Interview with Mac McCaughan – Essential Albums from Superchunk and Portastatic

Superchunk

No Pocky For Kitty (Matador 1991; re-issued Merge 1999) – The second full-length from Superchunk is the first to feature long-standing 2nd guitarist Jim Wilbur. The album was shaped in true quick and cheap punk-rock fashion, recorded between midnight and 6am in just a few days with Steve Albini at the desk, all whilst Wilbur was battling a fierce bronchial infection. Pocky was where the early-Superchunk sound really came together, slowly shedding the Hüsker Dü influence and branching-out into moodier, occasionally slightly slower pieces. The album features classics such as “Seed Toss,” “Skip Steps 1 & 3,” and “Throwing Things.”

Tossing Seeds (Singles 1989-1991) (Merge, 1992) – If you’re not some sort of completist then you can skip the self-titled debut and save a few bucks on the out-of-print singles by going for this early comp. It contains versions of “Seed Toss” and “Cast Iron”, as well as the semi-legendary “Slack Motherfucker” and “My Noise” from the Superchunk album. Also included are two Sebadoh covers, The Shangri-Las’ “Train From Kansas City,” and the underrated “Garlic.”

Foolish (Merge, 1993) – Ahh, Foolish, perhaps the most polarizing album in the ‘Chunk catalog. Fans either love it to pieces or just kinda like it. This was the first studio album on Merge since splitting from Matador and the first that moved away from the hyperactive pace. Other factors for the change in mood have been exhaustively explored elsewhere; all you need to do is listen to figure it out. Armed with some of the most heart-wrenching words McCaughan had penned to date, Foolish is a great mix of faster songs (“Water Wings,” “Why Do You Have To Put A Date On Everything”) and slower quieter numbers (“Like A Fool,” “A Stage Whisper.”) It is certainly the darkest album they’ve done and a true turning point for the band.

Come Pick Me Up (Merge, 1999) – By now the group was working together on writing songs and the result is a brisk and light album that is arguably their best work. Where on earlier albums the songs could blend into one another, on CPMU each track stands on its own. Every song is punchy ‘n’ pretty, concise ‘n’ catchy, and blessed with the best lyrics McCaughan had penned up to this point.

Here’s To Shutting Up (Merge, 2001) – The last studio album from the band extended the Superchunk sound even further, adding pedal-steel and well-placed keyboards as well as featuring “What Do You Look Forward To?”, their longest song, clocking in at nearly 8 minutes. The word “mature” gets tossed around a lot but HTSU shows the quartet growing up without giving up the energy they’re known for. The following tour, which took place shortly after the 9/11 attacks, is documented on the highly-recommended DVD, Crowding Up Your Visual Field.


Cup Of Sand (Merge, 2003) – So Superchunk hasn’t released an album of new material in nearly 7 years. Take this into consideration: this is their 3rd rarities collection in a span of 15 years. There are artists that have released a paltry 2 albums in their lifetime and still get a greatest hits package. Superchunk can be forgiven for taking some time off. And it’s certainly not like they haven’t been up to other things. Across 2 discs, Cup Of Sand compiles various compilation cuts, one-off singles, B-sides, a few choice covers (Government Issue, Adam and the Ants, David Bowie), and the Laughter Guns EP. It’s perhaps the best place to start for an overview on the evolution of the band. Plus the liner notes are hilarious and worth the $15.00 alone.

Portastatic

I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge, 1994) – In-between touring for Foolish and preparing for the 5th anniversary of Merge, McCaughan found time to write and record the first Portastatic record. After a few singles under the new solo moniker, Brittle is more of a lo-fi affair, featuring a few instrumentals, more hear-rendering songs, and a slightly more mellow approach than Superchunk. That’s not to say there aren’t some rocking numbers however, as “Polaroid,” “Tree Killer” and “Silver Screw” testify.

Slow Note From A Sinking Ship (Merge, 1995) – As great as Brittle is, Slow Note is where the Portastatic project took on a life of its own. Between unleashing Superchunk’s Here’s Where The Strings Come In and touring with Lollapalooza, this little gem was unleashed. The idea to utilize more than just guitar/bass/drums started here, opening track “When You Crashed” begins with pedal-steel and well-utilized keyboards are showcased prominently throughout the album. Standouts include “San Andreas” and “In The Manner Of Anne Frank.”

The Nature Of Sap (Merge, 1997) – The first of the Portastatic LPs to get away from the lo-fi tag, The Nature Of Sap also relied more on keyboards, organs, and synths to move the melodies more than before. There are plenty of instrumentals to create an almost underwater mood throughout the album and it features Mac’s brother Matt on drums and Lambchop’s Jonathan Marx on several tracks.

The Summer Of The Shark (Merge, 2003) – Ten years since the first release under the new name and Portastatic became a full-on rock band. Here, McCaughan strips away any excess sound to create a great folk rock record. Underneath the wonderfully noisy Ira Kaplan like guitar squalls lies an undercurrent of folk songs in the vein of R.E.M. or Buffalo Tom. The Summer Of The Shark is where Portastatic officially became his main focus, going on tour with a full band for the first time.

Bright Ideas (Merge, 2005) – Continuing on with the ‘rock-band’ theme, Bright Ideas lives up to its name. The album is full of varying moods and styles, incorporating the soundtrack work he’s done with a broader sonic palette. It’s also at this point the songs became more direct lyrically, as though a threshold had been reached. Though there is a sense of fun (“I Wanna Know Girls,” “Truckstop Cassettes”) there is also a feeling of realizing some painful truths when it comes to reaching a certain point in one’s life (“Bright Ideas,” “I’m Through With People.”)

Be Still Please (Merge, 2006) – To date, this could be the best album McCaughan has ever released. Combining the rock-band elements of previous Portastatic and Superchunk albums with an earnest bittersweet folk influence made this my album of the year choice for ’06. Many beautiful moments abound from the sweeping strings of “Sour Shores” to the resonating cymbal splashes in “Like A Pearl.” Again, the words reach a breaking point, no longer full of the joyful hope we’re accustomed to but more shaded with tones of skepticism and despair.