"Catching up with Superchunk"

Originally printed in Slak number nine (December 1994) p6-7 by Tom Cornell

This article isn't about Superchunk's past. It means to look straight at the present. Superchunk's fourth album proper, Foolish, (not counting the Tossing Seeds compilation) has been out since April. Suprisingly, the album was met with some apprehension by music critics, who complained lacked some of the fast paced, punky tempo the band had displayed so many times before, but instead leaned closer to traditional song structures.

Mac (guitarist, vocalist), Laura (bassist), Jim (guitarist) and Jon (drummer) have toured incessantly behind the album, filling halls across the country, playing to droves of indie rock kids who can't get enough of the band's roaring, tuneful songs.

And now, finally, they are home in Chapel Hill, looking forward to some time off before they record again.

But there is plenty to keep them busy. Their self-owned indie label, Merge, has been growing steadily since Laura and Mac launched the business, working out of Laura's bedroom, in 1989. In the past five years they've released numerous seven inchers and a few CD's, notably a recent full length effort from fellow North Carolinians Polvo, and watched their company move into its own office space. And they've even hired a couple of employees. All of this after the band shocked the music industry when, after being afforded numerous opportunities to jump on the major label of their choice, they decided to stay with Merge.

Superchunk's D.I.Y. ethic is admirable, and, listening to Foolish, it is obvious they continue to make music for all the right reasons.

Today, just after Thanksgiving, the band is settling into the Merge office after returning from a lengthy tour, and Slak is lucky enough to take a few minutes of bassist Laura Ballance's time for a breif chat.

Hello Laura? This is Tom from Slack. You wanna do a quick interview?
OK. Sure, what the heck. (laughs)

Gosh, thanks. You're already on our cover, so it is pretty much a necessity that . . .
We better do it! (laughs)

Yeah. Or we'll look like real idiots.
Yeah, no problem.

Cool, well thanks. How's everything going?
Just fine.

Did you have a good Thanksgiving?
Well, it was pretty fun. I went to see my mother. She lives in Wellington. She is a massage therapist and I did not get a massage.

You did not??!!

You got gypped.
Yeah. I dunno. She was busy. I actually didn't feel like it. You don't always feel like a massage. That's sort of a weird thing about having a mother who is a massage therapist is she is always going, "Let me give you a massage." And you're like, "Ahh, nah."

You guys have been on the road pretty heavy lately. I know you were in Detroit last month. How long have you been touring behind Foolish?
We have been out for the last, whatever, like since May. And we have been home for periods of time, but never for very long. In July, I guess we were home for like a month, but that tour when we were in Detroit was our last one for a while. We are going to stay home for six or eight months or so.

Are you going to be doing any recording then?
Probably not until the end of that time.

So you are just kind of hanging loose or whatever . . .
Yeah, we're gonna put out another singles compilation either this coming spring or in the summer. And then we are going to record another record.

Well, Foolish did quite well for you guys. I even saw the video once on MTV.
For what, "The First Part"?

Yeah, I was suprised that one was played so much. I guess we just got lucky.

Yeah, I don't know what you have to do to get 'em to play your video . . .
I dunno. You just send it out there and hope for the best.

I guess . . . I read a lot of fairly negative reviews for Foolish, a lot of critics said it didn't match up to your other stuff. I thought Foolish was great, and just simply different than your other stuff. Were you suprised by the reaction from the music press?
Did you think it was different?

Yeah. I like a lot of the stuff that slows down and changes up instead of being real fast and steady like a lot of you earlier stuff. But is still has the Superchunk vibe, though.
Yeah. Um-hum.

I was kind of suprised to see that sort of critical reaction in the national press.
Yeah. It is a sort of selfish reaction I think. It is like, they don't want us to grow or change. And I think when you play together for five years, things are going to start changing. I think there is a big difference between No Pocky and On The Mouth.

Do you guys have any feel for how Superchunk's music might change from here? Has it changed since you recorded Foolish?
We only written like five songs or something, since we've been touring so much we haven't had time to work together a lot.

Of course, now Merge seems to be doing really well for you guys. Is it to the point where it is sustaining itself now?
Yeah, I think so. It could, um . . . (sigh) . . . I'm still not always confident about it. As far as Merge goes, I'm never sure that the income will be consistent. I haven't figured out a good way to budget things yet.

I know exactly how that is. We started this magazine about eight months ago, and we always knew how to put together a really good paper, and we all have good ideas creatively, but the business end of things is a whole new world to us. You kind of handle that end of things, at the label right? So do you feel more confident noew that you have been at it for a while?
Yeah I do. I feel more confident, but at the same time, I'm out of town so much that I feel like I would like to hire someone specifically to do that, but I am scared to try and hire another person, because I am afraid we can't afford it.

I noticed that Mac was featured in Option Magazine in an article about the whole lo-fi thing. Are you involved with doing stuff on 4-track at all?
No. I don't have one and I never take the time to do that kind of thing. I would like to and I am planning on doing it, but . . . (sigh) . . .

You're too busy running Merge and being a member of Superchunk.
Yeah, exactly. And when I do have spare time, I can't justify doodling around on a guitar. And plus, I am sick of that stuff. I don't want to do that in my free time. I'd rather clean the toilet, you know? (laughs) And doing stuff that I feel like needs doing. But I m going to spend more time doing that, now that we are going to be home for awhile, I'll do better.

What do you think the way the whole alternative thing has blown up to the point that . . .
It's not alternative anymore.

Yeah. It is just a marketing term now.
Uh-huh. It is just ridiculous how that word has become a marketing term, but it was bound to happen. That's what happens with all the different genres or subgroups of music that stick around to become successful, they are going to become mainstream. If they are healthy and energized enough to last as long as this whole thing has, eventually the majors are going to catch on to it. Not just the majors, but, just, the whole culture will become aware of it, and it'll spread. I don't think it is disgusting or anything, I think it is just natural.

What are your feelings about the way so many major labels snatched up bands? Like, when you are on an indie label and you sell, say 20,000 records, that's really successful, but when you are signed to a major it is like if you don't sell 100,000 records, it is a huge disappointment for the company, and they might drop you. I just don't know if a lot of bands are ready for that.
Yeah. I think that is true. They catch a lot of bands at a very vulnerable point when they don't know anything about the business. People are getting signed after doing one seven inch. I mean, they've never toured and they don't know what it is yet; what the whole experience is of being in a band. So I think a lot of bands are obligating themselves to something they don't fully understand. It is tragic, and I am sure a lot of them end up breaking up as a result of it. And, you know, you can't make the labels out to be the criminals or the bad guys, because they are just doing their job, and if the band is stupid enough to do it, it is their fault.

Is that kind of how you felt when you guys were approached by majors? Did you feel like it would just be overwhelming?
Um, I don't know if it would be overwhelming to us, because at this point, we know what is involved, but I don't think that I could handle someone trying to tell me what I should do. That's one of the things that is so great about our set-up. Our label isn't going to be calling us going, "You guys really need to tour for nine months for this record. We are setting it up, and like it or not you are going to do it." I don't know how much that really goes on, obviously. But I've got the feeling that people get pressured into touring when they don't necessarily want to, but I don't have any specific examples or whatever.

You guys have been working on Merge for quite a while. And you are certainly taking the DIY ethic of the late seventies/early eighties and bringing it into the ninties. Have you heard from any of the old school people, advice from them or otherwise?
No, not really. When we first started the label we got a letter from Jello Biafra; he ordered a record, but that was it. (laughing) That was about it. There was no advice involved.

And how is Chapel Hill these days? Is the scene still pretty fruitiful?
Yeah, there's a lot of good bands here. I've been out of town for so long I'm not real up on the newest bands. I've heard of them, like people will say they are good, but I have not gone to see them yet.

So do you feel like you are even part of the scene anymore?
No. No, because I am gone so long. I don't feel like I am a part of it. I feel like a totally separate entity. I feel like a grandma when I show up at one of the shows.

Lastly, since this is our December issue, do you have any Christmas message for your fans in Michigan?
A Christmas message? Don't give worthless gifts. (laughs)

That's beauiful.
Basically, what I am trying to say is, if it is something someone doesn't need, don't give it to them.