The Billboard Q&A: Portastatic

It's shaping up to be a year filled with highlights for Mac McCaughan. Not only did the prodigious North Carolina musician welcome a second child into his family this year, but he's also seeing Merge,

It's shaping up to be a year filled with highlights for Mac McCaughan. Not only did the prodigious North Carolina musician welcome a second child into his family this year, but he's also seeing Merge, his little label that could, turn 20 in a celebrity-studded mix tape extravaganza.

Meanwhile, Portastatic, his one-time Superchunk side project that has since become his main focus, has amassed such a huge catalog of songs that it warrants a two-disc compilation of B-sides, rarities, covers and previously unreleased items.

The 44 tracks on the new "Some Small History" date back as far as 1990, but they're a more fitting audio history of McCaughan's mind than his work with Superchunk, as he's long used Portastatic as his chance to play around with recording methods and songwriting styles. Between organizing Merge's upcoming year-long birthday party and spending time with his growing family, Mac stopped to talk to about the challenge of, and satisfaction behind, collecting the past 18 years into some small package.

If people are listening to this for the first time or discovering Portastatic through this collection, do you feel like it's a good way for them to learn about your back catalog?

I think it covers the fairly wide range of settings that Portastatic songs appear in: hissy home recordings, full-on rock band studio recordings, stripped down acoustic demos, even a couple tracks that we took from the original vinyl because I couldn't find the master tape. I think they'll discover a thread running through the whole thing, hopefully, which is the kind of "snapshot" aspect of most Portastatic songs -- they tend to get in and get out -- but hopefully a catchiness, too.

You've said that you mixed it up chronologically to mix up the styles and sound of the record. I've listened to it a few times all the way through, and it seems to flow better than a lot of rarities compilations do.

Thanks. Yeah, I wanted it to be the kind of thing you could put on at a party and listen to all the way through. I sequenced it like I would any regular album. I felt like if we put all of the older stuff at the beginning, people wouldn't even make it through the first disc! If I hadn't mixed up the running order, it might have been kind of a tough haul getting through the '90-'94 years all in a row, just due to the lo-fi-ness of it all. But the way it is now, it is indeed meant to be played all the way through if you feel like it.

I've always felt like Portastatic albums are sequenced like mix tapes.
Yes, sequencing is actually my favorite part of the process of making any record!

The timing of "Some Small History" seems great, because besides the 20th anniversary of Merge, it's going to also be the 20th anniversary of Portastatic pretty soon.

We just had our second child, so I knew I wasn't going to have a whole ton of time to go into the studio to make a new Portastatic record. And I knew we were going to be really busy next year because of the 20th anniversary. I wanted to get it out before then, so that it wasn't connected to that.

Did you have any input from other people on what to include, or was it mostly just you?

It was mostly just me going back and listening to tapes. Some people on the Merge and Portastatic message boards had put in requests over the years to make some things available digitally, or just to make sure I didn't forget about certain songs. And I was grateful for that, because a lot of these songs were kind of scattered to the wind. I asked some friends' opinions and some people here at Merge, because we maxed out the CD playing time on both discs. There were more that I wanted to put on there, but I didn't want to make it three discs, so some stuff had to be cut, but I think we cut the right stuff.

Did you have to go digging to find some of these songs, or did you already have them in mind?

I had been thinking about putting this together for a while. There were songs that we recorded over the years that didn't get released for one reason or another, which I knew I wanted to get out there eventually. Certain songs that I knew we were going to include, from old 7-inch singles, I didn't have a master tape or a DAT or anything. I had to borrow my 4-track machine back from my brother, get out all the old 4-track master cassettes, get into the process of cataloging everything on them and remixing the ones we needed for the comp. I found so much stuff that I had completely forgotten about. I also found songs that I remembered but probably hadn't heard in 15 years.

What's the oldest song here?

That would be "Too Trashed To Smoke," which is a song written from the perspective of a cigarette that's been in your pocket for a while. It was something that I recorded with Jim Wilbur before the Portastatic idea really came about. We recorded a bunch of things in many late-night 4-track sessions back in 1990, soon after Jim had moved to Chapel Hill to join Superchunk thinking that none of them would see the light of day.

Do you still feel connected to the older songs?

I do with many of them. Some of them I listen to and say, 'What was I thinking?' But for the most part, I can find a glimmer of attachment to them, because they can really be put into a specific place and time that I still feel connected to.

It seems like sometimes you layer the lyrics onto the music as an additional instrument, especially in songs like "Starter," where the lyrics are very repetitive and almost percussive.

Yeah, I'm not just writing songs to get the lyrics out there. The vocal melody usually comes before the words themselves. Occasionally -- the song "Portraits From Before the War is like this -- I'll just have all these lyrics and write them down and write music around them, but it's more likely that I'll write the music first. The lyrics used to be buried more deeply in the mix -- sometimes for good reason -- which definitely made them more like just another instrument. I wouldn't add a word just because it sounds good, even if it doesn't make sense, but I do definitely take into account how the words sound and work with the music.

What do you think has changed about your style as a songwriter in the last 20 years?

I tend to write more on the guitar now and do less "building" the songs as I record them. But I still do that sometimes with Portastatic. I enjoy doing that. In some ways not a lot has changed. I still write pretty quickly when I sit down and set my mind to it, though I take a bit more time ironing out lyrics and will definitely maybe do an extra take or two to try to get the vocals to be in tune. Unfortunately, the vocals are something I'm stuck with!

There are a lot of covers on this record. Do you think you pick certain covers in order to experiment with a different style of song?

These are usually just songs I love, or have heard on the radio recently, or happened to be listening to a lot, and that makes me want to sing them myself. Like the Undertones cover, which is from our very first single on 18 Wheeler Records. When I cover a song, though, I think I actually turn it more into my style! But back to what you were saying earlier about playing a song that is a different style, I think sometimes if you can cover a song that's a different style like "Boy From School" [a Hot Chip cover included on "Some Small History"] with just acoustic guitar and vocals and make it work, it shows you what a good song it is. That it can be played in different styles and it holds up both ways.

We were all excited to see the Prefab Sprout cover on there.

The Prefab Sprout song is funny because Jim Wilbur used to take some sh*t for playing Prefab Sprout all the time in the Superchunk van. I associated those records with high school and bad '80s studio production, but I came around eventually, and I love that song.

I know you're a fan of old soul and girl groups. Have you ever or do you want to play them live?

I've always wanted to play those, but I haven't quite figured out how to cover those songs yet. We've been trying to put something together, but it just doesn't sound quite right. Something's missing, but we're working on it.

When you're writing songs, what is the difference between the Superchunk songs and the Portastatic songs?

Portastatic is just me writing, and Superchunk songs, since about '95, have been written as a group effort with the whole band in a room. So that's the real dividing line. In recent years I've made a bunch of Portastatic records, and Superchunk has released one single since 2002, so at this point if I'm working on stuff at home, unless it hits me over the head as an idea for Superchunk -- which does happen occasionally -- then I assume it's going to be a Portastatic song.

Would you ever record a song as Portastatic that would have been a Superchunk song, just to get it released more quickly?

If I wrote a song that was really good, and I definitely knew that Superchunk wasn't going to make another record, then I might do that.

You've been a very prolific artist over the past 20 years. Are there any drawbacks to releasing so much material?

I've never really heard anyone complain about it. We've put out a lot of records, but we've also taken some breaks. I don't think that releasing an album a year is too much. If there's a band I like, I want them to release lots of music.

Like Ryan Adams, whose "Oh My Sweet Carolina" you cover on "Some Small History?"

He does make a lot of music, but I always feel like his records don't sound like they have any filler. They're very cohesive and complete.

What is the role of Portastatic in your career and your life like now? It's definitely not a side project any more, especially since "Bright Ideas" and now that you have a steady band.

It's definitely become more of a priority. Superchunk, even though we just played a gig recently, and another one this year for charity, we only play live about once every three months. Playing four times a year isn't exactly enough to make it a priority. Lately, Portastatic has definitely become my main focus when I have time to write and record.

Is Merge doing anything new or creative with marketing these days?

It seems like all of us in the record industry need to embrace technology and the Internet and not be afraid of it. At Merge we recently opened up the digital store, so now people can come directly to the Merge site and buy their music. We've also started streaming songs and albums through the site so that people can listen to things before they buy them.

How do you feel about people downloading single tracks?

I feel like if people hear a song on the radio and they really like the song, they should be able to download that song. And then hopefully they will come back for the whole album. There will always be people who just buy the one song, but then others might love it and discover the rest of the artist's catalog that way.

What's the story behind the Merge anniversary subscription box set?

The "Score!" box will be like having 14 great artists make their own personal Merge mix tape for you. People can subscribe to it, and they we'll send them the CDs one at a time. We have all kinds of people -- not just musicians -- putting together the series of mix tapes for us, Peter Buck of R.E.M. did the first one and we'll have more made by people like Amy Poehler and David Byrne. They're all going to be on CD so that they fit into the special "Score!" box that we'll send you sometime during the year.

We gave them each an iPod with the entire Merge back catalog on it and asked them to put together a mix tape of their favorite songs. Plus some of the bands will be recording new tracks specifically for each one, and there will be covers and remix CDs, which will have non-Merge artists doing songs by, or remixing, their favorite songs that came out on Merge.

How did you prevent overlap?

We asked people to give us their list, but to also give us some alternates just in case. Surprisingly, it hasn't been much of an issue.

Superchunk took Neutral Milk Hotel on tour in 1998. Do you think Jeff Mangum will ever make another record?

I'm not sure, honestly. I don't really know what he's up to these days.

What do you think it is that stops people like him who are so incredibly talented from continuing to make music?

Some people start playing music because they really love music, and when people start hanging on their every word it changes things for them. That's not the case for me. I feel like if people want to listen to the records and come hear us play, that's a good thing.

Is there going to be another Superchunk record anytime soon?

We have half a record already recorded, but John lives in New York now, so it's hard to get us all into the studio at the same time.

Are you hoping that with this release reviewers will stop mentioning Superchunk when they talk about Portastatic and calling Portastatic a side project?

Maybe, yeah. Still calling it a side project just makes me think they haven't been paying attention! But mentioning Superchuck makes sense because there's a connection there.

So you don't mind if people ask you when the next Superchunk record is coming out?

Not at all. I wonder that myself!