Just Making Records: An Interview with Portastatic

Jon Langmead

Mac McCaughan creates string charts and listens to tropicalia while running Merge Records, and he doesn't mind if you haven't listened to Superchunk.

Mac McCaughan, as a member of Superchunk, as Portastatic, with numerous side-projects, and as the co-founder of Merge Records, has given music fans plenty to digest. Having completely passed over Superchunk when they were still a full-time concern, I'm always amazed when a friend will, at seemingly random moments, declare an undying love for the band. Having had this kind of impact in the past can complicate things when trying to put across your new band, especially when it was touted in the beginning as a home-recording side-project. But picking up with 2003's excellent Summer of the Shark, Portastatic records have taken on a new focus and strength; many critics called 2005's Bright Ideas McCaughan's best album released under the Portastatic name. There were also EPs in between and the 2006 soundtrack to director Matthew Bissonnette's film, Who Loves the Sun? McCaughan's score is a diverse and stunningly beautiful hidden gem.

In 2006, McCaughan also composed a score for the film The Unknown and performed it live with the full-band version of Portastatic as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. Portastatic has expanded from being exclusively McCaughan's one-man studio project into allowing room for contributors in the studio as well as a live unit touring this fall.

Though the older works stand on their own, it's not much of a leap to hear it all coming together in grand fashion on the newest Portastatic release, Be Still Please. Heavy with strings and layers of other instruments, McCaughan puts it across with a growing confidence and skill as a writer and arranger. He remains actively involved with Merge and gives every indication of being as restlessly interested in music as ever. On the day we talked, he was leaving for a family beach weekend, and despite persistent phone cutouts and the fact that the interview was scheduled to start late in the afternoon, he never once seemed to be distracted or less than interested in talking.

To be honest, I never really listened much to Superchunk so I'm really only familiar with Portastatic.

That puts you in an interesting demographic because for most people it's the other way around.

Is that frustrating?

It's not frustrating. You definitely want people to take Portastatic as a real thing and not as a side-project at a certain point. In some ways I'm really excited about people that never listened to Superchunk coming to Portastatic in kind of a fresh way.

I was listening back to everything I could get my hands on and reading back over old interviews, and it seems like when Superchunk was more active, Portastatic was seen as the more introspective side-project to Superchunk's catchy pop, which seems kind of stupid because it implies pop songs can't be introspective. It seems different now. Now that you don't have as much Superchunk stuff going on, the catchier stuff seems to be finding it's way into Portastatic albums.

I guess I always felt like Portastatic was even poppier than Superchunk, in a way. Not as produced because some of it was recorded at home and whatnot. I guess simply because it was never as much of a in-your-face, kind-of loud, punky kind of thing like Superchunk. I think it's gotten more focused in terms of Portastatic records over the years. The first few records had a lot of pop songs but they also had a lot of weird stuff in between. Starting with Summer of the Shark and Bright Ideas and the new one maybe most of all, there has been a honing of sorts of the pop song thing and leaving out some of the stuff that I think ... it had a place on the earlier records but it could be considered filler.

Assuming the old dichotomy that was setup had some truth to it, that Superchunk was the louder stuff and Portastatic was the quieter stuff, you can now incorporate the two of them so you can have a loud song followed by a more downplayed song ... the new record seems to have some of that going for it.

I think the new record, and like I said Bright Ideas to a certain extent but the new one even more so ... and the other change is that Portastatic has become more of a live entity over the last few years than it ever was before. And that means that you're playing these shows and you want to be able to not have it be this one-note thing. That was one thing we tried to do a little bit on the last couple Superchunk tours and, frankly, I felt like the audience didn't always have the patience for it that we did ... which was mixing it up and throwing some acoustic songs into the middle of the set and I feel like Portastatic is a good place to do that.

I like seeing shows that have kind of an arc rather than the same thing over and over again. With Portastatic there's more of an opportunity for that. We've toured more over the past couple of years so we've had a chance to become more of a band so we can do the rock thing but we can also get as quiet as we want to whereas I feel like Superchunk doesn't always have that freedom to get as quiet as we would want to, maybe.

With the whole arc idea applying to an album, a lot of reviews of the last album said it was one of the strongest and most cohesive of the Portastatic catalog.

In Superchunk, we did manage to do that on record, though maybe it wasn't what everybody wanted to hear. Then live it was kind of hard to rein it in once we got going. The new one, I really like the way it starts and I really like the way it ends and hopefully in-between it goes through some cool sections.

Your songwriting seems very eclectic. You draw on a lot of different areas that other bands might stay out of. Do you pick projects that are going to expand your songwriting toolbox?

I like to take on things that are going to be new. In terms of writing pop/rock songs I feel like I can always get better at doing that but I kind of have an idea of how to do it. Where something like a film score I'm being to get into a little bit of unusual territory I might not otherwise push myself into. It gives me an opportunity and a challenge.

The Who Loves the Sun? record is just flattening. It's not background music in the least bit. Listening to it on it's own, it's very present.

Those are all goals. It should be catchy but not dominating. There's something going on on the screen that you don't want to compete with but you still want to write something memorable. It's an interesting fine line that you never have to deal with if you're just writing songs and making your own records, which are all just like, "Listen to me" ... and all of the sudden you have to make this thing that's "Don't listen to me too much," but it still has to be good. In terms of being eclectic within a record, I like records like that, too. It's cool when you're listening to a record and it goes through different phases and different moods but it all sounds like it's part of an album.

One of the things I was thinking about when I was thinking about what this record should sound like production-wise was the tropicalia records, these records from the '50s and '70s that are all over the place. There will be a song that's almost like a bossa nova thing and then this crazy, distorted guitar will come in. This idea that nothing is off limits but it all works together in a beautiful way.

There's this woman named Joyce, I covered a song of hers on the Brazilian EP that I did, and she has great percussion and drumming stuff going on on her records and the percussion on 'Sweetness and Light', I was thinking about some of the stuff happening on some Joyce songs. So, these records are a good example of a production style where it's kind of all over the place but you never feel like it goes into territory that you wish it wouldn't.

Being involved in a lot of different mediums -- I know you paint -- and doing music and then being very involved in the business side of things; are there lines you have where you say, "I won't try this"? How do you establish your own boundaries as an artist?

I think that you know them when you get to them. You know it when you're there that it's not the right place to be.

Do you feel like doing the soundtracks impacts or influences the more rock-oriented records?

I think that what definitely happened was that it gave me a lot more confidence writing string charts and it gave me experience working with Carrie Shull, for instance, who plays oboe on the soundtrack. Doing the string charts for Bright Ideas, I was literally drawing out staff on a blank piece of paper and writing in the notes and the violin player had to really correct me on a lot of that. So this time I had my shit together more going in and knew that it was going to sound and knew that I could hand Margaret [White], or Laura Thomas, or Carrie, or whoever is playing on the new record a chart and it would work and that was a big thing and it made the strings go a lot faster and I think they sound more embedded in the music.

My idea going in was that the new records were becoming more cinematic in scope, because of the soundtrack work, but now I don't think that's true. Listening back to the older stuff, even the home-recording stuff had a bit of grandeur to it in its way. This stuff sounds, fidelity-wise, more expansive but it was always there in the music. Listening to the Merge podcast for Who Loves the Sun? on the Merge site, you talk about some interesting musicians you were listening to, sort of informing your work. Do you tend to do that for the rock records or do you find yourself going back to the old standards.

I'm always looking for new stuff and when you say old standards, I'm not sure who you mean. For me that could be anyone from Bruce Springsteen to David Kilgour. And I think a lot of what influences you musically is not so much, like, David Kilgour's guitar sound or something that specific, but more the idea of how people work with ideas and subtlety. In other words you might be influenced by someone's guitar playing or their lyrics or the way they sing but you don't really want to be like anyone else in that sense, but you might be influenced by those same people in, like, that person wouldn't use ten words here if they can say it in three words. Or those records that I love, I realized there's not ten guitar tracks, there's just one. So you can really hear what's going on. It's almost like you're influenced as much by the sensibility of the people whose music you love as the specific elements in that music.

Is it hard to be as much of a fan having a business relationship with some of the people you grew up probably having a lot of respect for?

No, it's not really. The reason we sign people to Merge is because we're fans of their music. We don't really stop being fans, I don't think. You start dealing with people on a business level and there's things you wish you didn't have to deal with but it is what it is. You've got a record label so you just deal with it.

One of the press clippings that came with the new record was an article that was a review of Bright Ideas, the new Steve Malkmus record, and the new Juliana Hatfield record. It was interesting because it talked about how some of the artists that you grew up with, as they get older, you can tend to brush them to the side a little bit even though, in a lot of cases, some of their best work gets made later on as they get more confident or as they become better at their craft. Have you found that to be that case? Is it something you think about?

I think you just hope that you keep doing something and, if it's good, people will notice. I think the inspirations for something like that is someone like David Kilgour, or Yo La Tengo, or Sonic Youth, or the Mekons ... people who have just been making great records for a long time and not doing anything too gimmicky or crazy. There's definitely some good inspirations out there. One of them was the Go-Betweens. I saw them last year, or maybe it was earlier this year, and it's a band I've so loved so long, since I was in high school basically, and they played a show in Chapel Hill and the place wasn't packed or anything but the people that were there were freaking out because they're the Go Betweens and they're still great and they're still making great records. So when Grant [McLennan] died, it was just such a sad thing ... but that was definitely one of the bands that is still inspiring to me.

Do you find that you can listen with fresh ears to people you loved when you were younger as they get older and put out new stuff or are there certain bands that you loved so much when you were younger that now as they put out new stuff it's just not the same?

In some ways I think it works the opposite way. I'm willing to forgive people. If I loved their first ten records why would I write them off now? Some bands I'm even more forgiving of as I get older because I feel like I've ingested what they do to the point that I can still find those things that I like about them in a record that other people, who maybe if it's the first record that they're hearing by the band might be like, "It's too slick or it's not interesting..." I feel like I can still find the core of what I like about a band. But a band like the Go-Betweens, you didn't have to look. They were just making great records.

I wonder if it's more bands that are operating on a smaller kind of scale. I was just talking to someone about the Who and how there's just no way their new material can be taken in the same way that their older stuff maybe impacted people. But bands who have operated smaller or who have stayed smaller ... you got into them because of their songwriting and you stayed into them because of the songwriting. It wasn't so much of a cultural thing.

I think that's true. In some ways Superchunk may have been part of a cultural thing that makes it harder for Portastatic to get across to as many people because it's just about songs. It's not about grunge, not that we ever felt that we were a part of that, but the media was certainly willing to lump into that anybody that they could find. It's not about rebelling against your parents; it's not about the Chapel Hill scene. It's more just making records and writing songs.

How has the success of Merge helped you as a musician and as a songwriter ... to know you have some sense of control over your product?

Well it obviously helps in that I know my label can't refuse to put out my record ... though I've been tempted to drop me. But also, I can come in here, as any band could if they wanted to, and sit with, for instance, Maggie who does the art and really work on it and just know at every step of the way what was happening. So, I think hopefully we're hands-on like that with all our bands and that's hopefully one reason people would want to be on Merge.

It's easy to kind of pick up a little bit on politics on the new record and in interviews I've read where you've talked about having a child and how that impacts your view on the world both positively and negatively. How do you approach that, because politics is such a tricky thing to work into songwriting?

It is, and you certainly don't want to come off as preaching, especially in a situation where you'd likely be preaching to choir anyway. I've never been that good at writing a really specific song ... like, "This song is about this" and then writing it out in words. "This song is about how it's really hard to find a pair of canvas tennis shoes in the summer when all you really want is a pair of canvas tennis shoes." I can't write a song like that; it's hard. And people who can do that, I think it's amazing. It's always been for me, relating personal experiences but in a way that's some ways abstract but with enough detail that hopefully other people can relate as well so that it generates both in me and in people listening some kind of emotional resonance. So, not so much, "I finally understand what this song is about. Now I can get into it." More like, "I like the images in this song. For me it makes me think about this thing that happened to me one time. And that's why I can get into it and not because I understand the exact thing he's conveying with this song." It's the same thing with politics or whatever ... however politics effects your life. Politics, especially in the last few years, and the situation in our country, at least, it's an incredibly depressing and frustrating place to live and see what goes on every day. That's the kind of thing ... there's no point in saying that. It's more like relating maybe day-to-day experiences that are affected by the world around you. You can have a feeling for like two hours and write a song about it. It doesn't mean you're walking around the whole day in that same mood. I think a lot more energy, in some ways, is generated in your brain by those kinds of feelings of frustration, or sadness, or being depressed. I think when you're happy and everything is going great you want to enjoy the moment; you don't want to go write a song about it. I think in some ways, "Song For a Clock" is about that. I tried to end the record on a slightly hopeful note ... it's kind of about the moments when everything seems to be going well. If only you could hang onto those moments.

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