Going his own way: Interview with Mac McCaughan

By Kelli Raulerson

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since indie rock institutions Merge Records and the band Superchunk were formed in 1989. It’s doubtful that the then-22 year-old Mac McCaughan (co-founder of Merge, along with partner Laura Ballance) had any clue these two outfits would forever alter the landscape of the music industry.

Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan photo via DiscussionsMagazine.com

Fast-forward two and half decades later and that DIY spirit has earned them an album of the year Grammy, a No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (both for Arcade Fire), several top 10s from Spoon and She & Him, notable releases from Neutral Milk Hotel and Caribou as well as a host of accolades. Most likely none of these things were on McCaughan’s radar when he decided to start both a band and a label from his tiny Chapel Hill apartment. After all, he just wanted to make the music he wanted to hear regardless of what everyone else was doing. Simple enough, right? Now with more than 86 Merge artists and 10 studio album releases from Superchunk, it’s a fairytale only realized through hard work and a relentless commitment to artists (including themselves) in the face of an industry that has long determined success more by compromise than steadfast resolve.

Superchunk photo Jason Arthurs

Talking to Mac it seems their collective achievements were less about a series of “right” choices and more about one good choice; the choice to stay true to themselves. To this day, it’s that tenacity that continues to carry the label, the band and the man – redefining what success truly means for artists today.

You can check out Mac McCaughan this Sunday, January 25 at Snug Harbor. If you’re lucky, you might also bump into him perusing the bins at Lunchbox Records before the show. I suggest you double-check the records you have in hand before approaching… maybe hold off before purchasing that Taylor Swift album until after you’ve said hello.

Mac McCaughan via Merge Records

CLTure: Congratulations on celebrating 25 years as an independent label last year. The landscape of the industry has changed a lot since you first started Merge records and began Superchunk. You’ve experienced it both as a musician and a label owner – what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that you might go back in time 25 years to tell yourself?

Mac McCaughan: Well you can always listen to your own old records and think “Why didn’t you just sing that vocal again?” so one thing might be “Take your time every once in a while!” But at the same time, when you’re 22 years old you don’t want to take your time, you want to do everything as soon as possible. I have always been impatient in that sense, so old records do capture where you’re at during all these different ages and points in your music-making trajectory. One thing that I think has been confirmed for me is that it’s always a good idea to be nice to people around you. Whether that’s the sound person at the shitty club you just pulled up to, or a promoter or an opening act or whomever; it seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many jerks there are out there. It’s good to try not to be one of them.

CLTure: As digital distribution continues to thrive and independent labels and artists continue to make the most of the ability to connect more broadly with listeners – what opportunities do you see for independent labels and their musicians? What has it been like to drive the growth of the indie scene? Does the DIY aspect of the industry make it harder or easier?

M: Obviously for anyone it’s much easier to get your music out there where it can be heard than ever before; that’s pretty cool. Though I have to say I am nostalgic for a time when you could still unearth some secrets. I don’t know how many secrets there are still out there.

But even with the technology that’s available—or maybe BECAUSE of the technology available—it’s maybe harder than ever to actually get noticed and then to sell records. So it’s still a super DIY situation for most bands out there, which I don’t think is a bad thing. The bad thing may be that once an artist puts in the hours and the hard work there still may not be a way for them to make it sustainable, because people have become convinced that music should be free.

Mac McCaughan of Portastatic in concert at the Black Cat in 2005

CLTure: Superchunk received a lot of praise for your last album, I Hate Music, as it explored the maturation of how one perceives the totality of their life’s choices. How have the choices you made as a young, independent artist helped define who you are today? And do those same tenants define you now or have they changed?

M: I think the choice to stay independent both as a band and a label defined our path for better or worse. Mostly for better of course – but as I mentioned above I think there were times that we could have spent a little more time and money making a record and that would have been a cool experience as well. But it’s not something I think about a lot, I think there’s too much to do as a musician and also as a label, to worry about things you could have done differently. I think working the way we have has allowed us to survive for the last 26 years. Making no predictions about the future!

Superchunk 2001 at Tremont Music Hall photo by Daniel Coston

CLTure: On Twitter you mentioned possibly checking out Lunchbox Records before your show at Snug Harbor. What album would you say was your best record store find? And what albums are you looking out for these days?

M: Wow, best record store find EVER? That’s become really hard over the last 15 years with so many record stores – even thrift stores! They look up how much stuff is worth on eBay so I don’t really expect to find something super rare, but I still look for things that I like and just know I may have to pay.

One of my favorite finds was at Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis where I found copies of The Homosexuals’ Record and The Homosexuals EP for like $2 each. The first time I went to the UK in the mid-80s I bought copies of those early Dickies singles on colored vinyl — Banana Splits, Knights in White Satin — that was a fun thing to find. In Brazil some guys took us record shopping in Rio and I came home with a box of amazing stuff.

Record shopping is fun but there are moments when I look around and think “Man, we are adding to a huge pile of crap in the world…” and it’s kinda depressing. But then I get over it and buy some records.

Catch Mac McCaughan (Superchunk & Portastatic) January 25th at Snug Harbor.

Watch the video for “Me & You & Jackie by Superchunk.

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