The indie-rock elder statesmen aren't stranded on tour, nor have they suddenly found themselves hopping freights for transportation. They're just getting set for another day at Zero Return, a local recording studio that uses half of an old railroad car as its control room. When they're finished, Superchunk will have spent 10 days at Zero Return and left with their eighth studio album, Here's to Shutting Up, released last month on the band's Chapel Hill-based label Merge.
"We generally don't like to record in Chapel Hill," singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan says. "Our schedules get so crazy when recording, it's better to isolate ourselves and not be distracted by thoughts of going home for dinner and stuff like that. It's not the healthiest lifestyle, but as a limited thing, it's fun to not see the sun."
Mac and the rest of Superchunk -- bassist Laura Ballance, guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster -- along with producer Brian Paulson (the first to man two Superchunk album sessions), may not be getting out much as they record Here's to Shutting Up, but that doesn't mean they aren't getting to know Atlanta's music scene. Just as they did with 1999's Chicago-recorded Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk expanded its sonic palate by reaching out to local talent.
"Last time, it was great being in Chicago, because Jeb Bishop, Ken Vandermark and Bob Weston were all there, and they're great horn players," McCaughan says. "It's cool to incorporate elements of the place you're recording. I don't think just being in Chicago or Atlanta makes a record sound different, but the people you work with gives [it] some different personality."
Just as Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke introduced the band to his city's notable musicians, two of Zero Return's owners -- engineer Rob Del Bueno and Brian Teasley of local concept-rockers Man or Astro-Man? (engineer Jim Marrer also owns a share) -- helped coordinate some choice Atlanta/Athens collaborators. Chris Lopez, whose band the Rock*A*Teens records for Merge, appears on one track. Pedal steel player John Neff, of Japancakes and the Star Room Boys, also shows up, along with his Japancakes bandmate, cellist Heather McIntosh. And Ana Balka of the White Lights lends violin to five songs.
The White Lights, who recently released thier self-titled debut CD, were the first local band other than Man or Astro-Man? to record at Zero Return after it opened in August 2000 (a smaller version of Zero Return previously existed outside Prattville, Ala.).
"Rob and crew are real go-go's," says Balka, whose violin has appeared on more than a dozen local CDs recorded at popular local studios such as Nickel & Dime and Chase Park Transduction in Athens. "They've got a really good studio over there. Their engineers are really good, and they've got that great board. So I think that's going to be a big draw for people to come to Atlanta. The word will get out that Atlanta has affordable studios and you can get what you can get in New York or in L.A. cheaper."
It also won't hurt that the studio has a solid group of indie session musicians it can call upon, something that hasn't been as acknowledged in Atlanta as it has been in, say, Athens. And with Zero Return's association with Man or Astro-Man? and now Superchunk, the studio will surely provide valuable exposure to Atlanta's slowly knitting indie-rock community. "That's what makes a scene: individuals doing well for themselves and taking steps to make themselves happy doing what they do," Balka says.
On this particular April day, what's going to make Superchunk happy is getting their record done. It's the last of their 10 days at Zero Return, and they still have plenty of work left. Like Come Pick Me Up, Here's to Shutting Up finds Superchunk drifting further from its punk roots as they become increasingly comfortable and effective using expanded instrumentation. Huge hooks still appear, of course, but rather than the steady diet of hard-and-fast that defined early Superchunk, the melodies are now supported by more intricate pop arrangements.
"In some ways you can do more interesting things with slow numbers," McCaughan says. "There are ways to write fast, catchy, melodic songs, but after awhile the limitations become obvious. There's only so many ways you can write vocals for fast vocals. And textures and instrumentation is limited. For the first couple records it was just pent-up energy -- like, 'Wow, we're making a record, we're touring.' But I think at some point it becomes easier to go in more directions when you slow it down. The longer we've gone on, the more thoughtful we've become about how we structure songs. It's not so much growing older as approaching songwriting differently. And we want the most space to execute the ideas we want."
Now that Here's to Shutting Up is out, the evidence suggests Superchunk made a good choice in picking Atlanta as the place to execute their latest batch of ideas. And despite literal readings of names, Zero Return is already returning lots to the local scene. Meanwhile, Here's to Shutting Up says a whole lot about Atlanta's indie-rock talents.
Superchunk plays Sat., Oct. 27 the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. The Glands open. Show time is 9 p.m. $10. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com
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