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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Earshot (1998)
by Mark Athitakis

Savant garde: in the aftermath of Gastr Del Sol, Jim O’Rourke turns a deft ear towards improvisation
Innovation and invention are crucial players in the evolution of music, but they rarely garner much of a market share. The avant-garde artists who tinker with music and in doing so help define it’s future usually work in relative obscurity. They are lauded by self professed musicologists and worshipped by obsessive devotees, but rarely in contexts where the music is actually listened to. Which makes Jim O’Rourke one of the lucky ones: the 28 year old composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist actually has an audience. His work in the avant-folk outfit Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs brought him fans in the indie-rock world, and his production for and collaboration with such indie bands d’estime like Tortoise, Labradford, and Smog makes him one of the few experimental musicians whose off-kilter musings often get the attention they rightly deserve.
And rightfully so. Releasing a steady stream of records since the late 1980s, O’Rourke has recently begun to compose some of his most compelling work. Two albums released this year—Happy Days and Bad Timing—are flip sides of the unique coin O’Rourke has been tossing obsessively for years. Happy Days’ dour, drony minimalism gives way, on Bad Timing, to a freer, more open-sounding, John Fahey-styled folk that’s a surprising showcase for O’Rourke’s virtuosity.
The guitar has been his primary instrument, but O’Rourke, speaking from the Steam Room in Chicago (a recording studio that also doubles as his bedroom), isn’t a guitar fetishist. "I’m not interested in playing the guitar. I’m not a guitar player in that sense. I don’t actually get much enjoyment out of playing. What I do with it, hopefully, is the other part of the answer."
O’Rourke studied music at DePaul University in Chicago, but defining his own style took a bit more work. "They [his teachers] try to teach you to write in an academic style. About halfway through college, I was just going to class and doing the homework in order to finish. I did my first few records in the late 80s, and luckily nobody knows about them. Originally, when I received offers to have my records put out, I was afraid that if I refused, nobody would ever ask me again. So I did those recordings, but they were albums I needed to make in order to learn. In a sense, I was publicly distributing my learning process. I’m at a point now where I’m still composing a lot of stuff, but I don’t release it all."
What O’Rourke has chosen to release is often extraordinary, the contemplative Happy Days being but one example in a long list of triumphs. "I’ve had this immense love for early American minimalists since I was in high school. Happy Days is the first record that I’ve written in that style that has actually made it to the streets." By contrast, Bad Timing was focused more on his appreciation of experiments in a "pop" mode. "My other big love is Americana. I idolize Van Dyke Parks, and of course Fahey. I’m an enormous Van Dyke Parks fan, just huge."
Another recent addition to the O’Rourke canon, is a collaboration with John Fahey entitled Moonlight. While recording three albums in one year seems to justify some detractors’ complaints that O’Rourke feels possessed to release everything he does, O’Rourke explains that he’s actually a fairly brutal self-editor, and that there’s a slew of recorded material that will never see the light of day. "It’s funny when people say, ’oh, you make so many records,’ because before Happy Days, I hadn’t put out a record in two years. I haven’t really made that many records myself."
Indeed, he’s constantly working—"I wake up and I work until I go to sleep. I really don’t do anything else," he says—but rarely within the context of one project. He left Gastr del Sol earlier this year to concentrate on his own work. "I actually don’t know what Dave is doing. I think he’s going to continue doing it, but I don’t know in what way. Gastr was just taking up too much time. I think our ideas of what we wanted to do were getting further and further apart. The last record [1995’s Upgrade and Afterlife] was the last record that needed to be made like that. I wanted to work in those areas that I wanted to work in more than he did."
In the aftermath of Gastr del Sol, O’Rourke’s been focusing on new ways of making music and even newer methods of improvisation. He plans on releasing more of his guitar-based work next year, but these days, he’s more interested in other instruments. "It’s mostly electronic things I’ve built, or a hurdy-gurdy, or an organ. I’ll go through periods where for six months all I’ll improvise on is an organ, and lately all I’m improvising on is stuff I’ve built." Built out of? "Crap. Household appliances and stuff like that."
Still, O’Rourke retains his faith in the possibilities of improvisation with others outside of his previous projects; the goal there, he says, is pure invention. "It’s mostly to find a new way to play. What interests me most about improvisation is making music that doesn’t exist unless it’s those particular people playing together. I’m most concerned with what happens when musicians genuinely trying to move toward something in this type of setting. Where will we end up?" Almost ten years after he began his search, he’s only just starting to discover some of the answers.
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