Growing Old with Superchunk

When I was fifteen, in 1994, I fell hard for the band Superchunk—or I was falling anyway and they caught me. That was the year their fourth album, “Foolish,” came out, and the year my mom died. “Foolish” is a breakup album—in fact, it’s about the breakup of two of the members of Superchunk—and that year I was feeling as broken up as I’d ever be. The twelve songs on “Foolish” aren’t just sad or mad or guilty or regretful—they’re questioning, as opposed to answering; things aren’t resolved by the song’s end. Mac McCaughan, Superchunk’s front man and songwriter, lets the questions about what happened and why hang in the air. I was learning that grief doesn’t cease; it takes up residence. You have to get used to it, make something of it—or so I began to intuit while listening to “Foolish.”

I recently turned forty-two, an age well beyond the outermost boundaries of youth. My two kids are fourteen and ten, approaching the age when the first green shoots of adult consciousness began, for me, to sprout. Yet I’m confronted each day by an insight as obvious as it is withering: in my head, I’m only a little older than my children, with a delta of possible lives fanning out before me, promising to fix my teen-age pain and deprivation. In reality, the world feels increasingly broken, and there isn’t some fantasy future in which to repair it. I’ve been getting really into Superchunk again, pulling out my vinyl copies of their albums and ordering reissues of the ones that I never bought. Is this excavation of my record collection anything more than a pandemic-addled hunger for safety? If I haven’t outgrown this band, should I have?

Superchunk evolved out of the fertile indie scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late nineteen-eighties. Their lineup hasn’t changed much. McCaughan sings and plays guitar, Jim Wilbur also plays guitar, and Laura Ballance plays bass. The band’s first drummer was Chuck Garrison—Chunk, the band’s original name, was a misspelling of his name in the local phone book. He was kicked out after two records; Jon Wurster joined up and still mans the kit. McCaughan and Ballance also co-founded Merge Records, in 1989, to release seven-inch singles by Superchunk and other Chapel Hill bands. Merge is now best known as the label that broke Arcade Fire. McCaughan and Ballance were a couple during the band’s early years. As recounted in the book “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records,” an oral history of the label and its artists, Mac taught Laura to play bass essentially as a ploy to date her. “Foolish” is about their breakup—and yet they both play on the album; the band didn’t break up. Instead, they made their best record and kept going by doing something un-rock and roll: growing up.

Indie rock is anti-epic by necessity and by design. It’s local, blooming out of small scenes in minor American cities such as Chapel Hill and Olympia, Washington, and suburbs like the one I lived in, where, at sixteen, I played drums in a band called Gargamel at venues like my back yard. We all looked up to the guys in our scene’s two “big” bands, Pumpernickel and Zoepy, whose members were all of two years older but had played in New York City, achieving a kind of world-conquering stature. Indie rock focusses on the small details, the stuff right here—“a little space at the window,” as McCaughan sings—rather than stairways to Heaven.

Like most great punk singers, McCaughan has an imperfect voice. His trademark falsetto can sound strained; his midrange is grainy, and sometimes slightly out of tune, especially on the live albums. I love McCaughan’s singing—his voice is high, odd, a bit fearful rather than forceful, ideal for this music about missed connections, wrong turns identified in retrospect, and social systems that couldn’t give a shit about you. McCaughan might be me—he might be anybody—singing on a human scale. Superchunk helped invent a kind of indie-punk-pop fusion. All the pleasures of punk are present: driving rhythms that you could tap out with a pencil on a desk, mean guitars, and shrieks and yells whenever the songs reach a climax, which happens often. But all of that is inflected through another sensibility, one that was emerging, or reëmerging, in the mid-nineties: an almost folky softness; bouncing, hummable melodies; raw beauty for its own sake.

To date, Superchunk has released twelve full-length albums, including, most recently, “Wild Loneliness,” and three collections of singles and rarities. That’s a huge discography for any indie band. Their 1990 self-titled début is loud and punky, presaging the rise of grunge over the next couple of years. It’s not unlike Green Day’s contemporaneous early music—catchy but full of sharp edges, especially on the song “Slack Motherfucker,” an obscure Gen X anthem. This record, as well as the subsequent year’s follow-up, “No Pocky for Kitty” and “On the Mouth,” were all released by the fledgling Matador Records, which would go on to be the standard bearer of nineties indie music. When Nirvana’s “Nevermind” came out, major labels swarmed around Superchunk and its peers, desperate to sign anything that might grab the attention of Nirvana’s MTV-inspired fans.

Then came McCaughan and Ballance’s break up, which resulted in “Foolish”—Superchunk’s breakout, their “Nevermind,” though on a much smaller scale. Superchunk fended off the major labels and decided to leave Matador when the label signed a distribution agreement with Atlantic, opting to release their fourth album on their own label, Merge, keeping control of their art and helping to launch Merge toward its glorious future. No selling out for Superchunk. According to the liner notes for the 2011 reissue, “Foolish” became one of Merge’s biggest sellers, and it brought Superchunk to the attention of kids like me, who were only just tuning in to underground sounds.

The Superchunk albums from the rest of the nineties were in a fairly similar vein: poppy, distorted, but increasingly and self-consciously beautiful. This arc crested with “Come Pick Me Up,” from 1999, produced by Jim O’Rourke. It’s cleaner and clearer and more polished than everything that came before—another great Superchunk album. In 2001, the band released “Here’s to Shutting Up,” which, based on the title, left fans to wonder whether Superchunk was done, except, again, they didn’t break up. In interviews, they said they were just on hiatus while McCaughan and Ballance focussed on Merge, which was exploding following the release of the first Arcade Fire album. The band settled into a slower pace as its members raised families and played in other bands. Though I don’t know much about their ongoing relationship, McCaughan and Ballance have clearly stayed close, paired for decades in work and art. Donald Trump’s election and the beginning of his Presidency spawned “What a Time to Be Alive,” released in 2018, a record that was aghast at what America had just revealed about itself. It was no small consolation to see that one of my old favorite bands was as pissed off, confused, and scared as I was.

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