Mac McCaughan has released a lot of music in his 30-plus years as a performer. Eleven albums with Superchunk, seven with his solo-project-turned-band Portastatic, two solo albums under his own name—including his latest release, The Sound of Yourself—as well as various collaborations and other appearances. Not to mention his role in co-founding the long-running indie label Merge Records, an imprint with an impressively sizable catalog of its own. Suffice it to say, he’s kept pretty busy over the years.
While he’s best known for the high-energy indie rock anthems of Superchunk, McCaughan seems to always be seeking out new musical challenges with each project he takes on, whether it’s the anything-goes solo approach that once defined Portastatic, the various film scores he’s composed over the years, or the improvisational recordings he’s made with harpist and former Merge Records intern Mary Lattimore. Naturally, we wanted to get his perspective on the songs throughout his discography that stand out most to him.
Ahead of the release of The Sound of Yourself, his latest solo album, we asked McCaughan about his favorite songs from throughout his career, including tracks from Superchunk, Portastatic, and more than a few collaborators.
“Battle Park” – Mac McCaughan and Mary Lattimore
From AVL (2020; NRR)
MM: I’ve known Mary Lattimore for a long time, she used to be an intern at Merge, a long time ago. I followed her music career and love her music, and got asked to do a collaborative performance by the McColl Center in Charlotte, which is a really cool art space there, and I got to pick the collaborator, and so I asked Mary. Even though she moved out west, she agreed to do it, so we played a couple shows. Then the recording of the Charlotte show became our first album, New Rain Duets. Each show was improvised and so they were all different, and I’ve never been in a band before where every show was completely different. Our second album AVL was a recording of the last show of that tour, in Asheville, where Mary’s from
Battle Park is the park behind our house in Chapel Hill. The four songs didn’t have names, they were just movements—1, 2, 3, 4—but when I was editing the second show, i was thinking about it in terms of the parts being different songs, and so we gave them geographical names around here and in Asheville. I love playing with Mary and it’s interesting because it’s totally improvised, but the songs are totally stuck in my head now. It’s also on my mind because I edited and released that record during lockdown, so kind of this project I was listening to and working on a lot, in addition to listening to Mary’s records.
“Burn a Fax”
From The Sound of Yourself (2021; Merge)
“Burn a Fax” is kind of about something I’ve written about before, maybe with Majesty Shredding, and the pull of nostalgia and trying to resist it. It’s easy to get lost in nostalgia but we’re all moving forward whether we like it or not. I like the fax as an example of obsolete technology. Referring back to recordings I made with Mary, it’s all about moving forward and not backward, and making “the sound of yourself,” and I was trying not to have too many preconditions while working on it. It’s largely built around accidents and layering on top of that. The synth bassline is what that song is largely based on. And then Matt Douglas improvised his solos on top of that, and we got Mackenzie Scott from Torres to sing a verse, and that’s just a really cool surprise. I was really lucky that I could collaborate like that, with everyone doing their parts remotely.
Treble: Have you ever made a record in that manner before, with different parts done remotely?
MM: On the first solo record, we did some stuff remotely—Annie Hayden and Michael Benjamin Lerner recorded their parts that way. But there’s kind of more of that on this record and even the people that live around here contributed remotely, the only person who played in person was Jon Wurster. But knowing you can collaborate like that really opens up the possibilities.
“Pink Clouds” – Superchunk
From Come Pick Me Up (1999; Merge)
MM: I was just reminded of this song because it was the first Superchunk album with horns on it, including Ken Vandermark on sax, Bob Weston on trumpet and Jeb Bishop on trombone. Come Pick Me Up, that was a record we made in ’98, with Jim O’Rourke in Chicago. At the time I remember at the end of “Pink Clouds,” we have an outro where we just told the players to go nuts, and Laura not liking it because it sounded like the E Street Band, and the rest of us liking it because it sounded like the E Street Band. [Laughs.] I think she eventually warmed up to it, though.
Treble: Given that you don’t typically tour with a horn section, does that limit how or when that song is played at live shows?
It might be one reason why we don’t play that song a lot, because it feels slightly like it’s missing something, but we do play it occasionally without horns. When we do play it we don’t have horns, we just rock out at the end.
“This Summer” – Superchunk
Single (2012; Merge)
MM: We do play this song pretty often when we play live, which hasn’t been for a while, obviously. When I first started getting into buying records, I always liked bands who put out singles between their albums and separate from their albums. So we try to do that from time to time, and this one had some pretty cool art from Harrison Haines of Les Savy Fav, who’s a photographer, and had taken photos of all these backstage couches around the world. There’s a line at the beginning of the song about having to cancel all our shows, which feels particularly resonant now.
“Through With People” – Portastatic
From Bright Ideas (2005; Merge)
MM: I’ve been thinking about that song because I’ve been relearning old songs to play on this upcoming set of tour dates. I like to pull from all eras and albums to mix it up. That song in particular is the most Superchunk of any Portastatic song. It’s definitely the Portastatic album that sounds the most Superchunk to me. Portastatic has always been more of a home recording thing, so I thought let’s make Portastatic into more of a band.
“Out on the Wing” – Superchunk
from Here’s To Shutting Up (2001; Merge)
MM: This is a record we’re reissuing this fall. It’s 20 years old, bizarrely, so it came out 20 years ago tomorrow. It was supposed to come out September 11, then it got pushed. Anyway, when it came out, everyone talked about how different it was, and how it was less rocking, but this is a song I think about that sounds like it could be on any Superchunk record. I really like this song, and it also has one of my favorite guitar solos.
Treble: It does seem, from Indoor Living to Come Pick Me Up to Here’s to Shutting Up, that the band was challenging the Superchunk aesthetic in a way: More strings, more horns, more ballads.
MM: I think that we were always trying to make records that were interesting to us, so we were consciously trying to do different things with each album, and expand what we were doing, and this is an example of that. But when we’d play live, we play from all our records and it’s more of a rock show. I think we were just trying to expand the range of what we did, not just have it become some other thing. So, make a record, but then put together a show that involved quiet and loud songs, not just become a quiet band overall. I don’t really love the vocals on this record, I think I sing it differently when we play those songs live now, because I was tired of shouting.
Treble: Do you tend to hear things you’d change whenever you revisit your older albums?
MM: Oh yeah, every record there’s times where I think, “I should have done another take of that vocal.” Songs improve so much after we play them live a lot, but you rarely have a chance to do that before they come out. So you know how good it could be, but that’s just part of the process.
from Non-Believers (2015; Merge)
MM: So this is on Non-Believers, and yeah, it’s another one we’ve been trying to play with this group for the upcoming tour, which is hard because we don’t have a drummer, and the drums start and stop. You can’t look at the drummer and say, “OK, I’m playing again.” I don’t know, it’s a song I really like and we’re trying to figure out how to play it. It’s the first song on that record and it talks about, like there’s a Bauhaus reference and a Cocteau Twins reference, and that whole album to some extent and the new one are influenced by records I listened to when I was 15, 16 years old. When I hear certain drum machine sounds or chorus pedal on the bass.
Treble: Is that music that’s still special to you?
MM: Yeah, again, I think some of it is how old you are when you hear certain bands or songs, it imprints on you in a different way that’s deeper and more long lasting.
from The Sound of Yourself (2021; Merge)
MM: This is the only song on the new album that I think I wrote in a traditional, strumming-a-guitar-and-singing kind of way. Everything else is kind of built up from basslines or drum machines or weird samples and things, and this one I worked on before the album. The rest of the album I wrote and recorded in January of this year. Jon came over and played drums on it. There are very few songs that could go either way but this is one of them, but I wanted to keep it into the acoustic realm, and then I asked the whole band (Yo La Tengo) to play on it, so James and Ira and Georgia are all on there playing, and I’m really honored to have them all on there. Similar to the early Portastatic records, there’s an anything-goes approach. So the last time I collaborated with Yo La Tengo was back in 1994, a cover of a Brian Eno song, “St. Elmo’s Fire.” I’m just really stoked to have them on the record.
Treble: You and Yo La Tengo seem to go back a ways.
MM: I’ve known them for a long time and toured with them and played with them various times at their Hanukkah shows, they’re just super inspirational to me.
“Beer and Chocolate Bars” – Portastatic
from I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (1994; Merge)
MM: So this is on the first Portastatic album, I think, which is I Hope Your Heart is Not Brittle, which was made half at home and half at Duck Kee, with Jerry Kee, who still runs the studio. I was thinking about this with the collaboration aspect, I was playing drums for Seam, and that first Seam album is just getting reissued now, and when we were making that record at Duck Kee in Raleigh, Sooyoung (Park) asked Sarah Shannon from Velocity Girl to sing on a song, and I thought that was so cool. So when I was making this Portastatic record, so Jennifer Walker of Erectus Monotone, Ash Bowie, different people were playing on the records, but The Bats from New Zealand were one of my favorite bands, and at the time, they were on Mammoth Records which is based right here in Carrboro. I can’t remember if they were in town making recordings of their own, but I got Kaye (Woodward) from Bats to sing on “Beer and Chocolate Bars,” and I was so nervous driving to the studio and being like “what if she doesn’t like this song?” But they’re the sweetest people, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. But having listened to them for 8-10 years, it was a big honor.
Treble: I can’t help but notice how many of these songs are collaborations with other artists.
MM: Yeah, I think that for one thing, if you’ve been making records as long as I have, I want to hear something in addition to me. It always just kind of elevates it. So, yeah, I think that whenever possible, working with other people can really just take whatever you’re doing to an unexpected and better place.
“Song for a Clock” – Portastatic
from Be Still Please (2006; Merge)
MM: This is on Portastatic record called Be Still Please, and I love playing this record, and I love playing this song still, and it’s a song I wrote when our daughter was a little kid, probably like 4 or 5 years old or something, and she just started going to college. When you have a song that’s about someone, especially someone in your family, it’s a real marker of the passage of time. It’s about that kind of feeling of wanting time to stand still in some ways but it can’t. So what can you do about that?
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.