In a 2009 Westword article, Patrick McGuire admitted that, in large part, it was due to a diminishing faith in God that he pursued music. Around that time, he was fronting the band Flashbulb Fires which, until its break-up in late 2014, was a mainstay in the Denver music scene. The band sang a lot about McGuire's issues with his religious upbringing; while he decried that background, it essentially shaped him into the songwriter he has become. McGuire's currently releasing stellar music under the name Straight White Teeth, and his experiences in the local music scene have continued to shape him as an artist. But much like he left his former religious faith behind, he's chosen to leave the city and move to Philadelphia with girlfriend and bandmate Ella Trujillo.
In advance of that move, we asked McGuire about Straight White Teeth's new album, Medicine Sword, and what the City of Brotherly Love has in store for him.
Westword: This album is being released as a zine — explain the process behind that? What can we expect out of it?
Patrick McGuire: I started writing the songs for Medicine Sword right after Flashbulb Fires split up last year. The idea of a medicine sword is something that has to kill you before it can save you, if that makes any sense. In order to grow and thrive as a person, especially a creative person, you've got to die sometimes, and death is excruciating. Ella Trujillo, my girlfriend and SWT drummer, made a connection to alchemy from the songs on the EP. Alchemy is understood as the process of turning lead into gold, but in a metaphorical sense it's taking the weight of experience, of life and growing until you're ultimately enlightened. Like a medicine sword, in alchemy you take something painful and use it to make you better. Ella took this idea and ran with it — the zine is based on my music but structured around the seven steps of the alchemical process. She had wanted to do a visual companion for my music for a while; we decided a zine instead of a CD for the EP would be a great opportunity. We could do something unique while still giving our supporters something to hold and own.
Like the music, the zine plays with a lot of contradictory ideas — like life vs. death, surreality vs. reality, the sacred vs. the profane.
Without the confines of a full band, what has changed in your writing process?
I really thrive off the immediacy of things. If I have an idea, I'll try to form some sort of a song structure immediately and then I'll start orchestrating things and filling in the gaps. It's hard having a band and being like, "Hey, guys, I have an idea. What do you think?" and then waiting for other people to turn your idea into a song on their terms. I'm fiercely reliant on songwriting and performing music for my own happiness and personal fulfillment, and I know if I can keep writing, producing and performing, I'll be happy and my life will make sense. This is the headspace I've been in this year. It's been super-freeing and relieving to know from now on I get to write as much music as I want, whenever I want to write it.
What do you know about the musical scene in Philadelphia? What advantages exist there for you that are not here in Denver?
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I've had great experiences with playing music in Philly, and I'm excited to get out there. Everyone from Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs to Hall and Oates and John Coltrane came out of Philadelphia's music scene. Philly clearly has its own sound and vibe, but the close proximity to NYC's venues, industry folks and labels was definitely on our minds when we decided to make the move to Philly. Denver's scene definitely suffers because of its location. We're eight hours away from the next major city, and I think we're just now becoming a must-play city for smaller acts because of the legal weed and population explosion. I think the advantage of being a band based out of Philly is that you have access to so many more people who are enthusiastic about music. It's a way bigger pond, but there's more opportunities than there are here in Denver.
You toured fairly consistently with Flashbulb Fires. What did that teach you about music, yourself, life in general?
I think about this a lot. I turned thirty last year, and I think touring the country in a tiny band was the most educational experience of my twenties. When someone talks about Portland, Fargo, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Wichita or Memphis, I know those places. Seeing America in that context is really crazy. We played America's best and worst small venues with the best and worst small bands, and those experiences have shaped not only the kind of music I write, but also the kind of person I am. My music references a lot of themes of traveling and escape, and it's no wonder why.
Hear Medicine Sword in its entirety on Straight White Teeth's bandcamp page.