COLUMN: Daniel McLaughlin speaks music

The story of Daniel McLaughlin’s love of music begins, like any proper rock opera, with a badass grandma.

“The first band that I was into was Green Day, the American Idiot album. I remember having my grandma take me into Borders before it went out of business. I wasn’t allowed to buy the album, but I got my grandma to buy it for me,” he said about his tween years.

McLaughlin is now a senior in the USC Thornton School of Music’s studio guitar performance program, and the music I’ve heard him play is a diplomatic mix of jazz standards and indie folk. A tall, soft-spoken guy whose original music might best be filed under “gentle rock,” McLaughlin made me curious what artists he listened to in his free time.

I cornered him in a practice room last week to ask, expecting McLaughlin to hand me the kind of laundry list of obscure guitar virtuosi that guitar majors trade like business cards. But McLaughlin surprised me with his mainstream tastes, even as he confessed that he’s come a long way from the music that he listened to as a middle schooler.

“What made you want to play guitar?” I began.

“Guitar Hero. Don’t put that on there. But yeah, that ‘Cliffs of Dover’ song,” he said, referring to an Eric Johnson guitar solo that, lanced open, would ooze raw testosterone. “I’m totally putting myself on the teenage-angsty pedestal right now.”

But it was destiny: McLaughlin fell in love with the crunchy stasis of the backbeat. Once he transitioned from plastic to wood axe, McLaughlin learned all the classic rock staples he could.

“I had a goofy little middle school band, and the only songs we played were ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses and ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath. And AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black,’” he said.

It was around this time that McLaughlin’s grandma took him to buy the Green Day album, and McLaughlin began to scratch a growing itch: He wanted to become a professional musician.

I first asked him about why he decided to become a jazz music major after being in a slash band.

“Well, it all started going downhill when I start —” he laughed. “I just thought I’d put a rata-tat-tat in there.”

After I promised to preserve the rata-tat-tat, McLaughlin continued: “It was when I decided I wanted to become a recording engineer and go to the Berklee College of Music.”

That’s a music school in Boston well-known for its jazz and music production programs. “I found out that I couldn’t be a subpar musician and go to Berklee. So I went to find a guitar teacher who went to Berklee.”

The teacher ended up being “pretty good.” He had McLaughlin learn jazz standards — well-known tunes like “Autumn Leaves” and “Blue Bossa” that jazz musicians play at jam sessions and background music gigs. Jazz standards also form the audition material for most jazz programs. McLaughlin didn’t realize it at the time, but he was preparing for his admission to the USC guitar program.

When McLaughlin learned that music producers often struggle to stay financially afloat, he decided to devote himself fully to becoming a guitar performer. He put his plans of attending Berklee on hold, setting his sights on USC instead. When he didn’t get in as a high school senior, he took a year of courses at Irvine Valley College and reapplied as a transfer student.

One of the reasons he succeeded with his second application was that playing with Irvine Valley College’s big band exposed him to a new musical challenge: sight-reading.

“It was my first time being in a band, and I sucked at it because I had to sight-read. I still don’t know how to sight-read!” McLaughlin said. “We played a bunch of Tom Kubis charts. He did some really dope arrangements that were kind of Count Basie but then also had some counterpoint stuff that was way cool.”

The challenge helped McLaughlin’s jazz skills take off.At USC, McLaughlin interests have expanded beyond classic rock and jazz, but he maintains that he loves music that’s relevant and heartfelt. I asked him to recommend a few records.

McLaughlin first named a pair of Kickstarter albums by indie rocker Kevin Devine: the solo album Bulldozer, and Bubblegum, with Devine’s Goddamn Band. McLaughlin admires Devine’s solo pieces most of all.

“A lot of them aren’t about love — the typical party rock star thing. It’s a lot of political stuff. He had one called ‘Private First Class’ that spoke to the problems in America right now,” McLaughlin said.

In a YouTube video titled “Private First Class,” Devine explains that the song is about Chelsea Manning, the soldier convicted of espionage in 2013 for disclosing sensitive military documents to WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, Bubblegum’s title track makes a clear nod to Green Day. It’s striking how as McLaughlin has graduated to mellower music, he maintains an interest in the kinds of sounds that first stimulated his guitar playing as a teenager.

McLaughlin also cited folk singer Blake Mills as a major influence on his own playing.

McLaughlin said, “He’s kind of folk, but he uses, like, flat six chords and you wouldn’t know it”— a harmonic gesture more typical of prog rock than folk, perhaps with some exceptions in The Punch Brothers’s catalogue.

“He’s got this one track called ‘If I’m Unworthy.’ I thought he was using a step sequencer. But no, he’s doing the bass notes with his thumb, swinging the eighth notes with his fingers,” McLaughlin said, a guitar effect that makes the tone interrupted and jolted.

“You’re very inspired by musicians who are both soulful players and technical innovators,” I observed.

McLaughlin agreed, but offered a counterpoint: the acoustic rock misfit Elliott Smith.

“He believed in not playing super loud, because he was screamed at as a kid,” McLaughlin said. “Closer to the end of his life he said he was practicing 10 hours a day and surviving on a diet of nothing but heroin and ice cream.”

“His Either/Or album has influenced a lot of the people I listen to today. It’s mostly just acoustic guitar, not great recording quality. He’s not a great singer either. But he just wrote these songs that spoke from the heart. I hope someday people will emulate him in that way.”

“It’s hard to get away from the judgment. It’s hard to get yourself to that point where you put it out there.”

I asked McLaughlin whom he modeled his own songwriting after, and he emphasized his admiration for Smith.

“I’d really like to be able to write words like that — that evoke a feeling,” he said.

McLaughlin said he hopes to communicate emotion with the same kind of precision when he performs his senior recital in April.

“My dog died over the summer. That was my first major league hit to the heart that was like, this was a big part of my life for a little while,” he said. “But she was old, and it was her time — she lived five years longer than her life expectancy. Those emotions came out as this instrumental song that I’m thinking is just going to be more of a feeling.”

As much as McLaughlin’s musical tastes have changed, he still enjoys talking music with his grandma. I asked him to bring some records with him to our interview to photograph, and I asked him about a worn vinyl of Meet the Beatles!

“This one’s worth like $120. It’s a first edition,” he said. “This summer, my grandma tells me, ‘Hey, you need to help me clean out my garage.’ Then she goes, ‘Here are the records that I listened to when I was younger.’ I opened it up and there were first editions of Prince’s Purple Rain, and four or five Beatles albums. A lot of old jazz records, too.”

I ended our interview with a question musicians love to ask each other: “Is there a moment when you really felt like you were in your zone musically?”

“I felt like that at my recital last year. Especially on that one song that I sang with Hayley, that Blake Mills song, ‘Seven.’ I’m trying to work in some more vocals into my senior recital. I’m not looking to be a pop star. I’m looking to make an impact,” McLaughlin said.

Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column, “Ears to Hear,” runs Thursdays.