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With his Springsteenian voice and rough-around-the-edges melodies, Cameron McGill has been rocking Chicago’s musical scene for more than a decade. While his latest record, Is A Beast, is his fifth, McGill’s still mixing it up a bit. Is A Beast was recorded, in part, using money from fans on Kickstarter and was the first with a steady backing band, What Army. In anticipation of his album release show this Friday at Schubas, The A.V. Club talked to McGill about his process, touring, and his weirdest show ever.
The A.V. Club: When you’re working on a record, what’s your process? Has it changed over the years?
Cameron McGill: By when we start recording, I’ve written most of the songs. For Is A Beast, I wrote most of the songs in the fall of 2009, and then we went in to the studio in Milwaukee in November of 2009 to start tracking. We did the basic tracks for the record—it was like 17 or 18 songs.
Then we weren’t able to get back into that studio until February. So I spent time away from it for a bit, and started working on it again in February and March. We had a bunch of tours last year, and we’d be out for a month or two, and then we worked in the studio in the summer. We did another tour, and came back and finished in the fall. So, it was different than most of the other records we’d done, in terms of having that space there.
AVC: Did that space help or hurt?
CM: It helped. For this record, we hadn’t played any of the songs that went in to record, which was different than how we’d done it in the past. We normally play the songs on the road, and these were all brand-new songs. We didn’t have any preconceived notion of how they were supposed to sound.
That time with a record, and then time away from it, is also super intense. Juggling that and being on tour with both our band and Margot [And The Nuclear So And So’s] being there recording their record at the same time ... then always coming back from a few weeks on the road and driving up to Milwaukee that night, doing that for four or five days, and then we’d go off to wherever we were next. It was hectic, time- and scheduling-wise, but it was good to be in the studio.
AVC: With this being your fifth record, how do you think you’ve developed as an artist and songwriter?
CM: I’ve learned a few things compared to the first record. The studio process with this record, for instance, was the most like a live record in terms of trying to capture a band as fully as possible. The first record was more piecemeal, and there was no steady band.
I think I’d do so many things differently now. I was learning what I was doing and playing while I was listening. This band has been together now for three years, and in some ways, I feel like this is the first record we’ve made with this band. Some of the guys played on the last record, but we had just met—literally—in the studio, and that was the first time we played together.
So, yeah, this record felt different in every single way.
AVC: Your press materials say you wrote this record on your girlfriend’s grandfather’s guitar, and that it hadn’t been played in years. Is that true?
CM: My girlfriend’s grandfather was a musician, and he died really young. So, she happened to have his guitar, and I played it a lot of the time. I didn’t really have much of a place to live for a while, and I was at her place quite a bit, and the guitar was there. It had never been taken out of the case and had the same old strings on it that had been there forever. It felt odd, but that’s what was there.
AVC: Do you think that old guitar affected your process at all?
CM: I don’t think about it in terms of affecting the song, but I was happy it was there. In some ways it felt like ... I guess it felt like sleeping in someone else’s bed. It wasn’t my guitar, and in some weird way I felt like it made different songs for me, and I was at a place where I felt like I wanted to be open to as many possible drastic changes as I could for songs and the new record. It felt right to involve someone else’s actual instrument. It removes me from some place.
AVC: How often are you actually touring between your band and Margot And The Nuclear So And So’s?
CM: I’m usually on the road about seven or eight months of the year. When we go out for either band, we usually have a couple of nights off, though. We have two or three on this April run we’re doing.
AVC: So like 150 days a year?
CM: It’s probably more than 150.
AVC: You funded part of this record through Kickstarter. How did that work out for you?
CM: I liked it very much. To me, it’s a really interesting platform. There’s a few of them, actually, like there’s one called Pledge Music that Margot’s doing. Kickstarter was just the first I heard about. I wanted to take a lot of time in terms of setting it up and figuring out how much we could ask for, and then get a good video made and figure out what we could give away. It was an enormous amount of work with fulfilling the rewards.
It did better than we could hope, though. We went over the funding limit. That was really encouraging. I was a little wary and unsure of what to expect. It does not look good if you don’t make it—but if you don’t make it, that might not be your biggest problem.
I wanted to make sure that we would offer things that we would want to get from somebody. It was encouraging, and it made it possible to finish this record and get it out.
AVC: Well, I thought your incentives were pretty good. How many presales did you do through Kickstarter?
CM: We did about 100 on Kickstarter. We did a few different levels, though, like an EP download. If you bought a copy of the record, you got an advance download of the record a month before it came out, so they could listen before they got the physical copy.
I tried to offer some box sets and things for the new record that I put together by hand. If I put time and money into supporting something, I would want to get something that was interesting.
Whatever band that does a Kickstarter campaign, the people that pledge are your best fans. They care about what you’re doing the most, and you want to treat that carefully.
AVC: How much does your work in Margot And The Nuclear So And So’s affect your solo work and vice versa?
CM: It definitely affects me. I was a fan of the band before I joined, and I’ve known those guys for a long time. Richard [Edwards] and I had played many shows together over the years, and I was a fan of his songwriting. Being that much closer to someone that talented is never a bad thing. Learning other people’s processes and being able to talk about the craft, to me, is important.
So, in that way, it definitely affects me. I felt it the most when we were working on the record. I’d be in Chicago working on Buzzard with Margot at Engine Studios—we spent a month and a half there—and then I’d scurry up to Milwaukee and spend five hours working there, and it was the exact opposite process.
That inspiration carried over, though. It was record-making time, overall, and I was very much in that place with both my band and Margot.
Whether or not I influence them, I don’t know. I try to serve the songs the best I can, on any new material and parts I’m writing, and I try to be as faithful as I can to the old parts that were written prior to my being involved.
AVC: Do you have a weirdest or worst gig story?
CM: I have a weirdest. It was years ago, and I was playing in Boulder. It was kind of a last-minute gig at some sort of performance art show. I remember arriving and hearing something you’d never want to hear as a band that takes it seriously. Someone in white face paint like a mime asked me if I wanted to go on before or after the magician, and I about lost my shit. Like, “Neither. I don’t even want to do this.” It turned out to be a weird night for a lot of other reasons, too.