He answers the phone while driving across the New Mexico desert from LA, on his way back to his parents’ house in Cleveland for Christmas, with a quick stop scheduled in Chicago to play a house party. That’s 2,300 miles across some of the flattest, blankest parts of the middle of America: with nothing to look at, there’s plenty of time to think.
Over the last few months, McGuire has had a lot to think about. He left Emeralds, the synthesiser-based group whose Kosmische-influenced songs soundtracked those late-night, heightened moments of Day-Glo dancing and festival sweat, nailing the sense of possibility that makes living through the hell of your twenties worth it. When they formed, in 2006, Emeralds were a group of teenage friends, just out of high school; but after six years, five albums and too many tours, singles and cassette-only releases to count, McGuire left at the height of their success. “Walking away from the one band that I was going to be in my entire life was an intensely hard decision,” he says, after taking diplomatic care to mention his bandmates’ good qualities. “You know how things slowly change over time, and you’re like, whoa, where am I?”
Midsummer 2012, the day after Emeralds finished recording their album Just to Feel Anything, McGuire left the studio for LA – a film producer had cajoled him out west for two weeks, to write test demos for a film score. The producer liked what she heard, and McGuire ended up staying for four months, living in a studio full of eastern instruments and high-tech recording equipment. “I was basically getting a crash course in how to score film, and so much stuff about recording, and production, and all this equipment I had never even seen... and I could work with all these things for 24 hours if I wanted to.”
When he wasn’t working on the score, McGuire sifted through ideas he’d been studying in depth over the previous year, mostly concerning sociology and the culture surrounding education: Rudolf Steiner, with his emphasis on making room for each individual’s creative potential, was a particular favourite. Along the Way came together as a concept album about growing up and “feeling that there are infinite possibilities”, only to find out later how the world really works.
McGuire explains: “It’s funny because this ties into a couple of the themes in the movie that I was working on. Even though it was ultimately a comedy about other things, it did have a lot to do with the ’90s generation and growing up, those kids being the adults that make up a good amount of today’s society, and how the delusion we were fed, whether it was intentional or not, set us up for a reality that was not the case whatsoever. You know, our parents thought things were going to keep getting easier and easier, but they got harder.”
In a departure from Emeralds’ hard synths, McGuire has a gentler palette of sounds. In the 1980s, new age had its critics, who saw it as little more than a yuppie retreat from reality. But here, McGuire uses the genre as a fortress against the terrifying world inhabited by the children of the ’90s – one of student debt, unemployment and the search for some kind of purpose. Opening track “Awakening” is a splashy jangle of what sounds like koto and dulcimer, layered over trebly guitars and gliding synths that unfold like a more muscular take on Japanese electronic pioneer Kitaro. “When I was using some of the world instruments, the message was of awakening into the natural world, where things don’t have distinctions – you don’t know that that sound is a guitar, that sound is a sitar, it doesn’t sound like Asia, or Africa or America, it’s just sound, it’s just feeling,” he says. “It’s not to try to do some offensive ethnic appropriation or anything like that, but just trying to create music about Earth.” “In Search of the Miraculous”, meanwhile, builds on pools of choral drone before embracing buzzsaw guitar, while “To the Macrobes” just rocks out. The album turns darker as it progresses; melancholy piano lines counter nervous rubberband guitar echoes on “The Instinct”. Yet even in its darkest parts, each texture is clear in the mix, and the overall effect is one of soothing – but thoughtful – calm.
Family also offers comfort. “The Human Condition (Song For My Father)” is the album’s most moving track, incorporating audio from a home video of a family gathering in 1989, when McGuire was two. His uncles, all comedy buffs, were treating his father to the kind of savage Friars Club-style roast that only people who are actually very close can get away with. You can hear their affection. “The last few years were some of the most tumultuous of my life, and when I found that video, I was talking to my dad about it, and just the human condition and the way people internalise all these problems, all these things,” McGuire says. “Those samples are from him walking into the room, and he’s freaked out because he knows he’s going to get destroyed by everyone, so he’s making jokes... but then he hugs my uncle, and he says, ‘it’s just good to be with you guys.’” §
Along The Way by Mark McGuire is out now on Dead Oceans.