Soundtrack of Our Lives: Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles freewheel us through great handpicked tracks

Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles, photographed by Nick Brost

BILL MACKAY, the Chicago-based guitarist, improviser of note and all-round scion of six strings, sure loves to enter into a two-way conversation with other artists with reliably beautiful results; witness the brace of albums he’s recorded with the freewheelin’ Ryley Walker, Land Of Plenty and Spiderbeetlebee.

And loving that American instrumental guitar tradition in all its iterations, from early blues up through John Fahey and Robbie Basho through to Jack Rose, William Tyler, et al, we were excited as could be when Drag City announced he was getting together with Appalachian folk and drone fellow traveller Nathan Bowles for Keys, an album that it is pushes way beyond the simple, sterile categorisation, ‘guitar/banjo duets’, with easy companionship, an ear for the past and for each other.

Keys is actually the first time Bill and Nathan have stepped out together on record, although they first met a few years back now; it’s said that after the first night they hung out, it felt as if they’d known each other a while already.

They’ve been sending sketches and ideas back and forth from Bill’s base in the Windy City and Nathan, out there in Durham, North Carolina, and played together a year after meeting at a festival under the grab-bag name Cropped Out, and that night went swingingly, serenely, even; they found a depth, a gestalt, more than the sum of their parts in concert with each other.

A few more shows on and there was an obvious next step. It comprises eight originals and a brace of songs “from other centuries”; Bill and Nathan say its made of “equal parts bluegrass, classical, country, gospel, improv and that ol’ innocence and experience to boot.”

We said of Keys: “You know what the best thing about this album is; for all its intimacy, the focus wholly on the interplay of the two players and their instruments, how they mesh and in how many ways, a real joy in creation rings through.

“The songs within veer from experimentally fragmented to delicious instrumental interplay, homage to the roots of the musics, bluegrass, purer folk, hoedown reels, and all with a little bottled sunshine.

It’s a perfect April album, the renewal of spring all around, and Christ knows it’s been a grind. Set your speakers up so you can lie back in this record out by your door in the late afternoon sun with a long drink, and let Bill and Nathan take care of the rest. A beauty.” (Read our full review, here).

We got in touch with the pair to talk about the music that soundtracks their lives – and it all comes with a handy Spotify playlist to cut out and keep. We rollin’.

BACKSEAT MAFIA: Hi Bill, hi Nathan; thanks for taking a little time out to lead us through the soundtrack to your lives. First up; what, for you, is the ultimate Saturday night tune?

BILL: Well, I can’t think of a song that would exactly encapsulate my feelings about that day and its place in things. But I’ll say what did come to mind for those kind of nights where you are reflecting rather than say heading out on the town. Interior nights perhaps. And from today’s perspective that would be “Pancho And Lefty”, by Townes Van Zandt.

And a Sunday morning record?

NATHAN: The Entourage Music and Theatre Ensemble’s self-titled albums on Folkways from 1973: unique, chamber-ish instrumental pieces featuring sax, keyboards, guitar, viola, recorder, percussion, etc. Some of the small-scene-theatricality/soundtrack-to-a-brief-dance nature of this stuff reminds me of Penguin Cafe Orchestra or some of the shorter pieces from Sun Ra’s mid-to-late-60’s Saturns, particularly in the blend of repetitive keyboard themes with keening, plaintive string/wind melodies + the occasional in-the-room reverb-via-tape-reel sound. Highly recommended with tea/coffee and sunlight.

What’s the best cover version of all time?

BILL: Well, I really love Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”, where he completely, in my view, expanded on and remade Dylan’s original while staying true to its intent at the same time. Not easy to do, and the results were spectacular. Talking Heads’ cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” would be a tie. So hypnotic and compelling!

What’s the best cover version of your music?

BILL: I don’t know that many songs of mine have been covered so far. Let’s talk in a year. Maybe that will have changed!

What’s the best song you’ve written?

BILL: Right now, I like best of mine “Try It On”, from the Fountain Fire record, and “Truth”, from Keys, the new record. “Scarlet’s Return”, from Esker, is also a highlight.  

What’s the song that reminds you most of childhood?

BILL: “Theme From Mahogany”, by Diana Ross, comes to mind. Such a great bittersweet song, and I heard it often on the radio, especially while driving with the folks. 

And a song by the band that should have been/should be bigger?

BILL: “Fell From The Sun”, by Opal. They were the band that turned into Mazzy Star who I think went rather far, but Opal had music I revere as much. They didn’t make it so big, but then their influence on me is large, so no regrets. Early Recordings is the standout record for meI love Kendra Smith’s singing sensibility, and the melody and feeling in the songs is terrific. [Pale Saints’ version ain’t also half bad – Ed.]

What song would you have played at your funeral?

BILL: Oh that is tough. Of course, my urge would be something super inappropriate and fun like “Sir Duke”, by Stevie Wonder; but then maybe I’d try to be more considerate in my new state of deathly grace, and have them play Chopin’s “Étude in E Major” (the Jorge Bolet version), a fantastic piece with a great 1800s punk cascade of crashing chords in the middle, surrounded on both sides by the most elegiac melody imaginable. That way, my mourners (hoping some show up) could weep and mosh, all in a handful of minutes!   

What have you learned about your field during this era?

BILL: That with the time to look in at music in long glances, I’ve relearned that there is so much to explore and uncover. That has been really awakened. It was always there, but as with a lot of musicians this year I suspect, I’ve studied more closely my feelings about the workings of music, and the depths or heights to which I aspire in art. May that be reflected in what we do going forward.  

Who’s been your musical discovery of lockdown?

NATHAN: The last bit of touring I did with the Joan Shelley ‘Best Hands’ band before lockdown had some fruitful record store stops, and I picked up a couple of Steve Tibbetts records that I’d either heard briefly before on friends’ stereos or just heard about — in this case, two on ECM, Northern Song and Safe Journey.  I dug into these during the first few months of the pandemic Stateside, where things felt especially claustrophobic, and putting them on again now I can see what made them feel so appropriate to me at that time.  For all the organic beauty evident here, especially on Northern Song, there’s also a coldness and at-arms-length inscrutability to this music, like letting your eyes wander over distant, unfamiliar architecture. Not that it’s uninviting, per se – both records build sonic worlds that feel natural to move through, even if Safe Journey has a bit of a dystopic-city-skyline feel.  Anyway, I’ve lived with these off and on this past year and still find things for my ears to alight upon. 

And who’s been your musical rediscovery of lockdown?

NATHAN: There are so many records that could probably work as an answer to this question, especially as I move between periods of frequent home listening and preferring/enjoying mostly ambient room sound/sounds outside of my windows, but shouts out particularly to the Z.M. Dagar editions on Ideologic Organ and a couple represses of some dub favorites on Clocktower, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and The Upsetters’ Blackboard Jungle and King Tubby’s Rastafari Dub.’

Bill, Nathan; thank you so much.

Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles’ Keys is out now Drag City digitally, on CD and on vinyl; order your copy now at the label shop or from your trusted local record store. It’s a treat.

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