Superchunk :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

For more than 30 years, Superchunk has made its wild, tuneful racket, hitching blistering guitar mayhem to graceful pop melodies. A pioneer in indie rock, the band burst out of North Carolina with “Slack Motherfucker” in 1989. It was the first single for the band and also for Merge Records, the label founded (and still managed) by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. After some early switching, the band’s line-up has been stable since 1991, with Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur on guitars, Laura Ballance on bass and Jim Wurster on drums, allowing the musicians to develop an unusual level of rapport and communication. 

Superchunk took a break in the aughts but has since caught a second wind, cranking out rollicking records that are imbued with wisdom. Few musical groups have aged so gracefully, maintaining consistency but continuing to try new things. Wild Loneliness, the band’s 12th album, was innovative by necessity, as the band looked for ways to continue to be itself during the pandemic and lockdown. It was recorded partly together and partly remotely and featured a wide range of guest artists, including Owen Pallett, two members of Teenage Fanclub, Sharon van Etten and Mike Mills. 

We spoke with McCaughan about the challenges of maintaining a long-running artistic enterprise, his experiences during the pandemic and the way that music keeps going, even when everything else in the world gets tipped on end. “I don’t feel like [music is] going to change radically. I think about the records that people are making now versus 20 years ago. People are making great music, and a lot of the artists we work with are making great music and have been for a long time,” he says. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been a band for more than 30 years now. 

Mac McCaughan: 33 years this year.

AD: Did you ever think it would last this long?

Mac McCaughan: I don’t think I really thought about it in that sense. I’m sure I probably assumed I’d still be playing music at whatever age, but when you start a band you’re just kind of doing what you’re doing. You’re not even really thinking about five years down the road, let alone 30.

AD: This record was unusual in a lot of ways because of the pandemic, but it sounds exactly like Superchunk to me. How do you keep it fresh while also maintaining continuity?

Mac McCaughan: That’s interesting. We’ve always tried to do something different with each of our records, both to keep it interesting for ourselves and also because nobody wants to make a record that when someone who’s already listened to your records before picks it up, they go, “I’ve heard this already. I don’t need to listen to this one.” There are definitely bands that I love, but I don’t need another record that sounds like the ones that I already love. 

We’ve never wanted to be that. We’ve always tried to be something different. But think that when we took a break from making records, basically from 2001 until 2009 or 2010 when we made Majesty Shredding, that gave us some good perspective on what’s fun about making records and playing songs and what we’re good at. We try to walk a line between what our strengths are and trying new things.

I do make solo records occasionally also, but it’s still usually clear to me when I start writing a song whether it’s going to be Superchunk or not. That comes from playing together with the same people for so long.  Even if I’m just sitting by myself in the studio with my acoustic guitar, I can fill in the gaps and hear what everyone else could do or will likely do with something that I’m writing. Which is cool. 

With this record, even before we were forced to make it the way we made it by the pandemic, when I started writing songs for it, I knew it would be different from What a Time to Be Alive, which was a very loud, aggressive, angry, punky record. We’d also made Acoustic Foolish, which was an entire re-recording of the Foolish album, but with acoustic guitars. Jim [Wilbur] and I made that in the studio, but we did it kind of live, playing acoustic guitars.  I really liked that, and I thought that came out cool. I was kind of imagining a similar thing with this record, but with new songs. 

I started writing on acoustic guitar, and then it became clear when everything shut down that we weren’t going to be able to go into the studio. We just kept working on it. I took a break from writing songs for six months because I couldn’t write a song to save my life. I’m sure a lot of people went through that during the pandemic. I was working on a film score, which is a little different for some reason, and I could work on that, maybe because it had a movie that I was working from. For the film, Moxie. But in terms of just writing a song on guitar, I couldn’t do it. But eventually, I came back to that.

AD: Do you think that’s because you need the input of having stuff going on around you?  Or were you just bummed?

Mac McCaughan: I think that’s part of it.  I think it’s also when your mind is so…focused might not be the right word. But I was just like, “What is happening in the world?” Insane stuff was happening and yet we were all just sitting in a room together. It was a weird combination of the input of terrible information, but at the same time, you’re hunkering down.

AD: Dread and boredom at the same time.

Mac McCaughan: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s a great recipe for creativity. Boredom can be.

Eventually, I started working on songs again. I just figured, look, whatever happens, we’re not going to be able to make this record in a normal way. So, we just started working in my studio at home and Jon [Wurster] would come over and record his drum parts. We both had masks on, and I’d be sitting ten feet away on the other side of the room with ProTools, and Jon was playing drums with the mask on. It was very bizarre.But we were slowly putting these songs together, and Jim would do the same thing with his guitar parts.  Laura could record her bass at her house, so she didn’t have to go anywhere. 

AD: It still sounds fairly live to me. You did a good job in making it sound like you were all in the room together.

Mac McCaughan: Oh, thanks. I think once Jon recorded his drum parts, I would go back and re-record my acoustic guitar parts, and then Jim would play on top of that.  We were basing it on a live drum track.  And then as we did with Acoustic Foolish, we got Owen Pallett to do some strings. We had different collaborators. We didn’t want it to sound like a home recording project or like, oh, we just kinda slapped this thing together because we didn’t have any other choice. We still wanted it to sound like a Superchunk record, so we thought that Wally Gagel could do a good job in that way.  We hadn’t worked with him in 25 years or something like that, but we knew that he could do it. And so, I sent him the tracks and had him mix them in a different place than the little room where we were recording. I think that really gave it another point of view.  Keeping things fresh, to go back to your original question, is important to us, both for us and for people listening.  But in terms of consistency, I think that lies in the songs themselves.  In other words, I feel like there has to be a level of good songs before we can make a record.  In addition to all the other approaches, whether it’s recording or collaborators or whatever else. 

AD: I found that during the pandemic, I really missed bands. I missed hearing them and seeing them live. You’d tune in for these live streams, which were fine, a good substitute, I’m glad people were doing them. But it was always one person on the couch with their guitar. For somebody’s who’s been in bands for your whole life, what was that like for you?

Mac McCaughan: I could never really get my mind around doing a livestream as a substitute for a show.  I enjoyed a couple of them. But I’d rather listen to the record for the most part than watch a livestream. Jim and I did one thing on Instagram where we just went up on my roof and played acoustic guitars, played 10 songs, and that was fun, but like I said, in terms of setting it up like a proper substitute…Some people are really good at that, and looked good and sounded good, but it just wasn’t really where my mind was at. 

I really missed seeing bands, of course, and playing shows. But I did appreciate having a lot of time to listen to records. 

AD: What were you listening to? Are there records now that you’ll hear in ten years and think, oh that’s a pandemic record?

Mac McCaughan: Yes, in some ways, my mind was not wanting to hear a lot of loud rock music. I mean occasionally, like when Bob Mould put out the record that he released during the pandemic, that was an awesome thing to hear, that I really needed to hear. But I was really craving ambient music and lots of jazz. I’ve always listened to a lot of jazz. I was focused not necessarily on music that’s not challenging, per se, but I was mainly wanting to hear stuff that was slightly on the more soothing end of things. You mentioned records that I would hear in ten years or whatever and remember the pandemic, definitely Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green. We listened to that record a lot. And other stuff like that. Eno records. A lot of Bill Evans. 

When you have every hour of the day at home with your records, you can listen to a lot of records. At work, mainly I’m listening to music mainly on the computer or the CD player in my office. Being at home is kind of awesome because I got to spend a lot of time with my record collection. 

AD: You mentioned that you were able to get some guests to fill out the sound the record. Owen Pallet does those beautiful strings, one of the first things you hear on the record. Can you tell me how you connected with him and what you like about what he does?

Mac McCaughan: I’ve known Owen for a long time. When we first started working with Arcade Fire, he was playing in the band.  We’ve kept in touch and collaborated on a couple of things over the years. Like I said, for the Acoustic Foolish record, he did strings on a couple of tunes on that that just came out beautifully. On the new record, I had kind of written a string part for “This Night” but “City of the Dead,” which is the first song on the record, and I feel like it had to be the first song on the record just because of its pacing. It was hard to fit anywhere else.  I felt like it needed strings, and I had no ideas about it, personally, about how they would work. And so that was really a blank slate for Owen. And he just did amazing work on that song. 

AD: You’ve also got a couple of members from Teenage Fanclub on this album.  I know they record on Merge, so you have a connection there, but does it go back further than that? 

Mac McCaughan: Yeah, we were both on Matador at the same time when Matador first started.  Our first album and their first album came out not that far apart. I think that we first met, I don’t know, CMJ or something in New York City when we were both there at the same time.  We both played on a Matador show.  And then we did a couple of tours together, one when they came over to tour Bandwagonesque, and one where we went over there and opened for them on the Thirteen tour in the U.K. We had spent a lot of time together and then eventually started with working with them on Merge.  We were in regular contact, obviously, and had played a couple of other shows, throughout the years. They’re a band that, when you hear their voices on a song, it’s so distinctive and it’s so comforting in a way. And I felt like, normally on a Superchunk record, I’ll sing the harmonies, but I really felt like that song needed something, and the something was them.

AD: I feel like there’s a similar sensibility. Both your band and their band has that balance between the pop and the guitar mayhem.  It’s something I’m always looking for, the bands that are right in the middle, and very few people do it well, but both of your bands do.

Mac McCaughan: They’re really an inspiration as a band that continues to write great songs. Also, I really appreciate the pace at which they work.  They make a record when they feel like the record is ready to be made.  No one is going to rush them in that. They turn in beautiful albums. I hope that we get to see them over here sometimes soon. As it did for everyone, the pandemic interfered with some plans of theirs. But yes, those guys and Yo La Tengo. That’s another band that has been an inspiration in making guitar-based music and continuing to write great songs and different sounding albums and finding interesting ways to do it. 

AD: You’ve also got Sharon van Etten on this album. One of my favorites. How long have you known her?

Mac McCaughan: I’ve known Sharon for a while through friends. Ben Goldberg, who put out her first album, used to work at Merge a long time ago before he started BaDaBing. Sharon’s partner, Zeke, used to play drums in Portastatic for a while. I’ve known Zeke for a really long time, and reached out via email and asked, “Hey do you have recording set up in your house? Would you be interested in singing in this song? I think your voice would be amazing.”  I’m a fan, and this wasn’t the main reason that this happened, but her song “Seventeen” is one of my favorite songs of the last few years. I feel like there’s a similar vibe on “If You’re Not Dark,” the song that she sings on our record. I think maybe subconsciously, that’s what made me think of her. 

AD: The songs on this album are quite topical. “Endless Summer” is about climate change. Is that something you’ve been thinking about?

Mac McCaughan: I don’t know how anyone could not be thinking about it. It’s gotten to the point where you’re like, “I’ve got to think about something else.” It’s so urgent yet so hard for anyone who’s in the position to do anything about it to get their minds around. So, we need for people to ignore it at some level, though you could look out the window and not ignore it every day. That was one of the songs that was written before the pandemic. I wrote that on New Year’s Day of 2020. Because it was a 75 New Year that day.  You’re like, what is going on? This is not normal.

AD: And then you’ve got some songs, like “Wild Loneliness” and “City of the Dead” which are maybe about the pandemic itself. Did you eventually get to the point where you could write about that?

Mac McCaughan: “City of the Dead” is one that I wrote before. 

AD: The empty city was reminding me of the lockdown.

Mac McCaughan: Sure, that’s one of those songs that takes on another meaning in retrospect. They’re written about one thing, and then the meaning changes. But “Wild Loneliness” for sure. That’s about the things so many people were experiencing, feeling cooped up. How do you deal with being alone with your own brain for too many hours in the day?

AD: You become very strange.

Mac McCaughan: Yeah, even if you’re cooped up with other people. We were lucky. We’re lucky to live where we live. We have the outdoors. We can go walk the dogs in the woods or whatever, but even that, you find yourself walking the same path every day. What day is this even?

AD: It was a very weird time. I think my favorite of the sort of “ripped from right now” songs is “Refracting.”  It’s about how hard it’s gotten to talk to people who hold different views. You live in North Carolina, which has both very liberal progressive people and also probably some hardcore anti-vaxxers. How are you thinking about that? Musicians used to be able to speak to almost everyone, and now we’re becoming so separate. 

Mac McCaughan: Yes, I mean, to me it’s gone beyond trying to speak to them. People have become so brainwashed and so isolated. It’s not that you give up on them as human beings. It’s just that they’re beyond the reach of rational conversation. I have relatives like that.

That song is a little bit of a throwback to What a Time to Be Alive. The subject matter fits in with the songs on that record and a song like “Bad Choices.” The energy is slightly different than the rest of this record. I felt like it still kind of needed to be there to balance out the whole thing, because it is still so much of what I feel every day.  Anger and frustration with the way that people think.

AD: And don’t think.

Mac McCaughan: And don’t think, yeah. That’s the extra layer of frustration. People that know better but it’s in their interest to support a white supremacist framework for society. So, they’ll say whatever, even though it’s not true. That’s definitely the world that we have here in North Carolina in large sections of the state — and in the country at large, of course. But that song is kind of about in some ways, why we made a record that, for the most part is not talking about that. Because of how exhausting and psychically damaging to go around so angry all the time, you try to focus your energy in more positive ways when you can. 

AD: Do you have a favorite bit or a sound or a lyric on this album? Is there anything that really pops for you?

Mac McCaughan: I really like the title track. It’s one of the more simple songs on the record. But I like the way it came out and to me that guitar parts were reminiscent of a David Kilgour song. I really like that surprising aspect of when Andy Stack’s sax solo. It’s hard to say Andy Stack sax. When the saxophone solo comes in, you’re not really expecting that to be what happens at that point in the song. The demo had a guitar solo on it, but I thought it needed a saxophone solo. We work with Andy on Wye Oak and also on his solo project Joyero, where he plays a lot of sax. And he plays a little bit of sax with Lambchop as well. I knew he could do it, even though he was slightly humble about it.  I think that’s one of my favorite moments on the record.

AD: What about touring? 

MMac McCaughan: We have a tour that’s slated to start on February 25, knock on wood that it will happen.  It’s hard for people to think about buying tickets right now, because everything is so crazy, but I’m hoping that this wave will crash and people will feel better about going out. 

AD: How are things going at Merge?

Mac McCaughan: Good. It’s busy. People keep making records. People keep buying records. I’m sure you’ve read about the vinyl logjam. That’s affected our release schedule in some ways. If you’re in a band and you make a record, you don’t want to hear that it’s going to be nine months or a year before it comes out, but that’s where we’re at these days. But it’s good. It’s busy and like I said, people keep turning in amazing records. 

AD: You had that wonderful album with Mary Lattimore. I was wondering if you had any more of that coming or other collaborations?

Mac McCaughan: That first album, New Rain Duet was a recording of the second show Mary and I ever played together.  When we released that album on Three Lobed, we did a really short tour.  We did like five shows to support that album. One of those shows, recorded in Asheville, became our second album, AVL. We put it out during the lockdown. So that was an awesome project to have, mixing that music. I spray painted all the record covers myself.  It was nice having this thing to work on. So that’s the only stuff that we have, that and one other track that we put out during lockdown. It’s on our Bandcamp page. 

We don’t have anything else recorded at the moment, but hopefully, we’ll do something else in the future. Mary’s an old friend and it’s really fun playing with her. She makes everything sound great.

AD: And quite different from the other stuff you work on?

Mac McCaughan: Yeah, it may be closer to some of the film score things that I’ve done. I love doing it and I love playing with Mary, maybe because it is so different.

AD: What do you think is going to happen to music as we go on and get past the pandemic if that ever happens.  How do you see it changing?

Mac McCaughan: I don’t feel like it’s going to change radically. I think about the records that people are making now versus 20 years ago, in terms of how good they are, they’re still great. People are making great music, and a lot of the artists we work with are making great music and have been for a long time.  It would be great if there was a change in how people consume music — in terms of artists being compensated for streaming and other ways that are super convenient for people to listen but don’t really pay very well. That would be nice. But I’m hoping that sooner rather than later we’re able to all go back and be in clubs in a normal way. 

AD: Do you ever think about how people will remember Superchunk? What would you hope that people take away from what you’ve done with the band in your career?

Mac McCaughan: I guess, two things. Just the songs, you know. I hope that people remember certain songs or certain records in the way that I think of my favorite bands and certain songs that every time you hear them, you’re like “oh, I love this song.”  And then, of course, live shows.  We’ve put a lot of work and time and effort into being a good live band and playing shows that are fun for us and fun for people who come out. I feel like that’s maybe a lot of why people got into us in the first play, maybe seeing us open for Mudhoney or Teenage Fanclub liking the live show. Those two things. 

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