In July, I interviewed Mac McCaughan (of Superchunk and Merge Records) for a small item in GO, the in-flight magazine of AirTran. The edited version of the interview was published in the magazine's October issue and is available on their website here. (For the record, one quote of mine--"There was a point when Chapel Hill rock almost seemed like a genre unto itself. Years later, Cursive would sing, ‘Chapel Hill around the early ’90s’ in a song about their influences."--was erroneously attributed to Mac in the magazine.) Mac and I chatted for about an hour, only a few minutes of which could be represented in the magazine. So with the kind permission of GO and Merge Records, I'm reproducing the entire unedited interview transcript here.
Mac McCaughan Q&A
by Brian Howe
conducted at the Merge office in Durham on July 14, 2010
BH: The big indie rock boom really took off in the 90s, but there was plenty of independent music in the Triangle before that. Can you talk about what it was like here in the 80s when indie rock was still underground and developing its infrastructure?
Mac McCaughan: When I was in junior high and high school in the early 80s, we would listen to the radio stations that are still around here, the college stations, WXYC and WXDU, to hear what was new. We found out about a lot of exciting stuff just from that. Schoolkids Records was in Chapel Hill and in Raleigh as well. Coming out of the 70s and listening to classic rock, for me and a lot of my friends, anything else was kind of the alternative. In other words, we were into hardcore bands; their shows were all ages and there was a good scene around here for that. But at the same time, listening to WXYC, there could be a DJ playing Corrosion of Conformity and then Let’s Active and then the dBs, so for us it was all good. We wanted to hear and see all of that. There were definitely different scenes, but for us it was all exciting because it was all different than anything we’d ever heard. In some ways, having those bands that were great, and also that made an impact nationally...you would know from reading Rolling Stone or something that Let’s Active was getting reviewed and think “Wow, they’re from NC!” Or you could read a scene report from Raleigh in Maximum Rock and Roll, talking about new labels and Bloodmobile or whatever. It gave people around here some kind of pride in the ability of these small cities to produce a lot of great music, and made it seem normal. “Of course there’s a great scene here, of course there’s bands.” I think it resulted in a lot of people starting bands. It was just a normal thing to do. You could be a hardcore band and play to a really packed room at an all ages matinee in Durham or Raleigh. In Chapel Hill, there was a place called the Turning Point that was a garage that had everything taken out of it: an art space, barefoot kids running around. There’s where Reservoir is now.
Sounds like you’re saying that categories were less well-defined.
Yeah, kinda, and I think that it’s not such a big place, so that everyone knew each other, regardless of what kind of music they were doing. If it was an alternative to what was on the radio, it was part of this other thing. And plus we’re in a pretty good spot for touring bands to come through. The Cat’s Cradle, the Brewery, a couple places in Durham that would open and close including Under the Street in Durham, the Fallout Shelter in Raleigh was pretty important too. When an independent band at the beginning of what you’re describing as the 90s indie scene, bands on Homestead for instance, like Volcano Suns....bands I was in and that my friends were in would all be scrambling to try and open for them. It seemed more available then, that if you were a local band you could be the opener for someone coming through. This band called the Pressure Boys, a ska band that we loved going to see in high school—because they were kind of the biggest band in the area and had put out a couple records on their own label, they would get the opening slot for all the big bands that would come through. I saw Pressure Boys open for Billy Idol, Duran Duran at the Greensboro Coliseum, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow....any big alternative band coming through.
They were kind of like the kings of the scene at the time, right?
Yeah, there was a lot of ska and hardcore and just like pop, but the 80s, new wave version—like the X-Teens from Durham. There were people putting out records here, there was a label called Dolphin that Tommy Keene had records on, and they put out some comps of local bands called, I believe, Mondo Montage. So there was always a lot going on, just maybe on a smaller scale. You never really felt like it was connected to the mainstream.
My impression of that time is that it was more of a Wild West kind of feel.
Yeah, and that’s what was a little bit wacky about the early 90s: Being a local band at one point felt like a good thing if you were in the scene, but you kind of felt like to everybody else—more casual music fans—if you said you were in a local band they’d be like, “Well, I just go to see touring bands come through town.” So if you got to play in front of people it was because you were opening for someone else. Local music was less respected by the general populace, but in the early 90s when local bands started being written about in national media, that changed. Then people thought “Oh, now this seems real to me because it’s being validated by an article in Spin or Entertainment Weekly.”
And it’s a category then, not just a geographical location—it’s a “thing”, local rock or college rock.
And those magazines identifying that we have a scene here in NC, I certainly think that really helped local bands get bigger crowds, especially with college students coming from elsewhere and thinking, “I’ve read about the Cat’s Cradle, I’ve read Sonic Youth talking about it in the Village Voice or whatever. I’ve read about Superchunk or Archers of Loaf.” It went from being something more like playing for your friends to something that other people noticed.
There was a point when Chapel Hill rock almost seemed like a genre unto itself. It became well-defined enough that years later Cursive could sing “Chapel Hill around the early 90s” in a song about their influences. And Superchunk was in the mix in those days.
I was in some bands that put out a box set of seven-inches, the Evil I Do Not to Nod I Live box set. This was pre-Merge, really, just a bunch of bands that existed for a few years put out this singles box and then everyone broke up. But it taught us how to make records. When those bands broke up, that’s when Chunk started, and we started Merge pretty soon after that, but just doing seven inches and tapes and stuff.
What kinds of desires were driving Chunk in those days?
I think it was just to make records and play shows. The driving stuff behind anything we were doing then came out of being fans of other bands, and records we’d been listening to since 1980 or whenever, and wanting to do something similar ourselves. The idea was to have fun playing shows and hopefully put out some singles, that was the concept.
Was there any sense of there being something brewing you wanted to get involved in?
Not really, we thought of it as an extension of what had already been happening with bands I was in before, like Slush Puppies and WWAX. Laura and I played together with some of those same people in bands that would form to play a party, maybe record a tape, and break up. We weren’t looking for anything beyond that, except that those other bands had been kind of unstable, and there was an idea of, “Let’s have a band that plays more than a few shows.” Slush Puppies and WWAX never did any touring, but we’d go play D.C. or Charlotte and that was always fun. But the idea of doing it in a real way, even though Laura was here and I was still at Columbia in NYC....there was definitely a feeling of those other bands seeming more like a hobby, and wanting it be a little more real with this band, even though we never thought it would be a job or anything like that.
Was the impetus for Merge similar at all, wanting to make something more official?
No, it was more just, if we’re going to put out our records ourselves, we have to call the label something. And as long as we’re doing that, our friends’ bands don’t have anyone to put out their records, so we should do that too. And it just kind of piggybacked like that. Each time we did a record, we’d make however many, 700 or a 1,000. It would sell out and we’d go on to the next thing. I think that if you have a few releases by a few different bands rather than one or two, then distributors or stores start to give you an identity—it’s this scene instead of this band. We never intended to be an NC label, but that’s who we knew. It would be weird to have started casting around the world looking for records to put out when we’d never put out a record before. And it still felt weird when we started doing that. When we got in touch with the 3Ds to do The Venus Trail, we’d only been a label for a couple years, so it did seem kind of crazy, but at the same time...they had one record on First Warning which had gone out of business—so we were just hoping, maybe they won’t get another deal and will have to let us put out their record! Just kind of lucking into stuff.
Your first Chunk records weren’t on Merge, but on Matador?
We did a couple cassettes of bands I was in, Bricks and WWAX, on Merge, and a single by Metal Pitcher with me and Laura, and the first Chunk single was on Merge. We got signed to Matador after that, but we still put out the “Cool” and “Slack Motherfucker” singles—basically all of our seven-inches were on Merge and the full-lengths were on Matador, just because we didn’t want to lose the connection between Superchunk and the label, so it wasn’t like “Oh, now that we’re on Matador, we don’t have to put out records anymore.”
Was the Matador deal just because they had better resources?
Yeah, when we put out singles we were basically borrowing money from people, sometimes from the bands themselves, to help get it pressed, and then paid them back once we sold them. Just borrowing money release by release, usually making it back and a little on top to fund the next release. But CDs and LPs were just beyond what we could imagine doing. Once it seemed like we could make an album, we couldn’t afford to, so Matador was a way to do that. Merge kept growing to the point where by the time our deal was up with them, we had the distribution and the means to do full-lengths ourselves.
As a label owner and musician, you’ve ridden out two huge shifts in indie music, from underground to mainstream and from physical to digital media. How have you weathered those challenges?
In some ways, we weathered them by not doing anything differently. Obviously now you do things differently in terms of distribution and promotion, but we’ve never changed the basic idea behind the label. In that time when bands were signing to major labels and some were selling lots of records, and seemingly becoming part of the mainstream in that brief period when MTV was really powerful and you could kind of do that, we were not interested in suddenly signing different kinds of bands to sell more records. Certainly there were concerns that our bands would go to major labels, but we just had enough momentum on our own that it was never that interesting to us. We had lunch with people from different labels and stuff, but we were fortunate to be in a position to keep our distance, to watch it happening instead of needing to be involved. If we had been on our third album and still only selling 2,000 records and someone wanted to give us a bunch of money to sign to a major, who knows what we would have done? But we were making money selling records and touring. We were still working day jobs at that point but stuff with the band was going well. The band and label seemed to be growing. We were just established enough to say, “Well, that’s happening over there, but we’re going on this track.” And it helped that we had models to look at of people who were doing the same thing, people like Dischord or Teen Beat or K, as well as newer stuff like Sub Pop or Matador. We weren’t just alone doing this thing. Everyone kind of participated in that to the degree they were comfortable with, Matador and Sub Pop certainly more extensively than us, in terms of involvement with major label world.
In not chasing the boom, you avoided the inevitable bust.
Yeah, and again, most of the bands we work with, they’re not really going-for-the-gold kinds of artists. It’s a self-selecting process in terms of bands we want to work with and bands who want to work with us. Bands we loved in the 80s like Red Kross, they signed to majors and just disappeared. Sonic Youth seems like the exception to the rule.
That kind of answers my next question, about whether your goals have had to shift during the decades. You’ve stayed committed to some simple ideals.
It’s a little conservative in some ways. We put out records we like and don’t spend a ton of money doing stuff that may or may not work out, simply because we can’t afford to, and we operate, the band and label, as music fans. What do I like, what do I want to see in the record store? That’s gotten harder and harder over the years with the whole digital thing, because there is so much going on in the music business that is not interesting to me, but you have to be involved. I’m talking about the way music is sold more than genres or styles. There’s a great new interview with Ted Leo in the Voice where he’s like, “It’s ten dollars, you can’t spend ten dollars? Drink two less beers this week and there’s your album.” But everyone gets online like, “Where can I get it for free?” In some ways you feel like you’re contributing to that mindset when you have to make stuff so cheap online to sell it, it seems kind of insane. It’s not a recession thing, it’s a mentality. At a certain point you just have to stop, because if people would think it through they would realize the records aren’t going to exist if no one’s buying them. I don’t know if that’s going to keep happening until we get to a point where labels and bands just go out of business. It also gets harder when there’s not a physical experience of going to buy a CD or a record. You click on something to buy the album and forget about it. You’re not looking at it, you didn’t have to think that much to get it. At the record store, you’re not going to buy a hundred records for 99 cents, you’re going to choose five, and if more thought goes into it you care more about it and get more attached to it. If it’s a bunch of files on your computer, you forget. I forget about stuff I get on eMusic. Even with the way things are going in terms of the physical/digital split, I hope we manage to retain this idea of going to a record store, where you have to interact with other people and think about what you’re getting and have some connection to the music. I love being able to hear songs before I buy records, I think that’s a great service. My iPod, I don’t love listening to it, but find it highly convenient and bring it on every flight I go on. I’m not against that, but the physical component is just more substantial in multiple ways.
Is Merge doing a lot of things that other labels are doing in terms of non traditional ways to monetize music, like video game and TV placement?
A lot of that is up to the artist. There are certain artists we don’t try to get licensed to anything because they’re just not interested.
What, the next Grand Theft Auto game doesn’t need an East River Pipe song?
Yeah, exactly! And there are bands in the middle who might do it if it’s a show or movie they like, but if it’s like an ad for BP, they’re probably not going to do it. And then there are bands that are like “Yeah, license away, doesn’t effect me, just going to keep doing what I’m doing.” But it certainly helps bands offset the loss of CD sales.
What has made Chapel Hill such a hotbed for indie music?
I think the fact that it was noticed in the first place was just a bit of a cycle playing out—we’ve been to Austin, we’ve been to Seattle, oh, here’s a college town with a lot of bands. The fact that it became a news story was a bit of luck, the wheel going around. We got noticed at a time when we and Polvo and Archers were playing and there was a lot going on. There’s always a lot going, and I think that’s a result of the things we’ve talked about—great radio stations, great venues, multiple universities, record stores. All those things existing in one place naturally creates and environment where people can be inspired by music, make music, and find an audience.
Cost of living too maybe?
Yeah, doesn’t seem like it’s a cheap as it was, nothing is. It’s funny because when I finished college and came back here, people were like, “You want to be in bands, why not stay in New York?” To me that was like the hardest place to be in a band. I remember literally taking an amp and a guitar on the subway to a rented practice space where you pay however much per hour and you’re in there for two hours exactly, just like the least fun way to make music to me. It only made sense to come down here where you can do whatever, set up in your living room.
Do you identify any high or low points in scene over the years?
There’s certainly been specific concerts that people talk about; there was a concert trying to raise money for Harvey Gant to defeat Jesse Helms, in which he was unsuccessful. But it was called The Vanish Benefit Concert and it was at the old Durham Bulls ballpark, it was us and Polvo and Eugene Chadbourne. This was probably 1996. It was all these bands playing in this old ballpark, a much bigger event than we would normally play on our own. Another highlight for us was the Barack Obama benefit we played with Arcade Fire. When you’re only doing two or three shows a year, that’s the kind of show you want to go for.
The halcyon early-90s days when everyone was getting signed or about to: Reality or myth? I feel like that’s been blown out of proportion over the years.
I definitely feel like it’s been blown out of proportion, although it’s true that when you see the kinds of bands that were getting signed to major labels you think man, people were going crazy.
What are your favorite local venues?
The Cat’s Cradle is historical and has been in a few different locations, when you walk in it just kind of seems like a rock club but everyone who works there is great, the bands they book are excellent. It always helps to see a band in a place where they enjoy playing, and bands look forward to coming through town to play there and just to be in Chapel Hill. Local 506 has been there for a long time too; it’s a great, more intimate space. And in Durham there’s the Pinhook, though I’ve only been there as a bar, I haven’t seen bands there yet, but that’s really good. And Kings in Raleigh is reopening in a new space any moment now, which is really exciting, because it was a great spot before. Steve from Polvo is one of the owners of that.
Local bands to watch?
Love Language, obviously, is on Merge, and the Rosebuds are working on a new record right now. There’s a new band called Mount Moriah that’s really cool, which is Heather McEntire from Bellafea, I heard some stuff they recorded with Brian Paulsen that sounds amazing. There’s a new Hammer No More the Fingers record floating around that’s also very good. The new Lost in the Trees record is great too.
As indie music as a whole becomes more global, what is the value of the local?
It’s a balance, right? In all areas of life, people are seeing the value and importance of local economies. In some ways globalization has failed, economically, for most people while enriching some. So in music, half the records I buy are reissues of African music from the 60s and 70s, stuff I never would’ve been able to find earlier. I love the availability of that in terms of being connected to stuff all over the world. At the same time, for us, the business is based on real relationships with other people. The best way to do that, obviously, is to see and interact with people in your community. The group of bands that exists in an area help support each other, record stores, bars, and venues, it’s all connected. I think it’s great to make long distance connections as well, there are bands on Merge from all over the world. But in terms of being in a band and a citizen in a community, it’s important to have a local group of people that is doing something—d maybe their own thing, but connected to other people doing their own thing.