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Guest Playlist: Mac McCaughan, Indie Music Icon

Mac McCaughan is responsible for a long list notable and influential contributions to independent music—and music at large—that spans over three decades. His accomplishments as a musician includes fronting bands like Superchunk and Portastatic. Then there’s Merge Records, the label that he co-founded in 1989, which features a deep catalog filled with essential listening.

He also flexes some savvy when it comes to art, so we invited him to make a guest playlist for us, titled The Music Lovers.

To give a little context around this music-inspired playlist, we spoke to McCaughan about the artists whose work has appeared on his record covers, some of his favorite places to see art, and the artists that he worked with for a benefit auction supporting Planned Parenthood (which ends today!).

Jonathan Munar: References to art and artists have shown up in your music throughout your entire career—Yayoi Kusama even got a name check in the title of a Superchunk song. What influence does art have on you and your music?

Mac McCaughan: I think that’s probably hard to define, but I guess, with music, inspiration from visual art could take the form of thinking about space—space in music is important—when to have it, when to use it up. It could come from conceptual thinking about art, as well as just looking at how artists live their lives and approach their work.

JM: I love seeing the photos of art that you post on Instagram. Where are some of your favorite places to see art when you’re on the road?

MM: I try to find it wherever I am because it’s usually such a nice break from wherever else one spends time on tour—gas stations, bars—but one place I always try to get to in a city that’s full of great museums is The Phillips Collection in D.C. It’s the perfect size and the collection is amazing so no matter what the current exhibition is you know you’ll see something inspiring. An old friend from the music world at the Phillips, Alec MacKaye, helped me secure the rights to use an Arthur Dove drawing in the art for a Portastatic record, which was amazing.

Just hitting as many galleries as I can in whatever city is usually rewarding, whether or not I’m not familiar with the artists beforehand. The internet makes planning these kinds of visits so much easier too.

And right here in North Carolina we have such great institutions and galleries. The Nasher Museum in Durham, the Ackland in Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Museum of Art and CAM in Raleigh are all consistently bringing interesting work to the area, and in the Triad there’s the Weatherspoon and SECCA. Local galleries like The Carrack and SPECTRE Arts put on great shows and host musical events as well.

JM: What is the last memorable experience that you’ve had with a work of art?

MM: My wife and I went to Havana a couple weeks ago—just under the wire, apparently—and went to a suburb called Jaimanitas where the artist Jose Fuster is transforming his neighborhood with ceramic tile mosaics. It’s incredible. It owes a debt to Gaudi (in fact includes a large homage to him) but is really [representative of] Fuster’s own personality. The heart of it is his home and studio but he also works on other homes in the neighborhood and has made this area a destination. It’s beautiful.

The back cover to Mac McCaughan’s 2015 solo album, Non-Believers.

JM: A photograph by Lucas Blalock—an artist that we’ve featured in our New York Close Up series—appeared on the sleeve of your first solo album. How did that come about?

MM: Lucas is from North Carolina and used to live in Chapel Hill. The first time I saw his photos was at local gallery Branch Gallery (which sadly no longer exists). He actually had a photo hanging in my wife’s restaurant where Lucas worked for a bit, but it got stolen. Anyway, we stayed in touch with Lucas and his sister Corinne. When it came time to make the sleeve for my solo record, which is partly about growing up, I kept thinking of this one photo of his of a space heater. Luckily we got to use it! When I posted a picture of it on Instagram my dad was like “Is that a photo of the space heater we used to have?” and Lou Barlow commented something like “That space heater is so fucking poignant”—I agree.

For the follow-up dub version of the album I got to use another favorite of mine by Lucas, No Vacancy. I wanted to buy that photo a long time ago but it was gone, but at least it’s on my record cover!

Lucas Blalock. No Vacancy, 2012. Silver gelatin print; 20 × 16 in. (50 × 41 cm).

JM: You recently released a new Superchunk 7-inch and launched a benefit auction on Paddle8, both to benefit Planned Parenthood. Tell us a little about the project.

MM: Ugh what can you do these days to not feel like EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE AND YOU ARE POWERLESS? So we made a new record, our first single in a few years, and made the whole release a benefit for Planned Parenthood. I remember seeing a photo of our president surrounded by a bunch of ancient white guys smiling just after he’d signed an order to defund women’s healthcare around the world—it’s disgusting and enraging. That’s what drove the single and the idea for the benefit. I also wanted to team up with artists to raise more money than a normal 7″ release ever could. We essentially sent them the songs and asked them to make unique “record sleeve” art for the auction. We were lucky that so many incredible artists agreed to contribute a work!

The auction ends today so get over there and bid, people!

Amy Sillman. Untitled, 2017. Acrylic and ink on paper; 14 × 7 in. (35.56 × 17.78 cm).

JM: Some really great artists contributed work to the auction. How did you choose that lineup of artists?

MM: I just thought of artists that I would want to see in an auction like that, and that I thought would want to contribute either based on knowing them personally or frankly just knowing their leanings on social media. I started with artists I’d worked with before like Trudy Benson and Chris Johanson and Amanda Barr, and once I asked a couple artists, they in turn recommended others. It’s a great group. All the galleries involved were helpful as well, especially John Corbett at Corbett vs. Dempsey. I’ve known John for 20 years through music circles and he really helped get in touch with some of my favorite artists that work with CVSD. I think I asked him about Joyce Pensato who I LOVE and then he also asked Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Magalie Guérin, Cauleen Smith, Rebecca Shore, and Amy Feldman, who all said “yes”—so cool.

The Merge Records benefit auction for Planned Parenthood ends today on Paddle8. Superchunk’s latest record is available digitally through Merge Records.

Watch Mac McCaughan’s guest playlist, The Music Lovers.