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Mark O'Leary: Plucking the Flower

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Mark O'LearyIrish guitarist Mark O'Leary emerged on the global improvised music scene in the last few years, pushing his bold vision and broad scope of musicality through constantly-changing collaborations. O'Leary can cross easily between genres, from progressive, synth-laden rock and seventies fusion to free jazz and abstract soundscapes.

The guitarist's encyclopedic interests and remarkable prolificacy are amongst the many subjects he covers in this latest installment of In The Artist's Own Words.

Chapter Index
  1. Beginning and Formative Influences
  2. Becoming a Musician
  3. Selected Projects
  4. Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson
  5. Shamanic Voices
  6. Zemlya
  7. On the Shore
  8. The Synth Show
  9. Artistic Goals
  10. Future Plans


Beginning and Formative Influences

Mark O'Leary: I live in Cork, in the area of Turners Cross Douglas. When I was around seven or eight, I wanted to be a drummer. I used to play along with these shows on TV, on whatever was available and sounded good. I have an uncle who is a multi-instrumentalist that was involved in the show band scene in Ireland in the '60s, and my grandparents also had an upright piano in their house, so any time we visited I would spend hours at the piano just pulling out melodies. A year later, my brother began to play the guitar. I had no interest at that time, but at the age of 11, I began watching Top of the Pops and really started to get into what was happening at the time. I got a guitar from my uncle, and that was it. I actually started to use it as a bass and then as a lead guitar, as most of the strings were missing at that stage except the top three. I acquired the basic open chords from a neighbor and got the rest from the Complete Guitar Handbook. Some magazines as well—Down Beat, especially the old issues from the 1970s—were a source of inspiration. Later, imagination and determination took care of the rest.

My early influences were Louis Stewart, an amazing guitarist from Ireland—a great player and a genius as well. I idolized him. And of course, Rory Gallagher, who came from the same neighborhood in my town, Cork. I spent hours copying his tunes when I was 12. I would put on the record of him and I would play along with it while my family were looking at me as a party piece. Later, I would get word that a guy across town had a tape of Mahavishnu Orchestra from the '70s and I was on my bike to check it out. I would try to figure out what John McLaughlin was doing and try to study the scales he was using. His swing lines, broken rhythms, chords, energy—it just inspired the hell out of me.

Mark O'LearyWhen I was 16, I was working with delay pedals as well and getting into soundscape material inspired by Terje Rypdal and Robert Fripp. Rypdal was probably the first guitarist I remember seeing on TV. For me, he is one of my most important influences. Even as a sideman, his playing on Edward Vesala's Satu (ECM, 1976) just amazed me; it still does. His use of delay with distortion opened my imagination. Fripp's layering was what attracted me, but it is also his intervallic approach which I found unique. I tried to work on that and move it somewhere else.

I loved John Abercrombie. His album, Timeless, (ECM, 1974) was just amazing. I also liked Philip Catherine quite a bit because of his sense of melody. To be honest, Bill Frisell is also an influence. I don't listen to him too much anymore because he is so copied, but I think he is superb, the way he can constantly reinvent himself. Pat Martino also inspired me, in terms of his long fluid lines and his energy. Martino's Live! (Muse, 1972) is still one of my favorites—hard to beat, for the idiom. Pat Metheny's Song X (ECM, 1985) is another serious influence. I could talk all day about that record. I also liked the darkness of Allan Holdsworth. He is a genius.

Ironically, when I started playing, the guitar I had was a little unstable and the bridge broke, so I used to elevate the strings with a battery. It sounded a lot like Derek Bailey, who later, I have to say, also became an influence. I had some Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) recordings, and he and Evan Parker influenced me quite a bit. Evan's angular, cut-off phrases and Derek's use of volume pedal—that influence is all over my work.

That's how I learned—totally autodidactic and idiosyncratic. I had to discover this myself, looking through record and tape collections, reading a review and getting the album. Several teachers at my high school were inspirational intellectual types who encouraged us to set high goals and go beyond ourselves. The scene here in Ireland was rock and pop-oriented, although jazz has a tradition all over Ireland, with a lot of incredible players—very modest, giving guys who never recorded or made careers for themselves, but gave so much to me and others. When I was in my late teens I played all over Ireland and ended up playing with most of them.

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