issue 15 :: July 2008

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Jim O’Rourke hopefully needs little introduction. His guitar, piano, organ, synthesizer, laptop computer, recording, mixing and producing has graced hundreds of records. I know, because between 1994 and 2001 I updated the Jim O’Rourke Discography, now maintained by Seth Tisue. Although a steady spate of new records have been released in the past few years, seemingly improvised group affairs (with people like the New Blockaders, Merzbow, Thurston Moore, Carlos Giffoni and others), and a number of old, previously unreleased solo recordings, O’Rourke has been strangely silent since moving to Japan from New York City.

interview by Josh Ronsen
Q: How is Japan? Could you talk about why you left New York for Japan?
it’s great. for me, it’s great, you know everyone has their place they feel comfortable, so, saying it’s great wouldn’t apply to everyone, for sure. but for me, couldn’t be happier.

Q: What are you working on now?

i’ve been slowly working on my record, which is driving me batty. it’s been 7 years or so since i got in this mode, where i can actually make all the decisions, and i don’t mean that in a control sense of the word, but where every aspect really does have to reflect how i see it. working with other people is great because it puts you in places you wouldn’t head towards while giving you a different perspective on it than you would have on your own, it’s a very different situation, and a real different way of working, for me at least. playing a bit, but usually either noise or free jazz, sort of stepped back to what i did growing up, which in its own way is like refueling. mostly with akira sakata and masami akita and nakahara masaya and keiji haino. also having nice time with otomo yoshihide and kahimi karie. but mostly, i study [japanese] and watch movies.

Q: Is film work more important than music right now, or are you looking into the relationship between film and music?

well all of that is some internet creation. i think lee [renaldo] or somebody said something, and it’s sort of blown up from there. i didn’t move here to make movies, study movies or whatever. but that seems to be what people think, so, that’s fine i guess. i spent the last 2 years studying japanese and working towards getting my visa, that was really 90% of my time. but back to the question, the relation between music and film has rarely, if ever interested me. i’ve always preferred film over music, and i still do. when i’ve done film music, it’s an opportunity to learn, y’know? the downside of doing film music (amongst many) is you rarely, if ever, have the time to make what you can for the film, in the strata of films i’ve been able to work for, you’re lucky if you’re given a week with the film to work with. it’s not a way of working i like to do. if you decide to improvise, that’s fine, that decision changes your approach, but i really do like to consider things over a course of time so i can attain some perspective on what i’m doing, and that rarely is possible with film music. (i mean it would be if you’re dealing with a larger scale production, not because of money, but because there is more planning) so, it’s a catch 22. it’s an great chance to learn from these people, but it’s almost always frustrating in the end. (i’m speaking of when i writing the music, not when i’m playing in the group, for example with Mr. Herzog’s film.)

Q: I am sorry to hear you are not holed up making you cinematic masterpiece. Have you been seeing much of new Japanese cinema?

not really, i must admit i don’t pay attention to anything new, in anything, culture, film, music, etc. it’s funny cause i distinctly remember getting frustrated with older folks i worked with when i was in my 20s, never understanding why they just listened/watched the stuff they’ve liked their whole life, and didn’t stay “on top of things.” i sure understand now, hahah.

Q: It’s been years since I’ve read an interview with you, so I don’t know what record you’re working on.

neither do i, we’re in the same boat.

Q: Is this a Pop record like Eureka to be released on Drag City? Are you in the process of recording it now, or mixing it? Or are you working on it track by track?

this is def. “pt 4,” [after Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance] but it’s not going to be what people expect. pretty much everyone is going to be disappointed, and i think i avoided doing it for a while because of that. not because i care so much about it being “accepted,” but i couldn’t figure out how to get the right context for it. but, it’s def. connected, but it’s not linearly connected, it’s folding back, and very much with a purpose. the record i started 6 years ago is the next one, and makes more sense being after this one now. but it’s gonna take forever to record, if it is going to be at all possible. i’m gonna try. that is probably the one people will have been hoping for. oh well.

Q: In the past few years, we have seen a number of old works see the light of day. On one hand there are works like “Oscillators and Guitars,” “Some Kind Of” and “Out with the Old.” These are from 1992, 1988 and 1990 respectively. An obvious question is why these are being released now?

because i’m not the guy who made them anymore. i can listen to them differently now, and they appeal the parts of the young me that still are in me, without falling into some traps i did then, so time to fall into new traps now, i guess. “some kind of?” what one is that? i’ve forgotten. there’s a bucketload of ’em, hahaha.

Q: “Out with the Old” had undergone a few reworkings since 1990: were you changing the piece as you evolved as an artist, or were the previous versions not perfect and it took you a while to figure out how to perfect it?

no it was simply fiddled with during those times. the recent fiddling was just mastering it in a way i didn’t have the opportunities for back then. i think that may be another reason some older stuff is coming out now, esp. the oscillator stuff, because i can now clean up/mess up the tapes to get the overall sound i was going for.

Q: On the other hand, there are reissues of records like Scend and Tamper, and these works have been somehow modified for re-release. As owner of the original records, will I notice these changes?

both were changed, i believe. the original cd of scend had a factory mistake, there is 5 minutes of “something” after the record is done. i never found out what the hell that was about, haha. tamper i think i edited it a hair, and then spent a long time cleaning up the sound.

Q: I remember from an early early interview that Tamper wasn’t in held in high regard to you.

nothing of mine is, hahaha. there’s occasionally a note here and there i indulge in the dangerous practice of being happy about it, but, whaddya gonna do. the only thing i’ve ever done that i thought was nearest to what i was trying to do was “insignificance,” which was generally not liked, haha, so, i guess i’ve given up on ever liking anything i do, so...

Q: Were you able to improve [Tamper]?

well, i def. got rid of the parts that made me bang my head against the wall. it’s still chock full of stuff that i wouldn’t do now, but, i didn’t make it now, i made it then, so, you know, that’s life.

Q: I am more interested in Scend: I got that when it first came out, right when I was first learning about you and all sorts of music I had no idea existed, so it has a very special importance to me.

thanks, i really do appreciate that. that was a strange bit of time for me. there were a bunch of things like that i was working on at the time. i think “scan” may have been a complete failure, but, also the context for those is kind of lost now. it really did have a lot to do with the what was going on in that world of music then, it had a direct correlation. it’s funny, scend seems to hit some people. i remember bernhard guenter and christoph heemann and some other folks telling me how they really felt i had broken down a wall that was stubbornly standing at that time, and that was really encouraging, cause it means i must have gotten it right. but, it’s really hard to see that aspect of it now, i think, cause there’s been so much, uh “that” since then, hahah. that’s life.
Q: I don’t think people (in general) did not like Insignificance, but rather they wanted Eureka: The Sequel.
well, the funny thing is, it really is, but, you know... that’s a long talk right there... yes, i still encounter that now. 
Q: But since you mention Insignificance’s importance to you, I have a question I don’t think I have ever heard you answer before concerning your guitar playing in song/pop/rock settings. How much do you (did you) get into a particular guitar with a particular amp to come up with a sound for a song or record, Insignificance for example? Is the electric guitar sound on that record (the first and fourth songs), and I don’t know how to phrase it, your Signature Sound, the sound you want people to think of when they think of you as a guitarist? Do I hear a hint of Neil Young in it?
well, i def. don’t look for a particular sound in regards to these songs before i’m writing it, but the sound of the instrument does have a lot to do with how i then proceed to write it. a lot of the questions of timing and pacing and such come from the instruments particular color. that’s a big reason why i have almost never played these live. for me the way it sounds on the record, the particular way things are balanced is as essential as the rhythms and harmonies and what such. but i don’t look for a sound first, at least when i write songs. it’s funny you mention neil young. strangely, i like him, but i find i only like specific songs, and those i like a LOT, but the rest.... i totally respect him, though. amazing person. the electric guitarists that actually inspired me the most growing up, outside of the obvious ones most people know (derek, henry, etc.) are john abercrombie and alan holdsworth, i’m completely serious about that. i think if people listened to me while thinking john abercrombie, (good lord, not even 1% as good of course) but they could really hear, as i did later in life realize myself, how much of my phrasing and such things comes from his inspiration. you can even hear it in the sonic’s stuff i played on.
Q: What guitar and amp did you bring to Japan?
none, hahaha. i gave away pretty much everything when i left the states. i just bought an amp a month ago, but i can’t use it in the house. too loud, so, it sits and waits.
Q: Another technology question: when you release a limited edition CDr like the Old News series (and where is volume 3?) in an edition of 30 or 40, are you upset when they become available for download on SoulSeek or other file sharing site?<
hahaha, oh boy, that’s a can of worms. i am happy people even know about them, and want to hear them. so, that aspect, no i have no problems. but the overall aesthetic problem i have is the inability to actually use the context as part of what you are trying to do. it’s a big subject, the whole aesthetic of the internet, which i, haha of course, have a lot of opinions about. the “download vs not” discussion isn’t so interesting to me, if at all, as the whole way the use of context has become vaguer and vaguer. 
Photo with guitar at Freedom From Festival 2003 by Seth Tisue.
Jim O’Rourke has been interviewed many times over the course of his 20 year career. Some of these interviews appeared online then disappeared as websites were no longer maintained or as zines went out of print. Here are a few of the interviews I collected over the years: N D (1992), de/create (1994), Option (1995), Frequency (1996), Popwatch (1996), Music (1997), Resonance (1998), Hit It Or Quit It (1998), Earshot (1998), Blast (1999), Megalon (1999), A Key to the Social Club (2000), Cucamonga (2001), Weekly Dig (2002).
Here are links to interviews stored offsite: Dead Angel 11 (1995), EST (1995), Luxusliner (1997), Perfect Sound Forever (1998), Ink 19 (1999), Gaesteliste (in German) (1999), the Guardian (2000), Gaesteliste (in German) (2001), Rolling Stone (2002), Suicide Girls (2003), Time Out Tokyo (2013),
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