Mac McCaughan doesn't know where to squeeze the extra chair.
Late on a Tuesday afternoon, just off of UNC-Chapel Hill's campus, we've descended the stairs of the midcentury home the Superchunk and Merge Records co-founder shares with his family of four. His basement's home-recording studio is crowded with equipment and ephemera—synthesizers stuffed into corners, framed posters perched on the floor, racks of recording gear pushed against walls. Cable-covered rugs, errant road cases and a full drumkit form an obstacle course.
McCaughan pushes some of the clutter aside, plunks a second chair between amplifiers and presses play on Non-Believers, the first album he's ever released under his own name.
These 10 songs were recorded almost entirely in this small basement studio—sometimes at night after his children, Oona and Arthur, were asleep, and sometimes in the morning after they were at school but before he commuted to Merge's Durham office. And he performed nearly all of the parts himself, from the florid, fractured synthesizers that introduce intoxicating opener "Your Hologram" to the plangent guitars of the romping "Box Batteries."
As the record spins, McCaughan tends to highlight his weaknesses—how he can't play drums like Superchunk's Jon Wurster, how he can't sing like Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, how he's still struggling to make some of these new songs work live.
"When you're trying to do it yourself and combine a guitar you're playing with a drum machine," he explains of recording, "sometimes it sounds like they're not living in the same room—not in a good way."
But Non-Believers works wonderfully because it feels so intimate and close, its lyrics lined with references to the outsider obsessions and frustrations of his teenage years and its music built with the same guitars and synthesizers of his early rock 'n' roll love. He delivers distant memories of adolescence with renewable zeal, suggesting the medium might have changed from cassettes to MP3s but the reasons to connect through music haven't.
While listening to Non-Believers twice, McCaughan explained the process and purpose of working alone.
Indy: Is it strange, at last, to have an album with your name on it?
MAC MCCAUGHAN: Portastatic had a real purpose and existed in parallel with Superchunk. If I wanted to do anything besides Superchunk, I had to have something different. I made up a band name for it, because it's cooler to have a name that's not your own name; there's no denying that. But I didn't want to come up with another band name now. I am in Superchunk. I can play by myself. But the idea of starting a new band with new people is exhausting. I don't love the idea of having my name on a T-shirt or record cover, but it does simplify things—other than the fact that no one can still spell my name.
Non-Believers is actually a bit of a restart, right? You had another batch of songs started when these emerged.
I probably had half a record. I didn't get too far into it. I've spent time writing and recording demos for other projects that didn't pan out, and I don't like wasting that time. But I started working on "Your Hologram," which made me rethink the whole thing. It provides a framework for the rest of the album, and I said, "I have this song. I like this song. Maybe I don't have half an album?"
What was really driving "Your Hologram" was the keyboard. It's pretty similar to how I would have made a Portatstatic record a long time ago—just grabbing a machine and messing around with it until something interesting happens. Once you have that sound, you can't just put any drums or guitar sound with it; other stuff has to be shaped to fit. I work best if I have rules of some kind, or restrictions or guidelines, as opposed to, "Yeah, you can do anything. You're making your own record in your home studio." It makes it more fun to figure out solutions.
I didn't want it to be haphazard. Other than compilations, I think of albums as albums—not that everything should sound the same, but it should be coherent and go together in some way. There are certainly some radically different songs on this record, but I feel like they travel in the same world.
Did any instrument become off-limits for you once that decision was made?
I don't think there was anything I thought of as being off-limits, but if there was an acoustic guitar, it had to really fit in to the rest of what was happening. There are acoustic guitars on some songs, but it's not the first thing you hear. Likewise, I didn't want to go full on and try to recreate something from 1982. It's more referencing a time period. It's funny how you're playing a keyboard or a guitar with a certain chorus pedal and think, "This sounds exactly like that Cure record." When you actually hear that Cure record, it doesn't sound anything like it. In your mind, that's your version. It's really hard to ape something. To spend the time to achieve that, you don't actually end up with something interesting.
Why is that period so interesting for you more than 30 years later?
That was a transitional period in a lot of ways—musically, politically and for me being 15 years old in 1982, that's a transitional time in anyone's life. What's good to me about a lot of art is the awkwardness. Whenever there is a transition, there is bound to be awkwardness, because it doesn't happen perfectly smoothly. That's what drove both sides of Non-Believers, the music and the lyrics. It's a pretty fertile thing.
Thinking about that period in the early '80s and records I really like now (and some I didn't like then because I was resistant to synthesizers or whatever): It's the sound of people who don't really know what they're doing, but they're excited about this new thing they can use.
No one has had any time to master it yet. When people have it mastered and every studio has the same digital reverb and the same keyboard that the producer knows how to use perfectly, then it's boring. But in the moment when people are still figuring it out and mixing it with other stuff like guitars and drum machines that they also don't know how to use that well, you get something really interesting.
What technology riddled you here?
Even stuff I've had for 25 years I don't understand, especially synthesizers. You can turn them on one day and they sound one way, and then the next day, it's "How did I get that sound again?" My old Moog kept breaking, but I'm even worse at using the new one than the old one. It's much harder to get sound out of it. There are too many options. I am not good at following menus—keyboards or computers or anything where you're having to go through menus you can't see. And there's that white Casio that's at the beginning of "Mystery Flu." Half the sounds work and half of them don't. I like that about it.
So much of Non-Believers is about your old days and friends discovering music and exploring new freedom. A lot of those relationships have moved online for kids. How does that impact that kind of culture?
There is something really powerful about sharing something you only know about from talking to other people. Maybe you feel like a certain band is your favorite band and your friend's favorite band, but nobody else knows about them. In every town, there's someone whose favorite band that is. That still exists, but it may not be as easy to see. I feel like there certainly still is this powerful connection that can't just be formed by people going to a message board or blogging about their favorite band. I feel like there's a desire for that in people. A human connection still exists.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The basement taper."