Half a Life
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Forming in Chapel Hill in 1989, Superchunk in many ways epitomized the sound of America’s independent music landscape at the time. Singer and principal songwriter Mac McCaughan had graduated from going to hardcore shows to creating music that was as crunchy as the band’s namesake, yet undercut with melodic hooks sharp enough to pull in a pop-literate crowd. For the all of the ’90s, McCaughan, bassist Laura Ballance, guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster (who replaced original skinsman Chuck Garrison), created songs every bit as smart as they were brazen, while at the same time relentlessly following the touring paths forged the decade before by their punk rock heroes. McCaughan and Ballance similarly also ran the Merge label, releasing singles by Superchunk and other acts until the label was capable of full-length records.

By the end of the century, the band began branching out, working with recording maverick and post-rock pioneer Jim O’Rourke on 1999’s Come Pick Me Up, and continuing to explore smoother terrain with Brian Paulson on 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up. That album’s title turned out to be more prophetic than the band could have foreseen. Though there’s been performances here and there, some live records, and a couple EPs, Superchunk has mostly lied dormant for the past decade.

Finally this week sees the release of the band’s ninth album, Majesty Shredding. With experimentation eschewed for the energized approach of earlier records, the album’s 11 songs rush by with the kind of gusto that’s marked Superchunk’s best work. “My Gap Feels Weird,” “Learned to Surf” and “Everything at Once,” in particular, stand out as some of the best tracks the band has ever laid to tape. If the album proves anything, it’s that it was worth the wait.

I caught up with Mac on the phone to find out what the hold up was and learn more about what the future holds for Superchunk.

So have you ever been contacted by the Skippy people?

Mac McCaughan: No, we never have been. I figure 20 years in, maybe they won’t. I’m not even sure who was first actually, but they’ve never gotten in touch so I guess that’s a good thing.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but did you plan on Superchunk’s hiatus being this long?

MM: I don’t think we thought it would be this long, though we didn’t have a time period in mind. At the end of touring for Here’s to Shutting Up, everyone was ready to take a break. We’ve played a few shows every year since, so it hasn’t been a total shutdown, but I think that we thought we would have made a record a few years ago. But it’s one of those things that even when you start talking about it, time kind of flies by until you get around to actually doing it.

I think there was a lot of speculation, though, when you put out a record called Here’s to Shutting Up. Was there ever a thought that you wouldn’t make another record?

MM: No. It’s funny because, yeah, people took that to mean that. When we started recording and touring for that record, we weren’t thinking about it being our last record for nine years. That was just happenstance that the title sounded like it was supposed to mean something.

At the same time, it seems like the timing couldn’t be better for you to be more active, given all the interest in ’90s bands these days.

MM: It’s weird because people have been saying that as I’ve been doing interviews for the record, but I guess I’m not really fully aware of what that interest is or if it involves us or if it’s just new bands that sound like bands from the ’90s. I guess I’m not fully engaged with the ’90s revival.

You just reissued No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth. What do you think about those albums at this point?

MM: When we were having them remastered, one of the things we obviously had to do was listen to them and listen to the test pressings. I kept putting it off, but when I finally got around to it, I thought they sounded good. No Pocky for Kitty is a nice short record that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I wish I could have redone the vocals in some places, but when you are recording and mixing an album in three days, there’s not a lot of time to go back and redo stuff. And with On the Mouth, I didn’t love the way it sounded at the time. The way that record sounds is like how our later records ended up sounding in the way that the guitars are panned, which kind of freaked me out at the time—everything sounded too separate to me. But in the end, it became the way we wanted things to sound.

People are already calling Majesty Shredding a “return to form.” Do you see it that way? Do you think it has more in common with the albums before, say, Come Pick Me Up?

MM: Yeah, sonically it definitely does. There’s probably a way to record a record like Come Pick Me Up that would have sounded like an older record, but we weren’t interested in doing that. We wanted to make records that sounded different. And frankly, even though the new one may be sonically like an early record, the early records don’t sound anything like the new record as they are more one-dimensional and the guitar sounds are different. What is similar is the energy, and that’s something we were definitely conscious of when we were making Majesty Shredding. We didn’t want to make a record after being away for nine years and have people wonder why we bothered. We wanted to do something that was pretty full-on from start to finish.

I remember people being a bit shocked by the way you sang on Come Pick Me Up, and that carried over to Here’s to Shutting Up somewhat. Was it a matter of really trying to sing back then?

MM: There were a few things going on. One thing was that I was tired of shouting and screaming. That was combined with the fact that we were writing different kinds of songs and that the melodies we were writing were technically out of my range. I like it when people sing in falsetto, and so I ended up singing those songs in falsetto or in a softer voice. I think it went along with the music on those records, but it’s a hard thing to do live, to sing in that kind of voice. If you listen to live recordings from the Here’s to Shutting Up tour, I didn’t really try to sing like the record. Those two albums are pretty different than the live show, and we were ready to acknowledge that. The first few records we were capturing what we did live and then putting it on CD. On the last few records, we used the studio much more as an instrument and did things to keep ourselves interested and to keep the music interesting.

At that point, did you feel like you really needed to do something different from what you had done before?

MM: If only for ourselves. It would be boring for us to make the same record over and over again, and we were finding people that we thought were interesting, like Jim O'Rourke, and working with them and adding things to our songs that maybe we wouldn’t have tried on our first few records but which were fun to do after having been at it for 10 years.

You were saying that some of the things on the older records are a bit simple. Do you feel like you wouldn’t have been capable of making this album eight years ago?

MM: I hope that I’m a better guitar player than I was 20 years ago, but I don’t really know what evidence there is of that. I don’t know that I am physically or technically better, but from an idea standpoint, the more you play the more interesting ideas you have on doing the same thing or pairing two guitars. A lot of people ask me how writing songs for Superchunk differs from Portastatic, and one of the ways is that I know it’s going to me and Jim playing guitar. Having played with the same group of people for a long time, you have a good idea of everyone’s tendencies. When you are writing songs for a new record, one thing you are trying to do is both use the best parts of everyone’s tendencies, and at certain points in the process, do the opposite of what you would normally do just so you don’t end up in a total comfort zone. Once I knew that we were going to be moving forward with writing a record, it made writing the songs that much easier because I knew what the setting would be, that it would be this band playing these songs.

From what I’ve read, it sounds like this one was a little more piecemeal, like you were sending them demos and working on parts separately, whereas before you would have worked on a record all together. Is that right?

MM: Again, it was more like the first couple records, where a lot of those songs were me making demos on a four-track and then playing them for everybody else and everybody else learning them. One reason this record took so long to make is that we had to figure out how we were going to make it. Nobody wanted to or had the time to write songs in rehearsal for 10 or 15 hours a week and nobody wanted to camp out in a studio for two weeks at a time. It just made sense to go back to what works for us. What worked was for me to write songs and then send the demos around by email. I don’t know how much people worked on their parts on their own. We got together to rehearse a couple days before recording and bashed it out. I think it’s possible to overwork something to the point where it looses energy, and we went into the studio knowing the songs well enough to play them, but also having it be a little on edge.

Did you re-record “Crossed Wires” and “Learned to Surf” or are those the same versions as on the EPs?

MM: We re-recorded “Learned to Surf” because we did that without Scott (producer Scott Solter) the first time and had played it a bunch at concerts and knew it better. “Crossed Wires” is a different mix and a different edit. The 7-inch was an edited version of a different mix, but it’s from the same session.

On “My Gap Feels Weird,” you sing about kids “with a look that tells you, you don’t even know them and you never will.” Is that dealing with the generation gap between you and some of your audience?

MM: I don’'t know that it’s necessarily me and our audience as much as it is me and audiences in general. But I think it kind of sees things both ways. There’s that, but then also having been a high school kid at a hardcore show and having that feeling of “nobody knows about this but us,” I think it’s an important thing for people to feel like that at some point in their life. So it’s kind of from both ends.

In one interview I read, Jim described touring as being work these days. Do you view it as a necessary evil or do you enjoy it?

MM: Playing shows themselves is something that we all enjoy. That’s the one thing we’ve kept doing over all this time. But once playing a few shows becomes touring, that’s when it becomes something less enjoyable because of all the things between the shows. Being in a van on the turnpike for the umpteenth time is just a drag at a certain point. Being away from home is another thing—when you’re 25 you don’t really care, at least I didn’t. But when you are as old as we are, you actually have a home and families and stuff you’d rather not be away from. That could be another reason we didn’t make a record for so long: because we knew we would have to go on tour. Playing the actual shows in all the places we’re going is something that I’m looking forward to. It’s the touring part that’s a drag.

Between doing the label and dealing with all the pragmatic stuff that goes with being in the band, is it difficult for you to find the headspace where you enjoy music?

MM: No, not really. I mean, I don’t come home and put on a loud rock & roll record, but playing music is still the most fun part about what I do, so it’s not hard to get in the mindset to do that.

Could you be happy just doing the label and not playing music?

MM: I suppose I could be, but that’s quite a hypothetical choice that luckily I don’t have to make.

What is your role like at Merge these days? Are dealing with a lot of the day-to-day?

MM: Yeah, Laura and I both go to the office. It is our job. Luckily we have a lot of great people that work at the label that allow us to go on tour when we need to, but when we’re here in town that’s what we do.

But are you like an A&R guy? How would you categorize what you do?

MM:We don’t really have an A&R person, so I guess that would be one of my jobs. A lot of it is just formulating ideas with everyone who works there about how to treat a certain a record—whether it’s with advertising or at retail or sending it out to the press. And then a good portion of my job is the relationship with the artists.

How do you envision the future of Superchunk? Is it going to be more active or will it be another 10 years before we get another record?

MM: I hope it’s not that long, but I’d be silly to make a prediction based on how long it was since the last one. We’ll certainly be more active for awhile here, but I think we’ll see how it goes doing the touring we have scheduled. If everyone is still sane after that, maybe we’ll keep doing it or maybe everyone will decide they want to stay sane.