Lissa Gotwals/Jesse Riggins/Courtesy of Merge Records
Superchunk frontman and Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan (left) will put out his first album under his own name next month. Katie Crutchfield just put out her third album as Waxahatchee on Merge.
Lissa Gotwals/Jesse Riggins/Courtesy of Merge Records
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on the phone or instant messenger with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Last week Waxahatchee, the project of Alabama-born musician Katie Crutchfield, released the fantastic album Ivy Tripp. It's the third Waxahatchee full-length and the first put out through Merge Records, a megaforce in American indie rock for over 25 years. Merge Records was co-founded by Mac McCaughan, the frontman for Superchunk who has also recorded material as Portastatic. McCaughan will release Non-Believers, his first album under his own name, on Merge in early May. With both Crutchfield and McCaughan taking new steps in their careers and their sounds, Ducker got the two of them on a conference call to discuss their albums and their histories with each other.
This conversation happened on a Monday morning, the day before Ivy Tripp came out. McCaughan had just come back from a vacation with his family to a friend's pine tree farm in eastern North Carolina, Crutchfield had spent the weekend in Philadelphia, her adopted city, going to punk shows by her friends and her sister.
How did you guys first become familiar with each other's music?
Katie Crutchfield: I have been a Superchunk fan for a long time. It was pretty natural for me to get into them.
When you were growing up, how did you become aware of Merge Records?
Crutchfield: It's hard to remember exactly when. I had the Internet growing up, so it was pretty easy to fall down these rabbit holes. Merge was always really present and releasing records that I would buy and that I loved. As I got older and started to make music a little more seriously, I more fully realized how great and important what they were doing was.
Mac McCaughan: You're nice. I'm so old fashioned that I was thinking, "That's so cool that we had a presence in Alabama," but then you reminded me that you had the Internet growing up. You could be anywhere.
Crutchfield: A lot of people have been asking me about my feelings about being on Merge, and how you guys starting the label and how you started the first bands, it reminds me of my own experience, except for I had the Internet. That's the only difference.
McCaughan: I think I read that New York Times article before I heard your music, but just from the name I totally had a misconception about what Waxahatchee was going to sound like. I thought it was going to be a country thing or something.
Crutchfield: Maybe someday.
McCaughan: When Cerulean Salt came out, I watched the "Coast to Coast" video and I was like, "Oh, this is what this is. This is totally in my wheelhouse." It reminded me of a lot of bands that I grew up playing with when we first started and the label first started.
What were your first meetings or communications like?
McCaughan: Katie will tell you that it's a long, dragged out process when you're working with Merge. We work with the same booking agency and [Superchunk was] doing some shows in Texas and Louisiana about a year ago; luckily Waxahatchee could do the shows too, so they opened up for us. We got to hang out and see each other play, and that kind of counted as meetings. For me and Merge, that's the ideal way to get to know someone, to be around them when they're doing their thing, though it happens less like that than it used to because we don't tour as much.
Katie, what were you looking for in a label?
Crutchfield: I don't know, I was a little scared of labels. The label that I had worked with prior to Merge was called Don Giovanni Records. They're really amazing and they put out records for all of my favorite bands happening right now. I felt a little shakey working with them. I have a very close friendship with [Joe Steinhardt] the guy who runs the label and sometimes working with people you're really, really close with can be complicated. It stopped feeling like the right choice for me, so I knew that I wasn't going to put out a record with them, but for about a year I was just going rogue. I knew I was going to make a record without signing with anybody and just do my own thing for a little while. I had worked with essentially a very organized DIY label for so long, I kind of wanted to continue to do that, but maybe with a label that had more experience. Labels like that don't really exist that much, so I feel like Merge is exactly what I was looking for. Merge, just within the biz, has a really stellar reputation for treating artists better than anybody. My ideal scenario would be for Merge to sign me, and once they did, I was really psyched.
McCaughan: It took us a long time to finally to say, "Yes, we're going to do this record," and part of that is just because we're aware of our own limitations, resource-wise and how many people we have working at Merge. It's a much bigger staff than it used to be, but it's still a small label and we just don't want to take on more things than we can do a good job with. Even with stuff we really like, we tend to think about it for a long time and totally make sure that we can do a good job with it, rather than just saying yes to everything that we like, because then we'd be putting out way too many records.
Crutchfield: That made me gravitate towards you guys even more.
McCaughan: Because we were playing hard to get?
Crutchfield: Exactly. Because you clearly taking your time and making sure that you could do it. That appeals to me because so often in my experiences with other record labels who maybe would have wanted to put out the Waxahatchee record, they were saying they wanted to do it immediately in a way that felt thoughtless. It seemed a little irresponsible. Just knowing that you guys were actually making sure that it was the right choice, it's how I pictured myself making that decision, too. I took comfort in that.
With these new albums that both of you have, you're both trying new things. Mac, this is technically your first solo album, and Katie, you're working more with a band as Waxahatchee grows. Was making these records a challenge?
McCaughan: For me, the process is not scary it all, because it's something I like doing, which is writing songs and recording and putting together an album which has a shape and is not just a collection of random songs. To me the anticipating aggravation is putting it out under my own name, because (a) it's my name and I think band names are cooler, and (b) my name is hard to spell and hard to know how to pronounce if you're just looking at it. Then it's down to like the details of do I really want to have a T-shirt that I'm selling that has my name on it?
Crutchfield: Just put your face on it.
McCaughan: Yeah, just go all the way. So, there's unknown things about it, but I like the idea of having it be under my own name, and then when I'm playing live I can pretty much have it be anything I want it to be. I can play Superchunk songs, I can play old Portastatic songs, I'll obviously play songs from the new record.
Crutchfield: I had a solo project before Waxahatchee that is hopefully not available on the Internet any more.
McCaughan: What's that one called?
Crutchfield: It's called King Everything. It was a high school situation. You shouldn't look it up. When I started Waxahatchee I came up with a new name because I didn't want to be associated with those songs any more. I wanted a fresh start.
For Waxahatchee, what's different or what's progressed [on the new album] is I'm becoming absurdly ambitious musically in my older age. I just want every record that I make to be totally new and different than the one before it. When we put out Cerulean Salt, I immediately just moved on from it. I was already thinking about what I wanted to do next. I feel like I'm the kind of starting to feel that way about Ivy Tripp, too. I'm really proud of it and I couldn't be happier with how it came out, but I also am ready to go on to the next thing. Sam [Cook-Parrott] from Radiator Hospital thinks my next record will be my Nebraska, he thinks I'm going to make a sad solo album.
McCaughan: That idea of moving on from something that you just spent so much time and hard work making, that's one of the things that drives me crazy about how the media cycle is now.
Crutchfield: I'm a millennial, I don't know. I didn't plan that.
McCaughan: I guess that's it. I just know that your record is about to come out and the question people are going to ask you on tour and when you are doing press is, "So what's next for you?" And you just want to say, "I just spent a year doing this thing and it just came out and you're asking me what's coming next? I'm doing this." The idea of abandoning this thing that you just put all this time into, I understand the impulse, but at the same time, it's a little frustrating that everyone else also expects you to do that.
Crutchfield: That totally makes sense. I haven't abandoned it and I'm very excited by it, but to my core, the reason I do this is because I love making records and I love writing songs. That's my natural state of being. All the extraneous things that you have to do when you are a musician — taking photos and talking to people about your music and making all these plans — it's really strange. When I was 15 or 16, starting to write songs and starting to realize how much I enjoyed doing that, I never in a million years thought, "Oh, I'm going to have to do a hundred other things once I start doing that." It can make things feel out of focus, because [writing and recording songs] is what I am most excited about doing all the time, that's more so what I mean. I don't really turn my back to what I just made.
McCaughan: You're not stopping playing the songs from the first two records just because you made a third a record.
Crutchfield: Exactly. I love playing songs from all the records.
McCaughan: I've always been a fan of bands that were super productive. Going back to being someone who's just buying records, I always liked a band that was putting out a record and then six months later you'd see a 7-inch of new songs, like Unrest. I liked bands where it felt like they had the attitude of what you're saying, of always moving on to make the next thing because they wanted to, because they were excited about that. It's exciting as a fan to know that stuff is always coming down the pike.
How often are you guys working on new songs?
Crutchfield: Lately I've been really wrapped up in the stuff with the new record and going on tour, so I've been writing a little bit less. When I was younger I would write all the time, like every day I would work on songs. Now it's been more passive. I'm always sort of jotting down ideas and hoarding fragments of ideas and collecting them and constantly shaping the idea of a record. When I get back from this long tour, hopefully I can flesh out some of those ideas.
McCaughan: Over the last 10 or 15 years I've had to compartmentalize everything a lot more. Having kids and the label being so busy, in a good way I have to plan much more when am I working. I'll look at a day and say, "Okay, I'm taking the kids to school at 8, and then between 9 and 11 I'll work on music, then I'll go to Merge ... " The day kind of goes like that unless I'm in the middle of mixing the record or just trying to finish something, in which case I'll just spend all day on it. Right now I'm working on a film score and I find that if I know that I have three hours every morning this week to work on that, then I can get a lot done, maybe more than if I just had these wide open days in front of me like when I was 25, or whatever. If I know I have to write three minutes of music and record it to a point where I can at least play it for someone in the next two and a half hours, then I can usually get that done.
Crutchfield: I'm going to work on getting there.
Mac, what was it like when you were Katie's age, how would you approach songwriting?
Crutchfield: I'm 26, so you had empty days.
McCaughan: That would be about 1993. We had the label, but we weren't paying ourselves from that. Superchunk had just become our job, maybe. I probably still worked at the record store. So I had pretty unstructured days. When you're on tour six months out of the year, I find that it's hard to work on songs at all when you're touring. But yeah, I would just be working on stuff all the time, and whether it became a Superchunk song or a Portastatic song, I was always recording stuff on the 4-track. Superchunk was on such a cycle of writing and recording that there was always a record to make, there was always something around the corner. On the Mouth and Foolish, which are the records we made in '93 and '94, we had a ton of songs for those records because we always wanted to have B-sides and we always thought we should put as many songs as we wrote on every record. Our work habits changed, it went from a cycle to now for the last two Superchunk records, they were written more like the first couple Superchunk records where I was just writing songs and making demos and then giving them to the rest of the band. If I have an assignment, like a record, and I know that we're going to be making a record, then I'll work on stuff all the time, because if I don't, I won't be able to sleep because I just have a list of unfinished songs in my head, like, "Oh, that song still needs a bridge, and that song still needs a keyboard part" or whatever. So once a project is underway, I do end up working on it in any free time that I have.
Crutchfield: I feel the same way. Once it takes more shape, once you get further along with a project or a record, I spend all my free time working on it. It's strange, the cycle of everything. Now that I'm touring six months out of the year, I feel like I'm just about to start that and I'm about to put out a new record, so writing songs is kind of on the backburner, which is strange.
McCaughan: You're probably building up material, even if you're not sitting down with a guitar and writing it.
Crutchfield: I am.
McCaughan: I have a question for you, Katie. You made [Ivy Tripp] in your house. Was it hard to stop working? Was is hard to separate other things you wanted to do from wanting to finish a vocal take?
Crutchfield: It's funny, I didn't really have anything else to do.
McCaughan: That makes it even harder because you really could just do it 24 hours a day.
Crutchfield: Which is kind of what we did. It was Kyle Gilbride, he engineered it, and then Keith Spencer produced it. The three of us also made Cerulean Salt together. We had nothing really to do and I entered into the whole process very unprepared. How I've always been in bands and written, I always write the songs and make the demos and give them to my bandmates or give them to people I'm going to work with on the record. That's how this went. We had drum parts to my songs, but aside from that, they were really skeletal. I had pages and pages and pages of ideas for every single song, and I knew what I wanted, but I hadn't actually tested out if it would sound right or sound great. So we did a lot of trial and error and experimentation. It was a slow process. I've never taken a month to make a record, but we took a month to make a record, and it was cool.
McCaughan: The fact that you were recording at home and could take as long as you wanted, a month doesn't sound that long. Often that leads to going on forever.
Crutchfield: I'm pretty good at knowing when something is done. You hear stories about people who do vocal takes for a month, I kind of like flubs and the character of that. I have the kind of personality and the kind of work ethic that works for home recording and being super underprepared. I know when we've got the right sound or we've got the right take.
McCaughan: When you say you're unprepared, on "Air," what came first on that song?
Crutchfield: The guitar part and the vocals. And that Nicki Minaj song "Pills N Potions" came out that summer and I loved that beat, so I was like, "What if we put on that beat?" That's how that came to fruition. I'll be listening to Cat Stevens and the way he's strumming his guitar, I want to put that in a record, and I'll write it down. We were just throwing ideas around and trying a bunch of different stuff.
McCaughan: On "Breathless," was the organ the first thing?
Crutchfield: I bought this Moog, and I had no business buying it. I'm not in a band that would require a Moog, really, but I bought it because I wanted it.
McCaughan: You can't go wrong with one. You're never sorry that you bought a synthesizer.
Crutchfield: I'm very satisfied with my purchase. That was kind of the first thing that I wrote, that weird synth sound and that vocal melody.
McCaughan: It's very striking way to start a record.
Crutchfield: Yeah, I can't remember who it was, but I was talking to someone at Merge and I was still trying to sequence the record. Whoever it was said, "You should ask Mac, Mac's really good at sequencing records."
McCaughan: That's nice. It's one of my favorite things to do, actually.
Crutchfield: I like to do it too. I feel like there's no real rhyme or reason to it for me, but I know when it's right.
McCaughan: You have to balance your desire for everyone to hear the best song on the record with your desire to not always put the best song on the record first.
Crutchfield: Where do you think the best song on the record should go, ideally?
McCaughan: Based on Superchunk records, we tend to put it third or fourth.
Crutchfield: Totally, me too.
McCaughan: It's a little bit of a cleanup situation, as long as the first two or three are really good and set the tone. With "Your Hologram," which is the first song on Non-Believers, it had to be the first song because of the way it starts and the instrumentation. It was a lot about giving people a sense from the beginning: Here's the ecosystem of the album.
Crutchfield: That makes sense; I like that way of thinking. On Ivy Tripp I made "Breathless" the first song because there's part of me that wants to challenge my listeners. It is striking, it doesn't really sound like any other song on the record. I couldn't put it anywhere else, it's the only way for it to be on the record.
McCaughan: I hadn't really thought about it that way, like, where else you would put that if you tried to move it out of that place? It's great because it makes you pay attention. Certainly a lot of people buy records on vinyl, and that's the best way to pay attention to a record, but for people who aren't listening to it that way, you have to get them to stop for a second and stop shuffling and stop skipping ahead. Having a song like that first is a good way to do that.
It's interesting to hear you guys talk about knowing what the "best song" on your album is. As you're playing those songs live for six months, does your conception of what the "best song" is change over time?
Crutchfield: I say I know what the best song on the record is, but I recognize that my perspective on my own music is completely warped. It's kind of like looking at a photo of yourself, you don't even really know what you're looking at sometimes, because it's just weird to look at yourself that way. I don't really know what the world feels about this, I just don't have that kind of self-awareness when it comes to my own music. I have favorites, I have songs that I think are the best, and that does change sometimes. My relationship to all the songs evolves.
McCaughan: To me, the best song on a lot of records I've done are the ones that feel like they required the least effort, even if they did require more effort. Sometimes that does change as you play things live and you realize, wow, people really like this weird song that I like, but I didn't really think anyone else would; or that they really like a song I don't even really like that much, but that everybody else does. To me, the songs that I usually think are the "best" are the ones that are the most fun to play live, and that can change over time.
Mac, when you describing your current working process, you said you have to compartmentalize everything, and Katie, you seemed intrigued by that idea. And then Katie you were talking about touring six months out of the year, which Mac, you're not doing any more. When you look at where each other's careers are, does it seem exciting or like what you wish you were doing?
McCaughan: I like the idea of being able to tour six months of the year much more than I like the reality of touring six months out of the year.
Crutchfield: I see the way Mac is right now, where he's at in his career, and it's sort of like, yeah, I'd like to be there someday. I'd like to not be on tour six months out of the year and be able to compartmentalize my process and sit down with a guitar for two hours and write a song because that's the only time I have to do that. I assume that Mac can maybe look at me and my career and think that's maybe how you were a little bit.
McCaughan: Yeah, that's a lot of what connected with me about your music, recognizing some sort of kinship to what we were doing a long time ago. Doing limited touring with Superchunk over the last couple of records doesn't make me want to be away from home any more, because that's the hard thing about touring, but it does make me miss the likelihood of having those shows where you're in some small town or a foreign city where you don't know what to expect, and then you have some incredible experience — a great show or just some great people that you meet. That part of touring I do miss. For me it's just a matter of balancing wanting to play the songs and wanting to play them for people who want to hear them and wanting to be in these strange situations, but also not wanting to be away from my family and home for long periods of time. It's a constant evaluation that you have to make as things change in your life outside of music.