Superchunk, At Home In Chapel Hill
by Eddie Huffman
Mac McCaughn is the anti-Kurt. The frontman of North Carolina’s Superchunk is the positive image to Kurt Cobain’s negative. Both were born in 1967 and grew up to be skinny guys whose small frames made their ferocity onstage that much more potent. Both found punk rock at early ages and formed bands that combined punk’s energy and noise with classic songwriting skills and undeniable emotional conviction. Superchunk and Nirvana both were nurtured in fertile college-town scenes -- Chapel Hill and Olympia, respectively -- and found themselves hyped to the skies by the early 1990s. Both McCaughan and Cobain look bad in dresses.
Yet while Nirvana rose from blue-collar roots in the Pacific Nothwest, Superchunk is Sunbelt and comfortably upper-middle-class. When Nirvana became heavy-rotation MTV staples, Superchunk was lucky to get on 120 Minutes. Nirvana ended up selling millions of records; Superchunk still sells tens of thousands, tops. And while McCaughan runs Merge Records and tours the world today with his band, Cobain’s ashes don’t stray from their urns in Courtney Love’s house.
“It’d be great to sell as many records as possible,” says McCaughan, sprawled on an old couch in the Merge office, below posters of Polvo and Erectus Monotone. He’s wearing a tourist T-shirt with a smiling Mickey Mouse on it from his home state of Florida. “I don’t think anybody believes that a band doesn’t want to sell records. It’s just a matter of: ‘What do you want to do to achieve the highest sales possible? What are you willing to give up to sell more records?’” In the case of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, everything. In the case of Superchunk and McCaughan, nothing.
Throw a rock through a window and you’ve got a reasonable approximation of Superchunk’s music, which is loud and bracing, and its output, which is broken up into a thousand pieces. Four years ago the band released a compilation of its singles called Tossing Seeds, and that’s what McCaughan and company have done constantly since their inception in 1989. They’ve scattered songs, live shows, singles and albums far and wide from their modest base in Chapel Hill.
That makes their latest album, another singles compilation called Incidental Music 1991-95, a rare opportunity to focus on a band whose product often seems too fragmented to afford any kind of focus at all. “I’m kind of excited about the compilation, because we finally got to do a double-album gatefold,” McCaughan enthuses. “And people can stop writing us asking where they can find this thing or that thing.”
Dissect that comment and you’ll learn a lot about both Superchunk and McCaughan (pronounced “McCon”), a record geek and one of the premier renaissance men in American independent rock. Superchunk got to do a double-album gatefold because two of its members run the band’s label. They’ve released six albums and God-knows-how-many singles in just five years. Superchunk occupies a key seat in the American indie pantheon, one that places them in such demand that they had to put together a double-length compilation to collect all the songs and singles they’ve tossed out.
Not only is Superchunk prolific, but as the 19 tunes on Incidental Music make clear, the band is consistent. On song after song, the walls of guitar noise thrown up by McCaughan and second guitarist Jim Wilbur stand on a solid foundation laid by the rapidly pulsing bass playing of Laura Ballance and the spare, muscular drumming of Jon Wurster. Above it all, McCaughan shouts to be heard.
“I think it would be a mistake to try to force Superchunk to do things that are weirder than what it does,” McCaughan says, alluding to the journalist’s tendency to want more than what’s on the surface. “It’s a four-piece rock band. I think we’re really good at that. Sometimes I wish we weren’t so middle-of-the-road with the format, but the focus is on the songs, really. I don’t think anyone’s gonna do anything really revolutionary at this point in music, especially this genre of music. So as long as the songs are good, and you’re doing an old thing an interesting way, that’s what counts.”
You have to step outside of Superchunk’s closed circle to get near it center. Otherwise you end up with interview tapes full of crap like the stuff I got when I had lunch with the band at the Aurora, a modestly upscale pasta restaurant in the small town of Carrboro, adjacent to Chapel Hill. The town is home to several key elements of the Chapel Hill indie scene, including the Merge office, Mammoth Records (which sits above the Aurora in Carr Mill Mall, a converted cotton mill), and Cat’s Cradle, the scene’s flagship club. As the greatest hits of 18th century European classical music played in the background, the members of Superchunk talked about touring and made jokes about groupies, Johnny Depp, Brillo pads, and didgeridoos. That was about it.
Ballance occasionally attempted to cut through the bullshit and give straight answers, but even she made it abundantly clear we would not be straying into any open emotional territory. “I get mad about interviews a lot of times,” she said. “People ask me bad questions sometimes, things that are personal and offensive and nobody else’s business.” So much for asking how it felt for Ballance and McCaughan to continue working, playing and touring together after their romance ended.
I didn’t get much depth at all until I asked McCaughan to come back to the Merge office and talk one on one. Here, he gives me a concise, comparatively direct overview of his and Superchunk’s musical career. “Unless a band starts to get bored, the longer they play together, the better they interact with each other,” he says. “There’s always the chance of getting burned out, I think, from playing in the same band for so long, but at the same time there are rewarding things. There’s something comfortable and familiar about playing with the same people that allows you not to think about it so much and just play.”
Laura Cantrell, who played with McCaughan in the late-’80s New York City band Bricks, confirms McCaughan’s need for a family-like musical environment. “He doesn’t come from the hired-hand school of music-making,” says Cantrell, who now hosts “The Radio Thrift Shop” on WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey. “The people involved in bands with Mac were often people that he really dug and loved.”
Get past the excitement of Superchunk’s music and the band’s story is fairly boring. Ballance majored in anthropology and geology at UNC-Chapel Hill. She joined Superchunk after her then-boyfriend McCaughan taught her to play bass. Wilbur, an old friend of McCaughan’s, came down from Connecticut to join Superchunk when the band’s original guitarist quit in 1990. Wurster came to North Carolina from Pennsylvania as a teenager in 1985 to play drums, performing with the Right Profile and the Accelerators before replacing Superchunk’s original drummer (and namesake), Chuck “Chunk” Garrison.
McCaughan was born in Ft. Lauderdale and moved to Durham, North Carolina, at 13. His father, Ralph, a Duke University staff lawyer who plays jazz and likes the Stones, took Mac to his first concert, Molly Hatchet, in the late ’70s. Both of McCaughan’s parents have wholeheartedly supported their son’s music career since his early days with bands like the Slushpuppies and Wwax, which grew out of the mid-’80s hardcore scene in the nearby state capital of Raleigh. McCaughan went on to Columbia University where he majored in history. Today he presides over Superchunk and Merge with businesslike efficiency.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” his father says. “He’s always been a workaholic. Just very hyper, going at it 100 miles an hour. Everything, whether it was school activites, or recreation, or whatever. He puts in the hours.” It was the same in college, says WFMU’s Cantrell, who was a classmate of McCaughan’s at Columbia. “I was always amazed at how Mac could be involved in all this other stuff and be a very good student too,” she says. “The papers always went in on time. He had his shit together.”
from the hype that descended on Superchunk around 1992 -- when, during the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy, many major labels tried and failed to sign the band -- the most dramatic event in its history was McCaughan and Ballance’s breakup. That happened about two years ago, and seems to have left little effect on the way the band operates today, other than a loaded glare or tow across the lunch table. In addition to playing in the band together, McCaughan and Ballance continue to take care of business at Merge, the label they co-founded in 1989. Still, the breakup did fuel some of the lyrics on Superchunk’s best album, 1994’s Foolish. “One good minute would last me a whole year,” McCaughan sings in “The First Part,” adeptly conveying the way time seems to slow down during an emotional crisis.
It was actually the group’s second major split. The first one came in 1992, when they decided to leave the utra-hip Matador Records after the release of On the Mouth, its third Matador album. Superchunk’s contract was up, and the members didn’t want to be on anyone else’s label, even with promises of big bucks from the majors. “We’ve dealt with as few assholes and slimy people as possible in this business, and we haven’t given up control of anything that we wanted control over,” McCaughan says. “We don’t owe anybody tons of money. We’re making a living. We don’t have to work day jobs. So that’s nice.”
Superchunk may, as they once sang, be “Cooler than you / And you know it’s true,” but the band has not made it on ’zine appeal or indie credibility alone; they’ve made it on their music. McCaughan and his enterprises embody a staunchy indie ethic that means as much to its cult as Ian MacKaye’s Fugazi and Dischord label. That’s where the real drama and excitement come into play. Listen to the band’s sublime sound or attend one of its sizzling live performances and you’ll understand the hyperbole surrounding Superchunk.
McCaughan just shrugs. “If it sounds intense,” he dryly replies, “the only thing I can think is that maybe the experience that generates the lyrics, combined with the volume of a loud rock band, may sort of imply some intensity. I hope there’s intensity in the delivery, but we don’t sit around and stew about our songs or have heavy practices.”
Peyton Reed, a Los Angeles filmmaker and UNC graduate who directed or co-directed three of Superchunk’s videos, feels too much emphasis is placed on Superchunk’s identity as an “indie” band. “There has been so much written about how Superchunk have stayed indie, and I think it’s great that they have,” says Reed, whose video for “Driveway to Driveway” is an ingenious black-and-white takeoff on The Philadelphia Story. “But I don’t listen to Superchunk because they stayed indie; I listen to them because I really like the music.”
A lot of people do. And it’s landed the band everywhere from the cover of England’s New Musical Express to MTV’s Beavis And Butt-head -- who argue about whether the bass player has boobs before realizing that they’re watching a bunch of puppets. The band’s music is the aural equivalent of a Tootsie Pop, hard and crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. McCaughan freely admits his debts to earlier bands that mixed punk and pop, like the Buzzcocks and Generation X, and has long pledged allegiance to such New Zealand popsters as the Chills, along with plenty of way-obscure American indie bands.
But two things separate Superchunk from the indie herd. The first is McCaughan’s ability to write lyrically acute songs with soaring melodies and memorable hooks. “We used to call him King of Catchy,” Cantrell says. “Whether it was a quote-unquote serious song or not, it was super fuckin’ catchy.” The band’s second distinguishing trait is an emotional center in the music that conveys a sense of vulnerability beneath a veneer of fun. More than anything else -- from “Slack Motherfucker” to “Shallow End” -- Superchunk has managed to reconcile for the ’90s two of the dominant strains of ’80s’ postpunk: the lyricism and rush of the Replacements with the dissonant guitar noise and fuck-you attitude of Sonic Youth.
It’s all in the music, though. On the surface, McCaughan would like for you to believe he’s about as ordinary as they come; that the most mundane of things spark his creativity. He may be right.
“Something has to be powerful on some level, either positive or negative, to inspire you to do it,” he says. “It’s fun to write songs and play music, and that’s an intensity in itself.”
Originally printed in Option #?