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.

R: You're getting ready to tour again for the first time in a while; are you ready for that? You're not spring chickens anymore, y'know.

LB: I'm a little nervous. Pretty much we've been home since last November, so it's almost a year. I think I've gotten used to it; I think I've gotten soft. I'm not used to sleeping in hotel rooms anymore, and also sort of a natural thing that seems to come along with touring is you drink and smoke too much. And I have no tolerance anymore. Either I'm gonna have to change my approach or have a few painful weeks and then get back in the swing of it.

R: Okay, let's talk about Merge. Do you worry that Merge's success is too dependent on Superchunk? 'Cause your band is by far the biggest seller on the label, right? What happens if Superchunk breaks up?

LB: Yeaaah. Whewwww, it would be bad. See, I have this plan, though. I figure pretty soon all these bands that established themselves and then got signed to major labels are gonna get dropped soon 'cause they're not gonna be able to sell a million records like they want 'em to sell, and then I'm gonna be there going, hey, come here, come hang out with me!

R: What bands do you have in mind?
LB: Ummmm, I probably shouldn't say 'cause I don't wanna predict anyone getting dropped. I wish the Archers of Loaf were done with their contract so we could work with them, 'cause they're really nice guys. I would love to work with them, and lots of other bands, too.

R: Do you read your own press?
LB: I don't like to. I don't like to read music magazines in general 'cause I think it's kinda boring. The bad thing about that is it sorta puts me out of touch with what's going on. I feel like I'm getting outta the loop, as to what kids are listening to. I think they like dance music these days, not dance music but drums 'n' bass and all that stuff.

R: So is Merge gonna move into the electronica industry?
LB: We already have done one thing that's sorta like that, the Third Eye Foundation. But I'm not really looking to get too far into that. Honestly, I find that its appeal is limited, and I have a hard time really getting that into it. It's like background music. I'd rather listen to something like Beck or Versus, something I can feel the humanity in. I understand that a lot of kids are drawn to that, though, at least I try to understand.

R: If you signed a bunch of electronica bands, you could have a Merge rave night, though.

LB: Yeaaah, wouldn't that be fun.
Superchunk is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 7, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Rock-A-Teens, and Pollen. Showtime is 8 p.m.

The Now Wave
Among the pines and firs of Olympia, Washington, a retro-revolution is taking place. In a town known for its punk bands, riot grrls and political performance artists, there's a small group of bands resurrecting a sound which most people feel is better left dead--New Wave.

Long Hind Legs, Satisfact, and Mocket are all guilty of dry-humping the skull of New Wave and trying to make synths and faux-British accents vogue once more. Of the three, Mocket is both the most interesting and the least pretentious (it's the only band without the wanna-be Cockney vocals). Fronted by Matt Steinke and Audrey Marrs and rounded out by new drummer Carolyn Rue, Mocket churns out sinister, mercurial tunes worthy of Duran Duran on a meth binge (if DD had a female Asian vocalist who sounded like a robot) on its new album Fanfare. You can check out the more human side of Mocket when it plays Stinkweeds in Tempe on Tuesday, October 14; be warned, though--if you show up in leopard print and a skinny tie, I'll kick your ass before the band has a chance. (K Records, P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507)

Sensitive Kids
Valley youth turned up en masse to see three of their best local bands--Jimmy Eat World, Jerome, and Reuben's Accomplice--play at Hollywood Alley with San Diego emo-pop gods Jejune. Our locals, who all pretty much do the emo-pop thing, too, summarily knocked the packed crowd on its ass; with all the hype over mediocre Valley bands releasing major-label discs and doing TV theme songs, it's nice to have some bands we can actually be proud of.

Jejune just finished a monthlong tour with Mineral and the Get Up Kids, and is more sterling every time it plays here. You can check out the band on its excellent but shittily produced CD Junk and on an upcoming split seven-inch with Jimmy Eat World. It's music for all the sensitive '90s kids, and unlike most bands in the emo genre, Jejune's emotions aren't boy-exclusive--girl bassist/vocalist Araby gives the band an iron-fist-in-velvet-glove feminine punch. (Big Wheel Recreation, 325 Huntington Ave. #24, Boston,

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