Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan can vividly recall what he felt the moment he learned that Donald Trump had been elected president: "horror, depression, sadness." Rather than bottle up those feelings, which escalated in the weeks to come as he saw the alt-right gain newfound confidence, he began work on what would become the indie-rock group's 11th studio album, What a Time to Be Alive, written entirely between November 2016 and February 2017. The title is sardonic.
"It seemed it would be weird to write about anything else," he says in his inimitably high voice on a phone call from his home in North Carolina. "It's been dominating my psyche and it's hard to get away from everything. Some of the record is about how do you get away from it all? How do you live in that environment where it's everywhere and still lead a life? I don't know if there is an answer to that."
The band recorded the LP in two sessions, one in February and another in July. He can't remember which song he wrote first, but the swinging rocker "I Got Cut" – which contains the line "All these old men won't die too soon" – and "Break the Glass," a throbbing number about parsing the way the world was changing, both came early in the process. Rather than howl into the void, McCaughan and his bandmates released the songs ahead of the album as benefit singles, with proceeds from "Break the Glass" going to the Southern Poverty Law Center and "I Got Cut" going to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. The recording sessions went quickly, and McCaughan & Co. were so revved up they wrote the 74-second punk number "Cloud of Hate" in about 15 minutes to round out their time in the studio; it contains these pointed lyrics aimed at the president and the alt-right: "You scare the kids/I hope you die scared of all the kids that know the truth."
"My kids are old enough to wake up in the morning and be like, 'Who won?' and then start crying when they got the answer," McCaughan says. "So the record is not even just about what's in our heads; it's seeing the effect on other people around you. It's rough."
But that said, he hopes that people find a few optimistic moments in the album. "I don't want this to be portrayed as a 'political album' or an 'angry album,'" he tells Rolling Stone. "I hope it's still fun to listen to. For us, the songs are still the most important thing and all that is still there."
The title song is incredibly sarcastic, but the tune itself is upbeat. How did you manage that?
I don't think the sarcasm is necessarily super productive in the end, at least on its own. So with that, I was conscious of having a balance between what might just erupt out of you, which is sarcasm or anger, and balance it with sincerity and actual thoughtfulness. I don't know if "hope" is too strong of a word [laughs]. It's kind of a loaded word after the eight years before this, but I was just trying to strike a balance there.
What was going on at the time the song came to you?
That was a reaction to all these articles newspapers were publishing about the alt-right, people who were basically Nazis, but describing them as "disruptors" or "a new, clean-cut version of what we used to call Nazis." Like, "Look at how stylish they are." It was this willingness to feed both sides of issues where there are not both sides. There's one side, and it's that these people are horrible, racist and Nazis, and they shouldn't be given the respect you're giving them.
Is it weird for you to be living in North Carolina, where enough people voted for Trump for the state to go red, feeling the way you do?
Well, North Carolina went for Obama in '08 and then Romney in 2012 and then Trump obviously. It's been terrible in North Carolina for a while because Republicans have gerrymandered the state beyond recognition and taken over the state government for a while. It is frustrating in some ways. They don't even try to hide keeping black people from voting.
The one good piece of news was that a Democratic governor was elected at the same time as Trump. But I've lived here since I was 13 years old. The part of the state where we live is more progressive and headed in the right direction versus the rest of the South. There are great people here and I still think there's still a chance for North Carolina and everywhere to move in the right direction.
You have a line in "Bad Choices" about meeting your neighbors to better understand them.
That line was about the narrative of progressives or "coastal elites" living in a bubble. I feel like the story of people living in a bubble is really the reverse of how it's been reported. The people who voted for Trump and people who feel like they're somehow reclaiming their place in society after being left behind by Obama, these are the people that have created a bubble for themselves and these are the people that need to get out of it and see what the real world is like. A good example is how Trump would go to these towns and campaign about inner-city crime in white townships – not in the inner cities. The cities that have the most immigrants and most diverse populations aren't scared of immigrants and diverse populations.
Knowing that Hillary won more votes and that everybody else in the country has to suffer for these bad choices that people living in small, white, cloistered rural areas made when they voted for this racist is incredibly frustrating. Everyone pays for their mistakes.
The chorus to "All For You" is you throwing down the gauntlet to close-minded people: "I don't like to get hit but fight me." What's the worst fight you've ever been in?
I don't think I've ever been in a fight in my life unless it was with my sister or my cousin or something [laughs]. I had a few different choruses for that song and I settled on that one partially because it's goofy because of that fact. But in the days following the election, and still occasionally, I leave the house feeling like, "If I see someone wearing a 'Make America Great Again' hat, I will get in a fight." [Laughs] Feeling that kind of anger is a terrible way to go through life. It's horrible and not healthy and stressful. So a lot of the record is, "How do I navigate that feeling? How do you talk yourself down from that anger?" [Laughs]
Speaking of anger, the first verse of "I Got Cut" goes, "All these old men won't die too soon," and that line is written in all capital letters in the lyrics.
Yeah, there's a photograph of Trump and a bunch of old white guys standing around his desk, smiling about the fact that they had just taken reproductive rights away from people around the world. It's just these old guys smiling because they made it harder for women and families to take care of themselves. It's one of the most disgusting pictures that I can imagine. I don't enjoy the feeling of thinking, "I want all these people to die," but I can't wait until they actually do [laughs]. Like Jeff Sessions? I can't wait till he's off the planet after the damage he's doing. I don't go around 24 hours a day feeling like that, but I think sometimes it's good to write it down.
There's a song on the album called "Reagan Youth," which is obviously a nod to the punk band's name, but do you feel like the Trump administration has been worse than Reagan?
I think it is worse, just because I think what's worse about it is the willingness of everyone on one side of the aisle to go along with every batshit thing that the president does in order to pass the legislation they want passed, whether it's with regard to Roe vs. Wade or giving their millionaire friends a tax break. There are so many things where they're just like, "Fine. We'll go along with this maniac to get what we want done." Reagan did a lot of damage, but I don't think he had quite the willing conspirers. The idea that my kids are growing up under this administration is insane, but I do think it's worse.
The record features a lot of guests. How did you get everyone to contribute?
I don't love the way my voice sounds when I'm singing [laughs] so the opportunity to have someone else's voice in the mix is going to improve our song. I sang a brief backing vocal part on the last Hiss Golden Messenger record, and Skylar Gudasz was in the same session, so I thought of her for "Black Thread." And part of the inspiration for "Break the Glass" was A Giant Dog, so to have [A Giant Dog's] Sabrina Ellis on there gave the song what it needed; she has a real urgency to her singing. For "Erasure," I wanted someone singing below me and someone above, and Stephen Merritt has the best baritone I know of and Katie [Crutchfield] from Waxahatchee was coming through on tour so she snag her part in person. It was incredible. As someone who's not a "nail it on the first take" vocalist, working with someone like Katie and Skylar made it seem effortless [laughs].
Was the point to have a lot of different voices represented?
I really liked the idea of this record having a community feel to it, because when times are dire and you feel like the country's been taken over by insane authoritarian racists, you just go, "What good is what I'm doing? What can being in a band or playing a song matter?" It feels slightly inconsequential. What does feel consequential, for instance, is the Women's March on Washington. Our whole family did that and being in a group of people and working as a group of people feels consequential. So to have our band and many other artists as we can get involved – having that feeling of a community – is something where you can take a step back from thinking "What good is it being in a band?" There's a real strength in community and that can give you optimism.
You stopped writing the album last February. When and how did you know that it was done?
There was some urgency to it in that two years from now, this record might not feel the same. We wrote the songs fast and there was a window in everyone's schedule to record them quickly, so we figured, "Let's not labor over it. Let's just release it." We've never spent a ton of time in the studio, but there are records of ours with more flourishes or more atmosphere, and this record felt like one that didn't need that. This is the first record we've done without keyboards probably since [1993's] On the Mouth. It's a punk record, really. So when I felt there were enough songs for it to be an album, we recorded them. Like, why drag it out? We could have kept writing but no one wants to hear a double album of songs like this, right?
Did writing this album help you find a new perspective on how you feel?
I don't know if I have a different perspective, but it gave me somewhere to put my energy. I think that's important for everyone who cares and who's bummed out a lot of days or feeling like shit is going down the drain. Whatever people can find to put their energy, to feel like not crawling back under the covers every day, is a good thing.