Although not a revolutionary band, North Carolina’s Superchunk has nevertheless done more to promote the indie-pop movement than nearly any other band in existence. Along with their steady stream of well-crafted records and songs that bridged the distance between old-school power-pop and hardcore punk, the quartet displayed an unyielding appetite for touring, establishing for themselves a loyal fandom without the support of MTV (Music Television), commercial radio, or major-label distribution. Instead, Superchunk held true to a do-it-yourself ethos, never conceding to fleeting styles or marketplace trends and establishing their own label, Merge Records, a company born out of a love for music—rather than to make profits—that went on to underwrite numerous like-minded acts with great success. “As of a year and a half ago, our offices were still in Laura’s house,” lead singer Mac McCaughan, who co-owns the independent label along with Superchunk bass player Laura Ballance, revealed to Rolling Stone’s Ray Rogers in December of 1994. “We’ve just recently begun to operate on a similar level as most labels. We have a postage meter.”
The history of Superchunk began in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1989, when guitarist/vocalist Mac McCaughan,
For The Record…
Members include Laura Ballance (born Laura Jane Balance on February 22, 1968), bass; Chuck Garrison (left band in 1991), drums; Mac McCaughan (born on July 12, 1967), guitar, vocals; Jack McCook (left band in 1990), guitar; James” Jim*’ Wilbur (born on December 22, 1966, in New London, CT; joined band in 1990; former school teacher), guitar; Jon Wurster (born Jonathan Patrick Wurster on October 31, 1966; joined band in 1991), drums.
Formed Superchunk and established Merge Records in Chapel Hill, NC, 1989; signed with Matador Records, released self-titled debut, 1990; released final album on Matador, On the Mouth, 1993; Foolish marked a stylistic shift for Superchunk, 1994; toured with Lolla-palooza, released Here’s Where the Strings Come In, toured worldwide, 1995; released the acclaimed Indoor Living, 1991; released the engaging Come Pick Me Up, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Merge Records, P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, phone: (919) 929–0711, fax: (919) 929–4291, e-mail: merge ©Inter-path.com. Website —Superchunk.com, http://www.superchunk.com.
bassist Laura Ballance, drummer Chuck Garrison, and guitarist Jack McCook joined forces to form a band, as well as their own record label. Headed since its inception by McCaughan and Ballance, Merge issued most of the group’s subsequent American singles and EPs, as well as later albums. Initially calling themselves simply Chunk—a moniker already taken by a free-improv band led by Samm Bennett— the group released their first record on their own Merge imprint and established a cult following for their brash, yet melodic punk tunes and energetic performances. Meanwhile, a rave review of The Chunk EP by the influential independent music magazine Maximum Rock WRolla\so helped channel attention. With songs like “What Do I” and a cover of Shangri La’s “Train From Kansas City,” the foursome illustrated their obvious love for pure pop, as well as their indebtedness to the American hardcore and British punk scenes.
The group also received support from Chapel Hill’s college-town climate. Home to the University of North Carolina, the city itself ran a course often compared to other famous indie-rock areas such as Athens (Georgia), Seattle, and Chicago, producing several bands that defied a single stylistic label. Polvo, Archers Of Loaf, Corrosion of Conformity, Juliana Hatfield, Dillon Fence, and Snatches of Pink all count among Chapel Hill’s other successes, as did the town’s other well-known label, Mammoth Records.
After releasing their first official single as Superchunk in 1990—the galvanizing “Slack Motherf***er” that appeared as well on the band’s self-titled debut, became a college radio anthem, and later placed on Spin magazine’s list of top 20 singles of the 1990s—the group signed a record deal with another independent label, Matador Records. “I was a fan of Mac’s (prior) work with Bricks and Wax, so it wasn’t a huge gamble that Superchunk were gonna turn out to be a great band,” Matador’s Gerard Cosloy, one of the parties responsible for signing Superchunk for their first three studio albums, told Magnet contributor Corey du-Browa.
Arriving in 1990 with Superchunk, the band from the onset began to collect favorable press, attracting similar attention to other then-emerging underground acts like Nirvana and Pavement. Soon after the debut’s release, however, Superchunk lost band member McCook, who cited road fatigue and his career as a Softball umpire as his reason for his departure. Thus, Connecticut-born James Wilbur, a self-described “old crank” stepped in to take over guitar duties. At the time he accepted the position with Superchunk, Wilbur was teaching health at the prestigious McWilloby Friends School when a student informed him of the vacancy. Bidding farewell to the academic world in favor of playing in a rock band, Wilbur joined Superchunk, touring with the band in support of their debut and joining them in the studio for a follow-up effort.
The group’s sophomore effort, 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty, brought Superchunk even wider attention. Recorded in Chicago earlier that year with veteran producer Steve Albini (who has also worked with the Membranes and Head of David among others), the album was noted for its more fully realized collection of tunes, appealing specifically for their catchy hooks and the emergence of McCaughan’s curiously coercive lyrical expression. Despite the band’s accomplishment, which featured the tracks “Tossing Seeds” and “Skip Steps 1 and 3,” Garrison resigned from Superchunk a few weeks before the release of No Pocky for Kitty. His replacement, a former window cleaner named Jon Wurster, joined the group on drums, traveling with Superchunk abroad for their first European tour. According to the band’s biography at Merge Records, Superchunk broke several of the band’s former touring records during their overseas excursion, including the quickest van break-in after pulling into a venue (seven minutes in Brussels, Belgium) and the smallest audience played to (eight people in Braunschweig).
By now, numerous major labels expressed interest in signing Superchunk, but the group stood by their principles, turning down several lucrative record deals. “Major-label A&R people interested in our band will call and say, ’You guys are anti-major,‘” McCaughan told Rogers. “Superchunk would love to sell a million records, but the difference is wanting to sell records in a way that you’re comfortable with.” Thus, forgoing millions to maintain their independence, Superchunk remained with Matador for their next studio effort, On the Mouth, hailed as “Roaring hook-laden, and near perfect… inarguably one of the decade’s best” by Matt Hickey in Magnet. Released in 1993 and featuring the Buzzcocks-inspired “Precision Auto,” the Jam-like “I Guess I Remembered It Wrong,” and a bass-driven near-ballad that slowly builds in intensity called “Swallow That,” the well-received album nonetheless would be their last project for Matador Records.
Opting to release all of their subsequent records through Merge, Superchunk returned with the acclaimed Foolish in 1994, an album marking an important stylistic shift for the group. While maintaining an overall punk-rock feel, Superchunk also veered away from their trademark sound with Foolish. As Matt Diehl explained in a 1994 review in Rolling Stone, “The album’s opener, ’Like a Fool, ’ suggests a totally new direction: a melodic, lush drone in which singer Mac McCaughan’s falsetto struggles against a mournful wall of guitars. And ’Driveway to Driveway’ offers up chugging, New Wavish pop rock, lamenting lost love with a twangy guitar hook that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes teen-angst movie set in the grunge age.”
A busy schedule followed the prosperity of Foolish, with Superchunk issuing two albums in 1995: a second singles compilation, Incidental Music 1991–95, and a new studio effort, Here’s Where the Strings Come In, recorded at Boston’s Fort Apache Studios and released that fall. During the summer of 1995, Super-chunk performed on the Lollapalooza tour, then embarked on a worldwide tour in support of Here’s Where the Strings Come In. The next year, Superchunk took a brief hiatus, toured Australia, issued a limited-edition EP entitled The Laughter Guns, and started the writing process for their forthcoming album, 1997’s Indoor Living.
Songwritmg Took Center Stage
Recorded in Bloomington, Indiana, at the Echo Park Studios with fellow Chapel Hillian John Plymale co-producing with the band, Indoor Living earned rave reviews and saw the group maturing to focus more on melody and songcraft, evidenced with tracks such as “Marquee,” “Every Single Instinct,” and “Song for Marion Brown.” “Compare Indoor Living to the self-titled debut and you might think it’s a completely different band,” Hickey insisted. “Longer tracks and more complex structures, often augmented by keyboards, neatly mixed with awesome rockers; the effect is solid and strongly cohesive.” Furthermore, Super-chunk stretched their skills to add new instrumentation into the mix; along with keyboards, Indoor Living revealed piano, organ vibes, and more for a more adventurous, accessible sound.
After performing the world over beginning in October of 1997, Superchunk continued to expand their sound with 1999’s Come Pick Me Up, adding horns, strings, and effects. Superchunk, previously recognized for their raw, gritty music, seemed to be progressively warming up to sweeter studio production. “The sound of each album gets more and more separate from our live sound,” McCaughan told Guitar Player’s Kyle Swenson. “We want to experiment with other ways of hearing our songs.” Produced with the help of Jim O’Rourke, Come Pick Me Up “is the most engaging album of the band’s decade-long career,” concluded Washington Post contributor Mark Jenkins.
In spite of recording and touring almost non-stop, the members of Superchunk somehow found time to participate in various side projects as well. McCaughan, for one, indulged in his quieter, more experimental side with his solo project, Portastatic, and started a new label called Wobbly Rail, devoted to releasing free-jazz records. Wilbur played in the group Humidifier with John King of Spent, while Wurster also formed his own label, Stereolaffs, that issued comedy albums. Finally, in addition to running Merge, Ballance and McCaughan also earned recognition as accomplished artists; some of their work has been displayed on Superchunk’s album covers.
And as Superchunk continued to grow throughout their ten-plus years as a band, so did Merge Records, building a diverse roster throughout the 1990s. Not only did Merge boast some of the best American songwriters of the decade—such as Neutral Milk Honey, the Magnetic Fields, and East River Pipe—but the company also attracted British innovators like Third Eye Foundation, Ganger, and Spaceheads. “I like the way Merge is more concerned with putting out what they like and helping bands that they care about than meeting anyone’s expectations of a label sound,” noted Cosloy. “I’ve always been impressed by the obvious respect the label has for the people who purchase their records.”
Whereas many indie-rock groups seem destined to fall apart, Superchunk managed to survive—and mature musically—over time. “One reason we’ve been around so long is that we never really sat down and said, This is where we want to be in five years,‘” McCaughan suggested to duBrowa. “With both the band and the label, we tend to take things one day—or one month—at a time. That’s helped us get through 10 years without even so much as stopping to take a breath. Because if you did, you’d probably stop and go, ’What the hell am I doing, anyway?‘ I also think there’s a point in any band’s career where they’re either going to break up from going on tour, wanting to kill each other. Or they get past that and learn how to survive. A long time ago, we figured it out, which is why we can still function as a group—write songs, make records and go on tour—without imploding.”
Superchunk, Matador, 1990, reissued, Merge, 1999.
No Pocky for Kitty, Matador, 1991, reissued, Merge, 1999.
Tossing Seeds: Singles 89–91, Merge, 1992.
On the Mouth, Matador, 1993, reissued Merge, 1999.
Foolish, Merge, 1994.
Incidental Music 1991–95, Merge, 1995.
Here’s Where the Strings Come In, Merge, 1995.
Indoor Living, Merge, 1997.
Come Pick Me Up, Merge, 1999.
The Freed Seed, Merge, 1991.
Tower, Messiah Complex, 1991.
Hit Self-Destruct, Hippy Knight, 1992.
Mower, Merge, 1992.
The Question Is How Fast?, Merge, 1992.
On Paper It Made Perfect Sense, Fellaheen, 1994.
Driveway to Driveway, Merge, 1994.
Hyper Enough, Merge, 1995.
The Laughter Guns, Merge 1996.
Hello Hawk, Merge, 1999.
1,000 Lbs, Merge, 2000.
Billboard, February 25, 1995; September 20, 1997.
Boston Globe, January 26, 1999; August 20, 1999; February 18, 2000.
Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1999.
Guitar Player, November 1999.
Magnet, August/September 1999, p. 91; October/November 1999, pp. 51–58.
Rolling Stone, April 16, 1992; April 15, 1993; June 16, 1994; December 1, 1994; September 2, 1999.
Washington Post, February 27, 1998; January 22, 1999; August 20, 1999.
“Humidifier: History,” Geocities, http://www.geocities.com/essbiv/humidhistory.html(April 5, 2000).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.coml(April 5, 2000).
“Superchunk Biography,” Merge, http://www.merge.catalogue.com/bio.sc.html(April 5, 2000).
Superchunk Official Website, http://www.superchunk.com(April 5, 2000).
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