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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Music #2 (1997)
by Mike McGonigal

The Wolf in Teddy Bear’s Clothing
One of the best things about the work I do is I get to talk about music with people who think it and live it and breathe it and craft it — Jim O’Rourke chief among ’em. Smarter than he ever lets on, adorably self-effacing but never overly so, so super fucking talented it’s ridiculous, opinionated in kind of a cranky way, while retaining the outlook of a gushing total fan, this late-twenty-something Chicagoan is among the entire century’s finest, humblest musicians. In his overall thing — his work as a collaborator, solo artist, producer/engineer/ recorder remixer, and just as importantly as an active champion of divine, lost and unrecognized musics — he has no peer. Not on this planet at least.
When did you first get into Fahey?
Well, I heard him when I was pretty young, in high school.
I saw him play about thirteen years ago in South Florida. It was really great, but I also remember him being a little tipsy...
Yeah, through that period. So, I was into the records I had and then when I got out of high school I went through this period where I sold all my records to a new record store that had just opened, Reckless Records here, they had all European stock. It was pretty much one-to-one trade. I sold my entire collection and got a whole new collection. I ended up trading like John Coltrane records for Nurse With Wound records... And then Henry Kaiser rekindled my interest for Fahey. There was a whole period when I wasn’t interested in guitar playing at all.
And how old were you when you hooked up with Kaiser?
Twenty or something. He’s a real good improviser. If you see him live, you have to see him a couple times, a few nights in a row. ’Cause you’ll be shocked how differently he plays.
How did you meet Fahey?
Jeff Hunt from Table of the Elements started business dealings with Dean Blackwood, Fahey’s manager, and he set up this whole thing, then sort of just dropped it on me like, "I’ve got a present, here’s Fahey’s number," and I was like, "Wow!" So I called up Fahey and we got along really well and blah-blah-blah and so everything ended up being quite all right.
He’s one of these cats with a sort of a Zeitgeist around him. And you started performing some of his material live, right? Or had you done that before?
I hadn’t done it before, because I never felt I finger-picked well enough to do it in public I always had a slight finger-pick in the way I played. You probably can tell from the older records, I play guitar and there’s still this slight finger-pick thing.
So, is it just something that resulted from woodsheding?
Yeah. One day I was listening to a record of his and I was like, "Fuck it, I’m gonna really learn how to do this." And that’s why I started playing guitar again.
Are you able to listen to music and figure it out?
I have some weird ability to transcribe stuff real well. I didn’t start playing Fahey’s songs live myself until about 2 years ago.
What is the most exciting thing about Fahey’s music?
Oh boy [deep breath] probably the resonance of it. You know, the way the instrument is more than just rhythms and pitches being played on an instrument. The way the whole actual instrument is resonating with itself-that’s probably the main attraction to me about Fahey’s stuff. The way he plays is a lot about the speed at which he plays, and the density of the chords he’s playing are so tied in to what kind of resonance they create. He wouldn’t put it into so academic of terms and I don’t mean to either, but to me that was where the connection between him and Tony was. And for Fahey as well, because he really got into Tony’s stuff. One night we went out to dinner —Tony, my girlfriend, and John — and John just turned to Tony and goes, "You know you’re like just a normal guy!" Tony laughed and said, "That’s right!," and John said, "That’s interesting."
You work with Tony on this mammoth Early Minimalism, right?
I’m involved in that, yeah I play on some of the pieces, and one or two of the pieces on there he developed while I was in the group. I’m involved in that, mostly as just a player. I think I recorded one or two of them, too, but that’s the extent of it.
I’ve always wanted to hear a tape of the original Dream Syndicate stuff. But I guess La Monte’s got a vice-grip on it.
I’ve heard some of the real stuff. There’s like only an hour total out there floating around, and I know that there are only a handful of copies made of it. My absolute favorite record of John’s is Requia, which I think is sort of in some ways his real masterpiece, but my real favorite is America. That record is so fuckin’ amazing, it’s insane. I was shocked that Fantasy decided to start off their reissues with Voice of the Turtle. I mean, what a weird one to start off with.
Well, it’s kind of hilarious with those liner notes. That’s another element of this guy, he’s sort of a crank.
I think that’s where he and I get along.
Will you make musique concrete again?
I actually have been again for about a year. A few tracks appeared on some low key comps here and there. And I finished a 10" that will come out on a small Icelandic label. It uses all lifted material. I have been privately working on that stuff for a few years now, and only recently started to feel happy with the stuff I was doing. This new recording will probably not get around much because there are some real blatant lifts, but that is on purpose of course. A friend of mine was once going to make a record that was very "plunder-heavy" and the last track was going to be some Stevie Wonder track, untouched, complete. I loved that idea. And then are these "bolero" tracks I’ve been making for the past 18 months so, which are extensions on the bolero idea: sometimes I hear a small piece of music that for various reasons I think needs to be "bolero-fied." For example, one of the things that interests me about Wagner was his idea to have a direct correlation between "music gestures" and dramaturgical gesture. So take the overture to Das Rheingold, 5 minutes of E Major arpeggios in the strings and brass (and the first Philip Glass piece, really)... Well, 5 minutes in 1890 was an eternity, but now? So I thought in order for the overture to have any validity today, it needs to be performed so it lasts, oh, an hour. So I’ve been making that by making so far about 400 edits and I’m on measure 12 or so. I’ll be done someday.
Who have you not worked with yet that you’d like to?
Mmmm. I’d like to work on a more elaborate project with Will Oldham. I really hope to work again with some of the folks I have worked with. I’d like to work with Bill Callahan again, to try this other approach we used to talk about. That’d be great. At the moment I’m working with some folks I really like. Pita from the Mego-crowd in Vienna. I’m working with Markus Popp soon on a new idea. Finishing up a long time project with John Duncan, with Dave Pearce on the next Flying Saucer Attack record, and for me most excitedly, John McEntire and I are finally going to be able to start working on some ideas we’ve planned for almost two years now. That’s gonna be fun.
Are there plans to work again with folks you have in the past: Robert H., Henry Kaiser, Jean Peron (just kidding), etc.?
Henry and I keep planning something, but I haven’t been out to Oakland in quite a while. And plus there was that two year period where I wasn’t playing guitar at all. But soon.
What was the process of having Markus Popp manipulate the sounds on the final Gastr disc like?
Well, basically, the individual tracks for most of the Gastr master tapes were put on a DAT and sent to Markus to work with. So the things he did are very much him. After all, all his stuff had an origin somewhere else. There’s going to be a record of the tracks he made for Camoufleur, because he made so many great ones.
I read where you characterized Bernhard Günter’s music as the first legitimate computer music. What do you mean by that?
Well what I meant was it was the first time I heard "computer music" which was very clearly disseminated as such (as opposed to something like Autechre, which doesn’t present itself that way) and had found its own distinct voice. Academic computer music is some of the most ugly sounding naive crap there is. You go on forever how ivory tower electronic composers are so incredibly out of touch with technology, and most importantly that they are out of touch with the music being made with ’em, that they use all these techniques and sounds that are so incredibly culturally loaded now, through overuse, that they are making kitsch pastiches without knowing it. You’d have to be as isolated a listener to get anything indigenous out of it. Yuck.
Who’s this Kevin Drumm guy I keep hearing such interesting things about?
He’s a genius! He’s this guy who lives in Chicago, I first met about four years ago. I saw him play prepared guitar and he did everything I ever wanted to do with the instrument, so I quit playing. He’s the reason.
Why didn’t you just kill him?
Because I’d rather have someone else do it. Two and a half years ago he became my roommate, which he was until three or four months ago. Just me and him lived together and then my girlfriend moved in for about a year and then she started school so he moved out in the Fall. I got to watch him — every day after he got home from work — just sit down and be a genius. First on the guitar, and then about a year ago he bought a computer and started making music on that.
Like what kind of music?
There’s nothing like it, that’s the thing. I mean it’s sort of "Mego-ish" but it’s not quiet. It’s all really high-pitched and aggressive.
Those high pitches, wouldn’t they bug you to live with that?
No this stuff’s great, it’s kind of like that Mego label stuff, like the new Fennesz record, which is great... But Kevin is one of the best improvisers ever. It’s hard to describe because people don’t really know about him.
Do you listen to music a lot?
I listen to about ten records a day, at least. Music is never off in the house. The stereo’s on from the second I wake up until the second I go to sleep.
What are you listening to now?
A version of [Cardew’s] "Treatise" by AMM.
AMM, I think of them as the kind of music you don’t come to unless you’ve been listening to other stuff for awhile, unless you’re brilliant or lucky.
I think I must have gotten lucky! Actually, I can’t remember how I first heard them. I must have just checked them out because they were referenced to something else.
I was for the most part going through the whole gamut of rock and weird pop in high school, I didn’t get to much experimental music until later. And your experience was the opposite of that, right?
Yes. I had to back-track for the rock.
What do you think of Sandy Bull?
Oh that’s funny you ask that! I was just listening to his new album about two hours ago, which is awful!
I’ve heard that he makes really bad new age music now.
Well this one was called Petal Tears, it was tucking dreadful. He sings on it, it’s an all-vocal record; I mean there’s no instrumentals. I was listening to it at the Drag City office. Dan Koretsky was trying to get my goat by saying that Sandy Bull was better than John Fahey.
That’s a good one.
Sandy Bull, I like some of his records. He’s an interesting character, that’s for sure.
I don’t know much about him, but I like the recordings he did with Billy Higgins.
His dad was the president of Vanguard, and he got a record contract because he was the boss’s son. Then he got a bad drug problem, and it wrecked his career for a while. He was even making records while he was still having the problem, those ones are really genuinely messed-up records.
Which Robbie Basho records do you like the best?
I like The Falconer’s Arm the best. He was a good writer. He was pretty brave to do that singing stuff.
God, I hate it so much when he sings. What’s current that you’re excited about?
There’s this French band Air I really like.
Who’s your favorite musique concrete composer?
Definitely Luc Ferrari by far. He’s the king.
Why him and not, say, Pierre Henry?
Because he was the only one who took a serious interest in addressing like the social meaning of the sounds, instead of trying to make these concrete sounds abstract all the time. Everyone else, the only time they used the sound for its actual meaning is for comic relief, you know?
How would he use the sounds to get to that kind of meaning?
He made a series of pieces called Presque rien, meaning "almost nothing." It’s mostly the sounds of a beach/seaside situation, but there’s a drama going on in the sense that some sound, some event will come up that doesn’t make sense with what he’s set up. And only if you’re listening in the sounds for what they really mean as well as what they are, will this other information get into your head. All the late tape pieces I made were really heavily into that idea.
I’ve noticed that a lot of other people really like your Bad Timing CD; I’ve seen it in lots of other writers’ top ten lists.
I’ve been surprised how many people like it. It’s been doing really well, it’s sold a lot.
You’re getting money back already?
Oh yeah, I’m living off of it at the moment.
Congratulations. That’s what I understand to be good about Drag City, they might not advance money, but...
You sure make money in the end. I’m setting up these re-issues that I’m gonna do through Drag City, and I’m having to convince people that they really will make money in the end.
What are you releasing?
Well, there’s gonna be some Phil Niblock stuff and then this Portuguese record from the early ’80s called Nuno Caravarro: Plux Quba which sounds like a cross between Robert Ashley and Microstoria. And then a 2CD retrospective of Ray Russell, an almost unknown English guitarist who was Caspar Brötzmann, Takayanagi, Kaiser, and Hendrix wrapped in one. He made an amazing series of records late-60’s/early-70’s and this will be his best, most innovative stuff. I’m really excited about it. Kaiser’s gonna do some notes...
What’s your next record going to be like?
The next record I want to make is going to be called Novelty Act, it’s going to be a covers record. [this was never released. -ed.]
Are you gonna do Jack Nitschze songs or something?
No. I’m gonna do songs that people hate, like "That’s Just The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby and "Lyin’ Eyes" by the Eagles.
Oh no!
It’s really important that you hate these songs!
Are you "reclaiming" these melodies? What are you doing?
I don’t want it to be an arrogant thing like I’m "reclaiming" these songs. For me both Happy Days and Bad Timing were about my myths. There’s a certain point where anyone my age has to realize that whatever mythology they grew up with, it doesn’t exist. A big part of my head is Americana. But the Americana I know comes from listening to Van Dyke Parks, John Fahey, and Charles Ives. That doesn’t exist, and I have to face the fact that it doesn’t exist. I have to address that it’s nothing but a construct. I tried to do that with Bad Timing. The Novelty Act record will be using these songs which are so loaded culturally. But I want to do them in such a way that they make a very strong cultural reference and resonance to their time. Not to the kitsch of their time but to the mythology of their time, and make the listener aware of how much mythology there is to popular music. That’s what I’m gonna try to do.
What’s it a meditation on? What’s the mythology? I’m not sure I’m getting what you’re saying.
I’m not sure yet either. It’s just another view of the same thing. I’m not sure what I’ll be able to communicate yet. Making the record will help me get clearer in my head to what it is I’m reaching for.
How many times do you think you’ll have to make it?
Three times.
How many times do you make most of your records?
Two to five.
I’d love to hear the other versions of Bad Timing. Have you ever let other people hear the first versions of your records?
Since ’94 I’ve had the habit of erasing old things. The Terminal Pharmacy record I made about twenty times, and it took me about two years to make. I don’t know how many times it’s gonna take me to make Novelty Act, but I already have the cover image figured out, and the title, so it’s going okay.
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