(extended version of an article published in Star News, additional Q&A below)
By Brian Tucker
Non-Believers is Mac McCaughan’s first solo album, at least the first to carry his name. The Superchunk and Merge Records co-founder has made albums under the Portastatic moniker, but this material’s seemingly introspective vibe might explain why it carries his name. Maybe not. McCaughan doesn’t think of it that way.
“It’s funny because people describe it as introspective though I don’t really think of it that way myself. I feel like it’s more the point of view of looking outwards of someone who is maybe fifteen-years old, or a person in a transitional time period.” McCaughan says. “(It’s) looking out of the world from that standpoint, rather than me looking inwards at myself. But I am happy with the way the sound came together and the kind of sonic world the album ended up being in.”
McCaughan recently returned from playing shows in Brazil (“It’s kind of crazy, they know all the words and sing very loud”) and Superchunk was preparing to open for The Replacements in Philadelphia (Superchunk’s debut came out as the ‘Mats were ending). Recorded in the basement of his home, the album is a convergence of keyboards and drum machines against McCaughan’s youthful, aching voice. Performing Non-Believers live will be interesting given its synth landscape.
For shows McCaughan will play a split set, the first half solo electric and the other with a full band called the Non-Believers which are actually members of Carrboro trio Flesh Wounds.
“It’s pretty different live because the Non-Believers, my band is more of a punk rock band. Not that we’re playing everything really super fast, but its more like guitar, bass and drums. It’s definitely fun rehearsing and rearranging these songs for that format.”
Non-Believers has an early 80s sound (OMD, Cocteau Twins). The material is built around keyboards, like the somber but shiny sounding “Mystery Flu.” Keyboards lend it large personality and makes for a song fit for a teenage-centric 80s movie soundtrack.
The album’s germination was material McCaughan had written for movie soundtracks (“Only Do” is the only song to end up on the record). But album opener “Your Hologram” helped shape the direction for Non-Believers. Its ambient synthesizer and crisp guitar interplay creates a rich sonic environment for a song about making music as a teenager and the importance of music at that age.
“I think its one thing the album is about, that feeling or the idea of why does a sound of a machine make you feel a certain way? Its one thing to say that about a person’s voice or, this song is really sad so it makes you feel blue. But why does the strike of a keyboard make you feel a certain way? But it definitely does, and I think that’s one of the things I think the record is definitely about.”
The release of the album could be seen as timely, even if only subconscious. McCaughan’s children are approaching their teenage years and that fact underscores the subject matter on Non-Believers. “Only Do” was written for his daughter and meant for the The Fault in Our Stars soundtrack and “Real Darkness” is connected to it, written about the darkness in teenagers and adults not taking it seriously.
The music is about transitioning from one period of life to another, like the dichotomy of freedom of getting a car and not knowing exactly what to do with it. In a few years McCaughan will see his children experience those transitions.
“It definitely makes it possible to go back and forth in some ways, thinking about people I knew when I was a teenager and thinking about my own kids being teenagers. It’s a crazy loop you can get into which is really interesting.”
You just played some shows in Brazil?
McCaughan: Played a couple of shows down there, in Sau Paulo. Superchunk has been there a few times. It was awesome. It was a good warm up. I did a few solo shows at SXSW. We did one at festival at Winston Salem a few weeks ago.
Most of these shows, including the Wilmington show, are going to be playing with a full band for much of the set we call the Non-Believers. (The band) are actually members of the Flesh Wounds, just to differentiate from the shows which is me playing totally solo. Some of the set will be playing solo electric and the band will join me on about half the set.
When was the last time you performed in Wilmington?
McCaughan: My family usually ends up there every summer for some amount of time. The last time we played a show there was probably a Portastatic show years ago.
Synth music is its own world.
McCaughan: I think you’re right about synthesizers and especially synthesizers that don’t sound super homogeneous as every other synthesizer. And I think its one thing the album is about even, is that feeling or the idea of why des a sound of a machine make you feel a certain way? Its one thing to say that about a person’s voice is or this song is really sad, so it makes you feel blue or whatever. But why does the strike of a keyboard make you feel a certain way but it definitely does and I think that’s one of the things I think the record is definitely about.
Keyboard versus guitar, does it exercise your brain differently or is about emotion ultimately?
McCaughan: I don’t know if it’s about emotion and feeling. I think it’s often about sounds and imagining a certain sound and trying to make that happen. And sometimes you get there and sometimes you don’t. But even what you end up with along the way, even if it’s not what you though it would be, can end up being really cool.
Did you go into this with lyrics? Did music help trigger them?
McCaughan: I didn’t. Most songs I don’t have lyrics written ahead of time, maybe a couple of songs had one line or something like that. For the most part the music comes first then the words.
Were some of the songs left from movie soundtrack submissions?
McCaughan: A couple of them. Though only one of them stayed on the record. I had a few and when I started working on the album I ended up getting rid most of those. Once I figured out what the real direction of the album was going to be it made me realize that most of those songs didn’t fit anymore. The song “Only Do” is one of those from the original batch of songs that I wrote for different projects. Once I wrote “Your Hologram” that gave me the direction for the rest of the album. A lot of the others didn’t make it on the album.
Was there a specific catalyst for this album?
McCaughan: I’m always working on music in some form. Since it seemed Superchunk wasn’t going to make another record real soon because of everyone’s schedule I realized I should work on some other stuff. I had these songs from other projects and I thought I’d gather these together and make a record.
Then I had a much more formed direction sonically from “Your Hologram.” I thought, oh this is what this record is going to be like. Not that everything sounds the same – “Box Batteries” is pretty different sounding. “Mystery Flu,” for instance, but I feel like they live in the same world. What we often try to do with albums, whether Superchunk or my own records, is not have everything sound the same certainly, but have everything feel like its part of the same world.
Did you write with a side one personality and one for side two?
McCaughan: I don’t really write thinking about that but when it comes time to sequence I definitely think of sides. The sequencing is important to me. I don’t like to have a record feel like, when you get to the second side, its feels like ‘they put all the good songs on the first side.’
I feel like pacing is really important. If have actually written songs with the idea that, I’ve gotten to a certain point in making a record and that started thinking about sequencing and thought, I’m going to need another song for side one to change the pace up between the second an fourth song. I have written songs with that in mind to make a record make more sense. Sometimes its works and sometimes it doesn’t. I really do enjoy that part of making a record, the sequencing and making everything fit together.
Has it ever been difficult to do?
McCaughan: I don’t think it’s hard, I think it’s really fun, but though there can be some challenges. I wanted this record to be ten songs because I think that’s a nice round number and not too long. With a band like Superchunk, when everyone’s voting, sometimes everyone has a different idea of what songs make the record. Maybe everything ends up making the record. Being able to be in control of that total process is kind of a challenge, no one to say you’re making a dumb decision. But I think it’s enjoyable.
It seems harder to take on an album alone. Is it freeing?
McCaughan: Its both, you can do anything you want. But it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s why people can start work on an album and never finish them. I think that having a set of rules helps….having a certain sonic world that everything should live in, in my mind. I think having a set of rules is productive, even if they’re not hard and fast rules, just parameters you give yourself so things don’t go off the rails. I felt like it’s helpful along the way when you’re making decisions. Parameters, like types of songs, what types of sounds, what the vibe of the album (is going to be).
Are you surprised by the music your kids enjoy?
McCaughan: Yes and no, they’re pretty curious, open minded kids. I think a lot of kids, if you play them good music they will like it. But also like any kid they are influenced by what they hear on the radio and what their friends like. I don’t think a lot has changed in that sense, what kids want to listen to but how they listen, pulling up a YouTube video.
I think they have an understanding and they see us practice and play shows. It’s not a big deal to them. They don’t especially like going to shows and they really hate sound check, for instance, like anyone would that doesn’t have to be there. They take it all in stride but I think they do love music and that’s really important.
Superchunk has been around almost thirty years – is that ever odd to you?
McCaughan: It doesn’t seem unreal I guess because when something happens over a long period of time you’re just used to the idea. When we started the band, if you had asked me to imagine what 2015 looked like, I wouldn’t have known what to say. We just do what we do and try to keep it interesting and make interesting music along the way.
The music always feels youthful. Are you still that young kid in his bedroom enjoying it?
McCaughan: I don’t always feel youthful, when I wake up in the morning sore from playing a show or something, I don’t feel especially youthful. But when I’m making music I’m obviously different person and musicians than I was twenty six years ago. But I don’t think of in terms of now I’m mature now or now I’m this. I think music is certainly something if you’re into it can kind of erase that age difference for a period of time.
More with Mac McCaughan:
Marc Maron interviews Mac McCaughan