Despite his success, McCaughan has strayed little from his punk rock principles in terms of both music and business, and after more than 25 years of making records, he opted to launch a belated solo career in 2015 with the release of the synthy Non-Believers.
Born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on July 12, 1967, Ralph Lee "Mac" McCaughan was 12 years old when his family moved to Durham, North Carolina. Young McCaughan was a fan of classic rock acts like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, and while in high school he caught an all-ages show featuring a pair of local hardcore bands, the Ugly Americans and A Number of Things, and he was soon checking out adventurous punk bands such as Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen. McCaughan formed a band called the Slushpuppies, featuring fellow punk convert Laura Ballance on bass, and went on to play guitar with A Number of Things, but in 1985 he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University. McCaughan became frustrated with how hard it was to have a band in New York, and in 1987 he took time off from college and moved to Chapel Hill, a college town not far from Durham.
McCaughan soon re-formed the Slushpuppies with Ballance, and they began dating, staying together for six years. They also formed a label, Merge Records, to document the bands on the growing Chapel Hill scene. After putting out a cassette by Bricks (a short-lived project featuring McCaughan, Andrew Webster, and Laura Cantrell) and a handful of 7" singles, McCaughan and Ballance formed a new band with Mac on guitar and vocals, Cantrell on bass, Jack McCook on guitar, and Chuck Garrison on drums. Naming the band Chunk (it was Garrison's nickname), they cut a three-song EP that was released in 1989. After discovering a band in New York was already using the name Chunk, the group changed its name to Superchunk, and its first single using the new name, a ferocious but tuneful rant against a lazy co-worker called "Slack Motherfucker," became an underground smash. Superchunk struck a deal with Matador Records, and released their self-titled debut album in 1990. Their second LP, 1991's No Pocky for Kitty, clicked with critics and fans, and the group became a growing presence on the indie rock scene. When Matador made a deal with Atlantic Records to give some of their artists major-label distribution, Superchunk parted ways with the label to maintain their independence, and with 1994's Foolish, they became Merge's flagship act.
McCaughan, meanwhile, was staying busy running Merge and pursuing side projects when not occupied with Superchunk. He played drums on the first album by Seam, 1992's Headsparks, and that same year he agreed to release a handful of lo-fi home recordings on 18 Wheeler Records, a tiny label run by friend and fan Tom Scharpling (who would later become the host of the popular radio show The Best Show on WFMU). McCaughan chose to release the music under the name Portastatic; by 1994, the project had developed a life of its own and McCaughan issued a Portastatic album on Merge, I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle. In 2001, Superchunk went on hiatus and Portastatic became McCaughan's primary musical project, recording and touring regularly with a rotating cast of musicians. In 2002, McCaughan joined forces with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices to form the ad-hoc group Go Back Snowball, who released the album Calling Zero in 2002.
In 2010, Superchunk returned to active duty with the album Majesty Shredding, and I Hate Music followed in 2013. By this time, Merge had grown impressively from a scrappy punk rock label into one of America's most successful independent record companies, releasing albums by Neutral Milk Hotel, Bob Mould, Lambchop, the Mountain Goats, M. Ward, She & Him, the Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Ex Hex. But Merge enjoyed its greatest success with the Arcade Fire, pushing their 2007 album The Neon Bible to number two on the Billboard album charts, and their next two long-players, 2010's The Suburbs and 2013's Reflektor, all the way to number one. With Portastatic and Superchunk both enjoying continued success and Merge having celebrated its 25th anniversary, McCaughan set out to blaze a new trail and released his first solo album, the synth pop-influenced Non-Believers, in May 2015. He delved even further into electronic experimentation with Staring at Your Hologram, an instrumental album that deconstructed and remixed elements of Non-Believers, twisting the songs into far more abstract forms. The record was released in November of 2015. The next year McCaughan collaborated with choreographer Sarah Honer for a performance at that year's Moogfest. He played a network of synths and drum machines while Honer and a team of dancers enacted complex movements to the exploratory sounds. Studio recordings of the synth pieces were released in August of 2016 as Music for POMS, both digitally and as a limited-edition cassette. While Superchunk continued releasing albums of the high-energy fuzz pop they were known for, McCaughan furthered his deepening fascination with synth sounds, collaborating with ambient harpist Mary Lattimore on a series of improvisations that was released in 2019 as the New Rain Duets album by the Three Lobed label. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi