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Superchunk: In the Studio

Mac McCaughan Discusses Superchunk's First Album in Nine Years

Mar 29, 2010 Web Exclusive
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The Most Anticipated Albums of 2010 section in Under the Radar‘s Winter 2010 Issue includes a short article on Superchunk’s new album. Below is the full Q&A of that interview with Mac McCaughan.

North Carolina’s Superchunk, an indie rock trailblazer throughout the 1990s, hasn’t released an album since 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, but the band has remained active over the last decade, playing sporadic local shows and touring infrequently. In 2009, frontman Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance celebrated the 20th anniversary of both the band and Merge Records, the record label they co-founded in Chapel Hill. With the recording of the Leaves in the Gutter EP in the spring of 2009, the seeds were planted for Superchunk’s ninth album, which McCaughan expects to be released in 2010. McCaughan discussed the forthcoming album with Under the Radar in late December, shortly after returning from a brief tour of Japan with the band.

A new Superchunk album. That’s pretty exciting.

Mac McCaughan: It is exciting. I’ll, in some ways, believe it when I see it.

What do you mean by that?

You know, it’s not done yet. So, it’s a slow process these days.

What stage of the album production are you in right now?

We’re doing this record differently than most records. Usually we would go in the studio and do all the tracking at one time and then go mix it all at one time and be done with it. But it doesn’t really work for us these days, just due to the fact that Merge is so busy. Our drummer Jon Wurster is living in New York but mainly just being on tour with a few different people, usually The Mountain Goats, but Bob Mould and A.C. Newman. He’s also been playing shows with Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar. Jon’s very busy, so it’s kind of a matter of when we can get everyone’s schedule to match up. But, when that does happen, Jon comes down here and we’ve been tracking a couple songs at a time at a studio in Durham called Overdub Lane, where we mixed Indoor Living and recorded the Laughter Guns EP. We’ve worked there a bunch over the years with John Plymale, who’s the house engineer over there. But producing and mixing this recordPlymale’s around too—is Scott Solter, whose done Mountain Goats records and John Venderslice records and a bunch of stuff. He lives in North Carolina. He actually doesn’t live too close to here, he lives a couple hours away, but he lives in North Carolina, so he’s been driving up and working with us at Overdub. And then we’ll take those basic tracks back to the studio at my house and do overdubbing there. You know, whether it’s percussion or vocals or guitars or whatnot. And then, when it’s totally done, then send it back to Scott, and he mixed at his place outside of Charlotte, in western North Carolina. He lives out in the country, I think. So, it’s kind of a convoluted process but more straightforward than it sounds, actually.

Do you feel as though writing for the album has been completed?

Enough songs are written. We’ve recorded seven songs maybe so far, and there’s probably 12 that are written. There are enough, but I think that because the longer it takes means that there will probably be more songs written. So it may not end up being the ones that are written now, necessarily, that are all the ones that are on the record. So, I think we have enough material now, if we went ahead and finished recording it all and then it was done, but I’d rather be in a position of having a couple extra and being able to pick and choose a little bit.

With the songs you have recorded, do you feel confident that they should make the record?

Yeah, definitely. In fact, it’s funny because there’s a song called “Blinders” that we recorded, and then in the studio decided to all of a sudden to do a radically different version of it as well. So we recorded a couple different versions. And the version that we did on the spur of the moment ended up being the B-side of the “Crossed Wires” single, and, now that it’s done and it’s out, we like that version better than the version we planned on being on the album. So, I don’t know how that’s all gonna shake out. But yeah, I really like what we’ve got so far. I think it sounds really good. It’s interesting because, doing it this way, tracking it and then taking to my house and being able to kind of do whatever with it that I want in terms of overdubs, you’d think that that would lend it to having a bunch of stuff piled on to it, because normally you’re in a studio and the clock’s ticking and you’re kind of like, “OK, there’s not time to add another marimba to this song because we’ve got to move on or whatever.” But, actually, what we’ve got so far is much more. It’s not really stripped down, because there’s a lot going on, but it’s maybe more just kind of direct than anything on the last album that we did, which was eight years ago. So, it makes sense that it would be different than that record. That was Here’s to Shutting Up. I think in some ways it’s a product of the fact that when we get together now and do shows, we don’t really want to mess around with elaborate stage setups that require organs and extra players and stuff like that. It’s more of a straightforward rock thing, which is great. You know, we can go to Japan and just bring our guitars and our distortion pedals, essentially, and play shows. And I think that in some ways the songs that we’ve been recording reflect that kind of more directness.

Judging from your quotes regarding the Leaves in the Gutter EP, I got the impression that you were trying wipe the slate clean in preparing for the new album. Is that right?

I think so. I think “Learned to Surf,” which is on there, in some ways, is like the beginning of the new stuff. But it was done, and we really liked it, and we didn’t want it to be too old by the time it came out, so we put that on there. It won’t be on the album, I don’t think, but I think it’s kind of a reflection of the newer stuff that we’re doing now.

OK, because I just didn’t know where “Crossed Wires” fit in to that idea.

Well, and “Crossed Wires” is even newer. “Crossed Wires,” we recorded and then put it out as a single two months later. There probably will be a different version of “Crossed Wires” on the album, I would think.

When do you feel that recording for this album began in earnest?

I guess sometime earlier this year, like in the spring, I would think.

In the past, you’ve released acoustic versions of Superchunk songs, and I never knew if those were interpretations of what you had recorded or whether the songs begin in that state, before you head into the studio.

It’s both. There’s times when we’ve written songs together as a band with electric instruments and later figured out, “How can we play this in a stripped down way?” In that case, the acoustic version is following the original version. I would say, in the past, that’s been more the case, because, really starting with Foolish, we wrote songs together, and there weren’t really demo versions per se. Like, when we did the “Driveway to Driveway” single, we had acoustic B-sides on there, we went back and recorded acoustic songs on the 4-track after we’d already done the electric version. But, because we’re all scattered these days, there’s fewer of those sessions where we’re all just playing together to write songs, so the acoustic version of “Crossed Wires,” it is a demo for that song.

I see. Yeah, I was wondering of there were minimal blueprints for you guys to work off.

Yeah, sometimes there are and sometimes there aren’t.

What about this album in particular?

Yeah, for most of this record, there are.

Do you think “Learned to Surf” and “Crossed Wires” are good clues of what to expect from the album?

Yeah, I think so. I think that those are a good reflection of the direction that we’re going.

Loud, fast, and melodic?

Yeah, I mean, it’s not all fast. There’s some mid-tempo-y things on there. But I think Superchunk is almost always melodic, so you’re safe to say that, and it’s all pretty loud, yeah.

When you finished touring for Here’s to Shutting Up, did you guys foresee or discuss a hiatus that would last nearly a decade?

Not really. It’s one of those things where you just keep thinking, “Pretty soon we’ll do this and we’ll do that.” We always played a few shows every year, so we never felt like we were really gone for that long at a time. You know what I mean? But, like I said, everyone’s so busy doing other things, time just kind of goes by. You know, like, “Whoa, how long has it been since we made a record?” [Laughs] We never talked about a plan, like, “In this many years we’re going to do this,” or whatever. It’s just kind of how it happened.

When you first started recording in the spring, had it been a long time since you’d been together?

No. I mean, Laura and I see each other almost every day in the Merge office, and Jim Wilbur works here in Durham and lives near us in Chapel Hill. Jon, maybe we see the least often, but we tend to plays shows every couple months or something. I can’t really keep it all straight. I’m trying to think of the last time we played shows before we started recording, but I think we also knew that we had Coachella coming up, and then the Merge 20-year. And so, even though, from the outside, it may seem like stuff doesn’t happen that often, for us it’s pretty constantly every couple months we’re getting together to either work on songs or play shows.

That’s actually the part I was wondering about, working on songs. When you convened in the studio in the spring, had it been a long time since you had recorded together?

I think when we started working on this stuff, the last time we had been in the studio was to do that single for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force soundtrack, and then we put out a picture disc of that song, “Misfits and Mistakes,” and that was probably, maybe like a year or so before. I can’t get the dates straight exactly.

So that’s not that long, especially since you guys had been seeing each other and playing shows.

Yeah, it wasn’t like it was eight years and all of a sudden we were going into the studio for the first time.

With Merge celebrating its 20th anniversary this past year, I imagine that you’d been looking back a lot, and I was curious if that influenced the writing for this album at all.

I don’t really think so, because I don’t really think about those two things in the same way, necessarily. You know what I mean? In other words, working on music, writing songs, for me, it may sound strange to say this, is not really entwined with running a label. It’s kind of a separate thought process.

I guess what I was getting at was how the influx of the material you were reviewing for the anniversary packages, perhaps albums that you hadn’t heard in years, had an influence, if any.

I don’ think so. I think the one thing that has been helpful or influential, or whatever you want to call it, is that, for a while, I didn’t have a studio in my house, ‘cause we had a second kid, and his room was my old studio. But then we added a room and that became my new studio, and I think having that allowed me to work in the way that I used to work both on Portastatic records and on Superchunk, which was kind of being able to just go in there and write and record and put ideas down without thinking about it too much, which I think results in more immediate material than four people in a room playing together for like four hours a day, for a week, to write one song, which is how Here’s to Shutting Up was written. So, I think, in some ways, it’s less about looking back in terms of the Merge anniversary or whatever, and more just like working environments and working style.

Were you guys the type of band that was influenced between albums by other artists’ work?

I think that I’m always influenced by other artists, starting with our first record and onward. I think we were all listening to music a lot. We were all listening to different kinds of music probably, but, speaking for myself, I’m always listening to stuff, and I’m sure that it’s always an influence. There’s certain things that I feel are always an influence. Certain times, I’ll hear something in a song, I’m like, “Wow, that reminds me of that Go-Betweens record that I was listening to every day 10 years ago.” I mean, not listening to every day now, but stuff kinda crops up.

Should we expect an album from Superchunk in 2010?

I hope so. I’m expecting an album from Superchunk in 2010. That’s the plan.

You mentioned how busy you all have been. What made the timing right for an album now?

I don’t know. I guess part of it was just me being able to write, and then knowing that we had some shows to play this year, and I think, at a certain point, you want to have some new songs to play. And then, finishing that EP, doing “Learned to Surf” for that EP, was pretty easy. I think, a lot of times, you start associating making an album with going away for two weeks, and then mixing for two weeksI mean, that’s probably the most time we would have ever spent on a recordyou know, you get it in your mind that it has to happen in a certain way, and then, going into Overdub and doing “Learned to Surf” in like a day, makes you realize, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be this dragged out process. It doesn’t have to be something that takes everyone away from their other stuff that they’re doing for an extended period of time.” And I think that was important, especially to Laura, who didn’t want to have it be this completely immersive thing. So, I think that figuring out a different way to make a record made it feasible to do that this time.

If she didn’t want to do that, do you think you’ll be able to tour?

I don’t think that Laura wants to tour either, so [laughs] I don’t know about that. We just did a tour of Japan, but that was a special situation. But we always have fun playing shows, so I think it’s kind of like what’s your definition of a tour.

What was the demographic like for your shows over there? Are you playing to kids, or do you get old school fans?

Yeah, I was kind of surprised. There were certainly some people our age in the crowd, but a lot of really young kids too. I’m not sure how they are exposed to stuff like Superchunk, but it was cool.

Is there a different mindset when you’re writing for Portastatic as opposed to Superchunk?

Yeah, definitely, just because Superchunk is a set group of people, and I think we know what our strengths are. I think we certainly try to stretch what we’re doing, but at the same time, I would never sit down and write a song that’s an instrumental for piano and viola and be like, “Alright, here’s the new Superchink song.” [Laughs] Portastatic can kind of be whatever it needs to be. I think Superchunk has parameters which, for me, is an interesting and, I think, a productive way to work is to have either someone give you parameters or, in the case of Superchunk, you just have parameters that you’ve developed over 20 years or whatever. It’s just two different things.

What about lyrically?

Probably lyrically too, though that’s harder to quantify. I think there’s certainly something about knowing that you’re singing in front of a band, and there’s four other people involved in playing the music, although they’re not writing the words and they’re generally not even singing very much, I think it does kind of influence what the words end up being. Though, like I said, it’s kind of hard for me to define what those differences are.

There are probably numerous elements to recording an album that have changed for you in the 20 years since your debut, but I’m curious, is there anything about that first album that you felt you got right, that you have not tried to change since then?

Not really. The only thing that I think is important about that record in terms of something that we’ve tried to keep, at least at times, is a kind of a density of the guitars, and having a few things going on at once, so that you can’t necessarily pick just one thing out. You hear a lot of things happening and you don’t necessarily know who’s doing what or what melody’s being played by what instrument. I remember when we did On the Mouth, the mixes for that that we did with John Reis out in Los Angeles, had the guitars panned really hard to either side, and I wasn’t used to that sound at all. And I remember, when we got back to North Carolina, I was like, “We have to remix some of these songs.” Because it wasn’t as dense. You could actually hear what was going on too well, or something. [Laughs] Since then, I’ve kind of come around a little to that way of mixing and that way of listening to stuff. But I think that we still try to achieve some sort of density with Superchunk in terms of the sound, so that it kind of is like one thing rather than a bunch of separate things.


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