Their noise

After 10 years, Superchunk and Merge Records are still working. But they're not working for you.

Playing in front of a crowd that fire marshals only read about in training manuals, in a club with no air-conditioning, a faulty P.A., and one bathroom for about 500 people is kind of hard to forget, even if you've seen the inside of more clubs than bottles of Budweiser. It may have happened five years ago, but shows like that one stick out in your mind. Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster brings it up toward the end of our conversation, almost as an afterthought, yet it was likely the first thing he thought of when someone mentioned Dallas. You can hardly blame him; if anyone had a checklist for what's required to have a bad show, Superchunk's 1994 performance at the Galaxy Club would have had a mark next to nearly every box on it, with a few sections underlined for emphasis. And as they stood on stage that night, guitarist Jim Wilbur and frontman Mac McCaughan let everyone in the sweaty crowd know just how the band felt about the working conditions.

"This sucks, huh?" Wilbur began during a break between songs. "It's too bad that Dallas has no good clubs, and you've been forced to come to places like this. The rest of the world would laugh at you for even attempting to have a good time in a place like this."

"We wouldn't be saying this if the P.A. met the specs on the rider. We wouldn't be saying this if it wasn't for a lot of things," McCaughan continued, as he and Wilbur listed a handful of them.

No, here's where the strings come in: Superchunk is, from left, Jon Wurster, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Mac McCaughan.
Claire Ashby
No, here's where the strings come in: Superchunk is, from left, Jon Wurster, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Mac McCaughan.

After Wilbur and McCaughan finished ticking through their list of gripes, McCaughan addressed Galaxy Club owner Kent Wyatt personally. "Kent, you're a great guy, but your club..." McCaughan paused briefly, seemingly looking for the proper epithet, before softening a bit. "It needs some work," he added simply as the band launched into its next song.

The members of Superchunk still haven't forgotten the incident all these years later, keeping the memory around as a trump card whenever they think they've played a particularly awful show, using it as the measuring stick by which all other failed attempts to deliver the rock are gauged. On its Web site (www.superchunk.com), the group has a clip of Wilbur and McCaughan's outburst available for download, listed under the heading "Dallas Fiasco." They might not hold a grudge, but the members of the band definitely know where they keep it.

As Wurster discusses Superchunk's misbegotten visit to the Galaxy Club, he doesn't sound angry, as Wilbur and McCaughan's comments might lead you to believe. Bemused is more like it, almost laughing at the petty nonsense every band has to endure, no matter how relatively popular it may be. At the time, Superchunk was coming off the album that remains the best-selling disc in its catalog, 1994's Foolish, its first full-length for Merge Records, the label run by McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. They had made the jump from the safer harbor of a larger independent label -- New York-based Matador Records -- and landed safely on the other side, doing better than ever before all by themselves.

Yet the safety didn't last long. As the band releases its ninth album, Come Pick Me Up (due in stores on August 10), Superchunk has seen its sales figures dip with every album after Foolish, which sold more than 40,000 records. Here's Where the Strings Come In, released in 1995, and 1997's Indoor Living didn't even clear the 30,000 mark.

"But I don't know of anyone that hasn't had a sales drop since 1994 or something," Wurster says. "I was able to look up some sales figures for bands recently, and it's amazing. I would find this figure for a band that sold like a quarter of a million records in 1995 or 1996, and their new album that's been out for a year has sold 25,000. That seems very standard now. It's happening to everybody. There's a couple of bands in our town that were huge two years ago, and now they're...not." He laughs.

Superchunk might have had the same sort of success that its North Carolina neighbors Ben Folds Five and the Squirrel Nut Zippers briefly enjoyed a few years ago if the band had stuck with Matador, which released its self-titled 1990 debut as well as 1991's No Pocky for Kitty and 1993's On the Mouth. (Merge will re-release all three records on the same day Come Pick Me Up hits the shelves.) When the group ended its relationship with Matador, the label was on the verge of signing a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, an association that might have given Superchunk a higher profile. But as the band realized when it began releasing its own albums -- Merge was formed in 1989 as an outlet for the group's singles -- selling your own records means you get to keep all of the money, and if you work hard enough, you can sell just as many without any help at all. Wurster wasn't so sure about that when the band decided to make the move.

"I think maybe we were a little apprehensive about whether the demand for the records could be met," Wurster says. "But it worked. I think that they always hoped that that would be the end result. As far as I can tell, Merge -- and also the band -- has never had any long-term goals. And I think that that's good. In the case of the band, it's good, because you don't make these unrealistic scenarios and these goals that you want to reach, and then your hopes are ultimately dashed." He laughs. "But I think Merge always hoped it would be in the position it's in right now -- keeping its integrity and actually running a successful business."

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