THE SELF-TITLED INTERVIEW: Mark McGuire of Emeralds

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  • Mark McGuire

    Interview by Andrew Parks

    We’ve encountered two versions of Mark McGuire in the past year: the shy guy who barely said a word during the interview we moderated between his Kraut-rock-y band Emeralds and legendary film composer Alan Howarth, and the Cleveland native who attacks our stack of email questions like a SoCal surfer or Sean Penn’s bong-huffing character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Neither of which say as much about McGuire’s personality as his music, a steady stream of deeply moving records that have cemented his role as one of the underground’s most expressive guitarists.

    In the following exclusive interview–timed to his two appearances at Unsound this week–McGuire discusses his past, present and future at length, including the roots of his Inner Tube records with Spencer Clark, how a recent move to Portland has impacted his songwriting, and when we can expect the next proper Emeralds record…

    You moved to Portland last year. Why did you decide to leave Cleveland after living there for so many years? Did you hit a wall creatively?
    Cleveland is my home and I love it there, but I’m really into trying to see what the world has to offer and not feeling confined to one place for too long. Portland is great, but it is just one step on the journey. Changing the scenery helps with creative energy, but I wouldn’t say I hit a wall in Cleveland. [Moving] somewhere new always yields new perspectives and ideas.

    Your last solo album, Get Lost, was about losing track of one’s place in life to some degree. Was that a reflection of how you were feeling back home?
    Get Lost is a reflection of a lot that was going on inside my head at that time and the things that were happening around me. I started recording it in Cleveland before I moved and then finished it in Portland, so it has a mix of energy coming from both places, which is cool. Some of my closer relationships with people came into play on that album the same way that Living with Yourself dealt with similar subject matter, but Get Lost is more about being aware and accepting of things in that realm–realizing how much more there is on Earth and in the stars and beyond, and how your place within the universe is just as wild and miraculous as anything else out there.

    Now that you’ve lived in Portland for a little bit, how do you feel about the move?
    It’s been cool; Portland is really chill. There’s a good crew, mountains, Blazers games, and Hot Pot City. We had a Friday the 13th party last night and made two giant bowls of Sangria. Then we hired a Jason Voorhees to come to the party and pretend to kill some of our friends, but he accidentally went to our neighbors’ house and shredded their whole zone! Our neighbor lifts tons of weights in his garage while he records hip-hop beats though, so Jason got busted up for once.

    One of the things I love about Portland is–oddly enough–the weather. In a lot of ways, I think the rainy climate can be inspiring creatively, as is the fact that it’s so close to such green, wide open spaces up north. Have you found the change of environment to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the move out there?
    In a way, yes. I’m really into hiking around and exploring the forests and places like that, which there are a lot of here. Being up north is just a little cold for me sometimes. I mean, I’m used to cold winters and everything, but I kinda get into the summer being unbearably hot, which it doesn’t really do here. Being out west is great though, I think the next move with either be a little more south and waaaaay more south…we’ll see!

    To bring things back a bit, where does your love of the guitar stem from? What are some artists and/or albums that were seminal in your early days of playing it?
    I’ve just always loved guitar. Electric guitar with a little distortion has such a nice, warm sound. When I was young, it just sounded like colors and tastes and feelings, which I wasn’t really hearing from other instruments yet. I started playing guitar when I was like 9 years old, so at the time I was still into Metallica and shit..I was never a guitar dude that was really into the super shredders or the guitar gods or whatever; I just thought music was cool and wanted to do stuff that was ‘kick ass’.

    You have a very recognizable style at this point. When did you first feel like you found your own voice with the guitar?
    When I was in high school I started writing a lot more songs for guitar and rock band scenarios, and a lot of those had elements of my style or whatever now–simple, melodic, repetitive riffs. Real basic stuff, but it’s never been the kind of thing where I’m trying to make it all sound a certain way. They’re just the melodies and riffs that are in my head and it wouldn’t make sense to me to jam in any other style just to try and do something different. All the music is inter-connected in my head, so it makes sense to all be inter-connected on recording and in a live setting.

     

    “Dude, gotta give early Metallica props for real; those first few records are so heavy, so much ass being kicked at once”

     

    If you had to name a handful of guitar heroes that have informed your work over the years, who would they be and why?
    It’s weird; I hardly ever think about it like that. A lot of times I’m more inspired by non-guitar playing and feel like that is more influential on my music, but as far as sick guitar dudes: Hendrix (obviously!!); Larry Coryell’s Fairyland is such a sick record; [Robert] Fripp is deep; [Manuel] Gottsching; Van Halen; Steve Tibbetts; early Growing records; Ernie Isley. All these are pretty obvious, but dude, gotta give early Metallica props for real; those first few records are so heavy, so much ass being kicked at once…so crazy!

    Non-guitar players that have really influenced my playing are people like [John] Coltrane and [Albert] Ayler. The way they attacked their instruments is completely mind blowing. No matter how many times I go back and listen to those records, their playing will always flip me out. I feel like I am still such an amateur at guitar. I want to get a lot better. Just gotta keep jamming.

    Your discography is incredibly daunting. Hell, even your rarities compilation is two and a half hours long. If someone is only familiar with Emeralds and wants to get into your solo work, what are three records that best represent that side of your songwriting and why?
    I guess Living with Yourself would be the first thing to check out because that’s the record I had in my head since I was like 16 and I still consider it my first ‘real’ album. Then I guess checking out something like the Guitar Meditations Vol. 2 double CD to see the more minimal and atmospheric meditative side of my jams, which I have been exploring a lot more recently. And then Get Lost probably because it’s the newest zone. It’s definitely a transitional record; it’s not meant to be some big grandiose statement or anything. It’s more of a specific experience. I think the B-side of that, “Firefly Constellations,” is pretty cool. I’m really stoked at how that one turned out.

    It’s weird when people focus on certain things about records and then almost shut-out the rest of what’s going on. Like on Get Lost, there’s some vocals, which is something that I’m in the infant stages of messing with, and that’s what people always seem to mention to me about the record. Some of the guitar playing and electronic elements are some of my favorite things I’ve been able to record. Especially all the ‘synthesizer’ sounds on it, because the album (besides the vocal part) is still 100-percent guitar-based. That’s why I like playing live–because then people can hear the sounds you create in the context of seeing what it is you’re actually doing. Sometimes even then they don’t know what’s going on though! It’s sick doe…

    Living With Yourself was a really personal record for you. What’s another release of yours that really hits home emotionally?
    One of my really early solo recordings from 2007 was released on a European label under the name Peoples’ Parties. The last song is called “A Cousin a Ways Away,” which was dedicated to my cousins Lauren and Mary-Bridget, who were going through stuff at that time that I wanted to reach out to, but couldn’t. The song also features audio samples of my dad’s oldest sister Maureen and her husband Dennis from a tape they sent my parents in the ’80s from San Francisco, where they used to live. They were talking about Dennis’ sister and some similar hard times that she was going through at that time. It was one of the first times where I was using actual family experiences in my music. I also made a ‘Christmas album’ in 2006 for my family that has some pretty heavy home-hitting moments, but no one’s supposed to know about that one!

    As you mentioned before, you’ve started using your own vocals as a dominant element recently. Do you think you’ll write an entire vocal-based record in the near future?
    No. I’ve gotten into using my voice in my music more lately, and using it for more than just an overtone, for expressing things that instruments can’t fully articulate. I’ve been listening to a lot of choral music in the past year, which has gotten me really interested in vocal possibilities and just how powerful voices can be. I’m going to explore vocals a lot more in the future, but definitely not just like writing some vocal song record or something like that.

    A lot of your music has been informed by experimenting with psychedelics. What’s one of your earliest memories of trying to combine the two–playing the guitar and tapping into another plane of your subconscious?
    The earliest would have to be when I was 16 and ate mushrooms with some friends. At the end of the night, everyone was going to sleep and I just laid on the ground playing the same riff on the guitar over and over for like three hours while it turned into morning. Obviously there have been some more relevant and powerful experiences since then, but that’s private. Well, it’s supposed to be at least. Haha…

    What’s the status of the record you were going to work on with Alan Howarth? Do you have any other collaborative LPs on the way?
    The record with Howarth is going to be deep. We haven’t had a chance to work on new Emeralds music in a while, let alone stuff with Howarth. It’s gonna happen though; it’s gonna be sick. We don’t just want to make any old record with Alan. He has a lot of really interesting ideas about natural frequencies and sound as existing outside of the sound plane, and we want to try and explore that territory and see where we can wind up.

    As far as other collaborations, there’s definitely a couple cool ones coming out soon. I did a few sessions with Nate Scheible, the drummer from Cleveland who played on my song “Brothers” for the Living with Yourself album back in 2008 and 2009. For a slew of reasons, some of which I can’t even remember at this point, that album has floated along for almost three full years without surfacing, and is finally going to come out this year on the label Music Fellowship. Nate is an incredible drummer and percussionist; his contribution to “Brothers,” while very sick and exactly what I needed, is a drop in the bucket compared to his true ability as a musician. Our record has a cool mix of interlocking rhythmic guitar-drum jams, to full on explosive free jazz drumming with more abstract guitar playing. It’s got a sweet old-school Ohio vibe that I’m pretty partial to. Another sick midwest collab that will be coming together soon is the record I did with Robert Turman and Aaron Dilloway last year before I moved to Portland. It’s mostly all guitar, with Dilloway doing tapes and electronics on a couple tracks, and it has a totally weird, dark, awesome vibe. We jammed for almost three hours, so we’re still in the process of trying to edit it down to an actual album, but we’re getting close. Turman and I had talked about doing guitar stuff together for a long time. His style is really awesome and I think we meshed together really well. When I listen back to the sess, it’s hard to tell who is who sometimes, in a cool way though, not just like everything mushing together.

     

    “I know I probably look weird flippin’ out and sweating like a maniac, and it’s like pretty mellow music”

     

    You’ve been touring a lot lately. Any good stories to share from the road recently?
    I just toured New Zealand and Australia for a month. It was only eight shows though, so I had a lot of time off, which was really sick. I got to swim in the ocean a bunch of times, which is a treat for an Ohioan like myself. The shows were cool too. I played at this festival in New Zealand that looked like it was in Jurassic Park on planet Avatar. Giant ferns all over the hillsides; at night the sky would open up and you could seriously see EVERYTHING. It was so cool. I chilled in Brisbane for almost a week and got to spend a lot of time with Lawrence English and the band Blank Realm, which was really great. They are such awesome people. One morning Lawrence was going somewhere a couple hours south of Bris, so he picked me up and we cruised down to a really small beach town called Byron Bay, and I chilled there all day while he went to his meetings. It was so tight, I just hung out at the beach all day. I got there pretty early so it was still kind of chilly and breezy, so I just chilled and read and smoked joints. Then the sun came up and I hit the water. It was so hot that I had to keep putting sunscreen on every 20 minutes. (I get sunburn almost instantly. Hahaha.) At the end of the day, it didn’t matter though. By the time I met back up with Lawrence and we were in the car, my back started to feel like Pinhead from Hellraiser was giving me acupuncture, and by that night, my skin was like completely maroon. When I got back, Blank Realm and I met up to jam at the bar Dubzy works at and I was DYIN! We had a sick jam session though; they kick ass.

    I DJ’d the Sun Araw show in Auckland and chilled with those guys super hard, which was really fun. Totally got busted in the smoke hatch first thing of the night style, red handed…We all DJ’d together the next night and turned this mellow Sunday bar scene into a complete rager, then after they shut the bar down I was able to get us back on the mic for a second, and we got someone to invite everyone to their house and the party kept goin. Those dudes are really fun to party with, and kiwis know how to throw down!!

    One of the things I love about you and Emeralds live is how much you guys rock out despite how meditative the music sounds. You’re not just standing there stoically, you know? How would you describe the release you get out of performing, and how does it compare to your recording process these days?
    Performing has always been a complete and total catharsis for me–in Emeralds, solo, or whatever. I know I probably look weird flippin’ out and sweating like a maniac, and it’s like pretty mellow music and the whole audience is just chillin’…but…that’s just how the music comes over me when playing live. I can’t help it. It’s just such an incredible release of energy playing live, so I always want to be able to give all that I have to the music. The moments when you really transcend into the music never lose their impact, when they truly happen. Certain circumstances have to be in place for things to happen, but sometimes through adverse conditions the best sets of all can happen. Recording is a lot different, but in a lot of ways it is just preparation for bringing the music to life by playing it live, so it has to be different.

    When did you and Spencer first come up with the idea for Inner Tube? Where does your love of Australian surf culture stem from?
    We talked about it for the longest time, almost two years before we started recording it. Spencer is from California, so he’s been exposed to beach and surf culture most of his life. When we first started hanging out, we watched some surf movies that were really heavy, particularly Storm Riders, which is the sickest surf movie of all time. It’s about more than just surfing; it’s an entire world that is such a unique way to experience life, which is what we took from it, and later wanted to infuse into our music. The imagery, and the reality of the imagery in that world, is really beautiful and really fun to put music to. Australia has some of the best beaches and some of the best surfers of all time, and a lot of the music that has inspired us comes from down under, so that’s where we’ve been channeling the most.

    Do you know how to surf yourself?
    Deffffffffinitely not. I wish, but I grew up in Cleveland, so that wasn’t even a thought back when I would have actually had the time to learn how to surf. I’m actually pretty serious about moving somewhere near the ocean and trying to learn. Not to try and shred or anything–I definitely would suck at that–but just being out on the water like that is a really special and magical thing that I would like to experience for a while. I was learning how to body surf with Lawrence in Australia. That is super fun too. Doing anything in the waves is so sick.

    Have you already tracked your second Inner Tube record?
    We’ve started pooling ideas for Inner Tube 2 already; we’ve been watching surf movies all the time. Spencer’s about to move down to San Francisco for a while. He’s got like 200 more surf movies down there, so we’re gonna work on some stuff there for sure. We’ve also been talking about releasing this cassette called Tahitian Sails, which is more centered around windsurfing. The record we just put out is just the beginning.

    What else do you have on the way this year?
    I’ve been working on a lot of solo recordings that are going to surface in various forms in the next year or so. Right now I’m working on a couple smaller run cassette and CD-R releases. I’m going to Japan for a couple shows in May, and made a tape called Nightshade that I’m going to make like 50 copies of to bring over there.

    Has your output finally slowed down to a manageable pace, or has the process simply changed, where you may have been looser about your early recordings and now you want to hone in on specific ideas more?
    Well, I haven’t been putting out as many releases as I was a few years ago I guess…and I’ve been aware of that and it’s totally cool, but I’m still working on things as much as I can, just as much, if not more than I was when I was putting out a bunch of tapes all the time. The truth is, with all the touring and constant moving around, there just isn’t as much time as there was back then. When we were releasing stuff all the time, that was before we started touring for months out of the year and mostly overseas. Especially because we (Emeralds) really like to focus on having our live show be solid, it’s been hard to balance working on live sets, touring, recording and just trying to live in general. Not to mention doing things outside of music that you enjoy to keep your brain well-rounded. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, I’m really happy with where things are at. I’m just saying that since there are so many cool things to do and work on all the time, it’s just going to take longer for everything to come together.

    What’s one record you’ve been really obsessed with lately?
    For the past few months, I haven’t been able to stop jamming Tod Dockstader’s Recorded Music for Film, Radio, and Television: Electronic Vol. I, even though I don’t have an actual copy of it. It’s so expensive! His stuff is so interesting, and this record has such a diverse array of sounds and takes you so many places, I can’t get it out of constant rotation.

    And finally, now that you’re living in separate cities, what are the odds of us hearing a new Emeralds record this year?
    The situation with Emeralds is a little different than what I was talking about a minute ago. In the last couple years our output has definitely slowed down, but that was a conscious decision we made a while back. We worked so hard on our last record, and have been so psyched and grateful for how much people have been responding to it–even two years since it came out–but when we put that out, it was the same deal. We started touring a lot more–one would end and the next would be starting up like a month later–so we stopped having time to work on new tracks. At that time, Paul Smith wanted us to do a record for Industrial, and other offers started to come in. With the touring schedule, we weren’t able to work on anything, let alone records for them, so we talked about it and decided that it would be really cool to wait a while until we would even start thinking about recording a new record. None of us could even think about trying to write another Emeralds record at that time, so why kid yourself and make something because you feel like you’re supposed to? Anyways, we toured for a while, and had to take a break from that for the same reasons; the time in-between tours was never long enough to actually get any new ideas or songs going, so we were like ‘let’s stop playing out until we have something new and cool to play out’. ANYWAYS…

    We just want things to happen organically and our music to exist solely because the three of us want to make it, and with all the ‘do this? do that?’ happening, it was good to step back for a minute. With that being said, we’ve decided to get together for basically the whole summer to work on new recordings. Not like ‘we’re going to record a new 12-inch’ or something like that, but just work on new music. I’m sure it will come out in some form sooner or later, but it’s just gonna be more about us hanging out and jamming. We’ve all acquired a lot of new equipment, new ideas and methods, and just new experiences since then, so I know it’s going to be so fun to put them all together.

    Mark McGuire performs at (Le) Poisson Rouge this Thursday–on the same bill as Pole and Sun Araw–and in a special collaborative set at Issue Project Room on Sunday.