Superchunk is Mac McCaughan (guitar, vocals), Jim Wilbur (guitar, backing vocals), Jon Wurster (drums, backing vocals), and Laura Ballance (bass, backing vocals). Since releasing their first 7-inch in 1989 out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, McCaughan and Ballance co-founded Merge Records, and the rest is history, literally documented in Our Noise – The Story of Merge Records. “The Indie label that got big and stayed small” has been perfectly placed to serve the niche indie rock scene as it grew into itself throughout the 90s and became something the mainstream music industry has tried so hard to co-opt, yet failed to deliver the kind of personalized service that labels like Sub-pop, K Records, Matador, 4AD, Saddle Creek, Kill Rock Stars, among others, alongside Merge, have been able to provide those artists who prefer to play in theaters and clubs rather than arenas. Everything changed when Merge signed Arcade Fire, for the better of the cottage label industry. After having playing with Superchunk for more than a decade, the band took a break and McCaughan picked up with his solo project Portastatic, as well as recording various film soundtracks, all the while running Merge. But in 2009, they rebanded to record I Hate Music. HESO caught up with the Superchunk during their live show at Fandango in Osaka.
Interview with Mac McCaughanHESO Magazine: How many times have you toured Japan?
Mac McCaughan: Three times, but they’re all spaced apart. The first time was in 1992, then 2001, and now eight years later here we are again.
HM: So you could say you have an interesting perspective on the country. 1992 was the end of the “Bubble” period and now eighteen years later, do you feel that it is completely different?
MM: Well, I do find it much easier to get around (Osaka) without speaking Japanese, but the map I bought today at 7-11 is pretty useless.
HM: This particular area, Umeda, is well known as a nightlife area. You’re staying at this hotel because it’s thirty seconds from the club (Fandango), but a quick walk around here will show that this is probably the only hotel that doesn’t charge by the hour.
MM: Yeah, this area is a bit…um, why are there hotels even here?
HM: This area, yeah, well, most businesses are involved with the Yakuza, loosely affiliated or directly run by them: this place is all Pachinko and Massage parlors, sex shows and Ramen shops. This economic recession doesn’t just affect normal working folks, but black markets too and well, even the Yakuza are feeling the crunch these days. Don’t even ask how live houses are staying in business.
MM: Do music fans, people who go clubbing go out of their way to find places to go?
HM: In order for Fandango to get a full house, they probably need a band the likes of Superchunk to play. The show will be packed.
MM: What about local bands?
HM: It’s definitely harder for them. The live house system in Japan is rigorous and strictly defined kind of paternal patronage. A local promoter (probably in a band) puts three or four roughly similar bands together on one bill and then each band must sell X number of tickets, the money for which they are responsible. So if you don’t sell you tickets, i.e. can’t get your girlfriend’s friends to come to the show, you have to buy them yourself. Play often and you will find out just how expensive this can be. What do you charge to get into your show in North Carolina?
MM: Usually around $15.
HM: Here it ¥6500. That’s almost 350 percent markup. So these fans really love you. As a musician who is also a label owner, are you noticing anything in particular these days?
MM: It’s true that the industry as a whole is not doing great. In some ways it could be an overall lowering of expectations. We’ve had a couple really good years, but one just hopes that the trend of people continuing to buy our kind of music doesn’t go off a cliff. And that it settles in, maybe less than it used to be, but still enough to support bands that were never planning on and don’t need to sell a million records to survive.HM: When you started Merge all those years ago, wasn’t Superchunk’s first album with Matador?
MM: We released a couple singles on Merge before that, but initially we started the label to promote other local bands. We couldn’t really afford to put an entire album out then. By the time our contract ran out with Matador, Merge was then big enough to put out albums, so we signed with ourselves.
HM: Did Matador’s merging with Atlantic affect your decision at all?
MM: When they went with Atlantic, we wouldn’t have had to sign to them, we would have still been on Matador. If Merge was still tiny at that time maybe we would’ve just kept it separate. Merge was doing well and it just seemed to make sense. Why wouldn’t we be on our own label if we could?
HM: Was that a purely business decision or was that more in keeping with the independent ethos of the time?
MM: I think it was both. I don’t think we would have done it if it didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. If it would have meant that no one could find our records or press them, then no. It all just made sense.The challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. Click To Tweet
HM: Looking at your discography shows us that Superchunk has released eight albums, seven Portastatic, plus a sizable amount of compilations and soundtracks. A lot of them were simultaneous too. The window of time from 1994-1999 is prolific in terms of sheer output. How were you managing to run a label while recording multiple albums and promoting artists,?
MM: The label wasn’t as big, in terms of how many releases per year and artists we have, as it is now. At that time the Superchunk albums were still the biggest releases we were doing. There was no Arcade Fire. We were touring a lot, but we recorded really quickly. Then in my spare time I would do the Portastatic stuff on my own.
HM: Did you record the Portastatic albums at a studio at home?
MM: More like in my bedroom (Laughs). Well, half were at home and half were at Duck Kee Studios, in someone else’s house with a sixteen track recorder, where we did the first Superchunk record. It was a matter of keeping busy because, well, we didn’t really have anything else to do. No kids or anything yet, so that’s what I was doing.
HM: I guess that’s the ideal situation an independent artist can hope for. Sort of like Coke deciding to buy a bottling plant and bottle their own product, consolidating production.
MM: Right. Exactly.HM: You had bands like Polvo, Lambchop and the Karl Hendricks Trio, but who was the first band bigger than Superchunk?
MM: The first record that sold more than Superchunk was 69 Love Songs and then another record that came out around that time, but didn’t really sell that much at first was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea. It took a while to get going, but it has sold a lot now. Those were the first albums bigger than Superchunk and it all happened at a good time. Superchunk was slowing down in terms of not touring that much and so it made sense for us to spend more time at the label anyway, as these records required more of our energy.
HM: Was that something that you had expected or hoped for?
MM: We didn’t really expect it. We knew that people would like 69 Love Songs, but none of Stephin Merritt’s albums have sold that many before and the fact that it was a three-cd set…
HM: Seems kind of like marketing suicide.
MM: Right. We knew it would get attention because of the novelty of it, but then it really took off and we just got really lucky with it.
HM: I was introduced to your bands a long time before I put it together that Merge was you and Laura Ballance.
MM: That’s one thing we didn’t do as much in the same way that say Sub Pop did, or Matador even, which is market Merge as a separate thing from the bands. Which to us made sense, because the focus should be on the records and the bands as opposed to the label.
HM: Now looking at the list of artists you represent, there are some pretty big names there. Was it the success of Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel that allowed you to sign, say, Spoon?
MM: We signed Spoon after they had been dropped by Electra, kind of a low point, so they weren’t really all that “big” at that time.
HM: Do you think it’s more a fact of wanting to be a part of a successful label that is run by fellow artists?
MM: Yes, especially if you are a band like Spoon that got dropped from a major label, which made them want to go to the opposite end of the spectrum.
HM: In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small there’s a quote about East River Pipe’s Fred Cornog, “The guy in an orange smock at Home Depo is also the guy who gets profiled in New York Magazine and writes exquisitely crafted songs that have touched thousands of lives and will live on long after he is gone is like the regular-guy-can-make-music-too ethic in Lambchop. Probably the best argument there is for what makes Merge special.” This goes against every big business model out there. How many employees are you?
MM: We’ve gotten slightly bigger over the years. Now we have fourteen people at Merge. That’s the dichotomy at work: in order to put out an album by that band that’s getting bigger you have to spend more and more money. We tend to work with people who are making records because that’s what they do and they would be doing that whether they get really big like Spoon or whether they don’t even want to tour like Fred Cornog and East River Pipe. They would probably still doing these recordings whether it’s at home or in a studio.
HM: Similar to the infamous Lambchop U.S. bust of a tour Merge put together in an effort to give the fans a chance to hear them how they are meant to be heard. Why does that kind of artistry often go overlooked in the U.S.?
MM: Right, like when they tour Europe with strings and play to sold out crowds in fancy theaters and no one shows up in the U.S. I don’t really know how to explain it. If I did we could prevent that from happening.
HM: What do you think of a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah who don’t have a label and became big via word of mouth from Myspace and Pitchfork, basically using the internet, being able to sell their albums in the Tokyo HMV for $23, the same as any other artist?
MM: When they decided to go it alone with their second album, it was newsworthy because no one had really done that before, but to me it’s just not that interesting. I like the idea of labels. I like the idea of Matador and K Records having a kind of character unto itself. Even though they represent all these different bands, they have their own vibe. That’s more interesting to me than a distribution deal. I don’t feel like if I was in a band and I was putting out my own record which was going straight to this distributor that was also distributing hundreds, thousands of other records every year, I wouldn’t feel that my record was going to get the attention it deserves, that it would get from a label that had signed us because they wanted to put out our record. That’s not exciting to me a music fan at all.
HM: I recently saw an Ian Mackay interview in which he says, “…American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it’s profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It’s just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you’re making good food and people are happy. Dischord really does exist as a result of hard work and the goodwill of the people.” How do you envision the future of Merge?
MM: I can’t say what’s going to happen in ten years. One of the reasons we still exist is because we never really tried to predict what was going to happen.
HM: Can we talk about your blog? Obviously you are into music, but hockey? How did that come about?
MM: In 1980 when I was a kid growing up in Florida we got cable for the first time and I found ESPN, who didn’t have any contracts with major sports except for hockey and Australian Rules Football, so I watched hockey all the time. What really got me into it was the when the U.S. Team won the gold in the 1980 Olympics. I didn’t think much about it again until North Carolina got an NHL team in 1997 and then I got back into it. We won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
HM: Back to Superchunk. Is this a “reunion tour”? Are you putting together an album?
MM: This is the beginning of the new album. We have six new songs so far and it’ll be an album eventually. We have to do it in spurts, because our drummer John is on tour with the Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and some other people. It’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think there’ll be another Portastatic album for a while, although I’ve been recording various other material. I just did an album of Merge covers for our 20th Anniversary box. Then I did the score for a short film by the artist Andrea Zittel which is in the box set. I’ve been doing a lot of recording like that and right now Superchunk is the priority.
HM: It’s interesting to note that after the Superchunk hiatus started in 2002, Portastatic really picks up compared to before: four albums, B-sides retrospective, two soundtracks, live scores even (The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival – live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film and Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival – live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film). How was that?MM: Those were great, a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work for just one performance, but very cool.
HM: I remember quite vividly when The Nature of Sap came out, as it happened to directly coincide with the getting together and the breaking up of my ex-girlfriend and I, so thank you and screw you at the same time.
MM: Ha, thanks! (Laughs)
HM: That album is a definite shift from straightforward guitar-fueled Superchunk type songs. Then when Superchunk went into hibernation, and you released, for example, Bright Ideas, it’s extremely pop type guitar-rocks ditties. It’s not just a one-man group anymore. Do you have a rotating membership in Portastatic?
MM: Kind of. When we do shows as a band, a lot of times it’s with Jim (Wilbur from Superchunk), my brother playing drums, a guy named Zeke has played drums before, and Margaret White plays violin, but she lives in New York, so sometimes we have done some shows without her, like last fall when Some Small History came out, it was me, Jim & Ivan from the Rosebuds playing drums. We kind of just put things together as we can.
HM: What about your testimony on The Future of Radio, mainly speaking about the importance of low-power, non-commercial, and college radio, the need for diversity in an age of media consolidation, and the importance of net neutrality.
MM: That was for the Congressional Commerce committee put together by the Future of Music Coalition, which is essentially a pact with a lobby group for artists’ rights in the digital age. I got involved with the F.O.M. through Jenny Toomey from Simple Machines and got to go before Congress to testify.
HM: I’m a fan of Bill Moyers who has taken media consolidation to heart. The idea that huge media corporations can simultaneously own television, radio and print media companies became quite loosely regulated under the previous president’s administration. Obama has already reversed Bush’s pro-corporate stance.
MM: Yes, that is a dangerous possibility. But whenever republicans try to strip away public funding for stations like PBS, everyone always cries out, “You can’t cancel Sesame Street!” Where else is there programming without commercials? But the U.S. has always been like that. Whereas in Europe there are publicly funded rock clubs. Culture seems to be much more appreciated there.
HM: As a musician running their own label, which puts out physical products (CDs, LPs, T-shirts, etc.) what do you envision for the future of the digital age?
MM: I think that the challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. If you’re a fan and you’re interested in the artist who are making the music, then you understand that you need to support that. I think it helps to have a physical product involved because people feel more of a connection with something when they buy it, take it home, listen to it, look at the cover, read the lyrics, that kind of thing. I personally feel much more of a connection to something I can hold in my hands rather than something that is just a file on a computer. Either way there is the role of the label, which is to work to promote artists and to be a filter for people who are looking for music. I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s important for us and other labels like us to get the music out there in the way that fans want, whether it’s a vinyl LP or an MP3 download. Though I personally don’t think that mp3 downloads sound good.
Check out the full gallery of Superchunk’s Live show at Fandango in Osaka.
- Superchunk (Matador, 1990)
- No Pocky for Kitty (Matador, 1991)
- On the Mouth (Matador, 1993)
- Foolish (Merge, 1994)
- Here’s Where the Strings Come In (Merge, 1995)
- Indoor Living (Merge, 1997)
- Come Pick Me Up (Merge, 1999)
- Here’s to Shutting Up (Merge, 2001)
- I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge, 1994)
- Slow Note From a Sinking Ship (Merge, 1995)
- The Nature of Sap (Merge, 1997)
- Summer of the Shark (Merge, 2003)
- Bright Ideas (Merge, 2005)
- Be Still Please (Merge, 2006)
- Some Small History (Merge, 2008)
- Looking For Leonard (Merge, 2001)
- Who Loves the Sun (Merge, 2006)
- The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival (live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film)
- Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival (live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film)