There was a time when Portastatic wasn’t really a band, but more a place for Mac McCaughan to hide out. When he wasn’t forging the tenets of indie rock with Superchunk, McCaughan worked through his interests in electronica, old film scores, country music and Latin pop on Portastatic albums that were essentially collections of not-suitable-for-Superchunk demos. But with Superchunk taking longer between records, McCaughan is putting the Portastatic name on work that sounds more like the music he’s best known for: loud, catchy guitar pop.
“Obviously, that’s kind of in my DNA,” McCaughan says. “I love playing that kind of music and writing those kinds of songs. But I also like being able to make a record that goes from that sound all the way down to minimal, kind of acoustic things. And everything in between. I think [last year’s Portastatic album] Bright Ideas was the closest thing to a Superchunk record that Portastatic has made, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that Superchunk has just been inactive for a while.”
The new Portastatic album, Be Still Please, isn’t as full-on rock as Bright Ideas, but its songs aren’t sketchy experiments either. The opener, “Sour Shores,” builds on a muted acoustic guitar riff with sweet strings, foursquare rock drums, cooing background vocals and an endearingly wobbly guitar solo. It’s an off-kilter pop song, but it’s a song, not a doodle. McCaughan says he wanted to achieve the full sound of Bright Ideas, but with more of an acoustic base. He wrote the record on an acoustic, and even as he added drums and electric guitars, he kept the acoustic on the tracks as “the anchor of it all.”
After 15 years as a professional musician, McCaughan has developed a feel for how songs like Be Still Please’s slow, twangy “Getting Saved” and ebullient “You Blanks” can be pulled apart and stitched back together with instrumentation that makes them sound more sophisticated and elliptical. “String arrangements and woodwinds have appeared on Superchunk records, but it’s something that I feel I’m just now getting a handle on how to write and take to a musician, in a way where they can play what I hear in my head,” says McCaughan. “It takes a long time to get to that point, expanding what you do in a real way, as opposed to, like, ‘Oh, this’ll be a neat little detail, the violin.’ It’s about making those sounds more integral to the songs.”
But can he reproduce it live, as easily as he can with Superchunk? “I think Superchunk, while it’s always been good at what it is, isn’t terribly flexible,” McCaughan says. “With Portastatic, I can do a tour with just myself and a violin player, which is what these dates with M. Ward are going to be. And then go out a month later and do full five-piece-rock band shows as well. I think that the main difference is that not as many people know who Portastatic is yet. I never know if anyone’s going to show up.”