Superchunk just announced that their tenth studio album “I Hate Music” is set to release on August 20th. To prime the pumps, we thought we’d run Jason Panella’s 2010 piece on why Superchunk is great: “Here’s Where Superchunk Comes In.”
Nice. But . . . who? The Chapel Hill-based band has been making music for over 20 years, but are on the musical fringe in a lot of ways, despite their football field-long resumes. Their brand of frenetic, loud pop rock – combined with singer/guitarist Mac Caughan’s still (at 42) squeaky voice – isn’t anything new. Why do they matter?
Some reasons, in no order:
1) You can call them “pop punk” without feeling ashamed.
Superchunk underline both words in “pop punk” with a Sharpie: their songs are fiercely hummable while remaining rooted in an equally fierce punk ethic and aesthetic (do-it-yourself record distribution, roaring buzzsaw guitars, the works). The four members – McCaughan, guitarist Jim Wilbur, bassist Laura Ballance, and drummer Jon Wurster – are all capable musicians, and can craft melodically complex and lyrically nuanced songs that sound nothing like the prefab mall punk wheezing from every Hot Topic in the United States.
2) Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance created, own, and run Merge Records.
And Merge Records is important. The two formed it in 1989 as a way to release Superchunk albums; now they’re releasing albums from Arcade Fire, Spoon, M. Ward, Dinosaur Jr., She & Him, Conor Oberst, and the list goes on and on. Plus, while overly corporate machinations are often hid behind an opaque “indie” skin, Merge are still quite independent. But more on that later.
3) Superchunk are both traditionalists and innovators.
Their first few albums in the early ’90s leaned heavily toward the second half of the “pop punk” label, but the band started branching out more with each release after realizing they needed to shake up the formula a bit. 1994’s Foolish debuted a slower, more introspectively dark side of the band’s sound, and 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In added a few more cups of pop texture to the batter. By the late ’90s, the band was still playing energetic punk pop, but occasionally fusing it with avant-garde arrangements, vintage keyboards, and horn sections.
4) The four band members spend their extracurricular time wisely.
As I mentioned before, McCaughan and Ballance still run and operate Merge records, but there’s more. During Superchunk’s hiatus, McCaughlan recorded fairly prolifically under the Portastatic moniker, covering lots of ground that he normally wouldn’t: bossa nova, soundtrack scores, and baroque pop, to name a few. Most of Mac’s Portatstatic work is excellent, especially 2005-06’s back-to-back releases Bright Ideas and Be Still Please. Jim Wilbur has kept busy helping with Portastatic and a few of his own bands, but the real busybody is Jon Wurster – he’s half of a pretty popular comedy duo with Tom Scharlpling, having written for several TV shows (including Monk), and acts as session or touring drummer for a staggering number of artists, including R.E.M., Jay Farrar, Ryan Adams, The New Pornographers, Charlie Daniels, and Katy Perry.
5) They’re all really friendly, kind and funny people. And they make videos like this:
6) Superchunk can legitimately be called “indie rock.”
Forget the trend to lump everything not easily pigeonholeable as “indie rock” (remember when everything was “alternative”?) – Superchunk actually are indie rock. No major labels own Merge Records, despite the amount of interest the label and its bands have garnered. They’ve done it their way, made mistakes and learned from them. As the music industry is imploding, Merge is actually succeeding – and they still have less than 15 employees and respond to e-mails personally. McCaughan, Ballance, and reporter John Cook told the label’s tale in Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records. It’s worth picking up.
7) Superchunk make great music.
Some of their albums are better than others, sure, and they’re certainly not for everyone. But Superchunk write well, play well, and have fun doing so – and have been doing this for around two decades. All of their releases could serve as formidable entry points for new listeners, even Cup of Sand; the band’s mammoth collection of left-over tracks spans their whole career and has plenty of examples how the band has grown over their career. Come Pick Me Up is my vote for their most consistent album, though. The songs balance between playful and pensive, and McCaughan sells his lyrics – no matter what he’s singing about – as if they’re the only thing in the world worth buying.
Over 20 years and still going strong. Long live Superchunk.