Muffled twang seeps through the walls of the Lincoln Theatre’s green room, where Mark McGuire is sitting on a shoddy leather couch and discussing a life that is rapidly transforming.
The former Emeralds guitarist has wide eyes and large hands, and he uses the latter illustratively as he ponders moving back to his hometown and becoming a father. These are big changes, but there’s both tranquility and a sense of genuine awe in his voice.
This backstage serenity hits a speed bump when the country rock emanating from the nearby stage suddenly floods our space with rattling clarity. McGuire slowly turns his flop of light red hair to see an event staffer standing in the doorway. She looks flustered.
“Are you doing merch for Mark McMguire stuff, uh…” she ask sheepishly, not quite arriving at a punctuation mark.
“Yeah!” McGuire answers quickly and without elaboration.
“OK, there are people who want to buy stuff,” she prods further. “What should I do with them?”
“Well, I have to play in a minute, so…” he responds, trailing off.
“That’s what I figured,” she asserts. “Do you want me to tell them come back after you’re done? Or do you want me to, like, do anything for you?”
She laughs nervously. “I want to make this as easy as possible for you.”
“I guess if you just tell them to wait… because I just need to… yeah…” McGuire trails off again. The exchange seems to be making him uncomfortable.
“Cool,” the staffer assures him. “Sorry, I hate to bother you.”
“It’s all good,” he says, flashing a smile.
It’s the first weekend in September and McGuire is about to play an entrancing Friday night set at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival. He’s driven from Cleveland – alone – just to play this show. “[G]ot a toasty set ready to blaze, and bringing a bunch of rare and out of print merch from back in the day,” he wrote on Facebook the afternoon before. “[T]rack me down and let’s smoke each other out.”
But right now, selling that merchandise is the last thing on his mind. He’s much more excited to discuss his most recent LP, Along the Way, a pristine collection of songs equally meditative and kinetic, organic and synthetic. He wants to talk about the music that he has on the way: A forthcoming EP for Dead Oceans, Noctilucence, and the various self-released, small batch recordings in the works. McGuire is in love with music, but couldn’t be less concerned with the banality of selling it.
A few minutes after the event staffer has left, I ask him if I can help. “It’s a really complicated system,” McGuire says, rebuffing my assistance.
He pauses. “Actually, it’s not that complicated, but don’t worry about it.”
He looks at me and shrugs. “If people want to buy my music, they’ll be around later.”
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Mark McGuire’s Along The Way is out now on Dead Oceans. His Noctilucence EP arrives on November 11.
What brought you back to Cleveland?
I’m having a baby, and so wanted to have all our thousands of family members be around for it.
When’s it due?
February 19th. Sixteen weeks and one day. [Laughs]
Is this your first child?
This is my first. My girlfriend – who’s going to be my wife – has a four-year-old daughter. I was moving to Texas from L.A. to be with them, and literally about an hour after I got on the road to head down there, she called me and was like, “Uh, we need to talk when you get here.” And I was like, “What’s going in?!?” And she was like, “It’s not bad. Don’t say anything to anyone.” I was like, “What?!?” She said, “I’ll talk to you when you get here.” It was a twenty-hour drive, so I was just freaking out.
Did that cross your mind?
Oh, the second that she said it wasn’t bad news, I was like, “Oh my god.” We had already been talking about it. Her decision to let me into her life and her daughter’s life changed everything for me. Even becoming a half-father was such an honor. The fact that happened so quick was just, like, whoa.
We were going to be living in Austin separately and step-by-step getting closer. And then it was like, “Well, things are a little more serious now.” We looked at all of our options and Cleveland seemed like the zone. She’s from Amarillo. She’s never lived outside of Texas, so this is a really big change for her.
When was the last time that you lived in Cleveland? Do you have good memories of growing up there?
I was living in L.A., and then Portland for a few years before that. It’s been a few years since I’ve lived there, but honestly, my girlfriend hasn’t been up north very much, so all of it is so brand new to her. With her seeing the Great Lakes and the Emerald Necklace – a string of parks that are up there – for the first time, I get to experience it again. Now I can take her little girl into the park and to lake, and I have a new appreciation for what I grew up with.
When we decided to come back, I was excited about it. I didn’t feel like I was coming crawling back home or something. There’s also the understanding that nothing is eternal. Who knows where we’re going to end up? I definitely didn’t think I’d be here right now. We’ll roll the dice and see how it goes.
How did you two meet?
We’ve known each other for a couple of years, because of my music, actually. It’s a pretty heavy story, to be honest. Everything surrounding us coming together is a thing that makes it feeling it’s been coming ever since day one. I went down to play SXSW and Austin Psych Fest this year, so I was in Texas and we spent some time together and it was just, like, “Whoa. This is really real.” It was a pretty magical experience.
Along The Way has a song for about own dad, “The Human Condition”. Did you two have a good relationship?
Over the years, it’s definitely changed a bunch. It was his birthday a couple of days ago. I stopped by and smoked some weed with him, and we had some ice cream. It was cool.
I was going through a lot when I wrote that song, and it was kind of mirroring things that were going on his life. I was starting to understand him more as a human being and as a man, rather just my dad and the guy who did this or did that. That’s something that had been bubbling up inside me for a while.
It’s weird with Along the Way – I wrote the text and the story and what the songs were all about, and it was already somewhat autobiographical, but after it came out, some of the songs came to life even more. Things started showing their meaning even more than they already had. [“The Human Condition”] was one of them. I started thinking about that [father] role and the importance of it.
Every family dynamic is different and every human dynamic is different. That’s the human condition. It’s the way that we’re all broken, but we’re all perfect at the same time. Looking at that, and now having to step into all of those thoughts as a father, it’s like, “Well, if you really believe this and it’s how you really fell, then this should be no problem.” It’s putting stuff to the test. It’s very psychedelic. [Laughs]
Are the meanings of your songs usually fluid?
There’s a lot of different ways that it can come about. Sometimes, an idea will spark itself in my head before I’m able to sit down and start messing with it, or I’ll have a riff or just a melody. Sometimes there are preconceptions about what I want to happen. Sometimes, I’ll go in and start messing around and let things happen, and then later listen back and be like, “This is making me feel this way” or “This is pointing in a different direction.”
To be honest, I record a lot. There’s a lot of stuff that just winds up in the vault. Sometimes I’ll pull something out from a while back and give it a fresh listen. Before, it might not have really meant that much to me, and then I’ll realize that it was the rudimentary beginnings of something else that I started working on. It’ll give it more of a life on its own. There are interlocking pieces.
A lot of the stuff that I do with harmony and melody is relatively simple, because I like the way that some things sound and I’m not necessarily trying to outsmart myself with scales or anything. So, there are ideas that show up here, and then there, and then there again, which is really interesting to me, because I’ve gone back and listened to some really old stuff recently. I moved into my new place and started going through old boxes of tapes. I found stuff that I hadn’t listened to literally in years – stuff from 2006, 2008, 2008. I was like, “Wow, I completely forgot about that riff, but some part of it exists in this other song.” Things can always change and develop, but there’s always some sort of inner communication going on between the music and myself.
What drives that creative impulse?
Anything can really fuel it. I try to have my studio set up so that if I have something in my head, I can get to it pretty quickly, whether it’s a synth part or a guitar part or a rhythm. I try to let even the smallest idea sit there for a while. Normally, I’ll record some little part, and once I listen to it, I’ll hear something else and record that little part, and the process repeats. Anything can spark the creative process.
What have you been working on lately?
I’m working on a lot of different things right now. I have a lot of stuff that might wind up on a tape or CDR or in an extended live jam – something that’s more meditative. I can’t remember who I was I reading about, but there was some classical composer who basically said that in between working on things that you put a lot into, you’re always going to have little ideas to work out here and there. They have these small arcs. And then I’ll have something else that I work with over time and think it about it a lot more, and I’ll let the songs develop and become themselves. It’s kind of like painting with a certain size brush and then wanting to get in there and get really detailed.
I have a 12” that’s coming out on Dead Oceans in a couple of months called Noctilucence. I had been working on that since last fall and through the winter. That’s an EP. And at the same time – over the past year – I’ve been working on my next full-length. That’ll probably go on a while longer. It’s really coming along at this point. I’m getting to the point where the songs are almost done, and the arc of the story and the overall form of the album have set themselves out.
So, I guess you could say that I’ve got two main albums, and then stuff is honestly coming to me all the time. I’ve been working on some more pop, R&B-sounding tracks that I’m releasing under a different. That will be coming out as an LP tape.
I’ve been working Guitar Mediations Volume 3. Every once and a while, I’ll do a long form guitar piece that’s just live with no overdubs or anything. I’m compiling a collection of a bunch of those. I’m going to put out a really long double CD of stuff like – just really long, meditative guitar pieces. I’ve done two of those already.
Looking at something like the Guitar Mediations collection and a proper LP that comes out on Dead Oceans, does one mean more to you than the other?
When I made Living With Yourself in 2009, that was the culmination of everything I had been working on as a solo artist for a few years. When I made it, I thought, “This just makes all of my other stuff feel like practice jams.” That’s not to say anything bad about those other songs. Everything is what it is. A leaf is not more or less important than some other type of leaf or a rock. In the grand scheme of things, things just are what they are. But with that album, I remember being like, “This makes me feel alive.” You get a feeling every day when you wake up that’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna go and start working on that jam again.” That record had that feeling. Making Along the Way was the first time since then that I was like, “Ok, I’ve got that feeling again.” And now it’s the same thing with the full-length that I’m working on.
All music will already have existed and always will exist. It’s about trying to get record to feel like that – to feel like it’s already been there and I didn’t really do it. When I’m working on music for my full-length albums, that’s what I’m thinking: This is something that’s existed before I even started thinking about playing music. I have to do justice to that.
In contrast, with tapes, although you’re putting something out there that will be around longer than you, when it’s a plastic tape with spray paint on it, the stakes don’t feel as high. It’s easier to be more casual about it and just let things flow, which I like.
Has the prospect of fatherhood changed your perspective on the music you make?
It definitely throws things into perspective. I’ve lived a starving artist, living-off-my-music dream for the past five or so years, existing modestly and just getting by. That’s been fine for me, but now I do have the responsibility of taking care of my children and my wife. And it’s something that I’m absolutely thrilled to take on.
With the music, I don’t feel at all like that’s going to have to stop or slow down. This is part of what I’m writing about on my new album: Finding your place and your home and the things that are really important to you, and then being forced to get out and tour nine months out of the year. The constant keeping up that you thought you had do with everything feels not as pressing or urgent or life-and-death when you’re looking at your future and the kid that’s going to steal your car and crash it in the middle of the night – all of that crazy shit that I did to my parents. It’s very life affirming.
The other side of that is that I could be really “smart” and start playing the game a lot better. You see how people are successful. Of course, “success” is a very relative term and depends on what you want out of what you’re doing. If I wanted to go out and really try to do that, I know that the music and the art would remain true to how I feel and who I am and what I want to do. I don’t want that suffer. I want to be careful to not going diving into the idea of “OK, now this is for real, so I gotta to make music that’s going to sell X amount of records or we’re not going to be able to blah blah blah,” and then start making some pretty corny stuff. I mean, that might happen anyway. I could like the giant in space putting my foot in my mouth for 75 years. Who knows? Just when I thought that I couldn’t get any more sentimental, I’m like a crying old man.
Do you consider yourself to be a sentimental person?
Yeah, a lot of the stuff with making a song for my father, and on older albums using family home video samples – I’ve always incorporated that. Right now, everything I’m doing is going to be for my girls and whoever else comes along. I always let whatever’s going on inside me reflect out in the music. We’ll see how becoming a father changes that. I might get a job working at Hallmark making children’s gift card music. [Laughs] The future is wide open.