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Originally published in Hit It Or Quit It (1998)
by ?

I have yet to read an interview with Jim O’Rourke that gets past the man’s most obvious character traits—experimental composer and improviser, ex-Gastr Del Sol member, “star” recording engineer—and just paints Jim as Jim. Granted, he’s not an easy character to pin down-neurotic, playful and hugely self-critical, he never settles into any particular niche long enough for a writer to grab him. This interview took place a month before Drag City was about to release Jim’s much-talked-about new “pop” album, Eureka, but over the course of our hour-long chat, some more interesting tangents took hold.
It’s interesting to hear you sing over a whole record.
[Sheepishly] Yeah, well...
I mean, you sang ["Mouth Canyon"] on the last Gastr Del Sol record, but...
Yeah, but that was an accident.
Oh, it was?
Yeah, that was a scratch vocal for Steve Prina to learn the song from. It’s really terrible, the singing on that. Fucking pathetic. But, yeah, I guess I sing on this record. I try not to think about it. [laughs.]
I suppose it presents a good challenge for you.
That’s why I did it. It’s like, “I’m really not going to enjoy this. Well, here I go!” [laughs.] It was the first time I had tried to write lyrics in years. It was really tough, because you can be a real idiot when you write lyrics. But I was happy with them in the end.
I like the simplicity of them. Compared to what you were singing on the last Gastr record, They’re a lot more concrete.
I just don’t feel right singing words if I’m not actually saying anything to the listener. I was talking a lot with Bill Callahan about the way I felt about his lyrics, and he said that he really appreciated it because I guess I understood certain things about his lyrics that people hadn’t said to him. For me, Bill’s best lyrics are able to say incredibly profound things in a simple way. I think his best lyrics prove that you don’t have to use high-level language to say complex things. And, you know, Sparks was also a big inspiration for me-just the balance of humor and utter misanthropy in their lyrics. [laughs.]
Are you harboring a lot of misanthropy yourself?
Not really, although many of the lyrics on the record, in genre, are “fuck you” lyrics.
Why couldn’t you have made a record like Eureka before now?
Hmm... Well, the light bulb hadn’t gone off yet, but... I need to wait until I’m doing something that’s an honest statement from me to the people who are going to be kind enough to pick up the record-because they’re trusting me, and I don’t want to be dishonest to them. Not doing that ties into the idea of: “I’m a good musician, and I can do this...” So what?! [laughs.] I want to hear something special, and until it feels like it’s me, I can’t do it in public.
So you’re opposed to doing things simply because you can.
Yeah. When I was starting school, my parents knocked into my head that I had to do something so that I could get a job. So I was like, “Okay, I’d better be a classical bass player, because I can get a job...” And more and more, I saw that these people did not give a fuck about what they were playing at all. About half the people who were in orchestra went to music school because they could, or played violin in orchestra because they can. I couldn’t relate to that-and slowly but surely, it sent me on a path of constantly questioning why people do things.
How do you feel when people make assumptions about your influences? For instance, a critic might say, "Gee, you know, this Jim O’Rourke record really sounds like Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle or the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, or..."
Well, in general, the people who say that stuff have not heard many records. Not to sound rude, but it’s pathetic when people say I’m influenced by something like the Beach Boys. Look, I never liked the Beach Boys; I never listened to them. There’s like a couple Brian Wilson songs I like, but-usually, when people say they hear Beach Boys [in my music], it’s like, “Okay, well, why does it sound like Beach Boys?” And it’s usually the most pathetic reason. And then, yeah, there are the ones who are like, “Okay, Van Dyke Parks.” Well, hello! I’ve been fucking ranting about Van Dyke in interviews for 10 years now! [laughs.] And then, when I tell them what was really more influential for me, they don’t understand how. I just don’t get it, because when I read an interview with somebody and they say, “This is the inspiration” and I can’t understand why, I have to find out why. But there seems to be this presupposition that the person who makes the music obviously doesn’t know as much about what he does as the person who says it sounds like the Beach Boys. [laughs.] On the other hand, I like it because there’s going to be somebody, some kid who’s been unlucky enough to hear my records before hearing Van Dyke, who’s going to say, “Wow! Van Dyke Parks! Maybe I’ll check it out.”
But do you really feel that you’ve been reverent to certain musicians in your work? I know what critics might pull from it, but I’m wondering what you’ve loaded into it.
No. I thanked Tony Conrad and John Fahey on Happy Days because they were the people that made it click for me. I went out to dinner with both of them one night–a sort of bizarre experience–and I realized, that’s it. That’s where the connection is for me. But I don’t mean any of [my records] to be an homage at all. I just think I should publicly thank these people. The thank-you list on Eureka is huge because the last year has just been the best year of my life; everybody was so good to me this year. Although most of Eureka was made when I was feeling terrible, but... [laughs.]
What do you mean, feeling terrible?
Well, most of the record was made when I wanted to die! [laughs.] I think every single record I’ve made, I’ve made when I want to die. There’ll be about a year or so where I won’t want to die, and usually I’ll get that way again and I’ll make a record, and then I’ll get out of it by the time I’m done. That seems to be the process. [laughs.]
I would imagine there’s a lot of conflict in your life, though, just because of the extent to which you analyze your own music, not to mention other people’s.
Hmm... But I kind of enjoy it.
Maybe I’m projecting here; I mean, I like to think I have an analytical mind, but I tend to redirect that analysis at myself, rather than at what I do, which usually results in either depression or anxiety, or both.
Yeah, that’s probably true, but it’s usually just the way life goes that gets me depressed. Usually it’s big, major events that’ll send me into a half-year depression or something. But I’ve been okay for about a year now, so... [laughs.]
Until the next record, at least.
[laughs.] Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know what could happen now. That’s one of the reasons I called it Eureka, because I felt like I was finally free from that grind. I think now I can actually make a record that won’t have to be about things sucking. [laughs.] I haven’t tried yet, but maybe I could.
Are you intentionally not trying to let emotion get into the music you make? Because I’ve read that about you...
No! That’s the biggest misconception about me; there was some quote that got taken out of context years ago, saying that I purposely try not to put emotion in music. That isn’t true at all. I think I’ve been working off that same delusion for years now. This is a huge conversation, but I’ll keep it short. Most people, when they make music that’s “emotional,” they’re not doing anything that’s indigenously emotional. They’re just using coded gestures that’ve been agreed upon through continuous use. So a band like the Rachel’s, for me, actually makes music which is absolutely empty, because it’s nothing but gesture. There’s nothing indigenous about what they’re doing, you know, making this or that sound doesn’t mean it’s “sad;” it means you’re making a reference to a thing that has been culturally agreed upon to be a signifier for sadness. That’s what I meant earlier, I purposely go through everything and ask myself, is this a signifier, or is it indigenous? That’s very important to me.
So this is the same argument you made about Nine Inch Nails in The Wire, that their music’s empty because they’re just using signifiers for "angry" or for "spooky."
Exactly. And the Rachel’s, for me, is a perfect example because they’re twice removed. They’re making the most inane music I’ve ever heard; it’s like they’re the musical equivalent of The Avengers movie. I’m not meaning to get on them personally; supposedly they’re nice people, and I know that they’re probably completely sincere, but it doesn’t matter to me, because what they’re dealing with is culturally loaded material. And that’s very important, to think about that.
But you respect a band like Slint, who were doing something completely honest with Spiderland.
Oh, how can you not cry when you hear that record? It’s completely indigenous. Everybody tried to imitate Slint, but everybody did not get it, because they were doing something that was not indigenous to them. Everybody tried to imitate This Heat, but you don’t understand, they had to make that record. That was what was in them. But on the other side of the coin, I think someone like John Oswald is a fucking genius. I’m totally interested in purposely using cultural references. Something like Negativland doesn’t interest me, though. For me, growing up in America, Negativland is completely fucking stupid. They make the most obvious observations; it’s like high-school-level stuff. Oh, God. I’m starting to slam people. I don’t mean to.
Well, it doesn’t have to go in print.
No, I’m just not meaning to slam people. I’m not going to pretend that I think everything is great. It’s just opinion, anyway. I think Negativland is not very insightful. But by the same token, I think a lot can be done by purposely using cultural references. I mean, I try to purposely use cultural references.
I heard that you’re planning to record an album of annoying pop covers.
Yeah. I don’t know when the hell I’m gonna do it, though. I still only have like three or four songs I want to do.
What do you have so far?
Well, the Crash Test Dummies song [“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”], which I think is great. Bruce Hornsby’s “That’s Just The Way It Is.” The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes.” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” Beautiful song. And then there’s covers that I would love to do, but I love the original, so they don’t make sense in concept.
Would these just be straight covers, or...
No. See, there’s certain things about these songs that I think are inherently great, like, with “Lyin’ Eyes,” if you leave out the last set of lyrics, it changes the tone of the song, because the last verse kind of sums up the song and makes a moral judgment on the characters in it. But if you leave that out, it’s more ambiguous, and it’s actually kind of disturbing! For me, that’s very interesting. And “That’s Just The Way It Is,” all it would take is to play it a different way, even something just like slowing it down-and it would really change the tone.
How about the Crash Test Dummies song?
It’s an amazing song! I mean, in one way, it’s like early Scott Walker, where it has the appearance of being something happy and light, but if you listen to the lyrics and think about them, it’s not a very happy song at all. It’s kind of disturbing.
I know you’re recording the next Superchunk LP. I was told to hassle you about that, although I don’t think that’s very nice.
Yeah, you know, engineering is my job. Unless I have a moral problem with the group, I’ll always work for people. I met Mac [McCaughan] once, and he was a very nice guy, and so I’m looking forward to it. I’m not super-familiar with their work, although I’ve been listening to it now to prepare and talking with Mac about what he wants.
It’s strange how you’ve become someone who, every time he records an album, is assumed to be endorsing that album.
The same thing happens with Steve Albini. When the whole thing with him recording Bush happened, I’d say to people, “Look, when you’re an engineer, after a while, it doesn’t matter to you what the music is.” Especially with Steve, who’s a very intelligent man who really knows things about recording technology. To him, it’s like, man, if someone offered me money to record them at Abbey Road for four months, of course I would do it! But I’ve been lucky; I’ve pretty much only recorded musicians who I have the utmost respect for. If I didn’t respect them I would say no, because it wouldn’t be fair to them, either.
Well, you haven’t totally reached the point of a Steve Albini or a Bob Weston; your name hasn’t appeared in 24-point type on the back of any bad punk records.
Right, right. [laughs.] Oh, poor Bob. Bob’s such a nice man.
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