Composer-guitarist Bill MacKay is currently on his California solo tour performing songs from his album Esker (Drag City, 2017) as well as other work from his varied discography. He’ll be stopping by the Hemlock Tavern on March 1, and in anticipation of his performance, we spoke to Bill about how he describes his music, what he thinks of the current state of the music industry, and how he came to collaborate with LeRoy Bach of Wilco fame.
What drew you to want to want to play guitar over other instruments?
One thing that comes to mind strongly is being exposed to the older kids in the neighborhood who played electric guitars in their basements. I was in awe of them.
What’s your musical background?
I started playing at age 9 with some basic lessons and teaching myself traces of rock and blues. Later in my teens, I studied classical and jazz. These periods were really influential. My dad was a trumpeter also, and there was a very mixed musical and arts scene in my childhood home. All sorts of things on the stereo!
How would you describe your music?
I’d say it’s the living document of energetic & hybrid voyages: it contains parts of all the colors of music that matter to me: folk, rock, the avant-garde, jazz, classical, experimental and so on.
What do you think of the current state of the music industry?
It’s extremely weird and really impossible to summarize – yet the enriching parts are all still there. I find performing, making records, and seeing others play as magical now as it ever was.
You’re from Chicago, what’s the scene like over there and what scene do you fit in if any?
I like to think I belong to the fringe of the experimental rock, folk, and improvisational scenes here. The groovy thing in Chicago is the high interest in trying different things. To me, it is a strong creative environment.
You’ve collaborated with many people over the years including LeRoy Bach of Wilco fame. How’d you two start collaborating with each other?
Being guitarists and more on the music scene here, it was really serendipity. I ended up playing in a band around 2011 that rehearsed in his basement. We got talking and decided to do some duo work. It was a real fire. One of the gigs we had was a monthly on the south side and it was epic. We’d do 3, even 4 sets a night. Wide explorations.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Well, it comes from so much. The everyday speech I hear around me, from literature & film, from a predilection to look back at life, an enduring taste for nostalgia! The sources are many.The nature of what’s happening below the surface is a mystery I can always draw from: we’re unsure about so much.
What are you listening to these days?
Henry Flynt, Jimi Hendrix, Ali Akbar Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Daniel Bachman, Sun Ra, Emma Ruth Rundle, The Melvins, Jorma Kaukonen, Wand. All unique & inspiring … which is all I ask — though it’s a lot to ask!
You’re playing San Francisco in March. What can audiences expect at your show?
I’m looking at it as a kind of seance where the right set of songs fall together to make some good cinema. I’ll draw from a range of songs from my discography. There may a vocal or two. There will be guitar. And I’ll be playing solo. A mixture of songs & some off-the-grid improvisation. I’m hoping they’ll expect to leave higher than when they came – and that that will happen.
If your music career could be turned into a movie, what would it be called and why?
It would be called A Key To Every Mountain. As an artist, I’ve met many kinds of challenges: these would be the hard-to-navigate terrain or mountains. And there have always been things that inspired me to transcend. Those would be the keys.
What’s one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I walk about ten miles a day, and I still tune my guitar by ear.
Bill MacKay plays the Hemlock Tavern (w / Graham LeBron, Matt Baldwin) on Thursday, March 1.
Lead Photo by Kevin Richard Shafer