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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Popwatch #8 (1996)
by Les Scurry

Jim O’Rourke is a very busy man. So busy that the following interview isn’t close to being finished. The interview was conducted via email (I apologize if it seems rather stodgy, the medium isn’t really conducive to a conversational tone) over quite a few months in late ’95 and early ’96. There are big gaps; we barely scratched the surface of his ideas and his work when he was called away to do one of his many projects, like producing the latest Faust record, or playing with Gastr del Sol, or recording U.S. Maple, or traveling overseas to play with numerous other musicians. I was often left wondering when he had time to take a breath. The future will see us talking about his latest projects along with Jim’s very interesting and informative comments on his own discography. First, his beginnings:
In other interviews, you have said that you are not interested in playing "music." What do you consider your work? And if it’s not music, what made you start playing the guitar as the maker of your choice of sounds, as opposed to a more "composerly" medium?
Well, the quotations are the key: "music" in the sense of some thing that exists for more or less "musical" reasons. If there aren’t some levels that reach beyond the temporal scope of the music, it has very little interest to me. What I do is music in the strict sense of the word, since that is the medium I’ve chosen to work in, but most of what I do is question the medium: why does it communicate, how does it communicate, what is its function, etc. Of course, this isn’t didactic, there are some things that would be considered "music" that appeal to me. Two of my all-time heroes, Van Dyke Parks and Scott Walker, are quite simply singer/songwriters, but the key here is their ability to transcend the trappings and instead change the way the language communicates. Scott can say with two words and a specific orchestration more than the entire output of one million groups of the last 10 years, and that transcendency — and I say transcendent because it is done so seemingly effortlessly — is what takes it out of the realm of "music" and into something else.
The guitar is definitely not my chosen source of sounds. As a matter of fact, all of what I consider my guitar "work" (i.e., the last few years), meaning the table-top solo, is to question what the hell it means to play the damn thing. I know you haven’t seen me live, but when I go on stage, I do not have a really friendly rapport with the guitar. It really seems foreign to me; the whole meaning of this damn object, this remnant of a past I cannot relate to anymore. The combination of iconic function and undefinable necessity is what drives me to do it. My approach to it onstage is not an act, but is a reality that I face every time I walk in front of people. For composition, I don’t think I’ve ever used the guitar as a sound source, except in part 1 of "...drowning," [on Disengage] which doesn’t matter because I don’t even like to think of anything I made before Rules of Reduction. People will see less and less of that damned guitar. When it is necessary it’s there, if not, it will go away. In the past 4 months, I really have begun to exorcise it out of my life. I’m really not interested in being a guitar player. When I played at an improv festival in Holland recently there were discussions, and I was struck at how many people "play their instruments." This struck me as opposed to the aesthetic of free improvisation. There is of course an argument that highly articulates things can be done with a familiar instrument, and I agree with that, but that doesn’t mean that if I find it necessary to fall on my face... that I won’t do it because I’m there to "play guitar."
What do you mean by "reach beyond the temporal scope of the music?" Meaning, the after effects once the time of the music is over? Does a song or composition bind itself to the lifetime of its length? In my life, Silkworm can do that just as well as Keiji Haino. Is that different for you? If so, how is it different?
Well, there is a good point for distinction that I am interested in. Silkworm is using an established form of communication (one that can be argued to be "manipulative," and that is not meant to be read as negative), and my interest is why is that language successful, how does it work, etc. Haino, on the other hand is not as easily referenced; he is utilizing a meta-form in a way, in the way that, say, free-improvised music does at its best, something that in its own time (temporality, etc.) establishes its own language, set of connections, etc. Haino does this to an extent (only to an extent because he has established a Haino-language).
What do you mean by "question the medium?" Of rock music itself or music made by guitar? What do you mean by communicate? To you as a person or what you are communicating as an artist to your audience? Explain the relationship of "function" in a musical sphere.
As I said above: why does it work, how does it work, how does it function (this incorporates the external social role of the music). I am interested in what I am communicating to the audience. If I was interested in what I am communicating to myself, I wouldn’t release music. Of course I learn about these things, but these I feed back into another level of translation; that for the audience. How can I communicate/convey this level of perception?
Please explain why Van Dyke Parks and Scott Walker are "special" compared to other singer/songwriters.
That is really hard; and why they hold such enigmatic appeal to me. For me it is fascinating that two figures could be so damn successful at communicating such infinite depth with such "apparent" ease. That is why most of what I like to call "clever" pop doesn’t appeal to me (as a matter of fact it repels me), because in some ways I find it so coarse, such a limited way at seeing things. It is also very directed at the creator. The work of Van Dyke, etc., while undeniably showing his unbelievable skill and insight, points the arrow away from himself; it is very selfless music. That’s a key word to their greatness: selflessness. This is really important to me. Morton Feldman had a sense of the intuitive, this selflessness. It isn’t so much a philosophical stance, i.e., aligning itself with the literary [John] Cage, but instead with being in tune, and trusting ones perception, or power of perception.
Are you moving into what you see as a more immediate or necessary means of communication? Since you are known (for better or worse) as a guitar player, what effect do you think this will have on your future? Why did you start with the guitar in the first place? Was it "there" and available and so "on to the pursuit"? Please give me some background on what made you start in the beginning.
Well, I actually disagree that I am best known as a guitarist. This may be true in the States, but for instance, in France, my compositions are best known. I’ve been played alongside Luc Ferrari, Parmegiani, etc., and only recently has my guitar-oriented work gotten any exposure in France. In Switzerland I’m best known as an improviser, because of the healthy audience for improvised music there. (Not necessarily in numbers, but in what I would consider good taste. Hell, they have the good sense to like Voice Crack.) When I went to Japan, while I was known for the guitar, there were just as many questions about my writing, etc., so I think (I HOPE!!!) it’s a misconception about the guitar. I started playing when I was six for basic kid-like reasons. Over the past few years my interest has sharply moved from making music to being interested in the questions of any form of "creative" thinking for lack of a better term (and I do think it’s a horrible term). In some ways I feel the best way to show your disinterest in something is to continue to do it (the operative word here is "show"). I’m realizing I’m just going to have to live with it, just like a lot of nonsense that comes with doing this stuff. No wonder Scott Walker just disappeared after a while. I don’t blame him.
You made a reference to music that is "manipulative" versus the kind that works on you honestly. This I understand (though I think that everything in some way is a form of manipulation of one’s consciousness); but how does one avoid the manipulation, even in improv? Doesn’t the fact that one’s self goes into playing mean that you are creating a language for yourself and thusly for others? Or do people who stay away from one "form" of improv avoid this trap? Do Bailey, Frith, Haino, Takayanagi, etc., all have their own meta-language because they only stay within limits they set for themselves? Did someone like Cage avoid this (even though he wasn’t an improviser)?
Of course all music is manipulative to some extent since communication is manipulation, but what I find interesting is the "distance" between the "carrier," let’s say, and the result. In a self-aware, referential language, that distance is very small, the genealogy is very close in sight; however, when the distance grows, the meaning and intent becomes, in a sense, taken for granted. I don’t think you should avoid "manipulation" in improvisation in the sense that you are trying to shape some form which is inherent to manipulation, it’s when there is action upon an archetype which "yields a certain result" (not a reference to the archetype, but actual investment) that I have a problem with. It’s almost a third-person way of communicating. None of those mentioned avoided form, even Cage, and in fact created their own contexts, and so on. My use of the word manipulative is meant to convey that music which blindly believes in the established cause and effect. To roust a grossly appropriate example: John Williams, whose scores are vampiric, not just in terms of plagiarism, which is widely known, but in that the works obtain their power to sway the public through use of manipulative gestures established in the post-Stravinsky genre of film scores (Hans Salter, etc.). (This is related to something I am interested in: Why does it communicate that? What kind of conditioning is going on here?) I’m using John Williams as a blatant example, not as some-thing I find even worth the time criticizing. Of side note interest, one of Williams’ first recordings is as John T. Williams on Deutsche Grammaphone, along with composers Kryzstof Penderecki and Toshiru Mayuzumi. Well, all right brother!
There is a breadth of music I absolutely adore that manages to fully drench itself in the wonders of a music while making razor sharp observations about it. The Frogs’ first album is an incredible example. The album is able to simultaneously question every single "clichŤ" (or in this case, as I would say, pre-agreed norms of manipulation), making it very apparent as a manipulative gesture, yet still get its kicks from it. John Oswald’s "Great Pretender" from Plunderphonics is able to expand a simple process (slowing down of the song) to reveal so much about representation, both musically, but also extra-musically, and economically. It’s a balance of being self--aware without being self-conscious.
While "rock" as a form might be fundamentally dead (as it really doesn’t mean anything anymore) I feel the guitar, as an important instrument to play, has plenty of uses left. Your thoughts?
Ideas like "rock is dead" seem very silly to me. This belief in linear progression I find very odd. Whether something "means" something or not is not necessarily dependent upon its musical content but on its socio-economic status. If Shellac were on DGC it would be the same musically, but would it mean the same thing? But I’ve found a lot of people just don’t care about things like that ("as long as it sounds good"). Well, whatever. I can’t quite live that way. Music isn’t just entertainment. Well, I’d rather it wasn’t.
My first exposure to you was in Illusion Of Safety. Was that the first thing you were involved in? And if it was, how did you get involved with them?
IOS would be probably the first widely-distributed document of me playing (not of my own music), although I had done several tapes since high school under what is now a horribly embarrassing name (hence my reluctance to divulge). It was generally in the "tape circuit." I was making tapes and recordings at home since I was eight or so, some early-on arranging to what was intended as parodistic recording of Neil Diamond’s "Coming to America" (what the hell movie was that for? now I can’t quite remember) which ended up teaching me a lot what I could do with tape recorders. I also remember making tape magazines in 4th and 5th grade. Lots of "Sanka" commercials in those. Once I went to college, it took me consistently into a geographic and social area I wasn’t privy to until then. I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, near the airport, near the beginning of the suburbs, and I was pretty much the only person I knew who was interested in music and film outside of any entertainment function. Once I got to college though (DePaul in Lincoln Park area of Chicago), I could go to clubs to see shows, meet people, etc. It so happens I opened up for IOS at a club called Batteries Not Included (now defunct) when I was 18. I heard them and thought, wow, this uses much of the sounds I was interested in, but in totally different structures, i.e., not based in composition. Hence, the beginning of my introduction to the whole sub-genre of the "post-industrial" thing, which did interest me for a while, until I began to find the general field to be wholly uninteresting in formal terms. Anyway, IOS were nice people, and hell, people to play with who were at least moving in areas I was interested in. For about a year, maybe two, I played with them consistently. Probably ’89 and ’90, maybe some of ’88. As I worked more and more on my own things, my involvement dwindled, and ceased in ’92. I have "appeared" on recent IOS records generally through the cryonic miracle of sampling old tapes. I still like them all as people, as friends, but that type of music making doesn’t interest me on a personal level. As I say about lots of music: there are people there to make it, why should I? My involvement in the group has been vastly overrated; it is Dan Burke’s music, not mine.
I won’t ask you to divulge your first project’s name, but I will ask you what it consisted of: tape loops, guitar weirdness, what?
Oh, thanks for not asking. Well, it was basically guitars and ping-ponging tracks, overdriven Yamaha tone banks, and primitive tape-pause edits. Very, very bad. You could tell I listened to No Pussyfooting and Uncle Meat (not in quality of course, in lame 10 year-old emulation). One or two things didn’t suck completely, but that isn’t saying much of course. It definitely wasn’t "weird," although I’m sure I thought it was.
How did your short jaunt with IOS affect you? Did it make you want to do things you were doing differently or did it just make you want to go at it alone?
It definitely helped define myself because there were certain things going in a way I liked, but then currents against that, and I had to learn to identify and articulate what I didn’t like/agree with. Of course eventually it helped bolster my belief in my own work, which I didn’t have at the time because I was horribly disappointed by it. Still, the time to try things of course; this was when I was 19, 20.
Did your stint with IOS lead you to explore new people’s projects?
I learned about "la industria" through Dan, a lot of which I then thought was terrible, but it was fascinating for me to hear this sense of sound used outside of formal composition (the stuff I had grown up with). Now it wasn’t only Xenakis and Stockhausen, but Halfer Trio, p16d4, and a lot of stuff, that at varying speeds quickly became boring. Because while the sound was good, it became clear to me that almost all people in that field don’t know what to do with the sound once they get it; that’s it, their work is through, and you couldn’t bore me more than that. Now of course you can make music with the structure of sound as its subject, but the sound has to demand that attention and contain an internal dynamic (Tony Conrad for me is a perfect example). But hell, the stuff I was hearing — ouch — I still like a few records from that area. Ralf Wehowsky and Bernhard GŁnter have proven to be composers of incredible depth and sensitivity, I feel.
Did it open doors to you? i.e., did it lead people to contact you on new collaborations and projects?
Sure, that’s how I met a lot of people. But honestly, I left behind that world a long time ago, it just didn’t sustain my interest.
Most people seem to grow out of interest in industrial music as they mature due to its cement-like rigidity to certain forms and patterns. Bands that avoid this trap (but somehow still seem to be connected to the "movement" somehow) like p16d4 and SBOTHI seem far too cerebral to have a real impact. Is this what you experienced?
I wouldn’t be apt to use the word maturation since it implies so much. Instead I would just say, things became more apparently transparent to me. I disagree about p16, etc. I think that stuff is absolutely fantastic, and a good sit down in front of a good stereo with p16’s "Kuehe in 1/2 Trauer" or SBOTHI’s "Last" will be a pleasure for me any day. Now that I also know Achim (SBOTHI) and Ralf (brains behind p16), I only have more respect for that work, especially Ralf’s. Achim’s work is indeed conceptually based, but I think wholly successful in integrating itself into its chosen medium. Industrial music pretty much from the get-go was inexorably linked to the means of reproduction, i.e., it was music meant to be reproduced and sold. It was much a different arena messrs. Cage and so on worked within (indeed for many, recordings were "documents;" performances were of greater import: this is an economic factor: receiving money for performances through publishing is an efficient reality in Europe). This is only scratching the surface of that question, which is valid and vastly ignored. Thanks for bringing it up. I’d love to go into that on a big scale. As for people whose work utilizes the inherent power of sound, a perfect example would be later Morton Feldman, his pieces exhibit compositional tendencies that have more to do with the implied space of the orchestration more than abstract compositional practice. (An abstraction that is natural for the pencil and paper composer: the communicative ideas relating more to that dynamic than that of the performance/listener.) From there a logical step would be Stravinsky, who was very interested in "sound," not "octotonic scales" for chrissakes; this is terminology for a hierarchical system of analysis. How can you grade a paper that says, "The bass clarinet, in the second quaver of measure 23, sounds boss"? You can’t (and you shouldn’t). So up come those octotonic scales. As Sammy Davis Jr. said on Now, "I’m over 25 but you can trust me." Uh-huh.
How did you get involved with all your future work after IOS?
Luck. Well, I also always pursue someone’s work I feel to be exceptional. Dave Grubbs, Bernhard GŁnter, Oval, Gunter Müller, Voice Crack, Nicolas Collins... these are all people (either who I work with or have a constant rapport with) who I think are doing important work, and I wanted them to know that (not that I think I am the person to say this, I mean I want to thank them) and many times it works out well.
You misunderstand, I think. Did your work with [IOS] lead to, say, John Duncan or Organum writing you and saying, "Lets do something?"
Some people I wrote to offer my thanks, but I can’t think of I a situation where I told someone I wanted to work with them. That, I think, is really presumptuous; I mean, they have lives and everything.
Yeah, but how did you get in contact with them? Writing after you heard a body of work, or did they know of your work? I’m looking for some thread of why people come together to work. An intellectual, spiritual-or some kind-of connection must occur. Did you become friends before any sort of musical project developed?
I spend a great deal of my time studying; mostly film theory and art theory, and listening to as much stuff as I can get my hands on (as well as listening to things like [Parks’] Song Cycle as much as I can daily), so I am a natural born cross-referencer (I hope a misprint doesn’t make that cross-dresser; I guess I’ll start my own clothes line, like "X-9er" or something like that). If I like someone I actively figure a way to get in touch with them. Recently at a journalist friend’s house I heard the work of a children’s theater composer from Switzerland named Ruedi Hauserrmann and was completely floored. I hassled my pal into getting any info possible, ran home and faxed three people related to his label in Zurich and said, "What’s up????" and kept with it until I got more info, recordings, etc. Then I tell everyone in sight. A visit to my house is probably pretty scary: first I force people to listen to five records, then watch three or four sequences from a film, then a new Sigmar Polke book I got [see Polke’s B-Mode], etc., all while making pots of coffee and so on. I definitely don’t pursue working with someone, if there is an interest, and importantly, a reason, I’ll pursue it. I would hope there aren’t pictures of me rushing into John Oswald’s studio and saying "Where’s the boogie switch?"
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