Interview: Superchunk

November 28, 2011

On the occasion of Superchunk’s reissue of their classic album, Foolish, we asked artist and superfan Andrew Kuo to interview his favorite band.

"Well, if you really want to know—Superchunk." That's what I've said for the last 17 years a few sentences after someone asks me who my favorite band is. This was decided after they followed up a great record with an even greater record called Foolish. All the songs were about a drum kit, two guitars, a bass, a singer, a break-up and feeling really bad. It was the same year the Knicks made it to the NBA finals, there was an earthquake in LA and I was about to leave home for the second and last time in my life. Everything was so complicated. This fall, Merge re-mastered and reissued Foolish. Asking singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan questions about this record feels exciting and really quiet. There's just a limit to what a fan wants to know. If that makes sense.

Do you or did you ever write songs with the future in mind, or is it always about the past/moment? In other words, how carefully should we mind the future when we make things? I don't think about the future too much when writing songs/making art. You can really go down the rabbit hole of other people's/future people's expectations and judgments that way (i.e., stuff you really have no control over in the end anyway). The best songs I write tend to be the ones that come the easiest and are the least worked-over. For those I think I'm just working with whatever is coming out of my brain right then. I mean, sometimes I'll get the beginning of a song—like the first line, or a chorus, or the guitar riff at the beginning of "Digging for Something," for example—and then just have that in my head for a few days before I sit down to finish it. But I'm still really just working in the present during that time. The only time I find myself considering the future when making something is in the recording/production/mixing phase of an album; there are decisions you have to make and sometimes I think to myself, five years from now will this sound really great, or will it sound like 2009? I try to go for the timeless as opposed to the dated. Sometimes I get it wrong of course.

The Merge book, Our Noise, is really awesome in how detailed and frank it is. I guess your songs have always been that way too. How difficult was it touring with Laura during the Foolish days? I'm glad the songs seem frank; frankly a lot of times writing a song for me requires taking a fairly mundane situation and elaborating on it until it's a little more compelling...I mean, the emotions are frank. I suppose though the details are often composites or fictions.

I'm listening to "Like A Fool" right now. It is heavy and crazy and awesome that you guys are still a band! That is not really a question. It IS kind of crazy that we're still a band, considering the lifespans of bands. But at the same time, it doesn't seem so crazy at a certain point because to a certain extent, it's "what you do." Then it would be even weirder to proclaim "Hear ye hear ye! we're not a band anymore!"

Seventeen years can go by fast. Would you ever go back in time if that meant forgetting all the stuff you've learned in that time? Nah. I mean, seriously I'm old—44—and I find that every day at some point I do consider that I've most likely got less than half of my life left, which is kind of a fucked up thing to think. So, you'd think that going back in time would be appealing, but it's totally not.

I spent a lot of years listening to "Driveway to Driveway" when I wasn't feeling great. It actually made me feel worse at times, in a good way. Do you believe in "emotional hardcore"? Ha, the term is funny. I was listening to the Rites of Spring album today, which I think everyone called emo at the time or something. It's certainly aggressively expressive, and I know what you mean about listening to music that you know will take you to an even more bummed out place than you're already at, kind of like putting on music that's going to commiserate with you rather than make you feel better. I found that more useful when I was in college, but as Chris Lopez (of The Rock A Teens/Tenement Halls) once said to me on tour: "Oh I can get existential in a heartbeat."

Sometimes I feel like punk music ruined my life, in the way that I live by these beliefs that sometimes prevent me from being really happy. Do you know what I mean? Not sure if I know what you mean. You mean you feel guilty about partaking of the consumer culture that punk (at one point) railed against? Or because you loved Minor Threat but also beer?

Success = happiness or no? Nah. Too hard to define anyway right? Most instances I think of as "success" are fleeting and then so is the happiness. I don't know if it's the same with a painting but if I'm working on a song sometimes there's a minute where it's like, Oh that works. Or when you're done mixing and sequencing an album and you can listen all the way through and feel like, this all fits together, and it's done. I think that's a feeling of success and there can be ongoing happiness derived from that successful effort, I guess, but there's too many layers to life to have X=X like that, I think. New stuff comes at you every day, both good and bad. Sounds like a bummer of an answer but it's not meant to be!

Every time someone asks me what my "Driveway to Driveway" tattoo means, I say, "It's a song by a band I love. It's about a bad breakup. The singer drove drunk from his driveway to her driveway." I like the idea of going through these comforting motions when you are intellectually compromised. Is that accurate? I wish I could write songs that were so specific and direct! They always start about one thing and end up about five. Actually the genesis of that song is about being at some giant rock festival in England, Reading I think, and we played early on in the day and then drank too much warm beer and just got hammered. Slept in the rain. Walked through a graveyard. Got lost trying to find the hotel, etc. So the initial thing was just that blur of that night and relating that to the blur and mixed memories of a relationship. But it's flattering that you have that tattoo.

Do you think you could write something like Foolish now, or are these kinds of things time and age sensitive? I think in some ways the stuff that happens to you when you're young you keep carrying around with you and writing about. Hopefully you write about it and deal with it in a different way so you're not just making the same songs and records over and over again. You have that stuff, those relationships/girlfriends/humiliations/inspirations and then rather than really erase or replace them I think you just add stuff on top of them so what you're drawing on is maybe deeper 20 years later? The stuff that seems foreign to me when I listen to those early records is the kind of angst and anger that's directed at no one in particular, and a kind of mean-ness. Actually it's kind of embarrassing which means maybe it's not actually so foreign to me, but I wouldn't want to put it in a song now. I guess the answer to your question is that yeah, it sounds like a young record to me but that the issues and emotions involved can probably be written about at any age.

"Thanks for making a record that changed my life." Does that sentence make you feel weird? No it makes me feel good!

Interview: Superchunk