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Q&A With Mac McCaughan Of Superchunk And Merge Records

Mac McCaughan performs with Superchunk in May 2010. (Photo by Barb Lavalette)
Mac McCaughan performs with Superchunk in May 2010. (Photo by Barb Lavalette)

Even if you don't know the band Superchunk — if you don't, you should — you likely have come across the influence of the band's front man, Mac McCaughan.

On top of being a guitarist and singer for the Chapel Hill-born indie rock band that has spanned more than two decades, McCaughan — along with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance — is a co-founder of Merge Records, a Durham-based independent record label with a variety of bands under its umbrella. That includes this year's Grammy winner for Album of the Year, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs.

Merge Records' past and present catalog is speckled with critically acclaimed acts such as The Mountain Goats, Crooked Fingers, Dinosaur Jr., Portastatic (McCaughan's other band), Richard Buckner and, yes, Superchunk.

So as you can imagine, McCaughan is a busy man. But if you follow him on twitter (@superchunk), you know he finds time to keep up with the Carolina Hurricanes. McCaughan was kind enough to give us his hockey story: how he discovered — and rediscovered — hockey, his favorite players (and broadcaster!), his best Canes memories, and even some constructive criticism.

Canes Country: How did you become a hockey fan or, if it applies, how did the Canes make you a hockey fan?

McCaughan: I would say the Canes rekindled the hockey fan in me. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale and ice skating was actually pretty popular down there. The 1980 Olympics was my first real immersion in hockey, and I watched as many of the games during that Olympics as I could, including of course the game against the USSR and then the gold medal game as well. I was pretty hooked by that and then ESPN started up around that time when we first got cable, and you could watch a lot of hockey (and Australian rules football to your heart's desire) on ESPN and I did. Then we moved to North Carolina in 1981 and I discovered, of course, it was all about basketball here.

I followed the 'Canes when they moved here but never went to any games in Greensboro. (Before that we used to go watch the Icecaps in Dorton Arena — in fact i know people who hate the 'Canes because they made the Icecaps leave! Which I think is hilarious.) I started going to games in the first playoff run, you could walk up and buy a ticket day of game.

Canes Country: Are you a fan of any other sports or do you root for one of the local colleges?

McCaughan: My parents both went to Duke and my dad still works there, so I grew up a Duke fan. Going to junior high and high school surrounded by Tar Heels probably would have turned me into a Duke fan even if I had no predilection when we moved here. The first college game I watched was the NCAA championship game Duke lost to Kentucky in '78, but when we moved here I had no idea how serious everyone was about this stuff. When we moved here in ’81, Duke was not good and continued to be so until Johnny Dawkins' class came in. Actually, one of my favorite sports memories was NC State winning it all. I jumped off the couch. It seemed like everyone was pulling for State that year.

Canes Country: How often do you get to games at the RBC Center, and have you seen games in other cities while traveling?

McCaughan: I used to have a 24-game season ticket pack, but with touring and other travel it was hard to get to so many games, so a few years ago I started sharing a 12-game pack with my friend Allison. I still have to miss some games, but try to get to as many as I can. I went to a game in Calgary — not a 'Canes game — when we were there on tour once, but haven't had the luck to be in another town when Carolina was playing there.

Canes Country: Who is your current favorite player, and why?

McCaughan: Man, that's a toughie. Watching [Jeff] Skinner become a superstar is pretty exciting. I love our Finnish connection; [Tuomo] Ruutu is so tough and Jussi [Jokinen] is great — I get emails from a couple friends in Helsinki the morning after a game where those guys do well. But personality-wise right now, [Chad] LaRose may be my favorite. I feel like he internalized the kind of toughness that was established with the Cup team and gets after it.

Canes Country: Do you have a favorite all-time player?

McCaughan: I'll narrow it down by sticking with Hurricanes. I'll say [Ron] Francis and [Rod] Brind'Amour not only for their sustained excellence and low-key manner but because without them I don't know that hockey would have become as established here as it is. I think Brind'Amour is a Republican — hell, a lot of these guys probably are — but what can you do.

Canes Country: Any least favorite players?

McCaughan: Wow, that's a fun one. There's probably one on every team! The names Chris Pronger and Sean Avery come to mind immediately, but there are others... Brett Hull...Darcy Tucker (too easy)...Danny Briere...let me go see who's on the Sabres this year...

Canes Country: Do you follow the team year-round (free agency, the draft), or are you more interested once the games get under way? 

McCaughan: I pay more attention during the season obviously, but following [Canes director of media relations Mike] Sundheim and others on Twitter makes it easier to keep up with stuff in the off-season when sports radio is on to other topics.

Canes Country: What's your prediction for this year's team?

McCaughan: I don't want to jinx anyone so I'll stay out of prognostication. But whatever they do in the standings we know that [Cam] Ward, Skinner, the Sutters, [Eric] Staal and the rest will be on the ice soon. And while a young team can be inconsistent, it can also be really exciting.

Canes Country: Are there any new players (rookies, free agent signings) you're really looking forward to seeing with the Canes?

McCaughan: [Tomas] Kaberle coming in will be interesting. [His brother] Frank the Tank's goal is a lasting memory obviously. Not sure how much Ryan Murphy will play this year, but I'm looking forward to that.

Canes Country: If you were in charge of the Hurricanes' hockey operations for a day, what would you do differently?

McCaughan: Well, at games the thing we talk about the most is the music. Rather, the assaulting terribleness of the music. Even the good songs are repeated ad nauseam. Luke DeCock got a list of songs I thought would be good a couple years ago and put them in his column. Luke also lobbied for them to play Superchunk on the PA (they actually did during the Cup run in 2006, which was awesome). But after a column talking about how bad the music in the RBC is, the guy who does the music vowed he would never play Superchunk ever again. But Superchunk aside, the music could just be so much better.

How about cheaper parking for people who've had season tickets for X number of years?

How about some food options for non-meat eaters among us? How about some local restaurant stands that aren't barbeque? What's really annoying is that the fast food chains that advertise during games that i would actually want to eat, like Moe's (Editor's note: no kidding, right?!), don't even sell at the games. I'm not looking for a superb dining experience, it's a hockey game, but something beyond the execrable stuff on offer currently would be nice. Like, if you have pizza, why have The Worst Pizza On Earth?

'Canes gear that doesn't look like you won it at the State Fair along with a Rush mirror and a roach clip?

To me stuff like the music and the food just shows a lack of imagination from an organization that in general has been pretty good at fan outreach and creating a good fan experience.

Also, i'm sure he's well-paid but i'd give Chuck Kaiton a raise regardless. He's THE BEST.

Canes Country: What's your best hockey-related memory (as a fan, playing, whatever)?

McCaughan: Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, of course. Craziest, best sports thing ever for me.

F**K JUST WATCHED THE HIGHLIGHTS ON YOUTUBE! OK, back to the present. It still makes me nervous watching even though I know the outcome.

Hockey-related top 5 would include getting to sit between Brind'amour and Cam Ward for an episode of "Relive The Moment" where we sat on a couch and watched Game 7 all over again...surreal.

Canes Country: I know The Mountain Goat’s John Darnielle wrote at article for The Independent about the recent All Star Game and is a big hockey fan. Is he also a Hurricanes fan? Who's the bigger/more knowledgeable fan?

McCaughan: John (@mountain_goats) and his wife, Lalitree (@lalitree), are huge fans. I'm sure John knows more about hockey than I do because it seems like when he is interested in something, he goes deep and has retention of details that I do not. Last year I remember he was like "I just gave myself NHL Center Ice package as a gift." He's a good person to text with during games.

Canes Country: If the Hurricanes asked you to play at one of their events, would you be open to that?

McCaughan: Well, no one else in the band could give a rat’s ass about sports in general, and the majority of 'Canes fans would probably be like "this isn't really my cup of beer" ... but sure.

Canes Country: Superchunk and Merge are a big part of Triangle music (and beyond). How much has the local scene changed in the past 10 years?

More bands, more clubs. We'll see what the area can support, but it's a pretty great place to be for music, for both local and touring bands coming through. It's hard actually to see all the great stuff that comes through town.

* * * * *

McCaughan will be performing the film score he wrote for TRANSFIGURED TIME: Music for the Films of Maya Deren at the Westobou Festival in Augusta, Ga., this Thursday (Sept. 29).

Superchunk's ninth album — and first since 2001 — Majesty Shredding, came out last September and made several "best-of" lists for 2010, including Spin, Rolling Stone and The AV Club. The band has tour dates in Europe in late November and early December. See Superchunk's tour dates plus the rest of the bands on Merge Records here. There are several local dates worth checking out from various Merge artists. You can get any of Superchuck's albums or other Merge albums at the Merge Store, or at you local record store.

Finally, give these two videos off Majesty Shredding a viewing. The first, for the album-opening "Digging For Something," has a cameo from The Love Language, a Merge band from Raleigh. The second, "Crossed Wires," has a cat ... a very interesting cat.