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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Option #60 (1995)
by Bob Gulle

Inside the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge, the air conditioner rages full on, powerful enough to freeze-dry hot Boston sweat, cold enough to give you an ice cream headache. At the front of the house, diners chow on falafel and hummus while tossing back sweaty glasses of beer. In the cafe’s backroom hovel Chicago’s avant-garde ensemble Brice-Glace, featuring Jim O’Rourke, prepares a little unconventional supper music.
Dressed in a black Faust T-shirt and drab, knee-length gray shorts, O’Rourke waits as his bandmates finish fiddling with their instruments. Standing stone quiet with a fixed, earnest expression, he casually strums his off-white Strat. Thick, black-rimmed specs call attention to his slightly-more-than-crew-length hair and rounded Irish features. His black high-top Converse sneakers look a little awkward on his feet, though they certainly complete the picture — MC Search as "serious" musician.
A few people crowd the front of the stage, craning their necks with suspicion in the way only a Boston audience could. What most of them don’t know is that at only 25, O’Rourke is the Hex Generation’s torch-bearer of improvised music. Some even say he will become the discipline’s most important composer of the 1990s.
Earlier, O’Rourke and I sat at a table near the back of the restaurant. "I’m definitely not a musician," he told me, "and I’m not very interested in playing the guitar. I just happen to use the guitar as a sound-making device. I approach it as if it’s something I have to dissect. What the hell am I going to do with this thing? I don’t want to play it, but why do I have it in front of me?"
Jim O’Rourke grew up in the Jefferson Park section of Chicago, a modest suburban neighborhood where he still lives with his folks. As a first generation American born to an Irish working-class family, he did his duty, attending a Catholic boys grade school. Early on, he began to experience some of the difficulties of growing up Catholic. "Religion was the biggest problem for me for a long time," he says, eyes downcast and shaking his head. "I was so messed up. The bullshit Catholic guilt thing really messed with my brain until well into college, especially with girl things."
Because of his social unease and his family’s emotional distance, O’Rourke spent most of his time hidden away in his room. "I just had to get away from things that were happening in the house. But I was really only slightly happy, because I knew at any time anything could come upstairs."
"Upstairs" is where O’Rourke could be with the only person he trusted — himself. He began nurturing his isolation, turning inward for ideas and developing his iconoclastic artistic sensibilities. The period was the early ’80s, but while other kids were listening to the new wave sounds of Duran Duran, Culture Club and Modern English, O’Rourke had discovered Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ Freak Out! And while they played Atari video games and watched MTV, O’Rourke would lock himself in his room and fiddle with his tape machine.
"I spent my whole childhood upstairs with my deck," he says with a laugh. "In the sixth grade I got a machine that allowed me to record a little at a time and then ping-pong noises back and forth, like old reel-to-reels. That’s when I started going crazy with sound."
By high school, O’Rourke had moved from Zappa to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, styles he found impossible to share with his friends. In fact, O’Rourke was finding it increasingly difficult to share anything with anyone - musical, intellectual or otherwise. "I couldn’t relate to people very much growing up," he explains. "Most of the stuff they did I found to be kind of pointless." He pauses and scuffs his sneakers across the carpet. "I hate to say it, but I think I was generally misunderstood. Since people who knew me didn’t have a point of reference — since they didn’t know where I was coming from — they didn’t take me seriously. That really got to me. People liked me I guess, but I was a dork. Still am."
Later, after he landed a job sweeping metal scraps off a machine shop floor, he would comb the rarely visited corners of his local library for obscure music and ideas. He discovered other experimenters and improvisers such as the German band Faust and avant-garde composer John Cage. Those pursuits prevented him from becoming even tangentially involved with conventional music. In fact, throughout his adolescence he had never played in a traditional rock band, and claims not to have heard Led Zeppelin until three years ago, at age 22.
"I became less and less interested in music for music’s sake," he says, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. By the time he entered DePaul University as a performance major, O’Rourke was ripe for real innovation. "That’s when I began to make distinctions between musicians and, er, other people. I think one of the important things with musicians is that they need to enjoy themselves and have other people enjoy what they do, which of course is fine. But enjoying myself is of very little interest to me. It’s all about what I’m trying to find out."
College wound up destroying any interest O’Rourke had in playing music. "Improvisers and experimenters had no support at the university whatsoever, and the place was full of that hierarchical sense of [affects an uppity voice], ’I am the composer, you are the performer. You are the channel for my Muse.’
"One of the reasons I started improvising," he continues, "is I was trying to get past that nonsense. But that’s out of my system now. I don’t have a visceral reason for doing it anymore. It’s completely for the aesthetics I believe in."
O’Rourke found musical compatriots in the group Illusion of Safety, with whom he made a series of noisy cassettes in the mid-to-late ’80s. But halfway through college, O’Rourke’s solo, improvised guitar work caught the ear of English avant-garde guitar icon Derek Bailey, who invited the young musician to play at his annual Company Week festival in London ("the Woodstock of improvisational music," according to O’Rourke). There, he performed before an audience of his idols. "I got to play with all the people I worshipped growing up - Derek, Henry Kaiser, Chris Cutler, Louis Moholo... It was the thrill of my life."
As O’Rourke’s reputation grew, so did his career opportunities. Since 1990, he has released numerous solo works, including two albums (Remove the Need and Tamper) on Australia’s Extreme label, a double CD (Disengage) on the Dutch Staalplaat imprint, and a recent Brise-Glace CD (When In Vanitas) on Skin Graft. All are maddeningly cryptic weavings — much like the spare, intertwined lace of a gauzy fabric — of tone, texture and color. His first regular guitar duo, with Henry Kaiser, resulted in the albums Tomorrow Knows Where You Live and Acoustics, both on Victo. O’Rourke also pairs off regularly with avant-metal Japanese guitarist K.K. Null, notorious for his work with noise merchants Zeni Geva, and has worked with Eugene Chadbourne, members of the Legendary Pink Dots and Sonic Youth, and Gastr del Sol with one-time Squirreibait/Bastro alum David Grubbs.
Adding to O’Rourke’s convoluted body of work, he has contributed a number of pieces to other composers and artists, among them the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and Kronos Quartet. He also plays on the recent self-titled Red Krayola album and produced the recent comeback album by minimalist composer Tony Conrad. Most recently, O’Rourke was given free reign to play around with a master tape of the new album by Faust, his all-time heroes. "If anything in the world makes me happy," he says, "it’s cutting tape." Yet despite all the projects, performances, acclaim, and his regular 18-to-20-hour work days, O’Rourke remains a relatively obscure footnote on the American independent music underground.

"Let’s face it," he says, "some people find what I do to be really stupid. Some people are interested in playing music. I’m not. And I’m not interested in the jazz meaning of improvisation either."

By controlling feedback and tone, O’Rourke has gone entire shows without actually strumming a note on his instrument. During a recent show in Philadelphia he taped three guitars together, connecting one of them to the bass drum so that by halfway through the set the instruments had begun to resonate automatically with the kick of a drum. Meanwhile, O’Rourke just sat back and watched. "People who are interested in musical aspects of improvising can’t relate to that," he says. "They just think I’m not jamming."
Before Brise-Glace’s performance at the Middle East, the guitarist drops to his knees like a schoolboy before a chest of toys and begins rigging his instruments. He weaves a letter opener through his strings and gently taps it with a vibraphone mallet. He makes sure his distortion and EQ knobs are close by, as well as an egg-slicer. Looking as much like a maniacal scientist as he does a musician, O’Rourke takes great pains to manipulate the tones precisely. His partner, Dylan Posa, clamps one of his own guitar strings with what looks like a set of miniature tweezers, then threads a chopstick loosely across his fretboard. Bassist Darin Gray "tunes" his feedback with the rest of the band, and drummer Thymme Jones raps out an unpredictable, intermittent tempo.
"To me," O’Rourke explains, "sound implies a certain sense of time and shape, and I think to ignore that, as a musician, is a bad thing. Most music I studied in school ignores how music communicates. You think you’re saying something because it’s written that way, but that doesn’t necessarily communicate with someone who’s listening to it. "
Like many avatars of experimental and avant-garde music, O’Rourke jeers at much of today’s rock, indie and otherwise. "I don’t see the point of most of it. It’s just a bunch of sound. Some of it’s pleasant, some of it’s nice, but after a while it just becomes interchangeable." He throws up his hands. "What does it mean?"
GASTR DEL SOL
David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, the duo comprising the creative heart of Chicago’s Gastr del Sol, come from substantially disparate musical backgrounds. Grubbs grew up raging in the acclaimed post-punk band Squirrelbait and later formed Bastro; O’Rourke spent his adolescence shunning most rock in favor of Zappa, John Cage and musique concrete.
"There’s a certain harmonic language I’m coming from," O’Rourke observes, "and a certain one Dave is coming from. We try to find some kind of meeting point in Gastr del Sol. I think somehow we’ve managed to converge."
The latest result in the pair’s full-length collaboration, Crookt, Crakt, Or Fly, recorded with musicians John McEntire, Steve Butters and Gene Coleman. It’s a rare bird for both principals, as it bumps O’Rourke closer to conventional rock and pushes the already fringy Grubbs even further out. "It falls into the category of music," O’Rourke admits reluctantly.
Because the two have not yet assembled an operative road band, they’ve played fewer than ten shows in two years. O’Rourke and Grubbs spend most of their time writing, hashing out ideas, and addressing abstract notions of form and tonal communication — concepts that aren’t often addressed in a regular rock band.
Producer Steve Albini was present for some of their talks and just thought they were dorks. "We’d sit there and discuss the implications of utilizing this or that," says O’Rourke. "Albini never knew what we were talking about."
The earliest fruits of their collaboration included a 7" record, 20 Songs Less, for Mark Robinson’s Teenbeat label. Crookt, Crakt, Or Fly and the new Mirror Repair EP, both on Drag City, feature unconventional structures and wildly unpredictable musicianship. Though Grubbs and O’Rourke work out some genuinely traditional guitar parts for themselves, the cutting and pasting rips their tradition to shreds.
"A lot of bands go into the studio and just document what they done" says Grubbs, who’s working on his Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago. "I guess we do that to a degree, but we also add, subtract, divide and multiply. It isn’t just a matter of plotting, recordings and audio vérité."
Bob Gulla is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer.
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