“It’s a Gut Feeling About the Music”: An Interview with Mac McCaughan
After founding the influential Merge Records, the inimitable Superchunk, and the prolific solo project known as Portastatic, Mac McCaughan is finally ready to look back at his career, his bands, and those wonderful four-track recordings that he thought he lost 'lo those many years ago.
For the record, Mac McCaughan has never been a slack motherfucker.
On their eponymous 1990 debut, Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker" became an anthem for discerning Gen Xers, with McCaughan and Co. becoming the unlikely torchbearers for ushering indie rock into the nineties. With each subsequent release, Mac's songwriting talent rose to the forefront, and as he gained confidence, the visceral punk energy that buoyed the band began to fade into melodies. Coinciding with the formation of Superchunk, Mac co-founded Merge records with Superchunk bassist and then-girlfriend Laura Ballance in Chapel Hill, NC as a means of releasing Superchunk records and, if they had the time, release some of their friend's music. During this period, McCaughan began laying down four track odds and ends under the moniker Portastatic, and what began as an outlet for experimentation has become his unlikely legacy.
With two decades of full lengths and countless singles, Portastatic has outlived Superchunk, and the recent release of Some Small History (Merge) captures 20 years of McCaughan history, tracing the growth of the project from early lo-fi demos into the emergence of Portastatic as an enduring and consistently inventive indie rock staple. I spoke with Mac from his office at Merge Records about the journey of Portastatic, the hiatus of Superchunk, and building Merge into one of the most successful independent labels of the past two decades.
"With Superchunk and Portastatic, I guess I never looked that far ahead, and I certainly never thought I'd be looking back on two decades of Portastatic," said McCaughan. "Basically, I'd had a four track since high school, and I'd always record and mess around on it and starting in 1989 -- when Superchunk started -- I'd do a lot of demos on the four track, but then I'd also record stuff that I knew wasn't going to be Superchunk songs, things that didn't really make sense as a Superchunk song, in that they were acoustic or too quiet. So I accumulated all these recordings but didn't really know what to do with them. My friend Tom Scharpling had just started a record label, and he asked me if I wanted to put out a 7'' with these four track recordings. When it came time to release it, I had to scramble to come up with a name for the project, and that's how Portastatic was born. The name was a combination of Porta Studio, which is the name of the four track I was using, and then the word static. I just had to come up with something. It's really hard coming up with a band name that isn't terrible."
Some Small History captures out-of-print singles, compilations, and the basement spirit of Portastatic. All of McCaughan's influences can be felt, from the sparse, distorted fuzz of "Starter" to the acoustic outtake of "I Wanna Know Girls" from 2006's Bright Ideas, the songs run the gamut from the heart on sleeve balladry of Nick Drake, the pop giddiness of Big Star, and the punk spirit of The Replacements, all made singular by McCaughan's unique voice and delivery. "A lot of these songs I've never played live, which basically means I hadn't played them since the day I recorded them," said McCaughan. "I've been thinking about doing this release for such a long time, and it's one of those things where each time you put it off for a year, more stuff gets added to it, and it gets bigger and bigger and harder to wrap your mind around doing it. It was definitely interesting to go back and listen to the original four track tapes, because I had to mix them down again from the original four track masters. I had to borrow my four track recorder from my brother who I'd lent it to, and get out all these old cassettes, and during the process I found all these old odds and ends, half finished songs that I had totally forgotten about. It's hard to get nostalgic when you're listening to these old songs and thinking, 'Oh man, I wish I had done those vocals over again.'
"All in all, Some Small History was a lot of fun to put together," said McCaughan. "I was forced to be re-involved with those recordings and it kind of made me want to go back and work on the four track some more, maybe do some new recordings with that format. I've got a sixteen track, but a four track really forces your hand on some things. Back in the early days of Portastatic, I was working pretty fast, and Superchunk works pretty fast in the studio, so I was recording at home. I would stay up until four in the morning and record three or four songs in a night and write them at the same time, so writing and recording all kind of happened at once. Back in the early nineties, a lot of people were putting out 7" compilations and split-7" and stuff like that, and it was a lot of fun contributing to those compilations. Someone would ask for a track for their single, and you would say 'OK' and go home and record it that night. It was really exhilarating and in the spirit of that early nineties sense of collaboration. Portastatic is so different from a Superchunk way of working in the sense that Superchunk was a band collective and everyone had to be involved, and people had a certain expectation of what a Superchunk record would sound like, but no one really had any expectations of what a Portastatic record would be."
With Superchunk's last full-length release in 2001, Here's to Shutting Up proved an appropriate title for a group entering an extended hiatus. The band is still active, releasing compilations (2003's Cup of Sand) and archival live shows in The Clambake Series. They also pop up for the occasional gig, most notably a rally for Obama with The Arcade Fire in early 2008. "A lot of the hiatus was a result of us just being burned out from touring," said McCaughan. "The last tour we did was for Cup of Sand, but the last massive touring we did was for Here's to Shutting Up. We did Japan, Europe and the U.S. and it was right after 9/11, so airports and travel really wore us down. We do a few shows every year, and every time it's really fun and we have some new songs and a vague idea of doing a new record, but it's kind of hard getting everyone together in the same place. The Obama rally was great, and we got a bunch of people to vote in the primaries. We also played the Bumbershoot Fest, and we always have a great time every time we play shows. There is no bad blood or animosity or anything. Doing sporadic shows is a lot different then going on the road for eight weeks."
Without the relentless duties of fronting two bands, McCaughan has had time to focus energy on Merge, which has quietly grown into a bastion for emerging and legendary talents. The crossover success of the Arcade Fire, Spoon, and M. Ward has left the struggling major labels to take notice and wonder what is the secret to Merge's success and longevity. "There is no way to explain why certain things hit and others don't," said McCaughan. "It's easier to explain why a band like Arcade Fire or Spoon becomes popular because they have great songs and they're a great band. It's harder to explain why other bands don't become popular, because you feel like they're just as great. We don't sign a band if we don't think they're great, and don't think that other people will love them as well." In addition to signing new talent, Merge has also been able to court established acts as well (most recently securing Conor Oberst's first solo release for the label).
"Merge started branching out to bands that were not from North Carolina when Superchunk started touring a lot, and we'd meet people and see bands live, and ever since then it's kind of happened all different ways," said McCaughan. "It's really a matter of whether we like the music or not. We're not looking at the commercial potential or the bottom line. We don't try and narrow it down to one thing that we're looking for. We appreciate experimental bands and in some ways it's a gut reaction. A lot of bands we'll discover when they mail us music, or someone emails us some tracks, and sometimes it's just not the thing that feels right for us to do at the time, and sometimes it's the fact that we have too many releases coming out in a certain time period. Merge is a really small family, so things just work out or don't based on any number of reasons. Really it's not a specific thing ... it's a gut feeling about the music."
Meeting McCaughan after a Portastatic show at Chicago's Empty Bottle several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see how down to earth the indie-rock Godfather (and real-life father of two) is offstage -- and just how energetic he is when he's on. Throughout our interview, he is sharp and businesslike, a CEO for the slacker generation. "I think you can always make a record that you haven't made before, and you can always top yourself," says McCaughan. "Musically I'm always striving to do better work, and that's all you can try and do. With Merge, it's not a matter of growing the business to see how big and colossal it can be. We're just doing the best job we can with the records we're putting out. We were on Matador Records when we first started, and we learned a lot from Matador's founder Gerard Cosloy -- and their roster is certainly something to envy -- but I think we've always kind of done things our own way and learned as much as we could from the people we've worked with. The key to our longevity has been to not look too far ahead and to really concentrate on each release. We never think about where we're going to be in five years. That kind of thinking can get you into trouble."