by Jordan Minnick
Cameron McGill’s new LP, Is a Beast, began when he picked up an old acoustic guitar at his girlfriend’s apartment. It was her late grandfather’s and hadn’t been played for 20 or 30 years, he says. With the original strings intact, he began writing songs as his girlfriend shared stories of the man to whom the guitar had once belonged.
“It had an eerie quality,” McGill says. “In some ways it seemed to cast a shadow, maybe, over the light in which those songs were written.”
I caught up with McGill while he took a break in a tour bus stopped in St. Louis.
Bus engine off, he’s able to catch some time to hear himself think so he can work for a few hours, he says, while out on tour with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s
. With a forthcoming album under his main project, Cameron McGill & What Army, he has some pre-release work to hash out.
“This release has definitely had the most kind of set-up and promotion than any of my past records,” he says of the LP, due out physically April 12.
Since joining up with Margot in 2009 as the band’s keyboardist, a break from one band means time for the other, especially when you’re touring about seven months out of the year between the Chicago groups.
Or at least, that’s how it’s shaped up for McGill as he prepares to self-release his fifth studio album. Is A Beast is currently available for purchase on iTunes as well as for online streaming. The album holds McGill’s singer-songwriter sound while expanding upon the band’s music, lending to a nice mix of folk and rock.
While working on the new LP last year, McGill was also simultaneously in studio with Margot for that band’s latest LP, Buzzard. The album marked the first release on Margot’s personal label, Mariel Recording Company, set up by band ringleader Richard Edwards and guitarist Erik Kang.
“So much of the Buzzard release was done in house with Richard and Erik,” McGill says. “It certainly was a great example for us to try and follow, on kind of a different level.”
Much of Cameron McGill & What Army’s current lineup first met in 2007 to begin work on the band's fourth album, Warm Songs for Cold Shoulders. Included is bassist Rodrigo Palma (Saves the Day, Judah Johnson), guitarist Dan McMahon (Cory Chisel, Miles Nielson) and drummer Darren Garvey (Andreas Kapsalis Trio).
“This is like the first full-length that we’ve actually done,” he says, “now that we’ve played together for a few years and have gone through a bunch of tours and a few EPs and things like that. So in some ways it’s like a first record, with Cameron McGill & What Army, with this lineup. It felt like a fresh start.”
After tracking the basic guitar, bass and drum parts with the full band, McGill and guitarist McMahon molded the new tracks while Palma and Garvey were busy with other projects. The two traveled from Chicago to Milwaukee where they worked between two studios under the same roof, Howl Street Studios and Mystery Room.
The four musicians reconvened in the end for final mixing, McGill says, as everyone’s schedules allowed. “In some ways I think it worked out for the best.”
After the band’s done touring at the end of April, McGill joins Margot again on the road for a month. Shortly after, it’s another band switch-a-roo for a week of shows in Portland.
It took some string replacements, but McGill was able to write more than enough material for the album on that old guitar. With another record already written, he'll be onto his next album with What Army as soon as he returns to Chicago. And if his present touring rigor is any indication, it’ll likely mean being back on the road.
“I enjoy touring. It definitely is exhausting,” he says. “But for any band, it’s still the one thing that you can own.”
Jordan Minnick is Hear Nebraska's editorial intern. She wishes her high school experience was like that kid's in
Almost Famous. She'll be interning this summer at The A.V. Club Austin. Contact her at email@example.com.