Mac McCaughan and Superchunk wrestle with change

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Like many people in their forties, Mac McCaughan has a few responsibilities: He has a wife and two children, ages 6 and 10, and he runs a company. He also plays in a rock band, Superchunk, that recently released its 10th studio album in a career that stretches back to the late '80s.

He and his bandmates — bassist Laura Ballance (who no longer tours to preserve her hearing), guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster — titled the album "I Hate Music." It's a declaration that zeroes in on a troubling aspect of adulthood. As folks grow older, the music they once loved rarely remains as central to their lives as it once did, giving way to more pressing, time-demanding duties.

"It's funny, but not ironic, it's a real feeling," McCaughan says. "You get flooded, swamped with music, and sometimes you just want it to stop."

For many, it's just a matter of not having enough time to keep up. For McCaughan, who has been recording music and putting out records at Merge for a quarter-century (the label will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year), it's something akin to burn-out.

"I still buy a lot of records for myself, wanting to pay attention to stuff I don't know anything about," he says. "You listen to 30 seconds of something and say, 'Oh, my God. This is music now? I don't like it.' I'm not being dismissive. There are great bands. But I've been looking at things from an artistic point of view. Sometimes you can write two songs in two hours, and sometimes you can work on something for days and nothing sounds good. 'I've written this song before, someone else has written this song before.' It's a depressing dead end. I don't walk around thinking, 'I hate music.' But it was always the center of your life, you couldn't get enough. And now you do find yourself questioning it once in a while."

After taking nearly a decade off from Superchunk after recording and touring relentlessly for much of the '90s, McCaughan says the band came back in 2010 recharged — and the album they released that year, "Majesty Shredding," sounds like it. "I Hate Music" is equally hard-hitting while evincing a refreshing skepticism.

In "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo," McCaughan wonders what music is worth, if it can still be as fulfilling as it once was. Ultimately, the album is an affirmation — not just in what it says about the rejuvenating power of a great record, but how. Guitars and drums still can transform.

"The last couple records have been about the idea of nostalgia and fighting against that," McCaughan says. "You can get deep into nostalgia, and if it's the only thing you're partaking in, it's a dead end. The last record and 'I Hate Music' are about this idea that maybe there is a way to take the things you first loved about music and find some way to still incorporate that into what you're doing now, as opposed to just repeating it. The alternative is, man, you become this person who only wants to listen to the records you had in high school."

The singer acknowledges he's susceptible to that impulse as well.

"I am a nostalgic person. If I hear the first two bars of (New Order's) 'Age of Consent,' I have an emotional reaction. It reminds me of a time in my life and the people I knew. But I don't want to just peddle in that. It's OK to indulge yourself in that as a person, but not as an artist. But what about the energy of those records, that feeling, how can you take that and apply it to what you're doing now? We're always going to sound like us, because it's basically been the same people for 20 years. But we started the band as fans of other bands. If I was a fan of a band, what kind of record would I want to hear them make after 20 years? It's not a small hill to climb. I realize that most people do want to hear the old songs, and it's a challenge to write new songs that are just as good."

On "I Hate Music," the band has done exactly that — matched their peak moments in songs that speak to who they are now.

"As someone who has been writing songs since I was in high school, hopefully you get better at it, you learn some things," McCaughan says. "With the last two records I've tried to get to a point of thinking about it less, while being more stringent about what gets into a song. The last record we made before Superchunk took time off, 'Here's to Shutting Up' (in 2001), we wrote those songs as a band practicing in our space every week. You can work the life out of songs if you play them enough before recording. With these last two records, the band would learn the song a day or two before we recorded it. There was an edge of spontaneity — we know the song but haven't worn it out. We've gotten a lot better at cutting things out and keeping the essence of who we are."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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