Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan on D.C.’s Old Days, Yo La Tengo, and Aging Out of Sisters of Mercy
After a nine-year hiatus, indie-rock ensemble Superchunk jolted back to life in 2010 with what might have been its strongest album yet, Majesty Shredding. On that punchy, tightly wound record, Superchunk taught a younger generation of listeners what the olds already knew: It's hard not to pogo madly to this stuff. (At the band's September 2010 gig at 9:30 Club, the crowd up front appeared to spend about half the concert midair.) Now, three years later, the quartet is back with a new LP, I Hate Music, and another show at the V Street NW venue, this one on Sunday.
The new album doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations Majesty Shredding set for the band's new era, but it stands up well next to the rest of Superchunk’s back catalog. Single “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” sharply observes the powerful grip music holds on its most devoted—and how time can affect that relationship, much like the Majesty Shredding song “My Gap Feels Weird.”
Like most releases from the band, which formed in Chapel Hill in 1989, I Hate Music is out on Merge Records, the label Superchunk singer-guitarist-songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Balance founded as the band was getting started. Today, they still run the company as co-presidents. I reached McCaughan in his office in downtown Durham and we talked about his band’s recent work, traveling to D.C. for shows in the '80s and '90s, and what he learned from a tour with Yo La Tengo.
This interview has been condensed.
Washington City Paper: What is it like in your office? Is it organized? Is it messy? What do you have in there?
Mac McCaughan: My office itself is fairly—I wouldn’t say it’s messy, but there’s stacks of things. I know what they are. But it’s not as neat as some people’s office.
WCP: Is it decently large for you?
MM: My office is pretty small, but the fact that I have my own office—that’s enough for me.
WCP: Most people don’t have that luxury?
WCP: What [does being co-founder and co-president] entail? What do you usually do on a typical day?
MM: Usually answering a lot of emails, both about Superchunk stuff and Merge stuff. Talking to bands, emailing with bands. Having meetings. We have a lot of meetings in the office about planning releases and strategizing about things. And just to clarify—most people do have their own office here, but I guess I meant, I’m happy just to have my own office as someone who has a record label, since when we started it was in, y’know, Laura’s house. So.
WCP: When you play D.C. on Sept. 29, you’ll be playing 9:30 Club, but did you see that the Black Cat just celebrated its 20th anniversary?
MM: That’s awesome. Yeah, I remember when the Black Cat opened. Before that, it had pretty much just been—for us living in North Carolina, we would go up to see shows at 9:30 Club or d.c. space.
WCP: Superchunk used to play at Black Cat a lot, right?
MM: Yeah. We played there many times.
WCP: Do you have any particularly strong or interesting memories from your time at the Black Cat or elsewhere in D.C.?
MM: Y’know, like I said, we would drive up to see shows at 9:30 Club and d.c. space and I have good memories of doing that. And then when Superchunk started and we started playing it was exciting to get to play at the old 9:30 Club just because I’d seen so many shows there. And then, as far as the Black Cat goes, yeah, that’s always felt like we know the people working there and that’s a very comfortable place for us to be and had some great shows there. We’ve played there so many times, they kind of all blend together. [Laughs] I think the last album that we put out before Majesty Shredding, the album we did in 2001, we played there on the last show of the tour I think, with Rilo Kiley and Aereogramme. And that was a fun show.
WCP: When you used to go up to see shows at the 9:30 Club or d.c. space, were those bands that were not really coming down to your area?
MM: Yeah. Either it was a D.C. band that wasn’t touring maybe or it was, y’know, a band like The Church or someone from Australia, or a band from the U.K.—that was as far south as they were going. Maybe they were going to Atlanta, but D.C.’s actually closer. So, yeah, we would go up there to see bands that weren’t coming down here.
WCP: How did you find out about those kind of shows back then before you could just go to the venue website?
MM: Y’know, I think about that sometimes. Like, how do we know that New Order was playing at the Warner Theatre? Where would we even see that? You know? [Laughs] There was no website. I guess that maybe you could—I’m trying to think of where those tour dates would be published, if people published tour dates in, like, Rolling Stone, or, definitely fanzines for punk bands, but in terms of bigger bands, I don’t know how we found out about that stuff. But, yeah, we did somehow. I wondered about that myself. ... I think that maybe what people would do is—if you had friends that lived in D.C., you could just call them and they would look in the weekly, you know. And do it that way.
WCP: When did you start playing the new 9:30 Club?
MM: Um. I’m trying to think. I think the first time I played there—well, let me think. It might have been on our tour for Come Pick Me Up? I’m not totally—like I said, the dates are kinda confused in my mind. But we played there with the Beatnik Filmstars and that might’ve been the first time we headlined the new place. I also remember playing there when I was in Yo La Tengo for one tour with them, and Lambchop was opening, that was probably in ’99. Or 2000. I remember that was the first show of our tour, was at the new 9:30 Club and it was a really great show.
WCP: What did you do in Yo La Tengo?
MM: I played the vibraphone and keyboards and kinda just whatever needed to be played, really.
WCP: Was it just a quartet or were there other people too that helped?
MM: It was—the extra players were myself and David Kilgour [of The Clean]. I think that would’ve been in 2000, I think.
WCP: Was that a fun tour?
MM: Yeah, it was great. I learned a lot about just how to—I dunno, they’re one of those bands: every show that you see is different. They’re really good at doing stuff on the fly and bringing people into the band just to play on a few songs or whatever. Members of Lambchop would come onstage and that kind of thing. It was a super interesting tour.
WCP: Do you remember playing any other rooms in D.C. other than 9:30 Club and Black Cat?
MM: d.c. space, I had a band called The Slushpuppies and we played at d.c. space. I was also in a band called Sir, briefly, when I was living in New York. We played at d.c. space. So, played there a couple times and saw some good shows there. I think I saw—I might have seen Happy Go Licky there. I saw them a couple times actually. When I lived in New York—I was in school in New York—we took the bus down, I remember, to see Happy Go Licky at d.c. space.
WCP: What was the band you were in? Sir?
MM: Yeah. We played like five or six shows and I don’t think we ever recorded anything. It was the rhythm section from Phantom Tollbooth and myself and the singer was a guy named John Easley, who has since passed away but sang for a Boston band called Sorry that was really great.
WCP: On Superchunk’s new album, I Hate Music¸ you have your own hardcore-style song “Staying Home.” What were some of the hardcore bands you loved that you might’ve used as a model for this song?
MM: Definitely bands like Government Issue in terms of D.C. bands. I love Government Issue. Probably the biggest punk/hardcore band out of North Carolina was Corrosion of Conformity, who we obviously used to see a lot. They’re definitely one of my favorite hardcore bands. I think they would have been, even if I didn’t live here, but it helped that they were just down the road in Raleigh.
WCP: What is the new Superchunk song “Low F” about?
MM: Well, it’s funny because the song title literally comes from the fact that the low string on my guitar is tuned to an F on that. So that’s what the name of the demo was and that ended up being the name of the song. And that’s just kind of about having someone to commiserate with you when you’re feeling bummed out. Or just someone that can kind of, maybe not necessarily feel exactly the same as you, but just kind of, yeah, commiserate or bond over that situation, whatever the situation is.
WCP: Do you typically play in alternate tunings?
MM: Not typically, but there’s usually a couple songs on each record that have something weird going on. I almost always regret it when we’re playing it live because that means you have to tune.
WCP: How did the making of I Hate Music come about? Was it something you guys went into easily after Majesty Shredding touring?
MM: Yeah. I think that after we did Majesty Shredding and that process went well, working on those songs and recording that, and then, I think we figured out a way to tour that it wasn’t gonna burn us out, you know, which, touring can be a burn-out. We just figured that it all kind of worked and I think gave us the impetus to go on to the next record. It’s been three years, but that’s fast for our pace over the past 10 years.
WCP: With the idea of “I hate music” and one’s relationship with music changing with age, are there any bands or artists that you swore by in your teens or 20s but now might feel differently about?
MM: I mean, I’m sure there are. For instance, compared to when I was a junior in high school, I probably don’t listen to nearly as much Sisters of Mercy as I did at that point. But, y’know, you go through phases. It’s hard for me to think of any bands that I really liked but now if I hear them I go, “Ugh, how did I ever like that?” You know? For whatever reason, that doesn’t really happen. Not that all those bands are really good, but I guess—even for the bands I don’t listen to as much as I maybe did 20 years ago—I still have some sort of fondness for them.
WCP: How has it been playing shows with Jason Narducy on bass, who’s replacing Laura [on tour]?
MM: Laura plays on the record obviously, but she isn’t able to tour because of hearing problems, so, in order to save her ears, we have Jason, who’s awesome. [Drummer Jon Wurster’s] been playing with him awhile anyway in the Bob Mould Band, so they’re already pretty familiar with each other as a rhythm section and Jason’s been amazing in terms of just like learning songs, learning a ton of songs quickly. The shows so far have been really good.
WCP: Are you still able to play a lot of older songs or does Jason work with a smaller set?
MM: No, we play songs from all eras. He doesn’t know all our songs, obviously, but neither do we. He learned a pretty big stack to start with and then we kinda have been, even in sound check, learning a couple here and there to add to different nights.
WCP: So, that hasn’t affected your set list or anything much?
WCP: What is touring like for you and the band these days? Do you have a tour bus?
MM: No. We’ll be in the van on this East coast tour coming up. We only ever did one tour in a bus and it was in 1996 I think. We did a tour of Europe with the band Seam and there was like 14 of us on the same bus. And I think that bus tour discouraged us from ever doing another bus tour. Though I understand that it doesn’t have to be that crowded. But it’s always been a little expensive for us to do a bus tour. And at this point, if we’re gonna go all the way to the West coast, we’ll probably just fly out there and just do the West coast rather than drive either in a bus or a van just because it takes so much time to get out there.
WCP: Are the driving responsibilities still split up between the members or do you have some other people along with you on the road?
MM: [Guitarist] Jim Wilbur really likes to drive. So, if we’re all in one vehicle, a lot of times our tour manager, Matthew, will do the driving. But if we’re in multiple vehicles and the band is in one vehicle, then Jim usually does the driving. I like driving, too, but it drives Jim crazy to sit anywhere else but the driver’s seat, I think.
Superchunk performs with Spider Bags September 29 at 7 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $20.
Photo by Jason Arthurs