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Mark McGuire Takes a Six-String Plunge Into the Great Unknown

Post-rock Emeralds alumnus brings his guitar to uncharted ambient territory – usually without amps or words

Mark McGuire

Mark McGuire performs with Emeralds on May 27th, 2011 in Paris.

Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

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WHO: Throughout his career, 28-year-old guitarist Mark McGuire has aspired to move his instrument beyond its six strings into uncharted zones – or, as he puts it, “take guitar out of the guitar world.” A native of Cleveland, Ohio, McGuire first gained notice in the mid-2000s as a member of post-rock quartet Emeralds, a group that took influence from minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, kraut-rock, New Age artists and synth gurus Tangerine Dream. “I wanted the guitar to mimic the sounds of the synthesizer,” he explains. After Emeralds split in 2013, McGuire’s playing grew even more ethereal, expansive and kaleidoscopic. “I wanted to make things that subtly shift and never overstay their welcome – playing but not playing,” says McGuire, who released his third solo album, Along the Way, earlier this year. “Just a couple notes can add so much. I wanted to paint these little sounds – the breeze coming through trees, fireflies, the light shifting – and not do just verse-chorus-verse-bridge type songs.”

INSTRUMENTAL BY DESIGN: Though some of his newer solo material features vocals, most of McGuire’s music to date has been instrumental – a conscious choice. He grew up listening to “chaotic” punk and hardcore like the Locust. “I tried to make music with a lot of dissonance and discord, and it never felt right, like the stuff I was hearing in my head,” McGuire says. However, when Emeralds began, he and his bandmates slowly began peeling away conventional markers of popular music – starting with vocals. “Making instrumentals was about going the opposite way from how we’d been programmed,” McGuire recalls. An obscure collection of spectral prepared-guitar pieces – 2003’s Land of Lurches by Kevin Drumm – paved the way. “That record blew our minds,” says McGuire. “It sounded like 2000s-style Metal Machine Music! We started going to the record store and saying, ‘Give us the weirdest shit you’ve got!'”

SOUND AFFECTS: A key to McGuire’s distinct style is that he almost never plays through an amp. “I started running my rig directly into the computer, tape deck or mixer,” McGuire explains. “I found the palette that I could paint with could be more delicate.” Another key to his sound is the effect boxes in his signal chain. “I found I could do things with pedals like make something sound like water,” McGuire says. “Live, I use two Boss DD-20 Giga Delays, which opened up so many doors — It has way longer delay options than any other, and you can set it to the millisecond.”

COSMIC BLUES: A crucial event in McGuire’s development as a player was when he was hired, at age 18, to play rhythm guitar in the band for the Cleveland theatrical production of Love, Janis – the stage musical based on the life and music of Janis Joplin. While he’d always been experimental, playing in an ensemble led by original Big Brother and the Holding Company guitarist Sam Andrew sharpened his traditional chops. “I played eight shows a week, and learned so much from the process,” McGuire recalls. I didn’t even have an acoustic guitar until I got one for the show. And I also got a volume pedal: I remember sitting before the show in this great, giant empty theatre doing these little swells, experiencing the resonance and sustain. Immediately, I started playing like that when I got home.”

FAMILY AFFAIR: “Family is the cosmic model of the universe,” notes McGuire, who incorporates the emotions and dynamics engendered by his loved ones directly into his work. His album Living With Yourself, for example, features samples of conversations with his father and brother. “During the making of that record, I really began to understand my parents as human beings,” McGuire says. He also recently found out he will soon become a father – a development that’s already finding itself expressed in the new music he’s creating. “All those things go into what I’m writing about,” he says. “There’s a story beyond what the music is.”

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