Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan And Laura Ballance Open Up About Shutting Up, Running Merge And More
Keeping the Superchunk momentum going after yesterday’s release of Majesty Shredding, here’s another vintage interview previously unavailable online. This one was conducted about nine years ago and primarily revolves around their penultimate record, Here’s to Shutting Up.
The read is admittedly a bit dry, but it presents a thorough overview of Superchunk’s career up until that point – and delves deep into Merge Records as well.
(For an even older Superchunk interview, check out “Superchunk’s Laura Ballance In 1998: ‘The Music Industry Is Nuts Right Now.’ “)
It’s 10 in the morning on a Wednesday in August – August 29, to be precise. “Slack motherfuckers” are everywhere still wrangling themselves out of bed, struggling to drink from the cup of dream for at least a little while longer. It could be a nasty mid-week hangover, an unsurpassable mid-sem or simply a bad habit. But for whatever reason, the youth sphere is just beginning to crack open, while the rest of the world has been buzzing for hours with activity and import.
Mac McCaughan, 34, and Laura Ballance, 33, used to be part of that sphere. The twin chiefs of Superchunk and Merge Records saw off slackerdom long ago in exchange for lives of the living. Since then, the duo have maintained almost single-handedly two of indie rock’s most prized and enduring enterprises. They’ve lived the blue-collar life touring with Superchunk and done the white-collar thing with their business, Merge.
But surprisingly enough, Ballance and McCaughan are not consumed by those two forces at present. Ballance is guiding a plumber through her kitchen, and McCaughan, about an hour later, is rushing to make his piano lesson. There are “a lot of things going on” this Wednesday morning, claims McCaughan, as he preps Superchunk’s next overseas tour. But after telephone conversations with each, this writer gets the impression that, for Ballance and McCaughan, this morning is probably just like any other.
In 1989, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, gave birth to UNC act Superchunk. The year before, Ballance and McCaughan met for the first time.
She recalls: “I started working at the same place that he worked, called Pepper’s Pizza. He and this guy Matt Steigerwald used to be really mean to me and make me cry. Matt especially. He’d give me a hard time about this stupid boyfriend I had and all that.”
McCaughan replaced that boyfriend for a long while, though he and Ballance would later split and live on as bandmates, business partners – and friends.
At that time back at the University of North Carolina, neither the unassuming Ballance nor McCaughan – nor Matt Steigerwald, for that matter – would have imagined that a flight of fancy would evolve into a lasting commitment. At that point, Ballance had yet to even pick up an instrument. McCaughan, who had toyed with prior bands, egged Ballance on to the task of playing bass and corralled her and Jason Newman as members of Superchunk’s first incarnation, Loose Large.
After that, Ballance and McCaughan, along with cohorts Jack McCook (guitar) and Chuck Garrison (drums), formed Chunk. Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster replaced McCook and Garrison, respectively, and the band changed its name to Superchunk in order to avoid conflict with a New York City jazz troupe, also called Chunk.
Success would follow. On a modest scale, perhaps, but rewardingly consistent success, nonetheless. Chapel Hill embraced its own, and soon Superchunk spring its own label, Merge. Though they continued to churn out 7-inches on the imprint, the band soon signed to Matador and let loose its first full-length, Superchunk, in 1990.
While Merge continued to firm up itself with acts like Polvo, Magnetic Fields and Archers of Loaf, Ballance and McCaughan let Matador handle their new two studio LPs, No Pocky for Kitty (1991) and On the Mouth (1993). (Sticklers take note: 1992’s Tossing Seeds: Singles 89-91 was the band’s first Merge LP.
Foolish marked Superchunk’s official departure from Matador in 1994, though the amicable breakup would continue to reflect over the years; to this day, Matador lists Superchunk news and tour dates on its Web site.
The unassuming college town of Chapel Hill was neither prepared nor willing to be the next Seattle or D.C., despite valiant efforts by the industry and media to make it so. Stylistically, the band did echo the crunch, lo-fi sound Seattle had begun to normalize; and behaviorally, Merge was a D.C. DIY dream realized.
But with more McCaughanKaye than Cobain running through their veins, Superchunk wouldn’t listen to the sweet jingle of the major-label record deal, and for the rest of their career refused to succumb to such high-paying propositions. While Lollapalooza stints, mini-hits (“Slack Motherfucker,” “The Question Is How Fast,” “Hyper Enough”) and appearances on jaw-dropping 45s ensued, Superchunk’s decision to fend off the mainstream gained it limitless respect from the underground.
The ’90s solidified Superchunk’s presence and credibility as not merely a fixture but a renewable one in the independent-rock world. The band only experienced two lineup changes over the years – impressive for an act of any ilk. More astonishingly, the four lasting members followed similar lines of creative thought as time went on, remaining loyal to one another as their project’s sound expanded from garage punk to experimental power pop.
While the bulk of the ’90s provided Superchunk with stability and a growing fanbase, the end of the decade marked a dramatic shift in the band’s sound. The Steve Albini-produced Kitty seemed like the band’s quintessential garage rawk album, but it was their Jim O’Rourke-produced 1999 effort, Come Pick Me Up, that quashed any previous parameters that had been drawn.
Superchunk had experimented with some new instrumentation (piano, organ vibes) on Indoor Living, but it was the notorious PowerBook-in-arms O’Rourke who prompted them to take it a step further. Come Pick Me Up is imbued with strings, horns and keys, and stands as an artistic milestone in the band’s canon.
With their first release of the new century, Here’s to Shutting Up, Superchunk takes another first step: By enlisting Brian Paulson, they repeat producers for only the first time in their career. Paulson also handled 1994’s Foolish, but both McCaughan and Ballance stress that their decision to re-recruit him was not an attempt to reawaken their past.
“We certainly aren’t interested in going back to something we already did,” McCaughan assures. “We knew him, and we knew that we were comfortable working with him. And he lives in Chapel Hill, so it was just a comfortable thing to do.”
Ballance agrees wholeheartedly: “We know his work, we know he’s a good engineer. He was free … we were free … why the hell not?”
McCaughan and Ballance both describe recruiting the familiar Paulson as removing a layer of stress from the recording process. It seems, however, that the previously established friendship actually led to some unexpected difficulties in Atlanta’s Zero Return Studios.
McCaughan discloses with a slight snarl: “It ended up being a pretty stressful recording sessions. I felt that we were pretty pressed for time, even though we did use more time than usual [12 days]. But, for whatever reason, it was tough to finish everything that we wanted to before we go out of there.
“Brian wasn’t the source of the stress,” he stipulates. “He was the one who, when you’d say, ‘Is this going to work?,’ he’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about it.’ ”
Ballance concurs, but with more conviction: “Because we were all so comfortable with each other, and we were staying there [at the studio], there wasn’t much structure. The guys would wind up staying up until 5 in the morning … or 6, or 7 … and I would’ve gone to bed at midnight. I wake up, and I’m ready to go, and everyone else is sleeping, and we don’t start working until 3 in the afternoon. I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to kill myself.’
“But that’s rock and roll. I’m not very rock and roll anymore.”
Contrasting the two Paulson-produced releases, there’s no clearer way to describe what a different McCaughanhine – musically, at least – Superchunk have become. For every sped-up, ringing power chord that seared Foolish, Here’s to Shutting Up offers a quieter alternative: a warm finesse coats each delectable tune. “Late-Century Dream” invites with McCaughan’s muffled, distortion-less guitar and Ballance’s gentle keys. Cool rock waves are tempered by slide guitar, pedal steel and only some traces of the pop-punk clang that defined early Superchunk.
Says McCaughan: “I think Brian did a really good job, considering that we did sort of pile a lot of stuff onto [the album] when we were recording … [He] can find space for everything and not make it sound cluttered.”
While the evolving Supechunk have no desire to return to their sounds of the past, McCaughan admits that he’s always been willing to learn a lesson or two along the way.
“I’m not really thinking about past records when I’m recording the new records,” he declares. “But you might think about things you wish you’d done in the past, like, ‘Oh, I wish that we would’ve made the keyboards louder on this one song, let’s not make that mistake again.’ Or, ‘I wish that we could’ve achieved this with that record.’ But in general, it doesn’t have that much bearing on the new songs you’re recording.”
Ballance also suggests an in-the-moment approach to Superchunk’s recording: “When we’re in the process of writing songs, I just think about that song. I think McCaughan, more than me, has a vision about how he wants [the record] to sound. I personally get a bit more organic … I just see what happens.”
All the same, McCaughan insists he shares some of Ballance’s attitude: “I think I always have some ideas about specific songs, and [then] with other songs, I’m thinking I don’t really know what this is going to do.”
However, because Superchunk had tested some of the Shutting Up material on the road before recording, the gang had a strong starting point: “We knew there was going to be strings, ’cause I’d written some charts before we got down there [to Atlanta],” Ballance says. “I think from playing some of these songs live, we had some ideas about which ones were going to work the best. I think even before we went in, we might’ve even known that ‘Late-Century Dream’ was going to be the first song on the record.”
Thematically, the process is the same for McCaughan: Go in with a vague idea, expect it to turn out different than planned. Many of those who’ve given Shutting Up an early listen have mentioned to McCaughan the numerous airplane references on the record.
He, however, recalls: “When I originally started writing lyrics for the album, I thought it was going to be not so much about airplane travel but [about] telephones and communication.”
McCaughan elaborates, explaining his fascination with how design and art relate to everyday life. Accordingly, the roughly sketched red chair that appears on the cover of the album – one that was situated in the recording studio when they arrived – is an apt example of what intrigues McCaughan.
“Someone designed that chair,” he says. “All they were doing was designing a chair, but they managed to make this chair that’s really cool-looking and kind of like a work of art itself. People claim to be against consumerist tendencies in society, but at the same time, that’s a great chair and that’s a consumer item. I’d buy that chair.”
The tension unfolds from there, according to McCaughan. “It’s being torn between not wanting to join the mass consumer culture … but at the same time, there are attractive things. Is it a good thing that they’re attractive? Or is that just to suck you in? Is it cool that people have managed to incorporate art and artistic ideas into something you grind your coffee with? Or is it annoying that that happens?”
With McCaughan’s line of thought in mind, “Art Class (A Song for Yayoi Kusama)” seems like a perfect fit on Here’s to Shutting Up. McCaughan hails the conceptual artist Kusama, who received some acclaim in the ’60s and ’70s. Like Superchunk, she appears as an unsung hero of the indie class.
“That song has nothing to do with her,” McCaughan clarifies. “But she was a good example of someone who was dealing with art and was obviously serious about art – because it’s what she chose to do – but at the same time had fun with it. A lot of what she did was to rile people up and make people think about art in a different way.”
Other second parties also make their way onto the album, in some form or another: Chris Lopez of Merge band the Rock*a*Teens guest-croons on the aforementioned “Art Class”; Japancakes’ John Neff and Heather McIntosh contribute pedal steel and strings, respectively; and White Lights violinist Anna Balka appears throughout Shutting Up.
In support of the record, Superchunk are scheduled to tour hard this fall, though the international crises could modify those plans. The band was slated to hit Japan and Europe first – its first around-the-world flight – then blanket the States this winter.
McCaughan and Ballance may share opinions on a number of Superchunk-related subjects, but traveling appears to be an exception: While McCaughan is usually eager to strap on his tour boots, Ballance has begun to despise the routine.
“I’m over it,” she bemoans. (Note that this interview transpired well before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.) “I would like to skip that part, the flying-around part. People are freaks at airports. They don’t act normal. Anything to do with civilization is gone. It’s just unpleasant. I think people panic in airports when they’re traveling, because they don’t have much control over their situation.”
Ballance also has trouble in terms of the gigs themselves. With a catalog that includes more than 100 songs, and with the band’s desire to mix up setlists as frequently as possible, she occasionally finds herself at a loss.
“Sometimes a song will be on the setlist, and I’ll be like, ‘What is that? Can someone please hum the beginning of that song to me? Because I don’t know what it is.’
“But at this point,” she goes on, “I’ve become pretty causal about screwing up. I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to mind that much, so I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t worry about it if they’re not worrying about it.’ ”
The new songs, however, are “more of a challenge. You actually have to think about them. You can’t go on autopilot.”
For those who knew Ballance earlier in her life, such talk about casual stage presence may sound unbelievable. She remembers being plagued by “tunnel vision” as a kid during class presentations in school, and even later, when she started playing shows with Superchunk. She finally kicked her fear a full year into her music career – and chalks it up to all the touring.
“In many ways, being in this band has been very therapeutic for me,” she says.
Today, Chapel Hill is a different place than it was in 1989. An influx of upscale activity has gentrified the town, like many college-villes, from affordable and comfortable to pricy and hip. After 11 years there, Merge actually packed up and resettled in nearby Durham.
“Chapel Hill was getting way too expensive,” Ballance says. “It kind of drove us out.”
She welcomes the adjustment, however. Not only is the new site within bike-riding distance of her home, she and fellow Mergers now boast their own private offices.
“Self-sufficient” is a term that’s been commonly used to describe Superchunk throughout their lengthy career. For most bands, being truly self-sufficient is a dream that never comes true; but Superchunk have successfully attained it.
Merge has released some top-notch discs in recent memory – Versus’ Hurrah, the Clientele’s Suburban Light, the Ladybug Transistor’s Argyle Heir – and has future successes ready to go. A Lambchop singles compilation is primed for release, as is an EP by Portastatic (Mac’s longtime solo project) and Ken Vandermark.
Next year will see new Lambchop and David Kilgour albums, an East River Pipe reissue and probably another … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead record. (While the latter band recently signed to Interscope, they still owe Merge another full-length.)
And as for Superchunk – well, what’s left for them to accomplish?
“We never really thought about it in those terms,” McCaughan says. “We don’t really think, ‘OK, we’ve done this, now we have to do this.’ We’re just like, ‘We’re making a record, we’re writing some songs.’ ”
McCaughan adds that, as the years have progressed, playing music has become a more fluid activity for him. The roughly 20-year vet finds song-making more fulfilling now “because you know more about what you’re doing and how to achieve, how to accomplish what you can hear in your head. So, in some ways, it’s more exciting.”
He continues: “There are definitely days when you sit down and you’re like, ‘This isn’t going to work, this song,’ or, ‘I’m so bored with the guitar,’ or whatever. Obviously, there are things about it that become more tiresome the longer you do it.”
But to find Superchunk still not exhausted after so many years of playing indicates that, while their sound is ever-changing and Merge may be growing, these are the same college kids who picked up a few instruments and threw together a band called Loose Large. While Superchunk’s sound has developed, it’s not been out of a need to keep up with the times; rather, it’s their natural inclination to strive for change and renewal.
And no matter where Superchunk end up – whether it’s pumping out jungle music in some dank Euro dance club or starting up a thrash-metal band – one thing is for sure: They’ll always be slack motherfuckers at heart.
Originally published in November 2001.
• Superchunk’s Laura Ballance In 1998: ‘The Music Industry Is Nuts Right Now’
• Bad Penny MP3s: Best Of 2010, Part III – Superchunk, Lovers, Robert Pollard, Women, More
• Stephen Malkmus On Pavement Breakup, Reunion – And MC Hammer
• Liz Phair Was ‘Heartbroken’ Over Missing Exile In Guyville Master Tapes