Mac McCaughan is well known for his 20 years as the front man for the Chapel Hill, NC, band Superchunk, co-owner (with Laura Ballance) of the influential independent record label Merge Records and the leader of his side-project-turned-group, Portastatic. Mac has worked with a number of interesting engineers and producers, and has also learned more about recording as he crafted a number of albums at home. I've always held Mac and his compatriots in high esteem for their great music and fair business practices, so it was a treat to finally meet and chat.
Part of the sonic imprint of Superchunk is a wall of noise. You guys have deviated to certain degrees here and there, but that's sort of a sonic signature.
As we went along we started breaking stuff down a little bit more and having the guitars play countermelodies and single guitar lines to relieve the solid wall of guitars a little bit. A wall of guitars is more effective when it comes it after there have been quiet parts.
That's The Pixies!
Yeah, exactly. I think that with Superchunk it took us a long time to make the transition from live to studio, and I don't know if we've ever gotten there. I feel like our last couple of records, Here's to Shutting Up and Come Pick Me Up (and even Indoor Living to a certain extent) were studio records more than the first few albums. When we play those songs live they sound like Superchunk. With those records though, people are like, "What is this? This is not what I want to hear when I listen to Superchunk."
Did you get feedback like that?
Oh, definitely. But for us it's what keeps it interesting. I think it's still a learning process — how to make things translate in both situations. When we did Here's to Shutting Up I did the string arrangements and I'd learned a lot from Jim [O'Rourke] about doing that. We were piling a lot of stuff on, but Brian Paulson's really great about finding a place for everything. Something that I think is really hard to understand when you first start out is that you don't have to hear everything. I remember making our first record [Superchunk] with Jerry Kee at Duck Kee Studios. I think it was 16-track, 1" tape. There are so many guitars on there — I remember Jerry saying, "You're not going to be able to hear any of these." Of course I wanted to bury my vocals, but at the same time I wanted to hear every single guitar track, and it becomes impossible. I think everyone wants to make sure that they're hearing all the parts when they first make records. "There's this one cool note that I hit at this one point and I just want to make sure that's loud enough." If you make enough records and you work with good people who know how to mix, you realize that it can be there [even if it's not] hitting you over the head.
You can tailor the sounds to be in a narrower range.
Right. John Plymale is great with that. I mixed Be Still Please, the last Portastatic record, with John as well as Summer of the Shark. John's a master of the EQ in terms of what you're saying. Instead of just panning something to a different place or turning it up or turning it down — just EQ'ing something so that it sits in the right place and you hear it. When I brought in Summer of the Shark and we had to dub all that stuff out of my Roland VS-1680 two tracks at a time, it just took for fucking ever. Those tracks had been recorded onto reel-to-reel 8-track, then dumped into the 16- track. There was a guitar solo that was on a track with some other guitar but the guitar solo was slightly out of tune and there was no way to separate it out — but he EQ'd it so that it didn't sound as out of tune.
Oh yeah, all those tricks.
With Portastatic I was kind of always doing the same thing because I had a 4-track and one or two mics until I got the 16-track, but I was learning all this stuff along the way.
Do you feel like you learned about song arrangement too?
I think so — it probably has developed in a certain way along with learning about the recording stuff, especially with Portastatic. Because a lot of those songs are written as they are recorded, starting with a drum machine and a weird keyboard part and then making that into a song. You definitely learn how to leave room for things...