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Mac McCaughan Keeps the Ice Off His Wings

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Dusted shakes down the indie rock Renaissance man behind Portastatic, Superchunk and Merge Records.

Mac McCaughan Keeps the Ice Off His Wings


1. Whatever substance he’s working with, the man doesn’t stop chiseling away until he finds a wistful, galvanizing melody.

2. While he’s never been a strong singer, Mac never sacrifices passion and sincerity to take refuge in Velveteen irony or studied incompetence. He strains like a man.

3. As the 80’s became the 90’s, McCaughan founded the speed-pop unit Superchunk, who issued “Slack Motherfucker” before Richard Linkletter’s movie and put Chapel Hill on the national radar. Which, if nothing else, gave hope to Tarheels like your reporter when Entertainment Weekly was telling them the action was happening at the diagonal opposite end of the nation. The Chunk’s ’92 masterpiece On The Mouth weathers better than Nevermind.

4. Superchunk kept touring and maturing long after Dillon Fence, Small 23 and Archers of Loaf crapped out. Listening to one of the newer, less frustrated Superchunk records is like hearing a fresh, unpretentious guitar pop band on college radio – it bears no resemblance to the rain-damaged Tossing Seeds LP in Mom’s basement, but it sounds no less enthusiastic.

5. Portastatic, the ongoing “side project” into which McCaughn channels his exploratory impulses, has taken on its own identity and maintained an output most full-fledged bands should envy, even as Superchunk has kept moving.

6. Prior to Summer of the Shark (currently “out”), the last three Portastatic records included a surprisingly charming film soundtrack, a collaboration with Chicago jazz pioneers Ken Vandermark and Tim Mulvena, and a set of tropicalia covers sung in their original Portuguese. If Mac worried about alienating his slowly-but-surely aging fan base with any of these, he didn’t tell anyone.

7. Summer of the Shark contains a bit of everything McCaughn has ever done well. While clearly informed by his recent detours, it’s a relentlessly hummable collection of ditties, most of which contain two or three splendid hooks apiece.

8. If you’re reading Dusted, you’re almost definitely familiar with Merge Records, the label with the sparkling reputation and the roster that, for years, has featured as many college radio recurrents than Matador in its prime. Mac co-owns that. He’s cultivated a trusted brand simply by putting out records he’d like to own.

9. Mac’s a calm, likeable fellow who knows what he’s talking about.


1. Well, sir, you must work pretty damn hard to run a label and issue frequent records from Superchunk and Portastatic. Are you "naturally" a hard worker, or do you have to discipline yourself to get everything you want into your schedule?

I think it's a combination of having lots of ideas (some more realistic than others) and wanting to execute as many of them as possible. I always have too much on my plate, but it's mostly my doing, so in order to accomplish everything… well, most everything – for instance, releases on my improv label Wobbly Rail have slowed considerably… it requires the discipline you mention, which does not come naturally to me, I don't think. I definitely have conversations with myself where I'm thinking, "OK, at halftime of this basketball game you are DEFINITELY going to go back there and start recording that song for the next Merge compilation," et cetera. I think I've trained myself to be organized when I am pretty all over the place if left undisciplined.

2. What keeps you in Chapel Hill?

I guess all my jobs mainly, plus it's a pretty great place to make music. People always used to ask Superchunk things like, "So are guys still in Chapel Hill? Why don't you move to New York or something?" Which always seemed like a dumb question to me, as NYC is one of the hardest places to get anything done! I loved living there, but being in a band there is a drag. Unless it's now, and you're from Brooklyn or something.

3. Why shouldn't we be intimidated by free jazz?

Why should you be? Some of the best things I've read about jazz were in the Ornette Coleman bio, where he’s explaining the simplicity of the concept behind what he was doing with those early 60's groups that everyone thought were so wild, called them anti-jazz, et cetera. I mean, in essence I think of improvised music as reducing music to its most basic forms – pure melody and rhythm – and taking away the structures of "Well, music has to have a time signature" and the old verse/chorus/solo setup. You can hear the beginnings of this in Charlie Parker songs where the main melody is so complex, it sounds like an improvised solo, and often started that way, and then he would codify it into being the head of the song. Free jazz guys were often – and I don't want to generalize, because many of them had different theories behind what they were doing: Albert Ayler doesn't sound much like Don Cherry, Archie Shepp doesn't sound much like Ornette, et cetera – just playing melodies, when you think about it. Maybe four guys are playing melodies at once, maybe they're playing off of each other, maybe they're trying NOT to play off of each other and it's just about pure sound and random results of human interaction, but it's all just music, and there's nothing to be scared of!

4. Merge has a golden reputation, and, from everything I've heard, you seem like a nice guy. In the course of your professional dealings, have you ever worked with someone and then fallen out, finding yourself unable to repair the damage?

Hmmm. Well, being on tour you definitely run into people who are bitter about the way their own career in music has turned out, or just have a different idea about the way a tour, or a music venue, or whatever, should be run in terms of how the artists are treated. But it's rarely productive to make enemies, and I try not to. There's too much to do to expend energy getting angry about situations or people that you can't change. And one of the great things about the development of Merge and Superchunk is that we've been lucky enough to be able to structure both so that we choose who we work with, and we end up working with like-minded people. When Chuck, Superchunk's first drummer, left the band, there were definitely hard feelings on both sides, but time heals a lot of wounds. When bands have left Merge to go to bigger labels, it doesn't make us happy, obviously, but like I said, all you can do is wish them the best of luck and continue to enjoy their music.

5. Ah, a crush can be a beautiful thing when you're young and irresponsible. For a spell there, it seemed like I couldn't swing a June of 44 LP without hitting some indie rock dude harboring a crush on your bandmate Laura. Of course, a lot of those guys managed to move on and form relationships with people they actually knew. And they should, because you have to snuff your crushes to get on with your life. But those residual crushes die hard. Just in case, please tell our readers something about Laura that'll drive the final nail in the coffin for them.

Well, for all those wallet-chain dudes that smoke, Laura is allergic to it, so you're right out. Plus, she's married, so on top of the no-smoking thing there's that little detail to think about. Jim and Jon have often been her roommates over the last 13 years or so, so you'd really have to ask them for more details about the irritating way she paints her toenails at 5 AM or something.

6. Is there such a thing as free will, or are our lives dictated by higher strata of causal laws we'll never fully comprehend?

You and your black-and-white world! It's both, silly!

7. Can recreational drug use enhance one's enjoyment of music?

I don't know, but a cocktail before going onstage has been known to calm some pre-show jitters. As far as actually listening to music, for me it's never recreational. All biz.

8. What's your definition of success?

I guess doing what you want to do with your life! Even if it's only part of your life.

9. What's one of your regrets?

Not breaking my parents rule about driving to DC on a school night to see the Minor Threat / Troublefunk concert when I was in high school.

By Emerson Dameron

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