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Superchunk with Life Boy

Sunday, Oct. 28 at 9 p.m.

Blue Cats


On the Road, Independently

Superchunk's still indie after all these years

by Matthew T. Everett

The career path that Mac McCaughan of Superchunk chose back in the early '90s, when salivating record label wolves were circling around the band and their hometown of Chapel Hill, hasn't been an easy one. For one thing, he's had to navigate into his 30s in the difficult context of being in an underground rock band. For another, the band still tours relentlessly, piling up thousands of miles every year all over the world. At the same time, Superchunk has acquired a semi-legendary status among critics and fans, with an entire mythology surrounding the band's do-it-yourself commitment to releasing their own records and refusing to play in the big leagues. Sometimes, McCaughan says, being in a band so well known for its integrity can be a burden.

"Hopefully it's kind of obvious by the way we do things that 'Hey, we're just a rock band, and we're having fun. This is the only way we could have done it' is kind of our attitude, but sometimes you do need to say that in response to all the questions from people who are puzzled that we wouldn't want to be on a major label or whatever," he writes in an email message from Europe, where the band (McCaughan, bassist Laura Ballance, guitarist Jim Wilbur, and drummer Jon Wurster) toured in early October. "But there was really never a tough decision to make about it, it just grew organically and in a way that works for us; we've never been righteous about it, though sometimes people want us to be. It wouldn't necessarily work for other bands to do what we do; it's just what works for us."

On their last few albums—Indoor Living, Come Pick Me Up, and the new Here's to Shutting Up, all on the Merge label that McCaughan and Ballance founded in 1989—the band's sound has grown from brash three-chord punk rock to sophisticated, sometimes lush and dreamy guitar pop. The lyrics have deepened, too, from anthems like the early single "Slack Motherfucker" to personal and incisive reflections on how people relate to each other. On Here's to Shutting Up, the punchy anthems that earned Superchunk its early reputation are still present, but the overall mood is more reflective and more subdued. The guitar chords are as energetic as ever, though the feedback has diminished, and the songs are complemented by synthesizers and strings and even a pedal steel on the aching "Phone Sex."

The new maturity of Superchunk's music has put them in an awkward spot. Critics have mainly treated the last few records as solid efforts from a good band past its peak, a band eclipsed by a newer, younger generation of upstarts. For McCaughan, that doesn't seem important. "When you're doing this day to day and year to year, you're really just focused on whatever project is at hand, whether it's making a record or doing a tour or whatever," he writes. "There's not a lot of time, or even inclination, for reflecting on your changing place in the rock pantheon."

One thing that hasn't changed is that the road can be brutal. "Life on the road is different in a lot of ways probably, but for all that it's still getting in a van, driving, doing sound check, trying to eat a healthy meal now and then, playing a show, packing stuff up and doing it again the next day," McCaughan writes. "There's no way to get away from the grueling repetition of it, and maybe the fact that it's more grueling now (there's not much novel about it anymore, that's for sure) than ever is one way it's changed. Being away from home is a lot worse now than when we were 22. Basically the only good things about touring now are the hour or hour and a half that you're on stage playing the show, and seeing friends who are scattered around. But it's part of our job and I think we still do it well."

It's a tough way to make a living. But McCaughan says he has no regrets about the direction he's traveled over the last 12 years. The tastes of major label reps and radio programmers have changed a dozen times since Superchunk was the next big thing, other bands have hurtled out of obscurity and into the spotlight and back out again, and Superchunk has trudged on.

"It wasn't too hard a decision to make," McCaughan writes. "They were never really offering anything too appealing compared to what we already had, and there aren't too many examples of success when it comes to labels or bands going into that world from a position of independence. Financially it's always a struggle—the respect of thousands doesn't pay the bills! [But] speaking for myself, I'd say there hasn't been a time that I've regretted it at all."

October 25, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 43
© 2001 Metro Pulse