Grumpy’s Northeast surprised Minneapolis fans last month when they announced that Superchunk, the indie-punk band at the center of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina scene in the ‘90s, would help celebrate the bar’s 20th anniversary by performing at Art-A-Whirl this weekend.
It’s Superchunk’s first time performing in Minneapolis since their 2010 First Avenue show, and they’re touring behind their stellar new release What a Time to Be Alive, the band’s most explicitly political album in their nearly 30-year career.
Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, who also drums for the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould is one of the funniest guys in indie rock, whether he’s co-hosting the long-running radio program The Best Show with Tom Scharpling or cutting loose on social media.
I had the opportunity to speak with Wurster for Spin with Cyn on KFAI and for City Pages, and he discussed his love for Minneapolis and its music, as well as the past and present of Superchunk.
City Pages: What is it like for you to play Minneapolis? Do you have any favorite memories?
Jon Wurster: Oh yeah! Many of my favorite bands are from the Twin Cities, so it was really exciting to play there for the first time, with Superchunk. We were doing a few dates with Teenage Fanclub. So we opened for them at First Avenue in 1991. It was really exciting to play the Mainroom where the Replacements Hüsker Dü, and Prince and the Time and Soul Asylum all played. It’s always great to go back. It’s one of my favorite cities.
CP: Could you talk about how you started with Superchunk?
JW: I joined in September, 1991, right before the second album came out, No Pocky for Kitty. I had moved to Chapel Hill fairly recently, and I had a job as a window washer. One of our clients was the record store where Mac worked. That’s where we struck up a little acquaintance and that’s what led to my being asked to join the band. Kind of a crazy entry into the band.
CP: How did you get connected with the Grumpy’s Art-A-Whirl show?
JW: We’ve known Tom Hazelmyer for a long time, over the years, and I think maybe he just asked if we’d wanna do it. The only real connection we have to Tom and AmRep and Grumpy’s is, we would go to the bar sometimes after we played, but we did a song for one of the [Dope-Guns-'N-Fucking In the Streets] comps. That was the song “Basement Life.” I think we recorded that in Cannon Falls at Pachyderm Studio, during the recording of Foolish, our fourth album, and it didn’t make the record. I used to refer to that as our Lenny Kravitz song, because to me it had the same kind of drum and guitar riffs as that song, “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”
CP: What was it like recording at Pachyderm?
JW: We were at least maybe one or two records after Nirvana recorded In Utero at Pachyderm. So I remember there was this baseball cap by the mixing board that apparently Kurt had set fire to. And they kept it there I guess as a memento.
The studio was really cool, and it was in the middle of nowhere. So I don’t remember really going anywhere. I remember we bought food, and we lived there for three or four days. We did it really quickly. I think we recorded 16 songs in maybe two days there and then we went to Chicago to mix it at Steve Albini’s place. So it was very quick!
CP: Were you listening to Minneapolis music at the time when you were performing in the late ’80s and early ’90s?
JW: I was a big Hüsker Dü fan when I was at the end of high school and a couple years after. I graduated in ’84. I saw them in 1983, in Philadelphia where I grew up…. I think I saw Soul Asylum probably every record. They came down to North Carolina a lot in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Two of the best live shows I’ve ever seen of anybody were at a little club in Raleigh called the Brewery. This would’ve been on the Hang Time tour, so ’88? Just so good! So great! And the Replacements, always a favorite, too. So all those bands, I loved them all.
CP: I love your shows with Bob Mould at First Avenue.
JW: Those shows at First Avenue are always fun because that’s a real homecoming for Bob, and just to get to play those songs, especially the Hüsker Dü songs there, is so great. There were a few times Grant Hart came, and that was always cool. It’s always great to get to do that.
CP: Grant is sorely missed.
JW: Yeah. What a songwriter and drummer and singer, an artist--a quadruple threat.
CP: Your new record What a Time to Be Alive is it’s one of the most punk rock records you’ve done. I want to know more about how it differs for you, from your music in the past with Superchunk, your approach to drumming and the band’s approach as well.
JW: The last three records we’ve done, Mac [McCaughgan] our singer and guitar-player basically writes the songs. That’s kind of how it was when I joined the band. He would write the songs, he’d teach them to us, we’d learn them and put our little stamps on them. Then around ’95 we started writing as a band more. So the next four albums were all kind of written by committee, which is great, but it takes a little longer with four people chiming in at the same time. So the last three, Mac has pretty much written. So that’s one way it’s a little different than the records we made in the mid-90s. He wrote all the lyrics for this one, absolutely our most political album lyrically, so that’s a big difference.
We have several guest vocalists on this album, too. Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields and Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee sing on “Erasure.” Sabrina Ellis from A Giant Dog sings on “Break the Glass.” And there’s a really funny story about the “Erasure” song. We recorded the song and then Mac sent the song to Stephin Merritt to add his vocals. Then I think Katie might’ve sung hers when she was passing through town.
Anyway, Mac sent a rough mix of the song for us to check out. The email I got just said, “’Erasure’ – Crutchfield, Merritt.” For some reason I thought it was going to be Tift Merritt, the singer who lives in North Carolina. So when I heard the song – Stephin Merritt has a really low voice, [imitates] “really low” like that. I thought it was a joke. I thought they slowed Tift Merritt’s voice down, as a joke on me. Then I realized it was Stephin Merritt.
CP: What’s another of your favorite songs from Minneapolis?
JW: “777- 9311” by the Time. I haven’t heard the song in forever and I bought the single when I was a junior in high school or something. The drumming on it is really weird. I think that’s what caught my ear. What’s going on with the high hat is especially crazy. I went to the Wiki page tonight and I learned so much about this song. Basically Prince plays on the entire thing, and Morris Day sings. But this crazy drum thing is a pre-programmed preset that came with the drum machine. It’s not even a person. I spent at least a month trying to learn it and could never learn it and I felt terrible. Then I learned tonight it wasn’t even a human playing it, so I shouldn’t feel that bad.
I also learned on Wiki that that was actually Dez Dickerson’s phone number. And he got a lot of calls, and I’m sure he regretted saying that was okay to use. [laughs]
CP: You’re touring Madrid, Glasgow, Leeds and London after this . . .
JW: Yes, we play Minneapolis on Saturday and I think we go to Europe on Wednesday.
CP: That’s kind of a whirlwind.
JW: It is, yeah. But luckily . . . back in the ’90s you’d go to Europe for like six weeks and it was just too much. It’s so depressing after a while. So now as adults, we do it in a civil way. We go and kill ourselves for 10 days and then come home, and then regret doing it.
CP: Do you have a favorite tour experience with Superchunk?
JW: There’s one that always stands out. We did a leg of the Lollapalooza tour in 1995. That was the indie rock years—it was Sonic Youth, Hole, Cypress Hill, Pavement, and Beck. We were all on the kiddy stage, the side stage. We played our final show in our hometown, Raleigh. It was that sort of confluence of the weather was great, the sun was going down, it was our hometown, and we played well. So that’s always one that sticks out as a great show.
I remember the terrible ones more though. I had a terrible experience at Riot Fest about two years ago. Everything broke and you’re in front of like 30,000 people and the sun is directly in your face to the point where you can’t even open your eyes [laughing] and you’re sweating like acid in your eyes and your water bottle is full, but it’s hot water now, because the sun is so hot. It was like 50 minutes of no reprieve, no joy. You’re just trying to get it over with [laughs]. But that’s my problem.
CP: We look forward to seeing Superchunk perform Saturday at Grumpy’s.
JW: It’s going to be fun. I just saw our setlist--we do our setlist well in advance now--and it’s a lot of songs, so get ready.
Grumpy’s 20th Anniversary Art-A-Whirl
Where: Grumpy’s Northeast
When: Sat. May 19; music begins at 12 p.m.
Tickets: $5; more info here