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After 10 years, Superchunk and Merge Records are still working, albeit quietly

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
Here's how much things have changed for indie rock. In 1994, Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Superchunk was coming off the album that remains the best-selling disc in its catalog, Foolish, its first full-length for Merge Records, the label run by members guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. They had made the jump from the safer harbor of a larger independent label -- New York-based Matador Records -- and landed safely on the other side, doing better than ever all by themselves.

Yet the safety didn't last long. As the band releases its ninth album, Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk has seen its sales figures dip with every album after Foolish, which sold more than 40,000 records. Here's Where the Strings Come In, released in 1995, and 1997's Indoor Living didn't even clear the 30,000 mark.

"But I don't know of anyone that hasn't had a sales drop since 1994 or something," drummer Jon Wurster says. "I was able to look up some sales figures for bands recently, and it's amazing. I would find this figure for a band that sold like a quarter of a million records in 1995 or 1996, and their new album that's been out for a year has sold 25,000. That seems very standard now. It's happening to everybody. There's a couple of bands in our town that were huge two years ago, and now they're ... not." He laughs.

Superchunk might have had the same sort of success that its North Carolina neighbors Ben Folds Five and the Squirrel Nut Zippers briefly enjoyed a few years ago if the band had stuck with Matador, which released the group's self-titled 1990 debut as well as 1991's No Pocky for Kitty and 1993's On the Mouth. (Merge rereleased all three last month.) When Superchunk ended its relationship with Matador, the label was on the verge of signing a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, an association that might have given the band a higher profile. But as Superchunk realized when it began releasing its own albums -- Merge was formed in 1989 as an outlet for the group's singles -- selling your own records means you get to keep all of the money, and if you work hard enough, you can sell just as many without any help at all. Wurster wasn't so sure about that when the band decided to make the move.

"I think maybe we were a little apprehensive about whether the demand for the records could be met," Wurster says. "But it worked. I think that they always hoped that that would be the end result. As far as I can tell, Merge -- and also the band -- has never had any long-term goals. And I think that that's good. In the case of the band, it's good, because you don't make these unrealistic scenarios and these goals that you want to reach, and then your hopes are ultimately dashed." He laughs. "But I think Merge always hoped it would be in the position it's in right now -- keeping its integrity and actually running a successful business."

The decision made more than business sense. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye gets more credit for what he's done with Dischord Records, but McCaughan and Ballance should receive equal billing for what they've achieved with Merge. They've turned yet another artist-run vanity label into one of the most influential independents in the country, releasing albums and singles by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, and Stephin Merritt's litany of bands, including the 6ths, the Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. McCaughan and Ballance have never compromised, putting out records that they like, not just the ones that will sell. Yet the records have sold, to the point that Merge doesn't have to rely on Superchunk albums to keep from drowning in a sea of red ink. The label recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary on July 23 and 24 with M10K, a festival featuring performances by most of the Merge roster.

This year was also Superchunk's 10th birthday, and the band's celebration of that milestone happened a few months earlier at Chicago's Electrical Audio Studios, where the group was recording Come Pick Me Up with Jim O'Rourke. O'Rourke, who has worked with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to Sonic Youth, seemed an unusual choice to produce Superchunk, one of the most unnatural pairings since Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. His penchant for abstract pop was not quite in tune with the band's more straightforward guitar rock, even though Indoor Living had proved there was more to Superchunk than it had shown in the past. But, Wurster says, that's exactly what the band wanted. They already knew how Superchunk made records -- maybe a little too well. What they wanted, and needed, was someone to show them another way.

"I've always been a fan of records where bands take a different approach and try things they hadn't before, like London Calling by the Clash," Wurster says. "Or that Ramones album, End of the Century -- that had some neat stuff on it. We definitely wanted to try new things and put strings and horns on it, but Jim O'Rourke was really instrumental in actually helping us realize that. None of us actually knew him before we worked with him. We liked the records that he'd done, and knew that he was kind of ... not weird, but coming from a different place than we were coming from, and I think we really needed that. This was someone that probably didn't really even know our records very well. Which was good."

O'Rourke took home cassettes of the songs that the band wanted strings and horns on, and wrote parts out for them in one night. "I was impressed that he was able to do that just kind of off the top of his head and running on no sleep," Wurster says, laughing. But the result is no joke: Thanks to O'Rourke's contributions, Come Pick Me Up is a lush -- and, at times, beautiful -- album. The band that began its career recording intelligent pop-punk anthems such as "Slack Motherfucker" is still present on Come Pick Me Up -- "Good Dreams" is as infectious as anything in the group's back catalog. But that side of Superchunk appears far less on Come Pick Me Up than ever before, leading to a disc that you can call mature without meaning boring.

Come Pick Me Up gives pop and rock equal weight, letting the two become intertwined until they're indistinguishable from each other. The spiraling guitar intro of "Hello Hawk" is balanced by a strings-and-things coda and McCaughan's soft croon; it's as if the band's evolution has been crammed into one song. On "You Can Always Count on Me (In the Worst Way)," the instruments sound more like they're being tickled than played, tiny guitar leads balanced on top of Wurster's gentle shuffle. "You Can Always Count on Me" becomes a full-on rock song without breaking a sweat, picking up speed so gradually, you never hear it coming until it has already flattened you. The same happens with "So Convinced," a lazy stroll that becomes a sprint to the finish line.

But even as the band moves forward with its music, it is taking a backward step when it comes to touring. Superchunk hasn't done much road work in the past few years, relaxing the rigorous pace it maintained early in its career. Ballance and McCaughan were busy with Merge, and everyone besides Ballance had side projects to fill their time. McCaughan records solo under the name Portastatic, and guitarist Jim Wilbur keeps busy with Humidifier. Earlier this year, Wurster released an album based solely around a prank phone interview he did with a friend who has a radio show on WSMU in New York.

"We thought up this scenario where he would interview me, and I was calling into his show as the author of a book called Rock, Rot, and Rule," Wurster explains. "It bills itself as the ultimate argument-settler, where you'd open the book, and it would just be band after band or artist after artist listed alphabetically, and it would just say whether or not they rocked, rotted, or ruled. So, it was just the stupidest idea for a book. And people actually called in believing it was real, and arguing with me." He laughs.

Now that Come Pick Me Up is out, the various side projects will be abandoned, and the group will undertake its busiest touring schedule in five years. Other than that, Wurster and the band haven't made any plans for the future just yet. Most likely, they'll record another album in a year or two, but even that has yet to be determined. It's the way Superchunk has operated since it formed, and Wurster doesn't think the band should tamper with success -- at least its version of success.

"That's how it works best for us," he says. "I know early on, I kind of wished that we had more of a long-term goal. But it seems like the bands that actually did have a long-term goal, and maybe met that goal originally ...," Wurster trails off, trying to find the point he was trying to make. "A good example is a band like Urge Overkill. They kind of came up from the same ranks that we did in a way, and then had a huge record -- which is probably what they wanted -- and then they haven't been heard from since. Doing it the way we do it is right for us.

"I mean, you always want to sell more records and reach a wider audience," Wurster continues. Then he adds, laughing, "I think we're coming to the conclusion now that that probably isn't going to happen, and that might not be such a bad thing."

Superchunk performs Monday, Sept. 13, with Beulah and Tuesday, Sept. 14, with Gardener at 9 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F. Tickets are $11; call 885-0750. Music

About The Author

Zac Crain


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