In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: As the frontman of Superchunk, “Mac” McCaughan has made some of the best, most beloved independent rock music of the past three decades, beginning with 1989’s Superchunk up through the excellent new I Hate Music, released August 20 on Merge Records, the label he founded with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance. Over the course of 10 studio albums and numerous singles and B-side collections, the band has perfected an unmistakable strain of guitar-heavy power-pop, one that has distinct punk origins but has grown to accommodate a more varied palette, from the organ-laced songs of 1997’s Indoor Living to 2001’s subdued Here’s To Shutting Up. Like its phenomenal predecessor, 2010’s Majesty Shredding, I Hate Music is vintage Superchunk, which pretty much makes it one of the year’s best albums by default.
“Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” (from 2013’s I Hate Music)
The A.V. Club: This is the song that has the actual line, “I hate music.”
“Mac” McCaughan: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right. It does. It’s funny because, when I wrote that line, and that’s the first line of the song, of course I immediately thought about The Replacements song, “I Hate Music,” which I really like, but once I finished writing the song, I was like, “It just makes sense,” so I left it in there. When it was time to name the album it was really hard to get away from that. Once that was on the list of possible titles, everything else seemed boring. Once, “I Hate Music” was out there as a possibility, it was hard to steer clear from it.
We’re working on a video that addresses this in some ways. It has a positive and negative side to it. The positive side is about bonding over music and music as a thing that, if you share a particular like of a record or a song or an artist or something like that with a friend, you often remember that. That’s the sort of connection that really stays with you, whether it’s a really good friend or someone that you barely know, but you remember, like, “Oh they also love this band. I saw them at every show that band played in our town.” That kind of thing. It’s a strong connection. Then in the song, the “I hate music” aspect is talking about getting to an age where things happen, people get sick, you get old. Things happen in your life, where even that thing that seemed the most important, if music was the most important thing in your life from the age of 15 or whatever, all of a sudden doesn’t seem that important anymore, or music isn’t doing what you thought it could do or what you want it to do for your psychology. That line is about, “Well, is that a dead end? Then where are you at?” If even that thing that was the most important thing doesn’t seem meaningful in certain moments, how fucked are you?
AVC: This is the 10th Superchunk record, so is the song about being exhausted with music too?
MM: Not so much exhaustion as in just being at a loss.
AVC: The lyrics aren’t referencing that you’re sick of music, but you say: “What is it worth? It can’t bring anyone back to this earth.”
MM: When you’re 25 you don’t need it to do that, or want to think about that.
AVC: Who is Jackie Mittoo?
MM: He was a founding member of the Skatalites. He’s an awesome organist, keyboardist, and electronic piano player who made a bunch of records under his own name and also plays on a lot of other people’s records, and did some Studio One stuff.
AVC: Is that a reference to bonding over somebody?
MM: It could be any record, really, that you share with someone that you love. This was just a particular example of that. Finding this record by someone that maybe you and your friend discovered at the same time, and then later talking about it like, “Man, that record is amazing, isn’t it?” I have a lot of records by Jackie Mittoo, but it’s just one of those things where, it’s like talking about that moment of discovering something that someone else is discovering at the same time and both being really into it and bonding over that.
“FOH” (from 2013’s I Hate Music)
AVC: Let’s talk about “FOH” too, because that, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” and “Trees Of Barcelona” seem like reflections on being in a band, even though that’s not really a theme of the album.
MM: It certainly wasn’t set out to be an album about being in a band, but I think there’s definitely an aspect of music as a role in your life, kind of thing. And “FOH” takes the language of being in the band, like “front of house,” like the person doing sound out in the room and applies that language to other situations. Again, it goes back to that feeling that we talked about of “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.” If you listen to the words, it talks about the band, but it also talks about being in your own house and not wanting to face anyone, or see anyone from the outside world, like “I’m back here in the dark, in a room by myself because I just don’t want to see anyone.” You hope that everything is kind of normal out there, but you don’t actually have the energy to go find out. So, hopefully in the front of the house someone is just doing stuff that needs to get done for everyday life, but you don’t feel up to it yourself. I think that everyone has moments where they don’t feel like facing the real world, and that’s talking about that aspect.
“Phone Sex” (from 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up)
MM: It’s funny, because I should probably listen to it again also, just to remember exactly what I’m talking about. It’s really just about a long-distance relationship and two people who live across the country from each other. At that time, I didn’t live across the country from my wife—she wasn’t my wife yet—but I was traveling a lot. So it’s about that distance—either from just being away from home, or imagining two people living across the country from each other, but maybe they’re watching the same disaster on the news kind of thing.
AVC: And this was before 9/11, though the album came out a week after it.
MM: It was before 9/11. What’s the word I’m working for? Ennui’s not the right word, but the distance.
AVC: There’s a line about making an appointment for phone sex, and there’s something so dispiriting about that.
MM: Mmm-hmm. It’s a dispiriting idea.
“Precision Auto” (from 1993’s On The Mouth)
MM: It’s one of our fastest songs still, I think. The initial thing was the super-repetitive guitar part. I think we’ve done that a lot in songs where there’s a repeating thing and the chords are kind of moving around. Around that time, I remember I was living with Jack McCook, who was in Superchunk on the first record, and he had this Fender Mustang guitar. It was always sitting around, unplugged. I was playing that a lot, and sometimes I would write songs or parts of songs on that unplugged, just because you could kind of hear what was going on more, without everything being super loud. That was a fun guitar to play. So a lot of times, and probably in that case also, it started out as a little riff, just messing around on that. Because then it was always fun to take whatever was written in that way and have everyone play it really loud in practice. So, it probably just started with that repeating riff and then Jim [Wilbur, Superchunk guitarist] and Laura playing something, figuring out the stuff that would be moving underneath. The title is from an auto-body, I don’t know if it’s an auto-body or just an actual mechanic’s shop called Precision Auto in Chapel Hill. We would drive by that sign all the time. That’s how that ended up in the song, because grammatically it doesn’t make any sense.
AVC: There are a lot of Superchunk songs that are inscrutable, like it’s not obvious what the song is about. The title may not reference what’s in the song, or in this case, the title’s mentioned in the song, but the meaning isn’t really clear. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to figure some of these out.
MM: I’m sorry that you spent so much time on that sentence. [Laughs.] Because a lot of them aren’t about anything in particular.
AVC: When we were planning your One Track Mind, we went back and forth about a bunch of songs, and you said, “Well, there’s not really a story to it.”
MM: A lot of them start off about one thing and then end up about something else, or there’s a certain phrase that works or sounds good, and then I’ll try to build around that. I think that still happens. I think it used to happen more, maybe just because I wasn’t as good at writing lyrics, or we were writing so many songs that I was kind of like, “How many ideas can you have?” But I’ve never really been bothered by that idea that you can’t figure out what something is about. I mean, one of my favorite bands is The Verlaines. I’ve never really been able to understand what Graeme’s songs were about, but it didn’t really matter because I liked the words and they sound good, and I’m happy to just kind of make up my own idea of what they’re about. I think I’ve always been fine with that with Superchunk also, with people having their own idea about what something means or what something is about.
AVC: You also don’t want to ruin it.
MM: No, they have their whole thing built up in their mind, and then you’re like, “Actually, it’s about going to the store.”
“Detroit Has A Skyline” (from 1995’s Here’s Where The Strings Come In)
AVC: “Detroit Has A Skyline” is another example of the song’s meaning not being especially clear.
MM: It’s like what I said about “Phone Sex.” Especially in the mid- to late ’90s, we were touring so much, and all the songs were about that, being away from home and traveling in general. I think “Detroit” is about that back and forth of you’re somewhere, you’re in a town and you’re not familiar with it, maybe the weather’s shitty, maybe it’s winter and it’s gray, and it just seems crappy. But you talk to people who are at the show, and they would say, “We like living here.” Seeing both sides of that. You just want to be home, so everywhere seems kind of shitty compared to that. But wherever you are, there’s someone that really likes that place who lives there and thinks it’s great. You’ll be trying to get into mindset about it and trying to appreciate where you are, when you’d really just rather be home.
AVC: Superchunk took a break after Here’s To Shutting Up and didn’t release another album for nine years. Did you find that your headspace cleared when it came to writing, like you didn’t feel as if there was nothing new to write about?
MM: I think that’s a good question. I don’t know. Even though the whole time Superchunk wasn’t making records, I still made a lot of Portastatic records. I think there does have to be some variety of experience that you’re living to inspire you as opposed to like, “Now we’re on tour again, now we’re making a record again, now I’m on tour again.” That cycle. One of the reasons we took a break was because we got tired of that cycle: having to make a record because we’re having to go on tour, because that’s what you just did. I like all the records we made. I don’t think we ever took a record off, or phoned it in on any of the records that we made, but I think we were feeling almost a little burned out about the time we were done touring Here’s To Shutting Up. I think not doing that for a while definitely gives you other perspectives. Everything you’re doing really gives you something to write about. I always think about this quote, and I think it was Sammy Hagar who said it, I can’t remember, but the gist of it is, if your girlfriend broke up with you when you were like 15, you could write about that for the rest of your life. There’s some stuff that you can always draw on, because you have the universal feelings and you can get back to that if you need to. But I think it’s preferable to also have some other input. [Laughs.]
“Throwing Things” (from 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty)
MM: You’re asking me about a song I wrote 25 years ago, but I think that’s about pursuing someone that you feel like you can’t quite get to in the way that you want. You can’t quite connect with someone in the way that you want. We still play that song a lot. I like that song. I read a funny thing—I don’t think this applies to “Throwing Things” so much, but it may apply to a song like “Precision Auto”—Greg Cartwright, I read an interview recently where someone was asking him about maybe the Oblivians or some early records of his. He said, “Yeah, well, when you first start writing songs, or when you first start a band, all your songs sound really angry because that’s before you realize everything’s your fault.” [Laughs.] Which I think is very appropriate. You’re a teenager, you have angst about your job or your girlfriend or your family or whatever, but you’re not old enough to even really understand what it’s about or express it in any super poignant way. If you’re successful, it can still come out as some sort of energy that’s understandable even if the exact meaning is not.
“Sidewalk” (from 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty)
AVC: “Throwing Things” and “Sidewalk” always seemed cut from the same cloth. Are they related at all?
MM: I don’t think they’re related, though they may be the same chords, I don’t remember. We haven’t played “Sidewalk” in a while. “Throwing Things” to me feels more romantic or something, but “Sidewalk” comes more from living in a small town like Chapel Hill, hearing people complaining about it. People want to live in wherever, New York or Seattle, who knows, and I think that song is more about, “Why don’t you just move there?” [Laughs.] I think it’s a typical small town thing, bitching about where you live.
“Like A Fool” (from 1994’s Foolish)
AVC: We talked about people’s preconceptions of songs, and fans brought a fair amount of them to the songs on Foolish, because the album was written after you and Laura broke up. How much of that is accurate? In Our Noise, you say you weren’t writing about that.
MM: I was never able to, or trying to write real specifically about things like, “Okay, I have this feeling about this person, and I’m going to write a song about it and describe what’s happening in our relationship.” That was never a desire of mine. I put the same thing on other people’s records. At that time, if I was listening to California by American Music Club or something, to me those songs sound very specific about specific people and maybe they were, but I never saw myself as someone that could do that. I maybe saw it as something to aspire to, but I never saw myself as someone who was really in the position to even try to write a song that very specifically told a specific story that was based on fact. I think the line in “Like A Fool” about having a dream that I chased down your car—I probably did have a dream that had some scene like that in it, but then going from there it becomes more like imagery. I think it’s good to have a starting point that may be based in reality, and a lot of times that’s something that someone says, either someone you know or just a conversation you overhear or something. Let’s say you overhear a snippet of conversation or have a dream or something, it’s really enough to be like, “Okay, I know what this song is about.” It’s more like, “Okay, well that’s a starting point,” and then you invent working out from there.
AVC: Where you finished isn’t exactly where you started.
MM: Yeah, and a lot of times maybe the thing that’s based in reality, or something someone says, or some situation gives you a feeling or emotional place to start, and everything else is trying to convey that using stuff that you’re making up, really. But it feels like it fits into that emotional space. Because, in other words, if a song is too all over the place or too incoherent, then it doesn’t really have much power, I don’t think. It doesn’t make you want to keep listening probably. If you’re like, “I never really knew what all these songs were about,” well they give you enough of something to want to wonder what they’re about at least. [Laughs.] I think if stuff is too wacky, you just don’t care at that point, right?
AVC: Yeah, it just becomes like an exercise in improvisation.
MM: Yeah, so I never really wanted to do that, but I think that it’s more like giving a song enough emotional structure for people to hang whatever of their own shit on there. I think that’s a useful kind of song to have.
AVC: How did “Foolish” come from “Like A Fool”?
MM: I think it was just more like an experiment, because it was just that same riff over and over again, played faster but with more of a weird… We just brought a synthesizer on tour, and we were messing around with that on that record. I still have that—it’s a Mini Korg, and that was on “In A Stage Whisper.” It’s got a couple things on the record. It just didn’t seem like a “real” song. It made a good B-side.
“On The Mouth” (from 1993’s Mower and 1995’s Incidental Music 1991-1995)
“Mower” (from 1993’s On The Mouth)
AVC: Like “Foolish” isn’t on the album Foolish, “On The Mouth” isn’t on On The Mouth. What was the reason for that?
MM: With “On The Mouth,” we recorded that single with “Mower” and “On The Mouth” before we made the album. We recorded the single in North Carolina and we made the album in California. So, we’d already done the 7-inch, and I guess “Mower” just struck us as a more solid song to keep and re-record and put on the record, even though I think the single version is better. I think because we already had “Precision Auto,” we already had “Flawless,” we already had some fast songs on that record, and there are a lot of songs on that record, I think we just didn’t see the need to re-record “On the Mouth.” As a fan, I always liked following bands that were pretty prolific, and that if you bothered to keep up with them, you would find things that the casual fan wouldn’t find, in terms of songs, B-sides, and things like that. There’s a song that was going to be the B-side to the “Jackie Mittoo” single that I really like, and we talked about it being on the record, and just it didn’t fit in some way. I’m happy for it to be a B-side that people will find. I’d rather someone say, “Wow, even the B-sides are good,” than to have someone say, “Uh, just sounds like a B-side. I can see why they didn’t put it on the record.” [Laughs.]
“Home At Dawn” (from 1995’s Incidental Music 1991-95)
AVC: Speaking of strange B-sides…
MM: Yeah, “Home At Dawn” was another one that ended up coming out on Speed Kills 7-inch, with that fanzine Speed Kills. They would do a single with each issue. I think we recorded that, if I remember correctly, the same time we recorded “The Ribbon” single—“Ribbon” and “Who Needs Light.” I feel like we recorded “Home At Dawn” at the same session, but I’m not totally sure about that. Again it’s just kind of like us trying something different and us trying something that I don’t think we’ve ever been terribly good at, which is slowish songs like that, but I’m glad about the way it came out. It’s super-minimal in a way. Again, I was kind of happy to have its own existence in this weird place. We’ve played it live a couple times. We played it live last year or maybe the year before, something like that. I’ve never felt like we’ve been very good at doing subtler, kind of fragile songs, but I think that one turned out okay.
AVC: But pretty much in every album you’ve had a slower, but maybe not like you said “minimal” song.
MM: Even the slow songs on Foolish aren’t that slow, or like on “Swallow That” on On The Mouth. It starts out slow, but it gets super loud and crazy and everything.
AVC: Is it almost like a crutch to go back to that?
MM: Well, at the time it wasn’t a crutch because that’s just what we did. But I think it’s certainly tempting to do that if you feel, “Oh this is too stripped down.” I think that with “Home At Dawn” we left stripped down, which I think was good, but again I think we recorded it between albums so it wasn’t like an option for it to really go on a record.
“My Gap Feels Weird” (from 2010’s Majesty Shredding)
AVC: The phrase “my gap feels weird” came from your daughter, right?
MM: I don’t know how old she was at the time, probably 4 or something like that, and I was driving her to school in the morning, and she just said that out of the blue. [Laughs.] I looked back and she was messing with somewhere that she had lost a tooth, and she was like, “My gap feels weird where I lost my tooth.” I thought it was hilarious. I don’t think I immediately thought, “I’ve gotta write a song about that,” but I think I probably wrote it down or remembered it to tell my wife, because it was such a funny phrase, but also could apply to so many things. [Laughs.] The song ended up being more about feeling that age gap, of going to a rock show and being older and not recognizing anyone else there, being into the show and being into the band and everything. I don’t even remember what band it was, but then feeling self-conscious like, “What do all these young people think about old people being here?” [Laughs.] “Are we getting the same thing out of this music, or something totally different?” I think it’s a combination of affection for people 20 years younger than me, but also alienation, of those things kind of co-existing.
AVC: Everybody who stays involved hits that point. It seems like it only gets worse as you get older.
MM: I remember saying to Frank, who owns the Cat’s Cradle—and this is even years before that—just looking around at some show and being like, “Who are all these people?” He’s like, “It’s like college town, new students, same age every year.” [Laughs].
“Slack Motherfucker” (from 1990’s Superchunk)
AVC: Speaking of gaps, here’s a song you wrote 20-some years ago, and it’s still one of the most beloved Superchunk songs ever, it was rated one of the best songs of the ’90s by Rolling Stone. Is that frustrating at all, because certainly there are a lot of songs you’ve written since then that you like much more.
MM: I don’t think it’s frustrating. It’s funny because if you look at set lists from a certain part of the ’90s, we just stopped playing it for a while. I guess we were sick of it or something. But at a certain point you’re like, “What would be the worse is if no one gave a shit about any of your songs [Laughs.], so just be happy that people have favorites and they like the songs.” We play it all the time now. We play it pretty much every show. It’s always fun. I think if it wasn’t fun to play, or if it was one of those songs that doesn’t really work live, we wouldn’t still be playing it. [Laughs.] I think it so long ago transcended whatever it was about and it’s more like a fun song to play and sing along to. People just enjoy swearing out loud—that’s one thing. [Laughs.] “Motherfucker” is a very satisfying word to say.
“Martinis On The Roof” (from 1997’s Indoor Living)
MM: That was actually one of the few songs that was about something specific. Our friend, Gibson Smith, he was a lawyer who lived in Chapel Hill. He went to shows and was an all around good guy. A little bit older than us, but we had parties at his apartment. There were three apartments in this building overlooking a butcher shop in Carrboro. So, he would have parties where he would make martinis, that was his main thing and have Cheetos in snack bowls. But you could access the roof from his kitchen via the window. You’d climb out his window. So people would go up there and hang out on the roof. I remember during the Merge Five Year [Anniversary], we had a big party after one of the shows and there was a crowd of people just hanging out up there. He died on I think it was on Easter actually, April 1 happened to be Easter. I think that’s how it worked out. Anyway he got in a car crash, obviously just out of the blue. So that was a song about him. Like I said it was kind of strange because we don’t have a lot of songs that are so specific, but he was a fairly colorful guy, so there was a lot of material.
AVC: Do you play that song on tour?
MM: We do sometimes. We played it a lot when we were touring for that record. We have so many songs at this point, and we try to play a different set every night. There are some songs like that where it’s like, “Let’s do ‘Martinis On The Roof,’ tonight.” It’s like, “Well, okay, if we have time to practice it.” That’s a song that’s not as straightforward as “Slack Motherfucker,” musically.
AVC: That’s not really a song you’d drop in the middle of the set, either.
MM: No, you’re right. It’s almost always the last song of the set or an encore.
“Hello Hawk” (from 1999’s Come Pick Me Up)
MM: That’s a pretty weird song. That song has locations in New York, like First Avenue New York and also out in the country, on a dirt road kind of thing. In some way it’s similar to songs on the new record where you get to the point where you just wish that some magic thing could happen and take you out of whatever situation you’re in. [Laughs.] It can’t happen obviously, but I think it’s something that probably everyone thinks about at times.
AVC: Like literally a hawk sweeping you out?
MM: Yeah, that was the idea, but obviously that would be painful, probably deadly. [Laughs.] Just more like wishing that, maybe those little incremental things that you could do, that you’re thinking about in a situation to change either the mood you’re in, or the situation you’re in, but what you really wish to happen is to change everything all at once. That song is kind of inscrutable. I don’t totally understand it myself.
AVC: That was more of a typical Superchunk song for that record, which was the beginning of the band taking a step back from its typical sound.
MM: I think there are songs on that record like “Good Dreams,” which is more like, people see that record in one light, but if you go through it there’s a lot of loud guitar-rock songs on there also. But we wanted to be different. That’s why we worked with Jim O’Rourke and why we had the strings and horns on there. We wanted it to be different, but at the same time, I think that in some ways it’s seen as more different than it actually is. [Laughs.]