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Bill MacKay talks vintage guitars, inspiration and his new album in this GIGsoup exclusive interview

Earlier on this month, Bill MacKay released a fascinating gem with ‘Esker’, an understated collection of fully instrumental musings that we called “a love letter to the guitar itself”. The latest in a long line of varied and experimental records released over the past decade or so, it’s another strong effort from one of the best known names in the world of Chicago alternative music. We recently caught up with MacKay and had a change to pick his brains on everything from his vintage instruments to the inspiration behind his many collaborations with fellow luminaries of experimental music.

What triggered your desire to start playing the guitar?

I think it was an early inspiration. I liked how the guitar sounded. I was nine when I started to play, so I think it was a pretty primal reaction. 

Would you describe your music as folk? I find that most acoustic music gets labelled as folk even if it perhaps isn’t in the strict sense of the term, would you say that’s the case? Is genre important to you?

Some of it definitely embraces kinds of folk music. I’m coming to accept genre terms more though they’re limiting. As descriptive guides, they’re hard to get away from. Really though I concentrate on a range of song styles, I’m kind of a hybridist. Most of my art heroes seemed to draw from whatever source they felt akin to. If it feels natural you can probably fit it into your work. That’s my view. 

My band Darts & Arrows was centered on jazz & rock while accented by folk, blues and country. My last few albums are acoustic-centered because that’s been intriguing lately – but I’m currently working on a few other records, and those are heading down other paths. I think acoustic = folk is definitely a very easy notion, but not always accurate. 

Do you consider yourself to be part of a scene?

There are scenes and circles I could say I’m part of and attracted to. Many who play jazz might also lead a noise group, or play folk and so on. So, things aren’t separated that deeply, and that’s for the better. It’s led to a lot of the vibrancy in art here. I try to forge my own way.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of different people over your career. What is it that’s motivated you to do this? Could you talk about if/how the creative process differs in collaboration to solo work?

It’s a very natural result I think of being exposed to lots of approaches, and seeing that they all speak to you. Then ferment tends to happen when you meet someone and you’re both not so tied to one way of doing things. It’s really the same as having a circle of friends that’s pretty eccentric and motley, but the thread that unites them is really strong. 

The main thing I see as distinct in solo work versus band/ensemble work is that each is balanced by a challenge and an ease that the other doesn’t have. With bands, you have supportive sound-making all around you, so that if you veer strangely or fall off the surfboard, the whole machine doesn’t grind to a halt. Yet you can’t just change the map whenever you feel like it. With solo work, you’re quite vulnerable in the sense of keeping the thing moving forward, it’s all clearly on you, yet there’s tremendous freedom in going where you want. In that challenge, there is a lot of richness.  

I believe you also paint, are there similarities between your approach to music and your approach to painting or are they two very different schools of art?

I feel all creative acts are essentially linked, and it is about a way of being more than a type of material or style. You may meet someone with a great way of speaking, and you recognize it as this mountainous wide-ranging art of its own. I think Krishnamurti said ‘the art of living is the greatest art’. It rings true. Living clearly or rightly, as you see it, is the foundation, like a giant Oak, and your artwork is a branch of that tree. 

Do you tend to draw influence from the outside world, or is most of your inspiration internal?

I get a lot from both, but yeah, a lot comes out of this primal sense of what’s outside me: what I see in the cities, the odd anonymous nature of cities say… they are often places that have a lot of spirits but seem like an abyss you cross over physically and in time. Certain filmmakers have captured this sense of say, a landscape, space or building that is itself charged with feeling: joy, enigma, menace. And of course, it’s also being projected by me on what I see. But then in the end, they’re one. I’m very nostalgic by nature and it’s a profound influence: thoughts of friends, places & times past make a deep & wild reservoir for me.

Would you say it’s harder to be noticed by an audience when you’re making instrumental music?

Not necessarily. Or I should say that each music finds its audience. That’s the idea anyway. My trajectory has been a long road, and I have hit more listeners the longer I’ve played & grown. While there is a notion of non-vocal music being a niche audience, I think it’s really random. There is such a saturation of music to hear now that that notion seems to be breaking down: More and more people are opening up to things in an unexpected way. Tastes are expanding. The atmosphere you wish to create is what’s essential, and it’s intrinsic. That gets through to a listener. Even if we might tweak things in a certain direction, I don’t think that anything too far from yourself works in the long run. 

Instrumental as a category is also a weird thing, I mean it’s not a genre at all because it doesn’t describe anything about the actual music. Beyond that, the assumed line between vocal and non-vocal music has been wildly overemphasized. Some of the most popular and pivotal music of the last few centuries, has been instrumental yet came out in wildly divergent genres: Frederic Chopin, Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, The Ventures, for example. I think one can sing with a guitar. Melody has always been key to me, and even in noise there may be a melody. Many songs work whether with or without words. That said, I’ve written songs with words as well, just haven’t recorded them much. It will happen though.

Could you talk a little about how you came to be signed with Drag City? Were you a fan of the label beforehand?

I met some of the Drag City folks at a show here in Chicago, and we just got talking about working together. It really led naturally from there. I was mostly done with the record ‘Esker’ at that point. It’s been wonderful to work with them.   

How did you meet Ryley Walker?  I really like the album you made with him in 2015, could you talk us through the creative process between the two of you and why it works?

First off, thank you. I’m glad at how that one came out. We met at a friend’s birthday party and hit it off, decided to start playing and see where it led. I think our playing revolves around a root chemistry, a push to dig into what is rooted, and also to leave the harbor for uncharted waters. And our friendship adds to all that. Sparks seem to keep firing when we get together for shows or to record. And I think that’s all we are sure of.

A couple of years ago you created a tribute record to Chicago guitarist John Hulburt.  What was it that specifically drew you to cover Hulburt’s work amongst the hundreds of great guitarists from the era?

Well, I was certainly psyched when I became aware of Hulburt’s music via the recent Tompkins Square reissue, and that was another thing of a good chance happening: I was asked by Josh Rosenthal to do a record of some of those songs after I’d played the release party for John Hulburt’s record. I dig how it came out. And it wasn’t easy! Those songs are tough to learn.

A lot of your earlier albums were self-released.  Was it a challenge to handle all the aspects of releasing an album yourself?

It was at first, and then you get used to the idea of getting all these separate parts together…from the music, mixing, and mastering to art, photos, press and so on together in a reasonably tight space of time. After a few projects, it’s very normal – and then you’re surprised how relatively easier it can be to have people sharing that work. It’s a real blessing when someone wants to work on it with you. It also helps to have more ears and eyes involved. They inspire good changes, and catch some unsuccessful things before they happen, or go out!

In the Bio on your site it says you grew up in Pittsburgh and didn’t move to Chicago until 1998.  What was it that drew you to the city? Obviously, it has a world-famous music scene, was that a factor in your decision to move there?

Well, I was quietly excited by the prospects I knew were possible in Chicago before coming here. But it was really a move of pure whimsy. I always did music wherever I was, and actually moved from Portland, Oregon to here. So, it was a front & side thought along with any other ideas that pushed me to move along. I’ve kind of rambled around. Pittsburgh will always be a kind of spiritual home, an inspiring force imaginatively.

Did you grow up in a musical household? Did your parents play any instruments and, if so, were they the ones that encouraged you to pick up the guitar?

Yes, it was a fairly musical atmosphere. My dad and brother played trumpet, while my mother played some piano and sang. Both parents were into classical, jazz and Broadway musicals. So, there was a lot of sound in the air at home. But there was no pressure of any kind, except for the pressure I was exerting upon myself to see what this thing was about.   

It says in the bio on your site that you’ve been recording since 2004. Assuming you’ve been playing the guitar since before then, was there any particular reason for you choosing to move into making albums at that point? Did you play live shows before then or up until that point was music something you did only for your own entertainment?

While I had appeared on a few records in the 1990s, and put out some cassettes before 2004, it seemed that when I hit Chicago, it really occurred to me as something to do more seriously. I’d written a lot of material in Portland and elsewhere but had not gotten into really laying down the songs well, and in specific recordings. As everything in life got more intense artistically, so did my focus on recording.

Could you talk about the guitars and pedals (if any) you used on the making of some of your recent albums?  Have you used any vintage instruments?

You know, I would mention pedals and stuff but since I change them frequently it may not be of much use to do so. I will say that most of what I go for could be called ‘shades of dirt & echo’. The main guitars on recent albums have been a 1965 Gibson J-50, a 1972 Yamaha FG-150, a 2009 Epiphone Casino, and a 1976 Custom Les Paul. They all have their personalities and quirks, and have seen a lot of mileage over the years.

How much of ‘Esker’ (or your other albums) is premeditated?  I believe improvisation plays a large part in your music live, I’m curious to know how much of that is present in the studio records.

Well, most of them have been song-based including Esker whose structures & motifs I hope are fairly clear to the ear. You’re right that improvisation does play a big part. I leave a lot of open space for that in solos, arrangements and in some purely improvised pieces that appear throughout my recordings. I’d say this record was 2/3 pre-imagined. I really like the play between those worlds. It’s a field for discovery that has no borders. 

Have there been any recent releases that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

There are lots of things I’d like to mention, but for now I’ll stick to just a few:

Wishgift, an amazing and unique band from Chicago that mixes hard rock, punk, metal, progressive rock and more, released a self-titled record this year. It’s a very dynamic and wild trio, often eerie and complex. Daniel Bachman’s last one, also self-titled, is wonderful. He’s mixing the traditional with the experimental and it’s brilliant. Meg Baird’s latest, ‘Don’t Weigh Down the Light’, is mystical and great, very deep, it just draws you in. Lastly, Cory Hanson from Wand made a totally captivating solo album, ‘The Unborn Capitalist from Limbo’, inventive and melodic song-craft and deep feeling, all through it.