Interview: Mark McGuire

Stream Mark McGuire’s new solo album, Along the Way, and read an interview with the former Emeralds guitarist.

January 27, 2014

Just to Feel Anything, the last album Emeralds ever released, had song titles like "The Loser Keeps America Clean" and "Search for Me in the Wasteland." A little over a year later, guitarist Mark McGuire is releasing his first solo album since the Cleveland trio split up (read one of the final interviews the band gave here), and it kicks off with the gently percolating, one-two-three roll of "Awakening," "Wonderland of Living Things," and "In Search of the Miraculous." To call his Dead Oceans debut a "happier"-sounding album wouldn't be right; it shuttles through way too many moods, just as it's got way too much going on musically—including, but not limited to, vox, live percussion, piano and mandolin—to be described as the sort of drone-dude-with-a-guitar affair that his fans have come to expect from him. Still, there's a newfound hopefulness and openness to Along the Way, which follows a semi-autobiographical narrative McGuire included in the liner notes about one young man's quest for self awareness as he passes into adulthood. Stream the album here, and read an interview with McGuire about it below. Real talk: dude's got as many kernels of wisdom to share as this album has overdubs.

Stream: Mark McGuire, Along the Way

The last time we spoke, Emeralds had just released Just to Feel Anything. You guys disbanded shortly thereafter. What have you been up to since then? It’s been a pretty insane year actually—a lot of moving around. I was back in Portland for a while and I finished up Along the Way. That was almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve been collaborating with Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs here and there; I played on a bunch of songs that are gonna be on their new record, which is coming out sometime this year. And I ended up moving to LA kind of permanently, and finding a place there that’s more than just a sublet. It was also kind of a purge year. Like, someone stole my computer at one of my shows in London, and I bought a new one, and like a month later, I was DJing and someone spilled a beer all over it and completely destroyed it. And I got back and I was bringing all my records down to LA, and something happened with my car, and the floor of the car started overheating and literally melted full crates of my records. I had to get rid of a bunch of stuff before I moved from Portland to LA just because I had too much shit, and then the stuff I brought didn’t even survive. I dunno, I’ve been trying to let go of a lot of shit this year. Even though I don’t like to consider myself a materialistic person, there’s a lot of stuff that I was more dependent on that I’d like to admit, and it was just waking me up to that. The computer and car stuff and all that happened, and it put me in this mindset of starting to think about the things again that are actually really important, and not to worrying about shit like that, even though it’s pretty intense.

So you feel like you’re in a very different place from when we last spoke? I feel like, yeah, a lot’s happened, you know? Putting in a lot of intense inner labor to create certain things—it takes it out of you. So it’s been assimilating that as the mode that my life operates in, which has been really great, but at the same time, I was forced to stop thinking about other things, and you get into your own sort of rat race, even if it’s not the typical rat race of driving into downtown and putting on a suit and tie or whatever and going to the office everyday. Your focus starts to get more and more narrow, or more and more personal and fixed and individualistic. So for me, I just started realizing that there’s so much more to life—there’s always more pieces to the puzzle. It’s kind of been just a slow process of waking up to that, and how that’s affected my life and my relationships and my outlook and stuff like that. So yeah, I’m definitely in a different headspace, but it’s been a train of thought that’s been going for a little bit.

Did that headspace rub off on the album at all? Absolutely, yeah. I mean, if you want to use the instrumentation as a metaphor, I was just working on solo guitar music for years. And it’s cool to have a thing like, “Oh, that’s your thing that you do,” but there’s a whole world of sound out there, and I’d gotten into this mindset where that’s not a part of what I am or what I do or whatever. And I started to feel like, “Why do I think that?” or “Why do I feel like that?” To be honest, when I started the record, I literally said to myself that there would be no boundaries in terms of what instruments I used, what it ended up sounding like, or anything like that. Whatever ideas and sounds came into my head, I would try to make happen, and I wouldn't worry about what type of music it sounded like or if it made any kind of logical sense.

What was the recording process like? My normal set-up is just recording guitar through a bunch of delay pedals, and sometimes adding vocals or more guitar later. On this record, I focused more on recording individual parts in separate layers, and building the entire thing, piece by piece. In addition to guitar, I used bass, vocals, live percussion, piano, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, and even messed around with sampling acoustic instruments, like santur and mandolin. There's a lot of layering of real instruments over fake versions of themselves. As far as where that took the sound of the album, I think my main thing was wanting it to sound full, and for there to be real harmony within the tracks. Using all these new instrument sounds made me realize how delicate the balance is once you get everything going, so I wanted everything to have a certain softness to it, even when it's kinda going off.

How did you come up with the story that accompanies this book? When I started the record, I was working on a film score, and was living in this studio that I was working on it at, and basically was getting so into the idea of putting sounds to ideas, and sound to images and to story, that when I started working on my new record, this idea kind of clicked in my head that I would create this entire story within the music. At first, it was kind of like a weird, faux-sci-fi novel kind of thing, or weird psychedelic adventure story, more fiction-style, [but] it was more just trying to get ideas [across] along with the music, and to also make that go along with where I felt I was at personally. So I started writing all these ideas and these themes down, stuff like that. A lot of the titles are just references to certain books I’ve been reading, even just ideas that certain writers talk about and that I’ve kind of really felt affected by. The song “The Human Condition,” which I wrote for my father—at that time, I was going through all this studying of psychology and looking at what makes people act the way that they do. Just looking at myself and realizing certain things, like that I want to always feel like I do the right thing, and that I’m a good friend, that I’m honest and all this kind of stuff. And just realizing all of the confusion that surrounds the way so many people [communicate]. Like, you speak the same language or whatever, but everyone has all these ideas and associations and feelings wrapped around the words [they’re using]. So when you’re saying [something] to somebody, it comes across a lot of times in a very different way than you mean it to, and these misunderstandings arise over time, and relationships go in certain ways. That was something I was going through at that time, and just thinking about the human condition as this constant, almost underlying heartbreak that surrounds all relationships. That was something that at the time I was talking to my dad about, and he had some really good advice.

What advice did he give you? He’s been through a lot, and he basically just told me, “Don’t beat yourself up too hard.” He said to me, “You know and I know that you love your friends and you love your family, and that’s what’s important. And your friends will know that, and at the end of the day, just know that it’s all good.”

In the liner notes to Along the Way, you speak of “the endless unfolding of psychological landscapes.” Is there something about the way this record is structured that mimics that kind of ongoing introspection? Yeah, with the way that my music has always kind of functioned, I like to build structures around repetitive patterns and parts like that, but that always gradually shift and don’t ever get too stagnant. One minute you’re hearing one thing, and you get kind of in this meditational mindset because you’re hearing something that’s repeating over and over, but then a few minutes later, you realize, “Wait, this is now totally different than it was.” And with the story too, the realizations that the character in the story comes to are continuously kind of evolved and re-evaluated throughout the whole story. And then at the end, there’s the grand re-evaluation. But the record itself is not about reaching this point where you know everything; if anything, it’s about getting to the point where you realize you don’t know anything.

So that’s the life lesson that the protagonist of the story learns at the end? There’s a few things. There’s the personal struggle that the character goes through, and deciding to devote his life to his soul to knowledge and to growing—how eventually that slowly separates you from people in your life who don’t necessarily want to do that, which is not to say it’s right or wrong, but it’s just how it goes. And so, the dude winds up feeling so isolated and alienated and kind of lonely that he basically feels different from everyone in his life, even the people that are closest to him. And the final realization is that no matter what, everyone winds up feeling like that in their own way, and that we’re all the same, basically. That’s not to say we’re not all special and beautiful and unique, but we’re all essentially on the same journey of trying to figure out who and what we are, and what is going on in the world, and how we can be happy and how we can contribute to the general happiness of humanity.

Should people be reading the story side by side with the music? Well, it’s kind of how I wrote it out, because there are certain points musically that correspond with certain places in the text and stuff like that, but it’s not like one of those children’s books where you’re reading along and then there’s like a sound thing that you press; it’s more like the sound accompanies the mood and the vibe of certain parts. One of the other things I wrote about in the preface was not to read too fine into the wording of it; I feel like something that it is very personal and specific is wide open to people just trying to rip it apart for whatever reason—like “Oh I think this is about this, I think this is about that.” It’s really not. It’s more just about personal harmony, like wanting to feel like your brain and your soul and even your interactions—that everything is in tune and in harmony and feeling good, and that your personal relationships with the world and with the outerlying, concentric circles of people and relationships are all in harmony too. It’s about figuring that out, and it’s basically about… just chill and enjoy it.

Interview: Mark McGuire