Unbelievable Things: The Story Of Superchunk’s Indoor Living

LB Superchunk’s 6th full-length Indoor Living is a beautiful and difficult  record,  one riddled with the anxiety of a vital, effervescent group beginning to fully wrestle with the inherent conflicts of productive adulthood juxtaposed against the rudderless life of a touring band. By  September of 1997, when the album was released, the  “alt-rock” panic of the early 90s had largely abated, and for the first time in several years Superchunk  faced an audience  that seemed  to be shrinking rather than growing.

While there is no shortage of hooks and energy present over the album’s eleven tracks, the palpable  air of panic and melancholy is unmistakable. From the first track  “Unbelievable Things”, with its fearfully  claustrophobic opening sentiments “When you commissioned your cage/ Indoor living became all the rage” to the devastating final elegy for a deceased friend “Martinis On The Roof” it is obvious we are in uncharted terrain for a band that had been reliably triumphal, angry and romantically wounded, but never quite  so existentially disturbed.

There is a woozy quality to Indoor Living, it seems at times to wobble and reel about the premises with a guileless confusion. The lovely but profoundly strange “Marquee” is a showcase for frontman Mac McCaughan’s  newly established penchant for falsetto vocals, an aesthetic decision that somehow deeply  flatters his inherently  reedy voice. “Marquee” would not sound out of place on Big Star’s Sister Lovers; it’s an ambitious and mournful track that somehow evokes that album’s  signature co-mingling of the orchestral and the made-up-on-the-spot. Still more lovely is the crushing ballad “Every Single Instinct”, which suggests all the melodic and lyrical cleverness of  American Music Club  at their dyspeptic  peak, and featuring a plaintive, near perfect opening line of inquiry: “Oh, what did I think was going to happen?” The question answers itself: nothing good.

That is the essence of Indoor Living. Approaching  a decade  of yeoman’s  work  in the indie rock salt mines, the prospects for Superchunk had never seemed dimmer. Years of great effort, deprivation and hope had yielded frustration, disillusion and the threat of whole lifetimes wasted and unappreciated. The sense of frustration and identification could not be more palpable than  on the great “Song For Marion Brown”, a tribute to the avant-garde jazz saxophonist whose obscurity belied his genius.

With the passage of time and the release of a handful of exemplary records, including last year’s terrific I Hate Music, Superchunk has incontrovertibly burnished their legacy as one of the crucial acts of the past three decades. But in 1997, nothing felt remotely so assured.

That same month, in September of ’97, Bob Dylan released the  harrowing and death obsessed  Time Out Of Mind.  Retrospectively, it serves as a sort of senior companion piece to Indoor Living, a rock-bottom meditation on mortality and failure. Rock and Roll  generally deals badly with the twin scourges of death and aging, to the extent that it deals with it at all. These two extraordinary, painful and uncompromising records, released four weeks apart, did a great deal to remedy that shortfall. It may not be Superchunk’s greatest album,  but it is a bona fide classic that certainly belongs on the short list  of any conversation.  On the occasion of the recent expanded reissue of Indoor Living, we were lucky enough to talk to the members of the band about their recollections and current thoughts on this seminal achievement.

Aquarium Drunkard: From the opening measures of Indoor Living there is a sense that we are in store for a very different sounding Superchunk record.  While each  of the previous records had a great and  distinct personality, Indoor Living feels like a kind of  full-fledged reset. From the patient, tension-building tempo of “Unbelievable Things”  to its prominent doubled-tracked vocals, it seems immediately clear that this is a band devoted to a new agenda. Was there a particular impetus to bring the vocals, and consequentially the narratives,  front and center? By this time,  Mac had done a handful of terrific,  essentially solo  records as Portastatic. Do you all  feel that experience impacted Indoor Living in a significant fashion?

Jon Wurster (drummer):  This seems addressed to Mac so I’ll leave this to him.

But…

Up until we made Majesty Shredding and I Hate Music, Indoor Living was my favorite Superchunk album. I think it was the first one where we were able to break out of the “punk/pop” pigeonhole we’d been in. I don’t think we were really trying to make a mature record, we were just doing what came naturally. We’d been touring and making records for six years or so and we were having fun coming up with ideas that were new to us. Indoor Living was the album I hoped Superchunk would make when I joined the band in 1991. My memory of 1996/97 is that life was pretty good. We were by no means rich, but we were making enough money not to have day jobs (of course Mac and Laura had Merge). That was all I ever hoped for. The Indoor Living/Come Pick Me Up period was probably our creative peak as a band. The first four albums were pretty much written by Mac. On Here’s Where The Strings Come In we started writing songs as a band. Someone would come in with a part and we’d build on it until we had a song structure and then Mac would put lyrics and a melody to it. That process was in full effect on Indoor Living. There was a really nice exchanging of ideas and lots of experimenting going on.

Mac McCaughan (frontman, principal songwriter): I think “Unbelievable Things” was a good track to start with because it unveils a lot of things about the album — it’s midtempo, it has builds, it has falsetto, it has some long guitar soloing, a lot of things about the record maybe different than the records before, but it’s not as extremely different as, say, “Marquee” or something. I think what I learned from making those Portastatic records before this was use of keyboards and some more space. I still think one thing that we tried to do from this record to Here’s To Shutting Up was to incorporate some quieter songs, and some more space into our sound, to varying degrees of success. We’re not great at subtlety.

Laura Ballance (bassist): We took more time to write the songs on this record than we had taken on any previous record. And it was the first time that we wrote the songs from beginning to end together  as a group. This does not include the lyrics. Mac always did those on his own.  The process was very different than it had been. We would get together in Jon’s basement and spend hours musically doodling together.  I am proud of the results. I think it’s more complex than the records before it, and the songs are still really fun to play.

Jim Wilbur (guitarist): I don’t recall any discussion regarding making the vocals more prominent. I know we spent more time recording this record than the previous ones, and so had more time to fuss over vocals, instrumentation and arrangements. I think the main reason this record is “different” is that every song on it – musically – was written collaboratively. The four of us in a room throwing ideas around as they occurred to us, three days a week for several months. A lot of shit hit the wall.

AD: Rock and Roll as a genre and social phenomenon has had a somewhat tortured relationship with aging. From the early casualties like Eddie Cochran to Buddy Holly to the miserable death toll of the 1960’s and 70’s, the wretched implication has always been that creative success in the genre should in some way be contiguous with self-immolation. Indoor Living seems to both acknowledge and reject those clichéd notions. There is danger and brinksmanship on songs like “European Medicine”, but also the sense that the principals care enough about themselves to come home and continue to practice their craft. Around the same time, you lost a dear friend, the Chapel Hill lawyer Gibson Smith, who is eulogized on “Martinis On The Roof”. Do you have thoughts on the challenges of maturing in a genre that has had a difficult time grasping what advancing middle age looks like?

Jon: Gibson’s was the first death in our relatively small Chapel Hill circle and it hit everyone hard. I think it might have given us all a feeling of “this isn’t all going to last forever.”   I don’t think we were feeling like we were getting older or maturing, that didn’t come ’til  Here’s To Shutting Up! By that point it really felt like a lot of the bands we’d played with early on and throughout the nineties had broken up and moved on with their lives. It also felt like what we were doing wasn’t what we were that good at or what people were interested in. But when we were making Indoor Living, it just felt like we were in a very nice, enjoyable, creative space.

Mac:  I think you hit the nail on the head regarding songs like “European Medicine”. It’s a little bit of looking at ourselves and saying, “We’re adults traveling the world drinking beer and playing rock music and acting like idiots sometimes… that’s fun! Sometimes…” And then with “Martinis On The Roof” it’s one of the few songs we have and maybe the first up to that point that was specifically about one person or one incident… something that is hard to write about but also impossible to avoid – death.

Jim: I don’t know, I feel like it all gets easier with age. I mean we never really bought into most of the “rock and roll” bullshit to begin with — the behavior, the attitude, the fashion, the haircuts for chrissake, the master plans for world domination. The reason we’ve been able to linger so long probably is due to having made our own rules. Having realistic goals and being home on the holidays didn’t hurt either.

Laura: I think people in general have a difficult time accepting death. And it’s true, rock and roll and age do not have a harmonious relationship. That said,  the Rolling Stones are still rocking. Anyway, at that time it was really hard to come to terms with Gibson’s death, because we were all so young and had even less experience than we have had now with people passing away. It was hard to believe it that we were never going to see him again or go to another party at his house.  When I came up with the  bassline  for that song I did not know it was going to end up being about him. I was mostly thinking about the Supremes and Soft Cell. Whenever we play it a tear comes to my eye.

AD: It seems that the personal  environment surrounding Indoor Living was  characterized  by  an exciting collaborative spirit  and burgeoning possibilities. At the same time, it seems that in a more global sense, the big industry bubble surrounding “indie-rock” had begun to burst, and things were returning to a more normative state of affairs. Superchunk seems always to have been laudably cautious about getting caught up in what passed as the indie gold rush, but as one of the  best and most popular bands working, you must have felt some impact  from this trajectory. The album  possesses a deep note of beautiful resignation, suggestive of what might be a forthcoming  rocky  winter?

Laura: It’s really hard for me to remember now. I feel like things were still going pretty well, though I agree the gold rush environment was waning. Superchunk album sales kind of peaked with Here’s Where the Strings Come In and slowly slackened. Though we have always had a very dedicated core of fans.

Jon: I  think we were always realistic about how many records we could sell. We never really had that post-Nevermind, “goin’ major” mentality. The band I was in before Superchunk was signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records. It was a dreadful experience, and not one I was at all interested in repeating. Indoor Living was the third Superchunk full-length released on Merge so the infrastructure was in place and it was working well. We were very fortunate to never really have to worry about sales figures or being dropped. One thing I’ve noticed since we came back from hiatus is a misperception that Superchunk was bigger than we actually were. In the entire history of the band I don’t think we’ve ever drawn more than 1,000 people who came to see us headline a show of our own. Four hundred a night was and continues to be really good for us. And I don’t think being on a major label would have really changed any of that.

The first show of the Indoor Living tour was at the Cotton Club in Atlanta –I remember there being a good turnout. My memory of that tour is that most of the shows were pretty well attended. We did a funny video for “Watery Hands” that was directed by Phil Morrison and starred David Cross and Janeane Garofalo that got played on MTV and the album was getting good reviews. So, things were, if not on the upswing, at least leveled out. The downslide in terms of albums sales and people coming to shows came on the next record, and was in full effect on the Here’s To Shutting Up tour.

AD: The most recent Superchunk record I Hate Music feels like a kind of spiritual cousin and update  to the  sort of  sentiments  first expressed by the band on  Indoor Living. Thematically, the two records  represent an almost a brutal reversal of the populist notion of art and music somehow redeeming or transcending tragedy in the Born To Run model.  Instead these albums seem to suggest that the best that  we can  hope for  from writing and  playing music is a sort of willful  distraction from life’s more tedious and debilitating challenges. Do you see a connection between these two releases? And what has fifteen years of perspective between the two lent you in terms of insight?

Laura: Now that you point it out I really can see the connection between the two releases. I have always felt like people love and need music. It’s more than a distraction. Music lifts people up.

Jon: I remember obsessing over the Indoor Living songs when we were writing and demoing them on my 4-track recorder in the basement of the house I shared with my then-girlfriend (the intro to “Nu Bruises” is taken from one of those basement recordings). My memory of making Indoor Living   — particularly the mixing of it – is of constant thoughts of “Was this the right snare drum to use on this?” “Could I have played this better?” “Did I ruin this?” I don’t have that war going on inside anymore. I do the best I can and then I let it go. Once it’s done it’s out of my hands. I almost never listen to anything I play on after it’s been released.

Mac: I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “You thought music could do this thing for you but it turns out it’s only good as a distraction.” Born To Run may have felt triumphant and freeing (it still does) but even Springsteen still comes back to the reality of “My Hometown”. It doesn’t disqualify or erase Born To Run though. There are lots of things happening at once, and the upside is we don’t always have to choose one thing or the other, but the downside is that sometimes you don’t get to choose.   words / elizabeth nelson bracy

Superchunk :: Unbelievable Things

Related: Superchunk :: Foolish (Merge Records 1994) / Superchunk :: Majesty Shredding

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