Bayou City

Superchunk Returns To Houston, Full of Vigor

Superchunk return to their roots on their latest "What a Time to Be Alive."
Superchunk return to their roots on their latest "What a Time to Be Alive." Photo by Lissa Gotwals

It's hard to believe that North Carolina's Superchunk will have been together 30 years next year, but it's the truth. When you look at the band's back catalog you'll find a slew of catchy melodies, tongue in cheek references, and what many have called the blueprint for modern indie rock music. After a nine-year break, the band returned to releasing records, first with the epic sounding Majesty Shredding, and then with the even stronger sounds of I Hate Music.

However, from the opening notes of their latest release What a Time to Be Alive to the closing notes, longtime fans should notice that the primarily political record is a return to form for the four piece, while still sounding fresh and full of vigor. The Houston Press was more than happy to speak with lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan ahead of the band's date here on May 3.

When a band is together for as long as Superchunk has been together, you can see a lot, hear a lot, and ultimately learn a lot. The phrase of "if I knew then what I know now" has to muddle around the head of anyone who's kept a project going for as long as the band has kept together. With that, we were curious if there was anything Mac could tell his younger self, what would it be? "Hmm. Wow, that's a good question. I think if you were able to receive knowledge from the future, you'd be a different band. Being naive and not overthinking things makes a band good. I might say, "do a few more vocal takes," says McCaughan.

The band's new album is unapologitically political, with the lyrics being very here and now. Because of this, we were curious how the album was written, and did the lyrics just pour out after the election. As per McCaughan, "I'm always kind of working on songs. We had started on songs just before the election and once I did the demos on my own with a guitar and drum machine, I sent them out to the other members, and then it became easier to write more and more. Feeling a sense of urgency with the time and everyone's schedules, the timing worked. There was a feeling of doing ten or 11 songs, and "Cloud of Hate" we wrote in the studio. We did it in one three day session and one one day session, with no decorations just straightforward."

The album has a ton of guests as well including Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, making us wonder how with such time restraints, that they were able to get everyone in to be on the record. "Well, I often say that the internet ruined everything. Sabrina, Stephen, and David used the internet to get their vocals on the record. Katie happened to be touring through and she recorded her vocals in one take at my house. Skylar's vocals on "Black Thread" happened in the studio, having other vocals on the record added a community effort. It's actually our shortest timed album since our first one," says McCaughan.

The album has an energy that's closest to the band's early work on No Pocky For Kitty and On The Mouth, something that's easy to perform live when you're younger, but not so much when you're on in years. Even for a band that's as energetic as Superchunk is in a live setting, we were curious if everyone in the band was on board for the possible heavy lifting these songs would need each night of a tour. As per McCaughan, "I think everyone was on board, we didn't discuss it when we recorded, we were more concerned with capturing the energy."

The songs on the record reflect a nation who has had enough of this current presidency. Many of the tracks have lyrics that you can't disguise under other than what is being said. With the track "Bad Choices," we were a little confused as to the meaning. We thought it was a song about people's vote coming back to haunt them, though McCaughan was quick to explain, "no, it's about haunting everyone else who didn't fall for the con job. It's more like, when fewer people voted for this person, the decisions by uninformed voters are affecting those of us who are informed. I think all of his anti-immigrant stuff is racism. They're happily uninformed, and now my kids have to pay for it."

click to enlarge "What A Time to Be Alive" is a tour de force. - COVER ART COURTESY OF MERGE RECORDS
"What A Time to Be Alive" is a tour de force.
Cover art courtesy of Merge Records
The last time the band toured behind the album I Hate Music, Jason Narducy took over for Laura Ballance, creating an energy to the band's already energetic live show that many fans hadn't seen from them since the nineties. When asked about this and what they plan for Houston, McCaughan responds, "Jason is our touring bassist. That energy is from where we're at. We don't tour a lot, when we get to a city like Houston, we make it the best we can because it will be awhile until we're there again."

While the band is nearing the thirty year mark, so is the label Merge Records that Mac and Laura began together. For anyone who isn't aware, Merge is a label than many independent labels model themselves after, with a hefty roster that not only includes Superchunk, but acts like Waxahatchee, Ought, Titus Andronicus, and many many more. When the label turned 25, they had a large celebration and some one off releases, making us wonder what they have planned for the 30 year mark.

"I think we'll do some stuff, we're still trying to figure it out. Either some compilations like we used to do or some sort of subscription. We can't really slow down our regular release schedule, so maybe we just do an every five years festival. When we started out, we had the conversations of what would Dischord, Kay, or other labels we followed do? Indie music from the punk world, we all became friends with each other, and we all help one another. I remember that our advance for our first release, on Matador was like $1,300 or $2,000. The limitations of being a label our size, you can only do so much, even though there's so many good bands out there," explains McCaughan.

No matter what, Superchunk is definitely in their stride on their latest release. By staying true to themselves and sticking up for what they believe in, they've proven that a band can stay viable and relevant even after 30 years together. You can stay up to date with what Merge Records has going on here. You can stream all of the Superchunk catalog in all of the usual places, or order What a Time to Be Alive directly from the band here. Superchunk will make their return to Houston on May 3 at The Secret Group. The all ages show doesn't yet have word of direct support or openers, but that should change. Doors at 8 p.m.; tickets $16 to $18.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.