Chicago Music : A Word with songwriter/guitarist Bill MacKay : Joup Interviews

Bill MacKay at his best - creating (

Bill MacKay at his best – creating (

So I still have my eye on the scene, even if I’m about 10,000 miles away. Yes the Chicago music scene will always be near and dear to my heart…especially the improv and jazz circles, and of course, Chicago rock. Some might know about muse cafe and the names that passed through the doors of 815 N. Milwaukee. You might have heard of Jeb Bishop, Tim Daisy, Matt Golombisky or Quin Kirchner (not to name drop but yeah those guys) all of whom graced muse with their presence and their instrument at some point in time. So had another man with whom I caught up to again after a string of emails and IM’s. His name is Bill MacKay. As a result we put together an interview.  Bill totes a long history on the Chicago music scene with probably enough stories for a few lifetimes. He currently fronts and records his own project Darts & Arrows. An ever evolving project that really evokes great space, intelligence and emotion. Their most recent release this year is entitled Eyes of the Carnival and is available for download HERE. Besides D & A, Bill has gigged with another noticeable name from around town: that of former Wilco guitarist LeRoy Bach. Always candid, Bill is a great guy for just shooting the sh!t even if it’s via the vast plane we know as the internet.

Bill, you and I have known each other for about seven years now. We met through Dave Marsalek while he and I owned and operated muse cafe.

That’s right and I played at muse café – the one time I recall best was with Kyle Hernandez on bass, Jon Mitchell on flute and tenor sax, and Mark Lerro on percussion. We had a great time there.

Around that same time, I remember jamming with you at a small cafe in the Pilsen neighborhood and getting a great vibe [I’ve been know to pick up an instrument or two. On this night it was the tenor saxophone].

Oh yeah, that was Sundays at Café Mestizo on Ashland and 21st. I have fond memories of meeting you guys and playing together, and all the musicians coming through to play – it was a really good scene there that lasted for several years.

Can you talk a little bit about your influences on guitar?

As a guitarist it’s strange to say, but in a way I don’t single out the guitar as being so essential to what I’m doing. That is, I see myself as a writer or songwriter before an instrumentalist. But I do love the guitar as an instrument, and was drawn to it.  Some of those early magnets were Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Page, and Narciso Yepes whose record World of Spanish Guitar my family had at home. Later I came to Albert King, Jorma Kaukonen, Django Reinhardt, Jerry Garcia, Greg Sage, Bert Jansch…. so many more. And the guitars of the Beatles were always astonishing.

These players were sophisticated, colorful, but also very raw and visceral – and that range continues to intrigue me. A child responds to the most direct and mysterious thing, right? They were voyagers but traditionalist at same time. Whether they wrote songs or not, they were always creating, always at work on this ongoing symphony.

I must also mention a great player and composer Eric Susoeff who was a really important mentor, from my hometown of Pittsburgh. We’re still friends now. He has a band called Salsamba, and is real active in music and other scenes.

 And what is your musical background?

I started out playing at age 9. I took my first lessons from the husband of the woman who had sold us my first guitar. I knew him as Mr. Clark. I remember he smoked at our lessons! Can you imagine that happening now?

I had various teachers through the years, classical, jazz, and so on – while on the side I was always studying what I heard and could pick up by ear: rock, blues, and folk. I went to one year of music school in Boston, but ran out of money – and interest. At school a competitive spirit prevailed that didn’t aid me much creatively.

Later while living in Portland I had a blues-punk-surf trio with artist Alex Lilly (of Riotcop), and that was a very fertile time. We mostly played parties or played down by the river at Alex’s industrial workshop, and made lots of cassettes! I also recorded a lot on 4-track at home then, singing and playing all the instruments. Now I’m coming full circle in a lot of ways, and one of those is doing lyrical songs, some old and others new.

What role does your musical background play in your life as a working musician?

As to how all this has fed my life as a working musician, I think it’s one of those things you awake to slowly. For example, I used to entertain my brother’s friends and all as a youngster playing electric guitar, playing an hour or two of whatever songs I could play (including an early song called The Thing that I wish I remembered. It was stitched together from about 17 bits I’d made up!) But it only occurred to me the other day that those early experiences playing solo were part of me doing it now: I was studying that craft already.

Similarly all the wonderful times improvising with people feeds what we’re doing now. It’s about making that sketch more interesting, and when you can’t let an idea rest until it bears fruit, it eventually does. Beside this, I am always thinking of how to pare down, and get closer to the root.

I realize since you asked that I don’t know where the background ends and the foreground starts! There have been such a lot of interesting musical episodes, involving different people and ideas.

I know that you are quite astute in the language department studying Spanish, Portuguese and French. What role if any has that study played in your music?

Well, I like how language is as open ended as music is: there are many paths to the same effect or meaning. There is no single way that something must be said. The mind I think goes to similar places in playing music or speaking a different tongue than your native one. If you can’t express something in one way, you must look for other avenues, other words, phrases and gestures. So in that way improvisation’s quality of ‘thinking on your feet’ comes into play hugely.

I have been amazed to see that in the heat of speaking with someone, it is very often that you’ll use words you never learned – and correctly. The inherent logic of a language works with the mind in an intuitive way – uniting known and unknown. It can be sort of like finding your way around the house in the dark.

The more urgent your need to speak, the more direct and real the message will be!

What are your current projects or recent releases?

The most recent release is Darts & Arrows second record Eyes of the Carnival that came out this year (2012). I’m really proud of it, especially Ben Boye’s composition Frequent Vacation and one of mine called Mystic. The band is Ben Boye on keys, Kyle Hernandez on bass, Quin Kirchner on drums, and me on guitar. These guys continually amaze me with how creative they are, how they breathe life into things, a song you just wrote say…and it immediately speaks.

Then it seems to grow really naturally from there. No limits as to what sort of song it is either. We never really think about whether a song fits the band or not, genre-wise. It is all about seeing if it can take us somewhere.

I am playing a lot these days. Besides Darts & Arrows, I play solo quite a bit, and do shows with LeRoy Bach, Jeff Greene and other great people.  I’m really pleased to have participated on a few other recent recording sessions: one with Toby Summerfield’s group Never Enough Hope, one with Rob Roy Campbell, and one by the band Judson Claiborne.

I am also proud to be a part of Marc Piane’s band Walk East which released a self-titled record, and I have a song called 15 Summers on Glad Cloud Ambient Music Series Vol. 1, a compilation released on Whistler Records, and curated by Ben Mjolsness who heads up that series. Ben and I have been playing some shows of his really cool music. All this happened in 2012. So it’s been quite a year.

What’s it like playing with LeRoy Bach of Wilco fame? It seems like your styles compliment each other well. He recorded with Wilco on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. You’ve played many shows with him now and there must be some sort of chemistry brewing here.

There sure is. It’s been fantastic. He is a really nuanced and intuitive musician. We each come from a wide background as far as styles, moods or genres, and we easily veer in whatever direction we please – without too much thought or design. So far we’ve been working with songs of ours, and improvisations. In my view, there was chemistry very quickly, as we have been playing together less than a year so far. But yeah, it’s a super creative, inspiring situation.

And will this combination be continuing – perhaps in a larger group formation?

Well, I’m not sure what the future holds – but I am very glad about what’s happening now. We’re focused on what we’re doing, and I think it will naturally lead where it should go.

Care to tell us about your gear? And what you like to use in your “soundscaping?”

Bill MacKay out on the porch. (

Bill MacKay out on the porch. (

Oh sure, well a simple steel string acoustic is part of the bedrock.  My dad bought it for $50. I write most everything on it, and also play it at home more than anything else. I have a few electrics also. I realized that the brands don’t matter so much, but the main one, an electric from 1976, is really special to me: I’ve had it since I was 12. My father bought both of them for me.

I got into Son Jarocho music through friends here, and on one of my trips to Mexico, I made my way to visit Ramon Gutierrez (of the band Son de Madera) at his workshop. He gave me some lessons, and made a requinto for me. It is a really special and resonant 5-string guitar-like instrument capable of sounding like banjo, oud, nylon-string guitar, or itself – depending on how it’s played. We became friends over a few visits. My Spanish had improved a lot by the last time I saw him, so that made hanging out together even better – and I got a clearer understanding of some of his ideas on music and life.

I have three amplifiers, small to large: or loud to louder. As to effects, I always found reverb to be entrancing, or enchanting. I’ve tried to get into various effects, but it never fails that I come back to the basics, with maybe a change or two at times. Mostly I am happy to have distortion, and reverb on hand. I really like playing slide these days, mainly with glass kinds. It’s an enjoyable challenge to try to do things with it that don’t sound traditional while mixing things in that do.

The slide is also a wild element. It seems to be deeply rooted in people’s psyches. I think it’s something to do with the sonic relation to train whistles, and so to trains and the idea of escape and moving on to a freer place. And it also has a resonance with water. You can use it to evoke these deeply vocal sounds.

In the end, I think it is pretty true that you can get plenty of tones by yourself without many extras. Just as in singing, a lot comes from the player: how you position the hand, direct or angle the pick, or manipulate the strings, how pressure is applied, and the chords themselves- the voices in them are their own effects…it has no end. There is so much you can do with just what’s there.

What are you listening to these days?

Gosh, a lot of things. At times I listen like you listen to old radio, or new radio, play the singles! But lately I’m spinning Jimi Hendrix Hendrix in the West,

A Lasting Inspiration – a set of works by cellist Jaqueline Du Pre, Deerhunter’s last one Halcyon Digest, pianist Pierre Aimard Vingts Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus, Greg Sage & the Wipers…a great set of their first 3 records…Opal Early Recordings…Fela Kuti Original Suffer Head …and Laura Nyro New York Tendaberry…such a great gift of songs.

How do these recordings or influences contribute to your own creative process?

They do contribute a lot. I listen for how people leave space in things, how daring they are, how they might play or write in different emotions, the subtleties and primal things, the vulnerability that in music is a big part of its strength. If I take note of it, it usually goes directly or indirectly into something I try to do. Sometimes it’s about a color or way of phrasing. One chord can grow like wildfire into a whole new idea.

What is your most comfortable realm in creating: by yourself, in a studio with some pressure on or just ad-libbing with other musicians? Maybe you can go into the differences for you?

Well, I think creating a song by yourself is lovely ‘cause you feel that it’s all so open as to what can happen. You more play and wait for sparks to fly. That said, being with others

Tends to get you to things faster – especially if people are listening! The crackle of things working together, when it takes off in a band-context, is hard to beat. The rush of playing live anytime is great. Too much excitement can be dangerous, and you lose the thread.

In studios I’ve been lucky to rarely feel a lot of pressure, though I know many musicians who do. And I used to, for sure. Now it doesn’t seem to throw me off too much. I can tell whether I like it or not, what I’ve played, and if not – I’ll hit it again if I can. I do get that rush from it, but I’m able to think into and feel the music more directly now.

Bill, talk a little about the Chicago improv scene as it relates to you. We know that some of that came through the Muse Cafe circa 2005-2007 with people like you, Matt Golombisky and Quin Kirchner but now we are five years past. What has developed and who are some other players and venues in the scene? I can speak of the Hungry Brain for one.

I always felt I was part of what is known as the ‘Chicago Improvisers’ scene at tangential points in time and space. I did play very early and often at the Hungry Brain series for example, sometimes at 3030 and related spots. I have a lot of respect for the many talented folks involved. And many are good friends.

Another landmark for me was going to jam at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge. Fred’s profound musicianship and openness to people doing music in their own way was and still is tremendously inspiring. I met Greg Ward and Todd Hill there – we had bands together for years starting in about 2003, including Broken Things and Sounds of Now. I also met John Celebi, Samuel Williams and Vincent Davis among others there – a whole range of great people with ideas.

Around 2006 I started Darts & Arrows. It was a dark, woodsy and very spirited acoustic- string band with myself on acoustic guitar, Matthew Golombisky on upright bass, Lilianna Wosko on cello, Dominic Johnson on viola and Charles Rumback on drums.

Once I decided to record the band, it was already sort of changing, so the first record

Bill MacKay and Darts & Arrows (2010) was a kind of mix of the folk, rock and jazz approaches the string band had, but with a more electrified sound. It featured Matthew, Charles, Ben Boye and I. Greg Ward guested on clarinet on Black Leaves.

Shortly after that record, Quin Kirchner came in on drums, and Kyle Hernandez on bass. And we’ve been going strong ever since.

Find Bill MacKay online here:

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

6 Responses to Chicago Music : A Word with songwriter/guitarist Bill MacKay : Joup Interviews
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  3. [...] founders: Matt Golombisky, John Nash, herself and Patrick. Hey, the format worked smashingly for Bill Mc...
  4. [...] 1. Darts & Arrows Eyes of the Carnival (2012) It’s hard not to like Bill MacKay personally. Really...
  5. Joe Grez

    JGrez Reply

    Me too Jeffrey. Thanks for the props. I think what is best about Bill is just picking his brain. He has a world of knowledge and creativity. Glad you found Joup and hope you like some of the other material found here. Bill fits perfectly with all of it.

  6. Jeffrey Lien Reply

    I think the world of Bill MacKay! After having recorded and played out with him in the past two years, he blew me away every time. To me, his sound is a melting pot of everything from jazz, latin, to country… He’s a very special dude.. thanks for the great article!

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