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Q&A: Mac McCaughan Revisits ’80s Growing Pains on ‘Non-Believers’

The Superchunk frontman and Merge Records co-founder talks going solo for his newest LP

Over the past 25 years, Mac McCaughan has built an impressive resume: singer-guitarist of Superchunk, arguably the hardest-working band in indie-rock history, whose tenth (and most recent) full-length, 2013’s I Hate Music, stands as one of the 300 Best Albums of the Past 30 Years; co-founder of Merge Records, the North Carolina label he started with bandmate Laura Ballance, which has put out more than a few canonical records (see: LPs by Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the Magnetic Fields); and a parallel gig as the main brain behind Portastatic, a side-project that grew from lo-fi home recordings into a proper band.

Earlier this month, the 47-year-old added another entry to his work history — solo artist. On May 4, Merge issued Non-Believers, the first album to bear McCaughan’s own name. “It took a while to get there, I guess,” McCaughan says matter-of-factly over a salad, half-explaining the branding decision.

Befitting its credit, Non-Believers feels especially personal. The ten-track exploration of teenage boredom and yearning is a side-step from Superchunk’s punk-reared riffs, favoring sun-streaked synths and keyboards, ’80s drum machines and small-town introspection. McCaughan sat down with SPIN to discuss his one-man effort, the status of Superchunk, and mixing business with passion.

So, it must feel good to be at the point where you have enough name recognition.
Well, we’ll see. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t, I’m not really sure about that yet. [Laughs.]

Does it feel different to have your name out there in the forefront?
The idea of a band was always much more appealing to me than solo guy, know what I mean? It is a little strange — but at the same time, the idea of starting a new project… even coming up with a band name is hard. The idea of doing that now is almost too exhausting. I have this name already, I’ll just use it.

The record is very reminiscent of the ’80s, with the drum machines and keyboards. Did you intend for that when you started putting these songs together, or did that thread reveal itself during the process?
I started thinking about that — those sounds and that era — making the last couple of Superchunk records, because those records are about what gets you into music in the first place, and then what you retain from that original spark. One of the things I kept coming back to is that a certain, great keyboard sound triggers an emotional response. I like exploring that idea — not recreating things from that era, but just kind of being in that realm, sonically.

One of the things about that time period, for me, was being a teenager. It’s an awkward time period in anyone’s life, and I think that time period, culturally, was awkward. Things were transitioning — there wasn’t really punk rock anymore; there was hardcore and new wave and all of these other off-shoots.

I think that the role of music in [being a teenager] is interesting, especially before you can drive. You have so little control over your life, in some ways. It’s determined by family or school or class, whatever you’re doing. But music is the thing you have control over. Listening to the radio then was like watching TV — you could find your own stuff. Music as the thing that you could form your own world around, even though the rest of your world is determined by someone else. It’s a cool thing.

Do those keyboard sounds pull the same feelings out of you now as when you were a teenager?
Not necessarily. A lot of that stuff, I was very ambivalent about because I was very into rock — classic rock, punk, and guitar-based things — so keyboards and drum machines… I certainly liked some of the bands, but I thought, “Is that really rock’n’roll?” I was still trying to figure out what I like and why I like it. And at the time, I was in bands, I could get my mind around how to play guitar. If you played me a Depeche Mode song, I would say, “I have no idea how to make this.” I had a friend who took a turn on the synthesizer after he’d taken piano lessons for long enough. It was really cool, but I couldn’t get my mind around it, so it’s fun now to make music using some of those tools that I couldn’t fathom.

Tell me if I’m wrong here: The opening song, “Your Hologram,” is sung from the perspective of a teenager working in his basement, dreaming of being a rock star or a musician.
I don’t think it’s so much aspirational as the idea of not really knowing who you are yet, but having music as, like, “Well, at least this is something that I have an affinity for.” So, not so much dreaming of being a rock star, but like, “Oh, things are confusing with my friends, or with school, or girls, or life, or whatever, at least I can do this” — from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know how to do it, even. Maybe getting their first band or having their first four-track [recorder] or something like that. It still connects to present day, obviously, because I’m still recording in my basement.

Do you feel like you can draw a clear line from the transitional moments a teen goes through to ones people experience later in life?
I feel like when you’re 13, 14, 15, 16, that shit is changing every day, even though it feels like a long time. I think those cycles slow down, but I don’t think that they stop. That’s an important thing to remember, because otherwise it’s easy to think, “I’m 30 now, I’m 40 now, this is pretty much what I’m doing.” But I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Nobody just stops.

So are you just always working and writing songs?
It comes in cycles. A lot of times, after finishing mixing a record, it’s a little bit of a brain drain. I can’t imagine starting that cycle over again. Right now, I’m working on a film score, which is cool because in some ways, it’s a different type of writing. You don’t have to worry about writing words, you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to play it live, and it’s clearly for someone else’s thing. You’re writing with rules — someone giving you a framework for what you’re doing is appealing.

What kind of film is it?
It’s a movie that Amber Tamblyn’s directing, her first film as a director, it’s called Paint It Black. It’s based on a novel by Janet Fitch, she wrote White Oleander.

With Superchunk, and with Portastatic, I always liked being productive, both from a standpoint of making music [and] I always liked bands that had a lot of records coming out: bands that will have an album come out, and then put out a single that’s not even on the album, then you’re like, “Oh, I’ve gotta go get that!”

Given how deep you are into the industry, do you have to work at hanging on to your enthusiasm for music?
Sometimes, for sure. That’s what I Hate Music is kind of about. Because there’s so much of it everywhere, it’s exhausting. Certainly for the average person in life, but then if you also work, I mean, you know. If you work with music, it’s literally always there.

I do think that’s the danger of trying to do what you love for a living — you somehow might taint it.
We never set out to do it for a living. We were just doing it, and then it just became our job, for better or for worse. Like you said, when something becomes your job you can be like, “I don’t love it so much anymore.” But at the same time, it’s what we were doing. I think that would be different if, one day, we decided, “We’re going to make a go of this!” and drop everything. Then there’s all this pressure, like “Is it working? We decided to do this,” as opposed to “This is what we’re doing.”

Last question: Is Superchunk working on a follow-up to I Hate Music?
No, we haven’t had a chance to get into that because after we finished touring for that, Jon got busy with Bob Mould, Callie’s doing Mountain Goats, everyone’s kind of off on their own things. I made this record. We do have a show we’re playing with the Replacements in May, which’ll be awesome, but beyond that there’s no plans at the moment.

We’ve also been generating a lot of B-sides and singles over the last few years, so I think we’ll collect those into a release at some point. Right now, I’m just doing these East Coast dates and then figuring out when to get to the West Coast, and try to do as much as I can for Non-Believers.