“We never do the same songs in the same order every night,” says Superchunk lead guitarist Jim Wilbur, “so I can’t tell people exactly what to expect when we play the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock next Friday — other than we’ll play four or five songs from our last album (2013’s “I Hate Music”) and at least one or two things from each of our other albums.”
After all, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based quartet (lead vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaughan, drummer Jon Wurster, and bassist Laura Ballance are other members) has been making records for 25 years, albeit with a break from 2001 to 2009 when they busied themselves with side projects. Their breakout single “Slack [expletive]” with its anthemic refrain “I’m working … but I’m not working for you” was named the 18th and the 81st best single of the ’90s by Spin and Pitchfork, respectively.
And aside from their 10 studio albums, they’ve released two fistfuls of non-album singles, live records, and songs that appeared only on compilations or soundtracks, so they’ve got a wealth of material to choose from.
“That’s for sure,” says Wilbur. “Last year, when Laura [who suffers from a variation of tinnitus known as hyperacusis] decided she’d continue to play on the records, but she couldn’t tour anymore, we brought in Jason Narducy and made him learn 80 songs. Some of which we’ve only played once!
“We also like to throw in a cover or two,” continues Wilbur. “On our last tour, every place we went to, we played something by an ’80s hard-core band from that city. In L.A., we did ‘This Ain’t No Picnic’ by the Minutemen. We did that stuff just for fun. And the audiences loved it.
“Over the years, we’ve done a lot of covers of songs by friends, bands we’ve played with, or admire: Sebadoah, Magnetic Fields, the Chills, the Misfits, Motorhead, the Cure. It’s an expression of solidarity and reverence for our peers. But we’ve also done things like Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer,’ Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name,’ and the Shangri-La’s ‘The Train from Kansas City,’ because, yeah, we’re a punk-rock band, but we believe punk-rock is a force of wide variety and it shouldn’t be exclusionary, but inclusive.”
Wilbur also says this desire for variety also affects the structure of the set list: “A song like ‘Detroit Has a Skyline Too’ is what we call a ‘sound smear.’ It’s so fast, we have to keep those types of songs apart ’cause if you play them back-to-back, they just go by in a blur. The audience can’t tell them apart — and it’s too hard for the drummer to keep up.
“Then there’s what we jokingly call ‘power ballads’ like ‘Driveway to Driveway.’ They’re not like what all those hair-metal bands used to play — but they’re slow songs and they’re really popular — because the audience appreciates a break.”
Nevertheless, Superchunk has a signature sound. “We used to stand in a room and play together, working out parts spontaneously and orchestrating everything as we went along,” explains Wilbur. “But on our last two albums, Mac came in with songs that were half or three-quarters fully formed, with one guitar playing a melodic line that he’d imagined I’d play. That’s our style. ‘Digging for Something’ was the first song we worked on after that nine-year break, and we felt it was a catchy song that stood alongside everything we’d previously done.”
Two of the best songs on Superchunk’s latest album deal with music itself. “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” is about listening to music together, how powerful that feeling is when you’re young, and the inability to recapture that moment. (The title name-checks the late, great Jamaican keyboardist-songwriter who’s best known as a member of the Skatalites, the Studio One house band, and for co-writing the reggae classic “Armagideon Time,” which was covered by English punk-rock legends the Clash.)
Conversely, Wilbur notes that “FOH” — an acronym for Front Of the House, i.e., the sound heard in the room where the band is playing — is about using the healing power of music to deal with loss, specifically the memory of a friend who’d recently died from stomach cancer. (The “Matthew” referred to in the lyric is the band’s longtime soundman and tour manager.)
Beyond the band’s music — and Superchunk’s own longevity — McCaughan and Ballance also founded the independent Merge Records label, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The label’s best-selling artists range from Arcade Fire (whose “The Suburbs” album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 2010 and won the Grammy for Album of the Year), to Neutral Milk Hotel, the Magnetic Fields and She & Him (a collaborative effort by actress-singer Zooey Deschanel and Merge solo artist M. Ward), for openers.
This is an astonishing achievement in any era, but especially when you consider Merge has managed to weather the rise and fall of grunge, the ever-changing musical landscape, and the general decline of the record industry. How did they do it?
“Well, I’m not actively involved in the label,” says Wilbur, “but I’ve heard Mac and Laura answer this question many times. And they always say they had realistic expectations and realistic goals. They’ve never overreached. They’ve been fair and honest with the people they’ve dealt with. And they never developed peculiar appetites for exotic and illegal drugs.
“What we’ve done is build ourselves careers. It hasn’t been just about making money. We didn’t do things we didn’t want to do. What good comes from being on a major label when the guy who signed you gets fired before your record even comes out? That happened to a lot of people we know. Yeah, we got major label offers, but they couldn’t do anything for us that we couldn’t do ourselves.
“And the truth is,” continues Wilbur, “the independent record business has become — not more mainstream, but a larger stream. We used to get in the van and play for 20 to 30 people, then there’d be 200 to 300 people, now there’s 1,000 people.
“As for the future, that’s unknowable. People say the Internet is going to change everything, but it’s just a tool. People making music because they want to become stars, they have a better chance of winning the lottery, but that doesn’t stop them. But there will always be outsiders, freaks, people who don’t fit in, people who are doing it for the sheer joy. That’s not going away. And that’s where we come in.”
DON WALLER is a Los Angeles music journalist and contributor to Marquee.
Where: Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock
When: Friday, Aug. 15, 8 to 11 p.m. (all ages)
Tickets: $18 in advance, $20 at door
More info: http://cfaer.org/