Delectable Dark Fruit: MJ Guider

MJ Guider’s latest album Sour Cherry Bell, released by Kranky, floats between dream pop, and shoegaze, with gothic dancefloor flavours. Recorded in New Orleans between home and studio, this album offers  a rich dreamscape of experimental arrangements, ethereal vocals and swampy beats to haunting piano, forming a  tapestry of atmospheric visitations, including mesmerising single FM Secure. It is an escalation of Guider’s instinct for arrangement, as honed in her acclaimed debut Precious Systems. Her desire to push these methods have borne an irresistibly sinister fruit in ‘Sour Cherry Bell’. 

DG: In your description of the process of creating Sour Cherry Bell, you express a willingness to “exhaust” your methods, implying a commitment to create outside of any preconceived idea of what may be feasible. The result is an aptly titled delectable dark fruit. How does the end result of your experimentations compare to the intention you had going into it, and what have you discovered about the robustness of your methods in your attempt to push them further?

When you introduce a limiting factor into the process, you have to welcome the likelihood that the end result can differ from your intentions. Most of the time I was able to get just about where I wanted to go, but how I got there was frequently a different journey than I planned on taking when I started. That makes the process all the more interesting and worthwhile. Even more interesting to me is how outcomes you had not considered or imagined emerge when you’re doing the work of trying to achieve something very specific with limited tools.

The process of making this record, for me, affirmed that I don’t need a lot of resources to make exactly the record I want to make. And I’m a major control freak, so I think that says something about this approach. I wouldn’t skin a cat, but there is definitely more than one way to do it.

DG: Compared to the dream pop of Precious Systems, Sour Cherry Bell has a harder kernel at its centre, in the form of a more muscular beat. How long have you spent working on this release? Has this time seen any changes in your way of working and creating?  

I worked on the album off and on starting in 2017, pausing for tour, travel, and performance-related things that take up more time and energy than just their footprint on a calendar would let on. Then I worked on it in a really focused way for several months leading up to its completion last year.

The biggest change was that I spent much more time working on the record at home than my shared rehearsal space. That gave me the luxury of being able to sit and work for extended periods of time without the limitations of pre-scheduled days or times as is the case with the studio.

Photo by Michelle Wacker of MJ Guider at Brooklyn Bazaar

I also opened up the process a little more. Previously I’d worked in a bubble, very isolated. This time around when something was “maybe done” or nearing completion, I’d sometimes share the work in progress with one of a few trusted people whose opinions I value. Extra appreciation goes to Mike (from Belong), Mike (from Marker / the MJ Guider touring band), and Andy (from Thou) for having such excellent ears and being most generous with them.

DG: You’ve referred to your music as relating to other worlds, which to me is what  connects your sound to its more obvious dream pop comparisons. Rather than having a commitment to any particular genre or sound, it’s more of a cinematic, visual experience of ethereal scenes and moods. Between periods of creating, what feeds your imaginative prowess?

I listen to a lot of music, in part because I have a radio program, (Night Gallery, on WTUL) that I’m constantly digging for music for, but even outside of that I’m always seeking out new stuff across different styles and eras. I’m a sucker for a good hook. Also I work as a graphic designer in my non-music life, so I like to image source and research projects by regularly going through books from my small library, and searching in various places in print and on screens. I watch a lot of movies (currently mostly horror movies because it’s horror movie season) and I’m almost always in the middle of a book or two, and a tv show or two or three – heavy on the sci-fi / dystopian, slow, and also kind of trashy and weird. The environment around me plays a big role as well. New Orleans makes its presence felt.

Something that I’m always getting creative energy from is what those around me are doing. I’m fortunate to know some extremely gifted people who make amazing things. Getting to hear their music, see their art, read their words, watch them dance, and generally bring beautiful things into the world…that’s very inspiring.

DG: Picking up on that muscular quality of the beat running through the album, the FM ‘Secure’ video presents a kinetic dance interpretation of the piece, a fleshed out embodiment of the track, projected onto a billowing sheet screen, and ‘Simulus’ also has hypnotically grainy films in a split screen format, layered and overlapping. What attracted you to working with projections and screens in these visuals?

I can only take credit / speak for the FM Secure video (the wonderful video for Simulus was made by Mike Wilkinson), but I’ve always loved the way projecting images alters them based on the environment you’re projecting them into. For the FM Secure video, I liked the idea of the clips of bodies dancing being twice removed from the scene. And by projecting them onto a moving surface, it was like the element of movement mirrored the meta aspect of the viewing experience. In the case of that video, also, by having the setting be my extremely talented photographer friend / collaborator Craig Mulcahy’s studio (Craig filmed the projected scene as well), elements like the lighting, the dimensions of the room, the walls and other structures inside the room, and then myself and the things I was doing “behind the curtain” – all those pieces became features of the projected video.  

And besides all that I just like how projections look.

DG: You cite notions of power; lost and found, corporeal and cerebral, harnessed and exploited, of one and many, in this reality and the next” as your primary muse.

Each track on Sour Cherry Bell is charged by singular energies; in moments of surf-rock, the guitar sounds hollowed-out and sludgy, a hefty beat throbs in the club of dreams where in the darkness lies belonging, or a piano is suspended in ether. The gothic and the psychedelic aspects intersect perfectly. To what do you attribute your sensitivity to surrounding powers at play, seen or unseen, and your ability to express this in sound?

That’s a really interesting question. And I love how you describe the sounds, such beautiful words. Thank you.

I guess I’ve always been a heavy observer. For as long as I can remember I’ve made a habit of regularly reading the room and scanning my environment. The way we treat ourselves, how we treat each other, how people move through the world – with care or without it, what my body is doing, how I’m feeling, how someone else is feeling, how people in general are feeling…I have these stations pre-programmed in my brain and am regularly switching between them.

From an early age I was always drawn to and making music that reflected those observations, and I guess that’s still my M.O. a lot of the time. I’m better at translating it all into sound than describing it any other way.

MJ Guider was speaking to Caoimhe Lavelle.

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