When he's not been busy co-running one of the most successful indie labels of all time (Merge Records, home to Arcade Fire) Mac McCaughan (second left) has been the longtime leader of erstwhile post-hardcore, power-poppers Superchunk. Known for their sky-scraping guitar sound the band were cult favourites throughout the 1990s. The 'Chunk dropped off the scene for much of the 2000s reappearing with 2011's Majesty Shredding. Ahead of a visit the UK (ATP Camber sands 29 November-1December and London Electric Ballroom 3 December) in support of recently released album I Hate Music this winter, "Mac" spoke to Q about the ups and downs of being in one of the few 'college rock' bands to graduate to a career.
How the devil are you? "Good. I'm at the Merge office in Durham, North Carolina. I'm up to doing Superchunk press for I Hate Music and formulating ideas for our 25th anniversary next year."
Nearly a quarter of a century, what are the key differences between the Superchunk of 1989 and of today? "While photos from the time would indeed indicate that we were much younger, it doesn't seem like 24 years ago. Hopefully you learn valuable stuff over the course of that time, and I think we are much better at most things now than we were then. Songwriting, making records, playing shows. I think we do all of that more thoughtfully and just better than we did then."
While Superchunk were on hiatus were you dedicating all of your time to Merge? Tell us a bit about those years. "I made four EPs and three albums - Summer Of The Shark, Bright Ideas, and Be Still Please - with my other project, Portastatic, and toured for those records, so I was making a lot of music. Merge was growing during that time as well - we had our biggest releases to date from bands like Arcade Fire, Spoon, M Ward, Conor Oberst and She & Him."
I heard you had a very bad touring experience in the UK and Europe in the 90s - what happened? "I don't think it's an unusual story - we were on the cover of NME when American Bands Of The Early 90s were somewhat in vogue for a moment, and then some time after that it was hard to have a good show outside of London for us, which I think is still pretty much the case! In Europe it got spotty too. London and Spain, those have always been great for us. With I Hate Music coming out we're going to try branching out again and see what happens in some other places!"
When you're home off tour, you seem to do a lot of local shows, DJing - do you still feel a big part of the scene in Chapel Hill? "Part of the scene... I think there are multiple scenes actually and I'm not sure if I am a part of any of them, mainly because I'm so much older! But I do enjoy playing local shows though in some ways it's more nerve-wracking because you know you'll see those people in the grocery store or whatever so you really don't want to play a bad show."
Let's talk a little bit about Merge. You brought Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire to a wider audience - how did you come across those bands and did you know how special they would be and how much they would mean to people? "From the beginning we've found artists all different ways: shopping for records, touring with bands, recommendations from friends - which is what NMH was. With Arcade Fire, we met their original drummer Howard Bilerman, who produced Funeral, on the first Superchunk tour of Canada when we came to Montreal, in 1991. We became friends over the years and in 2003 he said, Hey i'm playing drums for this band, you might like them. Both bands from first hearing are obviously special talents and writing songs that connect in a great, different way. But there's no predicting the kind of fanaticism that each would inspire! just that they would connect with people hopefully they way they did with us."
What's your most cherished Merge release? "That's like saying: Which of your children do you like the most?, though luckily we didn't have to give birth to any of our bands."
What's the toughest decision you've had to make as the head of a record label? "Many times we've had to decide that we didn't have the time or resources to put out a great record that we really liked. there are just too many good records; luckily there are other good labels, too."
How did it feel coming back with Majesty Shredding' after all those years away? Did the response make you happy? "Yes, it was really gratifying actually. Not just to know that people wanted to hear from us after awhile, but that they accepted Majesty Shredding as part of our catalogue as opposed to, I just want to hear old songs. It was quite conscious on our part when we were making the record to make a record that would surprise people, excite people, rather than make a record after nine years that people could shrug off and say I like the old stuff. Because then, why bother?"
Aside from the new album what's your favourite Superchunk record and why? "I like them all for different reasons, though I think there are songs on Indoor Living and Here's To Shutting Up that maybe get overlooked that I like a lot. On every album there are songs that I think live up to their potential, and others where I think, Well we had a cool idea...but couldn't quite pull it off. I think the ratio of successes to not-quites is highest on I Hate Music and Majesty Shredding."
Album track Low F has what you could call 'classic' Superchunk optimism to it - and while there are darker songs on the new album, that youthful optimism still seems to shine through - are you a naturally optimistic person? "Yeah it's one of the more optimistic songs on the record in the sense that at least in this one the person who's depressed is commiserating with someone else who knows what it feels like to be down on the floor! I guess I would say I would like to be optimistic, and I think of myself as an optimist, but that there's an undercurrent of pessimism waiting to bubble up at any moment. Perhaps too readily."
You've had to go through a lot in terms of relations with your bandmates, running the label, your life outside music - what keeps Superchunk together? "I think we are all pretty level-headed people. I mean we all have our triggers that drive us bonkers especially in a close-quarters situation like touring, for instance [ guitarist ] Jim Wilbur hates being offered dessert. But in general we strive to get along and give each other space in those situations. It's certainly easier now that we are not in each other's hair, sharing a van seat six months out of the year like we were throughout the 90s."
Do you see a longterm future for Superchunk or is it something you may step away from sooner rather than later? "I think not thinking about things in those terms - where will we be in five years? - is one of the secrets to our longevity!" Michael James Hall @michaeljamesh
Head to Superchunk.com for more.