By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When you're in a band, living and playing in a college town has one big benefit: Every four years or so, a new crop of students, 18-year-old kids ready for something new, is exposed to your music. At the same time, many of the ones you've won over in the past four years move to other cities, spreading your seed. Spreading your gospel. Take Superchunk, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an area of the country where only employees of Big Tobacco outnumber college students; it's a close race. If you believe the above theory, it would explain why every tour is bigger than the last one, every show finding a few more converts huddling at the foot of the stage. And maybe it would explain why 1994's Foolish is still the band's best-selling album, though the group has released four other discs since then. You might win over a few new fans, but you won't always get their beer money.
Or who knows? Maybe that doesn't explain anything. Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago.
"Our crowd has always been a pretty mixed bag of, like, super-young fans who are just hearing about the band and people who have sort of been following us the whole time, who are consequently as old or older than we are," McCaughan says. "So it's a pretty big mix. In terms of numbers, I mean, it has been sort of growing, every year, or every tour, whatever. Which is strange, because record-sales-wise, you know, our biggest-selling record was probably a few records ago. At this point, they still do well, but they've leveled off. It's a shame, because I like playing live, but touring is pretty hard and pretty grueling and stuff like that, and you want people to hear the records. It would be great if they'd pick up the records as well."
There may be another reason why they're not picking up the records. If you've never heard a Superchunk album before, listening to its latest, Here's to Shutting Up, is a bit like picking up a comic book in the middle of its run; you can follow the story, maybe, probably, but the characters aren't very familiar. It can be daunting, going to a record store and seeing so much back story there: eight albums (including Here's to Shutting Up) and a pair of singles compilations (1992's Tossing Seeds: Singles 1989-91 and 1995's Incidental Music: 1991-95), as well as a plastic tower of EPs and singles. With a discography that runs a full page, single-spaced, you might be inclined to give up before you start. But you shouldn't.
It's worth mentioning that, by now, you're either for Superchunk or against it, and if you haven't made up your mind yet, you probably never will. At this point, more than a decade later, there is little about the band you do not know if you're a fan and not much to convince you to find out more if you're not. A few years ago, maybe around the time of 1994's Foolish or the following year's Here's Where the Strings Come In, people could excuse their absence by saying Superchunk had fallen through the cracks or was flying under the radar or whatever euphemism explained why they weren't paying attention. Now, however, you can look at it this way: If a television show is on for 10 seasons and you don't watch a single episode, well, it's probably not an accident.
"I mean, you always want to sell more records and reach a wider audience," drummer Jon Wurster said in a 1999 interview with the Dallas Observer, just after the release of Come Pick Me Up. "I think we're coming to the conclusion now that that probably isn't going to happen, and that might not be such a bad thing."
That doesn't make it right, though. In a perfect world, one not owned and operated by a handful of white guys, Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker" would be a part of every modern-rock radio station's bringing-in-the-weekend shindigs, and kids would dress up like McCaughan for Halloween. Everyone would already know that McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance run Merge Records, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based label that started when the band did (1989) as an outlet for the group's first singles. And since then, Merge has released records by bands such as the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, Rocket From The Crypt and The Wedding Present, to name but a few, as well as every Superchunk album since Foolish.
Everyone would also know that McCaughan and Ballance, along with Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur, have spent the last 10 years making the kind of music that--along with, say, Guided by Voices--defines the term indie rock. Since 1997's Indoor Living, the group has expanded its own definition, making room in its three-chord rock for keys and cellos and horns and whatever else is around. On Indoor Living, as well as on Come Pick Me Up and Here's to Shutting Up, they've found a musical maturity that isn't just a nice way of saying boring.