For a company president, Superchunk front man Mac McCaughan starts work late. It's 11 a.m. in North Carolina by the time he slides into the Chapel Hill offices of his label, Merge, for an interview. McCaughan sounds relaxed and amiable on the phone, and with good reason. Besides recently releasing one of Superchunk's best recordings, The Laughter Guns EP, his solo project Portastatic's new album is finally poised to hit the shelves.
The Nature of Sap is the most comprehensive Portastatic to date. It feels like one organized, whole work of art, rather than a lot of minipieces strung together--credit the instrumental interludes between songs, which greatly enhance the continuity. Also, this time around, the majority of the album was recorded in an actual studio (although there are four four-track songs recorded at Mac's house) and the sound is noticeably more exotic--the piano dominates the guitar throughout, complemented by organs, drum machines and various wind instruments (Jonathan Marx plays clarinet, saxophone and trumpet on several tracks and Mac's younger brother drums on three songs). The result is a multilayered opus of pop precocity.
Sap's opener is a jazzy, near-cocktail/lounge track, "You Know Where to Find Me," followed by the first intermission, "A Lovely Nile," which conveys a walkabout through Egypt. All the segues are impeccable, and the album flows with a smoothness rarely found on '90s indie albums. "Spying on the Spys" is a gem. A different version was released last month on a seven-inch to tease the album, but the addition of percussion and clarinet expand the song to a sprawling near-epic. The pinnacle of Sap is "Landed," a brooding attempt to spin pessimism into optimism ("that's not where we crashed, that is where we landed, lucky to be stranded") that evokes the most emotion of any track.
For a guy who plays with one of the best punk bands of the '90s, Mac has an affinity for pop genius that formulaic hacks like Madonna can only fantasize. How he has time to record and perform as Portastatic while simultaneously running Merge (with S-chunk bassist Laura Ballance) and playing with Superchunk is a mystery. Last month, Revolver asked Mac for a few clues:
Revolver: With three concurrent projects, do you ever get the feeling you have a real job?
Mac McCaughan: Portastatic definitely still feels like a hobby. When you're writing songs and recording, and playing live, it still feels like something that I'm doing because I enjoy it. The times it feels like a job are when you're on tour driving for 10 hours, waiting around at clubs, staying in Motel 6 every night for six weeks, that kinda stuff.
R: What was the impetus behind Portastatic?
MM: I'd been recording stuff on a four-track since I was in high school, so it didn't really just strike me all of a sudden. But in terms of actually putting it out, this guy Tom Sharpling has a label called 18 Wheeler Records in New Jersey, and he put out the first Portastatic seven-inch. He just called and said, "Why don't I release some of these songs you did on your four-track, 'cause I wanna start a label." So I told him to just pick the three he wanted. It was fine with me, 'cause I didn't have any plans for them. Then it became more of a real thing from there.
R: Superchunk played the VANISH [Voters Against Incumbent Senator Helms] benefit show back in the election season. How did that go?
MM: Well, the weather was great, some great local bands like Archers of Loaf, Pipe, and Polvo played, and there was a great turnout.
R: So, generally, you'd say it went great.
MM: Yeah. It was set up to raise funds for some really cool local causes, not just for Helms' opponent Harvey Gant, although a little went to him, but causes like Clean Up Congress, some environmental group, and North Carolina Mobilization '96, a gay and lesbian group. One of the most interesting causes was MAJIC--Mothers Against Jesse in Congress. It was started by these two women whose sons both died of AIDS. Helms is very outspoken about his dislike for homosexuals, so they started this political group. It's cool 'cause it's a demographic you don't necessarily think of as being politically active--60-year-old women campaigning against a conservative politician.
R: I notice Merge doesn't advertise in some of the bigger 'zines, like Punk Planet and MaximumRockNRoll. I also saw your letter to Request magazine that called Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi, Dischord Records], Corey Rusk [owner of Touch N Go Records] and Steve Albini [Shellac front man, producer extraordinaire] "lazy hacks." Are you getting disillusioned with the whole indie thing?
MM: Did they print that? No, that was a joke 'cause I know those people, and I thought they would think it was funny. I figured that was obvious since I called them lazy, and they're anything but. As far as MRR goes, they sort of deliberately draw lines in terms of who they wanna deal with. We used to advertise and send them stuff to review, but a couple of years ago they decided "we only review things that are hardcore," so we figured what's the point? It's their magazine, so it's perfectly fine, but we're not the ones who are disillusioned.
(Merge Records, P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514)
All the Kids Are Trippin'
Pop-punk's novelty appeal to the kids as a lighthearted excuse to grin while you pogo would've died a while ago if it wasn't for the quality of the best bands in the genre (and I'm not talking about Green Day). The Bomb Bassets and the McCrackins' trip new split seven-inch underscores my point. The Bomb Bassets are all three members of The Mr. T Experience, plus John from the Hi-Fives and Dallas from Sweet Baby. On the new slab, they offer up "Take a Trip" and a cover of Brent's T.V.'s "Superwoman," both hook-riddled tunes with multiple vocalists--just what you'd expect from such a collaboration.
The McCrackins, Canada's egghead pop-punk kings, throw out "I Tripped" and a live recording of "Spudgun," which is surprisingly clean for a vinyl live track. This is punk rock designed to make you feel 14 years old again. (GI Productions, P.O. Box 6948, San Jose, CA 95150-6948)
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Million Dollar RipOffs
The Chinese Millionaires' Heart on a Chain seven-inch is the disappointing latest effort from one of garage punk's vital scions. Both "Heart on a Chain" and "Automatic Boy" are slowish throwbacks to old-school sleaze-punk; their energy is severely lacking. The Millionaires need to invest in a little more adrenaline for their next try, lest their name be lost among the Estrus bands in the book of garage. Also, a warning to the wise--this label isn't called RipOff Records for nothing. One side of the record is totally blank, no grooves, and playing it can fuck up yr needle. (RipOff Records, 581 Maple Avenue, San Bruno, CA 94866)
Watch What You Say
About Bill's Mom, Dude . . .
"Bill's Mom Likes to Fuck," "Jacking Off George Lucas," "So Jesus Was at the Last Supper"--what the hell kinda band writes songs like these? GG Allin? Dead Kennedys, maybe? Nah, not even close. The band is A Minor Forest, the album is Flemish Altruism, and it's not as funny as it sounds. A Minor Forest comes from the Slint School of Experimentalism and the Shellac Institute of Fucked Up Timing Tricks (Shellac's Steve Albini and Bob Weston split the recording duties here). The lyrics get lost somewhere in between.
The majority of Flemish Altruism is aimless instrumental interplay, where the rhythm is sacrificed for the adventure of the lead. The LP's highest points come when AMF drops the technical front and explodes into chaos--a typical formula, but AMF's propensity for improvisation makes it sound fresh. Experience the turmoil firsthand on Friday, February 28, when A Minor Forest plays at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe. (Thrill Jockey, P.O. Box 476794, Chicago, IL 60647)