Mac McCaughan never planned to release an album under his own name.
"I've always thought that band names are much cooler than solo artist names," says McCaughan, founder of indie-rock icons Superchunk and Portastatic, calling from the offices of Merge Records, the influential label he also co-founded. "Plus my name -- no one can spell it on the first try or pronounce it, frankly. But at the same time, I felt coming up with another band name. . . . I couldn't really get my mind around that either."
But one listen to "Non-Believers" (Merge), which arrived in stores last week, and it becomes pretty clear it's a personal effort. "More than any record I've ever done, I played almost everything on here, so it is a solo record in that sense," McCaughan says. "I guess it's appropriate that I put it out under my name."StoryWhat to look for in music in 2015More coverageRead more album reviews from NewsdayMore coverageGlenn Gamboa's latest
"Non-Believers" is a concept album of sorts, a tale loosely built around the lives of two teen goth musicians, starting with the synth-driven story of a basement gig in "Your Hologram," complete with Bauhaus references. "In some ways, it's about a specific time frame and a specific age, but in other ways, it's just about awkwardness and transition and transitional phases which can happen at any time," McCaughan says. "It's kind of micro and macro in that way."
Though only a few of the songs are told from the point of view of those musicians, McCaughan envisioned them throughout the process. "I like having rules when I'm making a record or at least some sort of parameters, but I also think it's valuable to know when to relax those," he says. "I would certainly go back to that idea when making decisions about a certain sound or a certain lyric or even including a certain sound or not. I would use it to think, 'Does this fit in the world of this record?' "
"I didn't want the album to feel monolithic in some thematic way," he adds. "I don't mind it being a little bit of all over the place in terms of viewpoint."
Even though he wasn't ever a goth kid, McCaughan says he feels close enough to them to tell the "Non-Believers" story. "One of the things that's interesting about that time is that kids end up together -- goths and New Wave kids and hard-core kids -- just because they're 'the other' in a mainstream high school situation," he says. "I liked the idea that they're not the same as each other but that they're lumped together and maybe become friends with each other or at least share a space for a period of time."
And now that McCaughan, 47, has kids of his own, he can see his high school years from a different perspective. "I have two kids and they're not teenagers yet, but they're getting there," he says. "It's interesting when you have memories of your own childhood or your own teen-hood and you see your own kids getting to that point and you starting thinking, 'How can I protect them from this?' Or just looking at them and thinking, 'Wow, every kid has this stuff in them and they're trying to figure out what to do with it.' "
His kids actually directly inspired the album's finale, "Come Upstairs." "It's the only song told from the viewpoint of now, from a person still making songs on a four-track in the basement," McCaughan says. "There's kids outside and they're saying, 'Dad, what are you doing? Come outside and join the rest of the world."
McCaughan says he's excited about being in that part of the process now, as he takes these songs on the road and introduces them to the world. "The shows will be partially me solo -- and I'll play Superchunk songs and Portastatic songs -- and half will be with a backing band which we're calling the Non-Believers, who also happen to be in the band The Flesh Wounds, who are opening the show," he says.
McCaughan says his knowledge of the business side of the music business helps him move into the album release stage. "I have a realistic idea about how records do and how much money is good to spend or not to spend," he says.
So he's not going to use his role as Merge CEO to have the entire label launch a full-court press to make "Non-Believers" a hit?
"No, pull out all the stops for the Mikal Cronin album," he says, laughing as he refers to the singer-songwriter's new "MCIII" album, which was released the same day as McCaughan's album. "Pull out some of the stops for me."
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. May 16, Baby's All Right, 146 Broadway, Brooklyn
INFO $12-$14; 877-987-6487, ticketfly.com
Mac McCaughan may not be a household name, but his reputation in the indie-rock world is unparalleled, thanks to his various bands and his mighty record label. Here's a look at some of what he has built:
BEST KNOWN FOR Helping pioneer the indie-rock movement with a mix of roaring hard-core punk guitars and catchy melodies that you could scream along with while you moshed. Their single "Slack MF" helped capture the "slacker" identity of the early '90s, while a string of well-crafted albums from "No Pocky for Kitty" in 1991 to 2013's "I Hate Music" have been influential to a generation of indie bands.
BEST KNOWN FOR The indie record label that McCaughan founded with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance was initially designed to put out music from the band and its North Carolina friends. However, it has grown into a music industry force, even landing a No. 1 album and album of the year Grammy for Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs." Before the commercial success, Merge released landmark albums including Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" and The Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs."
BEST KNOWN FOR The softer, more experimental side of McCaughan's material, with the soundtrack to "Looking for Leonard," EPs dedicated to Brazilian folk music ("De Mel, De Melao") and a concept album about the 9/11 terrorist attacks ("Summer of the Shark").