Superchunk - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Superchunk’s noisy, slightly damaged pop-punk has inspired numerous imitators around the world. In spite of Mac and Laura’s universalist pogo-dancing, the music press has promoted a strong identification of Superchunk’s sound with its hometown, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Superchunk won its audience by touring and recording constantly during its first ten years, and the band’s older fans tend to admire its work ethic as much as its music.
Mac McCaughan was an undergraduate at Columbia University who had played in the Chapel Hill hardcore band A Number of Things, and he took his junior year off to return to North Carolina and play in the Slushpuppies and Wwax. He met Laura Ballance, then a UNC student, in 1987 when the two were working at Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill. They began dating, and McCaughan persuaded Ballance to take up the bass and form the band Metal Pitcher.
McCaughan and Ballance next formed Chunk in 1989 with guitarist Jack McCook and drummer Chuck Garrison. Asked to explain the name by Dial M for Motherfucker fanzine in 1991, Ballance said, “Well, our drummer's name is Chuck and when he signed up for his phone somehow they thought his name was Chunk [. . .] and we were looking for a name, and it's really hard to do so we said ‘Chunk.’” Ballance and McCaughan started their own label, Merge Records, around the time they formed Chunk, and released Chunk’s first single “What Do I” b/w “My Noise” and “Train from Kansas City” (Merge 1989).
Throughout its career, the band played often in New York City, where McCaughan had gone to college, and Chunk encountered another band with the same name during an early visit. Ballance explained to Dial M, “We played up there [in New York] New Year’s 1990 and there was some confusion over who was actually playing. So we talked to them and they wanted us to change our name and they'd been around longer so we did it.” The band used the name Superchunk on the next single “Slack Motherfucker” b/w “Night Creatures” (Merge 1990), the A-side of which was an indie hit that soon entered fIREHOSE’s repertoire. Superchunk was one of the first bands signed to the new NYC indie label Matador Records, which in September released the debut album Superchunk (Matador 1990).
McCook left after Superchunk and was replaced by Jim Wilbur. The band recorded its next album No Pocky for Kitty (Matador 1991) over three days in April 1991 with Steve Albini, who is not credited on the sleeve. Chuck Garrison left after recording Pocky and was replaced by former Right Profile drummer Jon Wurster. Both Pocky and the non-LP single “The Breadman” (both Matador 1991) were released in October, while Merge issued the Superchunk seven-inches “Fishing” b/w “Cool” and “the freed seed” ep (both Merge 1991). The latter issued “Seed Toss” from Pocky backed with three Sebadoh covers. Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91) (Merge 1992) collected nearly all of Superchunk’s singles tracks to date, including those on the Chunk seven-inch. Superchunk toured out to Los Angeles in 1992 to record its third album On The Mouth (Matador 1993) with John Reis of Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu. The press bio for the album included the claim that Wurster was a graduate of the “Philadelphia School of Mime.”
McCaughan and Ballance’s romantic relationship ended in 1993, but Superchunk continued and over the next few years, Merge Records grew into one of the most successful and popular independent labels in the United States, releasing records by Polvo, the Magnetic Fields, and Neutral Milk Hotel. Merge also took over Superchunk’s album releases after the band had fulfilled its three-record contract with Matador, starting with Foolish (Merge 1994), and Merge reissued Superchunk’s first three albums in the late 1990s. McCaughan released the first album by his solo project Portastatic, I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge 1994), and Incidental Music (Merge 1995) was another collection of Superchunk non-LP tracks.
According to Wurster, on Superchunk’s fifth studio album Here’s Where The Strings Come In (Merge 1995) the band started to approach songwriting differently. Whereas McCaughan wrote most of the band’s previous material, the songs on Strings and subsequent albums came out of collaborative rehearsal room jams. Superchunk further explored and developed its sound on Indoor Living (Merge 1997), Come Pick Me Up (Merge 1999) and Here’s To Shutting Up (Merge 2001). In 2002 Merge began issuing volumes of Superchunk’s Clambakes series, album-length live recordings from throughout the band’s career. Superchunk then prepared two retrospective releases: Cup of Sand (Merge 2003), a two-CD collection of non-LP tracks, and the Crowding Up Your Visual Field DVD (Merge 2004), a collection of Superchunk’s music videos and live performances that includes an hour-long documentary filmed by the band on its 2001 tour of Japan, Europe and the US called Quest For Sleep.
Superchunk was inactive for most of the rest of the decade as Merge business piled up in the form of Arcade Fire and Spoon releases, but at the decade’s end, the band returned with two new records to coincide with Merge’s twentieth anniversary: the Leaves In The Gutter EP and a seven-inch, “Crossed Wires” b/w “Blinders (Fast vers.)” (both Merge 2009). Superchunk played at the 2009 Coachella festival in southern California and then at the XX Merge festival in North Carolina before touring Japan. McCaughan, Ballance and writer John Cook collaborated on the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records (Algonquin 2009).