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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Frequency #1 (1996)
by ?

Between his record label, recording, remixing, producing and song writing, Jim O’Rourke rarely has a moment of time to himself. Jim plays guitar in Gastr Del Sol with David Grubbs, has released an impressive amount of solo recordings, has been a part of countless collaborations, and runs the Dextar’s Cigar record label.
What influenced you to first start playing music?
I got a guitar for Christmas when I was six.
What kind of guitar was it?
It was an acoustic guitar from Sears.
Did you ever take guitar lessons?
Yeah. I started immediately.
What was the first synthesizer that you purchased?
I just bought an Arp Odessy a couple of months ago.
What did you use on stage with Gastr Del Sol for the Toronto Jazz Festival?
That was a Hammond Organ. Oh god, you saw the show where I had the concussion. I was really just half there. I was just floating in brain fluid.
I didn’t notice a thing. What happened?
The day before I had been hit on the head by something.
What is the history behind you and David Grubbs?
The first time I met him was at the Art Institute of Chicago. A mutual friend of ours knew that David was doing a paper on AMM. Since I had played with the people in AMM he told David about me and so David met with me. During that time, he was coming to shows that I was playing, this was back in the late 80s and early 90s. When I decided that I wanted to try something with “rock instruments,” I called him up because he was the only guitar player that I knew that was any good.
Was that before or after Bundy K. Brown left Gastr Del Sol?
Gastr was happening separately already.
So how did it work that you were introduced into Gastr?
Serpentine Similar was manufactured the day of our first rehearsal. We decided that this rock band thing was stupid and that I just wanted to write music with him. So we started writing stuff together. It was going to be something separate and then he just decided that this was Gastr because he didn’t see why there should be any separation.
In what circumstances did you first meet Tony Conrad?
As he stands about three feet to my right... At the first Table of the Elements festival four years ago. I already knew of his work, but that was where I met him. The people at the label decided that I should be his right hand man and asked if I would like to be.
Whose idea was it to play behind an enormous white sheet and projecting your shadows onto it?
It was Tony’s. We do that every time that we do that piece.
What about John Fahey? When and where did you first meet him?
I first met him really only recently. In person only two months ago in California when toured together. He’s supposed to be here now but he’s still sleeping.
I missed the San Francisco show by two days.
It turned out pretty well. There was no Gastr show because Dave got food poisoning.
What can we expect in the near future from Dextar’s Cigar?
If it can happen, we’re still fighting with Warner Brothers for two records: After the Ball and Of Rivers and Of Religions. Those were John’s two records for Warner Brothers.
Why is there so much trouble getting those?
Because it’s Warner Brothers [laughs].
Do you have to deal with that personally?
No. A friend of mine is — he is also Fahey’s manager and a lawyer. So he’s doing all of the legal battling right now.
How and where did you develop you production skills?
It’s all self taught. Just reading books and doing it. More than anything - just doing it and learning from mistakes.
Did you go to school for composition?
Yes. I went to DePaul University for a composition degree, but that was worthless. By the time I finished, it was not the kind of world that I was interested in. But I had to finish because my parents would have been really upset if I didn’t.
Is it correct that you spent some time at university/college teaching?
I used to teach guitar. And many times in the electronic music class I would end up having to teach the class, because they had no teachers to teach. But I still had to pay for the class because I was technically a student.
Would you ever consider teaching on a serious basis?
No. Well maybe. I wouldn’t teach music though, that’s for sure.
Have people ever asked you to teach them?
Yep. People ask me to teach them and I decline. I think that with music one should just teach themselves.
How did you get the opportunity to produce Faust’s Rien?
Once again I was asked by Table of the Elements.
Where was it recorded?
The whole record was made in my bedroom [laughs]. I mean that they had nothing to do with the record. The whole thing is a tape collage. There is nothing on there that is actually played.
Did you use live shows?
I had tapes of live shows and I went through them and found a point where the bass drum was hit and you can’t hear anything else, so that’s my bass drum. And oh, here’s a guitar part where he plays a note very distinctly and you can’t hear anything else. So, all of the guitar parts and the singing and everything else is all pieced together note by note.
So do you have a personal collection of Faust shows?
I have pretty much everything that they have recorded in the last four years. Maybe someday I’ll sell it for an enormous amount of money. Then, I get all of the money that I lost making the record [laughs].
Did you have a hard time putting Rien together?
That was one of the worst years of my life.
Why was that?
It was my life, for an entire year, making that record. I woke up at 8am each day and did it until 2 in the morning. And when I finished the record, they said thank you, kicked me in the ass, and never talked to me again.
So they didn’t appreciate all of your work.
No they’re nuts.
I saw a Faust/Gastr Del Sol tour poster on the Faust web site. Did you play many shows with Faust?
I played in Faust for a few shows overseas.
How did those shows go?
They were interesting. They usually ended with the club being nearly destroyed.
By the audience or by them?
Oh, by them. And then the audience.
What remixes did you do for Oval and Labradford? Where are they available?
I don’t know where the Labradford remix is available. For Oval I’ve done a couple. One for Diskont 94 which is on the Diskont 94 vinyl. I’ve done a Microstoria remix which is not out yet. Two remixes for Tortoise. A This Heat remix which is still yet to come out.
I missed your performance at the 1995 Toronto Jazz festival. What type of material did you do? Can you relate it to any of your available works?
That was an improvised concert. The closest thing would be the Acoustics record.
Cede took two years to finish. Were those full days of work?
I would just wake up and turn on my tape machine. I wanted this thing to happen so I would begin working at the tapes until I got that. Sometimes there were 360 clarinets so I knew that I would have to mix this one tape of a clarinet multi-track at 360 times and dub it down to two. That would take me about a week to do. So everyday I would just work until I fell asleep.
Is work always like that for you?
Yeah, I never take a day off.
With whom and when did you do a BBC radio session? Is that available anywhere?
I’ve done a couple of BBC radio sessions. I did one with Derek Bailey and Eddie Prévost and a singer named Vanessa Mackness a couple of years ago. I can’t quite remember the others. That was the main one. But it’s not available anywhere.
In an interview you mentioned the fact that you have made films.
Yeah. I do it to learn. There’s nothing I’ve done yet that I would show to anybody.
What did you do for last week’s Table of the Elements festival?
I played solo. I played something that I’ve been working on for John Fahey’s new label. It’s the first record I’ve made in two years.
Who were the special guests?
The special guests were Tony Conrad with Gastr doing “Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plane” with his films for it. It was two hours long.
Are you currently working on anything?
I’m working on John Fahey’s new record. I just finished the new Smog record a few days ago. I’m also working on a solo record for Drag City called Bad Timing. I don’t know when I’ll finish that. I may end up finishing really quickly — you may be surprised — but I’m not quite sure when yet.
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