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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in DE/CREATE (1994)
by Nick Cain

Talk about your collaboration with K.K. Null.
l just wrote to him, basically. The whole thing was done by mail, except for the live tracks, of course, we sent tapes back and forth. It’s interesting, in terms of the live stuff we did, I think improving to most Japanese, in my experience, is more of an encompassing social experience than we feel: the ability to “do whatever you want” in front of other people, without being reserved and without being embarrassed is an important and liberating thing for many Japanese. It isn’t a “genre” which is mined, it is more purely related to “expression.” Shadings of this can be seen in the difference in, say, American, UK, German etc. improv. The culture’s sense of community strongly affects the music.
I thought Third Straight Day was excellent.
Oh thank you, I like playing with Eddie. The people I’m most comfortable playing with are percussionists--Eddie, and I like playing with John Oswald, too.
I liked it because there were no obvious climaxes.
There’s a part where he does this big snare roll over three minutes. Generally, the kind of dialectics that people deal with in improvisation, where it’s a very direct call-response kind of thing, they would build up with him or play along with him. I thought it’d be much more interesting, with something that implies so much, to not play at all, to let it build, which makes it something completely different. I think that in a sense draws attention to how it’s manipulative, which is something about music that interests me a lot, too. Aesthetically, I like to draw attention to how music is manipulative, how it communicates is so important to me, and that’s inexorably tied in to the idea of manipulation. And it’s not necessarily in a negative sense, the term “manipulation,” but if something communicates, it’s actually a form of manipulation. This thing I’ve been working on for two years, the whole thing is about manipulation, drawing attention to the elements of it that cause manipulation.
You’ve been working on the new Tony Conrad record?
Yeah, I played on it and so did Dave [Grubbs], Steve Albini recorded it. It’s a bit more aggressive sounding than the Dream Syndicate CD, and I’m really happy with it, to have helped to put it together.
I would not have pegged Steve Albini for a Tony Conrad fan.
I like working with him because he’s a natural engineer and he’s a nice guy and he always likes me coming in and working. We always have a good time. He ended up liking it, most of the stuff he’s very suspicious of, but with me and Dave he’s a little bit more... I don’t want to say “open,” because that’s not the case, it’s more like he starts at a better point than he would otherwise, because he knows generally we’re not going to bring crap in. He already knew Null, and I brought in Tony Conrad... I did my own little project called Brise-Glace
I liked the 7-inch.
Oh thanks, the record is so much better, it really is. It comes out on Monday, I’m proud of that. And then Steve likes the Gastr stuff. He likes all these things which is crazy, because he generally doesn’t like stuff like that but I think he hears the sincerity in it.
Do you do at lot of instrument construction?
Yeah. A lot of it has to do with the magnetic fields around the pickups like causing the strings to do things or disrupting the magnetic field, like [Rube] Goldberg-type devices that connect here and make this happen, and therefore it hits this which makes that happen. Lately I’ve been taking a lot of pieces of household equipment and turning them into devices which, when you put them near the pickup, make something happen.
Like Keith Rowe?
Oh sure. I mean, Keith has a really different aesthetic, he’s very see-what-it-does-and-move-on kind of thing. I like to focus on something and see what one thing will do, and he would see what one thing would do and then move on to something else. I’m not saying that’s incompatible, we’ve played together a lot and we always have a good time. I’ve got five or six of them on DAT and I haven’t even listened to them [laughs], I keep meaning to listen to them. It usually works out pretty well. He and I don’t play alike at all, so it isn’t a case of “uh-oh, here comes Keith and Keith junior.” He’s got a much more aggressive sound, much more articulation. And aesthetically he’s in a different ballpark, he’s coming from the tradition of mid-60s English neo-socialist improvisation, AMM, Scratch Orchestra, that kind of thing.
Is the instrument construction you do a control thing?
Some of the things have control, some of the things work randomly. On Remove the Need there’s actually almost no preparation. The first track has no preparations, neither do the second and third, it’s only the last track that has prepared guitar.
I thought that Remove the Need sounded very controlled, do you like to have control?
It’s not a control freak thing, but a good deal of why these things sound like they are is because it’s very much like riding what’s actually going on, as opposed to “I’m going to do this to the guitar,” or “I’m going to set up a situation where this is going to start happening.” I know I hit the thing with a particular preparation, it’s going to do a general area thing. One of the things that interests me is seeing what sort of variation is going to happen that time, and then zeroing in on it and making the most of it. It isn’t like “I’ve got this device and I put it right here and it’s going to do this exact sound.” That would be really boring. When I play live I put it out on a table and I approach it like this thing. I don’t even want to play it [laughs], I’m trying to figure out a reason to why I even bother playing the damn thing. Music, it seems too damn easy to me. I don’t even like music for music’s sake, I don’t like music that much. The last thing I want to do is get into a schtick, which unfortunately is might look like since all these damn records came out at once. That’s why I haven’t made a record in two years. If you look at all the dates on them they’re pretty old, the most recent thing is the 3-inch CD and that’s about a year and a half old.
What have you been doing recently?
For the past two years I’ve been working on the same record.
Any sign of life?
It’s supposed to be done in two months [laughs], actually I think it, will get done. The Gastr stuff came out about a year ago, I spent a lot of time on that. For about a year and a half, spent a good deal of the in Europe, just paying improvised concerts and I think some of that stuff might actually get documented soon. I did some stuff with Voice Crack, we did two tours together, we had some really great concerts. I like them because they’re really good live, they’re not just noise-makers. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with noise-makers, but they really have the best of both worlds for me They really understand good loud sound [laughs] but they can move very quickly, they think very quickly and they can change things very quickly. They’re super-great improvisers, they really are. Right now, I guess, just start writing the next Gastr record and I’ve got this Faust record to do. I’ve quit touring, I just want to stay home and work on my records again. I needed about a year off, I couldn’t work on my own stuff any more, I was really sick of it, I didn’t know why I should even bother any more. I don’t want to fall into a trap of just doing these things because I can, I have to have a reason why.
What strikes me about your recordings is the way you use space.
l think that it’s a very useful tool for perceiving other things. Again, it makes the other stuff different
But it’s not just a matter of contrast, is it?
No, it’s not. Some of my favorite composers, most of their music is quiet and silent. Silence gives a real sense of gravity to the music. It depends on the material; silence as some sort of abstract musical ingredient doesn’t mean very much to me but when it’s in a certain context it becomes something else. There’s a German guy named Bernhard Günter, he has a CD out on Selektion, and the whole CD, there’s practically no sound on it, it occasionally has a little bit of hiss, then nothing. And I think it’s one of the most brilliant records I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s something that’s so aesthetically defined that it communicates as well as working on an emotional level; very rarely do I like something on an emotional level, I’m just that way. Something that works just on a musical level, that doesn’t deal with itself and doesn’t deal with the aesthetic questions it raises, doesn’t interest me very much. That’s the thing about this CD that’s so amazing, it has both. Morton Feldman can do that, he can work on all levels simultaneously. That’s why Van Dyke Parks is such a fucking genius; he works everywhere, every fucking layer you can think of, he’s got it covered. It s not a control-freak thing, like “ooh, you have to have all your bases covered.” To do all this and to do it with the flair of someone just waving their arms [laughs]. You can’t top that.
Are you interested in drones?
l was, I’m not any more. I still like them, but I don’t want to do them myself, it’s just not in me anymore. I like an awful lot of drone stuff, I like good drone stuff.
There’s bad drone stuff?
[laughs] There’s plenty of bad drone stuff. Most of what people want to call “post-industrial music” bores me to tears, it’s so aesthetically empty. Most people who do that kind of stuff aren’t even aware they’re communicating something, they’re just doing it because they dig it, it sounds good to them. Which is fine and everything, but I can’t really get into it. Most of that kind of music is very much music, done for musical reasons, I can’t relate.
What was the Table Of The Elements gig like?
Oh, that was a bit crazy. My set wasn’t that good, I was really disappointed. Tony Conrad was brilliant. Haino was a bit disappointing, it was sort of a pedestrian set for him. AMM were brilliant, Faust were really funny, because the whole thing fell apart. Zeena Parkins was good, Gate... it seemed to turn into a bit of a mess, but I don’t think it was their fault, there was a mess-up with timing and they were made to play a lot longer than they wanted, I think.
Parts of "Chicago two" on Remove The Need remind me of A Handful Of Dust.
I’ve heard Dead C. and I’ve heard Gate, but I’ve not heard Handful Of Dust at all. I don’t think I’m doing anything special at all, and I shouldn’t be surprised [laughs] that it sounds like something else. Hopefully the newer stuff will have more of a defined character, but the older stuff, I don’t know, I’m just so disappointed with it all [laughs]. I wish I could magically take it out of everyone’s house and replace it with something else.
You don’t like The Ground Below Our Heads?
It’s awful, the sound quality, it was something that somebody offered to put out that I thought nobody would ever put out. That’s why the first few records came out, because somebody offered to put them out and I thought, wow, if I turn it down, nobody will ever ask me again. The first few records were really put out in fear that I’d never have another record out again, and I thought I’d better do it. Now, I would never release Disengage. Disengage is music [laughs], and that’s all it is! [laughs] It’s the least aesthetically disciplined of my records, it’s very musical. Hopefully, the records I make from now on won’t have very much music on them [laughs]. I like a lot of music, but not that much. A lot of people like Tamper and everybody loves it and tells me how nice it is but I hate it. The first piece of Tamper I would definitely throw away. I did it with someone else, it has some horrible things that I could hang myself over now. There’s some cheesy neo-Bartok playing on it, not that I have a problem with Bartok, but it’s like the worst elements somebody would pull out of Bartok, like “oh yeah, a folk melody!” (laughs) Oooohhhh, God, that thing still gives me the shivers. If I could change the choir on the second piece of Tamper, that’s something I’d be happy with. The choir has a problem; I couldn’t find singers who could sing right and so I had to use this ridiculous vibrato technique to try to get them to avoid sounding really off-pitch, and it just doesn’t work. It ends up sounding like Hymnen or something by Stockhausen—oh boy, oh boy, bad move. Don’t want to sound like Stockhausen, I’d have to start wearing white suits.
Have you done anything you’re happy with?
The new Gastr EP. I’m pretty happy with the Brise-Glace record. I like a lot of both CDs I did with Henry Kaiser. Actually, everything that’s going to be coming out now I’m kind of happy with. I liked the Table of Elements 7-inch. I’m glad some of that stuff finally came out. There’s one place where I feel I don’t sound like a lot of people.
It reminded me of Derek Bailey.
There’s sort of a Derek edge, but how can you avoid not playing traditional guitar and not sounding like Derek Bailey? It’s very difficult. You can go the route of Hans Reichel, but that’s so entrenched in traditional harmonic language that it really isn’t at all on the same road as Derek Bailey. I’m more tonal than Derek, I refer to tonality more than he does. That’s not a qualitative observation, but one of reference. Derek’s playing coming from a period of different harmonic language, a direct addressing of mid-20th century contemporary music, and earlier stuff like Webern, which is very important in early period European improv. Personally, I don’t think I sound very much like Derek at all. Our logic is completely different, and of course he’s a million times better [laughs]. I was pretty happy with that 7-inch, and someday I’m going to do a whole record of acoustic guitar stuff, but I just want to wait for a while. I’ve got a new group now of improvised musicians, local people, nobody you might know. We’re playing very often now, and I’m very happy with this group. It’s a guy playing tabletop, there’s a girl who plays violin, a guy who plays trombone, and I play accordion and shortwave. I’m really super-happy with this stuff, this is the stuff I’ve been wanting to play in terms of improvised music. It’s super-quiet, an awful lot of silence [laughs], super-delicate.
Your solo stuff is very delicate.
Yeah, although lately, the last tour was getting very violent. This record I made with Gunter Müller gets very Merzbow-like at points, horribly loud and noisy. Some points of the record are just complete, all-out noisefests, but really good noisefests, that’s why I like Merzbow and Voice Crack, I think Merzbow’s special, I think he’s better than the other people from that crowd. Voice Crack, Merzbow, to me that’s the next step in free jazz, because it’s a contemporary soundworld to free jazz and it’s got the intent and the language and the energy of free jazz. But it’s removed the jazz element and kept the improvisational element—I mean Merzbow hasn’t, but Voice Crack has.
Do you listen to much jazz?
Yeah, sure. Straight ahead jazz doesn’t interest me very much any more, but I still love the ’70-’74 Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor. I like a lot of the European free Improvised music. Jazzy stuff generally doesn’t interest me, jazz mostly deals in a real soloist-type situation, which really doesn’t interest me. I’m not interested in somebody playing in front of other people, it’s very much a “now it’s my turn” kind of thing, which is just something I can’t relate to. Late Coltrane records I can dig, but Pharoah Sanders, they’re not playing in front of each other at all, that becomes really organic, the group really works with it. That’s why I like a lot of European free improvised music, because it had these free jazz roots, but the group dynamic becomes very important. The thing about jazz is, it’s harmonic and rhythmic improvisation, but there’s no formal improvisation because the group won’t change. Only in the super-best jazz will the group abandon and change and go into strictly uncharted territory. That’s why I like a lot of free improvised music because the form is created in real time, as well as whatever harmonic and rhythmic things are going on. Form interests me.
It does?
Sure. It’s the main shaper of perception.
But your stuff is so formless.
Oh, not at all [laughs], I would disagree completely with that, I think most of the stuff is completely about form. It has to do with how sound implies form. That’s why I like Morton Feldman so much, because he listens to what the sounds imply, what kind of space and shape they imply. It’s the same way I work — “this is the material I’m dealing with, what the hell does this say to me?” It’s like Feldman says, “The sounds die a natural death.” Form isn’t a word that just relates to sonata form and everything, form relates to the placement of time of material. That can mean something that drones. Something that drones has form just as much as Mozart’s clarinet concerto.
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