Superchunk explores the area where punk and politics intersect
After nearly 30 years as one of indie rock’s most consistent bands, Superchunk’s legacy is secure. Yet the band’s latest album, the Trump-inspired “What a Time to Be Alive,” finds them more adrenalized and purpose-filled than ever, while their live show remains a can’t-miss proposition. Ahead of Superchunk’s sold-out Friday date at the Sinclair, singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan talked to the Globe about the perils of protest music, his own music-fueled political awakening, and why the kids might not need punk anymore.
Q. Have the new songs been going over well with audiences?
A. They’ve been going over really well. Sometimes when you start a tour, people aren’t familiar with the new record [but] people were familiar straight out of the gate and seemed really into the new songs.
Q. Has the political nature of this album led you to talk about politics onstage?
A. Sometimes I’ll introduce a song and say something about it, but I don’t really feel the need. I think people get what the record is about; it doesn’t need a lot of extra explaining.
Q. You recently told The New York Times that “most protest music is terrible.” Why do you think that is, and how did you avoid those pitfalls?
A. I feel like it’s easy to be preachy or a little bit obvious. There’s so much good journalism about everything that’s going on; you don’t want a song to be a version of that. I’m not trying to write “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” know what I mean? Ted Leo had a good quote in the Times article where he said preaching to the choir gets a bad rap, and I agree with that. He says it’s community-building, but in terms of art, you have to do that in a way that doesn’t feel obvious.
Q. Even the album’s angriest songs have catchy melodies. Was there a conscious effort to keep that element of excitement?
A. I think we’re good as a punk band, and that requires a certain amount of energy. If the subject matter is dire [and] the music was also super-mopey, it would be too much of one thing. I also think it allows people to enjoy the record on more than one level. You can think about the lyrics and absorb that energy, or just listen to the music and rock out.
Q. Do you think protest music needs to inspire change to be successful?
A. I guess I don’t think about it as either you’re making protest music or you’re not, and if you are, here’s the rules. We’re just making a record, and it happens to be about now. For us, not addressing what’s happening now would be strange, but there’s some bands that could do that and it wouldn’t be strange. I don’t think there’s any rules about it.
Q. “Reagan Youth” is about the titular ’80s hardcore band. What role did music like theirs play in your political awakening?
A. When I started listening to college radio, hearing punk rock and hardcore, and going to shows, that was so clearly political, even in the existence of it. The biggest band around [Chapel Hill, N.C.], Corrosion of Conformity, their songs were about Reagan intervening in Central American elections. That combined with things like the Punk Percussion Protest, which would happen in D.C. Even a band like Husker Dü, though their songs were more personal, just the sound of that band as a 14- or 15-year-old feels transgressive.
Q. Do you think that punk rock is still a gateway to political engagement for young people?
A. I’m not young people anymore, but I feel like it can [be]. I think discovering music on the Internet blunts what you might get from a band if the first time you hear them is someone giving you a record or seeing a flyer or going to a show. I feel like that spirit is alive in young punk bands, but the message is more readily conveyed in a live setting. Even a cursory view of what the students in Parkland have done, or talking to our kids and their friends who are teenagers, they’re way more politically knowledgeable than I was at their age. Maybe they don’t need punk rock as much, but I think there are a lot of young people who still see music as a way to build a community that has political intentions.
Q. Do you wish you had started addressing political themes in your music earlier?
A. I think we were always a political band in terms of playing benefits. During the Clinton years, the urgency wasn’t there; maybe it should have been. Superchunk wasn’t really making records in the Bush era, but there’s a couple [McCaughan side project] Portastatic records that do have political songs on them. In terms of Superchunk, I guess it just didn’t really make sense.
Q. Do you want to write more political music, or has this record satisfied that urge?
A. I don’t know. I don’t think about it like, “Well, we’re done with that, here’s the plan for the next record.” We just take things as they come.