Mark McGuire has to call me back because the cops pulled him over for speeding. We're an hour into an interview that was ostensibly about his new album Along the Way, but has morphed into a discussion of corporate greed, existential crises and spiritual awakening. But part of the reason he got pulled over was for talking on the phone, so the conversation is obviously put on hold. Later, when he calls me back, we discuss the cops and their role in the government control systems that have emerged since the rise of capitalism, religion and technology.
When we spoke he was driving back to Cleveland from Texas, or, as he likes to call it, "road chiefing." Opting to drive the 20-plus-hour trip to perform at Austin Psych Fest, Mark said the long drive lets him space out and detach a little.
"I can still do stuff like choose to drive from Cleveland to Texas and back almost for no reason," he said. "The thing is now, you're on your Facebook until two minutes before you get to the airport, and then you're right back on sky-fi. You can't even get away from the stuff you don't want to think about even when you shouldn't have to think about it. This drive is more like an adventure, and I can get more into a headspace."
McGuire, 27, came into his own as a musician in the electronic drone trio Emeralds, a Cleveland band that included him, John Elliott and Steve Hauschildt. Their meditative and contemplative movement in drone rock shifted the feeling of a genre and gained an attentive cult-following. So when it was rather abruptly announced that Mark was no longer a part of the trio a year ago, it was a bit of a shock—even though Mark describes the split as a “natural progression,” he was surprised at the response when the news went public.
"No one ever really even asked me if I left or anything else. They just ran to go write about it or tell everyone about it," he said about life since Emeralds dissolved. He added, about the band, "I was 18, 19, and we were living in Cleveland still and didn't really have much more hope for doing anything that felt important to us… We went from having nothing to creating what we did. But they never even asked what the real story was. I think that's a really good analogy for how America as a whole is right now. People don't care about the facts or anything except for what they saw on their little newsfeed, so they can just go spit out the venom and keep it going even further. "
Deep criticisms of capitalism, industrialization and technology form the framework of Mark's personal philosophies, which steep his music and especially the lengthy liner notes accompanying Along The Way in a child-like innocence.
"It's the story of any person who grows up and has even just that one moment where they feel like their life and everything around them has wonderful, beautiful, important true meaning," he explains of the record. "You feel that—maybe it's just for a second—but there's that feeling. Along The Way is channeling that and trying to discover what that is and what's really out there."
The record does feel like a journey or a walk through a secluded, humid forest. The synths and buzzing noisemakers build an atmosphere that purposefully feel like the sounds of nature, while hints of mandolin and other lighter strings belie weighty titles like "The War on Consciousness." But from the innocence surrounding his thesis of discovering joy and beauty in the world, a larger and more vivid worldview erupts.
"The light at the end of the tunnel shows that there's many more tunnels and roads that lie ahead. There's not one single atom, there's all and everything together," he said.
If this all sounds a little out of left field for the pedestrian reader, it is. Mark has been a student of philosophy for some time now, reading and digesting the work of mystical thinkers like Manly P. Hall, Michael Tsarion and of course, psychologist Carl Jung. Mark even remixed a version of "The Instinct," a song off the new record, with one of Tsarion's lectures.
"I started to study psychology at Cleveland University, and almost immediately it was when Emeralds started touring all the time, and it just didn't really happen," he said of his interest in these teachings. “These are the things I'm into on my own without taking classes or studying with professors in orthodox systems. All three of them talk about the psychic processes going on underneath everything in the illusional, third dimension through which we see everything around us."
Though he released two solo albums and a bevy of one-offs, cassette and compilation releases while still working with the group, Along The Way is his first record since he left Emeralds and his first release through indie giant Dead Oceans. And though these undercurrents of philosophical and psychic grappling have always been present, they're closer to the surface now. But many people have lumped him in with the resurgence of New Age art without taking the time to investigate what Mark himself is really saying about the art he's creating.
I ask him what the worst thing anyone had mislabeled his music to be, and he recoiled from my negativity. But the question was promoted by a New York Times piece that lumps Mark in wholesale with the nü-New Age movement. Even as someone who was raised in Portland, Oregon, the veritable birthplace of New Age art, and someone still frequently drawn to it no matter how hippy-dippy, I feel frustrated to see McGuire labeled as such. Disagreeing with capitalistic society and thinking that America has become an ugly, greed-fueled nation doesn't make someone New Age. Respecting the shit out of the beautiful planet we inhabit doesn't have to be relegated to an irrelevant, antiquated genre label anyway.
"Since then, that's the only thing I hear people say about my work is "New Age music"—and it's so funny because I don't put any stock in that kind of stuff," he said. "Mike who wrote the article is a really nice guy and we talked for like three hours, but he used like a half a sentence of what I said. He's a good dude and it has nothing to do with him—it's beyond. What I'm talking about is much, much more important to me than the thing that you're going to edit and put together into the article."
His concerns and critiques echo in my head as I put together this profile and try to condense his wide-ranging viewpoints and stories into a coherent narrative. Even as I relay Mark my own concerns about a publishing culture that rewards the cheap stuff that draws the most traffic, I wonder if there's a way to actually do justice to something that's willfully outside of that culture.
"We don't even notice that we live in the most disgusting, ugly culture anymore," he elaborated. "We look around and people don't even flinch. We don't notice that we live in a sick, sick world. People want the giant illusion in front of them. They don't want the deep song or the thing that really speaks to them. If you take my music and drop it into aisle four of Wal-Mart, it's not going to make any sense and [will] get some strange reactions. If you put it in a different place, though, people will start to feel really good. These types of things are so situational and contextual."
Earlier in the conversation, Mark described playing alongside a river at the Austin Psych Fest, and that seems like the ideal setting for his music. It's definitely art that attempts to direct people back to communing with nature, and that's definitely not something that sells well at Wal-Mart. Tomorrow, Mark will take the stage in New York's Red Hook Park to play a free concert in the city's Summerstage series. Surrounded by trees and ballfields, sitting right on the water, it's the ideal setting to hear Mark's music. In some live performances he will mix lectures by Manly P. Hall in with the music, and Mark cites the important tenets from Hall's work that are meaningful to him.
"To treat your friend, neighbor, brother and sister with respect. And not even with people, maybe more importantly not with people! Just that you step lightly on all the beautiful living things that are all around you all the time. It's all part of the one emerging flower of life pattern that we're all part of."
Actually, never mind: If this is New Age, then I want in.
Caitlin White is a solitary petal in the emerging flower of life pattern, or something like that. She's on Twitter - @harmonicait
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