There's no mystery about how Superchunk singer Mac McCaughan really feels about music: when he's not making his own, he's releasing other people's on Merge Records, the label he co-founded with bandmate Laura Ballance in 1989. That's evidence aplenty of what rock & roll means to him.
Still, there's more than reverse psychology at work in the title of Superchunk's latest record, I Hate Music, out August 20th on Merge. Prompted by the death of a close friend of the musicians, the North Carolina band's 10th studio album finds McCaughan reflecting on what having created a life in music really means.
"If you've assigned music this role in your life, what happens when the other stuff that's happening in your life is much heavier than that, when it just doesn't work anymore?" McCaughan says to Rolling Stone. "Obviously, we don't hate music, but at the same time it's like, wow, if even this thing that's most important to you – music – isn't helping, or doesn't feel like it's worth anything in the face of what life can bring you, then what good is it?"
Though many of the lyrics on I Hate Music came from darker moments, the tracks are anything but somber. The album collects 11 bristly rockers laced with strong hooks, and plays with the full-throttle abandon that has become a Superchunk trademark.
"There's a tension between the energy of the music and the subject matter, because who wants to hear a dirge-y record about getting old? That sounds like a drag," McCaughan says. He pauses, then adds, "And I don't think the record is about getting old, really: it's about what role do different things play in your life in different stages of your life?"
I Hate Music is, in many ways, an extension of the themes Superchunk explored on their 2010 LP Majesty Shredding, which was the band's first album in nearly a decade. "A lot of Majesty Shredding was concerned with nostalgia and music and what role that plays in your life, both good and bad," McCaughan says. "As a band or artist, you don't want to be looking back, certainly, but as a person for whom music is an important thing in your life, it's a touchstone. Like, if you loved a record in 1985, do you still love it now, and do you love it because it reminds you of a certain time?"
Leaving nine years between Here's to Shutting Up in 2001 and Majesty Shredding offered its own opportunity for reflection as the members of Superchunk — also including Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster — took on other projects and raised families. Reconvening in 2010 was the start of a new phase for the band.
"The break between Here's to Shutting Up and Majesty Shredding gave us time to think about, 'OK, we still want to be a band, but how do we go about doing that?'" McCaughan says. "We didn't ever break up, but if we're going to be active again, let's be active: let's put out singles, let's do shows."
The band will go on the road starting August 22nd in Atlanta — but they won't be doing shows with Ballance. The bassist decided earlier this year that she would no longer tour with the band as a result of a worsening hearing condition called hyperacusis. Jason Narducy will replace her on the road.
"I've had to admit that my hearing is not going to repair itself and it's especially not going to repair itself if I keep exposing myself to high volume," Ballance tells Rolling Stone. "And to admit to myself that I'm going to need to get hearing aids." She noticed a sensitivity to sound early in the band's career, and even though she has been wearing earplugs onstage for the past 20 years, her hearing seemed to be getting worse while the band was touring behind Majesty Shredding.
"As much joy as I get out of touring in Superchunk, it's just not worth losing my hearing," Ballance says. "But I love playing in Superchunk. It's been so fun, and it makes me happy, and it makes me happy to see other people being so happy."
While the rest of the group is disappointed that Ballance can no longer continue on the road, McCaughan says they understand her position. "We can certainly get our mind around that, because what would not be fun would be knowing that you're torturing other people in the band," he says.
Ballance hasn't ruled out playing live again if she can find a way to protect her hearing, unlikely though the prospect seems. In the meantime, she plans to continue recording with the band in the studio. "It won't be as satisfying as playing live," she says sadly. "I think playing live is the most gratifying part for me of playing in the band, moreso than playing in the studio. But still being involved in it is important to me."