Superchunk and Cable Ties Keep It Moving

Mac McCaughan and Jenny McKechnie talk keeping the creative passion, All Her Plans, and more

Jenny McKechnie is the guitarist and lead vocalist of the Melbourne-based punk band Cable Ties; Mac McCaughan fronts Superchunk and is the cofounder of Merge Records. Cable Ties’ latest record, All Her Plans, is out now on Merge, so to celebrate, the two got on a Zoom call to catch up about it. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Jenny McKechnie: Hello, Mac! How are you?

Mac McCaughan: Hi, Jenny. Good. How are you doing?

Jenny: Oh, pretty good. Can’t complain.

Mac: The West Coast shows have been good?

Jenny: Yeah, it’s been great. We’ve been going down the West Coast with Pile. It’s been fun. Obviously not as fun as going on tour with Superchunk… 

Mac: Not many things are as fun as that.

Jenny: No, no. 

Mac: Is touring America what you pictured? 

Jenny: It’s hard to know what we pictured. I think we’ve been trying to do it for so long that I kind of didn’t think it was going to be as good as it was in the end. You sort of lower your expectations, and hear a few horror stories from people about things that have gone wrong. But we’ve just had a dream run and everyone’s been so incredibly friendly to us everywhere that we’ve gone. It’s just incredible to be in a place where you can play a show in so many different towns. We don’t really have that in Australia. The population is so sparse that you go play in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and maybe go across to Perth. There’s just not really enough people that are interested in different types of music that you can do a tour. So it’s been really fun and it’s just made us want to come back again.

Mac: The idea of coming to the States for an Australian band like yours, is it something that from the minute you start a band, that’s one of the goals? What kind of place, in the imagination of someone who’s in a band like yours, do the States hold?

Jenny: When we started, I wouldn’t say that we had any designs on playing the States. And most bands who are starting up a punk band in Melbourne don’t think, “Yeah, we want to go and play in the States.” Simply because for most bands, it’s just completely out of reach. Like, the visas on their own cost thousands of dollars. If you don’t get a visa, then you can be kicked out of the country for five years. So most of the time, what you have your sights on is just playing with other bands in Melbourne. And the music community there is really rich and a great place to play in to begin with. But when we approached Merge for our second record, we’d gotten to the stage where we had played the major cities in Australia, and if you’re a band that has a bit of a different sound, there’s only so many people in Australia that you can reach. It’s sort of mind blowing to us that, for instance, Nick [Brown, Cable Ties’ bassist] was talking to someone who said an artist like Lightning Bolt can have a manager and booking agent and all of these people working for them. Whereas in Australia, if you were doing something that was that unique, there’s just a smaller audience for it. So you eventually get to a stage where if you’re going to make it sustainable, you sort of have to get out of Australia. 

I would say with influences, personally speaking, a lot of my influences actually came from Melbourne itself. I played in folk bands and stuff before playing punk music, and then most of my exposure to the music, and the reason I liked it, was just bands that were playing around Melbourne like the Dacios and Bat Piss. But yeah, then obviously a lot of the influences come from the States as well. I think at the time, we were listening to Thee Oh Sees, and Ty Segall is huge obviously in Australia as well. 

Mac: It’s interesting, because one of the reasons that a band like ours looks forward to trying to get to Australia — though it doesn’t happen very often, obviously — is because of the bands from there. So it’s interesting to hear that from an Australian band’s perspective there’s not much of an audience for, let’s just say, punk rock. From our perspective, some of the greatest punk bands are from Australia, and post-punk bands. And you read books about those bands, about The Go-Betweens and Nick Cave and the Saints, who felt like you’re saying — they kind of had to leave Australia to find a bigger audience. But it does just seem, like you said, that maybe because y’all are isolated down there, there is this amazing petri dish of stuff happening all the time in different towns. But Melbourne, especially at the moment at least, it seems like there’s a million bands.

Jenny: Yeah, for sure. And it’s funny, because I’m saying you have to go overseas to find a bigger audience, but there are just so many good bands coming out of Melbourne, and I think a lot of people who come from Melbourne are really, really proud of the scene there. But, I mean it’s interesting: I’ve heard like interviews with you and Laura [Ballance], or even just talking to you when we were there about how even between Raleigh and Chapel Hill, they’ve got their own specific things going on. It’s sort of mind blowing to me that there are so many cities in the States that have got their own sort of little micro culture going on. Do you feel like that’s true?

Mac: Yeah, for sure. Of course, we noticed that when we started touring in the early ‘90s and going to other towns that maybe had a similar profile to Chapel Hill, like college towns in the Midwest somewhere. They had similar elements, but there were different types of bands from these from these different towns and different scenes. Some towns had a more grimy kind of feel to it, or a more punky kind of thing happening. And some towns are more poppy and more college oriented. I was thinking about this last night, because I went to a bar here in town called The Cave. Rosali was opening for Jake Xerxes Fussell, who’s a guitar player and singer from who lives around here. I try not to forget that we’re lucky to live in a place where you can just go out on a random Wednesday night and there’s amazing shows happening. Like, I went to several shows this week alone. That’s not always the case, obviously, but there is a lot going on in this area in particular. 

You mentioned that you were playing folk music before you were playing punk music. What was that like? What was your exposure? Obviously, you weren’t living in a town where they only played folk music on the radio. So what was it that actually made you decide to play that kind of music?

Jenny: I just had a really good friend in high school whose family went to the local folk festivals around town, and so I just started going to them. I liked the fact that you could go and play in these Celtic folk sessions and actually just play music with people. Whereas in the town that I grew up in, the sort of major music scenes that you could be into was emo — because I’m 32, so the emo thing was really big at the time — or you could be into top 40 or whatever. Or there was these folk festivals, so I picked that one because I got to actually play music and I liked the people. And with punk rock, there was sort of a lot of parallels. It meant that I could sing songs about things that I cared about; it’s very political. So then when I moved to Melbourne, I was like, Oh, there’s people here playing loud, angry music and I don’t want to sing nicely anymore. The topics of the songs kind of stayed the same, but the volume and perceptible rage levels increased. 

Mac: That’s interesting. That parallel between folk music and punk, I don’t think people talk about that much. 

Jenny: What was it like for you growing up? Were you playing a lot with other people? Was that an option when you were a teenager? 

Mac: Yeah. I mean, I was mainly growing up listening to rock radio when I was a kid. AC/DC was my favorite band when I was, like, 13, so I loved bands like AC/DC and the Who. But when you’re seeing those bands or hearing them on the radio, you don’t really get the sense like, Oh, I could do that, because it’s just such a huge scale of everything, you know? Eventually I did start learning to play guitar — and I literally had an AC/DC songbook, like learning to play the songs from Back in Black or whatever. But then we moved from Florida to here, and there was college radio stations here. And so I started meeting people at school — and I think because I was a new kid at school, I ended up hanging out with the kind of outcasts, so they tended to be the people who were into alternative kinds of music, punk or prog or whatever they were listening to.And so that’s how I found out about college radio and started hearing punk rock and different kinds of bands. 

Once you hear that kind of music, you go, Oh, maybe I could play that. My friend had a drum kit, so we started playing together. Not really with the idea like, “We’re going to be a band that has records and plays shows,” so much as just, like, playing on the weekends at his house. But then eventually, we did become a band, and eventually we were old enough to go see bands — or at least go to all ages shows, which tended to be the hardcore shows. Australia seems very drinking-oriented, if you don’t mind me saying. 

Jenny: Yep.

Mac: To go see shows when you were growing up, what is that scene like there?

Jenny: 18 is the drinking age, so when I moved to Melbourne, I was 18. But I think it’s a bit of a problem, really; there’s not enough all ages shows. I guess that’s part of the reason again why I liked folk music, because they were family friendly festivals. But Nick, who grew up in Melbourne, went to all ages shows. There’s things called Blue Light Disco, and there are certain organizations that put on shows for young people. And especially for people growing up in the suburbs around Melbourne, that’s often their first shows and access to music, if it’s not going to be a festival that has some all ages access. But yeah, it is a bit of a problem, because the money comes from people drinking a lot of the time for the shows, and venues aren’t willing to put on shows that don’t have access to alcohol. 

Mac: Do you ever organize shows and put on younger bands?

Jenny: Yeah, I think we’ve done that in the past. It’s good sometimes. That’s why playing in store is good, because young people can come to that. We’ve played an all ages festival before in Bacchus Marsh, that sadly they put on the same day as the Strawberry Festival. So nobody came to that because they were all at the Strawberry Festival. [Laughs.] But otherwise, a great idea. 

Mac: Gotta look for when the Strawberry Festival is happening before you try to plan your rock festival. Come on, we all know that. 

Jenny: Exactly. But yeah, that’s why it’s good doing in stores and shows in parks and that kind of thing. But it’s tricky to get an actual venue with a proper PA and stuff to not serve alcohol. 

Mac: Well, for people who are reading this that don’t know, we put out not your very first record, but the first record on Merge right at the beginning of the pandemic. Worst possible timing. And of course, like every other band, everything was canceled touring-wise. So what did you do with all that time?

Jenny: Um, crying, if I’m honest.

Mac: [Laughs.] 

Jenny: I’m sure it’s a common story. We were like, “Oh, OK, this is happening,” and sort of trying to plan for a few months time or whatever. And then it became apparent that this was setting in for a long time. So I did uni. I’ve done a graduate diploma in psychology now, and I will eventually train to be a psychologist, but I still have two more degrees to do to get there. 

Mac: Wow, I don’t know that that is a common story. 

Jenny: Well, I was like, Well, I’m stuck in my home. And, you know, I was saying before we went on the call that I’ve dropped out of a few things. When you’re trying to work a job to pay the bills and study and play in a band, it’s pretty difficult, and if you’re not 100% committed to it, then yeah, you’re going to drop out. So I was like, Look, I don’t have the band. That’s one thing taken out of the equation. So I’ll work my part time job and study. And so I did that, and got a dog and chickens. 

This was actually something that I wanted to talk to you about, get some life advice on. Because we were saying to you as a band, thank you so much for putting out our new record after the first one, because we sort of didn’t expect anything after everything that happened. We might have quit if it wasn’t for that. And there were a few times during the pandemic that I just pretended I didn’t play music, sort of in order to get over the sadness of not being able to do it. I think I mentally quit on it a few times, and I stopped playing a lot, and there were a few times that I really did lose the passion for it. And I was thinking, you’ve been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive — there must have been times where you’ve come close to it, or it’s been really hard. And I wanted to know, is there something that keeps you going? How do you not quit when things get hard?

Mac: I mean, the simple answer is, I don’t know how to do anything else. But there’s definitely times — and sometimes it’s literally one day to the next — where I’m just like, What am I doing? You know, more about a feeling of futility or just classic existential dread that I think everyone goes through at some point. But I think a lot of the answer is just waiting until I feel like doing it again. Especially around songwriting — I wrote 15 songs a few months ago in the space of a couple of months, and then haven’t written a song since. I’ve been working on those and playing shows and doing other things, but I kind of just draw a blank, or just don’t feel like it, you know? Nothing inspiring. But, you know, as you said, I’m old — so I’m old enough to know that there’s phases, and it comes in and goes in cycles. If I wait around long enough, there’ll be another time when I feel like sitting down with a guitar and doing something. 

One thing that happens is that there’s so many different things that I want to do sometimes that I get stymied and I just don’t do any of it. Because I feel like the investment of the time to get started on something is daunting, because every day is so busy with kids and Merge and ordering Superchunk t-shirts for the next tour. It’s hard to look ahead and see, Oh, here’s five days in a row where I could just work on music. That doesn’t really exist for me. So sometimes it’s just about trying to carve out a period of time, even if there’s no plan for it. Because I feel like a lot of work gets done for me anyway, songwriting-wise, before I actually start doing it — just thinking about things and conceptualizing things. So when I do sit down with a guitar or a keyboard or something, I’m not just starting with a blank slate. There’s an idea, you know? There are certain songs of ours that I know I was thinking about for a year or something before I actually sat down and wrote it.

Jenny: Yeah, right. What songs are like that?

Mac: “Crossed Wires” is a song like that. There’s a couple songs on Wild Loneliness that I know I was thinking about for months before I sat down and tried to actually make it a song. Like I had a chorus or the first line of the first verse or something, and it would just keep running through my head, or I would write it down so I didn’t forget, and thought about it for a long time before I sat down with a guitar and made a demo.

Jenny: And when those lines come to you, is just something that pops into your head? Or is it like you’re thinking about a topic for a long time and then you sort of craft something that expresses that?

Mac: I think it happens both ways, but a lot of times it’s just a line and I kind of vaguely know what it references or whatever. It’s maybe one reason I procrastinate writing the rest of the song, because it’s like, Oh, now I have to really figure out what this is about. But a lot of times I’ll even kind of have an idea of the melody without having any guitar parts or anything. And sometimes I will write it down or just start an email draft or whatever. Just yesterday, I was going through my drafts and deleting emails, like, What was this? This was dumb. So I think it is also good to maybe wait and see if you still really like it sometime later, enough to make it into a song.

Jenny: Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting — email yourself. I usually have a phone full of completely nonsensical voice memos, which must be interesting if you ever find them. 

Mac: It’s weird, I know a lot of people that do voice memos, and I’ll sometimes do that if I have a guitar part I don’t want to forget, but I just find seeing something written down is what allows me to know whether I want to write the next line or not. I used to just have notebooks, obviously, and I kind of wish that I still did have a notebook because it’s not really as cool to have a bunch of emails to yourself as it is to have a tattered old notebook that’s in your backpack. But maybe less chance of losing it on tour…

Jenny: Well, that’s the thing: I’d love to have the romantic tattered notebook, but… I can’t keep a diary. I’ve lost my wallet on this tour, so keeping track of more than my wallet, phone, and passport is just not going to happen. [Laughs.] 

Mac: Yeah. Well, talking about inspirations, I didn’t really know about your folk background, but it totally makes sense with some Cable Ties songs now that I know that. Especially “Mum’s Caravan” on the new record, it seems very evocative of both that scene, and also it’s just a topic that could be the topic of a folk song. So I don’t know, I feel like maybe some of those elements are getting integrated into the Cable Ties oeuvre.

Jenny: Yeah, definitely. That one, and also the last song on the album, “Deep Breath Out” — it’s in an open G tuning that I used to play in a lot when I played folk music. I don’t know why that started coming back on this record. Maybe a bit more being in your bedroom alone kind of thing is part of it. But also, Cable Ties has always had the folk elements there. I’ve always just been a folk singer who plugged in an electric guitar and played it loudly. And the way that I play is very right hand rhythm-focused rather than traditional rock guitar solos. But yeah, those ones are definitely back to basics kind of moves for me, and I had to really be convinced to put “Mum’s Caravan” on the album because those songs are really scary for me. I don’t know how you feel about singing the more exposed raw ones live rather than the louder ones, but singing softly on my own is now quite terrifying for me.

Mac: Yeah, because you’re used to just having Nick and Shauna [Boyle] back there just blasting.

Jenny: If something goes wrong, you just stick on everything and make some feedback noises until you fix it. But you can’t do that…

Mac: Well, it’s amazing hearing you talk about thinking about not doing music, and all the different thought processes that you went through, because you see Cable Ties now and it’s all very joyful, kind of noisy set. You know what I mean? It feels more uplifting than introspective.

Jenny: Yeah, maybe that’s because our reaction was just like, “Let’s hunker down and get through this thing.” And then when we were all in the same room doing it again, and we’re back on stage — I’ve never appreciated being on a stage more in my life. And that’s why, when we went to record the next album, we were like, “This should be fun. We don’t need to make this into this huge stressful thing.” It’s not like the album that we made sounds like a happy fun times album or anything, but there is a lot more joy to it, I think. 

Mac: The anger is very well placed and it’s earned its righteousness, or whatever you would say, in terms of the topicality. But then musically, it’s so propulsive and invigorating. It is clear that you got pushed through this thing and then were like, “OK, here’s what we know: We know that we love doing this part of it.”

Jenny: Yeah, for sure. Everyone learned something.

Mac: We don’t have much time left on the Zoom. Is there anything else that you want to talk about?

Jenny: I don’t think so, no. Oh, geez — 10:51! We’re going to have to check out of this old hotel soon and head off. Thanks so much for having a chat. It’s good to chat again after tour.

Mac: I know, it’s good to good to see you. I hope that the shows are all great out there. And safe travels down to — where’s next, Sacramento?

Jenny: Sacramento, yeah.

Mac: You’re playing these towns that we haven’t played in, like, 30 years.

Jenny: Yeah, right. When did you last play Australia? Are you gonna come back to Australia? 

Mac: We haven’t played there since, I feel like it was 2016 or something like that. And that was a weird tour because it was Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion tour, so it was them and us and M. Ward. I had a great time, but there was definitely times where we were playing a set to a bunch of young people waiting for Neutral Milk Hotel. Our drummer Jon [Wurster] described it as “playing to a painting of children.” But we did have a great show — maybe at the Corner? Hopefully we’ll get back there.

Jenny: Yeah, that’d be awesome. Come back to Melbourne. Play the Corner. Come see my dog.

Mac McCaughan is a co-founder of Merge Records and the singer and guitarist of Superchunk.