This time, Nando Cruz asks his long question to Howe Gelb: on music and its surroundings; composing and the stage; the individual and the desert.
A long question
A long question is a section of single-topic talks with musicians in which instead of making the interviewee dizzy with several questions about a thousand and one things there’s only one topic of conversation. Each month we will publish an interview with a musician especially chosen to discuss that specific issue.
By Nando Cruz
Eating well will
keep your band together
Illustration by Oriol Malet
It’s not so strange now for a US indie-rock icon to book a table at prestigious Basque restaurant Arzak, but the musical and food evolution of Mac McCaughan (singer with Superchunk and Portastatic and founder of the Merge Records label) is one of the most striking in the field. He started eating crap in the first Superchunk tours and has ended planning gastronomic tours in which he occasionally offered a solo gig.
Mac was the ideal person for a single-theme interview on the disturbing world of eating in the rock world. The question, in this case, would be: how’s the food like while you’re on tour?
Let’s start from the beginning. Do you remember your very first concert? Did you have any sort of catering?
When I was in school I played trumpet in a marching band. But I think the first time I played in a rock band, with a guitar, was in a band I was in in high school. We did some songs of our own, but mainly we did covers: Echo & the Bunnymen, The Police, XTC… We played in parties. We weren’t old enough to play in clubs.
Was it with Superchunk?
No. That was in 1983 or something like that. And Superchunk started in 1989.
Did you ever have this dream of “I’m in a rock band! Free drinks!”?
I don’t remember which was the very first concert, but I wasn’t even old enough to drink. So I never thought “I’m gonna make music to get free drinks and girls”.
But did you go through this phase where you played a concert, didn’t get paid any money but at least had free drinks backstage, and you started thinking: “OK, we have drinks, but where is the food”?
Yes. When Superchunk started touring it was more like “I hope we get some beer. And maybe some chips”. When you’re not making any money and you’re playing really small shows in crappy places, eating is kind of a luxury. That kind of touring is really an unhealthy lifestyle. And I don’t eat meat, so it’s really hard eating cheese sandwiches all day. Cheese, bread, cheese, bread…
When Superchunk started being a little bit more popular we used to get something called ‘the meal buy-out’.
What is this?
You get your beer and some cheese and crackers from the club, but you also get ten dollars to go somewhere to eat. And the more money Superchunk got, the more money we spent on food. I learnt this from Fugazi. The second or third time Fugazi played in Chapel Hill they wanted to eat some good food and I remember saying: “This place is good, but it’s a little bit expensive”. And they said: “We don’t care. We won’t spend money in anything else, but we’ll spend it on food”. We usually stayed with friends and slept on people’s floors, but if you eat well when you’re on tour, you’ll feel better all around. You can have a terrible show, you can sleep on the floor, you can have a ten-hour drive, but if you don’t have a good meal, everything feels worse. So Superchunk started following that logic and we tried to find good restaurants to feel better. It is good also for your brain. If you get out of that stinky club and go to a nice restaurant, you are in a different environment. You’re not in the van, you’re not backstage, you’re not in a smoky bar. This helps your brain recover. It makes you feel more human!
This meal buy-out is the typical thing in the States? You don’t have a real backstage dinner, not just chips, when you play in clubs?
Not really. Some clubs, when they have a restaurant or a kitchen, they’d rather feed you than give you money. But, even then, if you are a big enough band, you can say “we don’t wanna eat your food because we know what it’s gonna be like” (Laughs). And we try to get out of the club and eat somewhere else.
So restaurants in rock clubs are not a good option either.
Not really. In Europe we’ve had good food at clubs. I’m thinking about some places in Spain, but also in Holland. When they are supported by an art center or something like that, they’ll have a café with actually real food. But usually, in the States, if a club has a restaurant it’s like a bar that serves French fries.
Do you remember the first time you enjoyed a very good meal on tour?
Yes, in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a college town in the middle of the country. There’s a club we always play at and there’s a restaurant next door, a fancy Italian one. We weren’t eating any good food, especially in the middle of America. If you’re not in a big city, you can only eat burritos, groceries, sandwiches, French fries… This place was expensive, and at that time we didn’t go to expensive places, but we said: “It’s right next door, tonight it’s gonna be a pretty big show…”. So we went there. Food was good, there were other adults around us, we could have a glass of wine instead of a Budweiser… It was kind of a luxury, but we all said: “This is nice! We should do this more often!”
We also had a really good experience on the last tour of the west coast. This was with Portastatic, so it was again not playing very big shows. But with Jim, who plays in Superchunk and also in Portastatic, we know the importance of good meals. We were in San Francisco. My wife is a chef, she has known other chefs from around the country and she met this guy named Paul Canales, who is a chef in a restaurant in Oackland, California, called Oliveto. He was a fan of Portastatic and he told her: “If they ever come to play to San Francisco, tell them to come to the restaurant”. We called him and he said: “You have to come!” It took a lot of time to get there and we even thought it had been a bad idea because psychologically, when you have to play a show, you don’t wanna go too far. You want to be around to be in the mood. Within walking distance. Anyway, this place was far. We took the tube down to Oackland and when we got there, there was this table waiting for us. They just kept bringing us food… the best… After the meal the chef said: “I’ll take you back to the club”. That was another time when the food was amazing and we could get out of the tour for two hours.
When you started doing the first small shows with Superchunk, did you consider saving the money for food to spend it in something else?
We’ve done tours with people that are not from the band, people who sell T-shirts, for example. And they sometimes do that: they don’t eat and keep the money. But we didn’t. We always said: “we need to eat something, we have to do a show and we can’t do it with an empty stomach”. How much money can you really save by eating fast food? You already eat a lot of fast food on tour because you have these long drives where you have nothing else but terrible food, so when you arrive where you’re going you need to eat something good.
Do you think indie-rock touring equals bad eating?
Usually, yes. I think the only way to avoid it is to spend money when you go to a place where there is good food. It’s a little bit easier now than it used to be in the States. Now more towns and cities have stores from this chain called Whole Food. It’s a health food and gourmet store. You can get organic food and other healthy stuff there. So now, basically there are more places where you can stop and take some food in the van instead of just getting chips. But, in general, it’s not a healthy lifestyle. Mainly you’re on the highway eating not very good food.
Is there any trick to be in a van for ten hours without eating shit?
That’s a good question! I try to eat something that’s not so terrible, like some peanuts, so I don’t get so hungry and I can wait ‘til we stop and buy a sandwich. We try to bring this sort of snacks to the van. Something that is not potato chips.
Are Superchunk super fans of any specific snack?
No. Having water in the van is the key. Drinking a lot of water is a good way to stay healthy. There’s a certain kind of cookies that I like that you just can get in some health food stores, so I buy a big pack of that.
Which is the normal meal schedule during a tour?
Usually some breakfast or just coffee and some pastry; then, no lunch, and then, dinner.
And dinner is at six or seven, because you have to play at nine, isn’t it?
Yes. And this is another important thing: it’s vital to have a lot of time between the meal and the show. Sometimes sound check takes a lot of time, you can’t eat or you eat really late and then it’s always a bad show. The ideal thing is to eat early and have three hours before the show. One hour is pushing it.
Have you ever had dinner after the show?
No, because then it’s too late. But I gotta say that touring in Europe, especially in Germany, you have the temptation of going to a schnellimbiss.
What?Schnellimbiss. It means fast plate. They have falafel places and other places open ‘til really late and after the show you can’t resist going there. You’ve been drinking, you smell the French fries and you think: “I need to have some of those”. It’s not really the best choice, but you end up doing it.
Is any Superchunk member an expert in finding good restaurants?
I try to do that, but Jim Wilbur has a better memory. I can remember the names of the places, but someone has to remember how to get to those places. I think everyone in Superchunk loves going to these places, but I’m a little bit more obsessed about that. And I think I get that from my wife. No matter where we are, she always makes sure that we eat good food. I tend to give up if we can’t find a place immediately, but she’s a little more persistent. Cause one of the hard things to do when you’re on tour and you’ve never been in that city before, is asking in the club about somewhere to eat. You always get bad information.
They say: “Oh, this place down the street is great! You can get a lot of food and it’s really cheap”. And you think: “This is not the place I want to go”. I understand that and sometimes you need to go there, but if I’m just going to have one meal a day, it’s not gonna be in this place. So, trying to find a good place needs some research. The Internet makes it a lot easier now.
Is food a conversational theme between bands? You know, sharing advice and names of good and bad places…
Oh, yeah! And one of the best sources of information about this stuff is Yo La Tengo. They’ll drive hours further out of the way to go to a restaurant they’ve read about or heard about. They’re good people to ask.
I remember in the beginning of the nineties, Yo La Tengo came to play at Pradejón, a very small town near Zaragoza. They played really late and the person who drove them to Bilbao early in the morning to take the plane back to the US told me that they had lots of small boxes with the food they couldn’t finish at dinner. They wanted to take it back home!
This sounds really like Yo La Tengo!
So Yo La Tengo are the best advisers?
Oh, yeah! The three of them: James, Georgia and Ira. In fact, the last time I came to play in Spain, they went to eat at El Bulli just the night before me and my wife arrived to Barcelona. We also tried to go but we couldn’t get in and they told us it was amazing. We also had a very good meal that night, but I can’t remember the name of the restaurant. There were pictures of the King of Spain eating there. It was an old-fashioned Spanish restaurant. It was not a nouvelle cuisine place. Anyway, they are really good to talk about this kind of stuff.
Even though in the States you don’t usually have this catering service backstage, have you sometimes thought things like “I know exactly the kind of cheap person you must be” when they offered you some food?
There’s a Superchunk DVD with a documentary and one of the things that we filmed is the food. In Scotland we filmed potatoes with tuna fish on the side, a terrible food that we said we had to film. That was a good example. And also incredible sushi we got in Japan. In fact, we dealt a special term for the food that you get. Sometimes, early on in our career we played shows that were put on by some kid in a town or a college show where they fed you some college food. And a lot of times it was pasta, so we have the term ‘promoter pasta’. Promoter pasta refers to all the terrible food that we are given. It doesn’t even have to be pasta. I think we learned that term from the band Seaweed.
Did you experience any change when you started touring Europe?
In some ways, for a vegetarian is much harder to eat in some parts of Europe. In Germany they eat so much meat that it’s difficult. But I eat fish now and is a lot easier. And Spain is always a good place to eat vegetarian or not. The first tour we did in Europe was opening for Mudhoney. It was 92 or maybe 91. They were popular, so there was always a lot of food backstage. That was different than touring in the States. There is never that much food backstage in the States. If there’s food it’s chips and something else, but that first time we came to Europe it was… whoa! Chips, chocolates, rolls… Everything was at a much bigger scale. We thought: “We don’t even have to go out! We can eat this!”
Did you ever take part of that food to the van? I mean, sometimes you could have thought “let’s take this bread with us because who knows what tomorrow’s meal is going to be like” in, I don’t know, Belgium.
We were never travelling very well and food is difficult to take with you. You could take beer, for example. Mudhoney would say: “We’re not gonna drink all this. You can take it”. I know it sounds strange that Mudhoney couldn’t drink it all, but sometimes it happened and we had some extra.
When you played in Barcelona for the first time, 1993, Sebadoh came as well. I remember an interview in which they said their tour manager had told them to be really careful not to eat something called jamón because it was a pork leg that Spanish people hung from the ceiling for months and months until it dried and then they ate it!!
(Laughs) Well… Nobody ever warned us about something like that.
Maybe this tour manager was a bit of a joker and was trying to laugh at them.
Do you remember any bad food experiences that affected your concerts?
Jim Wilbur would be the one to ask about that. He’s the one that has troubles with the digestive system. But, like I said, to me eating as close to the show is always dangerous. When I was playing drums for Seam, we played at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and Sooyoung ate some pasta with cream sauce, fettuccini alfredo, before the show. That destroyed him, he just got really ill. He played the show, but barely. I never thought about it before but ever since then I’ve never ordered fettuccini with cream sauce! Maybe I wouldn’t anyway, but that experience is always in my mind whenever I see that on the menu.
Is water a problem when you’re touring? Years ago we were surprised that certain American bands asked for specific brands of bottled water when, at least then, everybody in Barcelona used to drink tap water.
Spain is good for drinking tap water, but I like bottled water too. And on tour you need to have bottled water because you need to carry it in the van. I remember on our first European tour buying water in gas stations in France and it always came with bubbles. This is something we learnt about water back then. We were always: “I wish I had a bottle of normal water! This bubbles are driving me crazy!” But now I prefer water with bubbles. “Con gas”. At home I drink bottles and bottles of bubbles water. Maybe I got used to it on that first European tour.
Any other addiction you developed after that first European tour?
Those Ritter Sport chocolate bars!
Any favourite country or city for eating?
Certainly, for food Spain is hard to beat, though I’ve eaten very well in France. And countries that are not famous for their food, like England, are trying to turn around their reputation. But I still prefer Spain. Or Japan!
Have you played a lot in Japan?
We’ve made two tours with Superchunk and the food there is amazing. We had great meals in Brazil too. There is great food all over Brazil but I think the most memorable was when we were going to this soccer game in Rio and before the game we went to this restaurant that looked like a house but it was a restaurant. The people going with us just ordered a dish that was a pumpkin. The pumpkin had been cut off the top and cooked some stuff inside the pumpkin; shrimps and I don’t remember what else. And then you took it from inside of the pumpkin and served it in your plate. It was crazy. I’d never seen something like that and it was delicious. And then we went to see the soccer game.
That was in your day off, wasn’t it? Day off is the best option for the spectacular meal.
Yes, because you don’t have to worry about finishing early or think what you’re eating because you can get full.
So, what kind of restaurant does your wife work at?
It’s called The Lantern. She’s not Asian, but they serve traditional Asian food. And my wife is the reason why the last time I came to play a show in Spain, the main reason for that trip was to eat in so many different places. She’d never been to Spain. And I’ve been to Spain but I have never eaten in many of those places. We had all this list of places to go. And all we basically did was eating!
So you discovered the other Spain.
Yes, you’re right. I had the chance to experience a Spain I’d never seen.
Which places did you go to?
We started in San Sebastian. We had made reservations at all those places. We ate at a place called Arzak, and at a place called Akelarre, which is my favourite. This is on a cliff looking at the ocean. We went there for lunch, a daytime meal, so we could see from those amazing windows and eat some of the best food I’ve ever had. Those are kind of the fanciest restaurants we went to. But every night we went to all these tapas places in the old part of the city. We went to a few there, each one was just amazing. Everything was… insane. Unbelievable.
Do you like tapas? I mean, this way of eating bits of this and that.
I do, but sometimes it’s more exhausting. It’s not really relaxing. Places always crowded, you’re trying to get the guy’s attention and end up not ordering what you had planned because the guy is “what do you want? What do you want?” and you just say “one of this, one of that”…
Tapas places are like a mixture between a good meal and a rock’n’roll environment because you eat among a crowd.
Where else did you go?
In Barcelona we went to Cal Pep, which was memorable. I think we went there a couple of times. It’s in the Born area, the neighbourhood we were in. We also went to another restaurant that just serves dessert but as a whole meal. It’s called Sucre or something similar (Espai Sucre). It’s got like an ant as a logo.
We’re almost done, but suddenly I’ve remembered that years ago I had a Superchunk T-shirt. It was white and it had drawn on it something like a rotten fruit. Maybe a peach… Did that design have anything to do with all we’ve been talking about? Any cheap catering you suffered in the nineties?
No, no. That was the cover of one of the first seven inches we did. (The Freed Seed EP, released in 1991). So that was before we had anything to eat.
Ok. So, what is your advice for touring bands?
Eating well will keep you together for longer.