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INTERVIEW: Jim O’Rourke

Originally published in Weekly Dig (2002)
by Susanna Bolle

Guitarist, laptopist, DJ, recording engineer, and producer Jim O’Rourke is one of the most versatile and influential musicians working today. Over the past decade plus, O’Rourke has amassed a startlingly esoteric body of work. Known for his far-reaching and encyclopedic musical taste, O’Rourke’s recordings, both solo and in a variety of groups, defy easy classification, ranging from his early prepared guitar and tape experiments, to free improv, avant-rock, computer-based work, and American folk (the latter very much inspired by the work of the late guitarist John Fahey). While his music may seem willfully eclectic, it is by no means disjointed or scattered, as O’Rourke stressed in a recent e-mail interview. He sees more continuity than difference in his work across genres, arguing that there is a line of inquiry and questioning of expectations that underpins his work. “Eclectic is a word that means that it is impossible for you to like many things and see the connections in them,” he says. “To move from [musique concrete pioneer] Pierre Henry to 10cc is seen as a jump, when it should be seen as a ’continuum’ (eek, what a word).”
O’Rourke’s most recent albums — Insignificance on Drag City and I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And a 1, 2, 3, 4 on Austria’s Mego — are examples of the wide scope of his musical activity. On the former, O’Rourke is in understated pop/rock mode, while on the latter he works exclusively on his laptop to create three mesmerizing tracks from fleetingly recognizable sources, including guitar, accordion, and string quartet. Yet, he doesn’t see the two records as fundamentally separate projects. “I don’t really see them as different at all,” he says emphatically. “I think many people have become so format-oriented [that] their ideas of what the music ’is’ are tainted by the CD context (which is fairly responsible for eradicating what I fondly remember calling an “album”) and the way in which it is distributed. They’re different because they’re about different things: sounds, shapes, etc., but when it comes down to it, people always tell me they can still tell that both of them are by me, so... the real question is, why do [people] ’think’ they’re different?”
Despite the ineffable qualities that link them, the records do explore vastly different musical styles and sounds. On Insignificance, O’Rourke delves further into the American pop, folk, and rock music that he explored on 1997’s Bad Timing and 1999’s Eureka (all three albums are named after Nicholas Roeg films). In part because of the opening track, “All Downhill From Here,” critics have tended to label the album as O’Rourke’s foray into southern rock. “The ’southern’ sound thing is just pure nonsense,” he declares. “One-sheets get written up by labels, and next thing you know it’s the truth. It is an easy way to spot who just listened to the first ten seconds, though. In that way I do enjoy watching how some random comments can become the starting point for so many other people’s comments. I think it sounds more like Fleetwood Mac, but that’s just me.”
By contrast, the justly praised I’m Happy... is O’Rourke’s first purely computer-based solo record, and even the most sophisticated listener would be hard-pressed to discern something recalling Tusk or Rumours here. While this is his first PowerBook-based release, O’Rourke is no laptop Johnny-come-lately, as the three tracks represent work from the last couple of years, a time in which he has enjoyed a fruitful musical relationship as one-third of Fenn O’Berg with Peter Rehberg (Pita) and Fennesz of Mego, two pioneering figures in digital music. (The second record by the trio, The Return of Fenn O’Berg, documenting their amazing PowerBook-driven live performances, is due out on Mego soon). Shortly after the release of I’m Happy... however, O’Rourke seemed disenchanted with his work on the laptop, and gave it up for a time. “I just had nothing left to say, so I shut up,” he says candidly. “I started programming again about a month ago, but I’ll see if anything comes of it.”
It’s not as if he has nothing else to occupy his time, since he is, as always, staggeringly busy. In many respects, he is perhaps best known as a producer, having worked with a typically eclectic group of artists, including Stereolab, Smog, Wilco, Faust, and Sonic Youth. Most recently he became a full-fledged member of Sonic Youth, touring with them and working on their next album. Working within the group has been a new challenge for O’Rourke. “Well, it’s obviously awkward to be asked to be part of something with such a rich and long history,” he says of the evolution of his role within the group, “so of course there is a great deal of respect for the history involved. So it’s been just letting the involvement go as much as they’d like it to be, which has surprisingly been quite a bit! The biggest jump I guess would be being involved in the writing of the new songs, which was great for me, since it was a situation I’d never been in before: a 5x democratic situation, with four new personalities and work habits to learn about, all affecting each other. I definitely enjoyed being thrown in the water like that.”
As for what’s up next, O’Rourke is typically cagey, citing only his albums with Sonic Youth and Fenn O’Berg. Even what to expect from his performance (on synth) with Ikue Mori (laptop) and Tim Barnes (percussion), he prefers to leave a mystery, saying only that it will be “light opera and cabaret.” So, then, expect the unexpected.
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