Back when Mac McCaughan began making music with Superchunk, he also co-founded Merge Records with bandmate Laura Balance as a means to release their own music and that of their pals. That was in 1989, and Merge has since grown into the pride of indie North Carolina, releasing chart-topping albums from She & Him, Arcade Fire, Camera Obscura, Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, and, of course, McCaughan’s Superchunk and his former solo project, Portastatic.
Now McCaughan has crafted a new release, but this is the first record he’s dropped under his real name. Entitled Non-Believers, the collection recalls not only the music of ’80s new wave but also its listeners, using a couple of fictional goth teens as the songwriter’s muse. The result is a group of stories so familiar, they’ll make any ’80s teen nostalgic for cassette tapes, boom boxes, and borrowed cars. And though the music is inspired by a different era, the artist remains himself, shining through with the energy of Superchunk and the lyrical genius of Portastatic.
We recently got to chat with the Superchunk frontman about the making of Non-Believers, the endurance of new wave, and the future for Mac McCaughan.
City Paper: I love the story behind composing Non-Believers and the era it’s inspired by. So, there are new bands like — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mode Moderne? They put out one of my favorite albums of last year and they sound effortlessly new wave, early ’80s. And then there’s Echo and the Bunnymen, who also put out one of my top-five albums last year — the album sounds like Echo but is still relevant in terms of what more and more bands want to sound like now, you know what I mean? How are young musicians connecting with music like the Cure the way a teenager did 30 years ago?
M: Yeah I think that a lot of what’s appealing about those bands and music from that time period, for me at least, is that it captures a lot of awkwardness of being a teenager and growing up in general. And I think a lot of people retain that awkwardness even as adults. I don’t know if you ever fully grow out of that. I think in some ways, to me, goth was always a little bit of like an armor against that kind of thing, and everyone has that, whether they express it in how they dress or what music they listen to or who they hang out with or whatever.
I certainly have a somewhat romantic attachment to a lot of songs from that era and artists like New Order, the Cocteau Twins, or something like that. But I also feel like those records still hold up, and I don’t think it’s just because I was listening to them when I was 15. I feel like the ones that especially hold up are the ones that really were executing a singular vision; no one really sounded exactly like the Cure or Cocteau Twins, you know?
I think that one thing that’s hard to replicate, obviously, is a personality. And someone like Ian McCulloch and Echo and the Bunnymen, listening to those records, for instance, they were one of my favorite bands. And everyone in the band had a real distinct musical voice and personality. And I think that’s one thing that kind of carries those records through to now in terms of still feeling relevant. And so when I was making Non-Believers, I was thinking about that time period and listening to those records and definitely using records by those bands as a — when it came time to make a sonic decision, for instance, I would think like, ‘What would this person do if he were at this juncture in the recording process?’
And not just English bands. I mean, I’m thinking about a band like Let’s Active, who are from North Carolina and one of my favorite bands, and thinking about, ‘What would Mitch Easter have done with this guitar sound at this point on a record in 1985?’ Not because I was trying to recreate that era but just thinking, ‘What was driving people then? What do they want to hear that they were trying to create?’ And also just knowing it felt safe doing that, that I was not going to be recreating something note for note. And there’s no way I could do that, even if I wanted to. Even if I thought like, ‘I’m gonna recreate Mitch Easter’s guitar sound,’ like, I couldn’t. So I just felt like, well, I’m never gonna do it exactly, which is good. So, I’ll just use it as a guide and see what I come up with. I didn’t really set out to do that until I kind of got started and had a couple of songs that were in that world kind of, and then I thought, ‘Well, this is an interesting path to go down.’ And I just kind of stayed on it.
CP: You used the word awkwardness before, and that is completely what I feel when I’m listening to this record. I feel like I’m a teenager again. And I read that you actually had a fictional teenage couple in mind when you wrote the songs, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about those people.
M: Yeah, it’s this idea of people that I knew, and not myself necessarily, who were goth — and I don’t know if that existed as a word then; I guess it did — but people who had, early on, realized, ‘We’re not in the mainstream of junior high or high school, and this is how we’re gonna get through this time in our life, by uniting.’ And how that thing of how people who are maybe not the same as each other but they’re all different than maybe the mainstream that’s happening and — they end up hanging out together. And how it feels like, ‘This is our life and it’s the most important time in our life.’ And it is an important time. It’s a formative time, but it really only lasts for a couple of years and then everything changes, maybe when high school ends and everyone goes in their different directions. Everything doesn’t necessarily change for everybody, but you see people maybe five years later and someone who is really into punk rock works for a bank! You know, someone who was a stoner or an outcast is just living the suburban dream or something. I wasn’t trying to get to that point; I was just kind of focusing on the time period right before everyone goes off into their separate worlds.
CP: But they do sort of get to that point where they’re starting to see the light, because isn’t that what “Come Upstairs” is kind of about?
M: Well, that’s interesting. “Come Upstairs” is, I would say, the one song that’s kind of set in the present. Though it’s interesting — I mean, I like your take on it. But it’s about my kids being like, ‘Dad, get out of the basement.’ (laughs) ‘Stop working on your record and join the rest of the world.’ But as an extension of the same person who woulda been in the basement tracking songs with their friends back then.
CP: Making a mixtape together …
CP: So the couple, they’re just friends but there’s insinuation that they might have feelings for each other?
M: Yeah I feel like that’s a pretty common thing, especially with awkward people. They’re friends, but maybe in another time period or in another situation that wasn’t so fraught, they could have been more than that. But it’s really just more like they’re teammates against everything else that’s going on.
CP: How does it feel to have an album out with your name on it for the first time?
M: Um, it’s cool. It’s still kind of weird, and it’s weird when I make a T-shirt, you know, with my name on it — it’s just kind of bizarre. But, no, I’m glad I did it, and it gives me a lot of flexibility with what I can play live and what I can do .
CP: What’s next?
M: Well we’ve got these shows coming up and a West Coast tour, and I just finished this film score, so that’s what I’m focusing on now. And then we’ll see what transpires next year.
CP: Can you tell me a bit more about the film score?
M: I’ve been working on a score for a movie called Painted Black, which is directed by Amber Tamblyn, and it’s her first film that she’s directed, and it’s based on a novel by Janet Fitch. She wrote White Oleander. So I did the score, and I also did the music supervision in terms of finding songs for different spots in the film and stuff, so it’s been really fun. I’ve learned a lot doing it. And I always like getting to write music where I don’t have to write words — to me that’s really fun. You can just focus on the melodies and stuff.
CP: What a dream job, strategically placing really amazing songs in movies.
M: Yeah, it’s fun doing that, and I mean you’re really working on something corroboratively with the director and the editor, because they have their ideas. And you may have a song that you just think is perfect and it doesn’t connect with them, but eventually you all arrive in the same place, so it’s cool.
Mac McCaughan will play this Friday with another Merge band, Flesh Wounds. The band also backs McCaughan, at which point they’re called the Non-Believers.