Superchunk drummer, Jon Wurster, has an incredible memory. For a man who's been on the road with indie-rock's torch bearers for close to a decade, he has an amazing ability to recall the smallest details. He begins our conversation with his recollections of some of long-gone Phoenix venues like the Sun Club ("My main memory of that night was after we were done, the sound man, who was this total death-metal guy, grabs the mike and says, 'All sluts please report to the sound board.') and the Library ("It was us and Rocket From the Crypt. They had this brass railing in front of the stage, and of course within five seconds of their first song the thing was gone.") But mostly Wurster is talking about Superchunk's latest record Come Pick Me Up -- the band's most sonically ambitious effort to date.
1999 marks a dual anniversary of sorts for the group. It's Superchunk's 10th year together as a band (Wurster joined in 1991) and also the decade mark for the group's record label, Merge (see Celebrate Good Times, C'mon!). And while the band's sales have dropped steadily over the last few years (reflecting an industry-wide trend), Superchunk is far more financially and creatively secure than many of its rock and roll brethren who enjoyed much greater commercial success in the '90s.
The last two years have seen the band members tour the world and work on various side projects, yet still come back as dedicated as ever to the group. While many of indie-rock's finest fell by the wayside long ago, Superchunk just keeps rolling along.
NT: It's been two years since Superchunk's last full-scale U.S. tour, but you guys did your first "World Tour" in the interim.
Wurster: Yeah, we got to go to some weird countries -- not weird countries -- but weird for us. We did like nine dates in Brazil last September, and we went to Taiwan in May. Amazingly enough, the kids over there knew the records and knew the songs; I was really surpised.
NT: What was it like working with (producer) Jim O'Rourke on Come Pick Me Up? Based on his previous credits (Sonic Youth, Tortoise), it would seem like a pretty odd match.
Wurster: In the past we've pretty much produced our own records, and I think it was time to work with someone who was coming from a different place than we were -- as an experiment -- just to see where it would take us. He brought a whole new feel to the band. We're pretty straightforward, but we knew we wanted to have some weird elements on this record that aren't normally associated with Superchunk. And he was the perfect guy to help us realize that.
NT: Were the songs for this album consciously written with the idea of adding different instrumentation -- like the strings on "Hello Hawk?"
Wurster: The songs by themselves, as you'll see live, are pretty basic in their layout. Without the strings and stuff, "Hello Hawk" sounds like a normal song. We just found the songs that would benefit from these different elements -- strings, horns. But no songs were really written with that added stuff in mind.
NT: Even though the band's sales have decreased for the last few albums, you don't regret the decision of not having gone onto a major label and staying with your own thing at Merge?
Wurster: Oh God, no. Even if we'd had some commercial success on a major, had we gone to major, that would have been long gone by now. It seems like every band that was successful from '93 to '96, most of them have lost their deals or stopped having hits, which is probably going to cause them to lose their deal. So we feel like it's a good position to be in, and things really did work out for the better for us I think, as opposed to having gone with a bigger label.
NT: Do you think part of your dip in sales is due to the fact that your early '90s audience -- which was primarily a college-age crowd -- has grown up and stopped buying records to some degree?
Wurster: I'm sure that could be part of it. The record of ours that was the biggest was (1993's) Foolish. When that came out, we were actually getting video play on MTV, and we were getting some radio play -- above-ground radio play -- and now that doesn't happen at all. So I'm sure that accounts for a lot of it -- the fact that it's not as visible to middle America. Of course, who knows if middle America would like what we're doing now?
NT: You've been getting a lot of decade-closing kudos recently. Spin magazine put "Slack Motherfucker" (from Superchunk's 1991 self-titled release) on the list as one of its Top 20 singles of the decade right in between Hanson ("MMMBop") and Aaliyah ("Back and Forth"). How did that go over with the band?
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Wurster: I guess it was flattering (laughs). Quite honestly, I was pleasantly surprised that it was in there at all. Although it is kind of weird being sandwiched in between things like that.
NT: Although you've been mentioned in songs before (Mary Lou Lord's "His Indie World"), you recently got name-checked in a song ("Last Night of the World" from Breakfast in New Orleans) on (Canadian contemporary folk artist) Bruce Cockburn's latest album.
Wurster: It's funny because a friend of mine actually works for (Cockburn's) label, Rykodisc, and saw him play the song about eight months ago, and she went up to him afterward and said, "Did you actually mention Superchunk in that song?" And he goes, "Oh yeah, I heard them on the radio, and I really liked them." I guess he went out and bought some of our records because he told my friend, "You know, I like the new one, Indoor Living, but I think on the next one they should go back to the sound of On the Mouth," (laughter). I just thought how bizarre it was that this guy even knows that we exist, and he's like, "You know, I like the old Superchunk better." -- Bob Mehr
Superchunk is scheduled to perform on Sunday, September 5, at the Green Room in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.