I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Superchunk was in a story told to me by my much-aforementioned friend Pete, back when we were writing an article about how Nirvana were just riding on the coattails of more worthy indie rock bands. (It made sense at the time. Though come to think of it, Michael Azerrad concluded pretty much the same thing.) As I remember it, Pete was telling me about a Superchunk show he went to during the first Nirvana frenzy when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was everywhere; Superchunk had their own mini-hit, “Slack Motherfucker,” and people in the crowd kept calling out for it. Mac McCaughan turned to one of the shouters and said sarcastically, “You know, there’s a Nirvana show across town you could be at.”
I saw Superchunk once in the ’90s (at Lollapalooza of all places, another long story involving Pete that I’ll tell another time), but they didn’t make much of an impression other than being energetic and impossibly young-looking. The next time they sideswiped my radar was at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show, when Mac’s solo project (also involving Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur) Portastatic was the opening act, playing a short set that included a couple of memorable-because-unexpected Bruce Springsteen covers.
Jump forward another few years, to an outdoor show at South Street Seaport. I was there for the opening band, Versus (another Yo La Tengo Hanukkah opening act discovery), but Superchunk was the headliner, and I was there with my friend Courtney, who loved them. I liked them okay — nice crunchy guitars, hooky choruses — except for one new song, “Learned to Surf,” which I loved.
If you’re going to have a gateway song to Superchunk, you could do worse than “Learned to Surf.” It starts with a killer guitar riff (which I have tried and failed to learn how to play many times), then launches into what I have come to know as a quintessentially Mac-esque extended metaphor about how to get through life when trying to keep your head above water seems too much. It had an infectious mix of cynicism and enthusiasm, and lines that stuck with me:
When I learned to talk, I found words they weren’t worth dirt
Heavy like the rocks we carry, I stopped sinking and learned to surf
“Learned to Surf” first appeared on an excellent EP called Leaves in the Gutter, which I played out, all five songs of it (one of them another take of “Learned to Surf,” an acoustic demo). It appeared again on the even more excellent LP Majesty Shredding, which remains my favorite Superchunk album, with terrific songs like “Digging for Something,” “My Gap Feels Weird” (inspired by a dental visit by Mac’s daughter, but transmogrified into a commentary on something else entirely), and “Fractures in Plaster,” which retains Superchunk’s raw punky energy and takes it in a totally other direction. While I’ve grown to appreciate their earlier albums, I am a late-Superchunk fan, and make no apologies for it — I don’t know if it’s the self-taught pop lessons Mac learned with Portastatic during Superchunk’s early-2000s hiatus, but there’s a maturity and complexity to their more recent songs that has made them, belatedly, one of my favorite bands. (It doesn’t hurt that they are brilliant live, not least because you get to watch Jon Wurster’s incredible drumming while singing along to the beats, which is endlessly entertaining.)
And yet there’s still something preternaturally young about them, in the best sense of the word. Superchunk’s latest album, I Hate Music, is — like Fade by their friends Yo La Tengo, one of the videos from which features Mac miming to Ira Kaplan’s vocal parts — largely an exploration of mortality, but somehow Superchunk manages to combine this with a youthful enthusiasm that is neither naive nor affected. I mean, seriously, just check out their recent non-album single “This Summer.” You could do worse than that for a Superchunk gateway song, too, so dive right in — we’ve got a clear path down to the sea.