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Perhaps no band was more emblematic of the true spirit of American indie rock during the 1990s than Superchunk, the pride of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Following the D.I.Y. ethic to the letter, the bandmembers operated solely by their own rules, ignoring all passing trends by sticking to their trademark sound -- typified by the buzzing guitars and high, impassioned vocals of frontman Mac McCaughan -- and rejecting all major-label advances in favor of the unlimited freedom afforded by owning their own company, the highly successful Merge Records. Although Superchunk's resistance to the overtures of the music industry may have deprived them of the wider audience their work deserved, perhaps their greatest legacy remains their unwavering dedication to the indie tradition, a model that other up-and-coming bands often strive to emulate.
Superchunk were formed in the college town of Chapel Hill in 1989 by singer/guitarist McCaughan, bassist Laura Ballance, drummer Chuck Garrison, and guitarist Jack McCook. Initially dubbed merely Chunk -- the "Super" prefix was later added to avoid confusion with a similarly named New York City avant jazz band -- the group issued its debut single, What Do I, on the Merge label, which was jointly run by McCaughan and Ballance. The follow-up was 1990's epochal Slack Motherfucker, MacCaughan's blistering tirade against a lazy Kinko's co-worker. The single was immediately hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the definitive indie anthems of the era, and with the subsequent release of their self-titled debut LP, Superchunk were widely celebrated among the most promising young bands in America.
As the success of acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam made Seattle the early-'90s music scene du jour, label heads scrambled to locate the next alternative rock hotbed. Chapel Hill became the consensus choice, and Superchunk were tapped as the Next Big Thing. The quartet -- which had subsequently exchanged McCook for guitarist Jim Wilbur -- soon found itself in the middle of a major-label bidding war, but the bandmembers defiantly stuck to their guns, remaining on Merge for their brilliant 1991 sophomore effort No Pocky for Kitty, recorded by Steve Albini and distributed by Matador. A singles collection, Tossing Seeds, followed in 1992, and a year later Superchunk -- now with new drummer Jon Wurster -- returned with the superb On the Mouth, highlighted by the singles "Mower" and "The Question Is How Fast."
In addition to Superchunk's relentless tour itinerary and prolific recording schedule, McCaughan released the 1994 LP I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle, the first full-length release from his side project Portastatic. Even as media attention shifted elsewhere, Superchunk forged ahead, following the release of 1994's Foolish with Incidental Music, a second compilation of singles, B-sides, compilation tracks, and other assorted offerings. Released in 1995, Here's Where the Strings Come In heralded a subtle refinement of their core sound, and was supported by a tour on the second stage at that summer's Lollapalooza festival; the first single and video, the surging "Hyper Enough," was even a minor hit. A brief hiatus preceded the release of the 1996 EP The Laughter Guns, the full-length Indoor Living appeared the next year, and Superchunk returned in 1999 with Come Pick Me Up.
Ten years on, Superchunk remained as prolific as ever with their eighth full-length release, Come Pick Me Up, which arrived in 2001. A third collection of singles, the double-disc Cup of Sand, followed in 2003, compiling the band's singles and assorted rare tracks from 1995 to 2002. Superchunk contributed songs to various compilations over the following years, including a humorous duet with Meatwad, the meatball-shaped character from Comedy Central's Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which ultimately appeared on the show's soundtrack. They also released material on their own, including the 2009 EP Leaves in the Gutter. The band's ninth album, Majesty Shredding, which featured a horn section and guest vocals from Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, arrived the following September. The band's next album was tinged with melancholy, as several songs dealt with their grief over the death of production designer David Doernberg, a longtime friend. Superchunk released I Hate Music in the summer of 2013, promoting it with a monthlong U.S. tour. Due to worsening hearing issues, Laura Ballance didn't go on the road with the band this time around; she was replaced on bass by Jason Narducy of Split Single. He also played with Wurster in Bob Mould's band.
After the tour, the band dialed things back and the members concentrated on other things, like running Merge and, in Wurster's case, running a hilarious Instragram page, but Superchunk were sparked back into life by the results of the 2016 presidential election. McCaughan began writing songs soon after the results came in and was finished by February of 2017, at which time they began recording with Beau Sorenson, who they had worked with on I Hate Music. The album was recorded in a rush of energy and, for the first time in a while, had no keyboards. It did have a wide range of guest vocalists though, including Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog, Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield, David Bazan, and Stephin Merritt. Two songs recorded for the album were released for charity in 2017; the proceeds from "I Got Cut" went to Planned Parenthood, and those from "Break the Glass" went to the Southern Poverty Law Center. What a Time to Be Alive was released in February of 2018 and the band headed out on a monthlong tour immediately after. ~ Jason Ankeny
- Chapel Hill, NC
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