Drops of Improvisation: Mac McCaughan, Mary Lattimore, and New Rain Duets

By Anita Overcash

Indie rocker Mac McCaughan (think: Superchunk, Portastatic) is stoked about his upcoming visit to McColl Center for Art + Innovation. He’ll be performing improvised music with harpist Mary Lattimore here for a New Frequencies at McColl Center program on April 20.

Given that McColl Center residencies provide artists with a space to do creative work, it should be no big surprise that we’d offer some of the same free rein to visiting performers. But what does performing in an independent atmosphere like this mean to a musician? McCaughan admits that it’s usually tough finding a public forum that’s open to improvisation.

“You can experiment to your heart’s content in your garage or basement or whatever—which is also valuable—but I think programs like [New Frequencies at McColl Center] are amazing,” says McCaughan. “As an artist who is normally playing shows with a band (and normally the same band), to get offered to do something different is very validating. It means someone trusts you to do something they’ve never heard before. They trust that it’s going to be good enough to have in their space.”

McCaughan, who also runs Merge Records in Durham, and Lattimore, a Shelby native who currently resides in Los Angeles, are calling the collaborative project New Rain Duets. 

“Our two names together might not make a lot of sense to people because they know us in very different ways,” says McCaughan. He found inspiration for the name after hearing about a project that a filmmaker friend was doing. For the project, he had set up a camera to film rain falling on a bush. “It sounded cool. I still haven’t seen the footage but that image gave me the idea [for the name].”

Mary Lattimore (Photo by Scott Troyan / Courtesy of the artist)

In regards to the collaborative vision between himself and Lattimore, McCaughan explains that it came to him after performing a gig for music that he wrote for a dance piece called POMS. POMS premiered at Moogfest 2016 in Durham and later showcased at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. Lattimore—whom McCaughan first met in the ’90s when she was an intern at Merge—opened the show. 

Afterwards, McCaughan came up with the idea to do a future project that combined elements from the two sets: his keyboards and drum machines, and her harp. New Frequencies at McColl Center will set that concept into motion.

“I also knew that Mary collaborates with a lot of people and so she’s got a sympathetic ear in that way. The harp can take up a lot of space and she understands how to work with other people despite the fact that she has this large weapon at her disposal,” says McCaughan.

“I love her records. You know, I’ve been in bands with the same people for 30 years. There [are] great things about that, but there [are] also great things about playing with people you’ve never played with before—especially with an instrument like the harp, which is beautiful.”

Although most of the set will be improvisational, McCaughan says the pair has done a preliminary rehearsal. They’ll rely on intuition, musical cues, and listening closely to each other throughout the set as they ebb and flow between different pieces that are not exactly songs in the traditional sense. 

McCaughan reflects on Superchunk’s first time setting music to a film. It was at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2002. He believes the experience might be similar to the upcoming New Frequencies at McColl Center performance, despite no film component. 

“That was really fun and really gratifying. Anytime I get to do anything that’s off the beaten path I know you can’t really predict in what ways it’s going to be really interesting and great, but it usually is.”