Superchunk is fucking pissed.
There’s a more artful way to say it, but “fucking pissed” feels the truest to the spirit of What A Time To Be Alive, the surprise 12th album from the beloved indie-rock institution. Due out February 16 on Merge Records, What A Time To Be Alive explodes with scorn for the Trump era and its enablers with a directness that’s unprecedented for Superchunk. The rawest album in the group’s lengthy discography since its debut, What A Time To Be Alive is practically a hardcore record, only one built around Superchunk’s signature sound of highly melodic, punk-inflected indie rock. So when frontman Mac McCaughan sings biting lyrics like, “The scum, the shame, the fucking lies / Oh what a time to be alive,” it’s still in his tunefully high register accompanying a hooky chorus.
Superchunk recorded the What A Time To Be Alive with Beau Sorenson (who also did 2013’s I Hate Music), and the 11-song album features appearances by Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, David Bazan, A Giant Dog’s Sabrina Ellis, and Skylar Gudasz. It’s available for pre-order now. The A.V. Club spoke with guitarist-vocalist McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance ahead of the album announcement.
The A.V. Club: Superchunk hadn’t publicized that it was working on anything. How did this album come together?
Laura Ballance: Mac is very productive. He’s always writing songs, and he won’t stop, you know?
Mac McCaughan: We recorded the singles back in February, and we had that done already, but we didn’t do the rest of the record until July. I don’t think that we really knew whether we could get a whole record done in that time or how it was going to turn out. Plus—and I hear this from a lot of other artists that we work with via Merge—the long lead times of release cycles are just kind of exhausting.
LB: You have to finish a record six months before you want to put it out in order to get the vinyl pressed in time. If you start talking about something six months, or nine months, before the record is going to come out, it’s kind of old news by the time the record comes out. So it seems better to just keep your mouth shut and save all that for later.
MM: I think I definitely feel like we’re always looking for ways to break out of a routine in that way, but I’m psyched now that we did actually get it done.
AVC: Laura, your hearing issues prevent you from touring with the band these days, so how does writing and recording work?
LB: What I do is I make sure I can be somewhere where I don’t have to be near anything loud. Lately what that has amounted to is, I’ve been standing in the control room, with headphones on, where I can mix what I’m hearing myself on a little box and control the volume level. I used to stand in the room with Jon [Wurster], with the drummer, and I’d be wearing headphones, but of course the headphones don’t block him out. Now I sort of isolate myself when we’re recording.
AVC: The lyrics for this all feel really raw—like they almost came pouring out of you.
MM: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think that I wasn’t really overthinking it. There were definitely times when I thought about going back and revising things, or “Oh, maybe that’s just too obvious or too raw,” or something. But that doesn’t usually work, at least for me—especially once there’s a demo and I’ve heard it, and it’s in my brain as a certain thing, it’s hard to really go change things. But I think I probably, yeah, revised less on the lyrics this time and went with first impulse.
The song “Cloud Of Hate” was literally written in the studio and in like 10 minutes, including the lyrics, because we had some extra time, and we didn’t know any covers. We were like, “Okay, before we move into overdub mode, before we break down the drums and start doing the vocals and things like that, we have like two hours. What can we do?” So I was like, “Okay, I’ll write a song.” So I wrote the guitar part, recorded it on my phone, and then gave it to Jim [Wilbur, guitarist], and then he wrote his part. While everyone was listening to that, I wrote the words. We did that that fast. In some ways, you don’t want to say that out loud because people will go, “Yeah, I can tell, now that you say that. It sounds really rushed.” But yeah, some of it was that fresh.
AVC: In the lyric sheet I saw, the first lines of “I Got Cut” are in capital letters: “ALL THESE OLD MEN WON’T DIE TOO SOON.”
MM: I have that feeling every day. You look at the people who are ruining so many people’s lives… and that’s kind of what “Cloud Of Hate” is about. It’s not healthy to go around saying, “I just wish all these people would die so everyone could move on because they’re relics,” but they’re trying to mold the future. Like I said, I don’t think that’s a healthy way to go around feeling, wishing harm on other people, but it’s just reality.
AVC: Mac, you deliver the line “What a time to be alive,” with such biting sarcasm, but does it feel, in a weird way, that it is kind of an incredible time?
MM: I just think it’s terrorizing the average citizen every day, just mentally. Yes it’s about the present, but what I think about a lot, having kids, is how long is it going to take the country to dig out of this? Will my kids be fully grown adults and will we still be in this kind of shit, with all the stuff that Jeff Sessions is doing, Betsy DeVos is doing, Ryan Zinke is doing, Scott Pruitt is doing? These people are actually doing the real damage, and who knows how long it’s going to take to reverse all the harm they’re doing?
AVC: Speaking of kids, there’s a line presumably about that in “Lost My Brain,” where you say, “With small people looking up at you / You better find a new grip.” Is that what you were referring to?
MM: Yeah, and I think that’s about, how do you think about what’s happening and think about the ramifications for their lives, but somehow still set a good example for them and not just be the raving person full of hate? Someone like Mitch McConnell or Jeff Sessions, if there’s a news story on, and you’re just going, “Ugh, fuck these fucking assholes,” and your kid’s like, “Hey, what that’s about?”
It’s like these old suckers create a world that is based on fear. It’s a culture of death. It’s a culture of fear. So that line in [“Cloud Of Hate”], “You scare the kids / I hope you die scared,” I do. I hope these people somehow come to experience the world they’re creating for everyone else. But like I said, most days I think they won’t. It’s not a charitable attitude on my part. I accept that. But at the same time, fuck them.
AVC: Thinking about all the records you’ve released, Superchunk has never had something on this level where there’s such brazen social commentary.
LB: There’s a lot to talk about right now that is occupying our minds, and it feels like a good time to yell about it.
MM: Yeah, and I think when we were writing notes about the record for people who work here, I said I’m really wary of calling this record “political” because it implies that you are offering some solutions or that you’re writing a white paper, like, “Here’s what we should do about this.” Where it’s really more about how do you be a person in the world when all this is going on and still have a life, and I think a lot of people are learning that.
LB: It’s not a time when I think any artist can afford the luxury of staying politically neutral, in order to maintain their fanbase. I feel like what’s happening is more important than that. Some artists are doing that, which I find really frustrating and irritating, because I really do feel like if everybody stood up at the same time and said, “No, this is wrong. Something is broken,” then maybe something could change. But if it’s only outliers saying it, it can be perceived as, I don’t know, fringy or something.
AVC: Does it compel you to want to make more music?
LB: I think so, yes. I feel that way. It feels like I want to yell. I want to jump up and down and yell about this because it’s so wrong. Our records are our voice largely, and it may not be effective in any way, but it feels like a release of a lot of that frustration.
February 15—Baltimore, Maryland—Ottobar
February 17—Richmond, Virginia—The Broadberry
February 21—San Diego, California—The Casbah
February 22—Los Angeles, California—The Moroccan Lounge
February 23—Los Angeles, California—The Teragram Ballroom
February 24—San Francisco, California—Great American Music Hall @ Noise PopFestival
February 26—Portland, Oregon—Mississippi Studios
February 27—Seattle, Washington—Neumos
February 28—Vancouver, B.C.—Rickshaw Theatre
April 03—Washington, D.C.—Black Cat
April 04—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—Union Transfer
April 06—Cambridge, Massachusetts—The Sinclair
April 07—New York, New York—Bowery Ballroom
April 08—New York, New York—Bowery Ballroom
April 26—Atlanta, Georgia—Terminal West
April 27—Carrboro, North Carolina—Cat’s Cradle