Superchunk's Jon Wurtser
Published Oct 04, 2010Jon Wurster is a comedic writer and performer on the Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling, and the amazing drummer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Superchunk. For the past 20 years, Superchunk have made a tremendous impact on underground culture with their own impassioned, pop punk output, and for their role in founding Merge Records, one of the most impressive record labels in history. After a prolific ten-year arc in the 1990s, Superchunk ― consisting of Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Wurster ― have taken most of the 21st century off as a band, releasing their last album in 2001. All that changed in September with the release of an excellent, dynamic album entitled Majesty Shredding. For his part, Jon Wurster didn't really slow down, manning the drums for Rocket From the Crypt, Bob Mould, A.C. Newman, and the Mountain Goats among others. Exclaim! caught up with Wurster recently for a wide-ranging conversation about Superchunk and more.
Good morning Jon, how's it going?
Good, I've done my sit-ups and I'm ready.
Oh, is that your early morning ritual?
Absolutely. A thousand sit-ups.
Really, you do a thousand sit-ups every day?
No. I do do yoga every day.
Ah, what prompted you to do that?
I can't remember why I started doing it but I just felt better after doing it. So now, I feel really bad if I don't do it for a couple of days. So I try and do it every day.
When I think of music and yoga, I always think of Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Chuck Klosterman wrote an article about Thom Yorke once and he talked about how Thom was late for the interview because he had to do some yoga. So when musicians tell me they do yoga, I often wonder if they've been inspired by Thom Yorke.
I had no idea he did it. He and I are feuding.
Wow, just because of that? Weird. I know that Superchunk convened for some shows and the odd recording session in the last ten years but the band's schedule did slow down considerably; what prompted that exactly?
Well, we'd been hitting it really hard there. I joined right before the second album came out ― I didn't play on it but I toured behind it ― and that was in October of '91. We pretty much did it full-time, non-stop for the next ten years or so. And it just got to be tiring and wasn't exciting anymore. I'm speaking for me personally. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the company of the people in the band; I'd just had enough at that point. And I think maybe another member or two felt the same way so we just agreed to not break up but to not do it full-time anymore. Like you said, we'd play at least one or two shows every year from 2002 on, and we recorded nine or ten songs over that period also and they came out on various comps and things. A lot of it came out a couple of years ago on an EP called Leaves in the Gutter. So, it was just time to not do it full-time for a while. Mac did Portastatic, he and Laura did the label with great success, and I ended up playing with a bunch of great artists and that's it. And now we're back doing it again.
It's interesting to me that you didn't slow down as a musician at all; you played with many different people. So, it wasn't music you were sick of, just playing that particular kind of music.
Yeah, yeah; that's a fair assessment. Nothing against it, it's just that, if you do it all the time and that's all you do, you kinda get tired of it. I don't know a musician who hasn't experienced that. You wanna do something else and hear something else.
Do you suppose that time away from one another had any profound impact on the way you played together on Majesty Shredding?
I'm sure it did in some way. Every other album we've ever done, we did it all in one shot. You'd get there and record every song straight and then you'd mix it right after, so there's no period of assessment or break from it at all. That can be really good but it can also lead to this tunnel vision, or not being able to take a good look at it as a whole. With this record, I think we started it last spring and it was done in little snatches whenever we were all able to meet up. I was on the road constantly for two years with Bob Mould, or Carl Newman, the Mountain Goats especially, and Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar or whomever. It was whenever I had a break in touring and Mac and Laura could take a breath from Merge and their families. So, we'd grab three or four songs at a time and did it that way. The interesting thing was, we didn't have a whole lotta time to work on them together, whereas in the past, we'd really rehearse the songs, almost to death in a way. I'd do four-track demos of the song myself, kinda obsessing over them and sinking it into the ground in a way. But this time, Mac pretty much wrote the songs on his own and would send us demos with guitar, vocals, and keyboards and we learned the songs. We'd rehearse them for two days and then go in the studio and record them, which really lent them a spontaneous vibe, which we really didn't have, personally for me, since maybe On the Mouth. We did the record with a guy named Scott Solter who I'd worked with on two Mountain Goats records. He lives near Charlotte, North Carolina and I thought it'd be cool to bring him into the mix because he has an interesting way of working and getting a great performance outta you. So, it was a great combination of things. We did way more takes than we've ever done before of songs but it still has a nice, fresh vibe to it.
You mentioned the members of Superchunk who had to make time for the band. You mentioned your self, Mac and Laura ― does Jim not have a say in this at all?
Oh, of course he does!
You didn't mention him at all. You were like, "Families, I was on tour. Jim? Who cares?"
No no, Jim has, what I think is an incredibly cool job. There's a small chain of used book and record stores in North Carolina and he's the eBay guy for these stores where, if something desirable shows up that they wouldn't normally put on the sales floor, he's on it. So, really, he has the most flexible schedule.
Okay well, you were kinda slighting him and I just wanted to clarify that he had a say in whatever happens with the band.
Yes, never slighting.
And in general, I just wanted to highlight his existence because you failed to do that.
He lives! Jim lives. That's the title of our next album! (laughs)
That might be a good idea. I understand that Superchunk's approach to this new record was kind of a throwback to the way you used to operate, in that, as you said, Mac came in with the basic framework for each song, as opposed to you all writing songs together the way you had for your last couple of records and―
Oh, sorry? I am babbling a little bit…
(Laughs) I love to do that to Tom on the show.
You're totally right to cut me off. Me, with my high-minded Canadianism ― we're just not a polite people.
(Laughs) That's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Canadians.
So brash and cutting each other off all the time. Anyway, I was gonna say, that in re-visiting an older process where Mac comes in with his songs for you guys to learn, is reflected on Majesty Shredding, which does seem to possess more of the exuberance of your earlier records, as opposed to some of the more measured pop of Indoor Living or Here's to Shutting Up; do you see that?
Oh definitely, yeah. I have no idea what his writing process is like at this point but, speaking for myself, the fact that there wasn't a lot of time to learn the song and to do it was really cool in that it allowed me to come up with a part, rehearse it with them a couple of times, and not think it to death. It just lent itself to a very organic, instantaneous approach.
As fans know, Mac has another band called Portastatic that's been around as long as Superchunk has and, I know in some circles, people see the two projects intertwining, where Superchunk songs start to sound like Portastatic or vice versa. Being in Superchunk, do you ever hear a song by Mac and think, "I dunno if this one is for us per se?"
I actually had the opposite thought once when I saw him play with Wilco, maybe five years ago. There were two songs that he played where I thought, "Oh my God, those woulda been great for us." Yeah, I'm sure on our last record, there were moments where I thought there were songs that woulda been better for Portastatic.
You're a comedy writer and performer on The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling. How'd this show come about?
It's based in New Jersey and Tom and I met in 1993 at a Superchunk show ― Superchunk, My Bloody Valentine, and Pavement. How's that for a classic bill? We kinda hit it off just talking about Chris Elliott. Tom had a radio show on WFMU at the time and we remained friends with a certain rapport. In 1997, he has a different show on WFMU and he had this idea where I'd call in as this author who just wrote this very stupid rock reference book called Rock, Rot, and Rule. Basically this guy just judges all rock acts based on whether they rock, which is good, they rot, which is bad, or if they rule, which is the best. So we did this call and had this whole backstory about the guy and people called in, thinking it was real, to really ream this guy. The call was a lot of fun and we ended up putting it out on a CD a couple years later. Then we just started doing more calls with me as various characters and we've been doing it ever since. It's 10 years later and we're still doing it and putting out these 'best of' CDs and the show can be heard at www.wfmu.org and it's on Tuesday nights, from 9 to midnight, eastern time. It's a nice outlet to release frustrations.
So, do you work with Tom beyond the radio show?
That's pretty much our thing but we've written for some Cartoon Network Adult Swim shows. We helped write some episodes of a Tim & Eric show called Tom Goes to the Mayor, which was their first show. Tom was a writer and executive producer on the show Monk. What else? I wrote some episodes of an Adult Swim show called Squidbillies. So, things like that.
Tom often sounds angry on his show; is he an angry man?
Well, I think like all of us, he gets annoyed at things but he's able to talk about all of it on the air. He feeds off of other people's annoyance as well. I think it's more of a persona at this point; he's a very nice guy.
Has he ever gotten really angry at you?
Not that I'm aware of.
You just never know with him I guess; he's an enigma. So I guess you think you're pretty funny; what makes you think you're so funny Jon?
All the awards I've gotten I guess.
Have you won many awards? I didn't realize that.
Well, there is an award show system in your country and they're always on TV. You've got the Emmys, the Tonys, the Grammys, the Oscars, The MTV Awards, the Teen Choice Awards ― it's just endless really. Have you won any of these awards?
Okay, well if we're talking about those awards then no, I haven't won any awards.
Have you won a Pulitzer Prize?
Oh! Well, that's amazing! I didn't realize that. Congratulations.
Thank you, thank you.
That must've been a lot of hard work; what'd you do to earn that?
Well, they only had this category for one year. It was like a porno thing I'd written. You've heard of those Penthouse Forums?
Yes, I'm familiar with them.
I did like a whole book of those.
Oh. And they gave you a Pulitzer for that?
Uh huh, yeah. You're acting like you don't believe this.
No, no, I was just trying to feign interest. But I mean yeah, congratulations.
You're very Canadian. And thank you.
Between music and comedy, do you have an artistic preference or find one more fulfilling than the other?
I like doing both and I've been lucky that there were years where I was writing stuff and not doing music and they go back and forth. It's been mainly music over the past three years and it's been nice to use those different parts of my brain.
Is there any other news or future plans that you can tell us about?
Well, we completed an east coast swing in Superchunk and ended up in Montreal.
Oh, did you ride the Bixi bikes at all? They have those there.
No, I don't do that. I will say that the angriest I've ever been at my band mates in Superchunk, and Jim will be back me up on this, was in Montreal. It was my first tour with the band in the late fall of '91. We were playing this club and, afterwards, we went to this bar and it was very late and I wanted to go to bed, Jim wanted to go to bed, but Mac and Laura wanted to keep drinking. So, Jim and I went out and just sat in the van for an hour and it was so cold. We still talk about it to this day, how mad we were.
Isn't it? What kinda people are they?
I don't understand why Mac and Laura are so terrible. I've interviewed them before and they seemed nice but, now that you've told this story, I retroactively think they're mean.
Yes, and I'll tell you another thing: Laura committed murder once.
Really?! Is that common knowledge? Is that news?!
Yes and she's prolly gonna be mad at me for saying it.
Who or what did she murder?
I don't wanna go any further into this okay? But there was a murder.
Well, those are the lowest things you can do to people really; leave people stranded in a van while you drink and then, while you're doing that, just go and murder someone?
Well, it wasn't the same night. I just wanna be clear, it wasn't the same night. It was the next day.
Oh okay, well that makes a difference. Never mind then.
And I'm almost positive she was sober when this happened too, so…
Okay, that's all well and good then. What about the future of the band itself; does it seem like you have more new records in you or are you taking it like some sort of addict, one day at a time?
One day at a time. We're gonna do a west coast swing in October and we're talking about going to Australia in late February and we haven't been there since '99 I think.
Well, that's exciting. So basically the band is in as full a swing as it possibly could be.
Exactly, considering we're adults now and my prison work release program situation.
Right, you have other factors to consider there. You've played drums with other folks too; any plans to do so any time soon?
The Mountain Goats just signed to Merge and we're almost done a record that'll prolly be out next spring. That's kinda my main gig at this point.
Even over Superchunk?
Yeah, yeah. Superchunk will do little spurts of things where the Mountain Goats is more of a continuing thing.
Right, the Mountain Goats don't spurt the way Superchunk spurts.
Absolutely. I think you just found the headline for this article. I want that to be the pull quote also. I want it to be the headline and the pull quote and I want it to be on the cover of what I'm going to be on the cover of too.
Okay, can do. All right, so you've got the Mountain Goats record. Can you tell us anything about it? Did you say it was completely ready to go?
No, I said it's almost done!!!
All right, geez, sorry. There was a lot going on there with the spurting and what not.
Yeah I know. It's almost done and I'll be jumping back and forth between those two bands, touring wise next fall. So there's that and hopefully some Bob Mould stuff, and whatever comes up.
Did you not replace Brendan Canty in Bob Mould's band?
I've been playing with him for a couple of years and Bob just plays when it comes up. Brendan I think, at that point, just had too much going on; he has like four kids and a full-time job.
Yeah, I just wondered because both of you ― Brendan from Fugazi, you in Superchunk ― are two of my favourite drummers of all time.
Well it was funny because the call kinda came outta nowhere and I was lucky because I ended up going from the last show of a Mountain Goats tour to Bob Mould the next day.
With no practicing?
No. I played with him for two years and we rehearsed once. That's our big joke (laughs).
Well, thanks for your time Jon.