Q&A: Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan

Mac McCaughan of Superchunk
Photo: Aaron Thompson

Has Superchunk ever played Las Vegas?

We have never played the state of Nevada at all, so it’s exciting to check Nevada off the list. This summer we checked Nebraska off the list. There’s not a huge list of states left, but there’s a few that are tougher to get to. I think that if we were a band at a certain point that stayed out for four months at a time, surely we could have covered some more ground. But as much as we used to tour we never had that attitude. So it should be fun. It’s kind of a strange situation to be playing there as part of this gigantic festival, instead of just doing a regular show, but maybe that’s what it took to get us there.

What do you think of doing Matador at 21 in a Vegas casino?

It seems pretty Matadorish to me, but it doesn’t seem very rock ’n’ roll to me. Vegas doesn’t seem very rock ’n’ roll in general—the casino aspect or the Strip aspect—but I think having all these bands there will transfer that place into something kind of different.

You play Saturday. Are you staying for the entire festival?

I’m gonna be there for the whole weekend, so I’m looking forward to seeing a bunch of great bands.

Who are some bands you’re excited about?

I’m excited to see Fucked Up. I just see them recently here in Raleigh, and I’m excited to see them again. I’m excited to see the Come reunion show, because I haven’t seen them, obviously, in years and years. Looking forward to seeing Spoon and Pavement, Guided By Voices reunion, Yo La Tengo. The Clean is playing with Times New Viking—that’ll be a really cool show. There’s so many good bands playing.

What jumps to mind when you think of Matador Records?

To me, having been on the label when it first started, what jumps to mind is Chris and Gerard, who started the label, and how it’s always been their vision. But also the other people that have worked there a long time that I’ve known—Nils Bernstein, the publicist, and Patrick Amory, the label manager. These are all people who love music and are doing what they do for the same reason that we do what we do.

Twenty-one years is a pretty impressive milestone in that business. For someone who runs a label yourself [Merge], how much of an accomplishment is that?

It’s true. It’s a long time in this industry to do something and do something so consistently well, so hats off them for sure. Not just for having a label, but having a label that’s put out such great records, and is still doing that.

How much of a model for Merge was Matador?

Merge started in 1989 around the same time as Matador, actually, but certainly Homestead Records, which Gerard [Cosloy] ran before that, was one of our models in terms of the bands that they were putting out. And then once Matador started it was exciting for us to be involved in that label with the other bands at the time that were on there, Teenage Fanclub, Dustdevils ... It was pretty exciting for us.

So, timeline-wise, you guys had started Merge before releasing your records for Matador?

Yeah, we started Merge before we were on Matador, and we were supposed to, possibly, do something with Homestead. And then at a certain point Gerard said, “I’m leaving Homestead and starting a different label.” We were putting out singles on Merge and then when it was time to do a full-length albums ’cause Merge wasn’t really at a point where we could do whole albums. We didn’t have enough capital, basically, to make a pressing of CDs and LPs. So we were on Matador for our first three albums and then once our contract was up with Matador, Merge had grown at that point to be big enough to actually do full-length records, and so that’s when we moved back to Merge.

Carl Newman from The New Pornographers commented to me about how cool it was that bands like Superchunk and Spoon, who haven’t been on Matador in a while, are coming to Vegas to be part of this.

I feel like we’re all trying to do the same thing, in terms of getting music that we think is great music out there to people. People talk about the “music business,” but when people talk about the music industry I don’t really think of us as being part of the music industry, in terms of what people usually mean when they say that. I feel like Merge and Matador and Sub-Pop are in a different music industry, if that makes sense. I feel like we’re in it together and we share similar interests. One of the coolest things about starting a label and being in a band is the community around that. Like, we would go to New York and play shows and that’s where the Matador offices were and we’d hang out with them and meet other bands that were on Matador. Or we’d go out to Seattle, and Nils, who works at Matador now, had a record store out there called Rebellious Jukebox and through Nils and some other friends that I want to college with, we met Sub-Pop people. It all seemed very interconnected, and I think it still is.

From the outside people might assume Merge and Matador are competitors, but it seems like you’re happy for one-another’s successes.

I think that’s true, that it’s not so much competition. If we sell a lot of Arcade Fire records that’s not preventing Matador from selling a lot of Cat Power records or something. It’s not a head-to-head thing like that.

What are some of your favorite Matador albums?

That first [self-titled] Railroad Jerk album came out around the time when we were first on Matador. We played shows with them, and they’re a great band. [Superchunk bassist] Laura [Ballance] was really hoping that H.P. Zinker was gonna play this festival. Really cool band. I played with them with a band even older than Superchunk called Bricks in New York at a show that Gerard put together. The Yo La Tengo record And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is one of my favorite records in the Matador catalog for sure. That first Teenage Fanclub record is amazing. Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life is such an amazing album.

You went nine years between albums but never really stopped being a band, true?

We’ve been active to the extent that we’ve played a few shows every year kind of thing, but this year is different in that it’s our first new record since 2001. And consequently we’re doing a lot more, playing more shows and it’s great to have new songs to play. Majesty Shredding has been really well received. You don’t put out a record for nine years, you don’t know what people are gonna make of it (laughs). And looking forward to playing some places that we haven’t played in almost a decade, or in Las Vegas’ case, places we’ve never played.

What made you guys decide now was the time to do more again?

The reason we kind of slowed down in 2002 was just kind of burnout from touring and the whole cycle of writing and recording and touring and writing and recording and touring. So after a few years of playing a couple shows every year, you start to think, man, it would be nice to have some new songs to play live. But we had to find time in everyone’s schedule and figure out a way to make it work that would make sense for everybody in terms of how to record and tour in a way that wouldn’t burn everybody out again. So I think once we determined that we could do that, it made sense for us to go ahead and do that. And of course, we end up putting out a record in Merge’s busiest year ever, but at the same time there’s never a time when it’s not busy, so I figure, you might as well.

The new album sounds great, and has been getting great reviews. How much do you having that time away helped refresh the band’s sound?

I thought a lot about what this record should be like after not making one for such a long time, and I think writing the songs the way we did on this record—essentially me writing songs and making demos and sending them around, and then us learning them pretty quickly before recording—gives the whole thing a bit of an edge that maybe the last few records didn’t have. For Here’s to Shutting Up we worked for a really long time writing those songs, and I think at a certain point you can work the life out of some of the songs, to a certain extent.

Also, we were driven by the fact that, since we still like playing live, we wanted to make a record that we could play live and that would be fun to play live. The songs on the last record were pretty complicated and some of them had strings and keyboards and a lot of stuff that we didn’t feel like bringing on tour and dealing with this time. So I think that leads to the more straightforward aspects of some of the new record.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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