Cameron McGill – Interview

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[box]Chicago’s Cameron McGill took time out from the road to talk to in-house editor, Andy Whorehall.  He and his band , What Army, are out supporting their newest release, Is a Beast. They will be concluding their Spring 2011 tour by celebrating the record’s release at two Midwestern locations in late April; at Schubas (Chicago, IL) on April 29th & Kryptonite (Rockford, IL) on April 30th. You can catch Mr. McGill out on the road soon afterward with Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s.  Enjoy.[/box]

Is a Beast took a few years to make and complete. You being a writer-observer always in motion, at any point did you want to move on and work on newer material?

CM: Our records always take longer than I would ever want them too, but it’s mostly a function of my neurosis and spacing out the spending of money and my neurosis across a greater period of time. On the money end, as I make it, I spend it on recording records. Actually, total time spent in the studio making this record was only about a month’s time (maybe about 20 sessions), but yes, we did start tracking in November 2009 for about a week’s time. We then started up recording again in February 2010. Had a few sessions in February and March and did some mixing even I believe in late March before our April tour. After touring we returned to the record, did some final mixing and mastering in the fall of 2010, and the record went to duplication in December 2010. Thus, the April 2011 release. U.N. mandates take less time to legislate. In our defense, if we’d have put all the individual sessions together, the album didn’t take very long to make.

width=250I am always trying to work on new material even when I’m the process of recording an album. That satisfies the want to move on. I never consciously tried to move on from IAB, just wanted to keep making it better… to find what it was at it’s core, a drastically different expression for me and the band. Working on new material just keeps up the fix, the record is the marriage.

So much more responsibility seems overtake the creative process; has the decline of the recording industry’s standards & practices put more burden or blessings on your craft?

CM: A blessing for us in that we have always worked with the burden. We never had a golden calf, so when the idol was smashed, we didn’t really miss it. Yes, there is the burden of the business side, but it has to be done if you want to own yourself, release records in any public way, promote them, effectively tour, handle distro, copyright, perf. rights, placement, etc. We have several people who graciously help us along the way. If I am not on tour, it’s usually 12-14 hours days working from home, between band-related scheduling/interwebs, working on songs, phone calls, listening to records, reading, etc. I spent most of 2009, tracking down people who were fucking us over and ending it. No one will do that for you. Begrudgingly, I care about the business side, because I REALLY care about the music side.

Are there days you want to toss it all in because being a songwriter has become more than that? (I.e., Facebook updates, html code tweaks on WordPress-things songwriters were never expected to know before the ascent of technology.)

CM: Toss the computer, not the piano.

width=3005 full lengths in, are you comfortable enough to say you have a career making records now? Is it anything close to what you may have dreamt of doing as a kid?

CM: I am a career musician in the sense that I will continue to make records at any cost. Not sure I have a career yet in terms of people buying those records. Am not sure what I dreamt of doing as a kid. I think I always hoped there would be professions of compassion available to me outside of being a doctor or something. Wondered if you could get by being sensitive or if you were doomed to the torture you received for it as a kid. I think once I realized that I wanted to spend my time in the world, trying to explain my time in the world, it was easier to make peace with. I sometimes wonder what other people care about, but why does that matter? That’s the thing about passion, it only has to matter to you.

Do you feel like a Chicago veteran at this point?

CM: I don’t really feel like a veteran, as that implies some kind of veneration or something. I think if you’re somewhere as long as I’ve been in Chicago, and still fighting it, you are more likely to be looked over than considered a veteran. To be a veteran I think implies a catalog of great work as well. I’ve tried to make myself new on my own terms and if I keep my bed in Chicago, it’s only because it’s what’s convenient for me now, ie. my band is there and a few close friends. I like aspects of Chicago and probably always will, but I can’t say I’ve ever felt comfortable there.

How has the scene changed during your stay- for better or for worse?

CM: How has the scene changed? Hard to say, as I’ve never felt a part of it. Next big things have come and gone I suppose. Lots of the cool venues are still cool venues, some are gone. I used to love seeing Tweedy solo @ Lounge Ax. Can’t do that anymore unfortunately. I still feel funny when I go into Rainbo Club and still feel relief when I go into the Art Institute. The record store I worked at closed, but other good ones remain open. I think people always have this golden-era syndrome when they refer to their time somewhere; when the parties and shows and drugs were good to them, etc. I’ve been trying to feel in the middle of one of those for some time, but am not sure it’s my place. The scene aches on, and you just give and take to and from it as you please I guess. Other people keep track.

Is a Beast is a very emotional record. The song that lingers with me the most is Sad Ambassador. Is it true this wasn’t going to make the final cut?

CM: There was a possibility. I was trying to choose between Sad Ambassador and Loose Tooth (which ended up on the Deserters EP). I wanted one stripped down song in the middle of the record, but was having a hard time deciding. Sad Ambassador was the first song written for IAB, and I couldn’t make myself cut it, as to me it informed a great deal of the emotion that was wrapped up in the record.

Your mates in the ‘What Army’ perform and produce recordings with many other Midwestern area artists. You yourself play with Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s (pictured below). Everyone is making ends meet for one vision or another, has this affected or influenced your creative process?

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CM: Yes. I miss the days of being in a band that could get together on a regular basis as friends and just play music. I don’t have that luxury as much anymore. No one has time for that if it’s not working towards something, so it becomes me at home by myself imagining the band song and playing it solo. I can understand that, none of us is 20 anymore. Being a full-time musician unfortunately means being a full-time hustler. It compromises things, but everyone learns/benefits from playing with multiple bands and songwriters. I learn a hell of a lot from being in Margot; being close to great songs is never a bad idea. I’ve seen people squander the luxury of time and money and players, and that doesn’t work either, so, I think we’re all doing it the only way we know how.

There’s a few projects that haven’t seen the light of day.  The ‘strings’ record for one, will that see the light of day?

CM: Yes. Nathan Swanson and I have been working on it on and off this year, and we hope for a release later this year. It was tied up in many things over the past two years, most of which has been unraveled for good. I look forward to it greatly.

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Studs

Switching gears. We’ve touched briefly on this in passing but Chicago loves their Mikes (Ditka, Jordan, Singletary). I disagreed then, and now. Dare share with everyone (and Chicago) who the greatest Mike is?

Royko.

Yes. Hopefully the readers takes note. During down time and in-between tour stops, what favorite records, artists, authors of late do you find solace & inspiration in?

CM: Jack Gilbert always. Charles Simic. Mostly listening to Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon, and Nick Cave these days. And Paul Simon’s Graceland has re-appeared in my life to great effect.

There’s overwhelming elements of emotional conviction in your songs, and performances (with or without the band) that makes believers out of each new listener and fellow peer. These are professional victories you have over many others whether you know it or not—you truly were born to do what you’re doing. Having said that, where else, and what else, would you be if you could do it all over?

CM: I hope I can have professional victories ‘with others’. To me it’s easy for songs to house emotional conviction truthfully, because real-life is sometimes so devoid of it. The old Woody Allen-ism that, and I’m paraphrasing, you try to get things right in art because it’s so hard to do in life. I find that to be true. It’s much easier for me to be myself in songs than it is in everyday life. But that’s my short-coming, trying to find some peace between the two. Especially because when you deal with people, it’s in real life, not song world. At times I’ve given up accommodating what passes for meaningful interactions of daily life in America, but that alienates people, which can be fine, but sometimes you have to act a bit.

If I could do it all over, I’d live more remotely, in some other part of the world, maybe be a farmer, something more simple, speak more languages. Maybe enjoy music as someone who doesn’t write or play it?? Not have so many passwords.

To rid our lives of such said passwords and source codes, yes. Are there two performances, one old and one new, that changed your life and affected your craft?

CM: The first time I saw Dylan, even though it wasn’t the Dylan I was in love with, it was still the man, who had been the kid. I sat 4th row center at the Auditorium Theater and tried to follow his painting’s eyes to see if I could get a glimpse of something about him. I, like millions of others failed, but to me it was a right of passage, a demarcation in the world of song, even though the 60s were old and gone, that’s the beauty of music, it can make any time your time, and your time the only time.

I saw the Arcade Fire at Coachella 2007 and was made a believer. I love when band’s don’t give you a choice.

You’ve seen a few states, countries, by now with a few artists you’ve toured with. You and the ‘What Army’ are heading out again to tour behind Is A Beast and then off with ‘Margot‘ again for a stint with The Twilight Singers. Is there one place you never tire of visiting?

CM: I like the places in between the places the best, all the small towns you’d normally miss. Love being out west, long stretches of nothing, where it seems impossible to live, yet people do. On the other hand, NYC is always open and I enjoy having time to go to museums and bars.

Last one and thanks for your time; another place you look forward to the next great meal?

CM: I always look forward to eating at Punjabi on Houston (New York, NY), twice.
Thank you.

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