I’m working, but I’m not working for you.
Those words, written by Mac McCaughan while working at a local Kinko's in 1989, would become both the pivotal line of Superchunk's signature anthem, "Slack Motherfucker," and the defining mantra for his band. 25 years and ten albums later, the indie rock legends have stayed true to that mantra, written all over I Hate Music, last year's excellent collection of fuzzy punk tunes that miraculously sounds as sharp as Superchunk did a quarter of a century ago.
These bands may work in a box, but well into the third and in some cases fourth decades of their respective careers, they'll be damned if they're going to stay put in it.
Sitting at her desk in the Merge Records offices in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 46-year old Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, remains defiant: “I don’t feel like punk rock is reserved for young people by any stretch.”
Like their underground pals, Superchunk spent a good part of the ‘90s in a van. By the time of 1997’s Indoor Living, which the group re-released in late February of this year, the band had locked into a steady groove of tours and record releases. “At that point it was like a machine,” recalls Ballance. “It had become almost unconscious.” But that groove became a grind – after 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, the band wouldn’t release another record for a decade.
Despite breaking up romantically in the mid-‘90s she and McCaughan remain both bandmates and business partners. The pair founded Merge in 1989 as an outlet to release music by Superchunk and their friends. It’s now one of the biggest and most respected indie labels out there, home to indie juggernauts like Arcade Fire and Spoon. Ballance’s days, once filled with an endless cycle of recording sessions and tours, are now spent managing the day-to-day operations of Merge. Sidelined by a hearing condition, Ballance played bass on I Hate Music, but sat out the tour.
“I don’t feel like a different person than I was when we made [1991's] No Pocky for Kitty,” she says.
Though her body is feeling the toll of years on the road and in front of amps, her band remains true to their founding spirit, continuing to forge ahead artistically at a time in their career when most groups have settled into a steady groove of Trojan horsing fan service tours via lackluster studio albums. Their fans, who number in the hundreds of thousands, rather than millions, have remained loyal because of this.
“A band like Superchunk, and I guess us, we were modest to begin with,” says former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, who released his latest album with The Jicks, Wig Out at Jagbags, in January. “What we came from was very small clubs. When we’d see a band play for 250 people that was massive for us.”
With the allure of fast money and fame tempered by years of cult (but rarely commercial) success, Malkmus, Superchunk and their Gen X peers continue to expand on their sonic palettes with impunity, while consciously avoiding the Dad Rock trap (“We went ahead and dabbled in it a while ago,” jokes Ballance). They may work in a box, but well into the third and in some cases fourth decades of their respective careers, they'll be damned if they're going to stay put in it.
“I think if you did the same thing over and over for 20 years you’d get bored,” says former Helium singer Mary Timony, who recently launched her latest project, Ex Hex after the disillusion of Wild Flag. True in spirit to the mix of feminism, punk and power pop that made her the thinking alt kid's music crush, it continues that never-stagnant march forward shared by her peers.
The noisy guitar rock of the American Indie Underground and their Canadian counterparts were as inspired by the titans of classic rock as they were by their punk heroes, even if they weren’t always willing to admit it. But musical excess and personal decadence led to artistic complacency, something of which Ballance and Timony were acutely aware.
It’s sort of like 'we will be young forever.' That music will always be there and we’ll always feel it. It’s cliché but it’s true.
While making a massive cultural impact that every modern guitar based band owes a debt to, artists like Timony, Malkmus and especially Superchunk helped build a fiercely independent system that valued monetary gain over artistic achievement. But that’s easier for a twenty year old working at Kinko’s than a parent with mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay.
It’s a mentality Ferguson understands. “I would like to keep this band as my prime source of income,” he admits.
Many forget that despite Sloan’s status as Canadian mainstays (and now elder statesmen), the band started as a heavily-hyped buzz band. Touted as the face of Halifax, a "next Seattle" in a long line of them, Sloan were similarly saddled with the “next Nirvana” tag and courted by all the major players of the day.
But after their major label deal with Geffen famously fizzled, Sloan took the Superchunk route, founding their own label, Murderecords, releasing their own music and efforts from hometown peers like The Hardship Post, Eric’s Trip and Thrush Hermit. It wasn’t until they went indie that they morphed into the unsung hero workhorse act they are today. Continuing to take risks, their upcoming record finds each member getting his own side of vinyl to do with as they see fit.
“I got let down by the Rolling Stones,” says Ferguson. “That dissatisfaction as a teenager has motivated me to want to continue making good records being in a band this far into our career. I'd like to continue building on the body of work that we've created."
For all the clever musical conceits, disappointment is at the heart of this generation’s graceful slide into their forties. All huge music fans themselves, each of the musicians interviewed for this story spoke of the dismay they felt when one of their favourite bands fell victim to stagnant complacency.
“I don’t know how they get so misguided,” bemoans Malkmus, citing Duran Duran as a band he had once admired. “Some of those groups got a taste of the mega fame. But once you’re up there the tumble down is painful.”
It may be their punk spirit that keeps them going (“I like being creative,” says Timony matter-of-factly), but they’re not above tackling their middle-agedness in their music.
Superchunk address it numerous times on I Hate Music, reaffirming their love for what they do while acknowledging the dichotomy of playing punk music at an age when most of their peers are saving for retirement. The tongue-in-cheek title comes from lead single, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” which begins with the line “I hate music/What is it worth?” before concluding, “I got nothing else, so here we go.” Sloan, meanwhile, have consistently toyed with their own mythology since nicking a pile of Nirvana fan mail from the Geffen offices, using passages from the letters for Twice Removed opener, “Penpals.”
Stephen Malkmus takes things a step further on Wig Out at Jagbags. On the track "Rumble at the Rainbo" Malkmus, always a sly observer of pop culture, takes aim at bands trying to hold on to something that's passed them by:
Come and join us in this punk rock tomb
Come slam dancing with some ancient dudes
We are returning, returning to our roots
No new material, just cowboy boots
“It’s a visually comedic song to me,” he says, acknowledging autobiographical nod to his Pavement youth. Meanwhile, he calls the chorus – “Can you remember the thrill and the rush?” – pure Katy Perry pop. “It’s sort of like 'we will be young forever.' That music will always be there and we’ll always feel it. It’s cliché but it’s true.”
Even as its underground heroes hit middle age, it’s clear that this generation of musicians isn’t about to go gently into the good night. Modest goals and a keen self-awareness have not only saved them from the embarrassment of becoming bloated, touring nostalgia acts, but actually primed them for renewed relevance as the pendulum of popular taste (or at least a certain sect of indie rock) appears to be swinging back towards carefree, noisy, winkingly wordy guitar rock.
“I’m so glad it’s back," says Ballance. “People are having more fun playing music. There was a period where I felt like all the bands went to music school and knew how to play any instrument you put in their hands…There’s something amazing about that and it takes a lot of talent, but there’s also something boring about it.”
“Playing fast songs or more energetic songs is just more fun,” she says, despite the ailments that keep her mostly offstage. “My body is more creaky but I don’t feel like I’ve grown up.”