They (don’t) hate music

Symbiotic relationship: Superchunk started at the same time as Merge Records and, early on, the band supported the label. Of writing music, guitarist Jim Wilbur says, “We were so collaborative, it was like everything was a compromise.” Photo by Jason Arthurs
Symbiotic relationship: Superchunk started at the same time as Merge Records and, early on, the band supported the label. Of writing music, guitarist Jim Wilbur says, “We were so collaborative, it was like everything was a compromise.” Photo by Jason Arthurs

Touring is like riding a bike, says Jim Wilbur, guitarist for Chapel Hill indie-rock outfit Superchunk. The group, formed in 1989 by by Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Chuck Garrison and Jack McCook, has plenty of experience (the bike kind, and the playing stages across the world kind). Wilbur replaced McCook after Superchunk’s debut record. (Jon Wurster replaced Garrison soon after; the band took its name from a misspelling of Garrison’s first name in the phone book.)

This year’s tour isn’t exactly a comeback. Although Superchunk has taken years off, especially in the early 2000s, they never broke up. And 2010’s well-received Majesty Shredding saw them not only travel but play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, curated by Jeff Mangum. “That was really like breaking the seal on 10 years of not touring,” says Wilbur. “It’s actually a lot easier now, to tour, then it was in the ‘90s when we did most of it. Technology, cell phones, social networking. It’s totally different.” He says that clubs are nicer and the band has discovered that its crowds are larger these days than back when Superchunk was more active.

With the release of I Hate Music, Superchunk’s 10th studio album, they’re set to tour again. That string of dates that takes them from Asheville (Wilbur’s new home, as of this summer) to Australia. And while, on the one hand, Wilbur describes parts of tour as “kind of soul-crushing,” he’s also looking forward to hitting the road. “I know what to do when I’m out there,” he says.

In a way, I Hate Music showcases a band that knows what to do, on stage and in the studio. The songs, all written by McCaughan, plumb the relationship between the listener and the song, and how that changes over the years. Tracks range from the melodic and nostalgic “Low F” to the full-assault thrash of “Staying Home,” but each song nods to the ‘90s-era college rock essence that defined Superchunk’s early years. “It’s our sound,” says Wilbur. “It’s our DNA, almost.”

In the ‘90s, as Superchunk hit its stride, “We were so collaborative, it was like everything was a compromise,” says Wilbur. They wrote songs and composed instrumental parts as a unit, and were happy with the result, but, “in retrospect, everything was so diffuse.” These days, McCaughan handles songwriting duties and the rest of the group decides whether or not to give them the Superchunk stamp, a process that Wilbur says leads to more cohesion.

I Hate Music’s first single is “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.” Mittoo was a Jamaican keyboardist and founding member of The Skatalites who succumbed to cancer in 1990. The song opens and closes with the thought, “I hate music, what is it worth? / Can’t bring anyone back to this earth.” But the sentiment extends beyond the loss of Mittoo.

“It’s fairly self-explanatory, at least to my generation,” says Wilbur. “The imagery of going to record stores and driving around listening to music with your friends, the way it gave meaning to your life. But as you grow older and people around you start dying, how is your love of music relevant to that?” Even with that heavy heart, the song itself is all grunge guitars and poppy hooks, its levity balanced with charged insouciance.

Superchunk, as a band, has been striving for that same balance throughout its tenure. They’re a notable part of the Triangle-area music scene that brought us Flat Duo Jets, Ben Folds Five, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Archers of Loaf. (In fact, the Archers’ members grew up in Asheville and bassist Matt Gentling toured with Superchunk for a time.) Though Superchunk’s first two albums were released by Matador Records, McCaughan and Ballance created indie label Merge as a way to put out their own band’s music.

That label has since gone on to sign artists like Arcade Fire, The Love Language, Conor Oberst, M. Ward and Spoon. “Superchunk and Merge were started together, but for years, the band was the primary thing,” says Wilbur. “We made the money, we kind of supported the label. Now the label is huge and the roles are reversed.”

It’s a nice trajectory, though, as Merge effectively emerged as a tastemaker, promoting many bands that were, no doubt, inspired both by Superchunk’s energy and longevity.

That longevity comes, at least in part, from Superchunk’s ability to evolve over the past two decades. Its members have side projects (and families and businesses). They’ve learned to work on the band while also keeping up with those adult responsibilities. Like heading into the studio two days at a time every two or three months: “At the end of a year, you have an album and you’re not burned out,” says Wilbur. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve always done because we felt that was what made the most sense, either from a practical standpoint or an emotional one.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Superchunk, with The Parting Gifts
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Aug. 23 (9 p.m., $14 in advance/$16 day of show. http://thegreyeagle.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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