Mac Mccaughan, Superchunk, New Springtime Sounds
This 2022, February 25, Wild Loneliness, the next Superchunk album, will be released for Merge Records, the label managed by the two members and creative minds from the above-mentioned band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which are Mac McCaughan (voice and guitar) and Laura Ballance (bass). Several are the collaborators: Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley (Teenage Fanclub), Mike Mills, Sharon Van Etten, Andy Stack (Wye Oak), Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura, Tracyanne & Danny), Owen Pallett, Kelly Pratt and Franklin Bruno. Characterised by an insuspectable springtime light, Wild Loneliness signs a further development in Superchunk’s production and sonic poetry, which is always constantly-evolving. The record detaches itself from the other obscure period, before these pandemic times, during Donald Trump’s presidency in the US, that is an element that characterised the previous album What Time To Be Alive (2017, Merge Records). Wild Loneliness has a more melodic and baroque form at the same time, where more fluid lines, which appear in On The Floor more evidently, are coupled with a powerfully pop grandeur, which is especially emblematic in Highly Suspect, and, as we will see, there is any example of heterodoxy in that context like Refracting.Analysing the origins of that band, Chunk – the Superchunk embryonic form – were born to Chapel Hill in 1989 from the ashes of Metal Pitcher (with Mac, Laura and a member named Jeb Bishop), and previously Quit Shovin’ (when Mac played drums), any mouth before the Merge Records foundation. Formed by Jack McCook (guitar) and Chuck Garrison (drums, due to which was given that name to the band, through a typos to his name on a phone book in Chapel Hill – “Chunk” at the place of “Chuck”), which were substituted by the members Jim Wilbur (guitar) and Jon Wurster (drums), even now in the band, the Chunk/Superchunk sound at the beginning is influenced by the hardcore origins, but other experimental sonorities too, like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Buzzcocks, Fall, etc, mixing abrasivity and melody. Emblematic in those years (most precisely 1992, after they change the name in Superchunk, avoiding a confusion with other Chunk, a jazz group from New York), was No Pocky For Kitty (Merge Records), recorded with the Steve Albini (Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac) contribution; these two entities encounter themselves during a concert in 1990 at Cat’s Cradle (to Carrboro in Chapel Hill zone) where played Jesus Lizard (which got Albini as sound technician for) and Sonic Youth. The next year the band went to the Chicago Recording Company, the Albini basement, and they recorded what will be the album in three days. No Pocky For Kitty is permeated by caustic and melodic lines (between hardcore and American indie rock) which emulate a sunny sonic corpus of that period, where the above mentioned Teenage Fanclub (with a heritage in power pop genre) appears in.
Moreover, in parallel with Superchunk, McCaughan conducted a solo career, developing a writing through guitar, voice and synth too, beginning with Portastatic and then on behalf of his name (since the middle of ’10s). A most recent example is the album The Sound Of Yourself, released in 2021, September 24, another time for Merge Records. The essential elements were the “popster” attitude moved in electronic sonorities, as happened with a similar way in the first record on behalf of “Mac-McCaughan” name, that is Non-Believers. In The Sound Of Yourself a further lisergicity takes life, with some exceptions, and it is a happy mean of krautrock, post-punk and alternative pop/rock genres. Another aspect is the collaboration with Mary Lattimore, the harpist from Asheville (North Carolina) and based in Los Angeles, who can claim exhibitions with several international artists like Thurston Moore, Steve Gunn, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, etc… Lattimore collaborated with McCaughan (this last at synth) in two records, which are New Rain Duets (2019, Three Lobed Records) and AVL (2020, NRR); they explicate ethereal sonic waves, between synthesis and a platonically distorted analogic sound, with a chaotic celestiality in the two authors’ composition. Moreover, a Lattimore’s contribution appears in The Sound Of Yourself tracks Moss Light and Found Cricket, in the name of a more structured and cadenced style, more synchoated, emulating a ringing and alien sound.
We talked about some of the mentioned topics directly with Mac McCaughan, analysing your most recent production, solo and not only, and other themes about his historical past. Following the interview.
Let’s start to talk about the next Superchunk album, titled Wild Loneliness. Can you talk about the course of this work in terms of creative process and production? It signs a neat change with its softer sonorities and attitude? Could you talk about it?
Mac McCaughan: “After the more punky & angry songs from What A Time To Be Alive it felt like time to do something different – it’s hard to sustain that kind of negative energy and be interesting with it – and the remake of Foolish that we did (Acoustic Foolish) seemed to point in the right direction. So I started writing songs on acoustic guitar and imagining a record that had a softer side. This was all before the pandemic when I started writing these songs. Then when lockdown went into effect and we couldn’t go into a studio we began thinking about how else to make a record and we started recording at home in my basement studio. Jon and Jim would come over and we would be masked recording their parts individually. Laura recorded her bass parts at her house. We had never made a record where we didn’t play the basic tracks live together in the studio! But Wally Gagel (who recorded & mixed Here’s WHere The Strings Come In) did a great job mixing the album and hopefully it doesn’t sound like we were playing our parts separately… And technology allowed us to collaborate with some of our favorite musicians as well.”
Harmony and the melodies of tracks are more consonant in their sweet and sour structure in a more exterior substance. Songs like Endless Summer and Highly Suspect are interesting examples of radio-friendly hits, which are composed with an intelligent creativity, never trivial or redundant. It seems Superchunk popster attitude (we could associate your band to a noisy, ’80 indie or lo-fi version of extended power pop literature) transmigrates in a more traditional consistency, slower and more linear, properly in the power pop genre. What is your consideration on traditional power pop poetry? Is there a real link with Wild Loneliness? Could you talk about its relationship with indie/more actual craftsmanship?
Mac McCaughan: “Well even from our first album, we were focused on writing great songs. We never had a gimmick or anything especially strange about what we were doing and the bands that clearly influenced our early records – Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü, etc – were also bands that were known for catchy, great pop songs with loud guitars. I don’t think that our approach has really changed in that sense except that we try to make each record different in subtle ways so that we (and fans) don’t get bored. I think some of our guests on the record – Mike Mills, Teenage Fanclub, Tracyanne Campbell – indicate the kind of artists that influence us on this record but on other albums as well!”
Talking about the lyrics of Wild Loneliness, there’s a clear romantic feeling in your writing. The evoked images, and empathic, imaginative sensibility characterises the flow through real instances. Many tracks have a sentimental theme, with an traditional approach, more poetic and less rolling of past Superchunk works, but anyway with a syncopated rhythm in the associated singing. Could you talk about the context where these lyrics have their origin?
Mac McCaughan: “The lyrical direction isn’t really something I try to determine ahead of time but after a few songs it usually becomes clear to me where the songs are going. And on Wild Loneliness it was kind of a reaction to the last album – i.e. to go the opposite direction and focus on the positive this time. Not always an easy thing to do in a global pandemic when fascists are still trying to take over! But the idea was to look around at what we have to be thankful for even in the middle of all that, but still trying to avoid outright nostalgia and sentimentality.”
Anyway, there are some exceptions to the general sound of Wild Loneliness. For example, Refracting recalls traditional Superchunk poetry (in particular soft sonorities of 1995 album Here’s Where The Strings Come In). This track is enriched by a faster and sharper effort, in a more punk-ish sense. How did Refracting concept happen?
Mac McCaughan: “You’re right, Refracting is a bit of an outlier but i think albums that are TOO consistent can tend to blur all the songs together so it’s good to have a couple outliers (like Black Thread was the only slow song on What A Time To Be Alive). It’s a little like a song from the last record but I’m still playing acoustic guitar. As I said, fascists are still trying to take over… Refracting reminded our drummer Jon of The Clash and he added some handclaps that reference a Clash song (i can’t remember which one!).”
Let’s talk about your previous album (2018) with Superchunk, What A Time To Be Alive. These sonorities are powerful and vital, but in the sign of its more obscure, contemporaneous times (the Trump era). There’s most divesification under that description: if titletrack is more spacious and ultimate in its meaning, and Reagen Youth districates in an hardcore sonorities with melodic shades, Erasure is more consonant, velvety and blue-coloured, otherwise with a melancholy touch. An organic, broadly punk album, even alternative/power pop (one genre in the view of the other one), with a hardcore attitude. Moreover a neat contrast between this record (more fast and melodically dark) and Wild Loneliness (in which there’s more light and a softer atmosphere). Can you talk about the context of the album, how did these elements happen, and the divergences with Superchunk’s new album?
Mac McCaughan: “I’ve talked about this above but yes, What A Time was written and recorded on the cusp of the Trump presidency & sadly everything that came after was even worse than we anticipated. But staying that angry all the time is exhausting (and authoritarians like Trump count on people getting exhausted) so at a certain point you have to turn your energies elsewhere.”
Now I’d like to talk about your last solo album The Sound Of Yourself. How was its pop-ethereal concept and did it develop?
Mac McCaughan: “The Superchunk album was taking a long time to record during lockdown and I really wanted to put out a record last year so in January I made a solo album influenced by a lot of what I had been listening to during all the time at home during the pandemic. The music my brain wanted to hear was a lot of ambient music, Japanese and English music from the 80s, and jazz… and I can’t play jazz so you get a lot of the others influencing The Sound Of Yourself. The approach to recording was similar to early Portastatic albums in that there were no rules about how a song could start – i.e. with a sample or a particular drum machine or synthesizer sound – and I would just build it from there. Again I was lucky to have some great collaborators to elevate some of these songs – Mary Lattimore, Matt Douglas, Torres, and many more – and it was really fun to make.”
If the writing is minimal in its deep, popular essence, the practical producing is organic and baroque, and it oscillates between abstract, avant-pop and lysergic dancing and a kraut sound, with a profound musical sensibilities which is in the name of a fluid easiness from instrumental experimentation and sung tracks, emulating in this case natural and warming sonic archetypes. More in-depth, a part of the tracklist is signed from a recurring jangle-tribal psychedelic cadence, enriched by library music, soundtrack (genre) and obviously krautrock elements. Another part is more consonant, but with a killer groove with crazy rhythms and cosmic synth sound. Can you tell us what your points of reference are, like people or things?
Mac McCaughan: “Well I do love a lot of so-called Krautrock especially the Neu! albums and the Michael Rother solo records, and of course Bowie’s Berlin records and 70s Eno productions and going from there but much of the music influencing this album is stuff from the era i was a teen – the 80s – i.e. the Cure and the Blue Nile, etc… but also bands I didn’t hear at the time like Japanese artists such as Dip In The Pool and Hiroshi Yoshimura.”
Dawn Bends (which Yo La Tengo collaborated in, nda), the penultimate track of The Sound Of Yourself, is the good exception in your last album; indeed the sound recalls your more acoustic poetry, like Portastatic, with a melodic creativity nearby Superchunk songs (in a broad sense). The sound follows human instances in a more indie/alternative way similar to Pavement or Yo La Tengo, with a sweet and sour harmony. Anyway, this song has synthetic elements, which makes the album coherent, but like an interesting bridge in the complexity of the work. How did the creation of Dawn Bends happen? What is its function in the album?
Mac McCaughan: “I think its function is similar to “Refracting” on Wild Loneliness – to be the exception that proves the rule and to give listeners a moment of “ok now THIS sounds familiar” which is kind of a fun moment to have on an album. And to have all of Yo La Tengo playing on the song really makes it special to me as they have always been a big influence.”
AVL,Your previous album with harpist Mary Lattimore, is permeated by a dream-like and glittered atmosphere, through a casual and cosmically ohmic flow. The sound is more suspended and centripetal (from the point of view of compositions) than the next album, and sweet and sour, ethereal melodies are dominant, with an intense free jazz/krautrock feeling. How was this release born? How did your meeting with Mary Lattimore happen, and how did this interesting concept in Merge Records catalogue develop?
Mac McCaughan: “I’ve known Mary since the 90s, and while she played the harp back then, I certainly didn’t have any idea about the amazing music she would go on to make. Mary is an incredible musician and improviser and happens to also be from North Carolina. I was asked to create a program for a performance in Charlotte, NC, a few years ago and asked Mary to improvise with me for that show, and I made films that would play during our performance. So our first album was a recording of that show, and then our most recent album was recorded on the tour to promote our first album (New Rain Duets). I love playing with Mary!”
Talking about the historical course of Superchunk, I’d like to focus on your masterpiece (in alternative rock literature), that is No Pocky For Kitty. It’s impressive how noise, almost-lo-fi sounds encounter power pop melodic structures, in the name of the punk-ish and summery ’90 years. It’s evident the Steve Albini contribution as producer, indeed the music is related to Albini poetry or Chicago noise sound, which give an influence in those micro-elements. Every track seems an abrasive, radiophonic hit, meeting in your discography more than ever the sound of Pavement, Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, etc… Cast Iron is a catchy, well-structured piece, with bittersweet harmonies and lighting guitar riffs. Can I ask you why Superchunk abandoned those sonorities much more different, for example, from the next full-length On The Mouth?
Mac McCaughan: “I don’t think we’ve ever abandoned those sonorities, to be honest! But we have always tried to expand what we are doing because we didn’t want to make the same record twice. Also different songs lend themselves to different productions. But mostly with No Pocky I think Albini’s distinctive production (and the fact that we recorded and mixed the album in 3 nights) really gives it its sound.”
Talking about your old project Portastatic, I’m so curious in an EP of that discography; this is San Andreas Crouch, for old little label Esther Records from Chapel Hill (which produced Archers Of Loaf and Fuck too). This seven inch has an iconic lo-fi sound, which enriched those songs. The titletrack is more relevant, where this noisy, power pop is based on an essential, cheap idea, but with a fervid melodic/consonant structure. Anyway the well-produced version of it is in the Portastatic album Slow Note From A Sinking Ship, simply with the title “San Andreas”. Can you talk about this track, your possible link with the Californian town (San Andreas), and its seismic theme? How did the EP idea happen, and that extemporaneous situation? Finally, I’d like to know something more about Esther Records; what is, for example, its link with Merge Records?
Mac McCaughan: “The song was definitely inspired by the San Andreas fault in California and the earthquake that happened during a World Series game in 1989… I recorded the 7” version at home on my Tascam 4-track tape recorder. Esther Records was started by Esther Oliver, she lived in Chapel Hill back then and then moved to NYC and worked at Matador Records. She put out some cool singles! Esther lives in Asheville, NC and is married to Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound so of course we are still in touch.”
In the end, can you talk about your next works with Superchunk or as a soloist? Will there be a worldwide/European tour in the next period?
Mac McCaughan: “I’m hoping we can get back to play some places we haven’t played in a very long time – like Italy – once the pandemic allows us to do so safely. Hope to see you there!”
The references on the historical part about Superchunk were from the Web and the following text:
Laura Ballance, John Cook, Mac McCaughan – “Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records – The indie label that got big and stayed small” (Algonquin Paperbacks, 2009).