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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published on A Key to the Social Club (2000)
by Radio and Flyer

Occasional Social Club contributors, the intrepid duo Radio and Flyer, catch up with super producer Jim O’Rourke in Manchester and get chatting about working with kids, cooking and producing albums for Smog, Stereolab and himself. He even reveals what his favourite ever sound is... Radio in particular is so excited about meeting Jim that he opens proceedings by asking what is possibly the dumbest question ever. Also present is Loren Mazzacane-Connors, Jim’s guitarist on the tour.
Radio: Okay, did you always want to be a pop star, or.....
Jim: Ha....ha ha ha ha....ha ha....
[Radio would like to point out that he was supposed to ask "Did you EVER want to be a pop star?]
ha ha....I never wanted to be a pop star. Nah, I always liked producing more than anything else.
Radio: At what sort of age did you realise this?
Jim: Oh, really young. Maybe like fourth grade.
Flyer: What’s that?
Jim: Oh, I’m sorry, your school is different here. Fourth grade is about eight years old [Radio and Flyer laugh]. Back then I was listening to a lot of Who records and you know, like Zappa and stuff like that, and I just like the attention they paid to the sound. And bit by bit, I realised that certain things about the albums had more to do with production than what the band were playing, and I just got more and more interested. I always liked tinkering with machines, so it just seemed to make sense - I started teaching myself how to record things. I was doing stuff with tape machines, stuff like that.
Radio: Is there a definite line drawn between your input and the artist’s input when you produce something for someone like say, Bill Callahan?
Jim: It’s different in every case. every album and every person is different. even the two records I did with Bill, it was different each time as to what kind of input he wanted, and what he wanted me to do with him, and for him. You know, with Stereolab it’s definitely more collaborative, and that’s the idea, because Tim [Gane] writes these songs when he works with people. You know, be it Sean [O’Hagan] and I or Sean and John [Mcintyre], he wants that kind of input, so you have to kind of become part of the band. Or something like Superchunk, then its really just my responsibility to be a good engineer. I don’t have like, a plan. I don’t work the same with everybody.
Radio: Do you find the studio atmosphere varies wildly from thing to thing?
Jim: Oh, sure.
Radio: Do you like things to be calm or tense?
Jim: Well, its always tense and hectic, but I don’t want that to come across because then other people will start to feel hectic and tense. I always try and make it as light hearted for everyone else as possible. I’m always playing practical jokes because if people are calm they work better.
Radio: So you’re not a dictator?
Jim: Oh god, no. No.
Radio: And you engineer everything yourself too?
Jim: Yeah [laughs]. I have to.
Radio: And to what extent does the idea come first? Say like the kids on the Smog album. [referring to Knock Knock]. was that a definite idea or was it more like ’lets get some kids in and see what happens’?
Jim: Well again, it depends from person to person. Bill really knew what he wanted with these songs. He knew he wanted kids voices, and he knew in general what he wanted them to sing. So in that case it was my job to know how to deal with the kids in a recording studio. Bill would say ’I want them to sing this’ and I would have to transcribe it and teach it to the kids. You know, half the job when you’re producing is to be a psychologist. Everyone has their own way of describing things or getting at something, and it’s my job to be a kind of liaison between their language and the language that’s needed for the studio to get it onto tape. With Bill, some people will say he doesn’t know what he wants, but because I understand Bill pretty well, I know he knows what he wants, it’s just the way he says things. So with the kids, he knew what he wanted and I just had to control them.
Radio: How many kids was it?
Jim: Well, it was originally like eight kids, but most of them couldn’t sing. So most of the work was figuring out how to get certain kids to disappear without making them cry. Bill actually has a tape, which I’ve never heard, but he recorded the first hour of that session, with me getting rid of certain kids without letting on that I was getting rid of them [laughs]. There was a lot of crying and calming kids down.
Radio: How much do you believe in getting eveything down live?
Jim: I try...but again, depends. I mean like on the lst album (’Knock Knock’ Jim didn’t produce ’Dongs of Sevotion’), most of those vocals are his scratch vocals. They were just so great that there was no need to record them again, so on that album, the basic tracks, the band, is live. But something like Stereolab, every instrument is done one by one. Storm and Stress was live. Superchunk was basically live. It depends on the way people like to work, or even the studio situation - what kind of studio you’re in. With the Stereolab record we could only do it instrument by instrument.
Radio: Who are your heroes from a production point of view?
Jim: Um.....Jack Neitsche, um.....[laughs] Roy Thomas Baker.
Radio: I don’t know him.
Jim: He did like, some Queen records..[giggles] and Journey. And, er...it’s funny, whenever someone asks me this I always forget.
Radio: Is the sixties thing a big inspiration, like Brian Wilson and all that?
Jim: Not so much. I’m not so much into The Beach Boys. I know everyone thinks I like them, but..I am a big fan of Curt Boettcher [The Millenium].
Radio and Flyer: Yeah.
Jim: It’s mindblowing.
[The conversation turns to drum recording techniques and use of compression. Radio and Flyer get very excited, but after a while the interview resumes.]
Jim: I like 70’s production. I like Jimmy Page, especially his work on ’Presence’. That’s one of the best sounding records. And Lyndsey Buckingham must have listened a million times to Curt Boettcher, ’75 Fleetwood Mac. It’s so similar it’s crazy.
Flyer: Do you find that you’re a bit more precious with your own stuff than with other peoples?
Jim: Actually, less.
Flyer: Really?
Jim: Yeah. One day I wish I could make a record and be as particular with it as I am with everyone elses. But because it’s my own stuff I just want it finished as soon as possible - which I never do, I still end up taking like a year to finish it. But with other people’s it’s my responsibility to be as particular and as good as possible.
Radio: Give us three reasons why Burt Bacharach is better than Jimmy Webb.
Jim: I think Jimmy Web is better than Burt Bacharach [Laughs loudly].
Radio: Can you give us three reasons why you think that?
Jim: I’m not sure that I could. I just like Jimmy Webb more. I’m not that much of a Bacharach fan. There are individual songs of his that I really like. The thing I do like is with Hal David’s lyrics, if you send them in a certain direction or perform them in a certain way, the melancholy can be amplified over the sweet aspects of it. Jimmy Webb’s lyrics I’m not so much into, I just like his songwriting craft more.
Radio: That surprises me actually.
Jim: Yeah. I like Jimmy Webb.
Radio: I saw him at the Jazz Cafe in Camden.
Jim: Oh really?
Radio: Just him on the piano.
Jim: Oh wow. I have a tape of a concert he did last year. It was really great. He’s written more songs I like than Burt Bacharach. I mean neither of them are my favourite, but I would put a Jimmy Webb record on before a Bacharach record.
Radio: What’s your favourite album?
Jim: By Jimmy Webb?
Radio: No.
Jim: Oh, ’Song Cycle’. Van Dyke Parks.
Radio: Oh really?
Jim: Oh god, yeah.
Flyer: I can’t get into that at all.
Radio: It sound dead messy at first doesn’t it?
Jim: Ah, you could listen to it a million times for the rest of your life and you’ll always find some other connection on it. It’s the most dense, thought through record I’ve ever heard. It’s mindblowing. That’s my favourite record.
[Radio and Flyer inform Jim he’s about to undertake the 100 question challenge, in which he picks a number and is asked the corresponding question. However, Radio and Flyer only thought up 82 questions, so Jim, pick a number between 1 and 82]
Jim: [laughs mischievously] 69.
Radio: Do you run for the bus, or just let it go?
Jim: I just let it go. 27
Radio: Are you a good cook?
Jim: Used to be. I haven’t cooked in two years.
Radio: Takeaways?
Jim: Yeah generally. 31
Radio: Do you get nervous meeting famous people?
Jim: Sure.
Flyer: Anyone you could tell us about?
Jim: I got really nervous when I met Rober Downey Snr. He’s a big hero of mine. He was really nice, but I was terrified. But I get nervous in general. 28.
Radio: What song would you like at your funeral?
Jim: [huge,huge pause.]
Radio: Shall we take that as don’t know?
Jim: [huge,huge pause.]
Radio: We’ll just put disco music.
Jim: yeah. Something like Boney M. 33.
Radio: Rodgers an Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Jim: Rodgers and Hart. 21.
Radio: We’re you bullied at achool?
Jim: Not really, no. These are fun, you can ask some more. Just some, go ahead.
Radio: Ever had your heart broken?
Jim: [Laughs a lot]
Radio: I mean properly.
Jim: You mean like physically?
Radio: Not physically no.
Jim: Actually, physically someone tried.
Flyer: How did they go about that?
Jim: Someone tried to kill me once.
Flyer: Really?
Jim: Yeah, yeah. An old girlfriend when I was sixteen, seventeen. She was vicious. She had this guy knock me unconscious and they stole my medicine - I was very badly asthmatic so I couldn’t breathe. She was fun.
Radio: Evel Knievel: Fearless cool dure or macho egomaniacal loony?
Jim: I think loony.
Radio: Your favourite film?
Jim: Performance.
Radio: Your favourite bit from Catcher in the Rye?
Jim: I hate ’Catcher in the Rye’ [laughs]. Sorry.
Radio: Are you a cat or a dog person?
Jim: Oh, that’s tough. I like bunnies. I’m a bunnies person.
Radio: Hence the cover? [This is of course referring to the pervy sleeve of the Eureka album]
Jim: Not really, but I like bunnies. I like animals, but I don’t like dogs or cats that much. I like bunnies.
Radio: So...bunnies then.
Jim: I like bunnies.
Radio: What about fish? This isn’t a question.
Jim: Fish are alright. I don’t have any pets.
Flyer: I really want a dog.
Jim: Dogs smell. They do, they smell. They’re distasteful.
[Now Radio and Flyer try and guess Jim’s favourite comic character, but fail miserably as it turns out to be an underground Japanese Afro guy called Hana-Kuma. Flyer and Jim talk about pricey Japanese comics. Conversation somehow arrives at Big Star.]
Radio: Do you like Jim Dickinson’s production? He did the Big Star records.
Jim: I like the sound of those records, so yeah. I don’t know anything else he’s done though.
Radio: I think he did The Replacements.
Jim: Oh god, The Replacements. That stuff came out when I was in high school and I just wasn’t interested at all.
Radio: What were you into at high school?
Jim: I was Mr New Music Dork. I was heavily into John Cage and improvised music and I wasn’t listening to rock. Although I did like, you know, some stuff. I was still listening to King Crimson [laughs].
Flyer: What new stuff do you like  now? new bands?
Jim: Oh, that’s always tough. There’s a lot. I follow a lot of music in Japan.
Flyer: What like?
Jim: This woman, Jun Tegawa [we may be spelling this stuff wrong here], and Takamura - I like her stuff a lot. And a lot from this label called Zero Gravity. It’s mostly electronic. But at the moment I’m listening to folk rock from early ’70’s Japan. Early Moonriders records, ’Happy End’ and ’Honey Pie’, stuff like that, mainly because it’s finally being re-issued. It’s really amazing stuff.
Radio: What’s the best Abba song?
Jim: ’Dancing Queen’. That’s my favourite sound on Earth - the sound of the opening hi-hat crash. That’s my all time favourite sound.
Flyer: Oh, I know what you mean, yeah.
[You can indeed hear this on ’Dancing Queen’ every four bars or so. It is a great sound.]
Radio: I always thought it was a very sad song.
Jim: Really?
Radio: Yeah. Really sad.
Jim : Always seemed like a deathwish to me. This girl’s not getting past eighteen. It’s like looking for Mr Goodbar, you know? She aint gonna make it. Ask Loren some.
Radio: OK. What’s the best guitar solo?
Loren: Um..oh yeah, Blind Willie Johnson. What is it? ’Cold is the’...’Dark is the night’.
Jim: I’d say the solo on ’Marquee Moon’.
Flyer: ooooooh,yeah.
Jim: That sends me.
Radio: Which Winnie The Pooh character are you most like?
Loren: I don’t know much about that.
Jim: No, I don’t know much about that either, sorry.
Radio: Ok, so which Peanuts character?
Jim: I don’t know.
Radio: Schroeder?
Jim: (reluctantly) I guess.
Radio: What about you Loren?
Loren: (pause) Snoopy.
[everybody laughs like they always do at the end of  The Fall Guy.]
Radio: I think that’s a good place to end it. Thank you very much.
Jim: Oh, no problem. No problem.
Flyer: Are we going to hear you sing tonight?
Jim: Maybe.
Flyer: I know a few people here tonight are big Halfway to a Threeway fans.
Jim: Oh really? Well I probably will play all of that. Once I start playing those songs I don’t really remember anything from before it [laughs].
And so Radio and Flyer leave Jim O’Rourke smoking in his dressing room. Later that evening Jim and Loren will play a somewhat misunderstood set of improvised atmospherics to an apparently perplexed crowd with it’s fair share of drunken hecklers. But at a certain point in the set, Jim will play ’The Work place’ and ’Fuzzy Sun’ and everyone will shut the fuck up and listen.
Radio: The drum sound on -
Jim: On the first track? [laughs] it’s the most amazing sound on Earth.
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