Superchunk are frustrated with politics, but thankful for talented friends
A new Superchunk album is reason for fans of classic, guitar-centric indie rock to rejoice. Not only were the North Carolinian band one of the key groups of the genre’s mid-90s glory days, they continue to pump out music of great quality; never straying too far from what we’ve always loved about them, but never staying too staid either.
Latest album What A Time To Be Alive, the band’s 11th, sees the band take a frustrated look at the current political situation in the United States.
It’s tough times. But you’ve got to get up, go to work, make the kids lunch and do all the stuff that’s part of everyday life. Meanwhile, your brain is on fire.Mac McCaughan — Double J, 2018
“The political circumstances here in the States over the past couple of years have been so dire, I think it’d be strange given our current circumstances to make a record and not somehow have it be influenced by what's happening around us,” McCaughan told Double J’s Karen Leng.
The music is brash and spirited, the lyrics frustrated and depressing in that they are all too relatable.
Given the bleakness of his words, McCaughan wanted to be sure his band were playing with fire in their collective belly to perhaps keep things a little lighter.
“The energy of the songs called for the record to sound like it does,” he said. “The subject matter and what generated the songs just meant it was going to be a loud, fast record.
“The music matches the lyrics and the energy, but also I think that the music is much more upbeat than the lyrics are.
“I think there needed to be a good contrast there, in the sense that you could just listen to the record for fun. Or you could listen to the lyrics and get really bummed out if you want to. I think if the music matched the lyrics too much it’d be too much of a bummer.”
McCaughan isn’t necessarily admonishing elected officials or the policies they implement on What A Time To Be Alive, so much as he is tearing his hair out at the helplessness of the whole situation.
The title track, which opens the record, is a sarcastic tribute to the climate in which the band find themselves.
To see the rot in no disguise, Oh what a time to be alive
The scum, the shame, the fucking lies, Oh what a time to be alive
While ‘Lost My Brain’ is a thrashy, pissed off rave in which McCaughan vents his spleen over 90 intense seconds.
Surrender to the flow of shit that came aboard last year
I didn't learn anything from it and I lost count of all the shame
“The record is not really about politics per se, it's more about the kind of anxiety that’s generated by living in the crazy world that we're in now. Where you feel like what you always imagined was your country is being dismantled.
“It’s tough times, but you’ve got to get up, go to work, make the kids lunch and do all the stuff that’s part of everyday life. Meanwhile, your brain is on fire. I think that’s what the record is about.”
It’s the most punk rock sounding Superchunk record in years, perhaps ever. Punk rock has always been a part of the Superchunk DNA, but McCaughan hasn’t felt the need to unleash it with quite as much power until now.
“Growing up as a teenager listening to punk rock in the Reagan years, that was certainly informing a lot of the punk bands I was listening to,” he recalled.
“I think it’s tough to make a political record or protest record, because you’re preaching to the choir.
“It’s important to do it in a way that’s not too on the nose and not just so obvious that no one wants to listen to it, because everyone’s living through the same thing. They don’t need to have it spelled out for them, necessarily. I think it’s more about how it affects people personally and what role music plays in that.”
On the bright side, the new record gave Superchunk the chance to bring in a few friends.
“We do have a lot of guests on the record and that was intentional. To me, whenever there’s someone besides myself singing on the record, it’s making it better.”
Two of those friends, Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) and Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) both join McCaughan on vocals for one of the album highlights, ‘Erasure’.
“Stephin and Katie ended up on the same song because I really like the idea of there being this really low voice – and Stephin of course is perfect for that – and someone singing above me – which is Katie,” he said.
And working with these friends was a pertinent reminder at the level of talent they were dealing with.
“One thing that is interesting when you work with other artists, is you get to see just how good they are at what they do,” McCaughan said. “I'm not a first take kind of singer, generally. Katie just came in – we recorded her vocal at the studio at my house – and she just sat down and did it in one or two takes. It’s amazing when someone can really sing.
“With Stephin, through the magic of the internet I sent him the tracks, and he sent them back to me a couple of days later with all his vocal tracks on them. It was cool to be able to combine these artists and have the record feel like kind of a community, group effort.”
What A Time To Be Alive is out now
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