During our chat with Ohio-based producer Mark McGuire, a group of deer began circling his car. “Oh, whoa,” he says. “That’s sick.” Just another day in the life of a musician whose art is based on these kind of chance encounters.
For McGuire, a solo experimental player and former guitarist for Emeralds, the outside world means everything. He’s genuinely amazed by the universe, which might seem flighty to those who don’t know him. But it’s that same cosmic wonder that informs his music. To hear McGuire play is to be convinced he’s possessed by something far beyond the natural world.
His music ventures from idyllic, expansive acoustic guitar numbers to icy, wandering electronic pieces. That they fit so naturally together is a testament to McGuire’s ability as a composer and visionary. His songs toggle between the electronic and acoustic, the improvised and composed. Somewhere in the middle, McGuire sits happily, looking up at the stars and seeing things that are invisible to the rest of us. (The deer thing really happened, though.)
When you play live, is it centered around the album you’re touring, or do you prefer experimentation and improvisation?
Because I work out my compositions to play live, it’s sort of similar. I do like to play my songs from the record, but they always end up becoming a totally different composition. I don’t like to use backing tracks. I like to be able to perform everything. So the live versions do end up sounding different, which is cool. Sometimes I just like to do a lot more improvisational stuff. It generally ends up being a mix of new stuff and improv stuff. I like to meld all of the songs into live versions of a few songs. I like to condense them down.
Do you record with particular ideas in mind or is that aspect of your music more based around improvisation?
Sometimes I’ll have an idea ready before I record, but a lot of the time I’ll just start recording. I just like to see what happens and build the songs from there. I’ll have one little part and start looping riffs atop that, or start tracking different stuff over it. I just like letting them develop in that way, rather than have a strict, rigid song structure.
Are you constantly recording music?
It gets kind of bad. My first solo project I ever started was called The Bad Habit because I literally just record every day. It gets ridiculous, to the point where I’m just starting song after song after song. I don’t have any real intentions with them, but I kind of just go with it and ideas pop into my head. It’s just fun to do. I have to stop myself sometimes and be like, ‘OK, you don’t need to record two more hours of synth stuff.’
This record is pulled from sessions I’ve done over the past few years, and in the meantime, I’ve been working on other records. I’ve got one I’ve been working on, a track that I started in 2013. I’m really psyched on it, but it’s waiting in the wings for this other record. The process has changed for me. Rather than intensely working on one record at a time, my music just develops from the recordings—just having a bunch of scattered stuff forms over time into something that presents itself as an album.
You don’t ever find it difficult to form a cohesive album when your songs are being pulled from so many different thought processes and sessions?
No, not really. I have a ridiculous amount of stuff recorded, so I can tell the difference between stuff that’s just messing around and something that’s definitely a new jam. Once I start developing the narrative of a certain album, I’ll start writing songs to fill that out. It’s not all randomly pieced together. It’s a form of multi-tasking, but like—multi-dimensionally tasking different creations at the same time.
You’ve put a bunch of your music up on Bandcamp yourself. Do you prefer one version of the album release more than the other?
My favorite thing is just being able to get the recordings out. There’s no mess made with plastic stuff and there’s no obligation on people to spend a bunch of money on another tape, CD, or record. It’s just getting the music out there. There’s stuff piling up that I want to get out, but it would be years before I’d be able to get physical copies of all the stuff. It’s nice to have my albums out on a site like Bandcamp, because it’s available for people to check out. I’m eventually planning on doing physical releases for a lot of the records. It’s cool for me because I wish that I had the time, money, and resources to put everything out on vinyl, but it’s just not possible. Both have their ups and downs I guess.
It’s just a fact that when people are presented something in a certain way, they’ll look at it in that way. A lot of the stuff I’ve put out online, it might not catch people’s attention. But when the new record comes out, they’ll check it out. To streamline the effort into something that is a new album is nice, too.
You can also use the Internet as a low-stakes testing board, in a way. You can put experiments up online and see how people respond.
Yeah, it’s pretty similar to the way tapes used to be in the early days with Emeralds. Tapes were the ways to get ideas out that were happening all the time. With Emeralds, we were recording so much. The ideas would come and go, so it would be good to get them out on a tape. It’d be stitched into time a little bit more than if we just worked for months and then decided to make a record. There’s a lot more evidence of what you’ve been doing.
You’ve been making solo music for quite a while. Do you feel you’re at a place now where you’re completely detached from the Emeralds name?
I hope so! I put my first solo release out in 2006 when I started making guitar music. For a while, it was a personal thing that I’d do, and [I wouldn’t] really expect a lot of people to hear it. I definitely feel that the lifeforce, passion, and drive that I put into my solo albums was a way of reflecting my personal life into my art and channeling what I’m going through into these musical documents, [and it’s] on a different timeline from what we were doing with Emeralds. For a while, because my heart was so invested in Emeralds it would feel like I was just doing the same kind of thing [as Emeralds, with my solo work] because that’s where my heart and head were. Now I want to do different things with my music than what we were doing. Now that we haven’t been playing for two years, the development has gone in a lot of different directions.
People benefit from playing with each other because you influence and you inspire each other. You learn and develop in different ways. Now I feel like [Emeralds and my solo work are] two separate things. Not to say that either is better or worse, they’re just very different.
Is there anything you take from playing in a band that you apply to your solo music?
Oh man, absolutely. It wasn’t just being in a band—that was a thing that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid, not knowing what the band would sound like. The dream was to be doing what was in our hearts, and have that start to get out there. That’s what happened with Emeralds. From getting our first release which was put out on a label to having our first vinyl release, then going on our first overseas tour—all of that has taught me so much. It’s just learning how to work with people. I hung out with those guys, they were my best friends. We hung out every second of every day. Sometimes now, even though we’re not hanging out, I can still feel their presence in the studio, because you get to know each other so much to a certain point that the inspiration, the bond, is always there.
Playing music with people is a huge way to develop your inner telepathy, especially improvising. You’re playing off of what everyone’s doing without thinking about it. Once you can really get into the thought space and start to move together, that’s when real magic starts happening. So the bond that I developed with Emeralds is still there to this day—I still feel like we can hear each other’s jokes.
You’ve been in Ohio for a long time—
Well, I was born here, but I lived in Portland for a few years and L.A. for a few. Then I lived in Chicago and now I’ve been back for a little bit.
What brought you back?
I moved to Austin, and was going to live near the guy I was working with at Dead Oceans and my new booking agent was living there, too. I had a bunch of friends there and I was seeing this girl that lived near Dallas and we got pregnant. The day I moved to Texas we found out. We were going to be living apart and she had a four-year-old at the time. Things happened real fast and she didn’t have any family or friends that would support her, so I brought them all up to Ohio because I have a really big family. They love my daughter so much now, I knew they’d be supportive of us back then because life changed out of nowhere very fast. Even if you prepare for it, you need support from family. That was the reason I came back initially.
Does Ohio impact your music at all?
Yeah, your environment absolutely affects what you’re creating, whether people know it or not. It’s just one of those things that you can’t tell because you can’t relive moments and re-record the same thing in different places and see how it’d come out. We’re stuck in 3D world where we can’t do that yet.
Since being back here I’ve definitely felt—even the room you record in has an impact. The environment, the ambience. If you’re in a city and you can hear stuff coming in the window from the street, even removing that from the environment can have such a drastic effect on how you’re able to create, because the more you’re comfortable in a good space, the more you’re able to open up.
Certain things do stop people from really being able to explore their own ideas. Even if you’re trying to do something and you have roommates on the other side of the house who can maybe hear it, you can be worried about bothering them with stuff that probably sounds weird, because you’re just trying it out. Even just trying to practice singing. You might not even know how good a singer you are, because you’ve never been in an environment where you feel comfortable enough to actually try singing. I’ve always been very conscious of what the environment is. Sometimes, I’ll be in the studio all day—like, in Portland, there would be people in the house, and at the end of the day I’d just go outside and walk for hours to clear my head. Other times, you can make that the recording atmosphere.
It’s always good to have balance and juxtaposition to be able to understand the tones. If you’re standing at the sunset, it might look beautiful, but it might look normal after a few minutes. But if you look at a picture of it later, you may see all these colors you didn’t see at the time. Or the greens on a cloudy day—they don’t pop until you look at a picture later, standing in a room with fluorescent light. It’s a completely different feeling, and then you notice all the beauty that was there. I try to use the same technique—catching the juxtaposition between rural countryside and being surrounded by electronics and music equipment. It’s a very different vibration and the two can definitely work in harmony.