As well as running the business, Mac has always made music. Superchunk's most recent record, 's I Hate Music , was their tenth full-length, and he has created half a dozen mostly-solo albums under the name Portastatic. Earlier in he did something he hadn't done before: It's a nostalgic snapshot of a world well before Superchunk and as such also serves as a time capsule of the music of McCaughan's adolescence.
There are some touching, melancholic moments 'Real Darkness', 'Mystery Flu' as well as pop-punk touches 'Barely There', 'Come Upstairs' and it's a record that I have returned to again and again since it came out in late Spring. When I call him to talk about Non-Believers he is at the offices of Merge Records, and if you doubt whether he remains hands-on after so many years, he had just finishing writing cheques to the company which supplies the label with parcel tape.
First things first, you are headed to Europe for a short tour- a first visit to Portugal, a few gigs in Spain and a London show. Although the songs on Non-Believers will strike a chord with fans of your other records, the instrumentation might come as a surprise. Will the shows consist of Mac McCaughan and a drum machine and synth rig, or will you be bringing a band? No, I've been touring with the band over here in the States and it proved too costly to bring it over to Europe this time, so I'm going to come over by myself. I'll be playing solo electric guitar - which is another thing that I've been doing over here - and the show usually consists of me playing songs from the new record but also songs from my whole back catalogue, so there will be Superchunk songs and Portastatic songs as well.
It has been fun to figure out different ways of playing those songs when I'm by myself, especially the Superchunk songs. I always like bands like Yo La Tengo, who play different arrangements of their own songs. I've had fun re-arranging some of my own stuff but frankly some of it only makes sense if you just play them as straightforwardly as if you were playing with a band - on a song like 'Skips Steps 1 and 3' there's not a lot of subtlety there so you just gotta do it! Someone that I've been a fan of for some time is Billy Bragg and I saw him play a show at a festival last year in Chicago and it was amazing to see him do his thing totally solo - just him and electric guitar in front of thousands of people - and he's filling up the space with the sound he has, it was just amazing.
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Why have you decided to make a solo album now - why release a record under your own name at this stage? I have a studio in my house in the basement so I'm always there doing something, and often without a real end game. In this case I was writing and recording and making demos fairly aimlessly, but once I wrote the song 'Your Hologram' - which became the first song on the album - it gave me a time and a place to focus on, both musically and in terms of subject matter -and that was adolescence.
Once that direction was in place it was kind of like putting a puzzle together in terms of completing it.
I briefly thought about calling it Portastatic, but I felt like I had retired that name in a way when I put out a double CD compilation of odds and ends Some Small History. My name is hard to spell and hard to pronounce and so I was hesitant to use it pronounced Mac-Caw-han - it's also weird to have your name on a t-shirt if you know what I mean - but at the same time if I'm ever going to use my name this is a good time.
Hopefully people listen to the record and realise that just because it's under my name it doesn't mean that it's a solo folk record or something like that - maybe I'll do that someday - but this is not that record! I wonder if it's under your name because it evokes a time before Superchunk, before Portastatic.
Does it follow that the subject matter is more personal and the songs are based on personal experiences, in contrast to songs you have written as a group? The result strips away the slickness and pretense of new wave in favor of a charming clunkiness, especially on "Real Darkness," a highlight of the album that's rigged out of ringing guitars, a stuttering drum machine and frosted synths. But there's nothing mean-spirited in McCaughan's delivery — just tender, melancholy heartache lightened with a dash of goofiness. The album isn't entirely beholden to the majestic mope of John Hughes soundtracks.
A handful of tracks on Non-Believers fall in McCaughan's wheelhouse, relying more on fuzz-caked guitars and yelping pep.
Mac McCaughan gets personal with 'Non-Believers'
And there's a distinct Superhunk vibe to "Box Batteries," despite the rinky-dink percussion and submerged riffs. On "Come Upstairs," McCaughan's power-ballad sprawl is rendered choppy and dreamy at the same time. The guitars are pronounced, but so is the swirling spaciousness; rather than feeling explicitly beholden to '80s radio or MTV, it could pass for the theme of a public-access astronomy show.
And it does so by finding common ground. Breezy and full of bounce, it draws on the acoustic-guitar-plus-wistful-quirk formula of '80s hits like Modern English's "I Melt With You. But it proves what Superchunk fans have known all along: No matter how he deconstructs or tries to duck behind his songs, his piercing hooks and boyish pluck always poke through. I couldn't really get my mind around that either. But one listen to "Non-Believers" Merge , which arrived in stores last week, and it becomes pretty clear it's a personal effort. Though only a few of the songs are told from the point of view of those musicians, McCaughan envisioned them throughout the process.
I would use it to think, 'Does this fit in the world of this record?
Even though he wasn't ever a goth kid, McCaughan says he feels close enough to them to tell the "Non-Believers" story. And now that McCaughan, 47, has kids of his own, he can see his high school years from a different perspective. His kids actually directly inspired the album's finale, "Come Upstairs. Come outside and join the rest of the world.
McCaughan says he's excited about being in that part of the process now, as he takes these songs on the road and introduces them to the world.