The Reverb Interview: Mac McCaughan of SuperchunkBy John Wenzel | June 17th, 2010 | No Comments »
Seminal indie rock quartet Superchunk did not need to put out another album.
In fact, after a nine-year recording hiatus and the daily hustle of running the respected Chapel Hill, N.C., record label Merge (home to Spoon, the Arcade Fire, Teenage Fanclub and dozens of others), the band’s founders weren’t even sure they wanted to.
But when singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan found the songwriting spark was still there, an album seemed inevitable. And as we’ll all hear when “Majesty Shedding” is released Sept. 14, Superchunk still spits melodies like broken glass and pitches tightly wound guitar riffs with a muscle bred from years of touring with the best bands of the past two decades.
Superchunk will play its first television appearance in 16 years on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on Sept. 20, but first it’s helping itself to some summer festival dates — kicking off with a co-headlining spot at the annual Westword Music Showcase in the Golden Triangle neighborhood on Saturday, June 19.
We chatted with McCaughan earlier this week in advance of the show about the mini-tour, getting back together, recording the new album and the weight of legacies.
Q: So is there anything to the timing of this new album given the nine-year hiatus?
A: I think it was just more like a hole in everybody’s schedule. We were doing a few shows here and there every year and working up to that. And then we recorded “Learn to Surf” for the “Leaves in the Gutter” EP and that was really the first time in a long time where we had recorded the way we used to — where I’d have a demo and we’d all just kind of learn it fairly quickly and record it.
Q: And that’s also how you recorded this new album?
A: We thought, ‘Well, we could do a whole record like this.’ And it’s by necessity, since (drummer) Jon Wurster doesn’t live here and he’s busy playing with the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould and A.C. Newman. We can’t practice three times a week for three hours at a time, and we can’t tour for eight weeks at a time because (bassist and Merge co-founder) Laura Ballance has kids and I have kids.
Q: You recorded it with Scott Solter, who’s known as a pretty exacting, analog- centric guy. How did that go?
It’s funny because I had actually tried to get him to work on a Portastatic (Mac’s solo/side project) record awhile ago called “Bright Ideas,” which I did at John Vanderslice’s studio (Tiny Telephone in San Francisco). But at the time he was recording in a way that you couldn’t take it somewhere else and mix it in Pro Tools. But Jon Wurster has recorded with him with the Mountain Goats so he had some actual experience and said Scott was great to work with. So I didn’t really know what to expect.
Q: Were you apprehensive about it?
A: At a certain point when you know someone’s records they’ve produced, you’re just kind of excited about doing it. Not really apprehension, but that’s how we’ve always picked people we worked with — recommendations from other bands, and who have made records that we loved. So it was great. We always recorded fast and we recorded fast again. But one thing that was different in working with Scott is that he was definitely focused on driving us to get the best takes of a certain song. In the past we played it until we felt like the vibe was good. With Scott, we’d get to that point in the sessions and he’d come over the talk-back mic and be like, “It sounds good. Let’s do it again!” So he kind of pushed us in that way that we hadn’t been pushed in the past — which is good — even though we did record quickly in terms of basic tracking. Then I took it back home and did some overdubs and mixing there.
Q: Right now it looks like you’re only playing eight or so festival dates this summer. Any notion of a large tour?
A: Oh my gosh, I hope it’s not that many! I think we’re playing like five, though, and we did Primavera already. That was a great, great festival in Barcelona. And then we’re coming to Denver this weekend and then Chicago the next day. I think it’s the first time we’ll be in Denver since we played there with Belly.
Q: That sounds like it was a long time ago, given when Belly was popular.
A: I could be wrong about that. But I’m excited to see the Dirty Projectors. Anyway, we’ve announced some dates already, some East Coast shows in September right after the new record comes out. Pretty soon we’re announcing some West Coast shows as well. We’re not really looking to go out in the manner that we used. More like a week here and a week there, because we still have a great time playing live and if we’re bothering to put out a new album we might as well.
Q: Does it ever freak you out that the band’s been around for 21 years, even though no one thinks of you as a heritage act?
A: It doesn’t freak me out. I guess just because you get used to the idea of it existing. It sounds like a long time. And you don’t want to overstay your welcome. If you haven’t made a record in nine years and then you make it, you think, “Is this still what a good record sounds like?” We would have made it anyway for our own sake and we like it, but are other people going to have the reaction of, “Well, you waited nine years and you made this?”
Q: Right. Living up to expectations is a prickly thing.
A: And we have less of that than some other bands, but now that it’s done, does it justify having done it? It’s a hypothetical question just because it’s justified because we wanted to do it. No one has to justify making a record, but you do still think about that in the back of your mind.
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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.