SUPER CHUNK: HE LOVES CATS, YOU KNOW!
Superchunk put Chapel Hill on the map—or at least put it in capital letters—and released eight full-lengths before collaborating with Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Meatwad and then taking a bit of a rest. They return now to play Coachella with a brand-new EP just released. This interview by Dan Collins.
You guys were kind of the first band many people were aware of from Chapel Hill. Do you consider yourselves the definitive Chapel Hill band?
Jim Wilbur (guitar): No, no. There were bands before us. There’ve been bands after us. I think at a point when you’re twenty, and you join a band, it’s easy to think ‘Nobody ever did this before!’ It’s never like that. There was a band called Arrogance in the seventies that were real popular in Chapel Hill. There were some new wave bands, like the Cigarettes, the Exteens, the Fabulous Knobs. It’s a college town, and wherever there’s a college, there are bands.
For a while, when Merge records was coming out, and all these things were happening, did it seem like Chapel Hill was going to be the next Seattle? Like, you were going to get co-opted?
The press definitely talked about that. But I don’t know anybody who actually thought that who was involved in the, quote, ‘music scene.’
On the always-accurate Wikipedia, it said that there was a ‘bidding war’ over Superchunk by some major labels, but you guys chose to stick with Matador. You had just joined the band. Were you secretly like, ‘Aw man, we could be riding in corporate jets!?!’
I wouldn’t call it a ‘bidding war.’ There was never an offer made, because it never got that far. We met several people. Danny Goldberg, the manager of Nirvana, we met with him, and he made the best offer: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll make one record, and prove that I’m a good guy.’ At the time, that was unheard of. You couldn’t sign a one-record deal.
If the album does good, the record company wants to make sure they can do two more.
They want to be absolutely sure. And if it tanks, they can always drop you! So he made that offer, and we walked out of that office, and sat in the van, this is in L.A., and we talked about it. We were all in agreement, but I said, ‘What’s the point of even considering this, when we’re doing so well on our own?’ There was no impetus to go on a major label, because we were making a living by not being on a major label. Let’s not upset the apple cart.
But eventually after that you guys dropped Matador.
Our contract was up with Matador, and we decided not to redo it. We had been contracted for three records, and at that point, Merge had just put out a compilation of the early singles, and as far as I was concerned, we’d have a better deal with Merge than with Matador.
Wasn’t there some weird ad at the time that Matador did, that was like ‘Superchunk left us, but these other bands are still on the label!’?
I remember something like that, but it was tongue-in-cheek. There was nothing nasty about our relationship with Matador. And we ended up being on Matador in Europe years later after City Slang in Germany left us. It was never any scandal or bad feeling.
For No Pocky for Kitty, your second Matador album, you had Steve Albini record you. Was the experience good for you guys?
Yeah. Working with him, he was doing a job. And it was technical. He knew how to record a band. There was not a lot of suggestions on how to do it. His thing was like, ‘You’re the band. I’m going to catch your performance on tape.’ He didn’t make any suggestions like, extend the bridge, drop part of the chorus. Everything’s live, and he doesn’t like to do overdubs, except for vocals. He didn’t say, ‘I’m not gonna do it,’ and we were paying him so, you know, ‘We’re gonna double the guitar here.’
I’ve heard he charges a flat fee, on a sliding scale.
He’s a nice guy! There’s a lot written about him, and he perpetuates it with some of his interviews, but at heart he’s a good, decent guy. He’s been a friend to the band.
I saw this Chicago punk comp recently that he’s in, and he still looks like he’s 14 years old.
And he loves cats, you know! He’s a person. He does dishes. In the sink.
I was reading an interview with Laura from many many years back, and she was saying that her breakup with Mac had been really painful, and that a lot of his songs she knew were about her, and it was really hard at the time. Was it hard to live through as a fellow band member?
There was drama, but it’s hard to go back and remember. We were so busy. There were definitely times when there were uncomfortable silences. But I never had a sense that anybody was going to quit the band over the situation. It didn’t come up that often. It was sort of like, everybody knew what was going on. Once they broke up, it was out in the open, and there wasn’t really much to talk about. What needed to be done was, you needed to drive five hours to get to the next show, you need to do the soundtrack, you need to play the show, you need to eat dinner. And through it all, that fills up a lot of the day. And there wasn’t a lot of time to talk about feelings or anything. Clearly it was a bummer for them, but the benefit of being in the band outweighed the pain of being stuck in a van with your ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend. Looking back, it seems remarkable, almost unbelievable. But for some reason, it worked out.
It must have. In 1995, you guys had enough positive vibes to do a song for the Jerky Boys movie soundtrack! Did you get to meet the Jerky Boys?
Naw, not at all. We got offered to have a song, we wrote the song real fast, we recorded it in a day, and that was it.
The album’s pretty good! It has the Wu-Tang Clan on it. But I’ve heard the movie was pretty awful. Did you get a little bit of ribbing from your friends when the movie came out?
I don’t remember any! I was kind of like, ‘Look, we’re on a major label finally!’ We recorded it in Durham, on Atlantic Records. We’d never wanted to be on a major label. Jon Wurster the drummer had been on a major label with the Right Profile, on Arista. They got screwed along with everybody else.
Let’s talk about the new EP that’s coming out, Learn to Surf. Did you have any contributions to the album?
Well, we usually write all together. We go into a room and we just… it’s not like magic, but somebody starts playing something, or a beat is started, and with ‘Misfits and Mistakes,’ ‘Screw It Up,’ and ‘Knock Knock Knock,’ those were pretty much written all together spontaneously. We just come up with a bunch of parts, see which fit together, arrange it all together. For ‘Learn to Surf,’ Mac had a demo, and it was because we were having trouble getting together, finding time when everybody could be in the room. So he sent, like, ‘Here’s a song,’ around. And it was the first time he’d done that.
Any insights into the lyrics? ‘When I learned to walk / you know humans roamed the earth / I can’t hold my breath anymore / I stopped swimming and learned to surf.’
Generally, Mac’s lyrics are not about one thing. I think he wants them just to sound good, and be open to interpretation, to a degree. I know around the time he wrote those lyrics, he was actually learning how to surf. Maybe it was in his mind. And then once he starts trying to rhyme and come up with melody, words just sort of happen. And that’s pretty much how most of them occur. He would always carry a notebook around with him and just write in the van. Sometimes lyrics, I’d be like, ‘I bet I know the day he wrote that, because we were going through Kansas and saw something-something.’
When you heard that he was doing a song about surfing, was it really hard to resist playing like Carl Wilson?
I couldn’t if I wanted to! I’m a ham-fisted guitar player. It’s all I got. If I wanted to sound like someone else, I couldn’t if I tried.
The acoustic demo version is killer. Have you ever considered going on an acoustic-type tour?
No, but we do a lot of that. When we used to tour, we would always do in-stores, which would be acoustic. And we’ve recorded a lot of songs acoustically for B-sides and things.
Any thought to doing an in-store at Amoeba Records in L.A.?
I’m sure we would do if we were offered, and we were in L.A.
Okay, I’m going to make this happen for you guys, because I want to see that.
We’d have to get to L.A. first, which I’d be happy to do!
You guys are playing pretty close to here, for Coachella. How did that happen? It seems like the first huge festival concert you guys have done in a while.
We got an offer. We get a lot of offers, but we don’t do everything. Last year we did the Bumbershoot in Seattle with Death Cab for Cutie. 50,000? It looked like that. It could have been 30. It was like a full soccer stadium or something. And it was dark, and everybody had glow sticks.
Coachella has like 100,000 people. It’s so many people, everybody’s cell phones go dead, because the switchboards can’t handle the load. But it’s broken up into different stages, so not everybody is watching the same thing at once.
Mac and I did a Portastatic show like that in Barcelona last year. Sonic Youth were recreating Daydream Nation. But when you’re at those things, you get the sense that half the people are totally disinterested. There’s this sense of it being just impersonal. When you’re playing in a club, it’s so much more immediate, and it’s more satisfying.
Are there any acts playing at Coachella that you’re really excited to see?
Nope. Not really. I’m trying to think of like who I get really excited going to see. I’m going to see Crooked Fingers tonight. I can’t remember last time I went to see a band.
In 2007, Mac went to some kind of US Commerce Committee testifying about the future of radio. Were you weirded out by that—that you guys were big enough to have a member testify before Congress?
He said it was kind of surreal. He gets asked to do things like that. Last week in Helsinki, Finland, at some conference about the future of music.
It seems like nowadays only the very very popular stars of the moment have money from playing music. And they do it by having tabloid exposes and movie deals. You know, sort of the Disney route. Now that most bands are sort of forced to give their music away virtually for free, do you think there’s really a line to be drawn between professional rock musician and hobbyist? Do we all have to have day jobs now?
It’s a good question. I think you can still make a living at music if you don’t have expectations that are unrealistic. Selling records might stop. You might sell downloads, and maybe you don’t sell them for as much. Who knows? Maybe somebody will figure something out. But nobody’s going to be able to take away live performance. That was always for us how we’d make it. We’d get in the van and show up and play the show. There’s no substitute for that. As long as people want to see live music, musicians can make a living.
SUPERCHUNK WITH THE BOB MOULD BAND, M.I.A., TV ON THE RADIO, ATMOSPHERE, HENRY ROLLINS AND MORE ON SAT., APR. 18, AT COACHELLA AT THE EMPIRE POLO FIELD, 81-800 AVENUE 51, INDIO. 11 AM / $269 / ALL AGES. COACHELLA.COM. SUPERCHUNK’S LEAVES IN THE GUTTER EP IS OUT NOW ON MERGE. VISIT SUPERCHUNK AT SUPERCHUNK.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/SUPERCHUNKMUSIC.