"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."
The decision made more than business sense. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye gets more credit for what he's done with Dischord Records, but McCaughan and Ballance should receive equal billing for what they've achieved with Merge. They've turned yet another artist-run vanity label into one of the most influential independents in the country, releasing albums and singles by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, and Stephin Merritt's litany of bands, including The 6ths, The Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. McCaughan and Ballance have never compromised, putting out records they like, not just the ones that will sell. Yet they have sold, to the point that Merge doesn't have to rely on Superchunk records to keep from drowning in a sea of red ink. The label recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary on July 23 and 24 with M10K, a festival featuring performances by most of the Merge roster.
This year was also Superchunk's 10th birthday, and the band's celebration of that milestone was much less raucous. It happened a few months earlier at Chicago's Electrical Audio Studios, where the group was recording Come Pick Me Up with Jim O'Rourke. O'Rourke, who has worked with everyone from The Kronos Quartet to Sonic Youth, seemed an unusual choice to produce Superchunk, one of the most unnatural pairings since Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. His penchant for abstract pop was not quite in tune with the band's more straightforward guitar rock, even though Indoor Living had proved there was more to Superchunk than it had shown in the past. But, Wurster says, that's exactly what the band wanted. They already knew how Superchunk made records -- maybe a little too well. What they wanted, and needed, was someone to show them another way.
"I've always been a fan of records where bands take a different approach and try things they hadn't before, like London Calling by The Clash," Wurster says. "Or that Ramones album, End of the Century -- that had some neat stuff on it. We definitely wanted to try new things and put strings and horns on it, but Jim O'Rourke was really instrumental in actually helping us realize that. None of us actually knew him before we worked with him. We liked the records that he'd done, and knew that he was kind of...not weird, but coming from a different place than we were coming from, and I think we really needed that. This was someone that probably didn't really even know our records very well. Which was good."
O'Rourke took home cassettes of the songs that the band wanted strings and horns on, and wrote parts out for them in one night. "I was impressed that he was able to do that just kind of off the top of his head and running on no sleep," Wurster says, laughing. But the result is no joke: Thanks to O'Rourke's contributions, Come Pick Me Up is a lush -- and, at times, beautiful -- album. The band that began its career recording intelligent pop-punk anthems such as "Slack Motherfucker" is still present on Come Pick Me Up -- "Good Dreams" is as infectious as anything in the group's back catalog. But that side of Superchunk appears far less on Come Pick Me Up than ever before, leading to a disc that you can call mature without meaning boring.
Come Pick Me Up gives pop and rock equal weight, letting the two become intertwined until they're indistinguishable from each other. The spiraling guitar intro of "Hello Hawk" is balanced by a strings-and-things coda and McCaughan's soft croon; it's as if the band's evolution has been crammed into one song. On "You Can Always Count on Me (In the Worst Way)," the instruments sound more like they're being tickled than played, tiny guitar leads balanced on top of Wurster's gentle shuffle. "You Can Always Count on Me" becomes a full-on rock song without breaking a sweat, picking up speed so gradually, you never hear it coming until it has already flattened you. The same happens with "So Convinced," a lazy stroll that becomes a sprint to the finish line.