When I first settled on the format for this feature — write about how I first discovered the various musicians I listen to, and let the iTunes shuffle feature pick who I would write about each week — I didn’t consider some of its unavoidable quirks. Like, what to do about musical acts who go by different names at different times?
Mac McCaughan is the central songwriter and vocalist for two different bands that are among my favorites. I could easily write at length about Superchunk: About the funny story that my friend Pete told me about Mac’s onstage response to the unexpected success of their early song “Slack Motherfucker,” about seeing them on the second stage at Lollapalooza when the chaos of the mosh pit first stole and then mysteriously returned my baseball cap, about the show where I rediscovered them 15 years later as they prepared to release possibly their greatest record yet. But this isn’t the Superchunk entry, so I can’t tell those stories.
And then there’s Portastatic, McCaughan’s side project for his (mostly) quieter (mostly) solo recordings, which I’d never heard of until spotting them opening for Yo La Tengo one year, at a show where they covered Bruce Springsteen and where I first met my friend Brandon, which would ultimately lead me to discover … but again, wrong band for this item.
Mac has released precisely one album under his own name: Non-Believers, which he issued in 2015 as an exploration of the early-’80s post-punk that, in his words, began “using keyboards and drum machines to relate through their music a disaffection or alienation.” That era of music is not, frankly, one that I ever spent much time with. And while the album had a lot of the lo-fi tunefulness and clever wordplay that marks the best of Portastatic — it started out as a Portastatic record before McCaughan decided that he needed an even more personal name for an even more personal project — and I like it okay, it’s not especially my favorite of his output. When his brief tour for it stopped in Brooklyn, I wasn’t even able to go, so I have no stories there, either.
So let’s talk about how I became a fan of Mac McCaughan, the person. It was via seeing him play with Superchunk and Portastatic, obviously. But also his ability to show up in the background of so many other musical and non-musical events: serving as co-founder and operator of Merge Records, sitting in on vibraphone and guitar and drums and whatever else was available at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show (that same one where I met Brandon, in fact), sitting in on a Yo La Tengo video (though he didn’t appear on the recorded song), tweeting about politics and music and hockey, all with the same wry-but-never-cynical wit that illuminates his various bands’ songs. The best artists touch you not just through their art, but through the way their art puts you in contact with their personalities, or at least their personas — I’ve never met Mac, but getting to see him, on stage and Twitter, has provided me with another valuable perspective on the world that I wouldn’t want to have missed, even aside from all of his great music.
In fact, I should probably go back and listen to the recording of that Non-Believers tour show that I didn’t get to attend. One of the distinctive traits of great artists is their tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it.