Bill MacKay: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

This week, Chicago guitarist Bill MacKay (a close musical companion of Ryley Walker) returns with another winningly eclectic solo LP for Drag City. The record, Fountain Fire, sneaks up on you; its songs are unassuming at first, with a loose, conversational feel to them.

But as you dig in, the colors grow more vivid and the details get sharper. Opener “Pre-California” has a propulsive rhythm and divebombing guitars. “Welcome,” meanwhile, sounds like an early Fairport Convention tune waiting for Sandy Denny to add her voice. And speaking of which, MacKay steps up to the mic for two winning vocal numbers, including the pleasingly Jansch-esque “Bird of May.” Best of all, however, is the woozy slide guitar workout “Arcadia,” which lasts for just three-and-a-half feedback-drenched minutes, but you might want to put it on a hypnotic loop for a half-hour. 

Ahead of the album’s release on March 22, MacKay joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss his shifting approaches, cinematic inspirations, and establishing his own musical vocabulary.

Aquarium Drunkard: Though you made it on your own, Fountain Fire doesn’t sound like a solo guitar record necessarily. You’re a multi-lingual guy. You speak a couple of languages. Listening to this record, I found myself attracted to the idea of conversation. Does it feel like you’re having a conversation with yourself when you make a record like this?

Bill MacKay: I suppose there is an element of that. You’re sort of hearing things as though you’re listening to a band. And yet it’s you. There’s this thing of responding to yourself. The weird thing is, you can [actually forget] that it’s even you if you get immersed in the tracks enough. I’ve found in the past that I would, years ago, do something where the tracks were almost too together. [If there’s not] enough breath, that’s easy to do. You know yourself so well, it’s easy to unconsciously remember what you did and follow it.

AD: You have to resist that?

Bill MacKay: I think when I’d start out tracking, I would say, “Oh, I have to keep it really close, ’cause the natural inclination is that it’s gonna be drifty.” Because I’m alone, I somehow have to do that, but it’s sort of the opposite. The looser you get with it, the more often things seem live and real.

AD: You’ve made a lot of collaborative records too. Do those two individual practices, solo and group or duo, require different headspaces?

Bill MacKay: I had this group, Darts and Arrows, which flowed into other bands after that band ended. Then I have two albums with Ryley, Land of Plenty and SpiderBeetleBee. Then I have a duo with a cellist in town here, Katinka Kleijn, among other things. So yeah, there’s lots of collabs…If you’re recording solo or playing solo live, it feels like you have this tremendous space, and yet there’s a lot of responsibility for where you’re guiding yourself. That’s the cliche, to say “there’s no net,” but it’s sort of like [while] there’s nobody to support you, but there’s also no limits in a way.

AD: One of my favorite songs on this record is called “The Movie House.” Are you a theater-goer, or more of a “stay home and watch a movie” kind of guy?

Bill MacKay: One of the things that I used to do in Pittsburgh with my partner was going to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which is sadly gone. It was one of those special, amazing theater buildings, and they had a different film every night. A miracle was just the organizing: they had all sorts of great stuff coming through there, music, film, dramas, thrillers, foreign, and experimental stuff. That was a big influence on me. Now that you mention it, I think the title might refer back to those days. Cinemas always been important, and music that has that cinematic edge to it especially interests me. I think a lot of the things that have hit me really heavily have some of those filmlike qualities to them.

AD: What films have inspired you?

Bill MacKay: Right off the bat, I think of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. River’s Edge was really big for me—so much atmosphere. I really love Taxi Driver, it’s always something I return to. There’s also lots of directors, like Godard and Truffaut and people like that.

AD: So often, when people talk about largely instrumental music, they refer to it as “cinematic,” so I’m always careful about not resorting to that cliche. But there’s a reason it happens. Film is one of our primary cultural reference points for instrumental music. Sometimes I go out of my way to say something other than “cinematic,” and then I realize that that’s probably the most effective and accurate thing to say.

Bill MacKay: [Laughs] People will often say they don’t like classical music, but if you ask if they like movies, they say, “Oh yeah, I love movies!” A symphony orchestra will be all over what they’re watching. [But it’s] hard to get away from those terms. I’m really suspicious of “instrumental” as a genre by itself. Which is not to say you shouldn’t talk about music and mention that there isn’t a vocal, but I think it’s funny in a way that people put such a division between those things. If you describe something as instrumental to somebody, they’d have every right to think that it’s heavy metal or French harpsichord music versus something else as equally particular.

AD: Along with some of my favorite contemporary artists, you’re reconfiguring elements of American primitive guitar, British folk, experimental music, and all these different things into a new form. This record finds you singing, employing more recognizable songwriter forms. It sounds very integrated, those songs aren’t jarring on this record at all. Was writing lyrics a new process for you?

Bill MacKay: It’s actually an old process. When I came to Chicago, I was originally looking for some forward-leaning experimentalist rock-type groups to do work with and to sing with as well. I wasn’t meeting the right people, nothing was really taking off. So I kind of fell in with a lot of improvisers because I could improvise. I started working with jazz people, and there’s this great avant-garde tradition here in Chicago. So when I assembled a group, it was people from more of those circles. What happened was I was still writing in the same kind of way, but it was being translated for a jazz quartet. It was an interesting process when I look back at it, because I think it gave some of the groups a different color. People picked up on it. They said, “Sometimes it sounds like you guys are playing avant-pop,” or, “This is like a rock tune, but it’s for a horn and double bass.” But I’m glad to hear that you think that it sounds natural because I felt that these particular songs all fit together pretty easily.

AD: Even when you’re songs don’t have lyrics, they’re wonderfully titled. “Pre-California” is an evocative title. You can think about it on a lot of levels. The biographical notes reference some of the earlier geological names for the area we now call California. It made me think about how pretty much every place in our country had another name before colonialists renamed them. I don’t want to cast that character over the song necessarily, but I’m just curious as to where that phrase came from. What were you thinking with that title?

Bill MacKay: That’s a very possibly multi-layered title, it could almost even be as though you’re standing before or in front of California. It’s got some funny grammatical connotations. [Some of the label’s writing about the song was related to] Timothy Breen, who did the film and the animation for the song. But I also in a lot of ways, it resonates with what you were saying about these places that are already places, and already have identities before they’re given new identities, and those [former] identities are erased. And with that comes putting a statue on top of somebody else’s statue and all that. I was thinking about that, those earlier cultures that were there, and also those mysterious forces that drove people across continents. And then they get to the end, and there’s no more really land to conquer. I imagine, and it may not be true at all, that there are moments of self-realization or inklings of self-realization that happen right at that moment. Where all of a sudden you have to deal with yourself, you’re no longer about making you’re way across this land.

AD: It brings to mind that Joan Didion quote about how things better work out in California because it’s where, collectively, “we run out of continent.

Bill MacKay: That’s sort of what Hollywood is about. Not that much later, we immediately started to churn out the narratives about what America was about, [developing] whole mythologies [we put] into this influential art form of movies. Maybe that’s more than I was thinking right at the time of [naming the song], but I also feel like there’s a bit of a bittersweet kind of quality that’s interesting and intriguing about that coast and about that land. I think that all ends up in that title.

AD: “Arcadia” is another one that really moves me. Was that mostly improvised? It has that character, but you never know.

Bill MacKay: I think I had a feel for the theme. I’d been playing something similar to that melody for a while. But there was definitely an improvised freedom and structure to it. You have inklings of melody, and the performance all comes together sometimes. We were just pushing everything volume-wise to the limit. It felt like the guitar was just bursting like a sunburst, there’s this feedback and it’s throbbing in your hand almost.

AD: It’s easy for me, the listener to hear the emotion in it, but is that happening in the moment too? How important is the emotional character of the song to you when you’re recording it?

Bill MacKay: That’s the primary thing, I think, to really go for in everything. Composition and melody are one thing, but the mood and the emotion, I can definitely recall the feeling of doing that. It’s been a pretty emotional couple of years in a lot of ways for a lot of us. The pictures of what the world is looking like at this point [contributes to] an especially charged kind of time. I look for things imbued with emotion the most. I feel like those are the things that really transcend the instruments. Whatever the idea, phrasing, or melody is, it’s about the color of the emotion of it. introduction/t wilcox interview/j woodbury

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