Time has only complicated the indie trailblazers' relationship to their profession.
On I Hate Music's "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo," Mac McCaughan sings
I hate music-- what is it worth?
Can’t bring anyone back to this earth
Or fill in the space between all of the notes
But I got nothing else so I guess here we go
After more than 25 years, that's the sort of hard truths that Superchunk faces. No matter how powerful music can be, it can't keep couples together and it couldn't keep the band together. Still, it's sufficiently powerful that it wouldn't let them stay apart either. After a decade-long intermission, the band began to record again in 2011 and perform more regularly.
Life has complicated the band's life, but it hasn't dulled its ability to play charging, anthemic songs and catch in surprising ways. McCaughan's yelp remains urgent and more expressive than you'd expect, but the band can fold melancholy moods into its surging guitar rock. Much of that is evident in 1997's Indoor Living, the band's out-of-print sixth album, back in print in time for this tour. When the album was released, it met with a mixed response, with critics finding its front half a little pokey and the personal drama muting, but as Fred Thomas wrote at AllMusic.com, "the songs here are growers, slow burners, and ones to revisit with greater understanding and reward as the years go on."
When Superchunk plays One Eyed Jacks Saturday night, McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster will be joined by bassist Jason Narducy. Long-time bassist Laura Ballance is still in the band, but she is suffering from hyperacusis, a hearing problem worsened by loud music, so she is not on this tour. Wurster recently spoke via email about the state of Superchunk.
What happened to start Superchunk playing again? Did you think it was done for good?
We never really fully stopped playing after we went on hiatus in 2002. We still did the odd recording and played the odd show, so there was never this feeling of “Are we ever going to do this again?” I think at some point in 2009 we decided if we were going to keep playing we should make a record. I think these last two albums might be our best.
How is playing together now different than it was before the hiatus? Has what Superchunk means to you changed over time?
It’s very different now because Laura doesn’t play live with us anymore. Jason Narducy, who I played with in the Robert Pollard band and still play with in the Bob Mould Band, is on bass. It’s been great having him with us. Superchunk has gone from the all-consuuming venture that it was in the ‘90s to something fun to come back to every now and then. We all have other lives at this point so the band is not “on the front burner” anymore. And that makes it more enjoyable.
What’s your role in the songwriting/shaping of the songs now? Is it different from what it used to be?
The songwriting process has reverted back to how it was when I joined the band in 1991. Back then Mac pretty much wrote the songs. We would throw in our own little flourishes but he wrote them for the most part. Then, around Here’s Where The Strings Come In, we started writing much more as a group. We would build the songs from the ground up and then Mac would write lyrics for them.
When we decided to make what became Majesty Shredding, I was living in Brooklyn and on the road constantly with either the Mountain Goats, AC Newman or Bob Mould so I was never in North Carolina where the other three were living. Mac would write and demo songs and send them to us to learn. Then I’d fly down to rehearse for a day or two and record a few songs at a time over the course of six or so months. It was a nice way to do things as opposed to how we did it in the past: recording and mixing an entire record in seven or eight days.
How do you get your head around drumming in an indie/punk rock band as an older man? That isn’t solely a young man’s sound, but it’s hard to separate from youth.
I think you could ask that of any band that’s been at it 20 years after its inception. I don't really think of it as “young people’s music.” It’s just music at this point. There really isn’t any feeling of nostalgia in this for us. You just keep moving forward.
I’m 47 and doing something very physical - drumming in loud rock bands - that most people stop doing in their early or mid-30s. So, I train pretty heavily for all of this. I go to the gym almost every day and I don’t drink anymore. Those two things really help me be able to keep doing this.
I read that the band considered splitting up when Laura was diagnosed with hyperacusis. How serious did the thinking get? How’s your hearing?
Honestly, I was not that enthusiastic about carrying on without Laura. She is such a big part of Superchunk, especially visually, onstage. But we wanted to support I Hate Music and the best way to do that is playing shows. Luckily, Jason agreed to help us out with playing the shows. He’s really added a lot to our sound.
My hearing has been taking a beating since I joined the band. I’ve worn earplugs since around 1992, so it could be much worse. The hardest thing for me is playing really small clubs where we’re on top of each other. That’s when my ears really get battered. I think that’s most likely what accounts for Laura’s hearing problems too.
Are there differences in how you approach the drums with Superchunk, Mountain Goats and Bob Mould?
The three are actually pretty different. Playing a show with Bob Mould is like running a marathon that’s also a boxing match. It’s so physically punishing, but I love it. Superchunk is also strenuous but I get to dance around a little more, so to speak. The Mountain Goats is great because it’s like having to use a whole different side of your brain. I use mainly brushes with them because the music is much quieter. But with all three bands the key is to play in a way that showcases the song. I don’t think anybody is listening to Superchunk, Bob Mould or Mountain Goats records for the drums; they’re listening because they want to hear great songs.