Is it true? Has Nashville really finally arrived on the world stage? That's what the foodies say, at least. But this weekend, the true test of Music City's cultural chrysalis won't go down at Husk or The Catbird Seat, but rather at Mercy Lounge, where North Carolina indie-rock legends Superchunk will take the stage.
Will local rock fans show up in droves to appreciate the band that has a punk cachet worthy of Fugazi and power-pop hooks worthy of Cheap Trick? Seeing as how the band — which took a nine-year studio hiatus in the Aughts — blasted back to life with 2010's cranked-up tour de force Majesty Shredding and last year's more subdued but equally potent I Hate Music, Nashville really ought not to fuck this one up.
It was a pretty shameful state of affairs in 2001, the last time Superchunk rolled through town, performing at the since-shuttered 328 Performance Hall. Despite Superchunk's catalog, which featured revved-up, rocked-out essential Clinton-era indie-rock staples like No Pocky for Kitty and break-up-record-par-excellence Foolish, the show somewhat famously drew an estimated 85 people. "Eighty-five people in a room that holds 1,000 is a bit discouraging, but these are the moments that build character," drummer Jon Wurster joked in his online tour diary at the time.
Looking back, Superchunk singer and primary songwriter Mac McCaughan — who at 46, has aged about as well as Bruce Springsteen as far as rock 'n' roll frontmen go — isn't terribly bitter about the characteristically weak Nashville turnout of 2001. "I remember it being pretty fun, actually," he tells the Scene via phone. "There weren't that many people there, but we played with William Tyler's band, Lifeboy, and we saw all those Lambchop people. We had a good time, but it definitely didn't make us jump back in the van to get back to Nashville as soon as possible [laughs]."
Truth be told, Superchunk didn't jump in the van to go to many other cities either after touring on 2001's mellow artistic departure Here's to Shutting Up wrapped.
"The record came out the week after 9/11, and everyone was in a weird mood," McCaughan recalls. "We played shows all over the world right after that — Japan, Europe, U.S. — but it definitely felt like there was this distraction. Going to shows wasn't really what was on people's minds."
Shutting Up would be Superchunk's last for nearly a decade. And though the band never broke up, their activity slowed to the point of just playing a couple one-off shows a year around their stomping grounds of North Carolina and Georgia. Superchunk members' once extracurricular endeavors became successful full-time undertakings.
Drummer Jon Wurster became a sort of Steve Gadd to the indie-rock stars — touring as a sideman for the likes of Mountain Goats, Guided by Voices singer Robert Pollard and former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould — in addition to carving out a cult following in the alt-comedy world as one-half of the radio duo Scharpling and Wurster. Meanwhile, Merge Records — the highly regarded and relentlessly prolific indie label McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance founded in 1989 — had a series of major-league successes with bands like She & Him, Spoon and Arcade Fire. But around 2007 and 2008, doing the occasional nostalgic hometown gig gave way to a desire to write new material.
"I think that we were hesitant to take the plunge into full-on, 'Like, let's make an album,' " McCaughan explains. But they did, and 2010's resulting Majesty Shredding is an all-killer juggernaut of power-chord power-pop and heart-strung hooks pounded out at age-defying punk tempos. "The kind of songs that you want to play live are those songs with that type of energy. You don't want to make a record that people are gonna call your 'comeback' record or whatever and then have it be kind of half-baked, you know?"
There was another caveat: "If we're gonna do this, it better be fun," McCaughan continues. "Because we're not doing it because we're in some sort of, like, album cycle; that this is what we're counting on to be our job."
It wasn't always fun though, as the title of I Hate Music would have you believe. The title is taken from the opening lyric of album standout "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo," a song that rather deceptively has a riff that recalls Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl," but says a whole lot more: Coming of age doesn't necessarily stop in your 40s, and one of the realities of growing up is realizing that escaping into music can't solve all your problems.
"The worst thing that can happen to you when you're 23 is that, you know, you broke up with your girlfriend or whatever," McCaughan says. "Now people you know are dying, and that's a whole other level of heaviness that maybe isn't fixed by, like, putting on your favorite Smiths record or whatever."
The title also touches on the shift in how, thanks to technology, fans absorb and emotionally process music.
"It's almost like you're inundated with stuff all the time," McCaughan says. "Not just music, but media and content and information, and I think part of the title is just about impulse to turn it all off sometimes."
That said, expect most of the 85 Chunk-loyal Nashvillians who made it out to the band's 328 show to be returning customers at the gig on Friday. Maybe they'll join a new generation of fans. "It should be a fun night," McCaughan promises. "Hopefully some people come out."
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