Mac McCaughan Gets A Little Help From His Friends on The Sound of Yourself | SPIN
Mac McCaughan has done it all. For three decades he’s toured the world as the singer-guitarist in revered indie rock band Superchunk. He’s made music in a host of other projects including Portastatic, Bricks, Seam, and Go Back Snowball (with Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard). And, he co-founded the venerable indie label Merge Records with Superchunk bandmate Laura Ballance. Together they helped redefine the American musical landscape by releasing hundreds of albums by legendary artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Arcade Fire. But when the pandemic hit in early 2020, McCaughan was faced with an entirely new experience.
“I couldn’t write a song for like eight months,” he told SPIN over the phone. “I had been working on songs before that and then once we went into lockdown I was really…I don’t know. I wasn’t writing songs.”
It was a problem shared by many artists as COVID-19 swept the globe. Thankfully, McCaughan had another big project to focus on, the score for Amy Poehler’s coming-of-age Netflix movie, Moxie. So, for most of the year he was in his basement studio making atmospheric film music. He found inspiration from recordings by Brian Eno, Fennesz, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and John Hassell. Gradually, he was able to begin the process of making music for himself again. He felt very fortunate, but working from home presented a few unexpected challenges.
“I discovered that four or five keyboards that I had had been colonized by mice a couple of years ago. There are no more mice around now but the insides of these keyboards were destroyed,” he chuckled. “They completely destroyed a Farfisa beyond repair.”
By August of 2020, McCaughan was able to start working on music with lyrics again but by January 2021, it became clear the ongoing pandemic was going to prevent Superchunk from getting together to record as a band in person. Merge Records’ ambitious 2021 lineup already promised albums from Hiss Golden Messenger, The Mountain Goats, TORRES, Lambchop, Fruit Bats, The Clean, Dawn Richard, Teenage Fanclub, and Wye Oak to name a few. In order to ensure a timely release, McCaughan found himself with only two months to record and mix his new material. To compensate for the diminished timeline, he reached out to a bunch of friends for assistance from afar. Everyone worked safely and remotely. And the resulting album is distinctly different from his focused solo debut, 2015’s Non-Believers. The Sound of Yourself has plenty of the expertly crafted pop songs McCaughan has consistently delivered throughout his career but they are swimming in a sea of experiments.
There’s a very impressive guest list here. “Found Cricket,” a swirling instrumental built from a forgotten loop discovered on an old sampler, features frequent creative partner Mary Lattimore on harp. She also appears on the majestic opener, “Moss Light,” with McCaughan’s brother Matt playing percussion. The groovy synth jam “Burn a Fax” features backing vocals from Mackenzie Scott (TORRES) and silky saxophone from Matt Douglas (The Mountain Goats). Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit) sings on the stomping “Sleep Donor.” Michael Benjamin Lerner (Telekinesis) and Annie Hayden (Spent) help with the harmonies on the swooning, New Order-ish “I Hear a Radio.” And the lead single, “Dawn Bends,” features Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and the entire band Yo La Tengo taking on bass, organ, guitar, and vocals. It’s a reassuring piece of gently melancholic folk rock that will delight fans of everyone involved.
“I feel so lucky that everyone who I asked was able to do it, had time and the means to do it,” McCaughan said. “I think that everyone’s contributions are amazing. They really elevate it.”
The album takes its name from a passage in singer-songwriter Amy Rigby’s 2019 memoir, Girl to City, about the weirdness of hearing your own voice recorded and played back. Many of the themes investigated in The Sound of Yourself, particularly isolation and loneliness, are also at the forefront of Superchunk’s often overlooked 2001 album Here’s to Shutting Up. That record, which had the poor fortune of being released the week after 9/11, is ironically slated for a deluxe 20thanniversary reissue on October 22.
“Some of the lyrics feel like they could’ve been written right now,” said McCaughan. “It’s pretty strange.”
Hopefully, that isolation and loneliness will quickly become a thing of the past as McCaughan has just embarked on a tour to promote The Sound of Yourself. He’s starting off with friends and labelmates The Mountain Goats and then meeting up with NYC underground duo 75 Dollar Bill. Touring during an ongoing pandemic will be yet another new experience and McCaughan is committed to doing it safely.
When asked if there’s anything he wants the audience to know about the exciting new direction The Sound of Yourself takes before they hear it at home or on the road, he considers this for a moment, then gives a wry warning. Even though “the first six minutes is this crazy instrumental jam with harp and synthesizer and trumpet and stuff like that, you know, there are songs to follow,” he states, half-joking. “Hopefully people will take the album at its pace. That’s my hope for it.”