Fountain of Time: An Interview with Bill MacKay
Chicago songwriter and guitarist Bill MacKay reflects on his softly powerful recent experimental rock work, and a life spent in thrall to the innate poetry in people and places.
22 March 2019
Such is the abstract, ghostly nature of Bill MacKay's music that it is perhaps best not to introduce it in musical terms. Something like this might be better: on both his new album Fountain Fire, and Esker (2017), there are many passages, many turns of melodic or harmonic phrasing, that create the same feeling as those moments when some environmental trigger evokes acute and transportive memories of childhood. Perhaps it is a smell, an old tree or building, or even something as vapid as a TV show, that brings on that strange warmth in the gut, and that trance in the mind's eye.
MacKay's gentle and inviting songs, which might ostensibly be regarded as dwelling in the folk realm but are far more expansive than that suggests, are an expression of both the sadness and the rejuvenating beauty of time passing – without any flavor of sepia-tinted nostalgia or sentiment.
MacKay, who is based in Chicago, might be described as a songwriter, a guitarist, or even a composer or improviser, given his work with his experimental side projects Darts & Arrows and Black Duck. Fountain Fire, his second solo album on Drag City, is a continuation of the softly poetic, occasionally dissonant guitar-based works of Esker, itself a revelatory release that demonstrated MacKay's technical prowess and control, along with his unique conjuring of atmosphere and imagery (all the neater a trick given that album contains no singing or lyrics). Such Esker tracks as "Clementine Cotton" and "Wail" exhibit an undemonstrative grace in their expression of that misty, dreamy aesthetic, and remain an ideal entry point to MacKay's music.
Fountain Fire is overall a rougher, louder, less ethereal album than Esker. It feels like MacKay is more committed to getting his hands dirty, and is a little less in his head. There is less acoustic slide and less piano, and more percussion and slightly more in the way of effects. The album begins with the charging momentum of MacKay plugged in with "Pre-California", a comparatively rugged and noisy rejoinder to the tranquillity of Esker.
"The mystery and diversity of Esker were things I wanted to project further," says MacKay, "while I was definitely set on moving towards more direct approaches to the songs and textures.
"The rougher aesthetic was intentional but also intuitive to the material I brought. Though the record features some acoustic instrumentation, I've always been equally an electric player, and I very much wanted to get back to the electricity. I was seeking a raw and more live-wire feeling."
This more visceral approach has yielded an album that mixes aspects of Esker's introversion with something more muscular. "Arcadia", for example, is three minutes of grizzly guitar noise, while "Dragon Country" sees these two Mackay modes collide in this exercise in frenetic tempo (by MacKay standards, anyway) and busily overlapping guitar lines.
The other important development on the new album is that he sings. Some songs on the all-instrumental Esker suggested potential vocal melodies here and there – but eschewing singing was an appropriate choice given the overarching ambiguity of that record. MacKay sings on two remarkable tracks on Fountain Fire: "Birds of May", which fits into that theme of lost time and hazy memory with its opening lines: "Indian winter spring / Host of forgotten things / Summer drew you inside"; and "Try It On", with its droney undertones and unusually foreboding melody. MacKay's voice is an unflashy but sonorous baritone that serves a song in the same way as Bert Jansch's voice did: not dominant but supportive; somewhat withheld in a song's mix, but far from submerged.
"[Singing] was very natural and easy," he says. "I'd always had vocal songs I'd worked on, but they'd only appeared on early out-of-print cassettes.
"I found that the sung songs are the ones you find yourself naturally singing or whistling to. "Try It On" was written on piano, though I worked from words written just prior. "Birds of May" started with riffs on guitar and the lines started to flow out. It seemed a poem to sing."
Bill MacKay was born in Tarrytown, New York to a mother who played piano and painted, and a patent attorney father who also played the trumpet. His father's professional life was, as MacKay describes it, "extremely tumultuous". Much of his childhood was actually defined by Pittsburgh, a city he lived in during his early years and then again later in adolescence – the peripatetic nature of his upbringing being a consequence of his family's changing circumstances.
"In my early years I was pretty quiet, diving inward a lot," he says. "It was an odd childhood of creativity and upheaval. The family moved around a lot. I think it enhanced my vision – I saw and captured things then had to let them go quickly. Many friends came and went, but their essences remained. It's a mystery I've always had with me."
Despite the transience of his early years, MacKay maintains a special connection with Pittsburgh, a city he returns to every year, and where he gets "lost in reverie". Perhaps therein lies one source of that wistful, mournful quality to his music.
And within this aesthetic lies a poetic sense of history. Of course, MacKay is steeped in the history of music (John Coltrane, Laurie Anderson, and John Cage come up in our conversation, as well as guitar influences Jansch and Nick Drake, while in 2015 he released an album of songs by the late guitarist John Hulburt). But his music also seems to have an almost extra-sensory connection with landscape, neighborhoods, and people – particularly from a distant point in time. There is even geological history in MacKay's music: an 'esker' is a ridge formed by streams under or in glacial ice, while "Pre-California" might be interpreted as a melodic exploration of that West Coast stretch of land when it was purely physical: before border, before language, before people. All of this goes back to MacKay's childhood, and Pittsburgh.
"I get such a charge from the land and from different locales. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I felt steeped in a landscape that was both a hard industrial city, a steel town, and a green place of rivers and hills. The place has a wild topography, a lot of places to get lost in.
"For me, narratives often surge up from the land and urban structures. I'll see an old hotel, say, and an idea for a play or scene starts to form in my mind right away. All these sources remain sources for imaginative exploits."
MacKay's journey to becoming an experimental, hybrid guitarist began with the study of classical guitar, with an emphasis on Spanish and Latin American styles. He went on to study jazz with guitar luminaries Eric Susoeff and Joe Negri.
"My vocabulary for everything guitar and music expanded a lot during that period. I was absorbing avenues and patterns of abstract harmony, and so many things that were in this wild music I'd grown up hearing. Eric especially was very encouraging to me."
MacKay's music is, therefore, informed by a diverse spread of influences and inspirations, even if both Esker and Fountain Fire to most ears will come across as grounded in folk-based melodies and phrasings (John Fahey, Sandy Bull, and Davey Graham are further touchstones). And not only is he stylistically diverse – MacKay's life as a musician is also defined by a colorful and contrasting range of collaborative projects. Perhaps the most well known of these are his two albums with fellow Chicagoan Ryley Walker, Land of Plenty (2015) and SpiderBeetleBee (2017), albums that combined Walker's cascading acoustic style with MacKay's more precise and direct expression. The aforementioned Darts & Arrows, in which MacKay oversees a collective of Chicago musicians, saw their third album Altamira (2015) incorporating alto sax and viola (parts written by MacKay) into their complex and textured sound. Then there is Black Duck, made up of MacKay, Doug McCombs, and Charles Rumback, arguably his most enigmatic, exploratory project that so far only exists in a live capacity.
"Black Duck is about this warm, egalitarian trio that bridges experimental rock, jazz, and even folk, but in a completely improvisational way. We've played songs a few times but we mostly just show up and create on the spot."
MacKay's work with Black Duck begs the question of how far, and in what ways, his solo albums embrace and channel a spirit of the avant-garde. Certainly, those records straddle both that and more accessible forms. He points out that "bands as diverse as the Beatles and the John Coltrane Quartet could be said to exemplify [the avant-garde] as much as Laurie Anderson and John Cage… What's avant-garde can pretty quickly become tradition, so that interplay is fascinating. Is 'I Am the Walrus' avant-garde or popular song? In awesome ways, it's both."
While it's a stretch to describe Fountain Fire as avant-garde (or popular song, for that matter) the album does flirt with noise, improvisation, experiments with rhythm and the abrasive sounds that can be coaxed from an electric guitar. Both Fountain Fire and Esker are delicately balanced and sensitively poised works of art, reflecting the emotion and romance of memory, the disorienting sensation of knowing and unknowing, and the landmarks that have made up MacKay's elegiac and heartfelt sense of place.