To any casual surveyor of the American indie landscape circa 1992, Superchunk—singer/guitarist "Mac" McCaughan, bassist (and then-girlfriend) Laura Ballance, second guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster—were living the dream with particular enthusiasm: indie-big but still decidedly outside the pre-Nirvana mainstream, putting out records that were the cream in every music nerd's coffee, even lauded in trendy British music papers. Speaking down the line from Merge Records, the label he and Ballance cofounded in 1989, Mac McCaughan recalls that Superchunk once graced the cover of the New Musical Express—a plummy bit of career positioning that many a British band would kill for. But then along came Blur and Oasis.
"They liked us a lot when we first started out," McCaughan says of the famously fickle British music press. "There was a real American band thing going on over there in the early '90s. But then Britpop happened and everyone decided they didn't like American bands. We were out of vogue for quite a while. I'm not sure we ever came back in, frankly."
There's a touch of irony there, as old and well-traveled copies of the NME had been among the few sources of print information available to a barely teenaged McCaughan to feed his interest in new British sounds. Sparked by a family viewing of The Kids Are Alright ("It was still in theaters—this was the late '70s."), an early infatuation with The Who and AC/DC blossomed into an abiding love for Echo and the Bunnymen, Bauhaus and the Cocteau Twins. Meanwhile, mumbly janglings emanating from not-too-distant Athens, Ga., offered an inkling of what was possible closer to home.
"We don't sound anything like REM, obviously," McCaughan points out, "but everybody in the band was a fan at some point. Even if your band didn't sound like REM, seeing this band from a Southern college town similar to yours—that was still a very inspirational thing."
The blazing 1992 B-side "On the Mouth" is Superchunk in a nutshell: squalling feedback intro, infectious rush of guitars, McCaughan's distinctive tenor barely staying atop an avalanche of sheer indie enthusiasm. The basic formula, ever heavy on melody, has delivered consistently excellent tunes across nearly a dozen Superchunk albums and a slew of EPs and CD singles, with the pace of releases only slackening somewhat around the turn of the century. Both band and label survived the romantic breakup of McCaughan and Ballance; McCaughan insists that neither joint venture was ever seriously in jeopardy.
"If it was, it never came to that," he says. "Or maybe it was in danger and we didn't know it. We always talked about wanting to keep those things going. There's always a danger when you're in a relationship with someone and that relationship changes—drastically—but I don't feel like that ever came close to happening."
No fan of Superchunk will be surprised to learn that its principal songwriter boasts a mile-wide Anglophile streak. Even so, it's mildly surprising to hear the singer of "Slack Motherfucker" reveal his favorite band to be New Order. Proof is abundant on 2015's Non-Believers, McCaughan's first solo album under his own name, a favorite-old-sweater of vintage synth textures with a meandering storyline involving two imaginary goth teenagers.
"If you're a New Order fan," he says, "you know you're never going to make a record that actually sounds like New Order—you're just going to incorporate the things you can and put it behind the songs that ... well, for me, the songs that I would write."
If Superchunk has slowed a bit with age and wear—Ballance no longer tours with the band due to hearing lossMcCaughan says he is still living the dream, dividing his time between making music, running a label and enjoying family life.
"My daughter is 13," he chuckles. "I hear all the bands that she listens to, and then I find out they're actually huge. It's just that if you're not 13, you wouldn't have any reason to know about them."
Mac McCaughan opens for Destroyer at the Top Hat Thu., Sept. 22. Doors at 9 PM, show at 10. $18/$15 advance at tophatlounge.com.