If Julian Cope ever gets around to penning a sequel to his cult classic testimonial, Krautrocksampler, he may consider adding Emeralds’ 2010 double LP, Does It Look Like I’m Here?, to his shortlist of recommended listening. Although four decades removed from the crux of first-wave krautrock—not to mention hailing from the very un-cosmic city of Cleveland, Ohio—there was something enigmatic and fascinating about this ambient-drone ensemble that rekindled the spark which first set the underground music community of 1970s Germany aflame. Emeralds were in constant flux from one album to the next; at times, the three soared through asteroid-belt psychedelia or planetary orbit, while also finding refuge far below the surface in vats of syrup walls.
While the death knell has since tolled for Emeralds, it certainly hasn’t prevented former member Mark McGuire from moving on to the next chapter of his journey. His latest effort, Along the Way (Dead Oceans), is the next logical step towards attaining self-awareness and discovery, and illuminates a new age dream world capped with twinkling, breathy summits. Recorded by McGuire in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, the album features 13 songs drifting through a stain-glass blur of ambient pop. While the gifted guitarist retains many of the core ideals that molded Emeralds into the underground sensation it had become, his prolific nature and drive to enter new portals has ensured his solo career has already taken flight.
I recently caught up with McGuire, who was visiting family in his native Cleveland hometown, and had a chance to discuss his new album, as well as what else lays ahead in the coming months.
Are you still living in Portland?
Mark McGuire: I did for a while, but I just moved to Los Angeles officially in October.
What made you relocate?
MM: In 2012, I did some work on this film (Get a Job) composing a score. I spent a few months in LA, and it was the first time I had actually been there for that long. By the end of it, I was ready to get back to Portland, but after being in Portland for a while, I realized there was a lot more I could be doing in LA. The West Coast in general has a lot I really love, but LA is home to a lot of opportunity that just doesn’t present itself when you’re up in Portland or back in Cleveland.
When you sit down to score a film, how do you approach it? Do the producers dictate the certain sounds they are envisioning?
MM: When I went to Hollywood to work on the film, they showed me the whole movie with some of my music added in at certain spots. So at first, it was like trying to recreate certain atmospheres. Every note is recorded to every frame of picture and every second is making sure not to step over dialog. You have to move with the camera and move with the cuts. It was so much more in depth than I thought, even though I knew that it was going to be pretty in depth to begin with. A lot of composers are these old dudes where the producers send them the films and they get sheet music back and then they have an orchestra record it. With me, it had to be completely different. We were working on each cue individually because each one had to be approved by the network. It was a fully collaborative process with the director, the producers and the executive producers, the music director, and myself all in the studio at some point trying to all have an idea of what it should be and get to a place where we could agree. It was really crazy, but very informative, and I learned so much from that process.
In terms of the subject matter, do you see Along the Way as a transitional piece for you regarding where you were at while recording it?
MM: Yeah, definitely. It was a heavy time when I started working on that. I left Emeralds in November of 2012. I don’t want to get too heavy into that, but that was a huge change in my life. Being in Emeralds was such an important thing to me. It was not only my passion and this thing that basically had created itself out of nothing for all of us, but it also became the sole way I was making money and living for the past few years. Those were my best friends, so it was an intense time. Being in LA for the first few months, I was working every day. I didn’t really have a lot of time to go out because I was living in a secluded part of the city. I was starting to get more and more alienated. I had never been in a place where I didn’t really have anyone that I had a deep connection with. Around that time, there was a lot of stuff that was the breeding ground for getting into the kinds of things I was getting into and the transitions that were starting to take place.
The press release states, “The album is the inner journey of an individual seeking definition and enlightenment.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
MM: The album is about the kinds of development and changes you go through and realizations that come about, like thinking you got to a certain point and then finding this other piece to the puzzle and realizing there’s so much more going on. I guess the underlying theme of the album is that there’s always more to figure out: there’s always more to learn and there’s always more sides to a story in personal situations. There’s always something you’re not going to understand because of your perspective. It’s about the differences between even the most seemingly identical things. People’s whole beliefs systems are constructed on their conditioning and their experiences, which just keep re-manifesting themselves in front of them, which in turn guide them towards their next experience. It’s about approaching every experience with an open mind and with as little of a bias as possible. I think it’s about rising above the nihilistic, atheistic, materialistic mindset that’s poisoning the world right now.
The liner notes for the album are pretty detailed and informative, but it also may portray you in a vulnerable light. When you were writing all that stuff, were you self-conscience of expressing yourself in that way?
MM: Yeah, absolutely. The preface talks about spirituality and morality, and talking about that alone makes you very vulnerable. An artist or a musician who makes a record and really puts their heart into it, and even if I didn’t put the liner notes with it, people will say whatever they want about it. The text and the liner notes are not supposed to be taken as strict or concrete. I’m not going to be standing up on a pedestal trying to preach to people. It was just a way I could put into words all the stuff that I was reading about and researching, all the stuff that was inspiring and influencing me and the way it was applying to me. There are some quasi-philosophical statements in there, and it is about me discovering what I believe about humanity and the human spirit and what man’s purpose may be. These are all things that I haven’t figured out or come to any realization about.
How long have you been interested in this sort of stuff?
MM: I’ve always been interested in psychology. That was one of the electives I studied in high school and I also studied at Cleveland State University, where I went for a couple of semesters before I started pursuing music full time. The more I get into it, I realize that I’m not strictly into just philosophy or psychology or even sociology. I’m not into politics or the fabricated mess that it’s become. I’m not trying to expose some deep-rooted… I don’t even want to use the word “conspiracy” because that word makes me want to puke. I think a lot about how things just relate to each other and how one thing affects the other. To me that’s part of the constant expansion and opening up of consciousness and being very scientific. The true scientific mindset is being open to reality and following what you believe to be right and what you believe to be the truth. That’s not some Christian definition of what the truth is.
So you see the new album as a concept album?
MM: Yeah, I would say so. When I was working on it, I was doing the film score and I got this idea in my head that it would be cool to make something along to a story of my own. It just started writing itself, and I was really stoked because when I made Living With Yourself (2010), that was something that was in my head for a really long time before I started working on it. I had the idea and I went for it and used what I had available at the time to create it. I didn’t want to rush into making another bunch of records. Get Lost (2011) is like the next appropriate half-step of moving forward about losing yourself in the present moment and getting over the things that Living With Yourself is about, which is coming to terms with an early life experience you never really had any control over. That was when things were starting to sink in. Moving on from that was Get Lost and that was basically about letting go of all that and realizing that every day is a new day and you’re a new person. When you wake up, you have the opportunity to live a totally different life if you choose. I didn’t want to just make a record because it had been a year since my last record. It was more that I wanted the thing to hit me and then I could start working on it. I recorded the rudimentary tracks for Along the Way and then started piecing together the story and that’s when it all really started coming together.
It sounds like a lot of the material on Along the Way is pretty uplifting compared to some of the stuff you put out in the past. Do you hear that in your own music?
MM: Yeah, absolutely, because ultimately that’s how I feel as a person. Even when my music has more of the melancholy or dark vibe, it’s all based on the infinite palette that I can work with. I really hope my music does feel like that because the consciousness within me when I’m making it is very optimistic. The main thing is empowering yourself through knowledge and through discovering things. The things that seem really dark and scary, once you get down there and face it, a lot of times it isn’t. That’s also for me a really optimistic way of dealing with things. I’m able to get through things and not let them become more than they need to be.
There’s also a heavier presence of vocals on the album. Is that something you are focusing on more with your songwriting?
MM: Yeah, for this record particularly, I was starting to integrate that more because there were these ideas that were becoming more and more literal and I wanted to be able to say these certain things. I don’t think of myself as a great singer or lyricist, but it’s the most personal tool you have as far as sound. Using my voice in my music, even if it doesn’t sound perfect, it’s still my own voice. With Along the Way, I felt like that was a good way of being able to express those ideas. It’s weird because since then, a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on doesn’t have a lot of vocals in it. I think that’s something I’m going to keep working with here or there, but it’s not like my music is going to get more conventional or I’m going to start writing pop songs. While I was working on the album, I was also learning so much about gear and equipment and recording and producing, so immediately I started to want to do these new things with my music. At first it was really tempting to do vocals and weird electro stuff because I love dance music, pop music, R&B, soul, funk and world music. Over time, I slowly started to be able to focus things more specifically, and I’m now going to be channeling these tendencies into other projects besides just another Mark McGuire record. I found a way to work that out in other places and ultimately take my solo music in more of a direction without it being distracted by the fact that I’m just learning a bunch of new gear.
Did you experiment with any instruments on Along the Way that you hadn’t used before on previous records?
MM: The studio I was living at was basically just this guy’s house that he had converted because he was in the middle of moving his home studio. There were all kinds of instruments in there and I was sleeping in the drum room. Normally I just record at home and have a pretty minimal set-up. I wasn’t experimenting with piano or live percussion or acoustic instruments as much. I bought a synthesizer that at first was really overwhelming because there was so much learning and getting to know it was part of the record. There are some of my recordings from 2010 that were the first experiments with my guitar synthesizer that I bought, and while I feel like I figured out certain things more as it went along, some of those first experiments with it still have a quality to them that you can’t really recreate later on even when you figure out how to do it.
Other than mastering the album, did James Plotkin have any other influence on Along The Way?
MM: Emeralds first worked with James when we recorded What Happened? and I’ve used him for some of my solo stuff as well. He’s really easy to work with. He’s really efficient and does a great job, and I knew that with the new production techniques that I was testing, it would be good to have somebody I already knew how to work with master it.
How’s the touring aspect been for you? Who are some of the artists you enjoy touring with?
MM: It’s hard to say because I haven’t done a lot of touring with bands necessarily. I’m friends with Matt Mondanile (of Ducktails) and all the guys he plays with in his band. We did a tour last year that was a total blast. Spencer Clark (Skaters, Vodka Soap, McGuire’s collaborator in Inner Tube), who’s one of my best friends, was along for part of it and we had a blast on the road and I could’ve easily done that for a long time. I’ve toured with that Australian band Blank Realm and they’re a blast. I had a really good time touring around Australia with them, even though it was only for a couple of shows. I like personal connections because if you’re on the road it should be fun as well as just being there to jam. Getting caught on the road with people that you don’t get along with just turns it into prison. It really shouldn’t be like that and I feel too often it becomes like that.
How did you get hooked up with the Afghan Whigs?
MM: It’s similar to the way I got hooked up with the film soundtrack. Basically Stacey Sher was a producer on the film. She did Pulp Fiction, Reality Bites, Django Unchained and a ton of other stuff. Her and Greg Dulli from the Whigs are friends, and Greg had given her a CD of some of my stuff and she was like, “This sounds like film scores. This is cool and we should get in touch with this guy.” When I was out in Hollywood working on the demos for the film, Greg came over and we all went out to dinner and that was the first time we hung out. We started talking and realized we had a lot in common and he’s from Ohio as well. We’ve become friends since then and he’s just been really cool and asked me to work on a bunch of stuff with him. Also, working with a band on that level, which is very different from the world I’m involved in musically, was very eye-opening and it gives you more perspective on everything in general. It also just kind of happened that he was a fan of my stuff and he liked Emeralds and asked us to play at ATP. It’s cool to have these opportunities now just through friendship. I’m really lucky to have made that connection.
What do you have coming up in the next couple of months?
MM: There’s a ton of stuff. I’m going to be doing an American tour with Jenny Hval in March and April, and I’m stoked about that. I’m doing some festivals here and there like Big Ears and the Austin Psych Fest. I’m also doing an album release show on January 31 for Along the Way at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. I worked on the Afghan Whigs record and they are touring this year and asked me to come along. It’s going to be a really intense tour, and I have a lot going on, so I’m just going to do select shows here and there. I’m working on a new full-length and a new EP that hopefully are going to be out sometime this year. I’m working on a record under the name Road Chief, which is my funky, electro-pop stuff. I’m working on a bunch of music that’s just spoken word and lectures and hopefully I’ll be working with some of the educational institutions and organizations that are part of those. I’m looking to get into doing more film scoring. I’m working on an audio portfolio to send out to production companies as far as doing film and music. There’s a lot of things in the works that are going to take time, but the seeds are being planted.