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The 4-Track Physician: An In-Depth Interview with Mark McWhirter
Posted May 07, 2014 by Seth Johnson
WRITTEN BY
Seth Johnson
ON
May 07, 2014
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Mark McWhirter’s 4-track recorder serves dually as his tonal time machine. When recording music as Dr. Ray and as a member of The Cowboys, the 24-year-old prefers to dig deep into the organic tones of yesteryear—before digitization besieged the studio of analog artistry, in his eyes. Musical Family Tree recently decided to catch up with McWhirter, discussing his analog addiction, The Cowboys' debut EP, and much more.

 

The River Never Stops (2014)

 

Q: Can you give me a little bit of background on when you started playing music, and how you’ve evolved since then?

 

A: I started playing music when I moved back from Florida to Indy in 2007 or 2008. I just started playing acoustic guitar, and started branching out into other instruments—just really getting into music and liking all different kinds of styles and everything.

 

Q: From that, how did Dr. Ray begin?

 

A: I moved to Bloomington and started going to college. I was living on my own, and I just started making songs and stuff. I think I just used GarageBand because it was so easy to do. I started enjoying that and wanted to make things sound better, so I bought a 4-track cassette recorder. I got addicted to that and started making a lot of music. I made that Musical Family Tree [account] with Dr. Ray and I just stuck with that name. I’ve only released my stuff through there, so it’s just kind of like an outlet for all of my stuff.

 

Q: You said it became addicting to record songs once you started. Why was that?

 

A: Well, it was especially with the 4-track because a big part of music to me is that music is just sound. It’s just tones and stuff, so to have good tone is pretty important to me. Using things like GarageBand wasn’t that rewarding really and starting out with a really crappy guitar wasn’t that rewarding. But as I found things like the 4-track that made things sound better; it was addicting—especially the 4-track because as you would put stuff down onto the tape and then listen back to it, it literally would sound like it was from a different time. I just really, really liked that.

 

Porch (2009)

 

Q: When you first started releasing your music as Dr. Ray via MFT, what would you say was your initial goal?

 

A: I just wanted to share my music, I guess—just have other people hear it and see what became of that.

 

Q: Would you say that goal has changed at all since then?

 

A: No.

 

 

Q: What about your Dr. Ray project is most enjoyable?

 

A: I like looking back upon music I’ve made. If I haven’t heard something I’ve made for a long time, it’s always better for me—it’s something I like to listen to. It’s like a pleasant surprise. I spend a pretty good amount of time making each song usually, and it kind of ruins the song for me. I have to listen to it so many times and overdub and do all these things. Then, maybe four months later or a year later, when I look back at that song, it’s kind of like a new thing to me, and it’s neat to hear.

 

Q: Talk to me about your songwriting process with Dr. Ray. How would you describe it?

 

A: I guess I would describe it as experimental because I use all kinds of approaches. I use things that I hear other people use and just do all kinds of different things. Sometimes I might find something that works well and then use that for a little bit, but I never really stick to one process or anything.

 

The Cause of it All EP (2014)

 

Q: I’ve listened to several of your releases on MFT, and you seem to have a wide knowledge of instruments. What are you most comfortable playing, and what other instruments and equipment do you typically use?

 

A: The thing I’m most comfortable with is definitely guitar. I have a few guitars, and I got a bass guitar eventually. I can play bass all right since I can do guitar. One of things I bought early on was a MIDI keyboard. You can just hook those up to your computer, and as long as you can get the software, you can get all kinds of different sounds. I have some pedals and effects boxes and things like that, reverb units and whatnot.  I like to run things through those pedals and stuff. It just colors the sound, and that’s really fun for me—finding different sounds and things that sound good.

 

I’m just really, really obsessed with old equipment. I don’t really have the money or anything to get a bunch of old equipment, but that’s what I try to get. I’d say the coolest thing I have is…I had a reverb unit built for me, which is like an outboard reverb unit, like a spring reverb unit with tubes in it and stuff. And my guitar, I’ve got a Fender Mustang from the ‘70s. I love that thing. I have some old tubes amps from the ‘50s and ‘60s, just a couple of those. So those are the neat things that I’ve got that are pretty unique.

 

Q: Why is it that you love old equipment?

 

A: It just sounds better. I don’t really like new music very much and the production that goes into new music. I love anything up until the late ‘90s. I felt like things started getting bad, but I love that old equipment because when you hear the fuzz from the Rolling Stones’ song “Satisfaction,” you go out and you buy a fuzz pedal, but I guarantee you, you’re not going to sound like that. That’s because Keith Richards had a certain pedal. I’ve gotten to play through one of those pedals. I actually owned the pedal, and it’s like magic. It’s just such a cool thing. Anyone can tell. It doesn’t matter if you’re an audiophile or not. Anyone can dig that sound. They might not be able to pinpoint it, but that’s why people love The Beatles records and stuff—because they just sound so good.

 

 

Q: You continually release music via MFT. Is it important for you at all to release your music with such regularity?

 

A: It’s not really that important to me. A couple months ago, I was not releasing as much stuff as I had been before, and it didn’t really bother me very much. It just comes when it comes. I do not have archives of shit that I compile and then release. Pretty much everything I’ve released is something I’ve made just before I released it. I might find things that I find from the past that I want to put on, but usually it’s current stuff.

 

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to what you’ve done as Dr. Ray?

 

A: I’m proud that I can pass the time playing guitar and stuff because it’s fun for me. I think it’s hard to play an instrument starting out, for most people. I mean, it was for me because you’re not very good and it’s frustrating. If you just keep at it long enough, you might be able to get good enough that you can entertain yourself with just a guitar—you don’t need anything else. I’m happy about that. I guess I’m proud too because if I didn’t have that, I don’t know what else I’d do to pass time really.

 

The Cowboys - Volume 1 (2013)

 

Q: On to The Cowboys. How did you first get linked up with those guys?

 

A: I met the drummer and the lead singer at a party maybe two years ago. I started chatting with the lead singer. Him and the drummer lived together, and they were jamming and stuff. I think they had tried to put to together a few things with different people, but they weren’t in any bands at the time I don’t think.  So we started talking about music and just realized we had a lot in common. I think we exchanged phone numbers or something.

 

We started playing together and the bassist, Zack, just came along right away. I think he was already friends with them, and they needed a bass player. So we played a few house shows. We were playing things like…I remember they wanted to play the Sonic the Hedgehog theme. That was something we played at one point. I was like, ‘Ugh, that’s not my thing.’ So we were just doing things like that. We started trying to make our own songs, but no one was really the songwriter or the singer so much. That kind of became Keith. He was playing rhythm guitar, but he eventually just completely took over, doing vocals and stuff. He writes all the songs pretty much, and all the chords. He always just presents a song to us and then we learn it. We might have some things to add to it, but that’s pretty much it. Those guys, if we weren’t playing music together, we’d be friends. They’re some of the only guys that I’ve met in Bloomington that I’ve really been able to make good friends with and really like a lot.

 

The Cowboys

 

Q: I know you personally recorded Volume 1 (the group’s debut release). Can you tell me about the process that went into that?

 

A: We had about eight songs or something, and we were just like, ‘Alright. Let’s try to record these.’ They knew that I recorded stuff on my own, so Keith was like, ‘Yeah you should try recording us. It might be fun.’ So I recorded us in the practice spot in the basement that we’re always at, and I used my 4-track. We just did the drums and the bass first—just the rhythm section. We added the vocals, and then I added my guitar and some other things. It was kind of a sequential thing. We only used four tracks on that EP. We didn’t bounce any tracks or anything like that, so it’s pretty sparse.

 

It was a blast. We recorded it, and the last thing to do was the guitar. I did all that at my house. I have a few amps, and I tried a lot of different things. So the guys are just kind of waiting on the recordings. I gave them little snippets of it, and they were getting so excited and stuff, but I was like, ‘I can’t give you the recordings until they’re done.’ They were just wanting them so bad, but when they were finally done, it was a blast to put them out and let people hear them.

 

Evan X EP (2014)

 

Q: What future plans do you have with both Dr. Ray and The Cowboys?

 

A: As far as Dr. Ray, I don’t really have any plans. I’m moving back to Indianapolis in July or August. I’m really, really excited about that because I’ve never really felt comfortable in Bloomington. I’m from Indianapolis and just love it there. So I’m hoping to get together with people and try to branch out, and I’ll probably continue doing solo stuff.

 

As far as The Cowboys, we definitely have been playing more shows and people have been noticing us more, so we’re getting asked to play more shows. I think that’ll continue. We have a full-length album’s worth of songs probably in our set, but we already released that EP which is about six of them.  We recorded another EP, but it’s not as good as the first one. We’re going to re-record it pretty much the same way, but with a few differences. We had a lot of issues, like we had to use three different tape machines because they were all breaking and stuff. But yeah, we should be releasing another EP here pretty soon, and we have a few shows lined up.

 

Dr. Ray on MFT

 

The Cowboys on MFT

 

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