For over twenty five years, Mac McCaughan has been an integral voice in the music world as both a musician, wildly yielding a
For over twenty five years, Mac McCaughan has been an integral voice in the music world as both a musician, wildly yielding a guitar with the energetic band Superchunk, and as a businessman, the driving force behind Merge Records’ influential success as a independent label. While cementing his name in music history, the man who kick-started Chapel Hill’s rich music scene also spent time with other projects, most notably his solo work under the Portastatic name from the mid-90s up until 2008. In 2015 though, the 47 year old is branching out again with his first solo album under his own name.
Non-Believers is a bold move for someone so well known for a specific sound. It’s a perfect deviation from the sound of Superchunk and Portastatic and is his best bet for carrying over fans of the two acts as well as attracting new ears to his work. It’s a unique representation of a seminal life point backdropped by a familiar sound. While that sound has seen a resurgence of late, it is still as novel as it was thirty years ago. Together, it’s an album with mass appeal that gently lures you in before quickly stealing your heart for the full forty minutes.
This Friday, Mac McCaughan will perform at Strange Matter and will give Richmonders a sense of the relevance and quality that his music still carries today. While talking to Mac and picking apart his brilliant musical mind, the prolific musician comes across as someone who constantly analyzes music and for no other reason but for just the love of the art. Despite his band’s album title in 2013, there are probably few people out there who love music more than Mac McCaughan.
How did you come to the decision to release this album under your own name instead of the Portastatic name you used so long for solo output?
[In 2008], I put out the last Portastatic compilation, Some Small History, which compiled a lot of B-Sides and covers and things like that. I guess I thought of that as wrapping up Portastatic in some way. Soon after that, Superchunk was becoming more active and we did Majesty Shredding, then I Hate Music, and then we toured a bunch. After all that, I started working on this record and when I finished it, I realized I did have to decide what to call it. I could have called it Portastatic, but I felt like that’d be going backwards in some ways and I never put out a record under my own name before. I just decided to go for it and deal with the consequence, the main one being that my name is hard to spell and hard to pronounce too as it seems, but I’ll just take that as it comes I guess.
It’s been described as an ode to 80s post-punk and New Wave music. What drove you to tackle that sound?
Nothing drove me initially, it’s just that when I started working on songs and I was using instruments that were different than say what I would use to write a Superchunk record, it kind of just led me down that path. The first song, “Your Hologram” – it starts with a synthesizer line and that’s what that song was built on. Once I had that song, that kind of pointed me in the direction of the rest of the record.
What really makes this music post-punk to you?
Well, that sound and other keyboards I was using on the record reminded me of records that I got when I was a teenager when I first started choosing my music. Obviously, I loved a lot of music when I was younger than that, but I felt like I was mainly getting my musical choices from the radio or my dad’s records and he had some good ones, but not a ton of records. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale before we moved to North Carolina and I was listening to classic rock radio and Top 40 when I was a kid. I loved that, but moving [to Raleigh] and having college radio stations around, I became exposed to a lot more and started going to punk shows and things. All of a sudden, there was a lot more out there to listen to and I was kind of listening to all of it including what was on MTV for instance.
[MTV] was another new outlet for music if you were a kid at that time. They were showing videos, like New Order’s “Blue Monday,” that you think about it now and it’s like a weird idea, but they would show pretty much any video they could get their hands on in the early days. That included a lot of terrible metal and Top 40 or whatever, but also some pretty crazy stuff you otherwise never would have known about. I associate some of those keyboard sounds or guitar sounds with that time period and with this period when a lot of things were changing in music and a lot of things were changing for a person growing up in that time. I kind of tied all of those things together in my mind and that’s what kind of kept me in that sonic world.
You brought up that interesting time period in the 80s for music. Right now, we’re at the tail-end of another big change in the music world. Do you see any parallels between the two time periods?
I guess there are some parallels over the last ten or fifteen years. Most people I think find out about new music online, whether that means still listening to a radio station via the internet or just reading a review on a website or going to someone’s Bandcamp page. I think in that sense, there is that feeling of “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s all of the sudden at my fingertips.” For me, there is a big difference. Maybe it’s just my age, but at that time, there was all this new stuff and in order to get to me as a 13, 15, or 17 year old, it was being filtered through the sensibility of the UNC or the Duke radio stations. It was filtered through whoever was booking shows at the Cat’s Cradle or being filtered through whoever was writing reviews for Maximum Rock’n’Roll, you know what I mean? Those were some of the channels it was getting to you through and another major thing to think about was it kind of depended on who was ordering records at your local record store because it was up to them to decide to order that import copy of that record on Flying Nun or 4AD or Creation. That feeling that someone is kind of helping you is different than the feeling here of “every record that ever existed is on the internet so go find a good one.” That’s what feels different about it to me.
Back to the record, with the post-punk/New Wave sound, do you think that lent itself to writing songs from a more introspective level?
I guess I don’t think of it as being introspective because to me it’s a little bit like through the eyes of someone who’s an adolescent or a teenager looking out at the world and seeing different choices. There’s this way that a lot of people that you see in your high school are going and then there’s this way that the weird people over here are doing which is something different. Which of those are more appealing or which of those are more or less frightening to you as someone who is in a transitional time period in their life? I feel like music plays a role in that. As opposed to introspective, I think it’s more examining from the outside that idea of transitional ages or time periods or awkward phases, whether it’s an awkward phase in a kid’s life or an awkward phase in music or culture and how it’s funny how those things can all end up together.
Some music I didn’t like then I can appreciate now. Depeche Mode is a band that wasn’t one of my favorite bands growing up, though I did love that first record. When I hear those records now, I hear how innovative they are. Even bands that had huge hits like The Human League, they were really experimenting in making those hit records so I like thinking about that and reading about that. As someone who’s main instrument is the guitar like me, anytime that I make anything with an instrument like the keyboard, it’s going to be an adventure and something unexpected and unplanned is probably going to happen and I like that aspect of making records.
Do you find that the way you create a song on these instruments is different than writing a song on the guitar?
In some ways. There is an overarching thing that’s happening either way. Once I get started, I usually have a little bit of an idea of how I want the final shape to be, but along the way, you can certainly go down some unexpected paths to get there. When you plug in a synthesizer and start a song with that instrument, you’ll end up with a different song than if you were to pick up an acoustic guitar at that same time, but the same can be said for picking up a Telecaster instead of a Danelectro. I think that even a guitar, the way it feels or sounds, leads you in different directions and again that’s one of the most interesting things about making and recording an album – finding out what all those different paths are to get to the final thing. Sometimes you have to abandon the thing you started the song with because in the end, it’s just not working for that song or that record. Twenty years ago when I was making Portastatic records, I don’t know if I would have abandoned the song if I had gotten it mostly done, but I feel like as I get older, I’m a little bit more willing to let go of stuff. At this point, I can just think, “Well, that’s part of what had to happen to get to this point” even if it means I now only have ten songs instead of twelve.
I know you’ve been in Richmond a lot over the years – do you remember the first time you came to the city?
Oh, the very first time? Well, I used to have family in Richmond. My cousins lived in Richmond and grew up there so we used to go visit them pretty regularly. My cousin Mary, who’s a little bit older than me, was very influential on me musically because she exposed me to David Bowie and Prince and others. One Christmas, I remember she gave me two records, a Charged GBH record called City Baby Attacked By Rats and a record by [Richmond punk band] White Cross which I still have today. So she was providing me with this entrance into Richmond’s hardcore [scene] which paralleled with what was happening in North Carolina in the hardcore scene. That was pretty exciting and then we started driving to Richmond to see shows because Corrosion Of Conformity from [Raleigh] would play there pretty often.
The first time I saw Honor Roll was in Richmond. I remember seeing Honor Roll open for The Replacements at a place called Going Bananas which was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I saw Corrosion play up there a couple of times, once with a cool band called Mal-a-face? It was great. We used to go Richmond pretty often to see bands play. I saw The Jesus And Mary Chain on their first tour at Rocketts [Landing] with a great band from Pennsylvania called Bunnydrums opening. We used to go up there all the time and then we became close with the guys from Honor Roll and ended up working with them on Merge and putting out Breadwinner records so we have a pretty close relationship with Richmond and music. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time we played there. It’s certainly been a while, maybe too long.
You’ve had a very productive decade thus far which is great considering how long you’ve been active. Both of the last two Superchunk records were very highly rated, Merge celebrated its 25th year last year, and now we have your first album out under your name. What kind of goals are you setting for yourself at this stage of the game?
I guess we don’t sit around and set goals in terms of achievements. It’s more that we are artists and we have a record label and our goal is to keep putting out great records and that’s what we do. The goal each time is to put out the best record you can put out and hopefully not repeat yourself.
Well, it doesn’t look like you repeated yourself this time.
Well, thanks. I hope people like it and I’m really looking forward to the show in Richmond. I’m going to have a band also so it’s not just going to be me totally solo. I’ll play some of the set solo and do some Superchunk songs and stuff and there’s a band on the bill called the Flesh Wounds who are also my backing band. We’ll play a bunch of stuff from the new record and some old Portastatic songs and stuff like that. It should be really fun.
Mac McCaughan plays Strange Matter this Friday night at 8 PM alongside Flesh Wounds and Richmond’s own Hoax Hunters. For more information and where to buy tickets, click here.