History may be written by the victors, but the fact that it’s written at all is testimony to our passion for putting frames around things. Perhaps when you string enough frames together, you get the illusion of movement. And motion, more than anything else, is what we’re all about.
As Portastatic has aged, it’s grown from side project to Mac McCaughan’s primary creative outlet, with an attendant increase in sophistication and focus. It’s gone from the gangly, lo-fi stepbrother of Superchunk, rarely seen live, to a prolific, rocking, touring concern. But if you pull back the camera to capture Portastatic’s entire 18-year arc, “then” and “now” don’t seem so much like strangers.
“A lot of things haven’t changed that much, even though I think it sounds better, and I know what I’m doing more both in terms of the writing and the recording,” McCaughan says. “But a lot of the Portastatic process is still basically building stuff up in the recording process.”
This is the suggestion of Some Small History, a 44-song odds and sods collection of Portastatic B-sides, seven-inch tracks, compilation tunes, covers, and more than a half-dozen unreleased songs. But having put together such a persuasive recap of Portastatic hitherto, McCaughan is apparently considering whether or not to just close the book instead of opening a new chapter.
“In some ways, having put out a few records in a row, rather quickly … and now having this out, in some ways it makes me feel like I should just retire the name and do something else, do something under my own name,” McCaughan suggests. “Because as soon as you make another record, you’re starting this whole process all over again of having extra songs. But I haven’t decided to do that, yet.”
Portastatic became McCaughan’s official side project when WFMU DJ Tom Scharpling suggested McCaughan release some of the home recordings he had accumulated outside Superchunk. Scharpling had a fanzine/ label, 18 Wheeler, and was willing to release the songs.
“I had to sort of come up with a name, so that’s what I came up with based on the name of the four-track cassette player I was using, a Tascam Portastudio,” McCaughan says of the Portastatic name. “I gave him three songs that I’d recorded at home, and he put that out on a seven-inch.”
The seven-inch was “Starter,” released in 1993 and, not coincidentally, the first track on Some Small History. “Starter” inaugurated a 15-year run (though Some Small History‘s tracks go back to 1990), during which Portastatic released nine albums and more than a dozen EPs and seven-inches. Like a scrapbook, they capture McCaughan’s wandering fascinations one by one, winding from spare, lo-fi guitar and keyboards to the more straight-ahead, full-band rock and pop of the most recent discs.
“It started out as just him fooling around, and slowly he’s become more proficient,” remembers Portastatic bassist and Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur. “It’s grown, very organically, using different instruments and influences.”
The growth goes like so: For Portastatic’s debut full-length, 1994’s largely solo album I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle, McCaughan says he was just excited to have an LP out that wasn’t his more famous band’s. “That had such a different vibe from the Superchunk records,” he says. By 1997’s third album, The Nature of Sap, the guitar and analog synth had become piano. Many of the songs were recorded with his brother Matt on drums. But with Superchunk tours and albums taking up much of his time, Portastatic receded from sight for several years.
It would be until Superchunk stopped recording albums before Portastatic reappeared in full. McCaughan scored a film (2001’s Looking for Leonard) and released 2000’s De Mel, De Melão EP, singing four of five cover songs in Spanish. But 2003’s Summer of the Shark was a full-time return to Portastatic. “That one is kind of a concept album about 9/11,” says McCaughan. “It was a pretty long, involved process making that record, but I really like the way it came out.”
With the new album, there was a renewed focus on live performance. McCaughan started playing solo shows and eventually recruited a pick-up band. Portastatic began to record and release more, putting out three albums and three EPs in just two years, culminating with 2006’s Be Still Please, which features lavish strings and strong pop songs. “It’s maybe my favorite group of songs,” says McCaughan. “It’s not quite as rock as [2005’s] Bright Ideas, but there’s some rock on there. It’s more about the arrangements and it’s a little bit mellower.”
Luckily, Some Small History isn’t sequenced chronologically, a blessing for flow and listenability. It spreads the early lo-fi tracks across the two discs, obeying the dictates of mood and pacing instead of those of time.
McCaughan sat down one day and wrote the entire track order from memory, without even listening to the tracks as he organized them. “At a certain point you kind of internalize what all this stuff sounds like and how you want something to flow,” he explains. The tracks were culled from a large cache of four-track recordings (pictured on the double disc package’s gatefold), after he was unable to obtain the original digital masters for the singles and comp tracks. The process uncovered plenty of material McCaughan had entirely forgotten about, including unreleased tracks that had simply slipped through the cracks.
The selections range widely from early “pre-Portastatic” tracks like “Too Trashed to Smoke,” whose ambling electrified shuffle echoes No Pocky-era ‘Chunk, to the buzzing analog synths and drum machine beats of Portastatic’s mid-’90s work, like “Too Close to the Screen,” to a supple, acoustic, violin-abetted take on Hot Chip’s “And I Was a Boy from School,” from 2006’s Sour Shores EP.
Still, you can hear McCaughan’s motion: What time and recording a lot of records has taught him is the power of subtlety. While every young band wants to hear everyone’s part at all times, McCaughan has learned to modulate the music, recognizing the ability of small, unseen things to contribute to the whole.
“Something can be important to the sound of a song or a recording without it beating you over the head,” he says. “Sounds, arrangements and parts that are subtle and important to the song, but they’re not leaping out at you. But if you took them away, the song would be missing something…. Understanding that it all goes into making the whole thing as opposed to having to hear every little part that’s going on.”
Another influence has been fatherhood. Even before bands like Yo La Tengo, American Music Club or Stereolab, McCaughan cites his children as one of the biggest influences, certainly emotionally, on his writing.
“It’s like, when you’re 25, you just kind of figure you’re the only one you have to worry about, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wow, our 5-year-old and our 1-year-old are going to grow up in this world which is not looking so good,’” he says. “That’s kind of a perspective-changing thing.”
While he admits to missing writing with Superchunknow that drummer Jon Wurster’s living in New York and the band’s basically limited to a handful of shows a yearhaving only one band does fit better with having a family.
“I don’t really have a lot of time for more than one band right now, because I play with two kids already,” jokes McCaughan, who also still works full time at the label he co-founded, Merge Records.
For the time being, Portastatic is McCaughan’s songwriting vehicle. He’s looking forward to digging up and rediscovering some of the old songs for their upcoming shows. But there’s no telling if or when he’ll put that vehicle on blocks, and get himself something new to fiddle with in the garage.
“I often think, ‘What is Portastatic?,” Wilbur says. “I’ve seen him get up there by himself with just the acoustic guitar and say, ‘Hi, we’re Portastatic.’ It’s funny, but it’s like, ‘Well…’ Because it’s not really a band. When we play we’re a live band, but really, it’s him. Every idea is his.”
So, for now, McCaughan will maintain his identity as Portastatic. Whether or not keeps that name in the future, it’s certainly been a fine Small History up to now.
Portastatic plays Local 506 Friday, Sept. 12, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10, and Violet Vector & the Lovely Lovelies open.
Digging into the archives
In listening to Some Small History, the new Portatstatic collection, several songs stand out while showcasing the band’s one-man evolution. These six do the trick.
DRAGGING A COW (1992)
One of the B-sides from the first Portastatic seven-inch, the jagged, distortion-drenched rumble sounds like a darker precursor to Superchunk’s “Mower,” similarly concerned with moribund creatures in the front yard. The dirge-like pacing recalls “Tower” off No Pocky for Kitty, but more ramshackle and grimy. The track’s raw, lo-fi footprint would characterize Portastatic’s early releases, though at this point, they sound more like unpolished Superchunk outtakes as McCaughan is still finding his own sound.
SAN ANDREAS CROUCH (1994)
One of Portastatic’s best early songs, along with “Skinny Glasses Girl” and the terrific “Hurricane Warning (Ignored).” Like those aforementioned tracks, it features a distant heroine. Melodically, it’s in keeping with the material and mid-tempo melodicism of 1993’s Foolish, particularly in the chorus, whose rising action and end of verse dip recalls the ebb and flow dynamic of “Driveway to Driveway” and “Without Blinking.” Sonically, however, it’s sparser and more idiosyncratic than ‘chunk, sounding something like Jonathan Richman with its scruffy, earnest charm and sing-song rhyme. Here, McCaughan does a wonderful job of conveying a relationship on unsteady ground.
This unreleased track features Claire Ashby and Ash Bowie and demonstrates Portastatic’s continued evolution. For one thing, it sounds nothing like Superchunk. If anything, it sounds a bit like Bowie’s old outfit, Polvo, with a droning, repetitive guitar figure forging a choppy pulse propelled by insistent rhythmic undertow. There’s more focus on texture and tone than hooks, and a more experimental approach that characterizes Portastatic’s material for the next couple of years, though McCaughan never abandons catchy pop tunes (witness 1996’s “Spying on the Spies” seven-inch).
EASILY AROUSED (1999)
The odd noisy synth that opens this track is a product of McCaughan’s more experimental interests. The smoky reverb guitar line offers a lounge-like setting perfect for lyrics cadged from an overheard bar conversation. The drum machine beat, slowly undulating synth, and shadowy late-night vibe means this could almost pass for gothic British new wave, while the lyrics are priceless: “He’s got that cute little accent/ And he’s easily aroused, so that’s good,” McCaughan sings. “The process is demeaning, but it has its own reward.”
“I always overhear conversations and I’m like, ‘This conversation is crazy, I have to remember this.’ And you just forget it or don’t write it down. But I actually managed to remember this one,” McCaughan says. “I might have even written it down at the time, because the stuff they were saying was so hilarious.”
SOME SMALL HISTORY (2004)
The synth line rings eerily, and the handclaps barely sound human, but when the bass, jangly guitar and McCaughan’s vocals join in, it starts to really take shape. The elements bloom in the upbeat chorus. In the odd-shaped break, McCaughan repeatedly avers, “What you love will always smolder.” While the ending is busier than rush hour, with sounds going in different directions suggesting well-regulated chaos, the music swells but never goes outside the lines. The effect is exultant and graceful, like an end of show bow at the footlights by the entire cast, hands clasped together.
In a way, McCaughan’s come full circle. Getting a full band to back him caused him to return to the chunky attack of his first recordings. While maybe a bit more polished, the guitar’s chugga-chugga-chug riff and careening vocal melody are unmistakable elements of those early years. It’s perhaps fitting that the song feature what sounds like a take on how one experiences life (“no brakes and a one-lane aqueduct”). Just under three minutes, it’s a rocking little number that nicely fills the gap left by Superchunk’s absence, without trying to fill those footprints, even if they’re on a similar path. It reflects a general pruning of McCaughan’s more experimental impulses in favor of the rock. Chris Parker