Superchunk to revisit the past at BrewDog while readying for the future

Expect a smattering of classic songs when the long-running indie-rock band co-headlines Annual General Mayhem in Canal Winchester on Saturday

Matt Mitchell

When COVID-19 hit, Superchunk had a follow-up to 2018’s What a Time to Be Alive written and demoed. But before the band could head into the studio to record the new songs, much of the country went into lockdown. In the weeks and months that followed, the band members individually isolated, though guitarist Jim Wilbur said his day-to-day life was virtually unchanged. 

“My life is normally a kind of pandemic situation to begin with,” said Wilbur, who will join Superchunk bandmates Jon Wurster, Mac McCaughan and Jason Narducy (performing in place of Laura Ballance) in co-headlining BrewDog’s Annual General Mayhem in Canal Winchester on Saturday, Aug. 28. “I don’t work out of the house. I don’t socialize all that much. And then my wife says, ‘You’ve been training your whole life for this.’” 

Despite this vote of confidence, Wilbur and his bandmates had never recorded an album remotely. The inspiration to finally do so came last summer after the group recorded a cover of the Go-Go’s “Can’t Stop the World” for a record benefiting Cat’s Cradle, a rock venue in Carrboro, North Carolina. For the song, all of the band members added their parts remotely instead of tracking together in a room. “It came out kind of decent,” Wilbur said. “So we were like, ‘Well, we could make the record like that.’” 

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After completing initial tracking for the album, the recordings sat for nearly a year before the group returned to the studio to mix and master the final product. McCaughan served as engineer during these sessions while Wilbur and his bandmates laid down their parts separately and alone, leaning heavily on improvisation and trust. “It’s not an ideal way to go making a record,” Wilbur said. “Although, I think it came out really well.” 

It might be a while before fans have the opportunity to chime in and render their verdict, though. Before any of this new material surfaces, the band’s label, Merge Records, founded in 1989 by McCaughan and Laura Ballance, plans on resurrecting the group’s out-of-print 2001 record, Here’s to Shutting Up, for its 20th anniversary. “It’s the label’s way of ginning up interest for people that were born after [the record] came out. It’s a chance to put in outtakes and have funny colored vinyl. ... Makes it a great collectible,” Wilbur said, and laughed. 

Superchunk’s appearance at BrewDog — its first Columbus visit since a 2018 show at Ace of Cups — will also be the band’s final gig of 2021. Regardless of the occasion, the group isn’t planning to preview any songs off the new full-length this weekend, instead focusing its energies on mastering older songs, a decision Wilbur attributed in part to the rust accrued during the long, COVID-driven layoff. “It’s like, ‘How does this song go? What key is it in?’” he said. “I’ve been playing songs for 30 years, but then, when you actually try to play them after not doing anything for a year, the muscle memory in your brain starts second-guessing itself.” 

One thing the time off hasn’t impacted is the chemistry between the musicians, which has remained consistent even as the four have continued to explore interests outside of the band. Wurster, for instance, is currently touring with labelmate the Mountain Goats in support of its new record, Dark in Here (the band visits the Athenaeum for a concert on Friday, Aug. 27), while McCaughan has a solo record, The Sound of Yourself, coming out next month, followed by his own string of shows, for which Wilbur will play bass.

“Just from being in a band, you can get burnt out doing anything too long,” Wilbur said. “If you’re on tour, spending every day together, it can be refreshing to [explore] a different dynamic.” 

But the friendship at the core of Superchunk still pulsates, virtually unchanged three decades into the band’s run. “It’s sort of like being in prison together,” Wilbur cracked. “We know how to do time since there’s a comfort there.”

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Laura Ballance would be performing instead of Jason Narducy.