Mac McCaughan's track-by-track guide to Non-Believers | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Mac McCaughan's track-by-track guide to Non-Believers



Non-Believers—Mac McCaughan’s first album under his own name—brims with lyrical and musical references to his childhood memories. McCaughan was raised in Durham and came of age in the Triangle’s rock clubs. So it seemed appropriate to sit with him in his basement and have him narrate the album’s area roots.

“Your Hologram”

The synthesizer that starts “Your Hologram” dictated this song, but it also dictated where the rest of the record was going to go. You can’t totally tell what it is: It could be a guitar, or it could be a synthesizer. The guitar that’s on here sounds like it could be a keyboard, too. I like that combination.

Lyrically, it sets the tone for the rest of the record, because it’s about music and a certain time period of your life and the idea of someone who’s making music. The first song and the last song on Non-Believers are from the point of view of someone who is in their room, recording stuff on a four-track. Sometimes, that’s me. Sometimes, it’s not. I didn’t have a four-track when I was 15. I didn’t know how to play guitar even.

INDY: To what extent are these lines autobiographical? Did you have your tapes stolen from your ’82 Honda?

I did have all my tapes stolen more than once. I didn’t have a Honda, but multiple friends of mine did. You’d come out of a party, and someone had broken into someone’s car. What makes it so devastating is it’s not tapes you went and bought. It’s tapes where you had to record an album on a side. It’s all very specific. That detail is true to life and also just about the fact that this is what you’re worried about. It’s not like it’s an autobiographical record, but I was thinking about the idea of people going through this time together. The thing that’s binding them is the music that they’re into.

“Lost Again”

It’s one of the simpler songs on the record in the sense that it’s drum machine, bass, guitar, vocals and just a little keyboard. But there’s a lot of temptation to add another guitar, add another keyboard. That’s one thing that, since the first Superchunk record, I’ve had to learn—restraint, not adding a ton of shit on every song. If you can stop yourself, the space sounds really good, too.

Again, it’s a similar idea: driving around when you have the ability to drive and you don’t have anywhere particular to go, except your friend’s neighborhood. Someone says, “I think there’s a party over here.” I’m trying to think of this neighborhood in Durham that’s near Pickett Road and Cornwallis. I had friends who lived in that neighborhood. It’s one of those neighborhoods where, if you don’t know where you’re going, everywhere does look the same. You have vague information about a party or some house, but you don’t know exactly how to find it.

INDY: This song seems to hang between sadness and excitement.

It’s a frustrating and exciting time. You have a new ability but not a great way to deploy it. You have a new freedom, but it’s not that much freedom. You still have to be home by a certain time, and there’s still nowhere that exciting to go.

“Only Do”

This is one of the first songs that was written for the record. It was meant to be on a John Green soundtrack for The Fault in Our Stars. It wasn’t selected. But that was one of the things that ended up tying the time period I am thinking about to now. Our daughter, Oona, is really into John Green. She loves those books. One of the things I was thinking about with this record was, “What draws kids to darkness and death and these totally sad things?” Having read and watched Harry Potter and seeing the books that Oona reads and the movies she wants to watch, it’s all dark shit. But you don’t have anything to be dark about. In some ways, maybe that’s what draws you to it.

INDY: Was Oona excited about the song?

She was. I didn’t tell her until way after. I think she was on my side and also agreed that it should have been on the soundtrack. But I was really happy with the song, and it’s one of those things where you’re like, “I like this song. Now what do I do with it?” Luckily, it fit into the themes of the record and the idea of two people whose only bond is that they’re both up for whatever. They provide the other person with some license to be.

INDY: This song, unlike the last one, does include a lot of sounds.

It was in service of just having a song that did get massive. And it disguises my somewhat amateur drumming abilities. I can keep time, but the thing that you really realize if you’re trying to record yourself playing drums and you’re not a good drummer, it’s a different volume every time you hit the drums. You can kind of fix some of that with compressors, but a lot of the time, I’m just like, “Put a guitar on it or another keyboard on it, and then maybe people won’t notice the drums.”

“Mystery Flu”

This song had a drum machine from my Casio going all the way through, up until two weeks before we did the final mix. It was almost too relentless. Even though there is a lot of space in this song, at a certain point, there are three synthesizers and two guitars happening. I figured let’s just take out the one thing that’s constantly going. I really like the space in it, especially after the last song and before the next song, which is full on. It’s the only song that’s a total breather.

INDY: How did you begin to learn to allow for that space?

It’s got to be a gradual thing. It’s not something you learn all at once. Working on Here’s to Shutting Up with Brian Paulson was big. There’s a lot of stuff on that record—strings, pedal steel, keyboards. He’s someone who’s really good at finding a place for things in a mix. Maybe he’s finding a place that at first you don’t even hear. That’s something that’s really hard to learn when you start making records because you just want to hear everything. Being in a studio with Superchunk or working on the first Polvo record, everyone was like, “Turn up my guitar! Turn up my guitar!” It’s natural, but if you can get to the point where you don’t need to hear it as loud as everything else, that’s valuable.

“Our Way Free”

This continues that theme of friends who have something in common—music they like or whatever. That is what they rely on to stay sane, living in a place that is maybe hostile. “Our Way Free” has been hard to get right with the live band, and that was hard to get right on the record, too. I was happy with the idea of the song. I was thinking of a band like The Three Johns, which had guitars and drum machines. But when I had a drum machine on the song, it didn’t sound right. I tried a bunch of different sounds, and then I tried playing drums myself. That didn’t sound right. Finally, I was emailing with Michael Benjamin Lerner from Telekinesis. He’s such a good engineer of his own records and such a good musician. He can play anything. He’s always thinking about recording. I said, “Michael, can you try to play drums on this song?” He was totally up for it, and he did it on the first take, essentially: “You did it. You saved the song.”

“Box Batteries”

“Box Batteries” has a drum machine, but on the 7-inch inch version, it only has the drum machine. On this version, I added drums that come in halfway through. I like just the drum machine all the way through, but I also like the way it ramps up when the drums come in. Again, I was thinking about bands that combine punky guitars with drum machines, like Tall Dwarfs. They were really good at having what sounded like a Casio with this super-distorted guitar.

It’s not even as distorted as I wanted. We used to get this guitar sound that was so crazily distorted, and there’s no distortion box I have that can replicate it. The way it happens is if you plug directly into a four-track. There’s something about overloading whatever you’re overloading whenever you go directly onto tape cassette with electric guitar with no amp or anything, which is what we used to do for Bricks recordings. I love that guitar sound. Pro Tools allows you to create a lot of space and make things sound nice. What I find myself doing a lot is trying to get everything back to being dense.

INDY: Why not just pull out a tape machine?

I’m impatient, and I just like to work fast. Once I have a guitar track, for instance, I think, “I’ve got 45 minutes. I can at least start to do the vocals.” I have recorded some stuff on my four-track in the last few years and then dumped it into the computer to mix itand add other stuff, but my level of patience with getting another machine out and making sure that it sounds OK and cleaning the heads and all that stuff…

INDY: You told me a few years ago that being a father made you a more efficient musician. Still true?

I’ve always been impatient in terms of when we would start working on a record, whether it was Superchunk or Portastatic, wanting to hear the final thing. But I feel like having to schedule my time so much more precisely has made me more efficient and able to actually accomplish stuff in less time. I just know how to do it better. If I try to go to bed at 11 o’clock, I’d be lying in bed thinking, “I’ve got to remember to fix that guitar part,” or “I’ve got to remember to add that keyboard part.” On every song, there is a running list. It’s dangerous having any kind of office in your house. I could just be down here for hours, constantly remembering things I could be fixing But knowing that you have to get up and take the kids to school in the morning is a good reminder: “OK, you do need at least a few hours of sleep.”

“Real Darkness”

This is another song that was pretty hard to get where I wanted it. Part of that is because there is so much space. You hear everything more, so you can’t just go, “Oh, I’ll just put a distorted guitar on top of that.” But having Jenn Wasner sing on it made it all come together. Frankly, after making half a record, I’m sick of hearing just my own voice. I would love to make a record where I was just writing the songs and someone else was singing them.

Where there’s a lot of space, you notice things. We probably recorded the bass 10 different times on this song. Recording it, I would go “Oh, it sounds pretty good.” Driving around listening to it, I’d go, “Well, gotta do that again.”

Again, it addresses that idea of darkness in kids, and adults not taking it seriously. Sometimes, that makes sense: “OK, I get it, you want to die your hair black. Go for it.” As an adult, there’s no reason to get hung up. But at the same time, for a kid, that’s frustrating: “Take me seriously! Even if I can’t explain what it is that I’m dark about!” That’s not something I have a solution for, kids.

“Barely There”

This song was written before the rest of the record, before the record really started taking shape. It was a super-slow acoustic demo, almost like a songwriting exercise. I was making a few demos that were like country songs. It was almost one of the songs that got tossed, but I thought, “Well, you know, if I recorded it more in the style of an ’80s Tommy Keene or something that would be on a Cherry Red Records compilation…” There are things like chorus pedals on this record. Growing up, I always hated chorus pedals on guitars.

INDY: What made this song stick around for you?

I didn’t want to throw any of them away because I was pretty happy with them, but this one just stuck with me more in terms of the chorus being catchy and feeling like it had some relation to the other stuff. It feels like some of the other ones, too, about two people examining their relationship at different stages in their life.

“Wet Leaves”

I was into the idea of having a song with no guitar and just synths, basically. I really liked the space. The whole song is just one verse repeated over and over again. I had that verse written, and I started to write some other words for it. But I liked the repetitive aspect and the simplicity and the way other instruments could get added. I like the idea of writing a song with just one verse that doesn’t really change, but it’s hard to do it and not feel like, “Ugh, I guess I should add another part.”

INDY: How finished was the song when you sent it to Annie Hayden for her vocals?

Maybe everything except her vocals. I just left a space and said, “Here’s what I was thinking.” I try not to go there that often in terms of asking people. I feel like they’ve all got their own things going on, and I don’t want to impose on people’s time. I know how busy everybody is, because I see their touring schedule and I know what they’re up to. Annie is one of my favorite artists that we’ve ever worked with on Merge, but she’s not even doing her own stuff anymore. So when I ask her to sing something, I don’t know if she’s going to be like, “I don’t do that anymore” or “I have a real job. Why are you bothering me with this?”

“Come Upstairs”

It’s almost like it’s the one song that’s set in the present day. In some ways, it’s like the first song, “Your Hologram,” but now they’re gown up and their kids are like, “Dad, what are you doing down there?”

I’ve been listening to some German records from the early ’80s and late ’70s, and so I just programmed the drum machine to play that beat. I saw Michael Rother at ATP when Superchunk played. This is my version of that type of song, with a lot more singing than those songs usually have. This prompted me to get out this Farfisa that we used to bring on tour with Portastatic, but that I can barely lift. I almost put this song early in the record, but I felt like it was a good way to end it. That beat is supposed to feel like it could just go on for an hour—a good way to end a record, with that beat.

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