Merge Slowly

Superchunk matures without junking its indie ideals

Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Superchunk is a band inextricably linked to "indie rock," the ill-defined genre sitting somewhere close to "punk" but gainfully lacking punk's aversion to maturation. The association is probably because Superchunk has been playing and putting out consistently brilliant albums since 1988, and vocalist/guitarist Mac MacCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance own Superchunk's label, Merge Records; but at the same time, Superchunk has set the standard for how an indie band (i.e., free of label obligations, corporate expectations, etc.) should evolve.

Not that Superchunk is the only band closely associated with the oblique term "indie rock"--Built to Spill, Pavement and Sebadoh have all garnered the same perception to a similar degree--however, in recent years, all of the aforementioned bands have ended up either on major labels or labels with corporate "sponsors" (Built to Spill is on Warner Bros., although BtS vinyl is still released on Seattle's Up Records; Sebadoh is on Sub Pop, which sold 49 percent of its stock to Warner Bros. two years ago [and, for those keeping track, Up Records is technically a Sub Pop subsidiary, although it's run by different management]; and Pavement's label, Matador, has repeatedly hooked up manufacturing and distribution deals with majors). Superchunk made the opposite leap, releasing its first couple of recordings on Matador until Merge was financially stable enough to release LPs.

Superchunk has never been a band to reinvent itself; rather, it is constantly reevaluating and refining. From the acerbicly venomous "Slack Motherfucker" and teen-rock anthem "My Noise" that appeared on the Chunk's first self-titled recording to 1991's landmark Steve Albini-produced (read: noisy) LP No Pocky for Kitty, which cemented that MacCaughan is a genius pop songwriter, Superchunk subtly began maturing its sound. The 1994 release Foolish was the band's largest stylistic leap; recorded in the aftermath of MacCaughan and Ballance's little-publicized breakup, Foolish is a sprawling, introspective document of tainted romantic memories and regrets.

The following year's Here's Where the Strings Come In followed the same blueprint as Foolish but without the bitterness. Where Foolish's pop gems were fetal and subdued, Strings showed the band comfortable enough with its "new" sound to play more excitable songs. Strings is also where MacCaughan's fascination with organs and keyboards became audible, adding subtle new dimensions to Superchunk's repertoire.

Since Strings, Superchunk has released an astounding but hard-to-find EP, The Laughter Guns. The EP includes a 40-minute-plus recording of two Chapel Hill DJs trying to decipher and deconstruct Mac's often ambiguous lyrics ("laughter guns" is their obviously wrong guess at one of the lines in "Hyper Enough"), and expands the density and keyboard presence started on Strings.

Last month Superchunk released its latest effort, Indoor Living. Indoor Living is the band at its most mature, so mature, in fact, that younger listeners may be left wondering what all the hype is about. There's nothing akin to "Slack Motherfucker," "Throwing Things" or even "Hyper Enough" on this recording; the closest thing to rowdiness on Indoor Living is "Nu Bruises," which is probably too lyrically obtuse for teenagers to identify with.

Other than the lack of juvenile disaffection, Indoor Living is a great fucking album. From the epic opener "Unbelievable Things" to the lush, organ-drenched single "Watery Hands" to the melancholic doldrums of "Under Our Feet," Indoor Living proves that Superchunk is master of its own destiny.

Revolver recently grilled Laura Ballance about making videos, running the label and drinking on tour. Here's an excerpt:

Revolver: Let's talk about your expensive organ (mentioned in the press release for Indoor Living). How does Superchunk afford a $122,000 steam organ?

Laura Ballance: Certain members of our band think it's funny to lie. There's no $120,000 organ; we couldn't afford that. They're just the same old organs, different ones Mac's bought over the years. Usually the studios have some kind of stuff like that around, too; there was a Wurlitzer in the place where we were mixing. We rented a vibraphone for "Martinis on the Roof," that was fun. I like that thing--I wish I knew how to play it.

R: You guys did a video for "Watery Hands" (which features Janeane Garofalo and Mr. Show's David Cross). How effective is it for an indie band like yourselves to spend money on videos?

LB: Not very effective, really--sometimes I wonder if it's worth the trouble. People really like to see them, but as far as exposure goes, our videos might get played on 120 Minutes a few times, and local video shows will play them sometimes. I dunno if this M2 thing will make any difference. I think it's only in two or three markets anyway. But the videos are really expensive for what they are. Obviously, if you want a video that looks nice, you've gotta spend the money on it.

R: So MTV's not gonna make you legions of new fans?
LB: If you watch 120 Minutes, you have to really, really be paying attention to notice that a band is actually good on there and then remember their name. I guess maybe that would make you remember their name if you actually saw a good one, but for the most part it's crap, which I shouldn't say 'cause we're trying to kiss their asses so that they'll play the damn thing. It's just degenerated so much in the last few years, I'm not sure what merits they choose the videos on. When we get played, it's just 'cause we got lucky.

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