The Guide to Getting into Superchunk
How to delve into the immersive and varied catalog of one of indie rock's most seminal bands.
Superchunk has been a band for nearly 30 years, but based on what the members admitted in the first chapter of John Cook’s tell-all, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, it’s amazing they survived their first practice. According to the members, forming the band (then called Chunk) was all just a ploy for Mac McCaughan to woo Laura Ballance.
Laura Ballance (bass): “I felt like I was pushed into it. Music was important to me, but I had never wanted to actually play music or be on a stage. The idea petrified me.”
Jim Wilbur (guitar): “I don’t think they would’ve ever been together without the band. I think they got together because Mac was like, ‘I’m going to teach you how to play bass. And we’re going to start a band. And from there, I’m going to start dating you.’”
Mac McCaughan (guitar, vocals): “That was probably the motivating factor. But it was also like – ‘Well, I spend all my time making noise and playing in bands, so Laura should spend all her time doing the same thing!’ In my narrow view of the world, it was like, ‘Why wouldn’t someone want to be in a band?’ That sounds fun, doesn’t it?”
While Ballance and McCaughan would only last four years as a couple, for the last quarter-century they’ve remained both bandmates and business partners, running their own label, the indie powerhouse Merge Records. Superchunk has undoubtedly been usurped in popularity by a number of their past and current labelmates (see: Spoon, Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel), but it was the band’s success in the early 90s that kept Merge afloat, and allowed it to move beyond simply releasing seven-inch singles.
Superchunk is generally regarded as one of indie rock’s seminal bands, and not just because of their involvement in building a scene both in their home of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and with Merge. Throughout all of those years they have assembled a discography that is as reliable as any band of their generation.
Although they began as high-energy, punk-raised indie rockers, Superchunk chose to evolve over time. Whether it was McCaughan bearing his tender side on 1994’s devastating Foolish or working with avant-gardester Jim O’Rourke on 1999’s Come Pick Me Up, they were able to mature and expand their music without alienating too many fans.
The thing with Superchunk is that there isn’t a wrong place to start. Beginning with their brand new studio album, What A Time To Be Alive, is as good a place as any. But in case you need help, here are five sides of their music to sample.
So You Want to Get into: The Anthems
Superchunk never wrote a hit song, but they’ve had no shortage of anthems. From the onset, their songs were lit with frenzied bursts of note-bending and fret-climbing guitar lines, guiding the way for McCaughan to shout in his helium squawk. Their second single, 1990’s disaffected “Slack Motherfucker,” is a song so ingrained in the band’s fabric that it’s almost not even a Superchunk concert if they don’t either open or close with the song. Written by McCaughan in an effort to call out a lazy co-worker, the song is one of a few cultural moments in time that helped popularize slacker culture, which would later run rampant as a stereotype in indie rock. Ballance claims to be “so over that song,” but it will forever be the most iconic Superchunk song of all time.
They almost turned an anthem into a hit in 1995 with “Hyper Enough,” which, as Ballance explained to Noisey last year, was so obviously radio-friendly that they hired a special promoter and commissioned a radio mix. Alas, it never really went beyond college radio, but it did become one of their most beloved and signature songs, thanks to its rip-snorting tempo and titanic riff.
On The Mouth, the band’s third album and first with current drummer Jon Wurster, is basically constructed of anthem after anthem: the distorted chug of “Mower,” the ascending crash of “The Question Is How Fast,” the giddy soloing frenzy in “For Tension” and of course, the electrifying flash of “Precision Auto.” More than anything in their catalog, it’s most emblematic of Superchunk’s ability to write such powerfully engaging songs. (Oddly enough, a title track was recorded but withheld from the album, and it just so happens to rip harder than any of them.)
Even when the band returned from a lengthy hiatus in 2010, they came storming back with huge tunes like “Digging For Something” and “Learned To Surf,” from an album aptly named Majesty Shredding, as well as an evocative, one-off single called “This Summer” that’s about the sunniest thing they’ve ever conceived. Oh and the new album doesn’t disappoint either, delivering a title track that lives up to its grand statement of What A Time To Be Alive.
And I’m not quite sure where or how to squeeze this in, but “Water Wings” from 1994’s Foolish rules, okay?
Playlist: “Slack Motherfucker” / “Hyper Enough” / “Mower” / “On The Mouth” / “Digging For Something” / “Learned To Surf” / “This Summer” / “What a Time to Be Alive” / “Water Wings”
So You Want to Get into: The Softer Side of Superchunk
After Ballance and McCaughan ended their romance, they agreed to continue with the band and Merge. One can only imagine the awkwardness in working two jobs with your ex virtually every day, but they somehow made it work. However, what tension there was manifested itself in McCaughan’s songwriting. Their fourth album, Foolish, is often regarded as a document of their breakup. There is plenty of raw emotion on display in every track, but also a newfound tenderness. Adding a new layer of emotional depth that had previously been missing with gentler ballads like “Driveway to Driveway” and “In a Stage Whisper,” Superchunk now had love songs their fans could use on mixtapes.
All of a sudden, Superchunk weren’t required to write loud, manic rockers. Building on the quieter music he was writing under the name Portastatic, McCaughan began to regularly make these gentler expressions on the band’s subsequent releases. This new side to McCaughan’s songwriting garnered such praise from fans and critics that Here’s Where The Strings Come In offered up “Silverleaf and Snowy Tears” and “Green Flowers, Blue Fish”; Indoor Living contained “Under Our Feet” and “Every Single Instinct,” featuring one of McCaughan’s most affectionate vocal takes; and Come Pick Me Up presented a trifecta in “Smarter Hearts,” “Tiny Bombs” and “You Can Always Count on Me (In the Worst Way).” Here’s To Shutting Up, meanwhile, was the first album of theirs to favor this softer, emotive side over the loud stuff. And while, really, none of the songs would fit onto a record like On The Mouth, “Florida´s On Fire” and “Drool Collection” sound almost completely unrecognizable from the band they were ten years prior.
Not to be outdone, some of Superchunk’s best soft rock wasn’t on any of their studio albums. The tear-stained “Home At Dawn” was a one-sided seven-inch single that came with a 1994 issue of Speed Kills. And there are a handful of great B-sides to explore: “Sexy Ankles” from Hello Hawk, “The Length of Las Ramblas” from Late Century Dream, and “Small Definition” from the Laughter Guns EP, to name a few. Thankfully these were all later collected on various compilations.
And of course, there is also everything McCaughan did as Portastatic.
Playlist: “Driveway to Driveway” / “In a Stage Whisper” / “Silverleaf and Snowy Tears” / “Green Flowers, Blue Fish” / “Under Our Feet” / “Every Single Instinct” / “Tiny Bombs” / “You Can Always Count on Me (In the Worst Way)” / “Florida´s On Fire” / “Drool Collection” / “Home At Dawn” / “Sexy Ankles” / “The Length of Las Ramblas” / “Small Definition”
So You Want to Get into: The Punk Years
Although Superchunk are heralded as indie rock icons, their roots are deep in punk rock. One of Ballance’s first concerts was a Bad Brains show in Atlanta, where she hung out with skinheads and hardcore kids. At the same time, McCaughan was straight edge, cutting his teeth in punk bands like Wwax and the Slushpuppies, who were the support for Fugazi’s first show outside of DC in 1987.
So when they formed Chunk (“Super” was added before the end of their first year) with original guitarist Jack McCook and drummer Chuck Garrison, there was an undeniable lean towards their heroes like Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and Buzzcocks. Their debut single, 1989’s “What Do I,” comes firing out with an axe to grind—all meaty power chords, furious solos, and a frustrated Mac evaluating a bad relationship. Of course after that came the raging anthem “Slack Motherfucker” and a noisy self-titled debut album that began with the hardcore-lite “Sick To Move” and ended with the Ramones-y “Not Tomorrow.”
Their sophomore LP, No Pocky For Kitty, which brought in Jim Wilbur to replace McCook, not only refined the production value, it packed even more of a wallop, only taking a break at the midpoint to catch its breath. And so they raged on through “Skip Steps 1 & 3,” “Punch Me Harder,” and the sub-two-minute “Creek.” On The Mouth did an even better job, blending break-neck pacing with soaring melodies on “Flawless,” “New Low,” and the blinding “Precision Auto,” which was later validated as a punk classic by Fucked Up and Tom Scharpling.
As the 90s reached its midpoint, Superchunk would proceed to trade such bustling noise for softer, more reflective indie rock. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the band members were in their 40s that they would record their fastest song to date; clocking in at 75 seconds, I Hate Music’s “Staying Home” is a proper throwback to hardcore’s brevity. Only now have they gone and beat it, with the thrashing speed of “Cloude of Hate” from What A Time To Be Alive, which also features a tribute to anarcho punks, Reagan Youth. And let’s not forget how much they’ve publicly honored the Misfits these past few years. There is, of course, this photo to forever bow down to, but also covers of “Children In Heat,” “Where Eagles Dare,” and “Horror Business,” which they released as a split with Coliseum for Record Store Day in 2011.
Playlist: “What Do I” / “Slack Motherfucker” / “Sick To Move” / “Not Tomorrow” / Skip Steps 1 & 3” / “Creek” / “New Low” / “Precision Auto” / “Staying Home” / “Cloude of Hate” / “Horror Business”
So You Want to Get into: Mid-90s Crisis Superchunk
Once Superchunk found the space they needed on Foolish, they really opened things up in terms of songwriting. Once they got to 1997’s Indoor Living, however, the door was wide open to experiment. By choosing to record at Echo Park in Bloomington, Indiana, they found themselves surrounded by new toys. “I definitely remember Mac wanting to experiment a lot with the synthesizers, playing around and trying to come up with ideas,” producer Plymale says in Our Noise. McCaughan’s excitement to layer all of these new textures to Superchunk’s rock template is all over the album, from the dominant synths that steer “Watery Hands” to the string-mimicking organ that closes out “European Medicine,” not to mention the vibraphone that creeps into the chorus for “Martinis on the Roof.”
Curiosity got the better of them again when they entered Electrical Audio with Jim O’Rourke. Ballance admits their producer pushed them out of their comfort zone, and while there are subtle hints of this on “Pulled Muscle” and “Tiny Bombs,” what O’Rourke did more than anything was get Superchunk at some of their best. Instead, they saved their most ambitious noodling for Here’s To Shutting Up, an album that at times felt like their swan song, which would have been a weird one to go out with. The alt-country flirtations of “Phone Sex,” the maudlin orch-pop of “The Animal Has Left It's Shell” and the Farfisa-heavy “What Do You Look Forward To?” all signaled a very different band from the one that gave us “Slack Motherfucker.” For McCaughan, the goal was to “blow out people's expectations of Superchunk,” but Ballance believes “McCaughan, more than anybody, wanted to do different things that involved different instruments. He was bored of doing the same thing.”
Playlist: “Watery Hands” / “European Medicine” / “Martinis on the Roof” / “Pulled Muscle” / “Tiny Bombs” / “Phone Sex” / “The Animal Has Left It's Shell” / “What Do You Look Forward To?”
So You Want to Get into: B-Sides & Rarities
One thing Superchunk have never taken for granted is all of the material that does not make it onto albums. From the beginning they have consistently released seven-inch singles and contributed tracks to various compilations, but also gathering that material to release as compilations. Their first, Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91), was released the same year they put out their second album. Collecting pretty much all of the stuff that didn’t make the first two albums, it’s arguably a better album than their self-titled debut, thanks to the title-referencing “Seed Toss,” the awesome “My Noise,” their Sebadoh covers—“It's So Hard to Fall in Love” and “Brand New Love.”
Of all the bands on the soundtrack to The Jerky Boys movie, Superchunk stood out like a sore thumb amongst the likes of Coolio & the 40 Thevz, Collective Soul, and Tom Jones. And while some acts chose to submit half-assed covers, Superchunk donated an original winner titled “Shallow End,” which could have easily been the lead single on a future album. They were wise to recycle “Shallow End” to kick off their second comp. Incidental Music 1991-95 followed in 1995, and worked as a great gap-filler between Foolish and Here’s Where The Strings Come In. Although it does pack them in, offering 19 tracks, it contains a number of overlooked Superchunk greats like the riotous “Makeout Bench,” the effervescent “On The Mouth,” and their brilliant cover of Magnetic Fields’ “100,000 Fireflies.”
Waiting eight years for the next one, Cup Of Sand arrived in 2003 boasting a hefty 28 tracks. There is a lot to sift through, but it does a great job of tracing the band’s most adventurous period in which they were plucking a banjo on “1,000 Pounds (Duck Kee style),” getting weird with the frequencies on lush “The Length of Las Ramblas,” contributing one of the better tracks in “Does Your Hometown Care?” to a stacked cast of indie acts on the soundtrack to Richard Linklater’s subUrbia, and burying “Her Royal Fisticuffs,” one of their best anthems on the Laughter Guns EP.
Yet to be compiled are B-sides from recent singles like “February Punk” (from “Digging For Something”), “Sunset Arcade” (from “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”), and the Springsteen-ian “Up Against The Wall” (from “I Got Cut”), as well as singles like “This Summer” and “I Hate History.” Man, that next comp is gonna rule.
Playlist: “Seed Toss” / “My Noise” / “Brand New Love” / “Shallow End” / “Makeout Bench” / “On The Mouth” / “100,000 Fireflies” / “1,000 Pounds (Duck Kee style)” / “The Length of Las Ramblas” / “Does Your Hometown Care?” / “Her Royal Fisticuffs” / “February Punk” / “Up Against The Wall” / “This Summer” / “I Hate History”
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.