Ralph Lee “Mac” McCaughan is an American musician who founded Merge Records (mergerecords.com) in 1989 with bassist Laura Ballance in Durham, North Carolina. A label created to showcase their own music in their band “Superchunk” and those of their friends, Merge Records has released albums by notable artists such as Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Spoon, among others.
He has also worked on various side projects, including the band Go Back Snowball, Portastatic, and a musical project called “Score!” He has collaborated with other artists, including musicians in the Merge Records community, and has contributed to various soundtracks and compilations.
Mac spoke with “Grey Journal” recently about his experience playing at SXSW Music 2023 and running a record label in the age of streaming.
1.) I saw Superchunk at CBGB’s in the 1990s and remember it like it was yesterday. That was such a great show! It’s been a while since I have been on the Superchunk bandwagon but am curious how have you managed to maintain a creative career throughout all of these years?
I think we’ve stayed creative by just working at what we do in different ways that made sense for us — we took a break for awhile when it was starting to feel like a burnout job and then once we started making records again in 2009 we did it in a way that felt good and fresh. We obviously don’t tour as much as we used to but when we do play shows it’s fun and we have a deep catalog to draw from (& we play a different setlist every night).
2.) Your band played last night at Mohawk in Austin in front of a packed crowd for your show which I believe was a Merge Records showcase, correct? How does it feel to be playing SXSW this year and what challenges did you overcome to accomplish this?
SXSW is really a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s a mess, it’s a mob scene, there’s a gross “industry” vibe to parts of it, but at the same time there are a ton of great bands and people in town, and we always have a blast at Mohawk and this time was no exception.
3.) How has the Alternative Distribution Alliance helped Merge Records and its artists move their careers forward?
Our philosophy has always been really simple: work with artists we love and try to make sure as many people as possible can hear their music. We started the label as music fans and we continue to run it that way, that’s about as plainly as I can put it.
4.) What can we expect to see from Merge Records in the upcoming years?
This Spring already has seen the release of new albums by H.C. McEntire, Fucked Up, New Pornographers and William Tyler; there’s a new Fruit Bats right around the corner as well.
5.) Bonus Question: You are a fellow Columbia University graduate. Did I see a photograph recently of Oscar-winning movie producer DeDe Gardner wearing a Merge Records t-shirt in a photograph? Is she a fan or friend from your university days?
I didn’t see that photo of DeDe but I need to! We worked at the student grocery together at Columbia and she was hilarious and smart back then and continues to be wildly successful.