August 9, 2017

For Superchunk, Athens Is a Second Home

Athens Popfest Preview

Photo Credit: Jason Arthurs

Formed in Chapel Hill, NC in 1989, Superchunk’s sloppy but vivacious form of power-pop made it one of the most critically heralded bands in ’90s rock and has kept it relevant long after other bands from that era have expired. That relevance is thanks in part to the group’s evolution in style. Over time, the clumsy but effective instrumentals that defined the band’s sound became more refined, the songwriting improved, and Superchunk began to incorporate stronger melodies and synth lines as part of a more palatable pop sound.

Yet according to lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan, the band has kept a singular focus since the beginning. “Hopefully we have gotten better as a band since 1989,” says McCaughan. “I think we’ve improved. One thing that hasn't changed is our focus on songs and energy—the combination of those two things. I think we are better at executing that than we were back then, and just more comfortable doing what we do in general.”

Also formed in 1989 was McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance’s label, Merge Records. Though at first it was just a vehicle to release various Superchunk and related projects, Merge would go on to become one of the most revolutionary and beloved labels in indie rock. Artists like Arcade Fire, Waxahatchee, Dinosaur Jr., Titus Andronicus and Neutral Milk Hotel have called the label home. It’s also been home to all of Superchunk’s releases following the band’s split from Matador in 1993.

Though Superchunk’s last album, I Hate Music, was released four years ago, the band has kept busy with a steady stream of reissues from its past discography. The group’s next big release is a remastered version of its self-titled debut, out Aug. 25. Earlier this summer, the band also recorded and released a split single featuring a new original song, “I Got Cut,” along with a cover of the Tom Robinson Band’s “Up Against the Wall.” Proceeds from the single went to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

With a slow drip of songs and reissues, it seems like it’s the right time for an 11th addition to Superchunk’s pristine discography. McCaughan says the band has been in the studio recently, but laments that he can’t reveal anything quite yet.

Though Chapel Hill is a five-hour drive from Athens, there is a certain kinship between the two towns as incubators of a certain type of alternative rock. For McCaughan, playing in Athens has been an important part of Superchunk’s history. “I've been going to see shows in Athens since I was in high school,” he says. “Obviously, the town held a lot of pull for me, the way it did for lots of other people. R.E.M., the B-52s and Love Tractor—all the great music from there felt really close to us in Chapel Hill. Then when we started playing music, [we] had great shows in Athens. We formed close relationships with artists like the Elephant 6 crew. Coming back means a lot. I’m looking forward to it.”