In the past few years, nothing has dominated indie music like nostalgia. Band after 90s band has reunited, providing a key draw at festivals from Pitchfork to Coachella to Taste of Randolph Street and kindling memories of the inglorious glory days of 1993, when a major-label signing frenzy briefly turned the underground into the mainstream—and this time around, even the also-rans of the alt-rock boom can hope to cash in. Back in that era Superchunk helped define and popularize indie rock as we now know it, and like many of their peers—Pavement, Polvo, any group that put out a seven-inch on Teenbeat in 1995—they're back in action.
The difference is they never really went away. They've been pretty quiet this decade—their most recent full-length, not counting last month's reissues of No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth, was a live record in 2004, and most of their shows have been occasional one-offs. But this week they're putting out their first studio album since 2001. Majesty Shredding comes out on Merge Records, of course, the label run by front man Mac McCaughan (interviewed below) and bassist Laura Ballance. On it, they seem determined to age with dignity and grace; McCaughan says much of the new record is about battling rose-colored remembrances of youth. Though Majesty Shredding is loud and punchy—the punkest album they've made in a lot longer than nine years—it's also wise and complex. They're energized and giving everything they've got—which is still a lot.
Superchunk has been going for two decades now—what artifacts of the band do you save?
Right now, I am literally looking at a set list for a band I was in in high school. I always forget to grab the set list, and I wish I didn't, because we try to keep track of what we played the last three times we came through a city, just so we don't play same set. Of course I have a trash bag of Superchunk shirts, going back to the ones we made ourselves, but I'm not about to wear them around. I want to have them, give 'em to my kids when they're big enough to wear them. And flyers and posters, certainly. [Laughs.] You know, the 90s were a terrible time for poster art, but we still have some good ones. I have tapes of practice, demos I suppose I could have transferred. I guess I save a lot of it. For [the Merge Records book] Our Noise, it made for a lot to go through.
Who do you imagine showing it to? Or is it just for the thrill of coming across a laminate from some weird tour you did and remembering?
Laminates are a good example, actually, because we never had them—we're not into that kind of tour. But I remember the first date of the tour with Belly in 1995—it was in Providence—and their manager came into our dressing room and gave us laminates and said if anyone lost theirs it would be $80 to have it replaced. Our minds were blown.
Eighty bucks? That's a racket! Lamination costs, like, two dollars tops.
I think they had a hologram on them. [Laughs.] Sometimes I'll be looking for a lightbulb in a closet and look into a bag that's been there for eight years and it's pictures from a tour of Brazil, and it's fun to pull them out and go over them with whoever is around. Certainly for my kids, there's fun stuff to see, but my kids know I've been in bands—they've been to sound checks, tons of shows—so it's not like they're fully engaged. Later on it might be more interesting for them.
Do you think they realize that everyone's dad isn't in a band and doesn't go on tour for a living?
To them it's just my job. I don't think they contemplate it. It's not exotic to them. It was funny—we went to the Primavera festival in Spain . . . my daughter asked about it and I found a video on YouTube. Because it's a festival, there's this big stage, big light show, strobes and spinning lights—I didn't notice at the time, really, but watching it, for her, that was the most impressive thing. "Dad, you guys look like rock stars!" I guess that's all we need now. A light show.
On the new record, there's this nostalgic feeling, but also a sense that you're policing yourself—that you're really aware of not wanting to be too wrapped up in the past.
That's the dueling feeling. It's something that's powerful—it's also about music's role in nostalgia and its ability to trigger it. It's a powerful emotional thing, whether it's about music starting to mean something to you in a real way or a time when music was life changing. It's different the first time you see Bad Brains. . . . When you're young, so many things are happening, related to music and not, and that's all really exciting.
It imprints because all the first-time stuff shapes everything that comes after, especially when music or making it becomes your life. That part is inescapable.
Yeah, if you're loving music and pay attention, another feeling you have—at least for me—is appreciating artists that are moving forward and not repeating themselves. There is a feeling of wanting to recapture the feeling of the first time, battling with that feeling—just not wanting to live in the past, wanting to move forward. To that end, some of the songs and ideas on the album are about whether you can have that same energy without being stuck in the past.
Hopefully the answer is yes. Bummer if otherwise. [Laughs.] I'm not sure there's an answer. What you're looking for in nostalgia is that energy. It's not like Superchunk . . . like most bands, we're reinventing the wheel, but it's about taking these known elements and doing our own thing. It's the same idea, really, using that energy and that first-time feeling, but not just repeating the past, repeating yourself.
Do you ever catch yourself repeating things—rewriting songs you've already written?
Well, there was at least one time in the making of this record where I had this song, made a demo of it, and I sent it around to the rest of the band, saying, "This reminds me of something—I wanna make sure it's not one of our songs already." Ripping other people off is fine. Ripping ourselves off is not.
Since Superchunk has done so much already, has what you put out become more purposeful as you've gone along?
The idea is not to be too purposeful, not to overthink it. You have to be your own critic; you want it to be good. You do have a filter. If it's good, it's great if it's the first thing you put down to tape. We don't set out to convey or present. It has to feel good—in that sense it's the same as when we started the band. We weren't trying to break ground, just make records like the ones we loved. We didn't go to vocational school; it's what we loved, it was what we were doing. In some ways, how we made the record gets back to that—before now, we practiced hours a week, worked on songs from scratch, and some of the songs on the last record became overworked in that process. This time we didn't have time. [Drummer Jon Wurster] would fly down from New York, we'd rehearse for one day and then record the song. That was a fun way to do it. I think you can hear that.
You can. It's not exactly a party record, but there is a bash-it-out energy that you don't expect from any band so deep into its catalog.
We hadn't made a record in so long—we really wanted it to be fun. If you're going to make an album every nine years, you better make it good.
After 20 years of running a label and making music full-time, is it harder to be inspired or wowed by music now?
Yes, but I don't know if that's really about my age—I think it's much more about the volume of things. Though to answer your question, I just saw Dirty Projectors again and they wowed me. When I was 20, I dunno how many records came out, but it was a fraction of what comes out now. I was working at a record store and it was pretty easy to stay on top of everything that was happening and coming out. There are just as many good records now, but there are so many not-good records as well—keeping up on what's happening requires a knowledge of what's good, what's worth paying attention to.
There were a good couple years where it felt really exciting to try and track down and hear every record, obscure or new, that I read about on blogs, but it burns you out. Now I prefer going to the record store, just like I grew up doing, and asking "What's good? Would I like this?" of the people there I trust, who know my taste.
I've always kept going to record stores, talking to people there—that's more reliable and it's just more focused. I enjoy being able to read and listen to things online. You would think, reading online, that everything is great—there's so much breathless hyperbole—and I listen and I think, "Is this really what people are freaking out about?" The exposure to the hype is more immediate and in your face. It's numbing.
Does coming back to Superchunk refresh you?
Yes. We all know what to expect. I can play a show without worrying about it being good. I still get nervous every time, but onstage, I just know we're going to be OK. Superchunk is freeing because it's so familiar. I don't have to worry about anything. v
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