By Jack Spencer
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Those who have never had the pleasure of seeing Superchunk perform live are in for a real treat this week at First Avenue. After more than a nine-year absence, the Chapel Hill quartet are back on the scene, touring behind their brilliant new record, Majesty Shredding, their first full-length in nearly 10 years. But there is no sign of rust on these indie-rock pioneers, as their new songs bristle with the energy and intensity of bands half their age, while their live shows consistently put those same younger bands to shame. After more than 20 years of releasing stellar, consistently innovative records from the likes of Spoon, the Clientele, Caribou, and Arcade Fire (to name just a few) on Merge Records, the venerable label he formed with bassist Laura Ballance, Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan felt that the timing was right to return to the scene with a new album of their own.
"We'd been talking about a new record for a couple of years, but had to get our minds around the idea, and how to record it and tour in a way that worked with everyone's different lives," McCaughan explains. "Took a while to get to that point, but it was really fun once we did."
And, to be sure, this isn't some cash-grab reunion tour; Superchunk mean business, and the songs on their new record reflect the potency and melodic inventiveness that have been part of their sound for the last two decades. That well-earned camaraderie is reflected in the new music as well, with the recording process being "pretty seamless, really," McCaughan says. "Which is one of the great things about being in a band with the same people for 20 years—we know how to play together, and what works for us musically and what doesn't. It makes it easy to write songs when I know that these four people will be playing them."
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With Merge really taking off as of late (thanks to the runaway success of Arcade Fire), McCaughan had to focus his time and effort on his blossoming record label and not necessarily on his band. "The success of Merge, and Merge becoming that much busier, definitely meant that getting back into Superchunk was even more difficult from a time standpoint, as we were so busy with the label," he says. "But it was something that at least I always thought we would come back to in some way."
McCaughan balanced those demands well enough to find time to write some new songs despite his growing responsibilities, but admits that "it's harder, time-wise, to find the time and space to make records and write songs. But, having done it this long, it's easier in the sense that we pretty much know what has to happen to get from point A to point B—point B being having an awesome new record." He's not just blowing smoke, either, as Majesty Shredding is indeed an awesome new record, one that surely will end up on many year-end Top 10 lists. I asked Mac if Majesty might be a way to show the bands on Merge's roster that he and his band can still rock with the best of 'em.
"Ha! Well, not so much as a 'look what we can do,' but being surrounded by the work of the artists on Merge really is a daily inspiration to make music," he replies. "Bands on Merge like Telekinesis and Wye Oak have so much energy to do this, and seem to make their music so effortlessly that it makes me want to get in the basement and write songs, or at least play guitar." In the early days, McCaughan and Ballance not only had to deal with the challenge of bringing their band to a wider audience, but they also had to handle the mounting responsibilities of a growing roster of artists that were signing to Merge—and they've always managed to do things the right way, despite numerous complications and demands. "It was weirdly not difficult," reflects McCaughan, "only because we didn't see it in those terms. That is, we weren't trying to 'break' the band or the label in any direct way; we were focused on making records and writing songs and playing shows, so it didn't seem hard, it just seemed like 'this is what we are doing.'" And what Superchunk are doing is continuing to add to their illustrious legacy with yet another spirited batch of tunes that are among the best of their long, celebrated career. Over the years, the band has played some legendary concerts at both the Entry and the Mainroom, and their hotly anticipated show this week should prove to be no different.
McCaughan is looking forward to it as well, with many fine memories to draw on. "Yeah, it's been quite a while, though Portastatic played the Entry with Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear a few years back on a really freezing cold night," he remembers. "Minneapolis isn't on the way from North Carolina to anywhere, really, is the only excuse I have! We've played shows there with a ton of great bands—off the top of my head, Chris Knox, Teenage Fanclub, Rilo Kiley, Pegboy at the Entry...tons more I'm forgetting, but we're looking forward to coming back!"
Speaking for all of Superchunk's patient, dedicated fans in the area, we're all just as excited to have them back at long last.
SUPERCHUNK play with Times New Viking on WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775