(originally published in Star News, with additional Q and A below)
By Brian Tucker
Influential North Carolina indie rock band Superchunk will perform during the Cucalorus Film Festival, drawing on music across eleven albums, specifically 2018’s What a Time to Be Alive. Band members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance formed Merge Records in Chapel Hill in 1989 to release Superchunk singles and other local acts. The label today wouldn’t exist if McCaughan’s parents didn’t relocate from Florida to North Carolina while he was in high school.
“I got a Walkman for my birthday (which) was a big deal. I think I actually got it because it was my birthday and my parents were making me move. I was just hating life…it was to try to buy me off,” McCaughan laughs. “It turned out to be a great trade-off because I got to grow up here.”
The singer and guitarist played in bands (Slushpuppies, Bricks) before Chunk, later named Superchunk, whose music showed promise and pointed to a longer life. It was the first band in which they tried to get more shows. It also coincided when its members were finishing college.
“We were all living in the same place and it wasn’t just for the summer. Maybe it was just we had more time. The style of music wasn’t terribly different from those previous things,” McCaughan said. “When we started Merge, we were just doing tapes and 7-inches. There was plenty of demand for those and you could actually get people’s attention with 7-inches.”
This led to signing with Matador Records and resulting in three albums. The 90s were the most productive, releasing seven albums total and recording 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty took two days, a work habit that continues (What a Time to Be Alive was two sessions).
“The way we worked was our impulse – we want to be done with this. Not be done with it, but we want to hear the finished product as opposed to a month making a record. Also, just financially, it didn’t make sense. At that point we were so new we didn’t know if someone was going to buy a record anyway.”
On the new album its evident the band – Jim Wilbur, Jon Wurster, Laura Ballance, and McCaughan hasn’t lost their fire (Jason Narducy plays bass on tour – Ballance hasn’t performed since 2013 due to hearing condition hyperacusis). Sonically, What a Time to Be Alive sheds the years, and much of the material is so fired up it makes 2010’s Majesty Shredding look like a pop record (check out “Cloud of Hate,” “All for You,” “I Got Cut,” “Reagan Youth”).
Songs revel in melody, infectious energy, soaring guitar work, and lyrical assuredness. It’s as much a reaction to the 2016 election as it a fantastic rock record – you take away what you want. In liner notes for Tossing Seeds (Singles ’89-’91), McCaughan wrote about 7-inch singles as “the people’s medium, the punk rock kid’s, and the garage band’s…it is about the adrenaline rush…what can you do in three and half minutes that will make us get up and put the needle in the groove again and again?”
With new song “Lost My Brain” the band does it wonderfully in a minute and a half.
“I think the reason its so short is because the inspiration musically we had in mind was a band like Black Flag that would write these super catchy songs that were really short, six of them on one 7-inch.”
It’s been thirty years for Superchunk and Merge and it all happened organically (chronicled nicely in the book Our Noise), that there was no grand vision. In the end Merge would become an entity helping art into the world and a long list of records into people’s homes.
“It’s still always kind of surprising if you randomly see a Merge sticker on a car you don’t know, or someone wearing a t-shirt with your band on it and you don’t know that person. It’s this strange, cool thing that you’re doing something and that people are enjoying and that you are total strangers.”
Did Superchunk play Wilmington frequently in its early days? At UNCW or The Mad Monk?
McCaughan: We didn’t play too often but definitely had some good shows there. The club downtown (Jacob’s Run), it was pretty big, we played there a couple times, played a show at UNCW that was cut short for lightning. It was outdoors. We played most of the set but had to stop. We played regularly, a couple times with Portastatic and solo. It is strange that it’s so close and we haven’t been there in a long time.
We’ll do shows in Athens, Atlanta, and Charlotte occasionally, but going east, we don’t do it very often. Our bass player Jason, he lives in Chicago, because Laura stopped touring because she had hearing issues that were really bothering her. She plays on the new record but she doesn’t tour.
The “evil i do not” box set, that was the first time you had your music in physical form?
McCaughan: I think we had a Slushpuppies tape that might have preceded that. I think it was, the tape came before the record, but that was the first vinyl. Its funny, I was just looking at a copy of that the other day in my records. It’s a pretty cool set. The first Chunk single was 1987 and we started Merge in 1989. Summer of 1989 was when we put out the Bricks tape and Wwax tape.
You’re doing it on your own back then, not with Bob Rock and tons of money. What went through your mind, or was it so fast you didn’t?
McCaughan: It was cool. I think one of the coolest things about was that each band in that box set had their own 7-inch. The whole thing felt like such a group effort. I’m pretty sure everyone recorded at Duck-Kee Studios which was pretty new at the time in Raleigh at Jerry Kee’s house. Barefoot Press printed the booklet and that was a pretty new business as well. The boxes we silk screened. Tanis Root, who are still around making t-shirts and merch for people. They knew how to silk screen stuff, along with Wayne Taylor.
Everyone pitched in and helped do that because it’s very time consuming to silk screen that many boxes. Then we had to assemble them right, because you get the records in separate boxes and then you put them into each box set. It was this real community feeling, community effort, that’s the thing I remember the most. Then we played release shows in Raleigh and Chapel Hill and we sold the records. It was this cool thing, you wouldn’t normally say let’s have five bands play this show, that’s a weird thing. So everything felt like this special occasion around this box.
I think everyone who was involved with it…I had a lot of role models in a way. Wayne Taylor who was in Wwax and who had been in bands before I ever knew him, he is a little bit older than me. He knew where to get the records pressed, knew about the printing, I was just learning a lot, just excited to have a record of our band on vinyl. That alone was pretty wild. And that we had these shows and people came and people locally wrote about the box. I think we would have done it even if we ended up just sending them all to our friends. It was more like a project than getting our name out there, more like an art project.
Was a 7-inch still viable to sell at shows at the time, with the end of 12 inch and cd’s coming along?
McCaughan: At that time, cd’s are still pretty new. I think I had a cd [player but only maybe ten cd’s then because they were more expensive. Maybe I didn’t have a cd player yet, actually, I can’t remember. Vinyl was still, if you made a record at that point, a label putting out regular release you had to put out a cassette, cd, and vinyl at that point because they were still fully viable formats until the mid 90s. The vinyl was still a thing including 7-inches. When we started Merge, we were just doing tapes and 7-inches. There was plenty of demand for those and you could actually get people’s attention with 7-inches which would be harder to do now.
There’s so much music now, it can be hard for people, kids, to find things. Especially with fewer record stores.
McCaughan: They just find things in a different way. For them, if they love a certain artist that’s on Spotify and see that that artist collaborated, appears on someone else’s song, or they’re on the same playlist, or hear someone else on that playlist and that’s they get introduced to more stuff. It is really different and I do wish there were more record stores because I still buy a lot of records.
Maybe its my age or whatever but I feel like its the way I best connect with a record and spend the most time with it, if I have a physical copy of it. I obviously I still love making records and putting out records. I feel like music in the digital realm, even though I use my iPod and listen to music on my computer when I’m at work, its not my favorite way to listen to music.
That fiscal responsibility, recording quickly, where did come from – examples of others or your parents?
McCaughan: It was both financial and how we were operating. I think for Laura and myself, both of our families were pretty conservative financially. Everyone living within their means and so we were doing the same thing, really. We were working at Kinko’s and Peppers Pizza and didn’t have a lot of extra money to invest into it. Even though Superchunk eventually signed to Matador for our first couple of records, I think our advance was $1500 or something. It was not a ton of money. $1500 is $1500 dollars if you’re trying to record a record, even if you’re doing it at Duck Kee Studios, that’s still only a week or something. Once people had cd burners it took some of the magic away
How much experience did the band have when you played the 1989 CBGB’s New Year’s Eve show?
McCaughan: It was the place next door that became the art place. We played the regular CBGB’s but this particular show was together by Gerard and he got us on the bill I’m pretty sure. This was next door and we didn’t even have an album out yet. I wonder who was in the main room that night? We had only been playing since that summer.
I think it was a little of (being intimated, being driven) all that. I’d seen bands there many times and it wasn’t our first show or anything, but I’m sure we were still a little bit intimated because it was playing in New York City. I remember it was really fun, some friends came up with us. It was really cool.
Were you doing block cut art then and when did that interest begin?
McCaughan: I learned to do that in printmaking class in college, a couple of semesters from the same professor, he taught block printing. It’s something you could do cheaply and anywhere. You don’t need a lot of equipment or chemicals and it looks cool. You definitely have to plan it out, draw it out on the wood, and you still end up carving things that you don’t need to. You just have to take your time when cutting your block. You don’t need to have a studio or anything, a piece of wood and an X-acto knife for the carving. It’s something to pick up every now and then. I don’t do it in my spare time but if there’s a record cover it’s always a good option.
Was Superchunk thought as long term or was it another project before the next one? Were you then still carving out your direction via bands like Quit Shovin or Metal Pitcher?
McCaughan: The other bands were definitely, this is fun. No one wanted to do them for real. It was almost like, wouldn’t it be funny if we had a band and write these songs? Chunk was the first band that seemed more like we were trying to get shows. Wwax, we did that too but with Chunk it was the first band where we were all like finishing college and all living in the same place and it wasn’t just for the summer. Maybe it was just we had more time to put into.
With 45s exploding in the 80s, you could get them at Kmart, Roses, everywhere. What 45 did you buy with your own money?
McCaughan: It’s interesting because when I was a kid in the 70s my parents listened to records but they didn’t buy a lot of singles. My dad would buy albums mainly. The records I remember listening to the most, and us listening to the most as a family, Songs in the Key of Life and Talking Book and Exile on Main Street and Emotional Rescue. Those kinds of things.
When I was old enough to buy, the first record I bought was the Grease soundtrack and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John’s record. Pretty soon after that I got the REO Speedwagon You Can Tune a Piano… album. A little while after that I got a Walkman for my birthday so I was buying tapes for a while. I didn’t start buying 7-inch singles until I was in high school.
Did the band happen organically, or was it building blocks? Did you know what you wanted to do already?
McCaughan: No at all. I was interested in going to see bands and playing music. It wasn’t until Superchuink, or Chunk as it was known then, started playing shows outside of town and putting out singles that it seemed like something more than a hobby. Even then we all had jobs at a pizza place or at Kinko’s. It was very organic, the label just kind of grew, because none of it seemed like something we would actually make money off of this – 500 singles here, 500 singles there. It was really was because we were into it and a cool thing to do. But it just grew organically, we didn’t have a great plan or anything.
At what point did Merge steer past the band in terms of activity or even priority?
McCaughan: I think they would go back and forth, really. When we were on tour we weren’t doing a lot of work at the label before we had employees and stuff. So the label would be dormant for a little bit while we were on tour and then we’d catch back up with it. Then much later on as we started putting out records by bands like The Magnetic Fields and Polvo and these bands that got big in their own right, the label kind of grew and I think then at first Superchunk grew faster than the label then the label kind of caught up and surpassed Superchunk. It went back and forth like that.
Coming up with cool, fun riffs, is that more instinctual or do they require tinkering. Is it a ‘muscle’ creative people have and needs to be worked consistently?
McCaughan: That’s a good question. I guess I don’t think about it in that way, I just have been doing it for that long, and that I just do it. I think I do try to play the guitar as much as I can even when I’m not in the middle of working on something, just for fun. That’s how you get ideas sometimes, when you’re not even planning on writing something and you’re just playing the guitar and come up with something.