by Chad Bidwell
I only discovered Jim O'Rourke's music a few years ago, when I happened upon a Gastr del Sol album with no discernible title encased in a CD cover painted gold containing no text or information. The song on the album sounded like an orchestra warming up. I wasn't ready at that time, because after trying to listen to it a few times I unloaded it on a friend. It's hard, however, to ignore this man for long. If he's not in the band of the album you just bought, chances are he's either recorded, produced, engineered, mixed, or written it. Of course that's an exaggeration, but he has appeared in some way or another on so many albums over the last 10 years that his discography looks like a table of contents for a who's who book on improvisational, folk, and independent music. At the time that this interview was conducted, O'Rourke had recently left Gastr del Sol, had appeared on -- among many other things -- an album with Sonic Youth, had produced a Loren MazzaCane Connors/Alan Licht album, and was working on another solo album entitled Eureka.
What were you doing before teaming up with David Grubbs? Were you in bands or in school? What was your experience with music up to this point?
Well, I'd been releasing records since '89, and by the time of Gastr del Sol I had about 10 to 12 records out, most now out of print. Gastr was hardly my main thing, it just tapped into the rooted indie press here in the states, so for some people, it seemed the main thing. I was doing records of electronic music, improvised music with folks like Henry Kaiser, Eddie Prevost of AMM, etc., and producing other records, and I continued to do it during Gastr. I released two or three records of my own during the time of Gastr: Terminal Pharmacy, Happy Days, and Bad Timing. For me, Gastr was hardly the focus of my work, although I did put a lot of work in it, as I try to do for everything I'm involved with.
Since you've made it apparent who your influences have been, I don't need to ask that question. But since you've taken the next step and actually played music with your influences -- tell me about that. I spoke with Mayo Thompson a few years back, and he was a great person to talk to. Ideas just burst from his head and he was an outstanding communicator. From what we talked about it sounded like working with him might be like working with a conductor.
Yeah, he is full of ideas. Working with him, though is much more open, he works with people whose input he wants, so it's definitely collaborative. Hazel [by Red Krayola] sounds the way it does because of the group, that's why the first Drag City record Red Krayola sounds so different than Hazel and Amour And Language, the "band" was more of a reality on the latter two. I'm definitely "influenced" (I find the word misleading) by people I haven't been working with, the foundation of my tastes definitely lie in McCartney solo, early Pink Floyd, Genesis, Miles Davis, Ives. This was stuff I was growing up to in grade and high school, and they are definitely still in there. I did and still prefer McCartney solo to the Beatles, also liked Harrison, was never much of a Lennon fan.
Did you have much influence over Sonic Youth in making that album not sound like Sonic Youth?
Well, it was us improvising together, so like any relatively successful improvised music, it sounds like the result of certain people playing together, so it's different because in essence it wasn't Sonic Youth "with" me, it was the five of us. Like the record with Lee [Ranaldo, SY guitarist], Clouds, that's so different too. I'm real happy with both those records.
I haven't spoken to [John] Fahey, and it's probably silly to say, but from the photos I've seen of him he doesn't look like he'd want to talk to anyone. I like what he's doing with his label Revenant... which brings me to the next topic: I like what you're doing with Dexter's Cigar. I have to say that I might not have noticed Derek Bailey without you guys using Drag City muscle to wake people up. I mean, come on, how does Derek Bailey go for so many years without more than a few fringe improv musicians taking notice? Is that what you were thinking? You find a few Bailey and MazzaCane Connors and Red Krayola albums and start to love those records and then think "this is fucked up. I can't get anything by these guys at any one of the 40 record stores in town." My take on all of this is that the early 90's signing craze/alternative rock craze has flooded the indie rock/punk rock/art rock market with lots of shit. At the same time, it's forced a lot of people to create more interesting music and has caused music fans to dig deeper for something to call their own. I see the release of the Smithsonian Folk Anthology (and those subsequent Revenant releases) as a reaction to today's music. I also see people like Mike Hine at Road Cone, Martin Davidson at Emanem, you guys at Dexter's Cigar, and others as reacting to this and trying to rediscover some lost treasures.
Well, it's also that it is easier to run a label, and anyone with the energy to run a label is usually a more enthusiastic music fan than most, but definitely spreading the music was my reason to start Distemper, which was the forebearer to Dexter's Cigar. I did a Merzbow record on that and was going to do the Kaiser, Bailey, and Voice Crack when I ran out of money; that's when Drag City stepped in to help. And I'm trying to continue with my new label Moikai, which starts next week with two releases Lithops' Umit Uni and Nuno Canavarro's Plux Quba, and there's plenty more planned.
I can't wait for MMMR to be released. What is it all about?
I don't know, what's MMMR??
I heard something about a project consisting of MazzaCane, Moore, Ranaldo, and some other guy with you acting as a conductor...
Oh no, I didn't have anything to do with that. I've worked with all those guys though. What you might have heard of was Hoffmann Estates, a Loren and Alan Licht record with a 10-piece band coming out soon on Drag City, I produced and did the arrangements for that one.
Let me say that I really had no idea of the amount of recorded work you have until I saw a discography the other day. How are you able to separate your ideas so that albums and projects don't sound the same?
I guess it just comes naturally. I don't make a conscious effort, I just work with the parameters of
whatever it is I'm doing, that's what interests me in the first place, not "make" a certain kind of music.
When doing improv stuff, do you make conscious decisions as to what an album or performance will sound like before hand?
In improvisation I try to have no thoughts at all, it's the mystery of a grouping that interests me, what happens when these people get together? For me, a successful improv encounter doesn't necessarily have to "sound" good, as long as something occurred that wouldn't have if it weren't these particular people playing together.
How important is visual stimulation in live performance?
None, unless there is a theatrical element (like when playing with Bobby Co or Plush) or if there is a cute girl there, then usually I can't concentrate, heh.
Tell me about working with Anthony Braxton. I saw him about a year ago, and it was like Spontaneous Music Ensemble playing a marching band song. It become really irritating until Braxton would go off on whichever horn he had closest to him (my favorite was a huge fart horn). I haven't heard the album on which you played, but it looked like it may have been a composition. Was that the case?
It was a composition, and he wasn't there, it was organized by a great journalist and writer named Art Lange. It was fun. We've also done a recording of Cornelius Cardew's "Scratch Music."
I prefer his solo stuff or his more traditional stuff (like Conference of the Birds) over his compositions. The repetitiveness can be a grating experience. What is your take on this approach to jazz? I get the idea that he's using a composition of repetitive sounds to try to numb your senses so that when he plays his solos they get more attention.
Well, repetition in jazz is, of course, something very useful. I personally like its use in the music of Bill Dixon.
I'm guessing that you get more attention in the States for your work with Gastr del Sol than what you do with the likes of Tony Conrad or someone else. Does it ever bother you that the US is so caught up with our indie rock culture (I admit it's the background I came from and probably would not have heard of you if not for Gastr) and tends to not pay as much attention to jazz and improv or is similar in Europe?
Only at times, especially when, as I said before, Gastr was far from the body of what I do. It seems now that the producing is fairly my main thing, and I slowly work on my solo records, but it seemed Bad Timing was almost as well pressed as Camofloeur, so who knows what ever goes on?? In Europe, hmm, even over there things have changed now, the "indie" stuff gets a lot of press, but since my other stuff is better known there they seemed to be obsessed with tying the two together, which is alright with me. It's flattering.
What do you consider to be some of your best recordings?
Hmmm, of my own, Bad Timing and the new one I just finished, Eureka. Of the old stuff, Terminal Pharmacy and Happy Days, and probably Rules of Reduction. I'm relatively happy with those. I like the first album I made with Henry Kaiser, Tomorrow Knows Where You Live, the improv records, jeez, so many, I like the records with Gunter Muller.
Working for other people, I'm really happy with Smog's Red Apple Falls, Tony Conrad's stuff, the Fahey record, the new Bobby Conn record, some of the remixes.
What are some of your favorite albums?
Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle
Tony Conrad: Outside the Dream Syndicate
Talk Talk: Laughingstock
Luc Ferrari: Tautologos Trois
The Frogs: The Frogs
any Charles Ives
any Cecil Taylor
Scott Walker: a couple of em, Climate of Hunter, Til the Band Comes In, Tilt
Jack Nitzsche: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Led Zeppelin: Presence
Derek Bailey: Aida
These days I can't take off Radiohead's OK Computer. Brilliant
Have you ever tried to interview anyone? What questions would you ask? What types of questions are you as the musician hoping to receive? Which ones do you loathe? Do you ever read your interviews? Isn't the whole idea of interviewing a musician nearly irrelevant to the music?
Well, interviews aren't irrelevant at all, I think. I have done some interviews, and recently did one with John Fahey, you may have seen that in The Wire. That was more of a discussion though. I like to get into specifics, not generalities. This is weird to write now, because you may feel it's a critique of you, but it's not, it's of interviews in general: interviewers ask questions that basically ask the musician to write the article for them, as simple as "why do you do what you do?" to "how did you get started?" It's always a pain to answer those, you've answered a million times, and the info is always out there for someone with a little research, and I think if you're going to interview someone, you should know that stuff already. When I was 18, I interviewed Fred Frith, and I didn't know all of his work, about 80%, and I made an idiot of myself, asking questions like "do you own recommended records" stuff like that. What I should have asked is what the influence of the English improvisational scene (AMM, Derek Bailey, etc,) had on his developing guitar style, do they (Henry Cow, for example) feel that cribbing melodies from Stravinsky and such is a conscious decision, and how they deal with the instrumentation problems, etc. For me, a magazine like Mojo has good, in depth interviews.
What point are you trying to make with Happy Days? I listen to that album and am sucked in by the guitar and then jarred by the droning. The first time I heard it, I was thinking it was going to change, so I kept listening with great attention to every detail for 30 minutes and it didn't do what I thought it would. Wait, is that the point?
Oops. Dug my own grave. Well, it does change a lot. Gotta' play it loud. I guess the "idea" in the theatrical sense was an audible self-annihilation. Obviously with whatever my public figure is, in some circles it's as "guitar player," which I personally can't relate to, since my private life and public life are two different things. I wanted to present a situation where someone is engulfed, the musician, by something much more important maybe, by something bigger than simply playing the guitar. Let's just say I feel it succeeds when someone tells me that it depressed them.
When I've done it live... I think I did it three times and retired it, I sit on stage with just a lamp, no other light, and play for the whole time, you can't hear me for 99% of it, but I keep playing and you can see me play, and hopefully people will ask, why the fuck is he still playing??
Any clue for us at to what direction the new album will sound like? Similar to Bad Timing or Gastr del Sol stuff?
Hmmm. Well, Camofleur is a weird thing. I did an awful lot of work on that record, something people don't think since I quit after finishing it, which people usually translate into: he must not like it, been involved, interested. I worked on that album probably more than any other record I've been involved in. The fourth and fifth tracks, except for the lyrics, are indicative of the music I've been writing since finishing writing the stuff for Bad Timing about 2 years ago. So that's a hint, also, I've been trying to incorporate a lot of my past into the present, the electronic music, tape music, arranging, etc. Contrary to popular belief, I also grew up with Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, not just Pierre Henry and Derek Bailey. So that rears its head too, since I have only recently felt comfortable with what I was doing in those areas enough to present it to the public. Producing other peoples' records always gave me the outlet for the pop-arranging side of me, but I thought it was time to do it on my own.
Why do you enjoy remixing music more than playing music?
It depends. These days I'm playing a bit more because I've been in the studio for the past year, and my record has a lot of "playing " on it, so I'm more used to the instruments than I have been for a while, and I haven't had time to do any remixes for the last six or so months, so it's always consequent to the time. But in general, I like remixing more than playing, yeh.
I hear you have an original vinyl copy of Fahey's Voice of the Turtle with lots of crazy artwork? I thought I saw Fahey the other night in a video rental store, but I guess he lives in Nashville rather than San Francisco. I almost walked up to this guy to say "Hey, you're John Fahey, right? Would you like to get a beer?"
The artwork I think is reprinted in the CD. It was in booklet form in the record. Fahey lives in Oregon, so it may have well been him. But offer to buy him a pitcher of iced tea if you want to win his favor, heh heh.
I read some interviews that were sent as a press kit and I was really interested in what you had to say about music theory and how some musical themes are so ingrained in us that we associate certain emotions with certain types of music. If most people already associate certain elements of music with certain things (I don't know, like wedding music and getting married, like mardi gras music and Mardi Gras, like, as you said, Nine Inch Nails with scary movie music), how do you go about disassociating that music from weddings, Mardi Gras, and scary movies?
By exaggerating until you reach the point where someone has to ask "what the hell?" When I did the Brise Glace record, I tried to do that with general rock gestures, if you keep "building up," "about to rock," and then deny it, frustration or "that's stupid" will hopefully eventually turn into "well, why WAS I expecting them to?," and that hopefully bares the manipulative nature of the music. I like Godard's use of music in Weekend, the wrong kind of music at the wrong times, in awkward places, it cross circuits out expectations and our interpretation of scenes. Check out Einstein's book on Film theory, there are great essays on that, or Michel Chion's books on film sound.