By Philip Runco
Across the album art and 7″ sleeve and music video tied to Mac McCaughan’s Non-Believers, circles keep appearing. They come as a dripping white spot, a boombox speaker, a spiraling line, but each finishes where it starts, however you choose to mark that. Intentional or not, this is the story of Non-Believers too: It’s the record where the Superchunk frontman comes full circle.
For the past 26 years, McCaughan has been defined largely by his iconic rock band and the vehicle that he and bassist Laura Balance established in part to release their music, Merge Records. When he made solo recordings, they came under the banner of Portastatic, a moniker he adopted because “band names are just cooler than your own.” Non-Believers marks the first time that McCaughan has released an album under his name, and even though he may shrug off the significance of that, it’s telling that the record is a tribute to the music of the 1980s and his adolescence – a time when Mac McCaughan was just Mac McCaughan, and not Merge Mac or Mac from Superchunk.
The record isn’t a strict autobiographical tome, though. As McCaughan explained to Indy Week recently, Non-Believers combines details from his own teenage years with the universal: driving around with nowhere to go, holing up in your room, making friends with the kids who like the same music. “It’s a frustrating and exciting time,” he said. “You have a new freedom, but it’s not that much freedom.”
I reached McCaughan a few weeks ago at Merge headquarters in Durham. In a few days, he would be headed to Brazil to play a couple of gigs, something that he was looking forward to (“Superchunk has been there a few times and we always have good shows”), even if the trip was coming at a hectic time. “Things are a little crazy,” he admitted. “When you’re launching a record, there’s always stuff that you could be doing.”
Tomorrow, McCaughan embarks on a brief East Coast tour in support of the recently released Non-Believers. The concerts will mix solo Superchunk songs with full band renditions of the new record, older Portaststic material, and “whatever we want to play.” In a delightful twist, assisting him will be Carrboro live wires Flesh Wounds, whose righteous “Bitter Boy” 7-inch was released by Merge last summer.
“We’re calling them the Non-Believers,” McCaughan says of his new backing outfit. “I love them as a band, and they’re great people to be around, so I’m really looking forward to these shows.”
With all of the relationships you’ve established through the years, you could call in a lot of favors when it comes time to make a solo record – especially the first released under your own name. You could make a grand Mac & Friends LP, And yet save for a few limited appearances, you’ve made something understated, mostly by yourself. Why?
I really like collaborating with people, and I think that it would be fun to make a record like that at some point – something with a bunch of different people playing on it. In the past, some Portastatic records have had kind of a larger group of people coming in and contributing different things.
But I started making this record by myself, in my home studio, and I kept going down that road. If there’s someone else playing on my record, I want there to be a reason for it, as opposed to just for the sake of doing it. In other words, if I get Sara Belle – who was in Angels of Epistemology – to play on a Portastatic record, it’s because she can play mandolin and I can’t, you know what I mean? Everyone brings their own certain thing to it.
I worked on this record by myself until I got to a couple of specific moments where I thought, “It would be great for the voice of Annie Hayden or Jenn Wasner to be on this song.” And Michael Benjamin Lerner from Telekinesis played drums on the song “Our Way Free” – where I had tried playing drums myself, and I had trieed a drum machine, and it just wasn’t working. Then I just thought of Michael, because he’s so good, and it seemed like it would be in wheelhouse, and sure enough, he just kind of saved it.
I do like to work with other people, but I don’t like to call in favors if I don’t have to. [Laughs] I’ll save that for down the road for when I need it.
Making a record by yourself, over a protracted period of time – not just two days in the studio – how do you know when something is done? How do you not keep tinkering or experimenting with alternate versions?
That’s one of the dangers of making a record in your own studio, because you could work on it forever. [Laughs] I’m sure there are people that have.
When I start recording a song, I usually have an idea about what I want the shape of the final thing to be – if not beforehand, then a little bit of the way into the process. I’m working off that mental image, and when I get there, I usually just know it. A lot of times, I’ll record a song pretty quickly and then listen to it in the car, and I’ll just have a feeling that it’s not quite done, but I won’t know what needs to be done. But, usually, if I listen to it enough in that state of being almost finished, something will eventually come to me, or I’ll just try a few different things and stumble upon the thing that finishes it.
Until I get to that point, it’s slightly frustrating, because I’m impatient and I want to hear something in its finished state. At the same time, it’s even worse to put a song on a record and then whenever you hear it, be constantly thinking, “Ugh, it wasn’t quite there yet.” There are still moments like that for me with every record; I’ll hear something and go, “Ah, I wish I would have sang that word again.” [Laughs]
But for the most part, a song just reveals that it’s done when it is.
To what degree did the template of music – the synths, in particular – drive the direction of the songs that you wrote? There’s a wistful air the material, but I think you could say the same about I Hate Music.
In some ways, it’s a little bit of a continuation of I Hate Music – although, it’s actually going back further in time.
The first song on Non-Believers, “Your Hologram”, wasn’t the first song that I worked on, but once I got it going, I felt like, “This is going to be the determining song for the rest of the record. This is going to drive where the rest of the thing goes.” The musical aspects of the record – the keyboards and the ambience of it – in some ways determined what the songs were about. Songwriting sometimes just happens like that: You hear something, and it puts you in a certain state of mind, and then the words come from there.
On this record, the words and the music are pretty closely related. It centers around adolescence and teenhood – that awkward transitional time in everyone’s life. For me, that time period was the early ’80s, and the music that I associate with that time – both the music that I loved and some that I didn’t really love at time, but now when I hear it, I go, “That’s actually kind of good” – was intertwined when I was making this.
Having said that, I liked a pretty wide range of music when I was 15 or 17; that encompasses everything from New Order to Sisters of Mercy to Corrosion of Conformity to Let’s Active. It’s a pretty broad thing. But there were certain tropes of the recording style at the time, and the technology that people were using, and the keyboards and chorus pedals – all of these things were kind of fun to pursue in the interest of making the record.
Was writing from a teenage perspective something that came naturally? How do you tap into that mindset at 47?
In some ways, the distance from being that age helped. But I also think that having kids who are almost that age also helps – or at least it makes you want to examine it more, because when you’re 25, you don’t really feel like revisiting 17. [Laughs] When you’re 35, maybe. The distance and having kids who are approaching that age makes you see adolescence if not in a wholly different way, then at least in a way that makes you want to explore it.
Does making music still excite you like it used to? How has that relationship changed?
I would hope that I’d be more comfortable doing it in terms of playing shows and that kind of thing, but I still get nervous before shows. At the same time, it also feels natural to be on stage, even with a band that I just started playing with. That’s good.
Recording has some similar advantages if you’ve been doing it a while. You can challenge yourself to try new things with the confidence that you kinda know how to make stuff sound good. That’s what’s fun about making a record like Non-Believers: The idea of starting from scratch, and using instruments that I don’t normally use. Anytime that I try to play the keyboards, it’s an adventure.
Again, it’s become about being able to try whatever but knowing that hopefully I can shape it into something that I want hear.
I saw a review of Non-Believers that insinuated that releasing music under Portastatic allowed you to hide behind a name other than your own. Where does that assessment sit with you?
For one thing, band names are just cooler than your own. It’s just a fact. But I felt like Portatstic had kind of run it’s course. I started it for a specific reason, which was to be able do things that Superchunk wasn’t doing, and at that point, I wasn’t comfortable recording under my own name.
At this point, I had already used Portaststaic, and I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t feel like coming up with another band name was the way to go. So, I figured, “Fuck it. I’ll use the name that I already have, and no one will be able to spell it or pronounce it, but maybe they’ll figure out eventually.”
The liner notes thank Phil Morrison for expert consultation. What does one do to earn an expert consultation credit?
Phil’s an old friend who has made many videos for Superchnuk, and he probably knows my music better than anyone – maybe even myself. If I send him a song sequence, he always has a good opinion about it. In fact, he convinced me to put “Box Batteries” on the record, because I was thinking of taking it off. Phil’s often the first person who hears anything that I am – or Superchunk is – working on.
Why was “Box Batteries” almost cut? And how did “Whatever Light” end up as a b-side to that single?
It’s interesting, because “Whatever Light” was originally on the record; it was the last song on there. I really wanted to have a ten-song record, because I like that nice, round number. Eleven songs is kind of an annoying number of songs to have on a record. Also, I felt like “Whatever Light” is a song from a different time period. I wrote it when I wrote these others, but I felt like it was more of a ‘90s song. I like it, but I felt like it worked better as a b-side.
“Box Batteries” almost didn’t make it on there because in some ways I felt like it was maybe too much like a Portastatic song. Sonically, it was a little too different from the other songs on the record. But I messed with it and got it to the point where I felt like it could live besides these other ones, and now I’m really glad it’s on there, because it’s really fun to play.
Press photos courtesy of Lissa Gotwals.