If the name Mac McCaughan seems familiar, you might know him from his 25-year stint as the vocalist and guitarist with the seminal American indie-rock band Superchunk. They emerged from Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the very end of the ‘80s, mixing energetic pop-punk with an infectious DIY attitude. Others may know him as the co-founder of Merge Records, a label he set up with bandmate Laura Balance in 1989, initially to release seven inches and cassettes by Superchunk and other unsigned bands. "We just wanted to put out our records, and put out our friends records and just keep going," Mac states modestly. Of course the label surpassed any expectations that they might have had, building a rich and varied discography, releasing albums such as In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, 69 Love Songs and Funeral to immense acclaim.

As well as running the business, Mac has always made music. Superchunk's most recent record, 2013's I Hate Music, was their tenth full-length, and he has created half a dozen mostly-solo albums under the name Portastatic. Earlier in 2015 he did something he hadn't done before: he released a record under his own name, Non-Believers, his solo debut if you like. The record has surprised a few people with its immersion in ’80s music and the pains of adolescence. It's a nostalgic snapshot of a world well before Superchunk and as such also serves as a time capsule of the music of McCaughan's adolescence. There are some touching, melancholic moments ('Real Darkness', 'Mystery Flu') as well as pop-punk touches ('Barely There', 'Come Upstairs') and it's a record that I have returned to again and again since it came out in late Spring.

When I call him to talk about Non-Believers he is at the offices of Merge Records, and if you doubt whether he remains hands-on after so many years, he had just finishing writing cheques to the company which supplies the label with parcel tape. "It's not always so glamorous," he laughs.

First things first, you are headed to Europe for a short tour- a first visit to Portugal, a few gigs in Spain and a London show. Although the songs on Non-Believers will strike a chord with fans of your other records, the instrumentation might come as a surprise. Will the shows consist of Mac McCaughan and a drum machine and synth rig, or will you be bringing a band?

No, I've been touring with the band over here in the States and it proved too costly to bring it over to Europe this time, so I'm going to come over by myself. I'll be playing solo electric guitar - which is another thing that I've been doing over here - and the show usually consists of me playing songs from the new record but also songs from my whole back catalogue, so there will be Superchunk songs and Portastatic songs as well. It has been fun to figure out different ways of playing those songs when I'm by myself, especially the Superchunk songs. I always like bands like Yo La Tengo, who play different arrangements of their own songs. I've had fun re-arranging some of my own stuff but frankly some of it only makes sense if you just play them as straightforwardly as if you were playing with a band - on a song like 'Skips Steps 1 and 3' there's not a lot of subtlety there so you just gotta do it! Someone that I've been a fan of for some time is Billy Bragg and I saw him play a show at a festival last year in Chicago and it was amazing to see him do his thing totally solo - just him and electric guitar in front of thousands of people - and he's filling up the space with the sound he has, it was just amazing.

Why have you decided to make a solo album now - why release a record under your own name at this stage?

I have a studio in my house in the basement so I'm always there doing something, and often without a real end game. In this case I was writing and recording and making demos fairly aimlessly, but once I wrote the song 'Your Hologram' - which became the first song on the album - it gave me a time and a place to focus on, both musically and in terms of subject matter -and that was adolescence. For me, adolescence came in the early ’80s and so that kind of steered the rest of the record, and that's when I knew I was making an album. Once that direction was in place it was kind of like putting a puzzle together in terms of completing it. I briefly thought about calling it Portastatic, but I felt like I had retired that name in a way when I put out a double CD compilation of odds and ends (Some Small History). My name is hard to spell and hard to pronounce and so I was hesitant to use it (pronounced Mac-Caw-han)- it's also weird to have your name on a t-shirt if you know what I mean - but at the same time if I'm ever going to use my name this is a good time. Hopefully people listen to the record and realise that just because it's under my name it doesn't mean that it's a solo folk record or something like that - maybe I'll do that someday - but this is not that record!

I wonder if it's under your name because it evokes a time before Superchunk, before Portastatic. Does it follow that the subject matter is more personal and the songs are based on personal experiences, in contrast to songs you have written as a group?

Well with Superchunk I'm still the one who is writing the words so that isn't that different. I guess what's personal about it is, instead of it being a collection of songs about all different things, it's about what happens to a couple of fictional teenagers as they are growing up. There's a not a narrative that you could follow from beginning to end in a super-linear way, but once I started writing and I was trying to keep these characters in mind - adolescent kids, teens living in small town America in the early ‘80s - kind of like small town goths or something. I wasn't a goth but I certainly knew many of them and I liked this idea of teenage alienation and disaffection and how that attracts you to certain types of music, whether it’s punk rock or goth or something else. Over here, English bands were so important to us and it's weird when I think about it now - what does someone living in a small town in the southern United States have in common with someone making music in Leeds, or wherever? For whatever reason, certain bands from that era, and from the UK, really spoke to a whole generation of kids over here. That was an interesting idea to me and now I have kids that are not quite that old yet - I've a daughter that's 12 and a son that's 8 and they have their bands that they like and you see it all happening again. It's a pretty deep well for me - that awkward time of life - and for me that time came in the early ‘80s and paralleled a time that was musically transitional. I suppose every time is transitional musically but to me that was a real important era, moving from punk rock into new wave into whatever you would call OMD or the Cocteau Twins or someone like that. I still listen to a lot of records from that era. New Order is one of my favourite bands and what I love about that time is that people were using new technology but they didn't necessarily have it mastered yet - there's still a very human aspect to what is going on, and when I first saw them on the Lowlife tour (1986) it was great to see that they were a real band.

Superchunk were always seen as coming from DIY-punk roots, although covers of New Order and the Yaz(oo) influenced The Magnetic Fields, amongst many others, hint at the era revisited on Non Believers. So did you have to plunder the attic or was this music from your adolescence close at hand?

I've always been listening to those records, but there were definitely moments when I'd be recording and I'd go to reference a specific record and listen to it and think about certain sounds. Someone gave me those Brian Eno cards - Oblique Strategies - and it's almost using it like that - as if the card that I turned over said "What would Robin Guthrie do here?!" I was using those influences not as a template but more of a reference point, but I think that the thing about that song ('Your Hologram') was that I started it with a synthesiser sound and a melody and I just kind of built it up from there. Once I had that, the various sounds in that song led me from one song to the next. I didn't want it to all sound the same and there were certainly artists from that era that were American that I listened to a lot - someone like Tommy Keene or Let's Active - more guitar-based things. I was not trying to slavishly adhere to something - but in some ways that can be easier. I like making the records where there is some sort of a set of rules. When it's super wide open it's almost like there are too many options. For me it's more fun and more satisfying to work within these parameters and see what you can do.

It's good to have that discipline, because people might preconceive a solo album as indulgent, with instrumental passages or whatever. Non Believers isn't like that at all.

Yeah, I've certainly made those records - the first couple of Portastatic records have a lot of instrumentals and interstitial parts and that's fun, but I wanted to keep this pretty focused and "song-based" even though I was thinking about records like (OMD's) Dazzleships. The instrumental parts of that record are cool and thinking about them has inspired me to start working on an instrumental mix of Non-Believers - basically like a remix of the whole album, taking off the vocals, taking off the drums. I'm not done with it yet but that's become a project of mine that I'll probably put that out at some point later this year or early next year.

Oh, as an expanded edition or something?

No, I don't like it when people do expanded editions right after the regular editions come out - I think it'll be a separate thing that maybe it'll be free on SoundCloud or something - but it'll be one forty minute long piece so I'm in the middle of that - but these shows won't be like that at all it will be me and my telecaster!

Is there going to be a follow-up to Non Believers?

I'm not sure what will be next. The band that I have been playing with over here - which hopefully we will get over to Europe at some point - are a band in their own right called the Flesh Wounds, and then when they play with me we call them the Non-Believers. It is more guitar-focused; there are no synthesisers when we play live. We've been working on a couple of new things so who knows - maybe the next thing will be a single with the band or something like that. Do you know the Mekons song 'Where Were You?' It was their first single, for me that is kind of like a template for what this band sounds like. So maybe we'll do some full band recordings at some point we'll see. As for Superchunk, we haven't really done that much recently, we are going to play a couple of shows later this year, but in some ways I knew that Superchunk was going to be dark for a while so it was another thing that spurred me to make Non-Believers.

Mac McCaughan plays the Courtyard Theatre in London on November 11th.