Words by Andrew Lampela
Bill MacKay’s music is, under normal circumstances, difficult to pin down. Adhering to traditional song structures while not becoming beholden to them, his music possesses an ethereal nature as it runs through folk, American Primitive, jazz, and improv soundscapes with equal dexterity.
Even with a familiarity of his discography, Stir is a bit of an outlier. A duet album with cellist Katinka Kleijn, the music is some of MacKay’s freest recorded output yet. The duo effortlessly flow between composition and improvisation, at home with both the serenely pastoral and the growlingly skronky. The album is an honest, direct dialog between two musicians that have faith in the journey of these eight tracks.
Much like his music, MacKay is a very attentive, interactive interviewee. I had some technical difficulties getting to this interview on time, and before I could even begin the interview, we were talking about one of my bands and a music festival we both played at last year. I can honestly say, I’ve never had someone do research on me before an interview, and he instantly made it feel like I was catching up with an old friend. It was truly a pleasure to grill him about his outstanding new album.
Off Shelf: I don’t know that many people have ever ‘enjoyed’ Weedghost…
Bill MacKay: [laughs] There’s a very nice clip on Youtube I was listening to. It appeared live, but I couldn’t quite see the audience.
OS: I believe it was one of the Nelsonville Music Fest clips, from the cabin.
BM: Cool stuff, how did your set go over?
OS: We’ve played around twelve years running now, and every year there are a few more brave souls that stick around.
BM: The cabin scene is cool. I played just the one, in 2018, and it was cool. They gave me four sets, all around, and one was in that cabin. One was a big hillside, technically outside of the festival. And then to do the cabin, and the outdoors cabin. I think they were both cabins?
OS: That would be the Gladden Sessions, on the porch. That’s a great way to experience the festival. Those are all very different crowds.
BM: It was, really. A nice way to get a feel for the whole festival, a lot more than you normally would.
OS: It’s a great festival for that, exposing audiences to weirder music… not that I’m calling you weird, but putting less exposed musical styles in front of people is something I think the fest does very well.
BM: There’s certainly an openness to it, I thought that when I saw your clip too. It was great having the different options too because I could play different sets. One I sang more and played electric, the cabin was acoustic, so you can explore the different shades of yourself.
OS: Speaking of different shades, being familiar with your music, I still wasn’t quite ready for how ‘out’ Stir is. It’s a more free side of your personality.
BM: That’s nice to hear. They all kind of feel like departures from the ones previous, that’s what we hope for, but Stir definitely goes further out in a way. When I had the band Darts & Arrows, we were closer to jazz, more improv in a certain sense, than the last few albums. It felt like we were making a bit of a circle, even though it’s not really like those either. It feels really new, and doing this first one with Katinka, you know, having this collaboration for six or seven years now and having the first record together and have it be some of our freakier stuff is really pretty gratifying. I think it’s really pretty, too. It has the abrasion and the lyrical passages.
OS: There are little melodic chunks that speaks classical music to me, but in a skronkier way.
BM: I think that is definitely in there. We both have a lot of colors and familiarity with different genres. Katinka is coming from a super deep understanding of the classical world but with a natural improv side and curiosity, and I had very limited training on classical guitar as a kid but there were things about that like the contrapuntal motion, the two lines moving simultaneously, that stayed with me forever. I love to improvise in a semi-classical style, you know, play things that remind of Bach or whatever. I think the meeting of different sensibilities around that made for some really unusual juxtapositions with us. I really appreciate Katinka’s melodicism, as I’m a melody man.
OS: So, how much of this album was written out and how much was improvisation? It feels, to me, like a start to finish one-take piece.
BM: Well, I think it pretty much is. I don’t think we repeated anything. Overall, I did see it as one piece. Most of the songs had a melodic framework or certain set melodic lines, but there’s a lot of improvisation off of those lines, and we’d try to keep them in mind and return to them, but it was also super spontaneous. We did view it as a piece with seven or eight themes we were going through. There were sort of, not exactly graphic elements to it but there would be a melodic theme I wrote and then words that were reflections of the references to Hesse’s text, as I thought of it as a corollary to his book Steppenwolf, to some degree. There was a lot of freedom to it for sure. I like that thing of improvising with a theme in mind and you can get pretty far out there but return to it.
OS: I really enjoy how it slowly winds down at the end of “A Series Of Doors” and that could be the album, but then there’s an ethereal addendum with “Path To The Peak”. It feels like one big journey with a coda. It all has a fantastic flow.
BM: That’s really interesting. The original piece, I think, was the first seven tracks, and the last track just felt right to add to that. To me it all fits together, but that’s an interesting perception. It could all sort of end right there. I was glad that we put “Path To The Peak” on, I find it very affirming, and it adds this other, different kind of conclusion.
OS: The slide gives it a different feel than the rest of the album and just kind of glides you down.
BM: Right. I like those big slide chords and then spaces and comes in pretty seriously, roiling and boiling, and that flurry of activity at the end puts some kind of stamp on the whole piece to me.
OS: You’ve been playing with Katinka for a while now?
BM: We’ve been performing together for six or seven years now. It’s both sporadic and quite regular. There are points where we’re able to play a couple times a month. It’s never really left, it’s always in my consciousness you know? We’ve done a fair amount of stuff. The thing about Stir is that it captures a lot of the colors and approaches that we’ve done, but there’s a bit more to it. We’ve done shows that were entirely composed and shows that are completely free. You know how different venues can’t help but push you to explore things differently. It all feels natural and real to play with her. I value it a lot, but you know how it is, sometimes you get together with someone and you have a record out in a month, but this one really took its time.
OS: I’ve always really loved the cello, but in the last couple years I’ve really latched on to the color that the cello’s tone adds to things. Juxtaposing that with all of your other albums, did you approach this collaboration differently because of that very distinct voice?
BM: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think my same sensibilities are in there no matter what the group or duo might be, but you might have a point there. There were definitely moments in there that I couldn’t help but hear the cello in my mind. You know you can do some lines and get a feeling that it is going to be powerful.
One thing I love about it, other than the color, is that it’s almost right in the guitars range but there’s that depth, that density and depth. It did affect me in a way, because I knew if we did certain lines, like there’s one where I’m playing a little menacingly on the low E and I knew that was going to sound heavy and full. Think it was something that I would keep in mind, but it came in and out of focus. It would be like if you had a band with accordion or bouzouki it would be crazy not to think about them, but with instruments you deal with a bit more like the cello you might get a little cavalier with them. Katinka is so flexible and has so much facility and feeling. I’m hoping to do that more, focus on writing for us as a duo, and she will as well, she’s done some great pieces.
OS: This is your second album this year. I love both of them, but they’re very different records. Which style is easier for you? Collaborating with Katinka, or by yourself? You played everything on Fountain Fire, and I find it personally difficult to know when to stop, where the point hits that I’ve maybe layered the song to death, as opposed to a group setting where you have other voices to reign you in.
BM: That’s a good question. It would have to be that Fountain Fire was harder in the one sense, although harder may not be the right word. It was a longer period. They’re hard to compare, but doing a solo record and being responsible for all of the sound with the challenges you suggested of possibly overdoing things. For those reasons, that one took a bit more mental effort. Both felt very natural to me and just kind of flowed.
I will say, for Fountain Fire, there was a different vision in the back of my mind. I remember going through a lot of songs. I would put a few in to this pool I was looking at, and I’d think that maybe these two didn’t really work so I’ll take them out and put these in, and different recording sessions happened that would feed into this pool. I must have looked at between twenty and thirty songs during this process. The thing that happened with Katinka was definitely over a much shorter period of time. We didn’t work it to death. We worked quickly into how we were going to improvise. It was a beautiful best of both worlds because they were so different. You’re right, though, there is always the chance of over-layering things.
OS: Yeah, I’ll always think I’ve nailed something, but going back to it a few days later, wonder why in the world I put those last nine loops on there. It’s hard to talk yourself out of things when you get that deep into a piece and dead set on making it fit.
BM: Definitely. I’ve thought the same thing. I’ve felt fortunate to only recently come to realize that. There were a couple things on Fountain Fire, like “Dragon Country” had an extra track on it that would have maybe been okay if it was dialed in subtly, but it was very active and really pushing the song, but it wasn’t needed and going to be close to ‘too much’, you know? I was happy to play it without that track and hear that it was already very full. There something about when you commit to something, you’re loathe to take it off.
OS: Self editing has never been one of my strong points.
BM: [laughs] It’s hard to do with anything, I think, like writing a poem. You write a bunch of stuff and then you have to ask how much fat can you trim until you’ve lost the original idea. There’s that fear, you have to trim it down, but how much fat is fat, like if someone else is reading this? I often think about this with works of art. All of the pieces are not necessarily equal, right? You can have a classic book, but that doesn’t mean that every paragraph is equal. Every line isn’t singing, you know? So it’s tricky to see the whole picture and keep all the things that support it. Do you do a lot of stuff at home?
OS: I do mostly loopy drone guitar noise. Topically, however, I did recently acquire a cheap electric cello, because I naively thought that playing guitar and bass for twenty odd years would translate fairly easily. It most assuredly has not.
BM: [laughs] Right, it’s like this thing you pick up and quickly figure out it’s not just like a keyboard where you can put your hands down and something nice will come out. I can feel you. I humor myself in thinking that if I pick up someone’s violin I could make a decent note.
OS: I actually started with a violin a couple years ago, but I’ve got these stumpy bass player fingers, so that was a non-starter.
BM: It reminds us that we can’t beat nature, right? These things were created by variations of people, but then you wrap yourself around one and realize that the neck of the violin is so small. It doesn’t fit every hand. The whole fretless thing is very intense to me, as well. It’s like anything, it’s the physical muscle memory.
OS: One last tangent, and I’ll let you go. I’ve been a huge Peter Brotzmann fan for a long time, and through his Octet/Tentet recordings, I discovered this wonderfully deep free jazz scene in Chicago. It has to be a pretty great crowd to be a part of, right?
BM: Definitely! It’s something that feeds a lot of people’s artistic brain. I was very fortunate when I got here, twenty years ago now, I was looking for creative rock people to play but wasn’t meeting the people I wanted to, so because I could improvise and had a background in jazz I fell in with some of those folks. It was great, seeing Fred Anderson and the Art Ensemble guys, it was so influential. Going to play the jam sessions, I felt like I had my hand is several pies. I just started to orient my writing that would have been for a rock group to a band with saxophone and double bass. It was a great training ground. I mean, indie rock bands barely ever played more than one set or over an hour, you know? Being down at the Velvet Lounge, and I remember one with Brotzmann, a great group with Hamid Drake and William Parker, and this trumpeter from New York, not the usual Trumpet in that group, Roy Campbell, and they must’ve played three, three and half hours. Most of us were standing, it was jam packed, but you didn’t notice because it was so exhilarating. I can’t overstate that influence. It’s a heavy thing, isn’t it? The whole history of the scene.
OS: Oh yeah. It has to really affect, not only your playing, but it has to do something to your brain compositionally, right?
BM: Totally. I think in that way, that’s one of the influences of seeing all of these people play and knowing them, the feeling that it starts to erase the line between songwriting and composition and improvisation. If you listen to Classical people like Chopan and Mozart, there is no way that they were not amazing improvisors, with what they could play and what they could write. So you have someone like Roscoe Mitchell, who is a great composer and improvisor too, and the line between it doesn’t really matter, you know? It has, it’s changed the way composition is approached. I love seeing things where you get challenged like, wow, I didn’t think of that as being possible and is definitely not an approach I would take. It makes things interesting.