The term “indie rock” is so widely used that it has come to mean drastically different things to different people. It’s had a strange life over the past 25-odd years, one that weaves its way through significant changes in musical styles and cataclysmic shifts within the record industry. In many ways, the story of the term is also the story of the band Superchunk.
The term indie came into wide usage in the early ’90s to distinguish such bands from those who had signed contracts with major labels in the wake of the chart-topping successes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Indie rock was as much an ideology as an aesthetic sound—the decision to do things oneself, on a grassroots level, rather than selling out and sacrificing autonomy for fame. (Major label bands, by contrast, were described as alternative, in an effort by corporate interests to market their product as a cool token of a rebellious counterculture).
Superchunk was at the forefront of the first generation of rock bands to be independent by choice, rather than by default. Formed in 1989, the Chapel Hill-based quartet had already self-released a handful of singles (including the timeless and beloved “Slack Motherfucker,” which remains its signature tune) and recorded the full-length No Pocky For Kitty when the major labels came calling, eagerly scooping up dozens of underground rock bands and hoping to discover the next big thing.
It would have been easy for Superchunk to become an also-ran alternative band of the early-’90s, but instead it stuck with its peers and released several albums through Matador Records. When Matador signed a distribution deal with a major label, Superchunk stayed with its own label Merge (formed in 1989) and issued records alongside other bands in the burgeoning indie community.
Superchunk’s sound is catchy but raw, taking the sharp energy of post-hardcore punk bands and adding a wry accessible sensibility. Superchunk writes anthems for crowds in basements and dive bars, rather than sold-out football stadiums. Despite working with the same basic ingredients, the band could never be mistaken for a group like Green Day. Superchunk’s down-to-earth, homemade attitude wasn’t just a fussy detail of its behind-the-scenes career decisions—it was something you could hear on it’s records.
The Superchunk story parallels that of numerous other groups from the same era. The seeds had been planted throughout the ’80s (Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is an essential primer), and now the fruits of that labor were emerging. For listeners, indie rock was not just a group of bands, but a lifestyle choice.
Since 1989, Merge (still operated by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance) has grown to become one of the most successful labels in independent music and is currently home to Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Magnetic Fields. Bands on Merge records have won Grammys, topped Billboard’s charts, and become household names, but Merge remains independently owned and distributed.
That success story parallels the widespread popularity of indie rock in the popular sphere. Alternative music waned throughout the ’90s; electronica failed to catch on with the general public; and pop and rap topped the charts until digital music distribution and economic collapse gutted the mainstream industry’s once-astronomical income.
The early century success of bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes proved to bean counters that rock bands still had commercial viability, especially if they were marketed as scrappy underdogs. They had all the flavor and charm of the underground indie rock movement, even if they were distributed and promoted by corporate conglomerates. Suddenly, indie was no longer an ethos or a set of down-to-earth business practices, but a flavor, a genre, and a lifestyle whose accessories could be bought at the mall.
Indie sensibility has bled into our wider culture and is used to describe everything from music to restaurants to haircuts to high school social cliques. Part of this is due to increased interest in genuine cultural alternatives, but a lot of it is also pop culture appropriating the cachet and cool of independence for its own ends. The lines have become increasingly blurry, with genuinely independent efforts finding major success while the majors have plumbed all but the darkest depths of the underground.
One of the curiosities of indie rock’s mainstream success is the growing ambiguity over what it actually sounds like. Throughout the ’90s the movement fractured into dozens of fruitful (and often ill-defined) genres—forward-thinking and strange-sounding groups like Tortoise, Mogwai, and Stereolab found shelter under indie rock’s shabby but inclusive tent—and that diversification has only grown in the 21st century.
If Superchunk exemplified the cut-and-dried parameters of indie rock in the early ’90s, then Sigur Rós embodied many of the delights, puzzlements, and contradictions of it one decade later. It had peculiarities that would’ve denied the group mainstream prominence before the indie rock revolution. Not only did the lengthy songs contain little percussion or forward momentum, and few stylistic signifiers familiar to the general public, but they were all sung either in Icelandic or in a wordless, made-up language coined by frontman Jónsi Birgisson (few non-Icelanders could spot the difference). Yet the gentle attitude and exotic allure made it intriguing and accessible. The group’s sophomore album Ágætis Byrjun was first issued in the last months of 1999 by the cutting-edge UK stalwarts FatCat, but within a year its songs were appearing in popular films, TV shows, and commercials—its romantic, pseudo-orchestral ballads caught the ear of a wide spectrum of listeners, right at home in coffee shops, yoga classes, and dorm rooms everywhere. Sigur Rós has shifted its sound over the past decade, exploring a variety of pleasant sonic territories, but it remains popular, and widely recognized as a major figure in the contemporary indie sensibility, whatever that may be.
On Monday, September 23, both Superchunk and Sigur Rós play shows in Charlottesville. Superchunk will be at the Southern Café and Music Hall with Spider Bags opening. Sigur Rós appears at the John Paul Jones Arena.
Share your thoughts on the evolution of indie music in the comments below.