Art by Mark McGuire
Mark McGuire's music kaleidoscopes. From the sparkling kosmische wormholes of his work with now-defunct Emeralds to the guitar latticework of his solo efforts, his output has covered immense sonic ground. But on his newest release on VDSQ, Ideas of Beginnings, the journeyman finally sounds at home. The interlocking strum patterns that texture the record lap gently on the ear, gesturing at a charred and worn personal lore imbued within each warble of the guitar. Ahead of his performance on July 27 at Brooklyn's Park Church Co-op, McGuire spoke to AdHoc about the narratives his music explores, the role of guitar-based art in today's musical terrain, and the critical importance of playing from the heart.
The title of this record Ideas of Beginnings seems to signal a return to something primal or even pre-linguistic. What sorts of beginnings do you have in mind?
The title came from a line in Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts about the eternal nature of things, that there was no beginning and there will be no end. That ideas of beginnings only make sense to us because of our notion of linear time. So the music reflects the ideas both inside and outside of time. Kind of like standing outside of yourself looking back upon your life, and at the same time looking up as that inner child that wished for all those things to happen. Eternal beginnings and never-endings.
Your more acoustic output as a solo artist resonates with a lot of the electronic soundscapes you helped construct during your time with Emeralds. Where do guitar drone and synthesizer-based drone intersect?
The intersection of guitar and synthesizer drone is like bringing together the power of the heart and the power of the mind to create who we are. Synths are more mental instruments. They often take a lot of technical understanding and lots of thinking to operate properly. Guitar is more of a heart instrument. It’s more about feeling than about thinking. So when you put them together, they really highlight each other’s strengths and uniqueness. In the Emeralds days, I was doing of work getting my guitar to sound like a synthesizer, and there’d be times when they’d get the synth sounding like guitar shredding, and we had fun finding all the similarities in the two as well..
You’ve previously released your work on Editions Mego and Dead Oceans, but for Ideas of Beginnings, you are returning to boutique guitar-centered label VDSQ. What place does guitar music—or any music that heavily relies on the musical skill of its practitioners—have these days?
We’re at a strange time in our cultural evolution. Right now there are more talented and gifted musicians and artists in the world than ever before. They’re everywhere, and so many [are] unheard and unseen. It’s mind-boggling to think of how many great guitar players there are in the world, but most of them aren’t pursuing it on the level they’d like to be, even though they may technically have what it takes. To me, it’s not all about technical skill. I’ve never been a highly technical player. I have some technical knowledge of scales and have a basic understanding of music, but for the most part, I’m just playing from my heart.
These days, people have seen and heard so much, that even if you can shred their face off or finger-pick until the cows come home, it rarely can hold people’s attention for very long. It’s still a matter of taking that and turning it into a personal expression, something unique that no one else could have done. It’s not about what you got, but what you do with it. There’s a Martin Lawrence stand-up where he’s talking about having your own place and not having a lot of things, and says, “it doesn’t matter if all you got is a chair and a hat, just style that mf." And that’s real. Coming from the heart will always reach the people that need it, and many times coming from the mind will not.
Why did you start playing guitar, and why have you so faithfully stuck to it despite the allure of contemporary electronic music production?
I’ve been playing since I was nine years old—and wanted a guitar since I was even younger, maybe four or five. When I was 18 and conventional music had lost its luster, I started making experimental music, using tapes and vocals, and [even] stopped playing guitar for a little while. I had to take a breath, but shortly after that, I got inspired to play guitar in Emeralds and started making solo guitar recordings for the first time. All of a sudden, it had taken on totally new sounds and colors, and I could approach it with a fresh take and new understandings. It took years to start to refine what I was doing, so while the other dudes were getting synths and stuff, I was trying to hone my guitar style. For a long time I was trying to get sounds from the guitar that didn’t sound like guitar, but I started feeling limited by what I was doing and got a synth in 2012 and started adding other elements to the music outside of guitar. It was cool because that also taught me to use the guitar in new ways: being able to focus on it more as a lead instrument rather than building everything out of it all the time. Too much of anything is not always a good thing.
One critique I’ve often heard leveled at ambient or drone music is that it’s all too random, all too scattered. What does your composition process look like? How do you fashion the intricate layers of strummed harmonies?
In general, the way I approach recording has always just been “record it now; ask questions later.” Though we ended up leaning more towards composing pieces, since the early days with Emeralds the spirit of the music and approach has always been improvisational by nature. My own recording process has changed over the years, along with my means to do so, my understanding of recording/production technology, and even my vision of what I want my music to sound like. The songwriting process is the same way: it feels best when it’s constantly changing, always staying fresh and new somehow. If the process were always the same, it would take the mystery and the magic out of it. You’d know what you’ve got before you’re even done making it. I like music to surprise me, to reveal something through the process that I could not have seen at first.
In the early days, most of my recordings were just done live to cassette tape. No overdubs or anything, so the focus was more on the live layering of the guitar, making things happen on the spot. When I played live I would only perform a piece one time, then work on a new one. After a while i started recording on my computer and creating more with multi-tracking, and then the focus was more on fine-tuning ideas and layering parts to get sounds you can’t get playing an instrument live. I’ve been learning to record lots of different ways, and lots of different styles of music. I’m trying to branch out and grow in multiple directions at once, rather than just pushing one way of doing things to the max.
What makes this record special? In what way is it different from your other work?
It’s the first record since Get Lost that is all guitar. My first vinyl [release] was a solo acoustic record on VDSQ from like 2009, and I had been talking to Steve Lowenthal [who runs VDSQ] about doing another one for a long time. At the time, I was still making all guitar music, so in the last few years, since I’ve been using other instruments, it’s taken on a whole new significance to me. I could start to look at it for what it was again, which felt really good.
The chords and tones on the record are gorgeous—when harmonized all together, I’ve always found your music to be particularly emotive. What kind of emotions were you trying to evoke on the record?
These songs are about joy, longing, the excitement of experiencing the mysteries of life, loss and grief, growth and moving forward, patience and loneliness.
Your music, from Emeralds’ “Candy Shoppe” to “Beginning of Winter,” off your new record, possesses a meditative quality in its repetitive structures and almost hymnic tones. How does spirituality feature in your music?
Most spiritual practices are essentially designed to get you centered, grounded, and [nestled with]in your heart. To me, playing music has always been the best way to get centered, meditate, and connect with my heart. Music contains sounds and feelings that could never be expressed through words or ideas, so I believe music itself is of a very spiritual nature. Sound is one of the most sacred gifts in our universe and is one of the core components of everything we perceive.
I’ve always found your music to almost perfectly soundtrack whatever I’m doing when I happen to be listening to it. What sorts of narratives do you envision while composing, if any?
For some of my records, like Beyond Belief and Along The Way, I wrote narratives to accompany the music. Beyond Belief starts in our ancient past [and tracks] the beginnings of mankind all the way into present time and into possible futures. At the same time, those same stories were about my choice to become a father. Belief is about a bleak, southern landscape of the future and a little girl who still believes deep down in her heart that something beautiful is out there, something that will come and save her from the hopelessness of her world [that] morphs into a beautiful cosmic reunion down on the farm. The music is made to emulate that type of imagery. Some are more abstract than others, and I always want it to be about the imagery and emotions evoked in the listener. The songs also work in healing sessions, and specific songs are used for specific types of healing the person may be going through.
How is performing live a different process for you than writing for the studio?
When I am recording and writing songs, I’m not limiting the session to any number of tracks. I'm just letting things happen. When I play live, everything is done live. I may have sequences or drums programmed in my MPC, but everything is performed manually, and there are no backing tracks. The way the pieces operate changes completely because of this, and they usually have a life all their own. I try to go for what the essence of what the piece is, rather than try to play everything the same as on the record. Sometimes, the parts will get played on totally different instruments, or a new part will emerge, and I try to just let it flow. I make lots of videos, do my own live visuals, and often try to get the song and the video to sync up in different ways. That’s a lot of fun.
What parting wisdom do you, as a veteran of the electronic music scene, have for younger artists looking to make music as enduring and artful as yours?
Well, thank you for the kind words. My advice to any young artist is to really trust in what you’re doing, and to do it for yourself and not the approval of anyone else. So many people judge themselves by how others judge them, and that’s all trickery. Every person has untold, beautiful gifts in their heart, and we need to trust in how powerful they really are. Don’t worry if only five people hear it, or if five million hear it. Things take time—and it’s a big world. Let things fall into place and always play from your heart. You will get to where you want to go.