What appeals to me is songs that deal with the messiness and ambiguity that come with any transitional period.
— Mac McCaughan
Mac McCaughan – Non-Believers
Who is Mac McCaughan(Read the HESO Interview)? If you listen to rock music these days it’s pretty certain you have heard something that he has had his hands on. Onetime frontman of the North Carolina Indie-Rock Superband Superchunk, Mac is also co-founder of Merge Records, the highly successful smalltime record label that puts out albums by Spoon, Mikal Cronin, Destroyer, Eleanor Friedberger, The Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire and many more. When not working at Merge or touring with Superchunk (or any other band he may be playing with), he has recorded his solo work under the moniker of Portastatic and produced more than a decade of work ranging from solo bedroom 4-track recordings to full band recordings at Tiny Telephone. Often lo-fi and intimate, Portastatic’s explorative sound was even more popular than Superchunk’s upfront guitar rock with niche college crowds across North America. But beyond being the face of a long-running and influential alternative band and a powerful albeit low-key record exec, Mac is a pretty regular guy who just makes music he wants to hear. Over the years he has had the opportunity to do soundtrack work on various projects: Looking For Leonard (Merge, 2001), Who Loves the Sun (Merge, 2006), as well as live scores at film festivals: 1927 Tod Browning silent film The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival, as well as 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s silent film Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival.
If not on the tip of pop music’s tongue, in his own way McCaughan is prolific. Recorded at Glendale Drive by McCaughan, mixed by Beau Sorenson, Brian Paulson, and himself, he played all parts on Non-Believers except drums on “Our Way Free” (Michael Benjamin Lerner), additional vocals on the ethereally and snaking “Real Darkness” (Jenn Wasner), and additional vocals on “Wet Leaves” (Annie Hayden). These tracks are a collection of unused work he had written for various movie soundtracks that screamed new solo album, but needed something. It seems that his early experiments with synthesizers, as on 1995’s Slow Note From a Sinking Ship, and the follow up, The Nature of Sap, paid off. Because in order to take songs he had composed for other projects they had to be reworked and rewritten. Exploring his fascination with ’80s Punk when it evolved into New Wave and became introspective, when bands were, as he puts it, “using keyboards and drum machines to relate through their music a disaffection or alienation” from what had come before, McCaughan delved into his own work and came up with something that sounds new yet references those old sounds.
To be sure, despite the emphasis on keys, this is still a guitar-driven album. “Box Batteries” is a throwback rocker that eschews bass altogether in the manner of his clean sounding yet still hollow lo-fi Portastatic days when he recorded with a whomever he could find–a random clarinetist and his brother on drums. “Only Do” is classic stripped down indie Superchunk guitar and keys call-and-response propelling a cosmic rollercoaster toward some kind of zen realization, “There is no try/ There is only do”. Much as in the first single “Lost Again” the overriding flat drone of “Real Darkness” is easily overlooked by McCaughan’s memorable melodies and knack for using the highs and scratchy lows of his voice as an extra instrument, as well as the Destroyer-esque background guitar solo so faint the effort to pick it up makes you appreciate the song all the more, The realization that not all songs are hits, but can regardless fit in to the flow of an album in a way that creates a sum greater than the parts of a Best of ever could. Ending with the upbeat “Come Upstairs” is a hither yon nod to the good times past and yet to come.
Throughout his solo recordings he has emerged, so to speak, from the comfort and cover that a pseudonym provides to requiring more. Hence the shedding of “Portastatic” for his own name (he stopped writing on the Portastatic blog a few years ago). When he asks, “I’m constantly discovering and consuming new music, so why does an old New Order song trigger the kind of emotional response that it does?” it’s not only a trick to get you to do more than listen to the atmospheric opening keys on “Your Hologram”, but to put you in a dusty old Honda with a tapedeck and roll down windows full of energy and nothing to do with it but drive, really to nowhere in particular. It’s about “the irony that comes with being 16 and having a car but not knowing where to go in it, or having a keyboard or a guitar and not knowing how to play it.” A more lighthearted musical reconnaissance into the shared alienation and isolation spawned by OMD, New Order, Depeche Mode and like synthpop bands, Non-Believers is a musical homage to the oeuvre of The Breakfast Club, that has grown up through the grungy ’90s and pushed through the adolescence of the 00s, into a full-grown celebration of the artisinal, home-brewed art of the self.
Between the Grateful Dead loving Boomers who are now part Tea-party Neo-cons, part Neo-Lib Wall Street investors and Ben Stiller’s Gen Xers who are gainfully employed and raising families in faux-American Dream suburban glee, there is a gap. McCaughan’s mid-’60s non-believer generation were a bit too late for punk and didn’t take to MTV’s bullshit Cult of Pop, so where do they fit? Merge Records writes that, “McCaughan had a duo of fictional teen goths in mind and followed them on their journey of growing into adulthood and transitioning into a world they weren’t sure they’d accept.” Acceptance is finding out where you fit in. McCaughan fits in where he always has–unassumingly belting out straightforward lyrics behind the mic and pumping out tight little riffs from his home studio.
Portastatic LP Discography
- I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge, 1994)
- Slow Note From a Sinking Ship (Merge, 1995)
- The Nature of Sap (Merge, 1997)
- Summer of the Shark (Merge, 2003)
- Bright Ideas (Merge, 2005)
- Be Still Please (Merge, 2006)
- Some Small History (Merge, 2008)
- 05/15/15 Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts
- 05/16/15 New York, NY Baby’s All Right
- 05/21/15 Atlanta, GA 529 Bar
- 05/22/15 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
- 05/23/15 Carrboro, NC Cat’s Cradle Back Room
- 05/24/15 Wilmington, NC Bourgie Nights
- 05/28/15 Birmingham, AL Saturn
- 05/29/15 Nashville, TN The Stone Fox
- 05/30/15 Chicago, IL 26 Comedy Festival
- 06/07/15 Durham, NC Motorco Music Hall
- 07/23/15 Denver, CO The Underground Music Showcase
- 07/23/15 Chicago, IL Schubas
w/ Flesh Wounds