In Conversation: Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan Gets Experimental on His New Solo Album
The prolific songwriter shares how The Sound of Yourself was the result of a no-pressure recording process during lockdown.
When the pandemic is studied decades from now, there’s no question that there’ll be many dissertations written on the effect the lockdown had on art and self-expression—and if you’re currently reading this in 2048, we recommend Mac McCaughan’s The Sound of Yourself as an ideal embodiment of that phenomenon. The Superchunk frontman’s new solo album sees him stepping outside his sonic comfort zone to create a collection of songs that see him turning down the volume and experimenting with synthesizers and keyboards in a very deliberate and dynamic fashion.
The result is an album with a meditative quality to it, as evidenced on the shimmering “I Hear a Radio” and electronica-tinged “Sleep Donor.” But this quality is maybe best showcased on the album’s title track, which features a bass line and drum beat so slow it forces you to tune into every molecule of each individual sound wave. “Oh, will you ever get used to the sound of yourself / When it’s enough to make you fall in love with the sound of anything else?” McCaughan intones over this rhythm section in his instantly distinguishable tenor. It forces the listener to examine their own relationship to themselves as well as perceptions they may hold about other people.
We caught up with McCaughan while he was in his home studio in North Carolina to discuss how the album came together, what makes it so important to him, and why he’s been comfortable covering everyone from Brian Eno to the Misfits throughout his prolific musical career.
How did The Sound of Yourself come together?
When we first went into lockdown, I had just started on the score for a movie called Moxie, which was directed by Amy Poehler. I felt really lucky to have that film score to work on, both because I like scoring movies and I learn a lot when I do that, but also because we were trapped at home and I could work on this in my studio. I had something to actually do when we couldn’t leave the house. I started writing songs maybe six months into the pandemic, but they were more meant as Superchunk songs; we were kind of working on some recordings, and my hope was that we would make a record that would come out this year. As 2020 wound down, the progress was slow on that, and it became clear that we weren’t going to finish that anytime soon. So in January of this year I just made the solo album. It was definitely influenced by what I’d been listening to during the pandemic, and also by working on that film score in terms of writing instrumental music. It was basically me just enjoying this no-pressure process to make a record because no one was expecting a solo record, and there aren’t any real preconceived ideas about a solo thing that I would put out because I’ve done all different kinds of things.
“It was basically me just enjoying this no-pressure process to make a record because no one was expecting a solo record, and there aren’t any real preconceived ideas about a solo thing that I would put out because I’ve done all different kinds of things.”
How did it work from a technical perspective?
I used to record on 4-track cassette [recorders] for those early Portastatic records, and technically this album is more advanced from a recording perspective because I’m using ProTools—but I treated it as a four-track, essentially, by working with old synthesizers mixed with software and looking for happy accidents that I could build on to make songs. I’d start with a simple drum machine pattern as the basis for a song and just add to that as opposed to a lot of Superchunk songs, which start with guitar.
I was coming at songwriting from a different angle where I was paying more attention to atmosphere and allowing the record to be more slowly paced as it unfolds. A lot of the music I was listening to when we were all stuck at home for that year was ambient or more experimental because for whatever reason that was easier for me to process. When we were home during lockdown, I didn’t find myself seeking out a lot of loud rock records and maybe that had something to do with the fact that the type of music I gravitated toward during that period was more comforting. I think that this record reflects that.
Do you feel like you were able to accomplish things arrangement-wise or instrumentally you hadn’t done in the past?
Yeah, and I think part of that was—again, coming off making that film score—I had been working with some different keyboards, synthesizers, and software than I’d used before and was pushing myself to kind of accept more randomness; leave more space and not to have everything be so nicely sewn up. I feel like there’s some part of me that’s still wanting to have a pop-song element to what I’m doing and have it balanced and not just out of whack. When it comes to “36 and Rain,” for instance, I think when you’re sitting at home for all those months you really just start to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening outside your window. So a lot of it was influenced by that. Again, it’s just trying to think in a different way, because I can have a certain way of thinking about songs and I wanted to get outside of that.
“I was coming at songwriting from a different angle where I was paying more attention to atmosphere and allowing the record to be more slowly paced as it unfolds.”
There are a lot of people you brought in to play on the record, such as your bandmate Jon Wurster or Yo La Tengo or Michael Benjamin Lerner from Telekinesis. How did you decide who would work best for each song, and was it complicated to put together?
It’s remarkably not complicated these days. It was really just feeling what the song needed: “Who would be fun and interesting to collaborate with on this moment of the record?” Michael played drums on a song on my last solo album because I’m not a very good drummer—he just nailed it. In Superchunk, Jon and I are playing a lot of loud music and I love it when I get to hear him play with brushes, and “Dawn Bends” is a really good example of that. There was just something about the guitar and Jon’s drums that, I don’t know, I just heard Georgia [Hubley] singing on it. Then once I started thinking of that, I thought, “Why don’t we just try to get all of Yo La Tengo on that one song?” Again, that ties back to an older Portastatic record where Georgia and I play on a cover of the Brian Eno song “St. Elmo’s Fire” that I recorded at my house on a 4-track a million years ago.
One thing I find fascinating is the range of your musical output. You’re talking about covering Brian Eno with Portastatic, but I also remember the split Superchunk did with Coliseum where you’re both covering the Misfits. On paper those two things may seem like opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, but it seems like there’s a really diverse pool that you’re pulling from in your own music as well.
I think the unifying thing between the Misfits and that Brian Eno song is that they’re just great songs, and you can present them in different scenarios and they’re still going to be really good songs. What I’m doing is never going to be as good as the original, but it’s still fun to play the songs. I didn’t know what Yo La Tengo was going to do in terms of the organ part that was on there and I didn’t know what Mary Lattimore was going to do on the songs that she plays on. It’s really cool to send something off and then it comes back and has this whole new element. To me, that’s one of the most fun things about being able to record and collaborate this way.
The record is called The Sound of Yourself—do you feel like this is a more personal record for you? The lyrics seem abstract in some ways as well.
I think any songs you write are personal. I think [this album is] more about looking inward or ruminating or trying not to ruminate. Being alone or being not necessarily alone. With my family we were stuck inside together, but at the same time you’re in your head. What do you do to pass the time when you can’t get anywhere? I’d think about walking the dog in the same paths in the woods behind our house and how that relates to going in circles in your brain. I think that’s what a lot of the lyrics are about.
“When we were home during lockdown, I didn’t find myself seeking out a lot of loud rock records and maybe that had something to do with the fact that the type of music I gravitated toward was more comforting. I think that this record reflects that.”
Some of them are also from books: “The Sound of Yourself” comes from an Amy Rigby book called Girl to City where she talks about learning to play in a band and the first time you hear your voice come out of a speaker in a recording studio or monitor onstage, just how different that is. I’m sure you go through the same thing when you’re listening to recordings of interviews and you hear your own voice taped. You’re just like, “Oh my gosh, I sound like that?” “Sleep Donor” was inspired by a Karen Russell book called Sleep Donation. It’s kind of a sci-fi thing where I was reading, maybe perversely, a lot of books about pandemics—this book is about the pandemic of insomnia.
Looking back on the process of making the album and what was happening in your life at the time, does it feel healing in a way?
I don’t think it was necessarily healing, but it’s a situation that makes anyone go kind of crazy and I think anything you can do to occupy your brain and be creative is good. I think one thing that makes this record different from my last solo record—and definitely different from a Superchunk record—is that I was trying to do things I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. Some of the songs were written on a bass, and anytime I incorporate an instrument that’s not my main instrument, I think I write a slightly different kind of song and I think that’s a good exercise. Even if I had written and recorded this music and then decided, “Nah, I don’t really need to put this out,” it still would have been a very valuable thing for me to do. FL