Mac McCaughan is a busy guy, but does that surprise you? He's married, has two kids, runs Merge Records (which he also co-founded), fronts Superchunk, and has the side project Portastatic. Now, on May 4, he'll release Non-Believers, his first solo album. As you can imagine, McCaughan has little free time, which is why his creative process is more disciplined than most artists'. His window for creative work on the new album was small: since he made the album at home, he did most of the work in the morning, when the kids were at school. Then he'd head to work at Merge in the afternoon. At night, when the kids were in bed, he'd work on it some more.
Of course, I call it discipline, but McCaughan calls it something else. "Once I get an idea in my head," he told me, "I have insomnia until I finish it." He'd often get up at 5am with a list of things to do for songs on the album. Our conversation veered much more towards the musical element of the creative process rather than the lyrical element. McCaughan's process often starts with a sound: in his own words, he likes making "noise" with keyboards. From those noises come riffs, and from those riffs come songs. But he also spends a great deal of time listening to music as a part of his creative process. For Non-Believers, McCaughan listened to the new wave and post-punk albums of the 80s, bands like Yaz and Depeche Mode from his school days. He listened intently and analytically, thinking about how the space between the music and the density of the instruments all came together to create the song.
McCaughan will tour in support of Non-Believers, so check him out and read my interview with him after the video for "Wet Leaves," a song off the new album.
How much writing do you get to do besides songwriting?
Not too much, unless visual art falls into that category. Unfortunately, a lot of that ends up happening only when I have an assignment, like making a record. But I do draw and also do some printmaking. I did the cover for the “Box Batteries” single that just came out (that's the drawing and the single to the right). I enjoy doing it, but I'm definitely an amateur.
How much drawing do you do in your free time, not necessarily because of an assignment like that?
I do a fair amount in my free time, and a lot of that has been encouraged by our kids. If I'm drawing, they'll get out their own drawing pads and join me. But I don't too much writing. I don't journal, I don't have a diary, and I'm not writing the Great American Novel in my free time.
Does the drawing you do in your free time ever lead to song ideas? I ask because many songwriters who draw tell me that their songs start as images.
I think it works the other way. I did a bunch of drawings when I was in the process of mixing the new album. They were intended as jumping off points to album cover art, but this was a situation where the songs inspired drawings.
When you write, is there typical starting point to your process?
It goes several different ways. For the new record and probably a lot of the early Portastatic records, some of the songs just started with sound. I'm not a keyboard player per se, but I have a lot of keyboards and I like making noise with them. I think it's the same with guitar. When you get a new guitar or a new pedal or amp, a different sound can propel you into a song. On this new record, because keyboards are even more foreign to me than a new guitar, an old synthesizer was a good jumping off point for a song.
The first song off the new record is called “Your Hologram,” and it just started with the first sound that you hear, a mini Korg synthesizer. I wrote that synthesizer line, which drove the rest of the song. So that's one way: a certain sound puts me in a headspace to write a song. It might be reminiscent of a certain era of music, or it might lead me to guitar part.
Even though I've had synthesizers for 20 years, it’s still a foreign instrument to me in some ways because it's so wide open. If you're having trouble writing a song, a synthesizer can be frustrating because there are almost too many opportunities and possibilities. But at the same time, as a jumping off point I have a very positive feeling about it because I know it's going to be a new thing. It's not the normal routine of picking up a guitar and strumming the same chords.
The second way is that I will pick up an acoustic guitar and just start playing. A lot of time before I do that, I have the shape of a song in my head, but not something like ten bars of this or four bars of that. Instead, I picture the type of chords and the type of guitar part that I want the song to be based around. So rather than thinking of strumming an open G and an open C, I'll picture a weird formation of a chord halfway up the neck with some open strings ringing. Because I know what that sound is, I'll start with that idea in my head before I even pick up the guitar, then try to figure out how to make it work there.
The third way is that sometimes I just think of a line, maybe the first line of the song. Before I forget it, I at least try to write part of the song so it’s something more than just me emailing myself one line of the song. I need more than that. Because sometimes after I first think of that line, throughout the course of the day a rhythm or melody will attach itself to it in my mind by the time I get home. I need to get that whole idea down on tape before it goes away or before it just becomes words without a sound. If that happens, I’ll look at the words a month later and say to myself, “What was I thinking? It made sense at the time.” If I don't attach any music to it, I lose the context.
Some artists have told me that songs turn out differently depending on what instrument they start writing with. Does that happen with your songs?
It definitely does. As I'm looking at the wall of my studio with all these guitars hanging on the wall, there’s a Danelectro and a Telecaster and a Rickenbacker bass in front of me. I could start a song with any of those and they would end up being pretty different songs, even if I wrote them on the same day in the same mood. That's because the way a certain instrument feels or sounds steers me in a certain direction.
You mentioned earlier those first lines of songs. How do those lines come to you?
A lot of times it might be something I hear someone say. There’s a song on the last Superchunk album called “My Gap Feels Weird.” That started with something my daughter said when she started losing her teeth. I was driving her to school one day and she said that from the backseat. I always thought that was a funny line.
How conscious are you of your environment when it comes to mining it for song ideas? I recently interviewed John Oates and he told me that he has on what he calls his “songwriting antenna” all the time.
I don't think I'm always on in that sense. But I listen to a lot of music, and I listen for things like How does this person or this producer or this band get that sound? How do they get that certain space in their music? How do they get that certain density in their instruments? I might listen to a Beatles album a million times, then listen to it a different way just one time, thinking how they get something that's so simple—literally just three instruments—to sound so big.
I did a lot of thinking about that with the new record. A lot of what I was thinking about musically were bands that came to my attention in the early 80s when I was in high school and in junior high, those new wave and post punk bands. I really like that era because there was all this new technology that people were using, but it was so new that they didn't necessarily know how to use it. Or they were using it in some fucked up way that made it seem so much cooler than if they were proficient at it. I took the time with this album to listen to the space on a Depeche Mode record or Yaz record, for example. It's a version of space that's both fake and real at the same time.
I listened to those albums in a totally new way than how I listened to them when they first came out. For instance, I'd listen to a record by the Three Johns and how they used a drum machine and guitars. Hearing how they combined real and fake instruments was fascinating because there are so many ways to come up with cool combinations like that when you're making a record.
On this new album what was the hardest song for you to complete?
The song “Our Way Free.” I was trying to combine electric guitars with the drum machine, and in the end I failed. After trying all these different combinations with a bunch of different mixes and different drum programming, I finally sent it to my friend Michael Benjamin Lerner from Telekinesis. I said to Michael, “Can you just play drums on this, because that's what it needs to save it.” He sent me something that I think he did on the first take, and it was exactly what the song needed. Before I sent it to him, I wasn't sure if it was going to make the record because it just wasn't coming together. Not even in a good awkward way. It was coming together in a bad awkward way. I like things that are awkward that come out of left field, where you don't expect a certain sound, but when it does happen it's great because it’s so different.
As a songwriter, is there point at which you just give up on a song because it’s just not meant to be?
It doesn't happen very often. If I feel that way, I'll scrap like 80% of it or maybe half the instruments or half the words. In way that’s lazy; I think I do it because I just don't want to start over. So I'll lose a lot of it and start again with what's left. That can be rewarding.
Do you set them aside for a certain amount of time and return to them with a fresh perspective?
It depends on how much time I have. Sometimes I'll put it away and forget it exists. Then I find it later when I'm going through a notebook or scrolling through a list of files.
Did any song on the new album come to you in a flash? Did you have a eureka moment where everything just happened all at once?
That's a good question. While it came from a synthesizer as opposed to sitting down with the guitar, “Your Hologram” came pretty easily from that first riff. I also thought that was a good indicator of how the rest of the record would sound, so that's why it's the first song. But I still probably wrote that song over the course of a couple of weeks. I made this record at home. I try to set aside time once I start something to work on it two or three hours a day, then I go into Merge, then after that I’ll work at night depending on the family schedule.
Do find that having kids has made you a more disciplined writer?
Yeah, that's true for me. But to say that I'm disciplined is putting probably too positive a spin on it. Laughs. The other way to look at it is that once I start something, I have insomnia until I finish it. I wake up at five in the morning with a list of things I need to add to a song or to a mix until it's done. So I'm either disciplined or impatient. But once we had kids, I realized that I couldn't just decide to work in the studio from 11 PM to 4 AM. It's much more about having these three free hours a day and about getting a lot done during that time. Knowing I only have that time, I'm able to get a lot more done than if I just had say six hours of free time in the old days.
Is there a time and a place where you get your best writing done?
Probably when I'm in my studio in the basement. In the morning and really any time in the first half of the day when there's no one home, so I can make as much noise as I want. But sometimes after 9 PM until midnight—when the kids are in bed—I can still make a lot of noise and get a lot done.
It’s not really a rock n' roll schedule. Even when Superchunk practices, we practice at like 10 AM. Flesh Wounds is opening for me on this tour, and they're also my backing band. If I suggested that we practice at 10 AM, they’d think I was crazy because they work in bars until two or three in the morning.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
Probably when I'm in a good mood because I feel so productive. It’s good to have a positive outlook about getting something done, as opposed to going into the studio with that feeling of this song is never going to work. Things that make you feel pessimistic about the process can really slow down the songwriting. I think sadness and frustration can definitely be fuel for a song, but it would be hard to get anything done if you're truly in a dark place.