Andy McKee was guitar’s first ever YouTube star. Long before vlogging was a word, the wayward son of Topeka, Kansas was an internationally acclaimed musician and one of the finest living solo acoustic guitarists on the planet, but then in November 2006, his record label published a video of the guitarist performing his original piece, Drifting on the then nascent video streaming site.
Within weeks, McKee’s dazzling mixture of technique, originality and musicality had captivated the world, and making him one of the internet’s first ever viral sensations – racking up 59 million views , it was the most watched video on YouTube at the time. In fact, in the days the before the billions of Baby Shark and Gangnam Style ruled the roost, there was even apparently a point where McKee’s videos claimed the all three top spots in YouTube’s most popular videos chart.
The success of these videos brought McKee’s music, particularly his 2005 album The Art Of Motion to a much wider audience, and propelled his career to greater heights than even this supremely talented player might otherwise have enjoyed. McKee has released sporadic albums an EPs in the 15 years since, and now he’s returned with his first studio release since 2014, Symbol – an EP of wildly divergent covers featuring music that has inspired him since childhood.
We caught up with the low-tuned drifter himself to learn more about the sublime textures of Skyrim, the formative impact of Rocky IV and the narrowly-avoided wardrobe hazards that came when touring with Prince.
Despite shooting to prominence through an original track, solo acoustic covers have always been a major part of your live performances. What inspired this EP?
“You know it’s funny, I’ve been kicking around so many different ideas for a few years now – I was conscious of the fact that I haven’t released a new recording in quite a while, but I’ve also been exploring different kinds of music away from the acoustic guitar which has kept me occupied. I’ve been writing synth-based atmospheric music, and bizarrely at the same time I’ve been enjoying some really nostalgic 80s sounds, a Yacht Rock vibe – so these are things I’ve been working on in the background.
“My manager suggested a release of cover tunes – a big part of my show is talking about the guys that inspired me on my journey – you know fingerstyle guitar is a bit of a niche thing and I like to spread the word and talk about the players that went before me just in case people in the audience hadn’t heard those names. So a collection of tunes by people who had influenced me just made sense!”
The EP opens with the monolithic Michael Hedges track Ragamuffin. I’ve heard you play this live, and you bring a pounding beat in the chorus that takes it somewhere else. Your relationship with Hedges’ music obviously runs deep.
“I couldn’t overstate how much of an inspiration Michael Hedges was to me. You know, I grew up listening to rock and that was the first kind of music I got into when I started playing. My initial entry-point to fingerstyle guitar and this modern approach with altered tunings and extended techniques came via the music of Preston Reed and other guys but for some reason Michael Hedges’ work just resonates so much with me.
“There is honestly no other music out there that I have felt such a deep connection with. He’s a superhero for me and he always will be. I have the greatest admiration for what he did for music in general but especially with the guitar – this beautiful, open and honest expression – it was unique to him.”
A solo fingerstyle cover of Prince’s Purple Rain is an ambitious prospect, but this was a personal tribute too.
“I had the good fortune of touring with Prince in 2012 – he had discovered me on YouTube and invited me to Paisley Park to see if we could work together somehow, and we ended up doing a tour of Australia together. It was just an unfathomable thing for me – I couldn’t have ever imagined that happening! I respect his incredible ability as a musician and a writer – I felt very grateful that he liked my music and that we were able to do that tour together. He wanted me to open the show as well as play with the band and I came up with this acoustic version of Purple Rain – people have heard it live a few times and I figured I’d finally record a version of it.”
There were rumours about a cape?
“[Laughs] Yeah! So, just a couple of days before the tour started, Prince had told me he wanted me to open the show and maybe play a song or two and he had written up this whole plan where I was supposed to come up on an elevator and walk down the length of the stage and start playing my guitar while wearing this 50-foot long cape which would unfurl behind me which would also be used as a screen that they could project images on while I played.
“Man, I felt so awkward about the idea that I just couldn’t do it, but in hindsight I kind of wish I had – I mean where else are you going to wear a 50-foot cape on stage except when opening for Prince?!”
The internet has revealed a strong overlap in the Venn diagram between the twin cultures of guitarists and gamers with several players – especially in Asia – paying homage to the work of games soundtrack composers. It’s quite exciting, this computer magic!
“I have been into gaming since I was about five years old I guess – it has been my chosen form of entertainment. I started out on Atari, then Nintendo, Genesis all sorts of consoles. Even in those early days though I started to notice that music on games is good stuff! I’d be hearing it in my head later on in the day – it’s really catchy and atmospheric and it means a lot to me when I stumble on some great music in a game and that definitely happened with Skyrim from the Elder Scrolls series.
“The soundtrack is just so beautiful and it doesn’t get old. Streets of Whiterun in particular really caught my attention and I really wanted to see how it would sound on my harp guitar using the sub-bass strings. I just wanted to try and capture some of the beauty of these sounds and present it to people who might not play video games at all and might have no idea that such wonderful music is out there.”
Will we ever hear an eight-bit version of Drifting?
“Dude I think there is one! I haven’t seen it in years but I’m pretty sure that early on somebody actually sat down and did that!”
You close the EP with a Rocky IV medley on electric guitar – obviously, but also, why?
“That is very special music for me – the medley is Training Montage and another tune called War – when I was young I got into enjoying music long before I ever picked up an instrument. My parents would have parties with music playing loud, my sister would have MTV on all the time and she’d be listening to Metallica and Mötley Crüe and I got into all that stuff.
When I saw Rocky IV for the first time I thought it was so cool. I was a big Stallone fan and the music in that training scene and the final fight with Ivan Drago was instrumental music but it was so compelling, really powerful! I must have been around six years old and I bought the soundtrack on cassette and I’d listen to it on my Walkman all the time!
“Several years later I had got my career going here and I reached out to Vince DiCola who wrote the music and invited him to come to my Musicarium guitar camp and talk about composition – he’s a genius. When I decided to do an EP of covers I asked him to join me on that track – and I’m on electric guitar too!”
Your Musicarium camps have featured some truly extraordinary talents including bass player, and Hedges collaborator, Michael Manring.
“Yeah – I love having him there, he’s phenomenal every time, it’s like he’s from another planet. We go way back – I think it was in 2003 I won a contest on rootwitch.com (legendary Michael Hedges internet forum) where you could submit a solo acoustic guitar piece and the members would vote on it and the winner got to go and play with Michael Manring. I played Dream Catcher together with him in Chicago – it was so cool.
Can we talk about the recording of Symbol – that’s a huge sound! Did you use a multiple mic set-up, a pickup blend? Inquiring minds must know!
“Well, I recorded the tracks here in my home studio using a single large diaphragm condenser microphone – a Mojave Audio MA200 going straight into Logic and that was it really for the acoustic guitars!
“I wanted to have a really direct and authentic sound and that’s what guided the process. There was a bit of external magic of course, the EP was mixed and mastered by Antoine Dufour – he’s been specialising in acoustic guitar production for a while now and he is so great at it. I just hooked him up with Dave Weiner [Steve Vai’s guitarist/road manager and musical director] who was looking for someone to work on his new acoustic project.”
You have long been associated with the work of Michael Greenfield (Montreal-based super luthier to the stars)
“The EP was mostly recorded using my Greenfield G4 Fan Fret – I just love that thing! The sound is so rich and the response is incredibly fast. I also used my G4 Baritone with the colour switching paint job and also my Greenfield harp guitar. Despite exploring synths recently I haven’t fitted a midi pickup to one of them just yet though!”
Symbol is out 17 September on Mythmaker Records.