Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan is a busy man. In addition to maintaining a fairly regular touring schedule with the indie rock band that he created over 20 years ago, he is the co-founder of Merge Records. That label is home to, notably, Birmingham native Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee, among many others. And as if all of that weren’t enough to occupy his time, McCaughan released his first bonafide solo record, Non-Believers, earlier this month.
In support of Non-Believers, McCaughan will visit Birmingham for a performance at Saturn on May 28. Ahead of that performance, McCaughan spoke about the decision to release a solo record, how he’s made his own label a success and how he will approach his solo performance.
Weld: Non-Believers, for all intents and purposes, is your solo debut. Why did you decide that now was the time for a collection of your solo work?
Mac McCaughan: The last Portastatic [McCaughan’s side project] record that came out was a compilation called Some Small History, and because that kind of rounded up a bunch of singles and B-Sides and covers and stuff like that, and it was a double CD collection, I kind of felt like that was wrapping up Portastatic as a project.
When I started the new record, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to call it, I was just writing songs and making a record. When it was done and it came time to decide, I felt like calling it Portastatic, for that reason, would be like taking a step backwards. I thought I was going to do something different; it would either have to be my own name or a whole new, other name.
Since Superchunk has been pretty active over the last two years, I kind of felt like, “Well, I have a band already.” So if I don’t want to use Portastatic, coming up with a whole other band name seems kind of silly.
So even though I feel like band names are cooler than solo names, I kind of just took the plunge with my first solo record.
Weld: Who are the musicians that you worked with on the album, and what will the live version of that lineup look like? Will it be the same group of people?
MM: I pretty much played everything on [Non-Believers]. I recorded at home in my basement studio, and I played everything except on one song, [on which] Michael [Benjamin Lerner], from Telekinesis, played drums. Annie Hayden [formerly of Spent] and Jenn Wasner [of Wye Oak] each sing on a song.
All three of those are Merge artists who were kind enough to lend me their talents on this. But for the most part, I played everything else, which is fun and can also be frustrating when you have limited talents on certain instruments, like the drums. [Laughs]
But it was fun making it that way, and I can kind of work at my own pace if I’m recording it at home. I brought in Bo Sorensen, who mixed and recorded part of the last Superchunk record. He mixed about half this record. And Brian Paulson, who has worked on other Superchunk records, mixed the other half. I did enlist the talents of some great people.
Live, some of these shows will be with a full band – three people that are also in a band called the Flesh Wounds. The Birmingham show I will be playing solo electric, which I’ve been doing a bit. I just went to Brazil and played a couple of shows solo electric.
For me, it’s very freeing – I play Superchunk songs, I play Portastatic songs, I play songs from the new record, and I can just sort of have the set be whatever I want it to be. It’s been really fun doing shows like that.
Weld: What has been the most satisfying thing for you since founding Merge?
MM: I think it’s this ongoing experience of getting to work with the kind of artists that we work with – artists that we’ve worked with almost since the beginning of the label like Lambchop from Nashville or working with artists that we’ve only recently started working with like Waxahatchee, [who is] from Birmingham originally. It’s exciting as label owners, obviously, but as a musician myself, it’s very inspiring to see how other people make music.
Weld: What did you see in Katie Crutchfield and Waxahatchee that made you want to sign them?
MM: The starting point with anyone that we want to work with or anyone that we love is the songs. That’s what grabbed me when I heard [Waxahatchee’s second album] Cerulean Salt and when I heard the song “Coast to Coast,” which is maybe the first song [by her] that I heard. It starts with that.
Beyond that, there’s so many people making great music out there. We couldn’t actually release all of the records that we like. There’s not enough release days in the year. No one label could. So beyond just liking the music, it’s about, “Is this someone that sees music and the music business the same way that we do and is going to be fun to work with and compatible?”
And to work with a small label like Merge – even though we’ve been around a long time, we’re still not a big label – musicians have to be resourceful. They have to be able to do a lot of things for themselves. And Katie is all of those things. She’s an amazing musician. She writes amazing songs. And she’s very self-motivated and self-sufficient.
Weld: What’s the secret to making a small label work?
MM: I don’t think there’s one secret. For any small business, and certainly a record label, to work, there’s a lot of things that have to go right. For us, one thing that I always think about is that we never tried to grow faster than we should have. We never forced how fast we were growing, how big our staff was, how much money we were spending. We just kind of let the label grow at its own pace, and I think that’s key: in general, being realistic about what you can afford to do – and not just with money, but with time, hours that everyone has in their week.
Weld: Is there a timeline for new Superchunk record?
MM: No, there’s not. This record isn’t even out yet, so I’m supporting this record, and Jon [Wurster, Superchunk’s drummer] is busy touring with the Mountain Goats right now. So everyone is pretty busy.
We’re playing a show opening for the Replacements in Philadelphia, so that’ll be fun. We’ve never played with them before. That’s exciting. But there are no album plans yet.
Mac McCaughan performs a solo set at Saturn on May 28. Birmingham’s own Holy Youth will open. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.