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-
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
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
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. C
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.
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
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
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
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
AD: It’s easy for me, the listener to hear the emotion in it, but is that happening
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
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