Bill Orcutt discusses his new solo album A History of Every One, bending genres in Harry Pussy, Bob Dylan, authenticity, and the history of blackface.
The first time I spoke to Bill Orcutt he was in the tub. This was in 1993, and I had cold-called him at his home in Miami to try to book his band, the late, great Harry Pussy, in NYC. I think I got the number from directory assistance. At this time, Harry Pussy had self-released a couple of singles, each packaged in a simple Xeroxed sleeve with an image lifted from the “grunge issue” of Vogue; a girl with freckles and a nose ring, another girl with long wet hair holding a frog. The music contained therein was a kind of affirmative deconstruction, electric guitar and drums entwined in an odd churn, conveying poetry and hysteria simultaneously. Built around the core of Orcutt and his then wife Adris Hoyos, the Harry Pussy mystique unfurled with each release, all vinyl and cassette. Their live shows live in infamy as cathartic onslaughts of immense and focused chi. They were the last great truly underground band of the ’90s.
Bill and Adris split up in ’97 and Harry Pussy was no more. Bill moved to San Francisco and all but quit music until 2009, which saw the release of A New Way To Pay Old Debts, his debut solo LP. Having rehabilitated an old Kay acoustic guitar, slack-tuned to ease the tension on a cracked headstock, Bill had developed a signature style of glottal runs and deep string-bending akin to a 21st century country blues. This, refracted through an increasingly wry presentation, has constituted his re-emergence as one of the most baffling instrumentalists and conceptualists of the time. His new album, A History of Every One, is released by Editions Mego this week.
After a botched attempt to commit what follows to posterity face to face over multiple bourbons, we spoke on the phone (this time he was dry, pre-bath) about his latest musical developments, Bob Dylan, the history of blackface, and more.
Keith Connolly You’ve been pretty busy putting together a couple of different recording projects: a new full length, A History of Every One, comprised entirely of covers of—or maybe more accurately interpretations of—American popular songs, as well as a decidedly more unwieldy and related endeavor that we’ll get into in a bit. Let’s talk about A History of Every One first.
Bill Orcutt After I finished How the Thing Sings (2012), I felt like I had developed a technique that could be applied to any sort of music and I always wanted to do an album of covers. I started off not knowing what that what sort of songs I might do. So I began at what I thought was the beginning, with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
KC Which initially you released as a single.
BO Yeah, as a tour single. That was the first one, and it was really hard because that was the first time I had attempted to record something like that in a long time.
KC Released on the Fourth of July as I remember.
BO I released a video on the Fourth. That was pretty cheesy.
KC You let the cat out of the bag on YouTube!
BO Then I worked up a version of “Over the Rainbow” that I put on a benefit comp for Tom Carter. I was kind of at a loss of where to go from there. It hadn’t quite crystallized yet. I was reading whatever books I could find on the history of American popular music: a lot of books about minstrel shows and other early American pop music forms. I was kind of at an impasse, so I plugged in “Over the Rainbow,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and a couple of minstrel show songs into Google and landed on a web site that indexed songs mentioned in American literature, sorted by popularity. It was exactly what I was looking for: just the corniest stuff, like the worst Andy Williams or Doris Day album imaginable. It was exactly what I wanted.
KC That kind of impersonal, algorithmically-derived list reminds me of the early stages of Neutral Hero, a play by Richard Maxwell that I’ve been touring with. In the pre-writing process he had the cast act out the table of contents of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, but not any of the content. It proved to be a good jumping-off point.
BO It was a challenge because I was trying to avoid quality. I was just trying to come up with the most representative set of songs I could: holiday songs, marches, labor songs, protest songs, songs about American history, songs from movies and TV, religious songs.
A lot of the people reviewing it are calling it The Great American Songbook, which it’s not. Though I do love that—I’ll listen to Gershwin all day. I think some of the songs are fantastic; it’s just that they’ve been used so heavily that there isn’t a lot left. They’re well-worn.
KC The songs that you did choose certainly seem reinvigorated by this treatment. Some are quite direct and beautiful. When I was listening to “Moon River” and trying to wrap my head around your choices, I just started laughing. It’s really amazing that we’ve gone from Harry Pussy to this moment of clarity where “Moon River” seems exactly right. (_laughter_)
This would probably be a good time to point out that “Moon River” actually comes from a box set of thirteen 7” singles which you just produced in an obscenely limited quantity, kind of a dry run through the material from which the album sequence would eventually be drawn.
BO Yeah, the box set was a diary. As I would learn a song I would record it on my little portable Zoom hand recorder. When I went to record the album it was all done in a week in my living room with separate takes. I think initially I thought it was just going to be a few tour singles, but then I got hooked on it and I wound up doing so many that I thought I’d do it all in a box set that I’ll never be able to sell. (_laughter_)
KC Yeah, it’s definitely an "I’ll believe it when I see it" thing. (_laughter_) The mail came and I said, Oh shit, this is it.
BO Once I got into pairing it up into singles, I got hooked. “Black Betty” backed by “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” This has gotta exist.
KC Or “Strange Fruit” with “White Christmas.” (_laughter_) In trying to wrap my head around what you were doing with this batch of stuff I found myself looking these songs up, which I’m sure was what you were doing initially, and it really is a vortex of strangeness when you start to look at the history of these songs.
Maybe now is a good point to bring up Bob Dylan. It seems like there’s some kind of a confluence with your latest work and the recently released Another Self Portrait set, vol. 10 of Dylan’s ongoing bootleg series. I remember the last time we hung out in San Francisco I asked you what you had been listening to. Your answer was that, along with research for this project, you had been listening to Bob Dylan.
BO The last five years have been a lot of Dylan, every day.
KC If I remember correctly, it was mostly mid-sixties, post-electric, pre-motorcycle crash Dylan.
BO But for this record I was listening to the original Self Portrait, which I think is a great record. Whatever reservations I have about the bootleg re-issue have to do with the way they classed it up and made it good. (_laughter_)
KC It’s pretty clear though that when you put that original material on in today’s musical climate, it sounds very strong, even prescient.
Can we talk about what your concept of the blues is? It seems like that’s a bone of contention and it is certainly is an oft-debated term. In your case, you’re opening up beyond what the blues in its rigid, genre-specific sense can allow for. Of course there were many blues performers who did popular songs throughout their careers, but do you feel a connection?
BO One of the books I was reading was Elijah Wald’s book on Robert Johnson, Escaping the Delta. He talks about the way the blues as we contemporary white folks know it is something that the people in the Delta of the 1930s would not have understood. Our idea of the blues is really narrow, formed by record companies and concert promoters and folklorists and musicologists from the ’20s on. My desire to do non-blues material owes a lot to reading this book and realizing that what we think of as the blues is a fiction and just how messed up our ideas about authenticity are.
KC It seems like you are expanding beyond that pigeonhole with this new batch of material.
I also sense a correlation to your treatment of blues as a concept in your solo work to the way that Harry Pussy functioned as a “punk band.”
BO Yeah, Wire always calls us a “hardcore band” which seems odd. I’ve never met an actual hardcore fan who could accept Harry Pussy as a hardcore band.
KC Could you tell us what kind of band Harry Pussy was?
BO It’s the same as with my solo work—I don’t know what scene I fit into.
I have certain interests and I funnel them into the music, but it’s through me. I like free jazz, but it’s not like I fit into the contemporary improv scene, even though I play with some of those people. I don’t know what world I fit into, but it’s definitely not like I’m playing the blues in the sense that anybody who considers themselves a fan of blues would recognize. Maybe a few people might.
Honestly, when I started playing solo, I spent as much time listening to flamenco as the blues, because I was interested in solo acoustic guitar playing.
KC Any players in particular who have influenced you?
BO As an American who knows nothing about flamenco music, Carlos Montoya sounds to me how flamenco should sound. I’m sure a real flamenco fan would be appalled, like we are by Europeans who prefer Slim Whitman to Hank Williams. But every record I bought by him was fantastic, he’s my man. Also the Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence.
KC I’d say that your solo work is the first and only time that I have heard the true echo of Joseph Spence. He is so singular, and fantastic.
BO He’s also interesting just because of the material he chooses, like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” (_laughter_)
KC The album sequence that you ultimately arrived at plays amazingly well. To my ears there is a kind of sharpening of focus that happens while listening, as some of the more fore grounded abstraction gives way to a more linear or lyrical approach, with “Black Snake Moan,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and the album’s closer, “Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground.” How deliberate was this, if at all?
BO Mostly I found the approach to each song by playing it in every way I could think of. "Black Betty" is a great song, but once you take the words away there's not much to sustain it, so it made to sense to improvise more. With other songs, like "Wish Upon A Star," I came up with a way of re-harmonizing that preserved the melody, but made it sound more like something I would write.
In "Cold Ground" the melody is really simple and beautiful and from the beginning I planned to play it straight. It was an obvious choice as a closer for the record. When I was recording it I put the mics really far away, so it was like the way the camera pulls back wide at the end of a movie. “Onward Christian Soldiers” I thought I would really tear up, but after trying it out, it sounded better and sequenced better if I played it really quietly. That's true especially for the 7" recording which was almost inaudible in the room with the preamps cranked all the way up. “Black Snake Moan” was another one I thought would be looser, but—unexpectedly—it sounded great stripped down so I just left it alone.
KC I’d like to shift focus here to the visual or graphic presentation of you work. There seems to be kind of a thru-line of running commentary, specifically the overt co-opting of famous faces. With Harry Pussy, nobody was safe. Over and over again there were these depictions of iconic people—everything from Amy Carter to Nirvana and Grand Funk Railroad to the ubiquitous Ronald Reagan. You resumed the offensive with your solo work: Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Paul Robeson, etc., not to mention the Obama/Hendrix mash-up. What is the image that’s on the cover of Let’s Build a Pussy?
BO The mouth, which is turned sideways, is Thurston Moore, from the Star Power 12 inch.
KC Because of the content of that record (one second of a scream time-stretched over four sides of vinyl), I had always assumed it was Adris’s mouth. You must be happy that the new Body/Head record also echoes your approach to art-making. Although they niced it up a little bit, in a way that I don’t think you would be happy with.
Have you seen the “Weintzer” issue of New York magazine with the Anthony Weiner/Elliot Spitzer mash-up on the cover? Also pretty Orcutt-esque.
BO Yeah man, they’re ripping me off! What did you think of the artwork for the seven-inch box?
KC I was surprised by how straightforward it was, your choice to actually visually depict a reference each song. With the exception of a couple of the covers—you did a front and back for each—they relate directly to song in some way, and in a lot of cases it’s very famous people again, whether it be Audrey Hepburn or Ornette Coleman—the artists who made the song contained therein famous. Am I wrong to say that your logic was a kind of straightforward illustration or representation?
BO Yeah, basically. For a while, when I was doing it, I really got into the face behind the initials, this sort of peek-a-boo. Once you put the letters in front, it kind of determined what you could put behind it, because it really does obscure most of what was going on. It was a challenge to figure out what you could put behind it and still have it be recognizable.
KC Each of the thirteen singles is emblazoned not once, but twice with your initials.
BO My whole life I’ve been kind of uncomfortable with my initials. (_laughter_) In grade school it’s something the kids make fun of. It’s always kind of cringe-worthy to see it in print.
KC Because it connotes body odor?
BO Yeah. I think it maybe has to do with how old I am—that was an advertising slogan in the ’50s or ’60s. I’m not sure anyone now would even know what it meant. Anyway I never liked it, but Barack Obama liberated my mind. (_laughter_)
KC On the “High-Waisted” single you use an image of Obama.
BO Yeah, we’re initial brethren. I’m always attracted to things that I’m uncomfortable about—and at some point it snapped and I decided to just do a whole cover design based around my initials. So for the singles set, I re-used them.
KC The cover of the new album is spare even by your Spartan standards, featuring only text.
BO Yeah, I was surprised by that a little bit. I thought I would do something more elaborate since I spent so long working on the record, but every sketch I did came out like that. I was looking at all the early Takoma LP jacket art—Blind Joe Death and all those records where it's just center-aligned Helvetica. I changed it up a little bit so it's right-aligned Futura, but that was the inspiration.
KC I wanted to mention the collaboration that you did with Loren Connors about a year ago, because that was a great meeting of the minds. I know that you said you had been a fan of his previously. What were some of your impressions of playing with him and getting to meet him?
BO It was great; I really enjoyed the opportunity. I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I hadn’t really kept up with what he was sounding like in the last few years, and so I imagined that we would tune our guitars together and briefly discuss something, and instead it just started—the tape was rolling, music was happening. I just sort of rushed over my guitar and joined in as best I was able. There was a disparity in the sound because Loren had a much fuller sound and I was figuring out how to make this amp sound good in that spot.
KC I think it actually worked out quite well but I could sense that you were a little flummoxed in the moment. But I think that added to the end result. He’s an interesting person to think about in terms of this idea of a bottom line of what blues is. I think that he thinks about that.
BO He gave that response you were alluding to once when you talked about the idea of blues as an essence that is universal. Which I completely disagree with, but I can see how somebody might feel that way.
KC I was trying to posit the idea of the blues being information. I still feel like I would stand behind that idea that in our broader dialogue, that’s what I feel it is. I think first and foremost for people who are practitioners that they draw from certain places, but ultimately it’s a form of personal expression of something simultaneously universal and ineffable. I think for Loren, this is one man’s music, and I think that you can kind of leave it at that.
BO The amazing thing about watching Loren is that his physical situation is pretty limiting now [he has been battling Parkinson’s for many years] but the sound he gets out that guitar with what he had was just phenomenal.
KC Yeah, it’s strange. He’s something of a divining rod. Whatever it is that he’s accessing is really from another place, and I always feel that way when I’m watching him. I wasn’t exposed to his music in a live setting when he was doing more of his free-form acoustical stuff, but he’s been around doing gigs in New York for a long time and I’ve been seeing him since the early ’90s. I feel like in his most recent stuff though, certainly including the session you guys did together, he’s taking it further afield than I thought was possible for a person to do.
I’ve heard you say that you are influenced by certain piano players.
BO I listen to a lot of Art Tatum, Bud Powell—
KC Some Art Tatum stuff is pretty mind-boggling.
BO Yeah, absolutely. Also listening to Cecil Taylor, obviously, and Bill Evans. That’s four good ones right there.
KC I can understand how that music sort of creeps into what you’re doing as a solo guitar player. It almost seems like less of a stretch to compare you to some of these piano players than it would be to other guitar players. So many people are still doing a post-Fahey thing that it sort of seems like that’s what guitar music is, at least in the indie-inflected underground. I don’t hear that in your music. When you mention these piano players, I definitely hear that influence, kind of like hearing Lenny Tristano in Davey Graham. You’ve also expressed some enthusiasm about electronic music, bringing us to your affiliation with Mego, your current record label.
BO I was really into the whole ’90s laptop thing.
KC Do you think that’s because of your gainful employment in the computer technology industry?
BO Honestly it was a world that I didn’t know that much about and I think I was attracted to it because it was mysterious to me. The sounds were amazing and the artwork—you were talking about consistent graphic design approach creating a brand—that’s a terrible word, why would you use that?
KC Did I say that?
BO Well, whatever better word we’re gonna find for it—let’s call it a vibe.
KC Vibe? (_laughter_) I think that got ruled out a long time ago.
BO I’m bringing it back.
KC “Bill Orcutt: bringing the vibes back.”
BO Those records just had so much mojo, all of those original Mego artists like Farmer’s Manual. What an amazing band. Really head-scratching music.
There’s Drum & Bass actually on Ride a Dove (by Harry Pussy, 1996). I was way into Jungle in ’93. I lived right by a white label dance music shop, that was the closest shop to my house, and I would go in there and sometimes buy stuff.
KC You made this new record and did some touring with Chris Corsano, but now that you’re not working with a band, so to speak—having the option to make a record as a band, at least for the time being—is the electronic thing a little bit more in the background?
BO Yeah, at the time that was the exciting thing, but that was 20 years ago, so it doesn’t really have the same mystique. Actually, I think on my next record I’m going to do a Stevie Wonder/Prince thing and just play all the instruments myself.
KC Say what?
BO Yeah, I’m buying a drum set.
KC Is that really your concept—that the follow-up to A History of Every One will be a one-man band? (_laughter_)
BO I don’t know about calling it a “one-man band.” It’s gonna be an amazing record, but, you know, I will play all the instruments. Don’t doubt me, Connolly.
So, following your lead, I’m trying to find out a little bit more about minstrelsy.
BO (_laughter_) Yeah, it’s amazing how prevalent it was. I’m reading a really good book called Bossmen, and it’s just book-length interviews with Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe. It’s all about the practicalities of running a band and being the guy in charge. These guys are both architects of their sound. Anyway, in the Bill Monroe section, he’s saying how one of the first guys he hired was a blackface comedian who was also a musician, but was hired for his skill with the blackface arts. And that’s not too long ago, you know?
KC Yeah, in the big picture, this was quite recently. It’s strange how history gets re-thought within our lifetime. This is the way it was, like it or not.
BO Pigmeat Markham used to perform in blackface for black audiences at The Apollo up until the ’40s.
KC Are you aware of Charles Gayle? Do you know him?
BO Oh yeah, he did the clown thing, right?
KC Yeah, he did this “Streets the Clown” routine where he would show up in clown makeup, but largely it was a reverse blackface thing. He didn’t really work on the clown aspect of it, he just whitened up his face and popped on a red rubber nose.
BO See, that’s the kind of thing that gets excluded from histories. Why isn’t that part of free jazz? Why do people say, Oh this is something that’s separate from the history of this noble music? Maybe clown makeup could’ve been a core part of it.
KC And what was more insane than the makeup was that, basically, Streets was all about this fire-and-brimstone thing about homosexuality.
BO Oh, really?
KC Yeah, that was what he’d do. He’d kind of work himself up into kind of a trance state of stream-of-consciousness yelling. Just this increasingly belligerent yelling at the crowd, culminating with “. . .It’s not natural. . . it’s NOT NATURAL!” You’d try to follow what he’s saying and eventually you’d realize, he’s talking about homosexuality.
BO Oh no.
KC So, it was way more off-color than just the whiteface aspect of it. But I think it goes without saying—Charles Gayle was and is among the heaviest purveyors of this music on earth, and you know, he was just serving the people the coldest shit sandwich with this Streets the Clown thing. (_laughter_) Anyway, I’d still recommend blackface for your upcoming ISSUE Project Room show. I think it’s a good idea.
BO Alright. I’ll check it out.
KC Think about it. Tiny Mix Tapes would really lose their shit over that (_laughter_).