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The chapel hill band's frontman talks about his music, his record label, and the difficulty of working on both simultaneously.
Superchunk singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan is more than just the squeaky-voiced singer of an acclaimed indie-rock band; he's a record-label mogul, running Merge Records and releasing albums by groups like Lambchop, Beatnik Filmstars, The Magnetic Fields, East River Pipe, Verbena and more. The Onion recently spoke to McCaughan about his bands (Superchunk and Portastatic), his career, his record label, and why he passed up a chance at lots and lots of money.
The Onion: You're 30 years old now, and you've been doing Superchunk and Merge for a long time. Were you in any bands before that?
Mac McCaughan: Yeah, I was in bands starting in high school. That was probably '84, '83. Only toward the end of high school was I ever in a band that actually played in clubs. So I graduated from high school in '85, and I've been in bands ever since then.
O: When did you decide that you wanted to be in a band for a living?
MM: I don't know, it's weird. I think that... My parents listened to so much music when I was growing up that I think that really had something to do with it. I mean, they were encouraging in terms of, yeah, learn to play the trumpet, you know? Be in the school band. But in terms of rock, I think just hearing it so much... My dad took my younger sister and me to see The Kids Are Alright (1979) when it was in the theater, and I think that was definitely, like, "Wow." It was when we were on vacation, and we went back to the hotel room and were jumping around on the beds, you know, imitating Roger Daltrey.
O: Do you still jump around on beds?
MM: [Laughs.] No, not too much. Hard to jump around on a futon, you know? Not as satisfying. But yeah. I think that, you know, it's something that a lot of kids think about, but you don't think, "Okay, that's gonna be my job when I grow up." You know, you're like, "Wouldn't that be cool to be in a band?" And then, you know, all of a sudden the band is your job.
O: Does it really feel like that?
MM: Yeah, sometimes, because it is your job, you know? You have to do things that you don't want to do sometimes, because that's your job. There are definitely times when you're in Norman, Oklahoma, and you're like, "I don't want to be here, but I can't go home, because this is my job." You know, I'm getting paid to do this. It's like any job: With a lot of jobs, there are times when it's not great. But there are times when it's great, and there are times when it stinks, so you just have to take the bad with the good. And again, it's better than any other job I could think of. When I'm recording with my four-track at home, or when Superchunk is in the studio, or when we're... Half the time, when we're on stage, it doesn't feel like a job at all. You know, it's where I want to be. The worst part of it is touring, though. The shows themselves are great; I mean, that's the best part about it, that you're playing live. It's just, you know, 10 hours in the van. There's a lot of waiting that goes on on tour, which I think is really the worst part of it, aside from the obvious being-away-from-home part of it. I mean, you're riding in a van for eight hours, and then you get out and wait for soundcheck, and then you wait to play, and then you wait to leave the club. So it's a lot of waiting. Some guy said, you know, "Touring is like hours of boredom followed by seconds of terror," or something like that. I guess that was from somebody who had stage fright. Seconds of terror. Anyway, there are definitely times that it feels like a job, and like I said, we're under no illusions that it's not a job.
O: But it's a job you like.
MM: It's something that we want to do, and in order to write songs and record songs and play live, it has to become a job, and we have to pay bills with it. That's fine. You know, the other part that obviously becomes more businesslike is the fact that Laura [Ballance, bass] and I also do Merge, which means that when we're not on tour, we're in the office. It's not like working at IBM or something, but you have to be familiar with the bad part of the music business, which is the business partyou know, the fact that it's hard to make money. It's hard to sell records, and it's hard to get people to buy good records. But we've never had any sort of overwhelming philosophy, like, "This is what we do," or "This is what Merge is all about." I mean, I think that's why Superchunk and Merge both are as successful as they are, because we've always done stuff one day at a time. Things have grown organically. I mean, it is a business, the band and the label both, but we didn't set out for it to be that way. We didn't say, you know, "We're gonna shoot for selling 50,000 copies of this record; we're gonna have this many [radio] adds; we're gonna have a video played on MTV by the end of this year." We didn't really set unrealistic goals for ourselves. Or many goals at all, really. Which I think is important.
O: There was a major-label feeding frenzy around Chapel Hill for a while. Did you ever get into a situation where you walked away from money?
MM: Yeah, but we never got far enough so that we had a contract or anything. I mean, we had dinner with a couple people, we went to a couple people's offices, and for the most part, they were nice people. When Atlantic [Records] bought Matador [Records], there was a guy who basically said, "You could write a number down on a piece of paper, and that's what you'll get if you do this." And he wasn't trying to pressure us at all; he understood that we probably wouldn't want to, but he was just saying, like, "I know you probably don't want to do this, but obviously, I should tell you. I'm obligated to let you know what's going on, what's there, if you want it." So, you know, there's definitely a sense of walking away from money, but at the same time, we're often reminded why we didn't do that, in terms of seeing other bands get ruined by the way major-label systems operate. You know, when you deal with a major label, you're definitely going with a bottom-line sort of situation, you know? We'd just prefer not to. People try to turn it into some sort of ideological war that we're waging...
O: Like some indier-than-thou thing.
MM: Yeah, but it's just practical for us. You know, not everyone's in the position we're in. We're lucky: We can put out our own records. We can get good distribution through Touch & Go, which manufactures our records; we can have profitable tours. We can do all these things, so why shouldn't we do them? I mean, that's what we should do. That's what makes sense for us. If we felt like, "Man, we're making such great records, but no one's buying them," or more like, "We just can't figure out how to put them out," that would be a situation where you'd say, "Look, let's find someone else to put them out." You know what I mean? "Let's see if we can get paid for doing this if we can't sell them ourselves." But luckily, we're in a position to sell our own records, and to put them out, and to handle everything ourselves, so that's where we are.
O: Do you ever let yourself sit back at your desk and think, "I win. I never took anybody else's money. I got my own deal"?
MM: [Laughs.] I think I might be doing that a little bit more if, for some reason, Merge was wildly successful financially, you know what I mean? There's not much time for sitting back too much.
O: You've got six full-length Superchunk records, plus a couple of compilations, plus singles and EPs, plus three Portastatic full-lengths, plus another EP or two... Do you ever get bored with the music side of things?
MM: No, it's hard to get bored with it. I always have fun recording. There's definitely this fear of, like, "Well, what if I run out of ideas?" I think that probably everybody who's writing songs has that worry. And, you know, I think that's one of the reasons some of those Portastatic records have more instrumental stuff on them. Because sometimes it's more fun to not have to come up with words, and not have to sing, and just record music. It's not too much of a fear, and I definitely don't get bored with it. But you look for different approaches and things to keep yourself interested.
O: Eight years is a long time to be doing this professionally, especially without degenerating into self-parody, or playing state fairs.
MM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think everyone in the band is pretty aware of that. I think we all keep up with what's going on, and we're all fans of music, and, you know, we've seen a lot of bands that we liked go downhill, or whatever you want to say. We're pretty conscious of knowing what to do, doing something we're going to be happy with, doing something we're going to be proud of, or whatever. And there are people out there who are doing that, you know, like Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youthpeople who are still making vital records, however many years down the line.
O: Do you think it's maybe because you're making records for yourself and then just happening to be able to sell them?
MM: I mean, maybe, though it's weird. Of course, we are making them for ourselves, but I think to a certain extent we've always had that angle: making records that I would get excited about if I were buying records. I mean, you're making them for yourself as the artist, but you're also making them for yourself as, like, the fan, I think.
O: There are a lot of people who swear they never listen to the records they make. They say that once they make them, that's it.
MM: Yeah, well, I don't know. I listen to it a lot right when we make ityou know, just in the process between mixing and mastering and that sort of thing. I don't think any of us will sit down months later and listen to one of our own records. Which is kinda weird, though: Sometimes, if I'm taping them for somebody, it's kind of cool to hear stuff. Sometimes it's embarrassing, and sometimes it's like, "Wow, that was actually pretty good," and sometimes it's like, "Man, what were we thinking?" Not too much embarrassing stuff so far, anyway.
O: Have you ever thought of giving it up? Getting a day job?
MM: I've never really thought of that, actually. I mean, we've all had day jobs in the past. And there's nothing to say that we might not have to have them again in the future. But it's not really a consideration, I don't think.
O: You don't have any plans to become an accountant or an architect, or something like that?
MM: No, not really. Though, you know, I sometimes think, "Well, what if Superchunk broke up, and all the bands left Merge, and there wasn't anything left of what's going on right now?" Could I be happy working in a book store or record store, and just recording stuff on my own? I think I could be happy doing that, too. It sounds like Spinal Tap. You know, "I could sell shoes." But I guess I've thought of that.
O: You're in a couple bands, Merge has a million records out... What kind of time-management system are you on?
MM: A really bad one. It's not very effective, whatever my time-management system is. I never have enough time.
O: There's no official Superchunk daily planner?
MM: No. Like I said, Merge is sort of nine-to-five or ten-to-six, or whatever you want to say, so when we're in town, you know, we're in the office during weekdays like any other business. Superchunk tends to operate in spurtswriting songs, and then recording an album, and then going on tour. Those are very concentrated times of activity, and then we'll take a break for a while after a tour and not do anything, and then do another tour. And the thing about Superchunk is that when we are doing Superchunk, it's 24 hours a day, you know what I mean?
O: So work just expands to fill whatever time you have available.
MM: More like that, yeah. It means there's times when you realize you just have to sort of force yourself to take a vacation, because either one is waiting for you. If you're not doing Superchunk, there's always Merge, and vice versa. So it's hard to find time when you're just home, but not in the office and not on tour. It's hard to find time to just spend around the house, or go to the beach, or whatever. Because especially in terms of vacations or traveling, a lot of times you just got back from a tour, so you don't really want to travel. But then, if you stay at home, it's like, "Well, the office is there." And you know there's stuff you need to do. So it's hard to just stay away from it, too.
O: Does that ever keep you from making another Portastatic record?
MM: [Laughs.] No, I mean, that's one of the things that tends to happen when we are home, you know what I mean? So...
O: So even when you're supposed to be vacationing, you're not.
MM: Right, for the most part. [Laughs.]
O: Have you gotten any nasty letters from Jesse Helms?
MM: No, I think we're sort of small potatoes for him.
O: How'd that go? I know you helped organize that big anti-Helms rally, with... NARAL?
MM: Uh, MAJIC, actually. Mothers Against Jesse In Congress; it was a benefit for them. Okay, no, wait... VANISH was the concert. Voters Against North Carolina Incumbent Senator Helms, I guess. I mean, the concert was a success; we raised a lot of money, but, you know, he won. He won anyway. I don't think anyone was too shocked. I think that [Harvey] Gantt, who was running against him, seemed a little bit scared in this election compared to the time before, when Gantt almost won. But the sort of campaign that Jesse usedlike the sort of ad campaign that Jesse used right at the last minute to defeat Gantt the first timemade Gantt a little gunshy this time. You know, it almost seemed like he was afraid to say anything, because it was going to be used against him by Helms. There's a good documentary that's coming outI saw a screeningcalled Dear Jesse, made by a North Carolina filmmaker who is from the same town that Jesse's from. The format is sort of like a letter, like "Dear Jesse, we have a lot of things in common, you and me." But, you know, the filmmaker's gay, and he clearly doesn't really have that much in common with him; that's sort of the joke of it. And he just interviews people about like... It's very well-balanced because it talks about, like, why he is so popular, and why he gets elected time and time again. It's a good movie if you ever have a chance to see it.
O: You guys finally got Superchunk copyrighted as a name.
MM: Yeah, I think so.
O: Did that have anything to do with the Cartoon Network show of the same
MM: Yeah, you know, that's sort of what made us think, "Man, we should really do something in case all of a sudden they're coming after us saying, 'Hey, you've gotta change your name.'" You know? I mean, there's a peanut butter, there's the Cartoon Network, there's a font. We saw an ad for a computer font called Superchunk.
O: Bought it yet?
MM: No, but it's annoying, because if you saw the ad, you'd think, "Oh, it's a Superchunk record," because it says, like, "SUPERCHUNK" in big letters. You know, and then you look at it closely. So it's kinda weird.