Portastatic's Mac McCaughan

Portastatic's Mac McCaughan
Putting Chapel Hill, NC on the indie rock map, Mac McCaughan is renowned for being the lead voice in one of the best and perhaps most underrated punk rock pop bands of the last 20 years, Superchunk, and also for co-founding Merge Records, one of America’s most respected independent music labels. Since 1990, he’s also helmed a wonderful, mostly solo project called Portastatic, which has proven to be as prolific and consistently great as Superchunk. If the band’s numerous albums and EPs weren’t evidence enough, Portastatic’s latest release, Some Small History should sway all doubters. An astounding double-record, it consists of rare Portastatic songs recorded between 1990 and 2007 and it’s a generous offering to long-time fans of this unique songwriter’s gifts. Mac McCaughan recently made time to spill the beans on this and other projects to Exclaim!

I want to start by asking about the process of putting Some Small History together. Merge Records has been very good about archiving and compiling music by artists and there are a number of Superchunk releases that gather together B-sides, songs from other compilations, and rare singles. So this Portastatic collection isn’t surprising in one sense, yet I wonder if you can discuss what compels you to give your music what is essentially, a second home for listeners who might have missed it the first time around?
I guess there are even people who were paying attention and buying Portastatic records 15 years ago who couldn’t find everything. I do like having everything in one place but mostly the impetus is from people posting on the Portastatic message board or e-mailing, basically saying, "By the way, here’s your whole discography — why don’t you put this all together somewhere?” and reminding me of stuff that came out that I didn’t even remember. But it is kind of fun to get it all together and listen to it. In fact, I had to go back and remix a lot of the songs because I recorded a lot of the early stuff on four-track cassette. When I would mix it down to a DAT tape or something to send someone to put out on a seven-inch or compilation, I didn’t make a copy for myself! So, I ended up having to go back through my old tapes, in which I found songs that I’d completely forgotten about, a lot of unfinished songs, and all kinds of stuff. So it was a pretty fun process. It ended up being a little more intensive than I thought it was gonna be but it was really fun sequencing the thing because, y’know, there are songs from all over. Time-wise and recording studio-wise — everything. And so I decided to sequence it like a regular album, in terms of having the running order that sounded the best instead of putting all the old stuff first and later stuff last. I tried not to be too worried about stuff that was embarrassing. When I hear some of it now, I think, "Oh, I could’ve sung that better” or whatever, but I just kinda put it all out there, y’know?

Was it particularly difficult to put Some Small History together compared to, say, the similar Superchunk comps you’ve released over the years?
In some ways, just because the Superchunk stuff was all done in studios and we kinda knew where everything was for the most part. Even with those compilations, there were songs we had to track down on a DAT in a box in the basement at Merge or whatever. But with the Portastatic record it was definitely more like going through old cassettes and, like I said, finding songs that I’d totally forgotten about and other people had to remind me of.

You were discussing the sequencing a moment ago. In the liner notes, you write about how this breaks up the varied fidelity of the recordings but, to my ear, it also kind of affects the way listeners interact with your evolution as a singer, songwriter, and musician. Was that an aspect that you’d considered as well, the idea of unraveling or at least picking at the supposed thread that ties your work together?
Y’know, when I’m going through the stuff and sequencing, mixing, and listening to it, it’s kind of hard not to think about that to a certain extent. That wasn’t really my goal in starting the project or anything but it’s interesting because I do start to see ways in which Portastatic recordings are maybe different now but also a lot of ways that they’re the same or my songwriting hasn’t changed all that much. I guess that’s a good thing; I’m not sure. Part of me thinks, "Whoa, maybe I should’ve been making a little progress over the last 18 years!” [Laughs]

There’s nothing wrong with honing a singular sound though; I want to clarify that point.
Right, I think to a certain extent, that’s what’s been happening. I guess it’s up for debate whether that’s a good thing or not. If you like it, that’s a good thing.

Was it at all daunting for you to confront all of these songs, all of this work you’ve done, and put it in one place?
It was, just because when I originally started, I had this naïve thought of "Oh, I’ll just gather up all these DATs and CD compilations that have these songs on them and just put it all together and it won’t be that big of a deal.” Then when I realized that I was actually going to have to go back and mix some of these things down again from the cassette masters, it meant like, borrowing my four-track back from my brother who I’d given it to a long time ago and getting all my old tapes out, and cataloguing things. I write stuff down and everything but it was like, I’d be looking at a tape from 1994 that just says "Instrumental.” And the next one might say "D-tuning,” y’know? Just like these shorthand things and it wasn’t as easy as finding the specific ones I wanted, going back through it and cataloguing, but it was pretty fun actually.

In terms of DATs, so many people I’ve talked to in recent years — because DATs were almost obsolete as soon as they came out — their players are all screwed up and they can’t play the old DATs. Was that an issue for you? Do you have a DAT machine?
I do have a DAT player and that actually works okay. For this, I was really mostly working with cassettes, which have their own issues in terms of drop-outs, of which there are a couple, but in some ways maybe they’re more stable than DATs? I’m not really sure.

No, that’s fine. I was just talking to someone the other day about their old music and they were like, "Yeah, it was all on DAT and now it’s gone, I can’t play it.”
Yeah, that definitely happens. A cassette can get drop-outs or get tangled and folded but digital stuff can become corrupted in a different way. Similarly, recording-wise, there’s something that I really like about the sound of an overloaded analog cassette but you can’t really do that with digital because digital distortion doesn’t really sound good.

I’m wondering about your plans beyond this new Portastatic record; will you be touring or recording much with Portastatic in the next while?
Not a lot of touring but some shows here and there to support the compilation. I haven’t really looked too far past this fall. It’s been a really busy fall, not just for Portastatic but for Merge. It’s trying to balance everything and doing as much music as I can while also still doing the label with Laura [Ballance].

Right, of course. What about Superchunk; any activity on that front?
Well, we always talk about, "When are we going start working on the next record?” We have some new songs but we need to write some more to make a whole album. We played a couple shows recently that were great. We played a benefit here in Chapel Hill for a friend of ours who has a frightening medical situation and a lot of bills. That show was fun because people could pay extra money towards the benefit and we would play their request. We ended up playing some songs that we’ve never ever played before live, so that was pretty fun. Then we went out and played a show at Bumbershoot with Death Cab for Cutie in this football stadium. That was really fun as well. The fun thing about Superchunk is, when we get together to do shows, they’re usually pretty good events. So, the next step is to actually finish writing a record.

Well, that’s exciting. I’m glad to hear it’s something of a going concern.
A slow-going concern…

I understand, there’s lots of things going on. Are there any other interesting projects coming down the line for you or Merge?
Yeah well, this fall we’ve got a lot of great stuff coming out. The new album by the Broken West, their second record came out. A Music Tapes record came out, which is Julian [Koster] who was in Neutral Milk Hotel. He’s got a Christmas record coming out, as well, where it’s him playing Christmas carols on the saw, as his instrument, and that’s a beautiful record. The Rosebuds and Lambchop each have new records out, so there’s a lot of good stuff. Next year is our 20th anniversary and we have a box set that we’re planning that people can subscribe to. The bulk of it is made up of these compilations that artists have put together of their favourite Merge songs, so basically Merge mix CDs. They’ll each also contribute some sort of original material to each CD, and those things will be mailed to people throughout the year. We’ll also be putting out a covers compilation with non-Merge bands covering Merge songs and a similar thing with people re-mixing Merge songs. So, all of that will come with the box and I think it’s gonna be a lot of good stuff.

That sounds great! And I assume there might be a party?
There will be a party. We’re working on the details of that. There’s so many bands now, we’re just trying to figure out how to make it all happen. But that’ll be next summer some time.