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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Cucamonga (2001)
by ?

Jim O’Rourke, the producer, musician, singer and songwriter has become one of the key figures of the American underground. He was born and raised in Chicago, but when he recently became the fifth member of Sonic Youth, he moved to New York. Insignificance was his fourteenth album, although Jim has lost count. In order to refresh his memory what we asked it to his first guitar experience.
JIM O’ROURKE: I got one for Christmas, I think because I wanted to play "The Pink Panther Theme". Once I got into grade school I was also playing the drums in the school band. And around that time, in late grade school, I started playing jazz. I was listening mostly to jazz and things like Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. So I think by then I was starting to get a little odd already.
As a child he asked Santa for a guitar. Later he learned drums and he joined the school band. He became so in the grip of music that he decided to study composition, but it was disappointing.
JIM O’ROURKE: I learned to articulate what I liked and didn’t like, but in general the universities are teaching you in order to replace their position when they retire. They’re really not in touch. Especially in the composition department it was still 1955 till 1965, still very academic and very interested in twelve tone music, which I wasn’t interested in. The good thing about that was to learn to articulate why I didn’t like it, just having a gut feeling I didn’t like it.
The university was years ago, but he developed his own taste. At that time he was fond of minimalist music and tape. His first important musical experiences he made in Europe.
JIM O’ROURKE: I would save up money during school year. I had friends in Europe just from writing to them and during the summer I would have saved enough money to get over to Europe and just started working over there and start playing with people. I spent a lot of time in Aachen. I would sit in Aachen for the summer and work with friends and take the train to another city and meet other friends and sometimes play shows. That build up during the four years of college, every summer going. When school stopped I got back to that, but on longer term basis. So I was doing stuff in Europe long before I was doing stuff in the States.
Every summer Jim O’Rourke flew to Europe. He played mostly improvised music. Early ’90s was when things really picked up for him. He built a good reputation as producer of Stereolab, Sam Prekop, Smog, Autechre, The High Llamas, The Jesus Lizard, The Sea and Cake, Tortoise, Labradford, Wilco, Will Oldham and a few dozen artists. He won fame as a member of Gastr del Sol, The Red Crayola and recent Sonic Youth. Furthermore, he has a large collection of records. Yes, Jim O’Rourke is a hard worker and music is his life.
JIM O’ROURKE: When I wake up in the morning I work. I taught guitar for years to pay the bills, but I was able to quit a couple of years ago. And I try to live very small in order to be able to just work. I have no furniture and I don’t sleep much. I don’t go out and socialize and stuff, maybe a bit now that I’m in New York, and I’ve friends here, but no, I just like working.
His previous record, Eureka, was finished in ’97, and then he started working on Insignificance.
JIM O’ROURKE: A couple of years, usually throwing stuff away... The other work is useful because it gives me breaks from working on it so that I can see it with a fresher perspective than if I just had my head in it 24 hours a day. It takes quite a while between records. I think "Eureka" was actually finished in ’97. So between now and then I’ve been working on this record, but everything I had I threw away, I just didn’t think it was good enough. And it’s funny because in the end the record that did come out did take a short amount of time.
He worked for years on this new CD, but most of the material was dumped in the trash. The final result he finally pieced together fairly quickly.
JIM O’ROURKE: I like mixing more. I do like recording when it’s not my own record. When I do my own records I want the recording be over as quickly as possible. It never works out that way, I just want to get down to working with the material instead of recording it.
Jim O’Rourke does not like recording his own songs. If he works for other groups, he has no problem however. So it is with concerts: being on stage with Sonic Youth is a feast for him, but he won’t enjoy operating under his own name.
JIM O’ROURKE: When I work with other people’s material I don’t mind doing a million takes. It’s the same thing why I don’t like doing my own shows. I don’t like necessarily being in charge. I mean I do and I don’t, but I prefer being in charge when it isn’t a situation where I’m feeling bad because I’m in charge of a group of people. I feel rude telling people what to do. And it’s easier if I’m just working on the mixing or editing, so that I’m only telling myself what to do.
His core group consists of Tim Barnes, Darin Gray and Glenn Kotche. He continues to work on this new album with guitarist Jeff Tweety from Wilco. Rob Mazurek and Ken Vandermark play wind instruments in some songs. They love working with him, but he feels some embarrassment. And that has to do with his character.
JIM O’ROURKE: They seem to be fine with it, because we’ve been playing together for years and years and years. They’re always telling me they do want to do the shows because they don’t mind. But even when I’m in a restaurant I feel bad when someone is taking the plate away, It’s just part of my character, I feel bad when people do things for me.
Jim feels uncomfortable when someone does something for him. Ideally he’s just mixing. And he’d like to finish that new album.
JIM O’ROURKE: I’m not necessarily happy with the mix on the record. There were technical problems in the studio and a couple of days of mixing got lost. There were some problems with the equipment there and some stuff I mixed was messed up, the tapes got messed up, so I ran out of time. Because I was doing this record in a more traditional way with a real studio I ran out of money and I couldn’t get any more time to mix. Usually I would have spent more time mixing. But either I accepted the way it was now or I was going to throw it away. And in the end I decided to just accept the things I didn’t like. There’s no record I made that I’m fully happy with.
Due to technical problems in the studio, he got into time trouble, but the money was gone. He was not completely satisfied with the mix, but that is the case with all his works. While making Insignificance he noticed a common thread running through all the songs: namely, it seems as if people no longer can think for themselves.
JIM O’ROURKE: In general they’re all about the same thing, I think the current state of perception. I think they see the world more through their distractions than from what fundamental living day to day is. I find that the thought process is been speeded up and at the same time dulled, because it’s been speeded up. People don’t go through a thought process any more, because the thinking has been done for them. People make decisions based on what they see around them as opposed to internal comparing and balancing of the information they get.
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