like it — but I feel like that was the beginning of, “Oh, if you spend enough time doing weird shit, you can come up with something really cool.” Which is true, but at the same time, that’s again, back to a little bit of recognizing what we’re good at. That’s not what we’re good at, and I feel like what we’re good at thrives in a setting that’s more human than that and more immediate than that.
I love a lot about those post-“Foolish” records. But sometimes you can hear the laboring, and it feels like the band believes they were worked a little bit too much?
You know what, I like all those records, including “Here’s to Shutting Up.” But I feel like we were definitely going down a path … And part of it’s logistics: We couldn’t have made another “Shutting Up” at this point because no one has the time to spend months and months of writing those songs all together as a group. But people were willing to make a record if I present it as, “Here are the songs, let’s do it.”
There is no pressure now because no one expects us to make another record anyway. The pressure is all from ourselves to not make a bad record. It’s like, if we’re going to make a record once every nine years, don’t make a bad one, you know?
I think if we would have started on “Majesty Shredding” and gotten halfway through and gone, “This is not working for us,” there would have been no reason to push through that. So I think that that’s a good position to operate from – not having to do it.
There must have been lots of money on the table at one time?
I’m sure there was.
Like maybe ’92/’93?
It never got to the point where … Well, we got to have lunch with all those people, but it got to the point where we were like, “OK, tell us how much money.” You know, we never had to make that decision with a number there, staring at us. But I think we were just like, “You know, it’s just not for us.”
Not everybody knows it, or some people think they know it and then see the number …
Right, but I can’t say that you can’t attribute some of that to lack of confidence. In other words, “Oh shit, if we’re given that, then we’re expected to make this kind of big record, and I’m like, I don’t know if we can do this. I don’t know if that’s what’s in us.” You know what I mean?
If we were going to do that, then we wanted to make it back. So if you feel like, I don’t know, that’s not really the album we want to make, you know, even then, even with Nirvana, even with Sonic Youth. If you listened to the radio then, you didn’t hear songs and go, “Oh, yeah, that kind of sounds like us.” People would say, “Well, what do you think about radio?” and I’m like, “Have you listened to the radio?”
It’s the work ethic that’s so admirable about the band and the label. Did you grow up with that kind of model? Is that parents or is that musical role models? Both? Something else?
I feel like it’s parents, and all our parents did very different things, but I feel like we all recognized the value of working hard to create something. And we were lucky to not get into something, a deal that we couldn’t get out of, because it allowed us to then exist long enough to really learn the value in doing it the way we did it.
Later on you see like, “Oh, it is important to do the hard stuff.” You know, Jon (Wurster) had been in a band that was signed onto a major label, signed by Clive Davis! So he more than us, I mean, our thing was sort of coming from like a punk rock attitude, just looking at bands around us. But Jon saw how that went. It did not go well. So, he didn’t talk about it a lot, but it was certainly like knowledge that he brought to the table that I think kind of kept him at least …
It grounded everyone as a result …
We didn’t start this band to be our job. We started this band because we wanted to be in a band, ‘cause that seems cool. And so, if it becomes our job, that’s even better, you know, and we happened to do it long enough for it to become our job. So why do it a different way? The short answer is there was nothing that was being offered to us that was better — better enough. Like there were examples of like, “Well, our distribution is this,” and there are also examples of bands that tried that and it did not go well. So why take the risk if we’re already doing OK. Maybe if we had been severely struggling after a career full of records, who knows? Maybe we would have been like, “Fuck it, yeah.” “I don’t want to work at the pizza place anymore, let’s do this.” But everyone just kind of made it work long enough until it had its own life, you know?
David Daley is the editor-in-chief of SalonMore David Daley.
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