I think the first time I ever saw the word Superchunk, it was written on the spine of a cassette tape at Camelot Records in the Asheville Mall. In high school, I spent a lot of time just hanging out in the “Alternative” section. “Alternative” in those days meant “Not Classic Rock, Poison, or Paula Abdul” and had yet to become synonymous with “Bands For White Dudes Who Like Pearl Jam.” I would pull cassettes (I did not have a CD Player until ’94) from the stacks and buy them based entirely on cover art, song titles, and eventually, record labels. Sometimes this worked out like gangbusters: The Spinanes are great! Other times? Well, I guess Primus was always going to be kind of a hard sell for me.
I did not buy a Superchunk tape because the band name. It was terrible band name, a band name so terrible—kind of gross in a cutesy way– they could only be a jam band, and if I ever had any deeply-held, defining belief in the world, it was that all jam bands are terrible. I think I probably imagined what Superchunk would look like—white dudes, dreadlocks, bongos—and didn’t even bother to check out the cover art because I was 100% sure it would be some visual weed pun. Instead, I bought a Ride (also a dumb name, but decent font and soothing cover art) tape and did not look back.
Sassy magazine ran something about Superchunk shortly thereafter. They didn’t look like a jam band in the picture. Among other things, there was a girl in the band, and she had hair exactly the color I’d been trying to dye mine since ninth grade, but they were, like me, from North Carolina, a thing I simply could not forgive them for, so intense was my geographical self-loathing in high school. Bad enough that you have to be from here? But why on Earth would you stay? Why wouldn’t you start a band somewhere cool, like New York or London or wherever Teenage Fanclub is from?
Senior year, we started hanging out with Indie Rock because he started dating my friend Ivy League. He was a Superchunk fan. Indie Rock was also an Archers of Loaf fan, another group I assumed was a jam band, because several members were from my jam-band-infested hometown and also, seriously, that band name? I think Indie Rock tried to get me to listen to Superchunk on my own volition about a dozen times before he finally forced the issue by making me a mix tape with “Precision Auto” as Track One/Side One. When I heard it, I shocked to find out Superchunk sounded an awful lot like a punk rock band, and what’s more they sounded a fair amount like the kind of punk rock band I liked No one told me this, I thought.
I went to see my most punk rock friend, the one that actually subscribed to all the zines and bought jewelry at the hardware store, demanding an answer. She just sighed, gave me this exhausted look, and said, “There is absolutely nothing punk rock about Superchunk” (she was, incidentally, much more open-minded about Archers of Loaf). Just like that. Unequivocal.
It was our friendship, and my standing desire to seem to cool to her, that probably kept me arms length from Superchunk, despite the fact that I attending college about fifty miles away from Chapel Hill and accepting dubbed copies of Superchunk albums from Indie Rock. We still went to shows, just not those, until spring of 1996, when in the middle of a roommate quarrel, I went to see Superchunk play a free show in the student center at UNC-Greensboro by myself and found it to be entirely what I wanted. It was also around that point that I finally stopped being angry at other people for not leaving North Carolina and thankful that they’d stayed. Because lord knows, if I had to be stuck somewhere, at least I had cool people to be stuck there with.
Merge Records, the Chapel Hill/Durham-based label started by Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance of Superchunk, is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this week. I’ve been to multiple Merge Anniversary parties over the last 20 years, because somehow Merge snuck up on me as not only one of my favorite record labels, but because the music they’ve put out, the people that do and have worked there (a group that includes some of my dearest friends), and the culture they helped foster in this community were all big facts in the plus column when I moved here in the first place, and a not-insignificant part of why I haven’t left.
Merge’s anniversary parties are famously fun stuff. In 2004, I saw Arcade Fire play free in a small nightclub, but more importantly later on I sang a Versus song at karaoke. In 2009, I saw Lambchop, a lush, typically understated Nashville band, play one of the most electrifying live sets I’ve ever seen a band—any band—play on stage at Cat’s Cradle. In 2014, I watched an afternoon line-up that basically consisted of Ex Hex, Mikal Cronin, Teenage Fanclub and Caribou almost back-to-back, which comes about as close to mimicking a mixtape I’d make in real life as possible as you’re going to get.
Tonight, I’ll head out of my first big round of concerts at Cats Cradle, which will feel as much like a way to run into friends I haven’t seen in a while as a musical event. That’s my favorite kind of show. When you can hit all the high points—social and musical—and kind of the same time. Superchunk is playing. It’s been a while since I’ve talked to the old 94-era crew, so I’m guessing the jury is still out as whether or not Superchunk is actually punk rock. That’s probably okay. It’s not like it makes much difference to me. I’m a woman whose sincere love of both toile and floral arrangement long ago negated whatever degree of punk rockness I achieved during the safety pin years.
I’ll still be out there hollering tonight, surrounded by friends, pretending tomorrow is not a weekday, dancing like a fool (pun intended).