Superchunk: Mac Takes The Wheel

How Superchunk streamlined its songwriting process

Our Noise, John Cook’s excellent oral history of Merge Records written with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, has a chapter describing a somewhat contentious period for Superchunk (circa 1994’s Foolish) when Ballance and Jim Wilbur began to bristle at McCaughan’s creative control. Fast forward 25 years, and with children to raise, businesses to run and other bands to play in, having McCaughan create the blueprint is a welcome relief, at least to Wilbur.

“Before, we would go into a room together, the four of us, and no one would have any idea what was happening,” he says. “We would all just play things. We would coalesce the parts we were hearing into songs. Now, Mac takes everything on himself and does that, but it doesn’t feel like he’s dictating anything. When we get together, we don’t have to go through all that jamming. We skip all the time that would’ve been taken to get where we’re going to be anyway. It’s quick because we all know each other and trust each other. Sometimes Mac will send a file and I’ll listen to it and I’ll be like, ‘Is that high part what you think I should be playing?’ He’s like, ‘I just threw that down there, because that’s what I imagined you would play.’ We definitely read each other’s minds.”

McCaughan agrees: “One luxury of playing with the same people for so long is that, if I’m just writing the first part of the song—or the rhythm guitar where I’m just playing chords and thinking about vocal melodies—because we’ve played together for so long, I can already hear what it’s going to sound like with everyone else playing. I just kind of know what everyone’s instincts are and what works.”

—Matt Ryan