Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan delves into his love of post-punk for new album

REMEMBER THIS: Non-Believers, the new solo album by McCaughan of Merge Records and Superchunk, taps '80s influences and teen angst, past and present. Photo by Lissa Gotwals

Superchunk is one of the defining indie-rock bands of the ’90s. The group’s surging, adrenaline-laced punk rock and joyful DIY spirit that emanated from both its early records and now-iconic self-established label Merge Records are fully embedded in alternative culture lore.

For all that, though, frontman Mac McCaughan was very much a child of the ’80s. It’s that time period that he dives into with his new solo album, Non-Believers, the first under his own name. He cites British bands like The Cure, OMD and Cocteau Twins as his primary inspirations — sounds that harken back to his own childhood. “It’s hard for anything to have that kind of impact on you [as it does when you’re 16],” McCaughan says by phone from his desk at Merge. “Looking back, there’s plenty of stuff I listened to then that I don’t listen to now,” but when he chances to hear those songs these days, he still loves them.

McCaughan didn’t start out to make that kind of record, though. Instead, he got entranced by the idea of making an album swathed in cinematic synthesizers and drum machines after crafting “Your Hologram,” which became the opening track on Non-Believers. “A lot of times that’s when it becomes revealed, in a way, once it’s under way,” he says.

In some respects, the sound recalls the musician’s early records as Portastatic, his longtime side-project away from Superchunk.  That outfit saw him experimenting with four-track home recordings that made ample use of keyboards and drum machines. “I think there are some similarities with how I made those first couple of Portastatic records before it became more of a band situation,” McCaughan says. “I feel like [Non-Believers is] more focused than any of those records, and just a little bit less haphazard. Those records were purposefully haphazard in some ways. [This record] is more unified in terms of its sound and more stripped down. It’s more about the songs than just experimenting, and a lot of those early records were just me experimenting, just seeing what I could do since it wasn’t a Superchunk record.”

For all of the similarities to those early days, including the fact that it was crafted in McCaughan’s home studio, Non-Believers actually shares even more with the last two LPs in the Portastatic catalog, Bright Ideas (2005) and Be Still Please (2006). Both were crafted during Superchunk’s semihiatus in the mid-2000s. They featured more fully rounded songs and arrangements that melded the rock ‘n’ roll glee of that band with power-pop aspirations and singer-songwriter acumen.

According to McCaughan, the decision to retire the Portastatic moniker stemmed from practical and personal considerations. “I just felt like using Portastatic again would be like taking a step backward,” he says. “It had been a long time since the last one [2008] and that one was a compilation. And I feel like that tied up the time period and those records.”

The other side of things, though, is that the concept surrounding the record seemed reflective of McCaughan’s current state of mind as he looks to a time in his teenage years that his own children are rapidly approaching. “I think that having kids myself definitely influences that thinking,” he says. “Not that they are teenagers yet, but they’re getting close. But there’s always someone that age who is going through that transitional time period.”

The way McCaughan talks about this moment in time is telling — there’s a certain reflective spirit on Non-Believers that is close to, but not quite, nostalgic. He summons up a memory or impressions of these darkly romantic-sounding bands, but tempered by suburban scenes and emotional reminiscing that feels very much of 2015, not 1982. There’s a cinematic-looking back effect in place here, not unlike that of films like Donnie Darko or, more recently, Boyhood.

“I think it lends itself to that feeling in general,” McCaughan says, “because everything you have from that time period of your life is based on photographs or videos, depending on your age. I definitely think that influences how you remember things, and then probably how you write about them.”

Superchunk rock fans fear not, though — McCaughan is set to tour behind the album with Flesh Wounds as his backing band. “It’s definitely punkier than the record — the Flesh Wounds aren’t all of a sudden playing keyboards,” he says. “We spent time rearranging the songs and making them work for the rock band. It’s awesome.”

WHO: Mac McCaughan with Flesh Wounds and Impossible Vacation
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, May 22, at 9 p.m. $8 advance/$10 at the door

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About Kyle Petersen
Kyle is a Columbia, South Carolina-based freelance music writer and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. He's also in a sincere, long-term love affair with the city of Asheville. You can follow him on Twitter at @kpetersen.

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