Superchunk redux

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

September 4, 2013 5:00PM

Bands regenerate these days through a familiar cycle: Break up, wait ten years, announce a reunion of the original lineup, play an entire album to kids half their age who heard about them online touting them as “old school.”

But what if the band never quite broke up, but just took a break? And what if the band returned because they had new music and not just to mine the posterity circuit?

That sums up the current status of Superchunk, the North Carolina band that just released “I Hate Music” (Merge), a new album that continues the comeback of “Majesty Shedding” (Merge), the 2010 album that ended the band’s nine-year hiatus. As heard as bookends, both albums are fiery paeans to rock world maturity.

“One of the ideas behind the last record and this new one is I wanted songs that were fun to play live,” Superchunk co-founder, singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan.

That mission statement powers the new songs, from a one-minute punk blowout (“Staying Home”) to the supercharged hooks of “FOH” and “Low F.” Originating from the hardcore scene from the late 1980s, Superchunk has always been a band about flexing muscles on the live stage, but its emphasis on strong melodies has made it endure for over two decades.

Longevity means an inevitable reassessment of what it means to be playing music, McCaughan says. The title comes from “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” a song that namechecks the late co-founder of the Skatalites, a band McCaughan says represents an artist that made him first realize the fertile world of music that he had little exposure to as a young man. Middle age, he says, provided him an opportunity to look back at those kind of early revelations and see if they held any relevancy.

“You can’t recreate that feeling but maybe you can figure out what you loved about it and find that same thing again,” he says.

“I hate music — what is it worth?/can’t bring anyone back to this earth/filling in space between all of the notes/but I have nothing else so here we go,” McCaughan sings. He says the song is about “looking at how to hold onto what’s good about music and what it means to you in your life, even though your life is changing. It’s trying to hold onto the good parts without resorting to nostalgia.”

Indeed, Superchunk is unique for resisting the nostalgia tour circuit, unlike peers such as Pavement, Guided By Voices, Dinosaur Jr., and others. McCaughan says he understands the impulse to delve backwards, both for bands and their fans.

 “If the Jam got back together, I would go see them, but I wouldn’t want them to just be playing [1979’s] ‘Setting Sons’ all the way through, and that’s the whole show,” he says. “If I’m a fan of the band, I want to see what they’re up to today.”

The band’s hiatus came from road fatigue. In the years that followed, bandmembers — including bassist Laura Ballance, guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster — focused on family life and side projects. McCaughan also spent the helm at Merge, which developed a national reputation for breaking major bands like the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, and, most notably, the Arcade Fire, which won a 2011 Album of the Year Grammy.

Getting back together meant restructuring band operations. They would no longer hole up somewhere and write from scratch — and agonizing process that could take months — but they would segment their time working with McCaughan demos and recording three or four at a time. The process had an unexpected surprise he said: “It eliminates the possibility that you are going to overwork something. By learning songs fast and recording them when you’re slightly on edge, it gives all a whole new energy.”

How bands connect with audiences also shifted during their absence. Bands could tour based on selling 1,000 copies of a single 7-inch, but these days, despite the proliferation of media, bands face getting lost in all the white noise it creates.

“With such a deluge of material out there, and so many bands, there’s so much music that makes it harder to sift through,” he says. The result is felt at the sales counter. McCaughan says that despite Superchunk’s last album receiving universal good press, it sold about half as much as what the band did in years past.

Ballance won’t be in the lineup at the Hideout Block Party this weekend; she says she has hyperacusis, a hearing diminishment due to exposure to loud volume. Her replacement is Jason Narducy of Chicago’s Verbow who is already one-half of Bob Mould’s rhythm section with Wurster.

The Hideout show will be itself a kind of reunion since the band has recorded so many of its albums in Chicago and played the Czar Bar on its inaugural tour. The club is a “home away from home,” he says. “We have a lot of friends.”

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