by: ANITA OVERCASH
What a Time to Be Alive was influenced by the political turmoil and ongoing frustrations of the 2016 election and beyond. Have politics influenced any of your past albums?
I don’t think politics have ever influenced an entire album. We’ve definitely had a few songs that were politically influenced, but our outrage has risen to new heights and this is our reaction.
Was the writing process for What a Time to Be Alive therapeutic in any way?
Yes, though I’ve got to say, I don’t think I feel any less frustrated now. It turns out it’s not helping. Nothing is better. I’m still scared.
So maybe it helps more therapeutically to actually be constructing and/or playing the music?
Yes, it does. And I recommend everyone who plays music or writes poetry or anything to write about how they feel about all of this. While you’re doing it, it feels all right. It feels pretty good.
What do you think is the scariest thing about the times that we live in? And is there a song on the album that you feel addresses this fear?
The scariest thing for me right now is the environment because that’s the one that we rely on all around the world. We rely on the environment to be one that we can live in. The tide of climate change has started. It’s like the planet is an enormous ship and it’s hard to turn when it starts going in a particular direction. Actions should have been taken a long time ago. For anyone, right now, to deny science and carry on with things that hurt the climate further is just so irresponsible and insane really. Most people [in the government] have children or grandchildren and you would think that they would give a shit about the future. That’s the part of it that makes me feel the most scared and helpless and really freaked out. I can’t say if there’s a specific song on the album that addresses that part of it though.
You and Mac McCaughan designed the cover art for What a Time to Be Alive. Can you explain some of the reasoning behind the skull cup with flowers?
Mac had an idea to do a woodcut for the cover and he wanted to do a skull cup. After he did it, he asked me if I would do some flowers to go with it. I think the skull cup sort of represents death and all the bad things that are going on. A skull cup is kind of goofy and we’re all drinking from this skull cup, like not taking death seriously. I’m not sure. I can never get Mac to talk about his lyrics or to interpret his art for me.
It seems like the flowers might represent hope then. What do you think?
I think so. I think maybe out of this shit something beautiful will grow.
The new album features more guest backing vocalists than any other previous Superchunk album. You’ve got Sabrina Ellis (of A Giant Dog, and Sweet Spirit), Katie Crutchfield (of Waxahatchee), Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields), Skylar Gudasz, and David Bazan all featured on the album as guest vocalists. What made you all decide to incorporate these additional voices?
It’s fun for one thing, but also it’s a representative of how we’re all in this together and we all need to work together to express our frustration and hopefully change what’s going on with our political system.
Other than the extra vocalists on the new album, was there anything else that was different in the recording process for What a Time to Be Alive as opposed to previous Superchunk albums?
I used to stand in the same with Jon while he was playing drums, which I liked because it makes it easy to feel what he’s doing and be a more unified rhythm section. But he’s really loud and I have decided that I cannot be in the room with him or anyone anymore because the entire band is too loud. So now, when we record, in order to be isolated not only from their amps and the drum set but also from my amp, I wind up standing in the mixing room. It is the same room where the recording engineer is, which is different. I don’t really like it as much, but my ears wind up feeling better at the end of the day than if I was in there with them.
We tried recording at a new recording studio that we haven't been [before]. It’s this place called Manifold out in Pittsboro, NC. That was fun. It’s pretty isolated and it was a peaceful place to be with beautiful grounds.
You said you weren’t in the room with the band, but could you see them from where you were?
I could see Jon kind of, but I couldn't see Mac and Jim really.
Does that specific recording process make you feel isolated?
It does make me feel a little isolated. Hearing loss is very isolating in many ways. It not only makes it hard for people to communicate with you - it’s also harder for me to understand what people are staying. Very often, I feel bad making people repeat themselves and I stop saying ‘What? What did you say?’ I just try to act like I know what they said and then my reactions are probably off. It is very isolating.
I’ve read articles that they think that dementia progresses faster in people who have hearing challenges for that reason, so we’ll see what happens to my brain. I probably should see about getting some hearing aids or something. Though, I went to a doctor and they said that my hearing loss is really not that bad, so it’s kind of confusing.
The way I've had to change how I do things in the fact that I'm not playing live shows has isolated me socially from the rest of my band. It’s changed my relationship with them. I don't get to hang out with them the way I used to on the road. So, it's strange. It’s changing everything for me.
By not touring, I’d assume you’re spending more time working at Merge Records. And, it’s got to be busy with all the new bands that have been signed. There’s been more diversity (including people of color and females) with acts like Sneaks, Hollie Cook, Ibibio Sound Machine, Heather McEntire, Waxahatchee being signed on to Merge. Has incorporating more diverse artists been a conscious effort on Merge’s part?
I think it's something Mac and I sort of became conscious of. We’re not representing everybody well enough. We had fallen into this rut just because of what we’re exposed to with bands mostly being white males. But that said, I think we have had a pretty diverse roster, though some people may not think of it that way. We still don't have any rap artists. It’s just not enough to have one or two people of color and that’s sort of where we were, but because that is not representative of our world we’re trying to address in ways that fit in with our aesthetic and where our strengths lie as a record label.
What do you hope listeners take away from What a Time to Be Alive?
Whatever they want. I think it should be fun and entertaining and good to rock out to. If people want to take it as political inspiration, they should do so. My biggest goal is that I hope people will vote every chance they get - in every local election and in every primary. People need to become more politically engaged and if everyone does that, we will get out of this situation. I think we've gotten where we are because too many people just haven't been motivated to be politically engaged and to actually run for offices and to be involved in their local government. It seems like it's only the narcissists and crazy people who actually get to the point where they want to be president because it just seems like ‘who would want that job’ because there's just too many people doing it for the wrong reasons.