Big Ears 2014: Interview with Mark McGuire

A couple of Rock Show DJs had a chance to sit down with guitarist Mark McGuire, formerly of Emeralds, to talk about his new album, his upcoming collaborations, and his approach to making music. Be sure to check out Mark’s most recent album, Along the Way, out now on Dead Oceans!

Listen to the interview here, or check the text after the jump!

Interview with Mark Mcguire by Wnur-Fm on Mixcloud

Mark McGuire @ Cafe 4 in Knoxville, TN 3/39/14
Mark McGuire @ Cafe 4 in Knoxville, TN 3/39/14

WNUR: So Mark, how are you?
MM: Really, really doing well. How are you?

WNUR: I’m great. Are you excited to be at Big Ears? Have you ever played at Big Ears before?
MM: No, I haven’t. I’ve never been to Knoxville either, so I’m really excited.

WNUR: It’s pretty adorable. The downtown is like, a square mile.
MM: Oh whoa.

WNUR: It’s pretty cute.
Seems like a pretty comfy little town even though it’s raining a lot and doesn’t really feel like that.

So I forgot what I was gonna talk about first. If you wanna just talk about… You just put out a new album pretty recently, Along the Way. How was working with Dead Oceans? They’re like almost like a major label these days.
Yeah, they’re majorly cool. They’re all really, really nice people and it was like, for me, I’ve always been able to just like work with friends and kind of like, with Emeralds we used to just wind up putting records out with our friends’ labels and stuff. And so working with Dead Oceans, it felt to me like getting a new job or like going to a new year of school where like you meet all these people that you’re working with and it’s this fresh new environment and everyone is very inspired and encouraging.

Did you get to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids?
I actually went to their office one time and I ended up sitting at a table by myself. Like, this is classic style. But it was really cool. They’re all wonderful.

So one of my favorite things that happened recently was the profile of you in the New York Times about being Mr. New Age. How do you feel about that label? When I think of New Age I think of like, crystal healing and Enya. And what my chiropractor plays.
I mean, I’m deeply into crystal healing and Enya. But I don’t think that necessarily equates to my expression as an artist, like me personally. New Age is a weird concept because it can mean so many different things to so many people, especially if you’re talking about either New Age music, New Age philosophy, you know, the New Age movement in general. It’s really like saying, “I’m into rock music” or something like that. It’s a very, very broad, sweeping statement to try to throw your whole thing into.

So do you incorporate that philosophy into your music? Because I know your new album is very much kind of a philosophy, character-driven, kind of thing.
Yeah. I study a lot of… I do a lot of comparative studies of different religions and philosophies and stuff like that. And the New Age movement is one where I do find a lot of the things that they say to be very helpful in kind of discovering what you believe to be your path, or whatever, your individual path. But again, I think it’s a thing where, you know, if you came out and said, “I’m completely going along with the whole,” you know, because I don’t necessarily do yoga and all that stuff. But I believe in the practices that those exercises teach which is like, yoga means to link back to the initial self before humanity lost our connection with nature. So when you’re doing yoga, you’re supposed to be actually disconnecting from the material world and stuff like that. And I believe in that, but I don’t have to sit and force myself in my little metaphysical cubical or whatever. You know what I mean?

You can transcend that. Can you do that through music?
I believe that. When I play music, and I’ve always felt this way, it’s like that’s the one feeling that makes me feel connected to life itself. And when I play live and stuff like that, there are moments where I just realize that it’s like, I don’t know. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience or something like that, where you’re kind of just looking at… you’re not really looking at anything. You’re stepping back from yourself and just being in the moment. And you know, that’s, to me, like meditating. All that stuff is bringing about the same feeling. And that can come about in many ways. Like I go for runs sometimes, and like there will be things, like I’ll have this mental block for like a week straight. And then I’ll go for a run and in the middle of it I’ll get back and be like, “Dude, I figured it out!” You know what I mean? When you go out and do something where you literally just can shut down everything else that is just the constant chatter that’s coming from every other direction. So it can take any form it wishes.

That’s a beautiful thing.
It is a beautiful thing. You’re right.

Do you need to do anything to get yourself amped up for shows?
I do, I try to get myself into a little headspace. It can be different things depending on how casual the environment is, because if I go into a festival like this, where it’s gonna be pretty pro-run, but also everyone’s been very cool. It’s just like, I wanna be on point, but I also wanna remember to just have fun and be relaxed. That’s the main thing, because if I get too nervous or start thinking about things too much, you’re gonna tell when I’m up there. Or I’m gonna tell. That’s the main thing. Sometimes I have to be like, “Dude, just stop thinking.” So that’s just kind of breaking the moment and just being like, just laughing or something like that. Just having a lighter attitude about is sometimes a good way to get in that headspace.

You just got here this morning, right?

Are you gonna go see anyone else at the festival?
Yeah, I just got the schedule so I gotta see everything. But yeah, Laraaji I’m really looking forward to, and Steve Reich. Music for 18 Musicians is one of my favorite albums of all time and I’ve never seen it performed.

It should be pretty awesome.
Yeah, I’m pretty excited for that.

Oh, so: new album, it’s usually, you know, Emeralds, your solo stuff, guitar, synths. You have a whole bunch of other stuff going on. How is that writing process different from just you playing the guitar?
Yeah, it’s very different. And it just goes along with around that time… I keep using the word “along.”

Well, that’s the word.
Yeah, I mean it truly is. And that’s kind of why I chose to use that in the title. The original title was “The Journey Towards Being” and I ended up going with “Along the Way” because it kind of… at this point, you’re kind of showing this snapshot where it is not the beginning, middle, or the end of any point. You’re just along the way. But back to your question, what was your question again?

What was my question? Oh, it was about using more instrumentation. More like a full band experience.
Around that time I was wanting to incorporate new instruments and sounds into my palette and stuff like that, because I’d been doing solo guitar stuff for about six years. And I don’t want to say I was hitting a wall, but there was a point where I just wanna do more. And I think everyone goes through that with whatever it is, it doesn’t even have to be art. Around that time I started getting new instruments but I didn’t have the total way of just incorporating it into what I do in a way that wasn’t, “Oh! All of a sudden here’s a drum machine, a synth,” you know. Something like that. So it took a little while of trying to figure out how to write even with playing keyboard and stuff like that. So the writing process is very different, but once I kind of got the blueprint, I had the tools and I could just start working, then it kind of flowed just as naturally. And now that mode is kind of my new style.

Do you think you’re gonna keep doing that full instrumentation thing?
Well, it’s weird because you’ll see today I’m going to play a lot of stuff from the record, but I basically had to rewrite all the songs to play live so that I didn’t have to… because you know a lot of the record, some of the songs have like, thirty layers of stuff on them and stuff like that. And I just simply can’t do that live at all. And I don’t like the idea of playing to a backing track or something like that. But I’m not gonna sit there and be one-man-band style with a snare drum and all this stuff. But I found a way to kind of work with the songs live, but still have these prerecorded sequences so I recomposed everything so I can play live. And now I start thinking, maybe that would be a cool way to do the record: make the songs, then make the songs to play live, and then make the record out of the way you made the songs to play live. Don’t steal that idea. I mean, it’s not a new idea by any means, but for me it’s a new way of thinking about things. It’s just the continuous process of realizing things are always just out there.

So it’s just gonna be you today on the stage rocking out?
Yeah, just me.

New Age-ing out by yourself?
Yeah, it’ll be just me and the spirits.

So you’ve done a lot of cool collaborative stuff lately. This was a couple of years ago, but Inner Tube with Spencer Clark?
Oh, yeah man.

That was really cool.
Tube, yeah I’m glad you caught that.

Jason really likes Inner Tube. Any other collaborations in the pipeline? We were pretty stoked on the track you did with Egyptian Sports Network.
Oh yeah, that was really fun too. Yeah, Spencer and I lived… I lived in Spencer’s house for a few years. We’re like, he’s one of my best friends. So it was really cool to be able to work on stuff with him like, around the house and stuff like that. There was always like, weird different kinds of music coming out of the different rooms in the house and all that. So that was really cool. And Spencer has been such an influence and an inspiration in me personally and artistically and, yeah I love that dude. We’ve been working on some stuff. We’ve been talking about doing another Inner Tube for a long time, but it’s been the kind of thing where he’s getting ready to move back to Europe and our paths at this point have kind of diverged and it’s just natural. And I’m working on stuff with Dustin Wong when I was in Japan last year…

We are all madly in love with Dustin.
Oh me too.

So tell him we said hi.
Yeah he’s a prince, man. He’s really…

A god among men.
He really is, man. He’s one of the deepest people I’ve ever met.

I heard, I think it was from the Japan tour, like a really excellent live recording of you and Dustin and somebody else?
And Ken Seeno.

Yeah, that’s amazing.
That was really fun. And so a week after that, Dustin and I met up at his apartment and jammed and we have like an hour session that we did that we have to edit down. But we wanna do more. We don’t wanna just put that out because it’s like, the thing, or whatever. We wanna talk about a lot of stuff. I mean, he’s a really deep dude and we got really deep in discussing spirituality and philosophy and stuff like that. And so I think what we’re gonna come up with is gonna be a lot more than just like two dudes doing guitar loop stuff and things like that. It’s going to be really cool. And there’s other stuff as well. I’m gonna space out and I’ll just leave that one there for now. Ken Seeno and I, we’re working on some stuff together as well, but he’s kind of a working stiff, so getting him to have band practice is like pretty rare. So it’s just, you know, a matter of like, so many projects that I have in the pipeline in general right now. But it’s like, it takes so long for them to even come together and manifest in a physical sense.

So what’s it like to be in L.A. now?
It’s pretty weird. Yeah, I gotta say in general it’s pretty weird.

I feel like it would be pretty different from that midwest sensibility. How so?
Well, yeah definitely. I went there first to work on a film score for a CBS movie with Bryan Cranston. It was like a full-on Hollywood movie. And I lived like, in Beverly Hills in the producer of the film’s house where it was like everyone of their neighbors was like, Nicole Kidman, Ziggy Marley, Jessica Simpson. You know what I mean? Full-on Hollywood style. And that was one of the weirdest times of my life. By the end of that I was like, “Yo, I gotta get the hell outta here.” I remember they told me, like the day they locked the picture, they told me, “You’re done,” I was like, “I’m gonna take off tonight, if that’s cool.” And I ended up packing my stuff up and leaving that night and driving back to Portland. But then after a little while, I was like, “Man, I kinda miss L.A.” So there is definitely… you know, L.A.’s a strange place. It’s a magical place. But there’s also a lot of sorcery going on there.

There’s a lot of people trying to manipulate others. Because you know, in the Druidic times, one of the most important things in the Druidic system was the magic wand. And the magic wand was always made out of holly wood. And that’s why holly wood was made as the giant, magic, symbolic wand, to kind of make everyone crazy. So when you’re there, you’re kind of face-to-face with that on a day-to-day level; it can be a little frightening.

Is it slowly driving you insane?
It kinda was, yeah. So I think getting out and taking a breather every once in a while really helps. Because when I go back I can just see the magic in it again, and see that it’s beautiful and there’s like, really good food and lots of cool people.

Food is important.
It’s super important. Cheap and good.

And it’s a lot sunnier than Portland.
True, a lot sunnier. That’s also very important. I’m a… as you can see, I need my sunlight. I’m barely hanging on.

You’re a tan guy. I mean, we’re out in Chicago, so we don’t know what sunlight is either.
Yeah, you tend to forget around March.

You were just in Chicago playing with Earth. And you played with them yesterday? What are they like? Are they cool dudes?
They’re so nice. They’re all really cool.

They kind of have a New Age-y vibe to them.
Definitely. And they’re a cool band because you can look at the juxtaposition of the traditional way that like, say, their name and some of the names of their songs, “Seven Angels” and stuff like that, sound to the… judging a book by its cover, and then you hear what it actually is. And it’s this really visceral, powerful, almost kind of dark-sounding thing. But they encompass both aspects, the dark and the light, and show how they work together. How darkness is not necessarily evil, you know what I mean? So they’re the other side of the New Age coin, where it’s just the peace and love, happiness, crystal healing. It doesn’t encompass everything. You can’t fully get through your life just thinking in that mindset.

So are you hitting the road soon for this album?
Jenny Hval and I are heading out on tour after this.

Straight from here?

She’s playing right before you today, right?
Yeah, yeah. I haven’t met her yet, so I’m gonna go over after this and we’re gonna meet. We’ve got the next few weeks on the road. And really excited for that. And then I’m gonna do some stuff later in the year. I think I’m coming back to Chicago in May or something like that. So yeah.

We’ll hang out then. It will be fun.
Yeah, definitely. I think at the end of the Jenny tour we’re playing the Empty Bottle. I think the last night of the tour.

Is that where you were with Earth?
That was with Earth, yeah.

I love the Empty Bottle, that place rules.
Yeah, it’s a great place.