Bill MacKay is an experimental guitarist and composer based in Chicago by way of Pittsburgh (with a few stops along the way). He dove right in at an early age and studied with several different teachers, all of whom imparted valuable tools for his use. Well informed in jazz and classical traditions, he effortlessly blends these with his love of folk, rock, and blues, creating organic and warm songs that are uniquely his own. We spoke on a recent snowy morning, discussing his history and inspirations, his prolific output and recent projects, the seasonality of different music, and of course, our mutual love of coffee.
Hi Bill, thanks for taking some time to Spill The Beans. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Well, I’m primarily a guitarist / composer / singer/ songwriter / improviser and I also write a lot of poetry, so things like that. I’ve actually been playing most of my life, I started on guitar when I was nine. I have so many interests and actually like so many bands throughout time and history that I kind of hybridize in my own work, I put those interests and things into an amalgam of sorts. I sort of see myself as this axis of experimental folk, and experimental rock, along with elements of jazz and classical (things I studied) that I always feel work their way in there as well.
This year I’ve put out two records. The one that just came out, Stir, was made with Katinka Kliejn, a cellist here in town. This would be the fourth one on Drag City, who I started to work with back in 2017.
Bill MacKay, self portrait with coffee
You have a ton of releases, as a solo artist, collaborations, and in a band; how did you get started and how did it evolve for you?
Oh yeah, well my family was pretty musical in a sense. My dad was a trumpeter, my brother also played trumpet. My mom sang quite a bit and liked to play piano to some degree. They were really encouraging when I got into the guitar, and through the years never said anything about me doing anything else, because they knew I loved it and that was kind of my direction, you know?
Being so musically oriented in that way, there was always a good variety of music in the house. They were really into Broadway musicals, jazz, and classical. Then there was my brother and his friends’ influence, as well as the rock and blues and other things on the radio at the time. Early influences are of course things like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and other artists from that era. Another early one would have to be KISS and those types of extravagant, glammy, spectacle oriented musicians.
I just became enamored with it all, and I begged my mom to get me an acoustic guitar that we saw one day at Sears or something. So, she got it for me, and it was $20. I remember the woman who sold it to us gave us a card because her husband taught guitar, and that was my first teacher, Mr. Clark. I get kind of a kick out of it now, thinking about how he would smoke a bunch of cigarettes while teaching a kid. So, that was in Rochester, New York. After that I had an influential teacher named Kevin Morse who played classical guitar and some of that study really stuck with me, like different ways of approaching music and keeping things going, hypnotically, rhythmically, moving along with just the guitar. Later, I studied in Pittsburgh with a great friend who ended up being a mentor to me, Eric Susoeff. And also Joe Negri (perhaps best known from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) who is also a great guitar player, and they were both firmly rooted in different jazz traditions. So, I studied with a few really influential teachers here and there, just briefly, but I drew a lot of power from them and just kind of built on those brief periods. A lot of stuff I’ve learned on my own as well.
Photo by Luke Awtry
What are some experiences that stand out to you from this time as you started to become the artist you are now?
So, various facets of my musical sensibilities came from these experiences and it’s all sort of mixed together in my mind. I never thought of a future in music being limited to one sort of image or one sort of person. I was equally enamored with Miles Davis as I was with, say, John Lennon. Lou Reed and David Bowie later, you know. It’s amazing, right? You can just go back and there’s this ongoing archeology of music and all things going on and you can find these new people that feel like old influences but you’ve just discovered them, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for example.
So those experiences; playing with those teachers and then early high school bands and stuff started to come together. You know, playing cover tunes by Black Sabbath and the Kinks, stuff like that.
Probably the next major phase was me going to Boston after high school, and I went to Berklee, just for a year. That was a strange school, and also being away from home for the first time, you get kind of drunk on that freedom, you know? I had a very good guitar teacher and lessons very early in the morning, most of which I missed. I could have taken more advantage of that, but I got a lot out of the people and the friends I made there who were listening to different things like Television, and different adventurous rock, all kinds of free jazz like the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. So it felt like everything just kept expanding for me, you know?
So yeah; the freedom to move around without parental guidance, new and sometimes strange people around you, being introduced to new forms of art and all these new sounds… it’s powerful!
There’s something about discovering new art through peers in place of teachers that adds impact somehow.
Yeah! It does. Without pondering it too hard, maybe it’s that sense that it’s people with similar experience as you, or it’s just lacking in authority, so you’re a little more open to it?
You just sparked a really funny memory for me, though. James Catello was this really great psych professor and kind of a 60’s radical at Penn Hills (one of the high schools I went to) in Pittsburgh, and he of course incurred a lot of grief and misunderstanding from other teachers and the administration. He was encouraging everybody to be too free, I guess. The funny thing was, we went in one day and there was a substitute teacher and she seemed real cool (I understand now that she was probably a friend of his), and she just said “Hey I’m going to play some way out music for you guys and see what you think.” The first thing she put on was a live Ornette Coleman record, that one from Stockholm, and it just mystified everybody. I was pretty into it, I had already been listening to a lot of Coltrane and various far out music. It was cool, and she just sort of stood her ground. The reactions were sort of incredulous, but she was just like “No, you have to get hip to this”. So that was a moment where the teacher was playing the most way out thing you would expect.
What would you consider the biggest influences on your music, and how have you seen these evolve over time?
That’s a great question when you think about the ongoing landscape of time, you know? Probably, as with a lot of people, you know those things that are foundational just stay there, yet all this new stuff comes in too. Some things that have been with me from early on and still are would be people like the Coltranes, Chopin, Stravinsky, Miles Davis, The Beatles, Bowie, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground certainly. Then there were people that were added to those trees that became really important, you know? People like Patti Smith, Iggy and The Stooges and so on. Those are like the eternal trees, and there are other eternal ones that have filled in as I went on. I think that when I went to Boston for school, the people that I got turned onto there became really influential. More jazz people, Albert Ayler, The Clash, Elvis Costello. These were people that I was aware of, but became way more prominent at that time.
Some of the people I would reference now really came along a lot later. The funny thing is that they were always there. I think of Bert Jansch and Pentangle, which is more of a recent thing for me, but it’s been I guess eight or ten years, because I was lucky enough to see him the year before he died. Of course, when you hear Bert Jansch, you’re immediately aware of his influence that was obviously already there through the Jimmy Pages and Nick Drakes and all that. So, it’s kind of amazing. It’s like coming home to somebody that you’re already so familiar with. Around the same time I started in on Davey Graham. He and Bert and John Renbourn often get compared together, but they’re just so different. Davey just has that kind of fluidity and wide vocabulary that I associate with Hendrix, as well as John and Alice Coltrane, and those kinds of people. So, he’s been really special to me in recent years.
Also, I love a lot of Indian music and the Indian classical scene, and Ali Akbar Khan is someone that has been so meaningful to me. His phrasing in music is just one of these super primal things of huge importance. It’s so unique, along with the way he thought melodically. That’s been a big thing for me.
There seems to be such a renaissance in music now, it makes it kind of harder to talk about. I feel the influence of people that would be my peers, or other people playing now. There are people from the AACM, that incredible tree of musicians. Sorry, I have trouble reducing sometimes!
One thing I’m noticing, and I can hear a lot of the influences you’ve mentioned in your music, but I am a bit surprised not to hear you mention any of the American primitive guitarists like John Fahey, for example.
You know, I have mixed feelings about that. It’s interesting and I’m glad you brought it up. I feel like Fahey’s influence was so great that it can almost get overstated in one way, because when I think about him, I also think about how I’m so into Lead Belly and all of these other people like Reverend Gary Davis and Elizabeth Cotten who were finger pickers before that, you know? They were doing all this stuff before, but I can also understand why he is this monumental reference point, but it’s interesting to me because I almost never listened to him. I may have absorbed his influence through other people that I listen to, that’s certainly possible and even probable. The other funny point that comes up a lot is that I have actually never been a finger picker, per se. I always play with a pick and that’s an interesting difference. Always a flat pick. I could never get finger picks to work when I would try it. I do always pick with the other fingers, and I call it hybrid picking.
But, I definitely gotta check out this Fahey guy! I’ve heard he’s pretty good!
I’m glad this came up, and I am curious to hear more, because there are two kinds of responses you typically get, and they’re both understandable. One is the people like yourself that actually hear something that sparks that reference, right? They hear it in there somehow, be it from him directly or through another person or sensibility similar to his. The other one always gives me a chuckle, because it’s humorous but I can still appreciate it. One day, I realized that lots and lots of trumpet players probably hear all the time that they sound like Miles Davis. That’s because for most people, that’s like the one trumpeter that they know! I see a lot of humor in that. It happens a lot, especially if I’m playing acoustic guitar.
It’s interesting though, because he was so influential and his sensibilities are everywhere.
If you are really interested, off the top of my head I would recommend his album America as somewhere to jump in.
Oh yeah? Thanks, that’s great! It’s good to have a reference when someone has like 45 albums. Thanks for the recommendation, we can revisit the ballad of John Fahey in our next conversation.
I’ll hear your next record and be like “Oh man, what did I do?!?”
Ha ha! Yeah, I’m going to cover America note for note, a complete transcription!
It’s funny, now that I think about it, I probably haven’t thrown on one of his records in 10 years? I used to spend a lot of time with them. This would likely be the right time, though, I find so much music to be seasonal for me.
Oh yeah! I can relate to that. You find that with various people. Sometimes you talk with somebody, I remember a situation with the Doors, who to me were always a summer band, and my friend was staunchly convinced that they were a winter band.
What’s your songwriting process like? Do you feel you approach collaborative projects differently than when you are working on your own material?
No, not really at all! It’s kind of funny how that is, nor do I see any real difference between the songs I’ve been working on that have lyrics in them or not. It seems like working with people vs. solo, it’s pretty much the same process. Maybe the difference is that sometimes you have songs that kind of come out fully formed, or quickly formed, you know? You’re really lucky and they kind of just fall in your lap. Then there are a lot of songs that, for me, start with a splinter of something, maybe a riff or a certain progression, and then it’s a process of playing it a bunch in different keys, with different feelings and different rhythms? Maybe just revisiting it a bunch over time until it spills into the next part. Eventually you have a whole thing put together, or maybe you have too many parts and you cut one back, you do some trimming.
I think it’s similar that way, but maybe when you’re working with someone else they can pick up that slack for you, continuing it. So, the process of working with Katinka was different than my recordings with Ryley Walker, for example. With Katinka, it was more of her improvising on themes I had already composed. So we revisited these themes, expanded on them and weaved the improvisation all through them. With Ryley, it was more like they were split pretty much down the middle, I think. So, maybe we would have like 2/3 of the song, and then the other person would kind of fill in the rest. Presenting something you had that was already on it’s way, then we’d play it and then the other having an idea that would be added to it.
"Lonesome Traveler" by Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker
While they are different, I also liken them to the same sensibility, because your partner is kind of like a later you adding a section to it, rather than having to wait until it comes out of you yourself. Maybe it’s because as people, we are our own reference points. To me, whether I had written perhaps a more jazz-oriented song for Darts & Arrows, or say Birds Of May on Fountain Fire, the most recent solo album, it feels like the same sensibility, it all comes from the same place in a way. To others, those may seem like wildly different enterprises.
So, tell us about Darts & Arrows.
Well, I never really have put it in its coffin or anything. I think that was advice that Dan Koretzky (from Drag City) gave me once; “Never say anything is over, because then if you ever want to bring it back you don’t have to make it a big deal.” That was kind of funny to me, but true. So, it kind of came out of this free flowing group of people that I was playing with when I got to Chicago. I’ve hit on this before, but not really meeting the sort of rock-oriented people I was looking to work with when I got here, I oriented more toward my jazz side and started to meet people through the Velvet Lounge, jam sessions and things. I just started to orient my writing to different kinds of ensembles. There was an album called Bill MacKay and Sounds of Now, and one called Broken things - Swim to the River, both precursors to Darts & Arrows, and within a similar circle of musicians. So, it sort of started like that, and I oriented my writing that way. Those first two albums have saxophone, double bass, drums and guitar. Darts & Arrows grew out of that, and we did the three records. Ben Boyd was on keyboards for that, who you may know from around Chicago. It was essentially a mix of my moods at the time. Ben wrote a couple of songs for the group, and I did the bulk of the writing. We were jazz-oriented in regards to the improvisation and other aspects like that, but people always remarked on how it seemed to be coming from another place. It was an interesting mix to me, it always seemed like an amalgam of rock, jazz and folk.
"Evergreen" by Darts & Arrows
I’ll definitely say, I think it’s fall and winter music.
Excellent! I might concur with you on that, especially Altamira, the last one. That’s probably my favorite of the three
I appreciate the way you can blend the three without making it sound like Fusion.
That’s wonderful to hear! Fusion is such a problematic area for many of us. There are all these things that I love from that era, but there are also all of these things that are really problematic to me. That was something that was on my mind, something to not do. It was maybe unconscious, but I wanted it to be an organic, warm venture. I didn’t want to get into that decadence that you might associate with the genre. I wanted it to feel sort of raw, which goes along with my general idea of recording. You don’t knock off all of the rough edges or the strange things that happen. You let things breathe and go with the feel of a take before anything else, you know? It sounds so elementary to say, but I hear so many things that appeal to me but leave me thinking “I wish I would have heard how this sounded before the tenth take.”
We did the recording of Stir at Experimental Sound Studio, which I absolutely love. I feel like they do some of the best capturing of sound, some of the best recording. I had been kind of wanting to do something related to the Herman Hesse novel Steppenwolf for quite a while. I should have known that this was a theme that people had written something to, but it doesn’t matter. People write a lot of stuff about everything! So Katinka and I had been playing, I had the session set up there, and I said that I wanted to flesh out that piece. As I started writing these motifs, different melodic themes came to me that seemed to fit into some sort of narrative for an instrumental group, and could relate to the themes of the book. Essentially, it was pretty straightforward. We rehearsed, went into ESS with the piece, and we played it from start to finish, with the pauses between sections. On the record you can hear the pauses in between selections, as well as within the pieces, but we played it as one piece with no second takes. I’m really proud of it and it’s still fresh and very meaningful to me. We were kind of on our game, I guess!
Alex Inglezian from ESS recorded it, and Nick Broste did a heroic job mixing it. In a funny way, for only being two instruments it actually required quite a bit of mixing.
Bill and Katinka at ESS. Photo by Ricardo E. Adame
It took me a little while, but I realized that the artwork is entirely comprised of coffee stir sticks.
I think you’re the first person that’s noticed that, or said so! One reason I was skeptical about using it, it’s an amazing and beautiful piece, but I didn’t want to do anything too cheeky or cute. “Stir” to me is an interesting word, which is why we used it, because of all the meanings; stirring the imagination, things stirring in the night, stirring up a crowd. It connected to a lot of things, including the book. The art was too juicy not to use, for the same reason. It’s also subtle enough, because what you are presented with is this wild kaleidoscope of wood pieces, and I’m not even really amenable to using red so much, to dominate a cover so it’s really bold to me in that way. It’s a beautiful red/pink explosion of color.
You recently played a few shows that correlated with the release of Stir. I was particularly bummed that I wasn’t able to make the one in Milwaukee. I’m not exactly sure why, but I really love being up there.
Likewise, I feel the same. It’s got this great feel to it. To me, it’s got elements of both Pittsburgh and Chicago, there’s this tranquility and a vibrancy that I love. Playing at Ken Chrisien’s place, Acme Records, is great. I’ve played there maybe four times now; solo, with Ryley and now with Katinka, and he just always treats musicians so well. It’s usually pretty full, and with a really appreciative listening audience, so to answer your question, the show was awesome! We had a great time, and that felt really good. Elastic Arts here in Chicago was a real ball. A lot of friends came out, as did a bunch of people I didn’t know. We had Timothy Breen doing visuals, which was super special. I always see his work afterward in people’s videos because I can’t really see it while I’m playing for the most part, which is kind of ironic. He does amazing work, so we were really lucky. The following night we went to Iowa City and played in the old state capitol, which is now a museum. We joined a poet from Latvia, who is part of one of the writing programs there. It was really nice, and we got to play an acoustic set with her and then play an electric set after.
"Hermine" by Bill MacKay & Katinka Kleijn, video by Timothy Breen
Those were all very different, in very different spaces. They all felt like we really took some risks and went some places. I was really happy. Now we just gotta pull out some winter music for the rest of the season, if you know what I mean!
Aside from music, do you feel that any particular movies, books, or anything else inspire your work?
Yeah, a number of things! I’ve always been inspired by the topography of Pittsburgh, which for me comes with the symbolism, or resonance of interior images that reside within yourself but come from the land, also. They seem to bubble up from that land for me. That’s always been quite an influence on my writing. On a more concrete level, film has been a big thing for me. We all grew up with film in one way or another, but there was a particular point of time where I saw a lot of films at a place called the Pittsburgh Playhouse which, like it sounds, had been an old live theater in the Oakland neighborhood. It was a remarkable place, close to the University of Pittsburgh. It was one of those places that had like a film every night, you know? Some would maybe be up for two nights or so. They had some very good curators, so what I remember was this rich tapestry of foreign films, a good smattering of Rock N Roll docs, and then really good dramas and things like that. So you might see Taxi Driver, The Wall, and then some Godard the next night. It was such a great thing, going there, and kind of romantic for me too. Speaking of being inspired by locales, being a younger man walking around the Oakland neighborhood, which was more of a punk side of town, or it seemed that way. That’s where you were going to see a motley mix of people, with a punk rock element, a student element, all of that. That was really something to me.
I always had a sense growing up that I was really interested in activism, righting a lot of the wrongs in the world in some way. I was always attracted to that aspect of music too, and felt like that was a big part of it all for me. Getting inspired by the folk music of the 50’s and 60’s, to John Lennon or Bob Dylan, to the inherit cry for justice that you’ll hear from Albert Ayler or things like that. Later on, there was the punk revolution and then Kim Gordon, Yoko Ono, and all of those people. That was a pretty potent thing, too. I remember reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, or watching the “Eyes On The Prize” video series about the Civil Rights movement. Those were other avenues for the fire of creativity in my mind. You still hear it currently, there’s such a weaving of those sentiments. These things all contribute to make that electricity for me.
What are you listening to these days?
This has been a funny month, because I’ve noticed that I shift from listening to a lot of stuff to almost nothing for the same kind of periods. It’s been a quiet one, but I’ve been shifting around some things. One has been Blues Control, my buddy Dmitry was playing me one of theirs that I hadn’t heard called Valley Tangents that was really amazing. I’ve also been checking out some random things; some of Kim Gordon’s new one, some Magic Sam singles… that’s what comes to mind. Right now, but as I said it’s kind of been a quiet month for music.
Ok, it’s coffee time. Do you like that stuff?
Oh, hell yeah. I’m a big fan. I’ve been a big coffee drinker since I was like 15. I started real young because I had a bunch of older friends that all played music, and we hovered around this place in Pittsburgh, kind of like their Denny’s, a franchise called Eat’n Park. I was really amazed by these guys because they could just drink coffee for like 5 hours. Besides having diner food, at Eat’n Park you could just buy a coffee and they’d just keep refilling it! Coffee just went really well with the whole sensibility of a bohemian life and all of that.
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
I like coffee with a lot of body to it. A smokiness, or woodiness. I appreciate darker roasts generally. I found that the higher caffeine but weaker brews were not my thing. I don’t know if that makes sense? I kind of veer toward the older school of coffee in that way, but I guess there’s a roast for every taste.
How do you make coffee at home?
We use a metal French press at home, after breaking like 46 of the glass ones.
What are some of your favorite cafes in the city and if you are grabbing a coffee at a cafe, what is your go-to?
I’ve always liked Jumping Bean, Bridgeport Coffee. My wife and I do a lot of walking through the city, sometimes even from Pilsen up to Constellation for a show. I really like Ipsento.
Aside from black coffee, sometimes I like a Cortado or maybe a Macchiato. Occasionally I like a black coffee with just a touch of steamed milk on top. It’s not quite an Au Lait or anything, but just to cut the acidity a little bit.
Are there coffees from particular regions that you are particularly fond of?
I like Ethiopian Yirgacheffes when roasted deeper, and have always enjoyed Sumatras. A lot of the Central American coffees are really good.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
Oh, man. Well, I think of coffee in the same meditative way that others may think of smoking a cigarette, something you do simultaneously, like reading books with coffee. In that way, I think that writing with coffee makes a lot of sense, whether it’s typing or writing freehand. Not only is it the action of it, but also the active agents of the taste, the caffeine, and all of the associations you have with it historically. Poets and songwriters, as well as other times you’ve been drinking coffee. I think it’s really potent in that way, the act of it as well as the substance itself. In the same way it goes along with writing, it goes well with sitting around with a guitar and some paper. It’s just been with me for a long time. I hope some of that makes sense!
Thanks so much, Bill. Lastly, have you heard any good jokes lately?
This isn’t a joke, but a short coffee related story that I find humorous.
I was in Ohio with my friend Jason Ajemian, a great bass player and composer, and we decided to get some coffee. We go into this café, and had been discussing this Clint Eastwood movie from the 70’s in which he walks into this diner he always goes to, and unbeknownst to him, the killer is in there. Everyone is told to stay quiet and act normal until he leaves, and everyone is scared. Clint goes in, sees the same waitress as always and orders his coffee, but she has no way to tell him that this killer is in the diner, other than pouring and pouring and pouring sugar into his coffee. He senses that something’s weird, but just takes his coffee and leaves. After taking about six steps, he turns around on a dime and goes back in and takes care of business. We get back in the car and drive off, and Jason takes the first sip of his coffee and almost spits it out all over the car. I didn’t realize it at the time, but after discussing the film I had pretty much just filled his coffee with sugar!
"Birds of May" from Fountain Fire
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