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Modest Chunk

Over the years, an inordinate amount of ink has been devoted to just how humdrum a bunch of folks the members of Superchunk really are. Somehow they've avoided the Sturm und Drang that seems, for most bands, an indelible part of rock and roll life. Indeed, their remarkably consistent eight-year run as the benevolent rulers of indie-pop can be seen as a resounding victory for humanity's duller majority. With its disgustingly idyllic intra-band rapport, the North Carolina quartet has proven that a certain amount of contentment can pay off -- to some extent, at least.

"We're broke," laughs Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur. "We took so much time off being lazy that our resources dwindled."

What that means now is that Wilbur and the rest of the group -- guitarist/vocalist Matt McCaughan, bassist Laura Ballance and drummer Jon Wurster -- have had to hit the road to pay the bills. While the band, with its expansive noise-as-art aspirations rubbing up against structured compositional underpinnings, has been known to put on quite a display of beauty and brawn live, the road is not a place where Superchunk necessarily thrives. More often than not, the group's previous bouts of wanderlust were also born out of financial necessity. As they've learned, any band that wants to stay as staunchly self-dependent as Superchunk has must surrender part of itself to the luggage rack. It's the way of the industry.

Truth be told, though, Superchunk is made up of passionate homebodies. They'd much rather be lounging around the house, hanging out in their Chapel Hill neighborhoods, working on occasion and generally keeping a low, peaceful profile. As it happens, that's exactly what they've been doing for the last two years: basically staying put while rumors of catfights between co-founders and former lovers McCaughan and Ballance continued to swirl, as did predictions that the band wasn't long for this world. Turns out Superchunk had everyone fooled.

"We get along better now than we ever did," says Wilbur, who joined the band in 1990 after its first guitarist bolted. "We get along as friends. We don't live together, but we interact socially."

To kill the time between social interaction, Wilbur, a former schoolteacher, writes books of the unpublished variety. "Fiction, potboilers," he says. "I'm hot and cold with it. I try to have a quota -- like three pages a day."

As for McCaughan and Ballance, they've long since reconciled their differences and remain close friends and business partners. The two continue to work together at Merge, the label they co-founded in 1989. Aside from being home to McCaughan's solo project, Portastatic, Merge has been Superchunk's headquarters since 1993's On the Mouth, the band's final CD for the Matador label.

That same year, in the wake of the Seattle explosion, Superchunk was courted by a number of credibility-hungry major labels. But try as they did, none of the majors had any luck convincing the group that big was the way to go.

"We thought about it -- being signed to a corporation that doesn't care about you. And yet you can't do anything else, you're in debt and that's it. It's not fun anymore. There's no other reason to play music except to get out of debt," says Wilbur. "It was tempting for about 20 minutes."

Superchunk's current tour, in support of its new Indoor Living CD, is the group's first since an uncomfortable European jaunt in 1995. "It was the first time we ever traveled in a bus, and it wasn't that big and it wasn't that nice," Wilbur says. "There were 13 of us and 12 beds. The thing about those buses, you can't go to the bathroom on them. It was crowded; it was freezing cold.

"Touring is always sort of irritating, and when we got back from that last one, none of us was really anxious to go out and work the streets again."

Appropriately, Indoor Living, Superchunk's sixth release (not counting the stash of EPs, singles and rarities collections afforded a durable underground phenomenon) offers a reasonable assessment of the group's cloistered life during its two-year hiatus. But rather than sounding claustrophobic -- or, even worse, agoraphobic -- the CD, with its shifting textures, spacious melodies and soaring, roaring guitar noise, embodies the sensation of movement, even if such mobility is really all in the mind.

"From your window you see some unbelievable things," sing Ballance and McCaughan in creaky unison on "Unbelievable Things," which, much like the remainder of Indoor Living, approximates the sensation of burrowing one's hung-over body into a soft sectional sofa on a rainy Sunday afternoon and allowing the imagination to run wild. If the images that materialize aren't always pleasurable, Superchunk's command of the guitar-pop vocabulary keeps the menace of ennui from contaminating the comfy overall vibe.

In fact, Superchunk is so solid a beacon of normality within the hurricane sphere of rock and roll as to seem almost abnormal, though their modesty is sometimes misinterpreted. A particularly fruitless meeting with the band a few years ago led one frustrated Chapel Hill-area music writer to imply in print that the group was being purposefully evasive. Perhaps so, says Wilbur.

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