It's Hummingbird Day: An Interview with Mark McGuire
For celebrated ambient/instrumentalist Mark McGuire, why bother updating your social media platforms when a hummingbird can distract you right outside your window?
Mark McGuire is an ambient, drone, instrumental pop artist from Ohio. Yup, that makes absolutely no sense, which is one of the reasons why talking to him felt like talking to several cultures at the same time. A person of faith and yet reason and also incredible talent, Mark is on a path he is blazing with none before him.
Having put out records since 2009 and breaking through the indie blogosphere with his lush, driving Along the Way in 2014, McGuire's latest record Ideas of Beginnings is a progressive electronic, new agey, ambient journey, one that strips things back the heavy electronic filters that defined 2015's Beyond Belief and brings McGuire's sound back to a simple, unadorned acoustic setting. It's a sharp drawback from someone who's sound only seemed to get bigger and more complex with each passing LP.
Sitting down with PopMatters, McGuire talked about his faith, hummingbirds, Facebook and a lot in between. Even with the call starting much later than anticipated, McGuire, typical of his nature, genuinely couldn't have been more laid back or sweet about it.
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Do you enjoy the process of talking to a stranger? Cause I've had a chance interview a couple artists and it varies. Some people really enjoy the interview process and some people find it to be kind of alienating and/or frustrating.
Yeah, it could go both ways. I definitely love talking to strangers: sharing about what I do, learning from other people, and what their take on what I do as well. I guess the process can be frustrating sometimes. I did one last week and the words were not coming out. Like they weren't crazy questions or nothing like that, it just wasn't flowing. So, I think there are a lot of things that can affect how people feel about that. But, then last night, I did one with Bandcamp and everything they asked me, the answers were just coming right out.
I totally get what you're saying. It must be kind of a weird experience to feel like you need to be on all of a sudden and to feel like what you're saying in this moment is representative of the way someone is going to perceive your art or something, and just...
Yeah, it really makes you think. So much of what we love in pop culture, stuff with music and art, we do end up reading about it through interviews with the artist. We read about it secondhand and we get it secondhand. So, a lot of the times, I think maybe those people don't always know completely. Not everyone always has all the answers right at the moment, and it's hard to put things into words, even when you're very in touch with yourself and what you do.
There's that interview with Bob Dylan where he's like, "Years from now all these assholes are going to ask me where my songs come from, and I don't fucking know where they come from, but they are going to tell people where they come from." You know? And he laughs about it. The funny thing is, it's really true. A lot of people, and sometimes you can even ask someone or something, will just kind of say something 'cause they want to have an answer too. You know what I mean?
And a lot of stuff gets put out because of those types of reasons and it's very interesting.
Yeah, this question might seem a bit trite, but I genuinely mean it, do you feel more comfortable expressing yourself through conversation or do you feel more comfortable expressing yourself through your instrumentation and through your music?
Well, I guess I definitely feel more comfortable expressing myself through music because it's just what I've always done. It's my main channel for all my creative and emotional and spiritual energy. That's always been my way of communicating on a higher level than words and stuff like that. [It is] the way I am able to communicate with myself and with the universe, my family, and friends. I put very personal sentiments in my music, so it has definitely become a very good channel for expressing very personal things. But, at the same time, it's good to be able to talk because a lot of stuff can be interpreted in so many ways. So, it's good to be able to speak on things in a literal way sometimes. You know?
Yeah, yeah. I totally get that. Do people ask you a lot about Emeralds and if you guys are going to get back together and do more records? Is that a thing you commonly get asked?
Sometimes, yeah, people will ask what happened with Emeralds or something like that. Like. I did an interview last week and they asked me what went on with that. It's one of those things where it's funny to try and talk about because it's not necessarily a black and white thing. But that's the way it's made out to be once it's put into the press. When I left the group, or whatever, it was something that we had been talking about between each other. [It was] not just me leaving the group, but we were going to kind of not keep going in the same direction that we were going in, and I was the first person to stand up and just be like "Hey, I'm going bow out at this point." And then a month later I guess it got out about me quitting the band, or whatever, and then all then all of a sudden on "discogs" my name is crossed out, when the band really just kind of broke up.
I mean, it wasn't necessarily like I was going be replaced by somebody, or it was some dramatic thing like that. It's just funny to be me because people are very quick to go out of their way to do stuff like that; to make things that are on a negative side, but at the same time you don't get that sort of initiative with things that are just kind of positive or something like. And I think it's a thing with communicating with people as well. It's easier to put something down in words than it is to let things be the way they are, you know?
Yeah, I am a big fan of your record from 2013 but the re-release in 2014 was when I first heard it, Along The Way.
Oh, right on, dude. Thank you.
I like that record a lot, and in some ways, I feel like your discography has a lot of extremely similar threads that run through all it. How much music goes into the making of a record? Are you the kind of person that records, you know, "Oh I've got 10 hours of content and I'm going to edit it down into a record"? Do you use everything that you record? I'd love to hear about that process a little bit.
Sure man. Along the Way, for instance, I worked on that album for almost a year. It was August 2012 through maybe February 2013 or something like that. For that one, you know, I mean, I do record a lot of stuff and I do have hours and hours of stuff where I'm just like messing around with certain ideas or trying to experiment with stuff and bring something out. A lot of times, I'll take just a frame of an idea and then end up just layering stuff on it, reworking the parts until it's right and feels right.
I feel like for Along the Way, I was working kind of on these compositions. So, I had these frames before record size and I was aiming at shaping them to each have an art, and to go with each other, and [be] almost like the soundtrack to a film or something like that where I wanted to follow the story very closely, like sonically and aesthetically and all that. But, I ended up trapping the third eye and then ended up redoing the whole thing. Sometimes the record will turn into other songs by the time it is done. I'll have a ton of stuff to support it, but I don't use all of it necessarily. But I do find homes, I guess you could say, for a lot of the stray little parts and stuff like that I feel like unique and have something to offer.
But the process is really all over the place, or I shouldn't say all over the place, but it is very diverse. Sometimes I'll have one piece of music that I'm working on intently and keep changing and going back to rework for months and months, and sometimes it'll just be a live take or something and I'll just use that and I won't go crazy with overdubbing or anything like that cause it just feels right.
So, I like to let the process be a little relaxed and to just kind of let things fall where they may.
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Yeah. Do you always start with guitar? Is that your main instrument? I know it is your main instrument, but is that your main writing instrument, or have you ever written with anything else?
Yeah, for a long time that was really the only instrument that I would write with and play, and then when I bought my first synthesizer, experimenting with tracking other instruments and stuff like that. I think at first I was using guitar, then I tried to add stuff around to that. But in the last couple years, I've been creating, almost like a canvas with other instruments, and then going over and painting on top of that with guitar and the lead instruments. [I try] to get almost like a backing track to jam over and that's been a way of writing songs and stuff like that, using piano and keyboard and going back over it later with guitar. My sound, I like to always leave open, and not try to be to set in my ways with it.
A few years ago, when I first started and made Along the Way, that was when I had been making solo, guitar music, at that point, for like six years, and I would get to a point where I was just starting to feel like, "Okay, I've been in this, kind of doing the same thing for a while, and..." [I wanted] to change it up so that I could bring some fresh ideas. Even with just the guitar, by having the instruments there, it was easier to bring different ideas out of the guitar. So, for the new VDSQ album, I was able to go back and start recording with other instruments for a couple years, and then go back to making another solo guitar record and it had a different feel and the ideas were flowing in ways that they hadn't ever really flowed before just working on guitar.
How does spirituality or your own personal spirituality affect the music that you write? A lot of ambient or drum music is written from a spiritual place or for a spiritual place, is that true of you? And how does your own personal spirituality affect your music?
Yeah, I do think that's true. I believe that we're all spiritual beings and our true purpose in the world, and I don't just mean the planet earth right now, but our true purpose in the universe is that we're spirit. We might perceive right now that we're 3D, that we are stuck in the body, but we exist far beyond what that is. So, for me, music is a physical manifestation of trying to put my soul and my spirituality into written form and words. Words and ideas are from the mind, they are all from the head, and they are from a material place. [They are] material ideas of things that are beyond the material world. So, when I'm making music, to me, that's always been my connection to the universe, to myself, and to the spirit world, and with my own spirituality, I have definitely used those ideas to just not only the music, but into the stories around what I am playing. Even just playing itself is a meditation and a way of praying.
Yeah, I totally get that, and I dig that a lot. Does your spirituality or belief system reflect into or mirror any of the common designations of spirituality? Buddhism? Christianity? Islam? New Age philosophies? Does it fit within one of those confines, or is it more a personal journey that's a reflection of one or none of those?
Well, I think for years I've been into studying different philosophies and different spiritual practices. I got really into theology for a while which is about finding the universal truth within all religions. I don't really like to practice religion. I think religion and spirituality are two completely different animals. The two of them get confused a lot of times. My own spirituality: mostly, I practice and go to ceremonies with Native Americans, the Sioux people.
The belief of the Native Americans is something that really resonates in my heart. They believe in respecting all life, and honoring all life, all animals, and even life beyond the animals kingdom, [such as] plants. [They believe] everything has a purpose in this world. Everything has meaning and everything is endowed with spirit. That's the closest to what I would say my heart believes in. I don't necessarily think that there is one avenue of finding that. I think just to be free and to practice in your own space. To really believe in yourself is the most spiritual practice you can do.
It sounds like the way that you view the world through that is very cyclical, whereas a typical faith system or religious system would view the world in a much more linear fashion.
I find that very interesting. I think that so much popular music is so completely devoid of spirituality that it sounds and feels very dry often times, and very brittle is another word. It doesn't have the depth of what would be perceived as spiritual music, and I find that super interesting. I appreciate you being willing to share that with me.
Oh, absolutely man, and I agree, too, about a lot of music right now. Man, we are in a time and age where materialism is being beaten over our heads. We are at a point where the western world is about to go bankrupt. Even the spiritual western world: Christians, in a similar way, are going bankrupt where people that profess that they are Christians and stuff like that, a lot those same people will stand there and argue that they there are completely material, scientific explanations for everything. Obviously, science is an understanding of the physical world, and I'm obviously not going to say I don't believe in that stuff. That's not what I'm saying. I think it's a way of taking a spiritual element out of people lives
If you explain everything, that it is all matter, that the universe is built this way, all of life is built this way, then It takes the mystery, the spirit, and the magic out of life. That's what I've always believed in. I wrote about it in Along the Way, in the text. [I've believed] that there is this very beautiful magic that is the pushing the driving, force behind the universe. I definitely try to put that in my music because a lot of pop music it is really made to keep people very subject to certain patterns and certain paradigms, like consumerism, what people value, sex, money, power. The things that are spoken about, but not even spoken about, you feel that in a lot of music too. It's all very ...
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I totally get what you are saying. I, personally, profess to be a follower of the belief system of Christianity, and I find that your, and it's not a criticism 'cause you're not saying it in an aggressive way at all, I find that your assessment of that is very accurate. I find that a lot of the things that you're saying, I really agree with. Specifically, about the way that things that are based on a financial system are, in some ways, eventually devoid of spirituality. I find that extremely interesting. Another thing I've noticed, Mark, is that you don't maintain social media accounts. Unless there are ones that I couldn't find. Neither of your social media accounts that I've found haven't been updated in several years, and I think that that's kind of cool. Is there a reason why you don't use it, or was it your label wanted you to get it, or what's the story behind that.
I never used social media in my life until just a few years ago now. Since Emeralds first started, we never had any social media account or anything like that. Never even really had a working website. It always just happened for us. So, when everyone all of a sudden was getting MySpace, Facebook, and all that, to me it's unnecessary. But, it has become the way that people communicate, whether you like it or not.
When I signed with Dead Oceans, they wanted me to get a Twitter account, and that was when I got Facebook in like 2013. I was starting with my label in Portland, and they were like, "You know, we could promote it through Facebook, so if you could get one of those it would be good." At the same time, I was trying to get out of my being kind of stubborn. I was always against stuff like that. I was trying to relax and was like, "You know it's not such a big deal if you just get that or whatever." But I did notice that after getting it, its like people say, "You can reach so many more people this way. You'll get yourself out to more people through these channels."
But, there is a certain type of band name and there's a certain type of person that responds to that type of promotion, like self-promotion, nine different ways, through all these different social media accounts. It works for certain artists like that make pop music and stuff like that, and some bands are masters of social media, and masters of pretty much everything that they do. So, it can work for some bands, but for others, I think it has the dimmer effect, where people are almost turned off by someone is constantly throwing their own art in your face. So, when I first started using Instagram and Twitter, I was trying to be more relaxed and be like, "It is not such a big deal." But, it got to a point where I didn't want to be spending all my time doing that because it is consuming. It not only takes your time up, but also your mental space. You get locked into it, all of a sudden looking at that stuff all the time, especially Facebook.
But, if I deleted all of it, I would be out of touch with most people in my life cause that is just how people communicate. But, it's also a default idea of communication where people are actually more cut off from each other, even though it seems like we are more in each other's lives. I don't know. It is a double edged sword. Like, yeah, I don't update my Instagram and my Twitter anymore. I don't really see the point in doing that. It's trying to get stuff out to people, but at the same time, realizing that there is so much out there everyday for people to keep up with and it does lock you into this competition of wanting people's attention. People's attention is the most valuable resources on the planet and it's really tough when there is so much everyday.
It's trying to be true to yourself, and not trying to be going for the most followers and all that stuff. 'Cause it really doesn't even do anything for you in the end
Of course, of course. How do you think that your prolificacy effects people's fandom. I'm a fan of Guided by Voices, which is a fellow Ohio artist. Your prolificacy in a lot of ways matches his: a lot of music, a lot of high quality constantly. Do think that effects people's ability to engage with your music and does that matter to you?
I hope that it doesn't effect their ability to connect with the music. I think that, again, it's very tough because the rate of acceleration in our culture right now is so high that something is new and becomes old so fast before you even know it, and then people are on to the next thing. I can't even imagine how much good music comes out because there's so much. There's too much good stuff; even if you wanted to sit down and listen to all of it, and appreciate all the great art that they made. So, its tough for people to engage in certain narratives through pop music, and this is what hip now, and this is what cool, this is the big record at the moment, this is what's new and exciting.
Then, at the same time, people have their oldies and goodies and they have the stuff they love to listen to; there's just so much. So, I don't expect people necessarily to go out and listen to every one of my records or anything like that. But, I can't stop myself from releasing new music because that because it would be dishonest to what I do and who I am, to be putting out one album every couple of years or something like that.
I do think that, oh, what was I going to say? A hummingbird flew by my window and I totally lost my train of thought.
Oh, that's amazing.
To work so hard on something, and then to put it out as your one piece of work, your one album for the time; there's a lot, too, that I did with Along the Way and Beyond Belief, with albums like that that, I put the time and work into, and then you want to see that blossom into the world, and for people to soak that up and appreciate it. But, at the same time, not everything that I do I expect people to engage with in the same way. So, a lot of stuff, it's cool to just put it out low key and if people want to get into it that's cool, without all the expectations. 'Cause it's really something to have expectations of people because even outside music and art there's so much that everyone has to keep up with in their own lives. It's really a blessing that people spend any of their time with my music. It's good not to have an expectation of your fans.
Yeah, I had my next questions, but then I started to think about what you were saying. It's like your words were the hummingbird that snatched my thought away.
Oh, shoot, yeah. [laughs] Well, actually, it is Wednesday, right? It is hummingbird day.