Interview with Mac McCaughan (Merge Records, Superchunk, Portastatic)

Although the Internet has indeed had a truly liberating effect on the previously monolithic music industry, some have been a little too quick to see all record labels as slowly-subsiding malignant structures. Whilst it’s certainly true that the rock business has its fare share of corruption and greed, not all of its backroom facilitators are selfish manipulators.

After all, you could never ever accuse Ian McKaye’s Dischord Records of being an artist or fan-fleecing enterprise; Thrill Jockey could no doubt have dropped the inspirational likes of Eleventh Dream Day many times over if big sales were all that mattered to owner Bettina Richards; Domino Records wouldn’t be so generously reissuing classic Triffids albums if Franz Ferdinand and The Artic Monkeys were all that MD Laurence Bell cared about; and 4AD has remained remarkably patient with The Breeders despite Kim Deal’s less-than-prolific output since 1993’s Last Splash. We must, of course, add another key company name to this abridged-list of benevolent commercial ventures – Chapel Hill’s Merge Records. Fast approaching its 20th birthday, Merge is a beacon of organic sustainability, unpretentious traditionalism and pragmatic flexibility that is shining brightly in the music world’s supposedly darkest days.

But great independent labels can’t just exist on good-hearted working practices alone; they need great recording artisans too. Tellingly then, Merge currently has a sturdy roster of deservedly-big-sellers (Arcade Fire, Spoon, M Ward), loveable survivors (Lambchop, Superchunk, Portastatic), perennially-curious oddballs (East River Pipe, Robert Pollard, American Music Club) and promising youngsters (Wye Oak).

At the heart of the endearingly successful Merge story is humble hero Mac McCaughan. Not content with co-owning and running Merge as a satisfying ‘day-job’, McCaughan has also been the frontman of criminally undervalued indie-rock quartet Superchunk for equally as long (with fellow Merge proprietor/bassist Laura Ballance, guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster) – a band that just gets better and better with age, even though intermissions between releases have lengthened due to extracurricular commitments. But it doesn’t stop there, because McCaughan has also miraculously found enough time to deliver a rich and diverse body of work under his semi-solo Portastatic guise, covering everything from lo-fi post-rock, balmy electronica, leftfield-jazz, pastoral folk balladry, instrumental film scores and jangling power-pop in the direct/indirect pursuit of gilded-melodies.

Having shamefully only discovered much of the little Mac and Merge world over the last year or so, it seemed appropriate to mirror furious retrospective buying-penance via an e-mail enabled interview with the man in question, ably assisted by DOA’s “self professed Superchunk nut”, Matthew Smith, (who also supplies a supplementary parallel guide to the cream of the Mac-catalogue on an adjoining webpage: http://www.adequacy.net/interview.php?InterviewID=110).

Whilst 2007 seemed to have been a year of impending crisis for many record labels, from the ‘outside’ Merge appeared to have one of its most successful 12 months to date. Was it the actual case from the ‘inside’, from both critical and commercial perspectives?

This was a great year for Merge, and we sold more records than any year in our history for sure… as far as from a “critical perspective”, luckily we don’t peg any measure of success to what critics say! We just hope that in a year like this people pay attention to the great albums by The Clientele, Oakley Hall, Rosebuds, David Kilgour, Imperial Teen and all the rest in addition to Spoon and Arcade Fire. We work hard towards that end!

With the imposing and rising power of the Internet, do you think that people have been too quick to dismiss the crucial and benevolent supporting role that record labels like Merge can provide to artists and music fans alike?
Some people may dismiss it, but hopefully the artists we work with realize what we (and other great labels out there) have to offer. Mainly that’s doing a bunch of work that an artist often doesn’t have time or energy for, while trying to make records and tour.

Do you think that in some ways the ease of accessibility that the web provides is sometimes confused with the independence that conventional ‘physical’ releases can still possess, given that some people seem a little quick to put all their faith in near-monopolies like iTunes?
I think you’re asking if a physical copy of an album – CD or LP – still has a specific appeal and I’d say that yes, it does. We’ve always run the label under the assumption that there are music fans out there that think like we do, and that want what we want, and I would still rather be in a record store looking at records and CDs than browsing webpages or looking through menus on my iPod. Don’t get me wrong – I love my iPod and the convenience it provides in certain situations, but I think that CDs and LPs sound better, and are more fun to listen to, and provide a context (the art, liner notes, etc) that’s important to me as a music fan. It’s what hooked me as a kid and still appeals.

What do you think about the more free-form models of releasing music that some older artists – who have overtly indicated their disillusionment with older channels – are pursuing? I’m thinking here of the likes of Kristin Hersh with her CASH Music endeavour, Trent Reznor and Radiohead. Is there a risk that established or long-serving artists could lose focus on the creative process due to the distractions of self-dissemination or even sustain their career on good faith, not good material?
Well, I think you’d have to assess that on an artist-by-artist basis, but I don’t see Kristin Hersh or Radiohead favouring a cool technology over their art, which is making music… I think sometimes it’s fun and useful to explode old ways of doing things for the fun of it, or just because you can (in the way that Radiohead can), but our focus has always been on the art and not the medium, and I think it will continue to be.

There has also been a lot doom-mongering about the future of the album as an art form. But without its benevolent structuralism aren’t we in some danger of drowning in a sea of songs and/or a flood of computer files?
Well, if someone wants to drown in that sea, it’s certainly there for them! I buy music online sometimes, but it often gets lost in my iPod or computer. Everyone listens to music in a different way I guess, but again I go back to my feeling that Merge is most often selling our CDs, downloads, and LPs to music fans, who tend to enjoy the album as a format. With artists that I love I want to hear the whole thing most of the time, even if I have favourite songs on every album. Likewise I think that the artists on Merge tend to make albums, not collections of random songs (though singles collections are sometimes my favorite records).

Do you think that digital and physical formats will co-exist for some time to come?
I think they’ll co-exist for awhile to come, though I also think that for those who prefer to download their music we need to figure out ways of delivering all the things they love about an album – the art, liner notes, the music itself in a hi-fi form, etc – in the digital realm. I think when we give people the download of an album that they purchase on vinyl we’re just giving them the best of both worlds, and if it doesn’t cost us anything to do that, then why not?

To what do you attribute the longevity of Merge? Would you see the combination of adaptability (e.g. pioneering free downloads with vinyl releases), traditionalism (e.g. strongly maintaining the back-catalogue on CD and vinyl) and cautious sustainability (e.g. not opening an official Merge office abroad) as being key factors?
I think cautious sustainability is a pretty accurate description of our approach to the music business, and the reason that we’re still here. We’ve certainly grown over the years, but in an organic way. Having two records in the Top 10 this year is great for us, though it also puts us in the slightly uncomfortable position of growing a bit faster than we’re used to… in other words we’ve increased the size of our staff by at least three people over the last year, when for the first 17 years of our existence we were hiring people at about the rate of one person every year and a half! I’m kind of joking about our rapid growth, but it’s true that you have to grow to accommodate success, but that success on that scale may not roll around every year, so you’ve got to be prepared for that somehow.

Ultimately though, does an innovative and long-running independent label’s means of production, distribution and commercial exchange matter little if it hasn’t got durable and quality ‘products’? For example, would Dischord have been as important without Fugazi, would Thrill Jockey have lasted as long without Tortoise and The Sea And Cake, and would Merge have floundered without the bedrocks of Superchunk, Spoon, The Magnetic Fields and Lambchop?
Well, I think you can have great intentions and an artist-friendly approach to running a record label but if you’re putting out bad records you’re not going to be around long! We’ve been lucky to work with great artists, and artists who are dedicated to what they do. You mention some real bedrocks of the label (Lambchop may be the longest-running Merge artist not named Superchunk) but every time we begin working with a band we see it as the beginning of the same type of relationship and look to them to make amazing records. We recently signed a new band called Wye Oak from Baltimore and they played in Chapel Hill the other night so we all got to see them play for the first time. We all left the club incredibly excited about how great they were live, and looking forward to everyone else discovering them now as well.

On a slightly different tack, you were recently invited to speak at a US Senate Committee on ‘The Future of Digital Radio’. How did this come about? What do you think they took out of your speech and what did you learn from the whole experience?
That was pretty wild, I was incredibly nervous when giving my statement, I was sure that the sound of my heart pounding was going to come across the mic. I’ve known Jenny Toomey – who started the Future of Music Coalition with Michael Bracy – since the first Superchunk tour, and they know that I’m interested in the issues they work for, both as an artist and label owner, but also as a citizen who loves music. They needed someone from my angle to talk about the limited access that an independent label has to the commercial airwaves and I was glad to do it.

To the best of my knowledge, 2007 only saw two proper new Superchunk tracks released, but they were certainly strong ones. The first of which, the “Misfits And Mistakes” single, certainly made a big impression for such a low-key release – at least amongst the writers of DOA that is! Did that take you pleasantly by surprise?
I guess I didn’t see that much written about it, though I’m glad some people noticed! I really like the song and the way it came out. We did a demo of another new song at the same time – “Learned To Surf” – that I think would be on our next album.

Does “Misfits And Mistakes” give any indication of the direction that you might take on the next Superchunk LP or was it more of a memorable in-between-album-stand-alone-affair that you’re renowned for?
I have a feeling if/when we finally make another record it will indeed be along the lines of “Misfits And Mistakes”… a little more punk and a little less precious than Here’s To Shutting Up and Come Pick Me Up. I think at a certain point we were trying to do a lot of different things and while sometimes it worked really well and I like those albums, [but] it became a bit like trying to put a square peg in a round hole… we don’t do “delicate” very well and I can save that for a Portastatic record.

How often does Superchunk get together these days? Is the current Superchunk ‘hiatus’ likely to end with a full batch of new recordings in the next year or so?
Yeah, we’re all busy with other stuff, I have two kids, Laura has one, and Jon also does a fair amount of writing comedy for TV and stuff… so it’s hard to get to a point where everyone can dedicate the time it takes to write songs. But we have about half an album already written, so my hope is to get the rest written and recorded this year! We’ll see; I’ve said that before.

What drew you into covering Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” for the Guilt By Association compilation? Are you fans or was it merely a good pop song that translated well into the Superchunk idiom?
Radio, other than college radio, is pretty terrible around here, but a few years ago I found that some of the best songs were on the hip-hop and R&B station called 102 JAMZ or something. I really liked all those Destiny’s Child singles. I think I did a demo of how I thought the arrangement could go, so Jim and Laura and Jon wouldn’t bail on me as having a cockamamie idea.

Do you have any plans to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the group (and Merge) next year? Could a 2CD compilation of the all the ‘hits’ and the rarities excluded from Tossing Seeds, Incidental Music and Cup of Sand be considered?
We’ll definitely be doing stuff to celebrate Merge’s 20th anniversary, but I don’t know about any Superchunk anniversary releases – I feel like the rarities are pretty well covered! Though we do have some good live recordings and we could continue the “Clambakes” series.

As a very late-comer to the charms of Superchunk, I’ve been working my way, more or less backwards, through the discography. To me, it feels that you became more of an ‘albums-band’ since Indoor Living, with a lot of the key singles and EPs providing the strongest moments prior to that. Is that an assessment that you might understand or accept?
I think you’re right about that, though it wasn’t intentional. It did however coincide with us beginning to write songs as a group, as opposed to myself bringing in a completed song. We started that with Here’s Where The Strings Come In and by Indoor Living everything was written from scratch by all four of us in the practice space.

Do you have any personal favourite records in the Superchunk repertoire?
They all make me cringe at certain points, but I like them all for different reasons at the same time…

Turning to Portastatic now; does it bother you that the operation is still too often referred to as just a ‘Superchunk side-project’? With Superchunk on a sabbatical, do you feel that Portastatic is now your ‘main’ band?
I guess since 2001 Portastatic has really been my main band. Since Superchunk stopped touring for Here’s To Shutting Up (we did a brief tour for the Cup of Sand comp. in 2003), I’ve released four albums and multiple EPs under the Portastatic name, and toured after each album as well. It’s frustrating when you get the sense that people aren’t listening to the Portastatic albums but that they’re waiting for a Superchunk record, especially since albums like Bright Ideas are about as close to Superchunk as Portastatic is ever going to get. But you can’t decide who your fans are or what they’re going to do, so you just try to make the best records you can and hope that people find them.

How have things changed in terms of live shows, promotion, releasing albums, etc. between when Superchunk began to when Portastatic became a more traditional band/touring set-up?
Well, I used to do a lot more solo Portastatic shows – I still do sometimes, and probably will at SXSW. But since Summer of The Shark (which was recorded at home but more “rock” than previous Portastatic records) and especially Bright Ideas (which was essentially recorded live as a band in the studio) I’ve tried to tour with a band and it’s been really gratifying. Jim from Superchunk is often on bass, and my brother Matthew usually on the drums. Margaret White tries to join us on violin when she can; she’s amazing. Live it’s a much looser affair than a Superchunk show, we do songs from all the Portastatic records, often different arrangements of older songs, or acoustic versions, and we know a lot of covers. A Superchunk show is spontaneous in that we don’t write a set-list until right before we play and it’s always different, but we never “wing it”. With Portastatic we try to play one song every night that we’ve never played before, it makes it really fun, and we usually have audience members onstage to play percussion and stuff.

Musically, instrumentally and personnel-wise you’ve covered a lot ground with Portastatic, do you think that’s made it harder for people to follow the recorded trail? Has Portastatic’s relative lack of democracy been the most liberating and driving force?
Perhaps I’ve made it more difficult to ‘get into’ Portastatic because people don’t know exactly what to expect, but aside from the instrumental soundtrack albums – which are marked as such – I think the focus regardless of the setting has been on good songs and cool sounds. Lack of democracy for the most part has been very liberating, though at certain points with each record when there’s no one to ask “does this suck?” It’s kind of frightening.

Musically and aesthetically-speaking, how much do you think that latter-day Superchunk records have absorbed the more overt experimentation of Portastatic?
We never really got that ‘out-there’, and when we did I don’t know that it worked that well. You can’t force people into a mindset that is not their own, I will say that. I like that we broadened our pallet but I feel like we never fully committed to something other than what we are known for, and if you can’t fully commit then you can’t fully execute.

Have you ever consciously ‘compartmentalized’ your lyric-writing for both groups?
I don’t really have to because it’s just a different thing generally. It’s hard to explain really but somehow certain things just “make sense” more for one or the other. Having said that, I can see a few specific Portastatic songs from recent albums – “White Wave” for instance – as working for either one.

You’ve also deployed Portastatic as a soundtrack-composing vehicle; has such work been a challenging change of discipline or just a natural progression?
Both I suppose. Until the last couple [of] Portastatic albums there have always been some instrumentals on the albums, so doing entire albums of instrumental score music was not only natural but something that I really looked forward to as liberating from the task of having to write lyrics and just concentrating on the melodies. We have another score – for a silent film called The Unknown – that we performed live with an 8-piece band at the Seattle Film Festival, but the sound company lost the DAT of the live performance so there’s no record of it. The idea of re-recording it is too exhausting (and expensive) to contemplate, but it’s a drag that I wrote these charts for an hour’s worth of music and we have no record that we ever played it!

There’s a bewildering amount of choice non-LP Portastatic rarities floating around, is there any chance of a Cup of Sand-style anthology sometime?
At some point, for sure. I think the problem is I let it go so long that now it has to be 3CDs or something, so it got really daunting. Also, there are lots of covers which makes it an expensive proposition because you have to pay mechanicals on all those tracks. For a comp. that won’t sell more than a couple thousand copies, it starts looking really complicated! But hopefully we’ll do it in the next year or so.

Perhaps more importantly, are you currently working on an all-new Portastatic record?
Not working on anything at the moment, as we have a four-month old kid in the house, as well as a four-year old, so at this point I’m just trying to make it through the day without hurting myself (not succeeding at that either as I herniated a disc in my back recently… lovely signs of aging!) or anyone else! But I have worked on the beginnings of some new Superchunk material, so it’s conceivable that would happen first. Of course if everyone else seems to be blowing that off then I’ll go back to a Portastatic record.

Is it sometimes hard to resolve the inevitable ‘conflicts of interests’ and clash of priorities from being ‘signed’ to your own label?
Not too difficult… I guess it might be if either band was still a full-time proposition and selling lots of records, but no not really.

What is the typical arrangement between Merge and its artists? For example, Touch & Go has – or had – the ‘handshake-deal’; is it an album-by-album agreement for Merge artists?
We used to have handshake-deals only, but went to paper contracts a few years ago (I think Touch & Go has also, though I’m not positive) when it became clear that the rest of the world wasn’t going to cooperate so much. Our deal is a profit-split between Merge and the artists. We tend to do two-record deals, or sometimes just one record deals. Our thinking is that if we do a great job then the band won’t have a reason to want to leave.

With The Magnetic Fields being the only Merge band I can think of to jump to a major label, there appears to be a lot of loyalty between the artists and the label. With the popularity of M Ward and the Arcade Fire has there been an increased interest from the majors?
Trail Of Dead and Verbena you can add to that list, but those weren’t terribly surprising or terribly missed. In the case of Stephin Merritt it was really hard to fault him for wanting to explore those waters – we’d been working together well for a long time and he’d just released his masterpiece, so if he was ever going to do it, he picked the right time. I like the new [Magnetic Fields] album, Distortion, a lot, though it’s hardly commercial!

Finally, my Stateside colleague at DOA wanted me to ask if you agreed that Chapel Hill’s ‘Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe’ has the best breakfast not only in the Triangle, if not all of North Carolina. What do you say?!
Hmmm, I haven’t eaten there in a long time because it tends to destroy you for the rest of the day, but if that’s what you mean by “best” – then yes! Their waffles certainly are delicious.
Suggested Links:

Matthew Smith’s Essential Albums from Superchunk and Portastatic
http://www.adequacy.net/2008/02/interview-with-mac-mccaughan-essential-albums-from-superchunk-and-portastatic/
Merge Records: www.mergerecords.com

Superchunk official website: www.superchunk.com
Portastatic official website: www.portastatic.com