Superchunk at the CBGB Festival: Veteran and vital
As soon as Mac McCaughan finished writing "This Summer" -- which, with its hand claps and catchy, wistful chorus set to loud punk-rock guitars, belongs on the radio -- he realized life was about to get difficult. "If you're going to put out a single called 'This Summer,' you better do it in the summer," says the front man for the 23-year-old Chapel Hill, N.C., indie quartet Superchunk. "It just gave us, like, a time frame. It took some planning on our part, which is not that common for us. We usually just kind of do stuff."
Singles are easy to put out these days, thanks to iTunes and YouTube, but Merge Records has a certain number of fans who still buy 7-inch vinyl pressings. So McCaughan, co-founder of the long-running indie label with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, plans singles the old-fashioned way. "Technology for vinyl-record pressing has not really changed that much," McCaughan says by phone from his car after picking up lunch in Durham. "It's cool, because you really are still getting a couple different demographics of fans. They're interested in vinyl and willing to hear a new song and go pay for it."
Superchunk, like many of the punk bands and singer-songwriters playing the CBGB Festival July 5-8 at various venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, is both veteran and vital. The band began releasing singles and albums on its own label in 1989, following the musical blueprint of aggressive and melodic forebears from The Buzzcocks to Husker Dü and Soul Asylum. Its early signature was the sing-along workplace anthem "Slack ----," and the band followed up with a prolific stream of similar-sounding singles, such as "Mower" and "Precision Auto."
In recent years, McCaughan and Ballance have focused on running Merge -- which broke important indie-rock bands Arcade Fire, Spoon and She & Him -- than on Superchunk. McCaughan, though, never stopped churning out songs, and 2010's "Majesty Shredding" was a return to form -- as is "This Summer." "The main change is, we just don't go on tour very much anymore, you know?" says McCaughan, 44.
CBGB, the Manhattan club that introduced the world to The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and many others in the '70s, closed in 2006, but its name endures on black-and-white T-shirts as well as this weekend's festival. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is the keynote speaker, numerous record-industry veterans will speak at daytime panels and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and the New York Dolls' David Johansen will play showcases at night.
Also on the bill: Guided by Voices, which plays Central Park Saturday. Led by Dayton, Ohio, singer and former schoolteacher Robert Pollard, the band formed in 1985 and spewed out an album of fuzzy, rambling garage rock a year, building up a fan base of punk rockers and art enthusiasts. Its breakout was 1994's "Bee Thousand," which had so many brilliant songs and tiny fragments that it turned the weird-sounding band into alt-rock cult heroes.
In addition to Pollard, the core of GBV since the mid-'80s has included guitarist Tobin Sprout -- although even he left the band in 1996. Several reports have suggested Pollard's controlling ways pushed Sprout and others out of the band. (Allmusic.com refers to "the notorious 1996 incident in which Pollard fired all his bandmates and replaced them en masse.") But the guitarist insists that was not the case. Instead, he decamped to Leland, Mich., to raise his two kids and live the artist's life (he wrote and illustrated a children's book, "Elliott," in 2009) while fending off blizzards.
"There was never any falling out. I read those things, too. It never happened," Sprout, 57, says by phone from his Leland, Mich., home, where he lives with his wife and two teens. "What happened was, my son was born when I was in Vancouver. He was five weeks early . . . so I missed that. It just was to the point where 'I can't leave anymore,' and Bob understood that. He told me, 'I can wait till you're ready to go out again.' "
For a time, Pollard drastically remade GBV, hiring Cleveland band Cobra Verde to back him up on 1996's "Mag Earwhig!" album, but he and Sprout stayed in touch, and reunited in 2010. "It wasn't any problem getting back together," Sprout says. "The only difference is, we're all settled into our lives, and [there's] a lot less tension than it used to be."
With Sprout and other alumni, including guitarist Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell, GBV has put out two excellent albums in the past six months -- "Let's Go Eat the Factory" and "Class Clown Spots a UFO." That's 42 new songs to learn, but Sprout isn't fazed. "They had a chance to kind of absorb," he says. "The older stuff, we played so many times, I could do it in my sleep -- I don't even look at the chords I'm playing the whole time. It comes as second nature."
5 artists to watch at the CBGB Festival
BY STEVE KNOPPER, Special to Newsday
The CBGB Festival runs July 5-8 at various Manhattan and Brooklyn venues. Check cbgb.com for details. Here are some performers you should check out if you go.
The Cleveland quartet has the loping, slow-building punk sound once favored by bands such as Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies and Sebadoh, but its noise explosions are more methodical and less freaked-out. "Attack on Memory" is one of the year's best rock albums.
Still the front man for Brooklyn rock heroes The Hold Steady, Finn put out a softer, reflective and literary solo album, "Clear Heart Full Eyes," earlier this year. Catch him for the rambling, regular-guy-in-thick-glasses stories he tells between songs.
Although the legends vary as to how Matlock left the Sex Pistols in 1977 -- the most persistent story is that he was sacked for liking The Beatles -- the bassist insists (believably) he left because he was tired of all the internal squabbling. Nevertheless, this is the man who wrote the music for "God Save the Queen," and his band, The Philistines, isn't bad.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART
The New York indie-rock band formed in March 2007 to play five songs in 10 minutes at keyboardist Peggy Wang's birthday party. They went on to make two terrific albums -- 2009's sad, loud and jagged "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart" and 2011's just-as-sad, just-as-loud and slightly more soothing "Belong."
BEBE BUELL BAND
More famous for dating rock stars than for being one -- Buell dated Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Page, Elvis Costello and Steven Tyler, with whom she had a daughter, Liv, the actress -- the former Playboy Playmate has been playing a head-thunking style of straightforward rock and roll for years. Her band isn't terrible, and Buell is a spirited front woman, covering Johnny Thunders and Motörhead.