Here’s To Staying Loud!
Superchunk Reclaim Their Youthful Vigor While Acting Their Age
Most folks probably chalk up the nine-year gap between Superchunk albums to the changing lifestyles of the quartet’s most recognizable members, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance – each is now raising a family, and has shepherded the Merge label they co-own through a period of explosive growth that saw the breakthroughs of Arcade Fire and Spoon. However, drummer Jon Wurster willingly takes the fall for the silence. “I’m really the guilty party,” he explains by phone from his Chapel Hill home. “I was the one who was kind of AWOL during the making of the record.”
“We always played at least a couple times a year during those nine years, usually a benefit, and we even recorded a bit, for compilations and what not,” Wurster recalls. “Life went on divergent paths a little bit but we always kept in touch, and we always knew we wanted to keep doing the band, just nothing near the full-time mode it had been from 1991 to 2001.” Guitarist Jim Wilbur credits Wurster as the one who coaxed the band back into the studio – Wurster can’t recall whether he was the one who first floated the notion of a new album, but he acknowledges the sentiment. “It was one of those things like, if we’re gonna do it let’s make a record and be a real band for a little bit. It turned out great – [the break] was the perfect amount of time away for me.”
Majesty Shredding has been out for a year, and unlike many albums from old favorites that make a solid first impression before promptly fading from memory, Superchunk’s latest still sounds every bit as strong as it did last fall. I won’t claim it matches the band’s early high points No Pocky for Kitty or On the Mouth, but it certainly stands alongside 1997’s Indoor Living as the best of their later period. And perhaps not coincidentally, Majesty Shredding marks a return to Superchunk’s original approach to songwriting, reversing the trend that began with 1994’s Foolish – the album that represented Merge’s first Great Leap Forward and which is receiving the deluxe reissue treatment this month.
“From Foolish onward someone would come in with a part and we would build songs from the ground up. This was a return to our original way of doing things,” says Wurster, who joined Superchunk in time for their 1991 Pocky tour, making him essentially a lifer. “Mac would send us demos of the songs and I would kind of learn them in my head on tour while the three of them would get together and bang out their parts, then I’d fly in for a weekend and we’d record two or three songs at a time. In my view it was out of necessity because I just wasn’t around to do it the other way.” During Superchunk’s hiatus Wurster became perhaps the most active drummer on the indie rock circuit. He just wrapped up a tour with the Mountain Goats, and serves as the regular skin-man for Bob Mould (“it’s like playing with an icon for me,” he beams). He’s also done his share of roots rock, like the Jay Farrar/Ben Gibbard tour that kept him busy during Shredding‘s recent recording stint.
Frontman McCaughan corroborates Wurster’s view in an email exchange. “Yeah, no one had time to go through that [other] kind of a process, but I wanted to make a new record so I just started writing songs and making demos. Some were more finished than others but I thought it would be easier for everyone to get their minds around the idea of making an album if we could say ‘OK, the songs exist…’ It puts you a step closer to having an album. As a band we didn’t really spend much time in the studio…which I think was one of the stipulations for making an album at all, at least from Laura’s perspective. It was a fun way to work and we didn’t have to leave town for two weeks.”
Another welcome return is the peppy, energetic sound of the early ’90s albums – in other words, classic Superchunk. Was this an overt decision? “We never discussed it, really, but I think that was always kind of hanging over it,” Wurster allows. The last one (2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up) was kind of mid-tempo with only a couple songs that were classic Superchunk. We had nine years of playing the odd show and seeing how well the rockin’ ones go over, and we all realized that’s what we’re best at.” The later albums increasingly blurred the line between Superchunk and Mac’s solo project Portastatic, and Mac confirms, “I wrote these to be Superchunk songs in terms of the energy and how they would sound with us four people playing them. I suppose if everyone in the band was like ‘eh, these aren’t so great,’ maybe they would have ended up on a Portastatic album.” Fortunately for all of us, there was no such issue.
When he’s not manning the drumkit for more bands than he can count (including a recent one-off with Katy Perry he’s unlikely to forget), Wurster has somehow found time to forge an unlikely career in comedy. Or perhaps the link isn’t so unlikely – recall that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy once turned down a job writing for Seinfeld. Wurster teams with Tom Scharpling to host “The Best Show on WFMU” on the vaunted New Jersey-based freeform radio station. Wurster phones in as a variety of recurring characters, engaging in subtle, cerebral routines that have become favorites of humor aficionados. “I try to call in every week, though on this last Mountain Goats tour we were opening for Bright Eyes and were always on stage at that precise time so I couldn’t.”
Wurster’s comedy gift gives rise to another “this has gotta be a hoax” resume entry. Scharpling’s role as executive producer opened the door for Jon to write an episode of the long-running TV detective series Monk. “It was during the next-to-last season, ‘Mr. Monk Paints His Masterpiece.’ By then they had it down to a science. I spent five days at their offices in New Jersey with the core team working on the storyline, then I took it home to actually write the script.” He’s also amassed writing credits across the Adult Swim lineup.
Wurster can also lay the odd claim to having been in a band with Stephen Dubner, co-author of the best-selling Freakonomics business book series. “As a kid I was really into southern pop. I read a review in Trouser Press of this Mitch Easter-produced band called the Right Profile. I mail-ordered their single, corresponded with the band in Winston-Salem, and eventually was invited to audition for the drum part. I got in the band, and suddenly we got signed to Arista – I was in Clive Davis’ office a couple months later! And of course all the usual things happened from there – I was lucky to get my absolute worst record biz hell out of the way when I was 19. From then on everything else looked good,” Wurster laughs, noting that Right Profile guitarist Dubner left fairly early but the band soldiered on up to his Superchunk days.
But Wurster’s may not even be Superchunk’s most surprising side story – to a growing group of foodies McCaughan has become the lesser-known half of his marriage. Andrea Ruesing has established herself as one of the Southeast’s leading chefs, running the noted Durham restaurant Lantern and having won the prestigious James Beard award for culinary excellence. It’s a skill that’s paid dividends for the Merge roster as well. “More than just being an amazing cook, she knows an incredible amount about food history and where food comes from – I learn something at most meals!,” hubby raves. “I think for Andrea one of the best things about having a restaurant is being able to give people a memorable experience that goes beyond something just tasting good. When you’re on tour and you have a great meal it’s a wonderful thing because so much of what you have to eat on tour is either not good or not good for you. And for a band on tour, whether its Arcade Fire or Wye Oak, being able to have a great meal can keep you going for awhile.”
Despite the music hearkening back to the sound of an earlier day, Mac’s lyrics channel aspects of his recent life, with references to “my little urchin” and plenty of outdoor living. I initially heard “My Gap Feels Weird” in the context of a child’s missing tooth, but a simple lyrical scan supports Mac’s explanation of “when I go to a show and I’m the oldest one there.” While acknowledging an aspect of “writing what you know,” Mac self-effacingly adds, “Actually it’s more like ‘taking what I know and then making some shit up!'”
Given its members’ age and life situations, it’s reasonable to wonder if Majesty Shredding could be Superchunk’s swan song. After all, the title to Here’s to Shutting Up sounded prophetic and it wouldn’t be the first time the band prematurely foreshadowed a move – 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In came two albums before they added such accoutrements. And it would be fitting to go out on a note like Shredding closer “Everything At Once,” which neatly encapsulates so many of the band’s loves: wordless ooh-ooh refrains, squalling guitars, crashing drums, melodies channeling both Kiwi pop and 1980s Brian Eno. Wurster insists there have been no such discussions, however. “That was a very early thing with this band – there was never a game plan. I think that’s been a key to our longevity. If you have some big game plan for world domination, then you get discouraged when it doesn’t happen in the timeframe you laid out. We never had those crushing disappointments.”
Besides, it sounds like he’s having too much fun to consider such a move. “I just got so burned out on our last major tour. It was a very depressing time – it was right after 9/11 and no one wanted to see a rock band. It wasn’t anything against anyone in the band – I was just tired of it, and tired of the sound of the band, and I feel like Laura was too, probably, and I needed a break,” although interestingly Wurster began touring with other bands pretty much instantly. “Now we’ve made a record that I love, and that was effortless to make, unlike some of those latter day ones that I feel like were kind of labored over. And we get to tour when we want to, and when we don’t, we don’t. Laura and I always talk about how our ears get fried after a couple of nights, so we’re lucky we’re not doing these massive five-week tours anymore where afterward your ears are just ‘shhhhhhh….’ It’s the perfect way – very adult and human now. And with 20 years of muscle memory, for me it just comes back instantly.”
Having covered the dry spell between albums, Superchunk is finally ready to break a ten-year gap between Atlanta live dates. “Last time we played Atlanta, I recall taking a cab to see R.E.M. wrap up their tour at Philips the same night,” Wurster reminisces. “I think it was for Reveal – I always mark my time by other peoples’ bands.” As I’m sure others do with Superchunk albums….
Photo by Jason Arthurs.