Equal parts eerie, industrial, and hypnotic, the layered sounds of MJ Guider create an insular world. But Melissa Guion is more than her solo project. She played bass in Rougarou and Halfys, sang with Thou, created multi-instrumental tracks for a trio project based in Berlin, composed a whole choral mass for a dance piece, has recently rededicated herself to playing the flute, and currently plays bass in The World is a Vampire. Guion and I discussed giving the people what they want (many, many recorded tracks of layered bass), a time when 808s were on a disk that you could hold in your hand (and the required additional RAM cards for storage), and André 3000’s new album.
Let’s talk about the two sides of your career: MJ Guider, the solo project, and the live bands you play in—are they as separate as they seem?
My solo project is mainly a recording project—I started it around 2011. I record and produce everything myself, so I get the recordings done at my leisure. It’s a different process than when you’re going into a studio and you’re there for a week. Before I started that, I played in bands for years. I used to get more musical feedback, working with people, seeing how they do things, creating something together. I missed that. It’s been very insular. [Recently] I’ve been starting new collaborations, doing work on other people’s albums—it’s been really cool to push open that door of not being such a musical hermit. As far as other projects, I’ve done some recording and touring with Thou. I recently did a collaborative improvisational trio project [Trio Not Trio – Letzte] with Aidan Baker of Nadja and a percussionist from Berlin named Jana Sotzko. Now, I’m in The World is a Vampire with Bryan [Funck of Thou], and a bunch of other wonderful, local musician friends.
What was the first band you joined?
I was in school band and ensembles but, in the music scene sense, the first band that I played with was called Rougarou with Eric Martinez, who’s in a million local bands still (he played drums) and then Adam Beebe and Paul Thibodeaux, neither of whom live in New Orleans anymore (they both played guitar)… They were two guitar players and drums before I joined and saw them play a show at the Green Project (I think it was their first show). I thought they were great and I was like, “Sooo, I noticed that you did not have a bass player. I could do that!” At the time, I had never been in a real band before but I had been booking shows and going to shows for a few years and involved in the scene in other ways, and I was like, “I should be in a band, probably, right? I could join this one. There’s obviously an opening here, so I’ll fill it.”
The Green Project, as in the salvage yard?
Yes! It was a case of a place allowing shows for a short-lived time because someone who worked there, Matt Carney, wanted to host them. It was a really great place to have shows. I wish they’d bring ‘em back.
Let’s go back to the bands timeline.
After Rougarou it was Halfys, another Eric Martinez band. Eric played guitar in that one, Stephen Roussel was on drums, and it was just the three of us. After that, I hadn’t joined any bands in the classical punk sense, until joining The World is a Vampire recently. It’s been all solo-focused other than that.
I’d like to go through the process of creating an MJ Guider album.
My first full length record and my second full length record came out four years apart and if I happen to finish the current solo record soon, the next one might be four years from the last one. It’s usually an election year. My timing has never been particularly good. Maybe it’s my bad business brain. The collective misery is often super high when I put stuff out.
What instrument gets recorded first?
That has changed from recording to recording. I try to not repeat myself directly from one thing to the next, so approaching it a little differently each time is part of that. Every song is built around something different: sometimes it’s the beat, sometimes it’s a bassline, sometimes it’s a chord that sounds cool. Early on, I would make a drum beat on my drum machine and build on that.
Which drum machine?
The one that I used for my two full length albums is a Roland R-8 [Human Rhythm Composer]. It’s a late ‘80s, early ‘90s digital drum machine. It’s the third one. The first I had was the first version, the second one had slightly more onboard memory. The first one would use these ROM [read-only memory] cards that have different sounds on them. With this one, you don’t have to switch the cards to get the sounds. So, I’ve got all of them here: this one’s “Contemporary Percussion,” this one’s called “Power Drums U.S.A.,” this one’s called “Jazz” and it’s got brushes, this one’s a RAM card to give you expanded memory because they don’t have that much capacity, so it would give me more space to store the patterns I made onto it. This is the “Dance” card and it has a lot of the Roland TR-909 [Rhythm Composer], and the “Electronic” has a lot of the [Roland TR-]808 [Rhythm Composer] sounds, so these two were the main cards I used.
Initially, I would build entire songs’ worth of drum patterns on the machine and I would export them to my DAW and I would work in there or with a TASCAM 4-track, really early on. For my last full track record, I didn’t do so much of planning out my entire songs’ beat on the machine. I would do individual beats and take them and manipulate them and chop them up and do things with them in the DAW, instead of only in the machine, and that was one of the major shifts in the process from album one to album two, doing beatmaking in a less locked-in way.
Which DAW do you use?
I use Ableton Live but I recorded my first EP on GarageBand. I think that’s a proper, decent way to record music. Whatever you have is the right DAW. There’s obviously a lot of extra capability on Ableton Live but I think you can do anything with anything if you spend enough time with it and have a specific idea in mind. A lot of time, trying to get from one thing to another, you end up with some other result that’s more interesting than the thing that you meant to do in the first place. Don’t let not having what you think you need to make what you want to make stop you. Whatever you have is the best tool.
I love that DIY approach. You used to put on shows that way too?
After Katrina, me and a friend of mine, Dave Hamilton, would put on shows wherever we could have them, in a gutted house or an art gallery that just reopened or someone’s living room. It showed us that there is no ideal place or scene or setup for a show—the best show is where they’ll have you and where you can gather.
I saw that your piece Temporary Requiem was the Album of the Day two years ago on Bandcamp.
That was a collaboration I did with a dancer, one of my closest friends since high school, Ann Glaviano. She was building a big ensemble dance piece and I had a couple of weeks to put a soundtrack together for that. I was thinking about people moving to what I’m doing and then I built the framework around her idea that they were all moving in an invisible church, so I thought, “I’ll do a mass.” So, here’s all this Latin text and history of requiem masses and history from hundreds of years of work of other people, and I built the project with that in mind. My music degree is in singing and I used to perform masses all the time in college, but I had felt alienated by classical singing for years, so that project was a way to revisit it on my own terms.
What basses do you rely on for your sound?
My first album was all one bass, a  Rickenbacker 3000. It’s the only short scale bass that Rickenbacker ever made. I got it in a mall parking lot in Mississippi. It was a Craigslist thing. I don’t buy a huge amount of gear but when I find something that I think is going to be the right thing, no matter what it is, I become single-mindedly focused on figuring out how to get it in a way that I can manage, so I spent a lot of time looking on Craigslists all around the country. I was emailing people and trying everywhere. I found one; I could afford it. [The owner] was in Georgia, so he met me halfway, and I got this bass and it weighs one hundred thousand pounds. It’s so unbelievably heavy. I’m having neck and shoulder problems because of it but my whole first album is mostly this and there’s almost no synthesizer, it’s just a million tracks of bass.
Did you use a different bass for the entire second album?
I did and part of the reason why I switched to a new bass on the next album is because I changed the strings [on the Rickenbacker] and I regret that. Never change your strings. I do a lot of stuff with the bass where I want to have this really broad harmonic range and get way more treble tones than I’m getting, so I thought, “Maybe if I change the strings to these other strings then I can bring in some of this range…” And then the result was that I just couldn’t handle the change. These strings have a really nice piano-like tone to them but my music, especially back then, is pretty murky and dark and heavy and this changed that.
Also, going on tour, since I bought this, in the years since, it’s become expensive and if I lost it or a piece broke, I wouldn’t be able to afford to replace it, so I got a [Gibson] SG, which is much lighter and a lot easier to play, gentler on the hands, has more of a P-Bass sound to it. This is the more “I’m playing bass lines” one. I still play chords on both of them but if I want to do a big, rich chord on a recording, I’ll use the Rickenbacker. If I’m doing chunky bass lines, I use this. This was, for the most part, what my last album was recorded with.
My very first bass was a long scale [B.C. Rich] Warlock bass. I think it was maybe 70 bucks. It was the most hilarious metal bass. It had a car-like baby blue metallic finish on it. It was all points with a devils head headstock and it did not fit in a single gig bag. It was so long and it had all these jagged edges. Once I got from there to the short scale I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m a pretty small person. I think I need to stick with the short scales forever.”
Do you have attachments to guitars in the way you have to basses?
I do, but I only have a guitar. Well, I have an acoustic and an electric. Having a personal attachment to an instrument makes it really enjoyable to spend time with, especially if it’s from someone who passed who you get to kind of have a moment with by spending time with an instrument like this. I think about my dad when I play this. It’s a ‘93 American Strat. He got it in a pawn shop when I was a teenager. I remember when he handed it to me. It’s not the most beautiful thing. I put stickers on it. They’re all barcodes. I was obsessed with bar codes for some reason and black and white stickers. Paul Thibodeaux used to use it when we were in Rougarou and I wish I could say that I was the one who made it all gnarly but it was him. It feels nice to play. It’s a great guitar. The action is low and the neck has a nice feel for my tiny little hands. I never considered guitar a main instrument of mine. I play noodles here and there. It’s always been something that I can get by on but I do love this guitar and the other guitar is an acoustic guitar that my dad got me for my high school graduation and I recently pulled out to record two notes on. And they sounded great.
Performing with Rougarou at the Big Top, circa 2008
Photo: Dan Fox
Tell me about your flutes! That feels unexpected.
I’ve had flute on all of my recordings, for the most part, somewhere, doing something. I’ve recently been spending more time with the flute. I have two of them and the main one looks crazy ‘cause I do a really bad job cleaning it so it has all this oxidation from my fingers and it looks like it’s blue. The past year or so, I’ve been dedicating more time to getting it back in my fingers and in my ears. In doing that, I’ve wanted to hear flute music and what other people are doing with flutes and it kinda seems like it’s having a moment right now. Flute is the oldest instrument (according to Wikipedia, at least) so it’s trendy at the moment but it’s an eternal instrument and I don’t suspect it’ll go anywhere.
How do you feel about the new André 3000 flute endeavor, New Blue Sun?
I like it. I feel like I’ve only listened to it one time but I think it’s cool and before he announced that album, I had been hearing from friends, for years, that André 3000 is obsessed with his flute. During that movie Showing Up that he’s in, apparently on set, he would just wander around playing the flute, so much so that when they were done shooting, [director] Kelly Reichardt was like, “Can we record you?” And they made the soundtrack out of it. That movie’s great. I would recommend it to any struggling artist or non-struggling artist, or André 3000 fan, because the flute really makes that movie. It’s cool to have a flute album be so much in the zeitgeist—usually I get weirded out by super trendy things like that that come out of nowhere, but it didn’t come out of nowhere because if you were following him, he’s on the record as being a big flute guy for many years.
Photos by Sabrina Stone