Growing up in Canton, Ohio in the pre-internet 1990’s wasn’t exactly a bustling hub of counter-culture for a young kid. Sure, I had cool parents and an older brother who passed down the foundations of my musical interests- The Ramones, The Replacements, Dead Milkmen, and so on- but I had yet to find “my thing”.
Then, I found Beavis and Butthead. Suddenly the world opened up in front of me. Archers of Loaf, Seaweed, and Sonic Youth all hit me like a ton of bricks. All of these bands were rooted in the world that I knew, but they were decidedly original and a bit more unpredictable. I was hooked. Superchunk’s song and video for Package Thief was what rattled me, though. It was my lightbulb moment for what I wanted out of music- frantic energy, bright fuzzy chords, catchy melodies, and weird lyrics. I knew instantly that they were my band.
They became a frequent presence on my annual Christmas lists, but I don’t think their records were the easiest to find where I lived. I wouldn’t really find “my band” until 2004 or so, when I walked into what was then known as The Record Exchange in Canton and bought almost their entire discography in one go- minus Here’s Where the Strings Come In and Indoor Living.
It wasn’t an entirely joyous outing, though- even though I loved every album I picked up. On The Mouth was everything I hoped for after being hooked by Package Thief. Foolish was a classic that laid a blueprint that younger bands had followed for the last decade. Come Pick Me Up was off-the-wall and intoxicating. And then there was Here’s to Shutting Up– slower, somber, and ominously titled. Based on its name, I assumed the worst about the band’s fate- and their lack of internet presence in that era all but confirmed it for me. Scattershot shows would pop up in major markets once or twice a year, and front man Mac McCaughan would pop in on the now-defunct Superchunk/Merge message boards from time to time but it seemed like the title of their 2001 full-length said it all. I missed the window of my favorite band’s full-time existence.
Fast-forward just a few years after that and the band would thankfully reemerge, comfortably settled into their classic sound, more frequently releasing music and heading back out for brief clusters of shows. But the interim time would also reveal that even though the title of the record was unintentional, or subconscious at worst, the writing was on the wall for Superchunk as they were in 2001. It was a tough time for the band in 2001- the indie rock scene favored up-and-coming bands rather than those who had been at it for a decade-plus. Superchunk was caught in the middle of a fanbase that didn’t particularly want them to change their formula and critics who would drag them for staying the same. On top of that- thanks to inner turmoil and exhaustive tours with a steep decline in attendance post-9/11, the band did ultimately shut up for nine years or so. (To hear it from the band in their own words, check out the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and the Peyton Reed-directed documentary DVD Crowding Up Your Visual Field)
Twenty years later, Here’s to Shutting Up has been rereleased along with a CD of acoustic demos from the writing sessions. It’s a record that went largely unheard at the time of it’s release due to unavoidable bad timing- the album came out on September 18th, 2001- along with a refrain in the pedal-steel guitar-led acoustic ballad Phone Sex that includes the lyrics “Plane crash footage on TV- I know that could be me.” Unfortunate timing and coincidences aside, it’s a beautiful, haunting record that finds Superchunk engaging in some of their most ambitous songwriting- from the eerie, meandering What Do You Look Forward To, to the more-upbeat entries such as Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama) and Rainy Streets– the album is more than worth a look back or an introduction if you missed it the first time around.
Last week, I caught up with drummer Jon Wurster via email to see how he feels looking back at the album:
JU: Here’s to Shutting Up caps off a trio of Superchunk’s most experimental records. Do you recall any discussions the band was having leading up to the writing of this record? Any interesting stories worth sharing from the writing/demo sessions at your house?
JW: This whole conversation is tough because this is the Superchunk album I have the most difficult relationship with. I honestly can’t recall the names of most of the songs on the album and we only play one of them live at this point (“Art Class”). We worked very diligently for months on “HTSU” in Jim’s garage. I still have the snare drum head I used for the rehearsals/writing and it’s got about 30 funny working titles for the songs, like, “There’s Something About Marvin” and “New Asics” (I’d just bought a pair) scrawled on it. Just speaking for myself, I didn’t really love the direction we were going for this record.
We were really good at the punky, catchy, slightly weird music we’d been doing for over ten years and it was only natural that we branch out and try new things. I just didn’t feel like we were particularly suited for the Yo La Tengo-inspired music we were coming up with for HTSU. I WILL say that it’s one of our best-sounding records. I’d finally gotten a snare drum I liked (a Ludwig Black Beauty) and used it on that and just about everything I’ve played on since. So, sonically, I think it’s really good.
JU: Was there ever any talk or possibility of working with Jim O’Rourke again after Come Pick Me Up? I’ve always been a big fan of the string and horn arrangements he brought to that record. I could be wrong, but I feel like the production on that record isn’t given its due.
JW: CPMU is difficult too. I thought the songs were really good but we lost it in the mix. The drums are too buried for my tastes on “Indoor Living” and CPMU in particular. Jim was so much fun to work with, but I don’t think he was really a drum guy. We had to overdub cymbals on a few songs because they weren’t really mic’d for some of the basic tracks. He wrote the horn arrangements and did a fantastic job all around. The problem was he was running on fumes and going home each night to finish work on another record he was producing. He was really burning the candle at both ends, not with substances, just work and lack of sleep. But Jim was really great to work with.
JU: It’s pretty well documented that 2000-2002 was a stressful time for the band- and many touring bands in the wake of 9/11. Did any of those circumstances alter your opinion of the album at the time?
JW: That was such a difficult time. I’m really painting an uplifting picture of the band in the late-’90s and early 2000s, aren’t I? The record was released on September 18th and we immediately hit the road, going to Japan, Europe and then doing a full US tour. Attendances were down, I didn’t feel like the new songs were connecting with people, I didn’t really enjoy playing them, and it felt like other bands were passing us by. Like, we’d hit the glass ceiling. I just wasn’t excited about Superchunk anymore. The final show of the HTSU tour was at the Black Cat in D.C. and I remember thinking that was the end of the line for me.
JU: How do you feel looking back on it now?
JW: I honestly never think about HTSU. That said, I was in a coffee shop in NYC about four years after it came out and one of the songs from it came on the in-house playlist. I knew it was us but I didn’t recognize the song. I thought, “wow, this sounds really good, surprisingly tight for us.” Then I realized it was the last song we recorded for the album and the only one where we played to a click track: “Out On The Wing.”
JU: Brian Paulson co-produced Here’s to Shutting Up with the band. This is the first (maybe only, as far as I can tell?) time you used the same producer for a full-length record since 1994’s Foolish. What went into that decision?
JW: I honestly don’t recall. We were still very friendly with Brian and we’d see him all the time because he also lived in Chapel Hill. I think it just felt right.
JU: Art Class has remained a steady presence in live sets ever since the album’s release. Revisiting it now, and barring any logistical/additional personnel challenges, are there any songs from HTSU you think would be fun to bring back into live rotation?
JW: One song we recorded for HTSU that I really liked, but didn’t make it on the album is “Becoming a Speck.” I think that song would have given the album a little more of what we were really good at, but someone must’ve decided it didn’t fit. It’s on the “Cup of Sand” comp. That would be a fun one to play, as would “Rainy Streets.” I’m now looking at the track listing and remembering that we ended the shows with “What Do You Look Forward To” and “Drool Collection.” Let’s just say I didn’t look forward to playing those songs every night.
JU: Here’s to Shutting Up holds the distinction of having some of Superchunk’s longest songs- namely with What Do You Look Forward To? coming in at 7:42. Was it strange to play outside of (generally speaking) standard pop-rock parameters Superchunk had typically held to or did it feel like a natural progression for everyone?
JW: To me it felt a little false. Maybe not false, because we WANTED to play this new music well, but to my ears it sounds like us trying to be another band, specifically Yo La Tengo. I don’t want to hear a seven-minute song by anyone, so, as I said above, that particular tune was not a favorite to play.
JU: Since the band got back into semi-regular output in the 2010’s, the sound has returned to what some would say is Superchunk’s more traditional hyper-energetic output (What a Time to Be Alive is arguably the band’s hardest-hitting record at times), give or take a few slower numbers. Are there ever any band discussions about revisiting any of the more experimental, long-form ideas from this era, or do you think those concepts are mostly content to live on in the bands’ various other projects?
JW: I think we got the “writing as a band” thing out of our system. Sometimes that yields some great results, but often you end up with music that’s a little unfocused. The first four or five albums were pretty much written by Mac. We’d all throw our two cents in but he pretty much wrote the songs. He was incredibly generous to make the publishing a four-way split. “Indoor Living,” “Come Pick Me Up” and “HTSU” were all written, musically, by committee and Mac would go off and write the lyrics. There’s a lot of good stuff on those records, for sure, but since we regrouped, it’s gone back to Mac writing and doing rough demos of the songs and then presenting them to us. I really like it this way because the songs just sound more focused and concise. He’s written so many great songs for these last few albums.
JU I recently saw an interview with Mac where he discussed the band working on an album during quarantine, written and recorded remotely. Are you able to give any details on the process behind that or any upcoming plans?
JW: Not yet 😉
JU: Finally- followers of your Instagram account are treated to regular doses of Rock ‘n Roll Weirdness. Outside of the band supposedly surviving largely off of Long John Silver’s, do you have any tales of Rock ‘n Roll Weirdness to share as relates to the writing/recording/release of Here’s to Shutting Up?
JW: The only thing that comes to mind is that there was nowhere to sit in the studio! I don’t know why that was. There WAS a row of very uncomfortable wooden seats from a classroom or something, but nobody wanted to sit on them. Maybe we should’ve called it “Here’s to Standing Up.”
Here’s to Shutting Up is now available in multiple formats and bundles at www.mergerecords.com/store