In 1989, singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance of the Chapel Hill rock quartet Superchunk released the band’s first 7-inch single on their own label, Merge Records. Over the next decade-plus, Superchunk replaced two original members (with drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur) and softened its original roaring, punky sound, adding sweeter pop notes that helped set the parameters for what came to be known as indie rock. All the while, as the stewards of Merge, McCaughan and Ballance released some of the most important records of the ’90s and ’00s (by Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, The Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Arcade Fire, and others), and showed that it was possible to do good business without selling out. After a long hiatus—during which McCaughan recorded with his band Portastatic, Ballance had a baby and nurtured Merge, Wurster toured with other bands and held up one end of the comedy duo Scharpling & Wurster, and Wilbur enjoyed a low-key life in North Carolina—Superchunk has returned with a superb new album, Majesty Shredding, which restores to the high-volume, high-energy sound of the band’s earliest records. The four members spoke separately with The A.V. Club about how the new album came to be, and how they spent their eight years off. (Their responses have been edited together.)
The A.V. Club: Mac, over the years you’ve consistently said that Superchunk hadn’t broken up, and that the band would get back together when the time was right.
Mac McCaughan: I’ve been vindicated!
AVC: So why now?
MM: There was no dramatic incident that led to us making the record; it was just a matter of everyone being in the right place and the right time, in terms of being able to dedicate a certain amount of time to make a record and do more than one or two shows. It’s something we talked about for a couple of years before we got started. When everybody is doing different things, time just seems to go by and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh yeah, we were supposed to make a record last year, maybe we’ll do it next year.” And I think that we knew that when we made a record we were going to do some touring, so I think it was a matter of waiting for everybody to get their minds around that idea, and then figuring out a way to make a record and be happy with the process. In other words, I don’t think that we were ever going to go somewhere like Bloomington or Chicago and camp out for two weeks and make a record.
Last summer, we wanted to put out a single around the time of the Merge 20-year anniversary, and that was kind of the beginning of the recording for the album. The idea was to record basic tracks at a studio here in Durham where we’ve recorded before—Overdub Lane is what it’s called—and we decided to work with Scott Solter, who Jon Wurster had worked with on some Mountain Goats stuff and really liked working with. Scott only lives a couple hours away, so it seemed like a low-impact way of making a record. We’d get together on a weekend and record basic tracks on tape, three or four songs, and then I would take the tracks back to the studio at my house and do overdubs, whether it was backing vocals or guitar solos or whatever, and then send the finished tracks back to Scott to work on at his house. It sounds kind of convoluted, but it makes sense for how we’re operating now. I still like making records where you go to one place and you’re just there and you get it done, but you’re putting your brain in a different place when you’re doing that. You’re hunkered down and it takes all the energy and concentration that you have to do it that way. This way allowed us to make a record and not have anyone immersed in it for long periods of time. We repeated that cycle three or four times over the course of a year until we had an album.
I think it turned out really well. The mixing thing was a new way to go, in terms of us not being in the room while we’re were mixing. Scott would do a mix and send me an MP3 and I would send him comments on it, back and forth like that. Which in some ways felt inefficient, because I felt that if I was in the room then I could just turn that knob and wouldn’t have to try and describe something in an e-mail to you; but in some ways I think it’s really good because you otherwise tend to really obsess and tinker endlessly with stuff. If Scott’s there making decisions and you’re commenting on that, you’re one step ahead of the whole tweaking situation. I think it ended up working out, and the fact that we were working on the songs and recording them very quickly allowed it to retain a liveliness and feeling of spontaneity that was missing from the last record we did.
AVC: Jon, did you find the new way of recording this record any better or worse than everybody being in a room together, working on the songs together?
Jon Wurster: The first two records I was involved with were On The Mouth and Foolish, and as I remember it, Mac brought in finished songs—in terms of the riff, a few verses, a chorus—and then we put our little stamp on things. And then all the records that followed, up to Here’s To Shutting Up, those were all pretty much done from the ground up. Someone would bring in a little part—a riff, or a beat, or whatever—and we’d kind of make a song out of that. We’d pound it out, and songs would take shape over weeks and months, and then we’d go record them.
This one was different in that I wasn’t really around. I don’t live in Chapel Hill anymore; I’ve just been on the road for the last two and a half years straight pretty much, with Bob Mould or Ben Gibbard or Carl Newman. So Mac would send us demos of the songs he was working on, and they were pretty finished; more like what they were when I first joined the band. I learned the songs in my head, but I never played them before we actually got together to rehearse. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning going on, on my end anyway. And I’m a believer lately in the concept of “first idea, best idea.” The first idea that came to me for a drum part was pretty much what I would go with. And Mac would chime in and say, “Can you straighten that out a little more?” or something, but for the most part, the original idea that I had for the drum part is what’s on the record. And that’s really fun and refreshing for me, because back in the day, a lot of times we’d rehearse in my basement, and I’d bring a four-track and record everyone playing and kind of analyze these rehearsal recordings forever and keep making changes and pound the life out of the drum part. So this was kind of the opposite, and I think it’s the better for it.
Laura Ballance: I liked it. It was much less laborious. It was quick and to the point, which I like. There’s some fun in laboring over the songs, I guess, and coming up with more crazy arrangements or weird parts. That’s fun too. But when I think about playing these songs live, I think that’s going to be more fun because they’re more straightforward, and I think it will come over better live than a lot of the stuff on our last few records did. I don’t know if it was conscious, or just sort of a byproduct of the way we did it. But you know, I would say that certainly since our last album, we’ve been playing live periodically, and the songs we would up playing when we’d get together and do shows were generally ones, you know, they were more rock ’n’ roll. No keyboard bits, no strings. That’s what we’re good at.
Jim Wilbur: It’s a lot less work for me. There’s pros and cons to it. We couldn’t really go about things the way we did 10 years ago, where we would just all stand in a room together and throw ideas randomly, spontaneously around, and you’d end up having 40 parts of songs, and then you’d have to arrange them, and then Mac would write lyrics. That took a long time, and you ended up with a lot of half-baked ideas. The material we were dealing with this time was instantly much better than a lot of stuff that we might have worked on in the past and ended up just discarding. With Mac having clear ideas about what he wanted things to sound like from his point of view, the work was a lot easier to go “hmm” with a CD and play along with it and try to figure out parts that would go with it without stepping on the vocals. Stuff like that. It’s not quite as fun to do it that way maybe, because it seems much more like you’re in four different rooms rather than together, but I’m happy with the results.
AVC: Which do you prefer, recording or performing?
Jim W: They’re such different things. I like both aspects inasmuch as they’re part of being in a band. You rehearse together, you record together, and then you get to tour. But touring can be not-fun. Like, playing live is fun, but the rest of the day can be grueling, and you deal with homesickness. You miss your dogs, you miss your wife, you miss your routine, and you’re in a traffic jam in Cincinnati at 9 in the morning. It can be kind of not-fun. The same goes for recording; it’s just hours of tweaking and it’s not gratifying the way that playing a show is. But I wouldn’t want to discard either one.
When we decided to go forward and make a record after 10 years, it was always the plan that we were going to tour to support the record. We scaled back from what we’d done in the past, but we were all on board. We were all on board every step of the way. At first we were like, “Let’s just try recording three songs, and see how it goes.” And that worked, and then a couple months later, it was like, “Let’s try three more.” By that point, you have half a record done, and you’re like, “Shit, we don’t to abandon ship now, it’s half done.” And you press on. And by the time you realize you have a record, the job’s only half finished. You gotta tour, you gotta play. But we’ve scaled back; we’re never going to be gone from home more than five, maybe six days.
AVC: Laura, when you tour with the band this fall, are you going to take your daughter on the road?
LB: No, because we’re having very short touring cycles, and coming home often. When we go out to the West Coast, she and my husband are going to go out there, and visit some of our friends in the Los Angeles area. So I’ll get to see her the last few days of that tour. Which I’m excited about. Because I have a hard time being away from her for more than a day.
AVC: Jon, what’s your take on touring? Does getting a chance to see the country and the world with all these different bands give you more fodder for comedy?
Jon W: That’s where everything comes from. [Laughs.] That’s where every bit has ever come from. We have this character who’s a singer for a band, and he talks about how he played the Slim Jim Summer Slam Jam, and all these product-sponsored festivals. Right after Superchunk, I played with this woman named Caitlin Cary, who used to play with Ryan Adams, and we ended up on this weird show like that, in Atlanta. I can’t remember who was on the bill, but it was the “Coca-Cola Earthlink blah blah blah.” And that was the impetus for this bit. A lot of the jokes come from misreading signs on the road, too. You know, thinking a sign says something other than what it says, and that just turns into a bit. “What if there actually was a something-or-other?”
AVC: Do you bring all your experiences with other bands with you when you drum with Superchunk, or is there a different set of muscles involved with each?
Jon W: Y’know, Superchunk is like home in a way, so I do just kind of go instantly into that muscle memory or whatever you want to call it. But yeah, I think I do bring back something from the other things I’ve done, whether it’s maybe a little lighter touch from playing with someone like The Mountain Goats, or that Ben Gibbard/Jay Farrar thing I worked on, that was very kind of subdued and acoustic and brushy. You can’t help but bring back what you’ve experienced with someone else. I’m sure Mac does it with the scoring stuff he’s done, and the Portastatic records too, and that makes for a different palette.
AVC: There seems to be kind of a cycle that bands go through when they take a long break. When you’re recording one album after another, oftentimes bands think a little bit harder about each one, and what they want to do to distinguish it from the previous record, or what they want to do to kind of move the sound forward, etc. And then after they get back together, it’s much like it is with Majesty Shredding, it seems. The bands just sort of grip it and rip it.
Jon W: I think there was also a conscious decision that this is what we do really well. We may not do other things very well, like the things we dabbled in on past records back in the late ’90s. This is definitely what we’re best at, and I think it’s what people would like to hear from us. So I’m happy about it.
MM: For us, it wasn’t so much about keeping up with the times, because I don’t think we ever sounded like the latest thing happening. [Laughs.] But before we stopped making records, it was always about what was going to be interesting for us. We made No Pocky For Kitty in two days with Steve Albini, and that was just essentially capturing a live thing. And then we didn’t need to do that anymore, so it was more about what we could do to keep ourselves interested in the process and make a record that’s different for us. And now, since we haven’t made a record in nine years, this is already different for us. Making this kind of punk-rock-sounding record is different for us. In some ways, we’re doing what we used to do, except that we’re back around to the point where it feels fresh.
LB: I definitely feel like with Here’s To Shutting Up, we were evolving in some certain direction, and that record was like an evolutionary step. But then, because we stopped, we didn’t finish going in whatever that direction was. That branch is unresolved, maybe. But taking the time off, it takes you back to basics.
MM: And we didn’t totally stop playing; we play three or four shows a year, and when we’re doing those shows they’re always a special occasion like Coachella or a show in Chapel Hill or a fundraiser. We do those shows with the mindset that it’s not supposed to be anything but fun, both for us and the audience, so we play a lot of songs from early records, where we don’t need keyboards and extra people. We’re not trying to recreate to a T the way something sounds on a record, we’re just plugging in and rocking out. And that definitely informed this record. We figured that if we’re going to make another record so that we can have some new songs to play live, they should be the kind of songs that are the most fun to play.
AVC: Toward the end of that first run, it seems Superchunk was maybe being taken for granted a little bit. You’d been around for so long and had been putting out consistently good records, but the buzz wasn’t what it used to be. Yet with this new album, it seems like there’s a lot more pre-release excitement out there among fans.
MM: I guess so. Because we never officially broke up, we never had an opportunity to say, “We’re back!” And that’s how we wanted it, but at the same time I did wonder, “Since we never fully went away are people going to notice that we’re doing something again?” In terms of being taken for granted, I think that at Merge we see that all the time with really good bands. A band like Lambchop—to me every record they put out is a masterpiece, but at a certain point, people run out of ways to describe them, or they feel like they’ve heard it before. It’s frustrating. I feel like we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve had a lot of fans that have stayed with us the whole time, but I do think it’s true what you’re saying, that with Here’s To Shutting Up being the eighth record or whatever it was, we may have felt that we were doing something different, but the response was, “Oh, another Superchunk record.”
But I think that if you’re going to get worked up over lazy music journalism then you’re probably in the wrong business. [Laughs.]
Jim W: See, there’s a story to tell now, because we took a break. And also, the musical landscape is so different from what it was in 2001. There are people that go, “Well now is your moment,” and I think that’s kind of horseshit. But there is a story to it, about a band that hasn’t made a record in 10 years but was really active for the 10 years before that. It’s not like coming back from the dead or anything, but it’s a hook for promoting the record. Still, it could come out and just sell the requisite amount that we always sell, that we sold in diminishing numbers in our career, and by next year we’ll all be playing benefits again.
Jon W: The thing is that it’s so exciting on the way up, no matter what level of success you’re getting. We weren’t huge by any means, but it was still fun for us to see what was coming next. But definitely by that last record, I was thinking, “This is as far as it gets.” [Laughs.] I was seriously just tired of our sound. Nothing against it, but I wanted to do other things and play with other people. And yeah, there was kind of a glass ceiling in some ways, where it was like, “You guys should be so much bigger!” and, well, that’s not happening. So there’s a little disappointment in that, but you can’t let that drive you. And it was fun to go off and play with other people and then come back to Superchunk once or twice a year and do something and not have to have that whole year ahead of you planned out. And now it’s 10 years later, and we’ve all done a lot of things since then, and it’s not the end-all-be-all anymore, which is really nice. There’s no pressure or expectations anymore, I don’t think. And that was always my problem. I don’t think other people in the band struggled with that, but there was always a level of disappointment for me. [Laughs.] But things are good now.
Jim W: There were times when we’d have talks and some people in the band were like, “I don’t ever want to play these songs ever again.” And there were other people in the band that were saying, “Why don’t we just not call it quits, but just take a serious, elongated break?” I know I didn’t want to say, “Let’s break up the band,” and then three years later have a reason to come back. My comment at the time was that there’s no reason to break up the band, because we’ll know more three years from now than we do now. But if we just take a break, that’s a step that you don’t have to back off from. You will maintain your integrity by just taking a break. If you tell people that you’re breaking up and then you don’t, you just seem kind of wishy-washy, and it’s somewhat unfair, I think. My take was that you don’t know. You don’t know that you never want to play these songs again. You might want to. And it turned out that by taking the break, we were able to keep it all together psychologically, and be like, “Okay yeah, I can still be in this band, with these people, but without obligations that I’m dreading fulfilling.”
LB: I’m really curious to see how this record is received. Will people just be like, “Oh, it’s just some old band reuniting and making another record,” which… I don’t feel that way, but I could see people perceiving it that way. Or will they go, “Wow, cool, here’s this band I’ve never discovered, and they’re great, and they look kind of old, but I’ve never heard them before!” [Laughs.] It seems like there’s the potential for us either to be completely ignored, or for it to do better than any of our records have before, depending on what people think of it when they hear it. Also, indie rock or whatever you call it now is in a whole different position than it was 10 years ago.
Jon W: I’m astounded at how indie rock or whatever you want to call it has exploded. I can’t take a step without seeing a poster for The Arcade Fire and Spoon playing at Madison Square Garden, or The National and MGMT playing Radio City multiple nights. That kind of thing was inconceivable back when we started. I remember going to see Spoon play for 20 people at a club in Chapel Hill, or The White Stripes play for 20 in San Diego once. It’s astounding to me, and it’s awesome how people have found out about it and love it. I mean it’s totally mainstream now, but I don’t think those people are compromising in any way to do what they do. So I think that’s the biggest change for me, is that this kind of music that we play is now really popular. Not “we” as in Superchunk, but “we” as in the indie genre. That’s a big thing. And of course, the delivery system is completely different; I’m not ever sure what to think about that. Tom [Scharpling] and I have agreed to just let our press run out of our CDs, because we just sell so much more downloads, it doesn’t make sense to keep this stock of CDs anymore.
AVC: How about the digital side for Merge? Does the label see a good stream of income from selling MP3s with no physical copy attached?
MM: We do. The percentage on each release varies, but we certainly have a good income stream from digital music. Yet—I don’t think this is just me being old-fashioned, but the idea to me of only putting something out digitally without a physical release too is a little bit frightening. For instance, the digital releases that we’ve done this year: We’ve done a Tracey Thorn EP and another one of remixes and they’re essentially companions to an album that exists in all formats. But if you just said, “We’re putting out a new album by this band and we want you to pay attention to it,” then releasing it as a digital-only thing I think is not going to serve you well. It’s not there yet in terms of replacing whatever power the physical release is. I don’t know if it’s because if you don’t bother to make CDs and LPs people will think you don’t really care about it, or if it’s literally just that the people who are really into music—which I would say are a high percentage of people that buy Merge records—still do go to record stores and look at stuff and pick stuff up and think about it and then bring it home. You know what I mean? That’s still a process for a lot of people, specifically those who support independent music.
AVC: Laura, you were on vacation the week that the new Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs, came out and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Were you monitoring the situation from afar?
LB: I was kind of monitoring it, though every time I did, I would lose some vacation time, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] I’d check my e-mail every once in a while, and then I’d get all worked up, and my husband would look at me and say, “What are you doing?” [Laughs.] It was hard work, and really stressful.
AVC: You obviously poured a lot of promotional effort into getting that album over the hump. For example, you had an Amazon promotion where the album was on sale for $3.99 for a week. Did that cut into your profits in a significant way, or is that all on Amazon’s side?
LB: It’s on Amazon. A lot of physical retailers were doing that same kind of thing for a while, that kind of loss-leader thing. You know, we may have spent some advertising money with Amazon, but the specifics of it I can’t really discuss. It’s not that different from what labels do with other retailers, like paying for placement in stores. It’s normal; it’s done. For big records like that, you have to do it, to make sure that everybody sees that it’s there. I guess you could say it’s the same thing with online retailers. It’s sort of the same as paying for an end rack.
AVC: It’s been a strong year for the label overall. Why do you think Merge is still a viable force in the business, while some labels that launched around the same time—and at one point were bigger names—are not?
LB: A lot of it is cyclical. All independent record labels have ups and downs. It varies according to what artists we’re working with, and what their album cycles are. I think we’ve had a good year because we’re working with some great artists right now, and we had three really big ones put out records this year. She & Him, Spoon, and The Arcade Fire were all in the Billboard Top 10, which is pretty awesome, three records in the top 10 in one year. But yeah, I feel honored and humbled that we are in this position, and it’s kind of amazing to me, because I look at the way some other labels are run, and I certainly don’t feel like we have it more together than they do, but something is going right.
AVC: At this point in your life, do you think of yourself as more of a businesswoman or a musician?
LB: A businesswoman. And a mother.
AVC: Does Superchunk have any sort of “favored nation” status within Merge, or are they just another band, as far as the business side is concerned?
LB: Just another band, pretty much. If anything, we probably make fewer demands on the label, because Mac and I are part of running Merge and Jim and Jon don’t ask many questions. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve been around since the mail-order 7-inch days, and you’re still around in the digital download era. What aspect of the business has changed the most, from your perspective? Distribution? Recording? The business model itself?
MM: Gosh, you listed a lot of major things. In some ways distribution has gotten better and better during Merge’s existence. When it started, it was really difficult to get your music anywhere but small stores. For us even to get a record into Tower was a difficult thing to do. I think in the late ’80s, the one thing that major labels did have to offer bands like Hüsker Dü or The Replacements was distribution. They could get the record into the mall, into chains. But that changed pretty soon after we started, and mostly for the better, though at a certain point I think that the big-box stores really did start to put smaller record stores out of business.
I worked at a record store called Schoolkids in Chapel Hill, which no longer exists, and it was great for music fans like myself. And the other people worked there because we carried all the latest cool stuff that was coming out on Sub Pop or Homestead, as well as on imports like Flying Nun. We carried all this amazing stuff, but the store still made the most money when there was a new Pearl Jam record. We would open at midnight and people would come in and get that. But then when a big-box store opens 10 minutes outside of town and all they carry is the hits and they’re super-cheap, well now you’re asking this store in town to become solely niche. Those stores still do exist in some towns, but life is really hard for the plain old record stores. That was the up-and-down of that retail situation, and obviously it’s become a self-fulfilling thing. If there are no record stores, it’s harder for people to buy records. People look at the numbers and say, “Hardly anyone’s buying records anymore.” It’s harder to buy them. People can buy them online, and I do, but it’s not really the same. That’s something that has changed a lot, and has gone through probably more than one cycle since we started.
In terms of the general music marketplace, I think the hugest thing is that there’s just so much more out there than when we started. When we started, we put out the “Superchunk” single and the “Slack Motherfucker” single and the “Fishing” single, and those singles would get a lot of attention just as 7-inches. The first tour we did, we only had 7-inches out. Now I can’t imagine trying to get anyone’s attention when so many records come out every week and every day is a new news cycle for the music websites. You might be able to hold people’s attention for a day or a week with a great video or a “Best New Music” review on Pitchfork, but that stuff is fleeting when literally every day it’s replaced by another five reviews. I think that’s the biggest thing: the glut of information out there and the fact that you’re up against that when you’re trying to get people to pay attention to what you’re doing.
LB: Obviously the digital thing has made a huge difference, just because it’s so much easier for people to discover new music. I mean, back in 1989, we had no access to anything unless there was a cool record store in our town, or unless someone read something in Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll that led them to write to Merge Records, and say, “Here’s three dollars, send me your 7-inch.” So you’re talking about having exposure to hundreds of people versus millions now—potentially—that have all this information at their fingertips. And people can share stuff so easily with each other now. That’s why we can sell 156,000 Arcade Fire records in a week. I certainly don’t expect we’ll sell that many Superchunk records.
AVC: Book Madison Square Garden; see what happens.
MM: Going back to the digital side for Merge, I don’t know what the percentage on digital versus physical is for a Lady Gaga record, something that is so incredibly popular, but for us the physical thing is still important. I feel like a broken record when I say this, but I think as a label, one of our jobs is to create music fans. And one of the ways you do that is by putting out records that people can look at and hold onto and listen to and think about and read. To me, if you’re going to make an impression on people and get people involved, it really is a two-way street. You don’t do tours where you just play for a camera that’s webcasting, you play in front of people in a club. And that may also be webcast, but you’re still playing to live people. I think that interaction happens also when people buy records. The interaction with the band they’re investing their money in or with a person at the record store who’s talking with them about whichever records they like—it’s a human connection back and forth, making people feel like they’re involved. You can click a button and get a record for free or pay $9.99 for it or whatever, but how do you feel involved with that transaction? What part of you is engaged with that? The part of you that’s simultaneously checking your e-mail? It’s like nothing happened, in a way. [Laughs.] That to us is one of the things that we try to figure out, how to involve people in the music. Because I think that’s how music fans are created.