Jim O’Rourke by Jay Sanders

O’Rourke and Sanders go over the complex layerings—from lyrics to mixes to the LP’s cover—in O’Rourke’s recent pop album, Simple Songs.

BOMB 133 Fall 2015
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Jim O’Rourke in Tokyo, 2015.

Jim O’Rourke is one of those rare artists who, in his own work and through his keen perception and fanatical boostering of the many things that motivate and excite him, has fundamentally altered the parameters of the art form in which he works. At every moment he challenges his audience to rethink the expectations and categorical distinctions they bring when listening to music, exploring these constructs in order to rewire their semantic codes in astonishing and unforeseen ways.

O’Rourke is consistently setting new terms for originality and an independent vision, with a spirited sense of humor at every turn. He imbeds sophisticated compositions and conceptual-artistic intent in the semblance of pop albums, continues to re-imagine the possibilities within electronic music and musique concrète to organize sound and surprise us with its manifestations, and forges a deep connection between American Minimalism and the open tunings and modal finger-style playing of blues and folk.

Since moving to Tokyo eight years ago, his albums feel increasingly like dispatches from another orbit, as they plunge ever deeper into their own vocabularies and concerns, unfettered by the need for explanation, promotion, or tour support. The Visitor, his 2009 instrumental tour de force, takes its title from the fictional album made by David Bowie’s alien persona in The Man Who Fell To Earth, an improbable communiqué meant for a faraway planet. This year saw the highly anticipated release of Simple Songs, his first vocal song record since 2001’s Insignificance (all on Drag City Records). To satisfy at least some of the demands that he materialize, he will present a rare two-night concert series, entitled “two sides to every story,” at the Tokyo Sogetsu Hall later this fall. For countless reasons Jim has been an inspiration to me, so it’s a great pleasure to have this opportunity to check in.

—Jay Sanders

Jim O’Rourke Horrible weather here today. There was a typhoon last night, so it’s really hot and sticky.

Jay Sanders Has it been a rough summer?

JO It’s been gross.

JS We just finished the Conlon Nancarrow festival at the Whitney. He’s such a great artist, but I had no expectations for how it might all be received by a broader public.

JO A lot of people came, right?

JS It was eleven days long and it built like a snowball rolling down a hill. The first couple days it was my co-curator Dominic Murcott and me in the theater during the day as people would wander in. We’d play some piano rolls, and then we’d have these more formal evening events and gigs. It developed a kind of cult following by the end of the series. The last day we played all the Studies for Player Piano, number one through fifty-one, in order. It took seven and a half hours to do it. We had tequila in the afternoon since Nancarrow served tequila in his Mexico City studio when guests came and listened to his music.

You and your work were on my mind around Nancarrow. He was an American artist, but lived outside the country. Also, he found a way to do the music he wanted all by himself; he could jettison the need to rely on other people. Not that you always do that, but thinking about a record like The Visitor, you sort of had to invent a way to do something that gets outside the conventional reliance on players and score.

JO Well, with him it was need. With me, it’s the remaining fumes of a Catholic upbringing—feeling guilty making anyone else play this nonsense.

JS There’s a humility in his work that relates to yours: he uses pop forms, whether it’s boogie-woogie or jazz, but through hidden complexities, he creates this work that goes to the stratosphere. It goes somewhere that you couldn’t get to in any other way, with its use of musical genre, canon forms with multiple voices and melodic lines, and these completely unheard-of tempo and density shifts. And his manner of experimentation is so unpretentious. The weight of a lot of music history, or avant-garde history, isn’t felt in the work. He seems to be able to tuck a lot, I don’t want to say hide—

JO —but he does.

JS Yeah. Through modest means, he makes something that transfigures itself in the making, in the grist of the material. And that’s a way I think about your work too. There’s humility also, though the effort goes to these extremes—more, probably, than anyone would ever know. The effort and the compositional strategies are embedded in ways that are not calling attention to themselves.

JO I’ll talk about Nancarrow instead of me. (laughter) I mean, to us Nancarrow is a composer, of course, but he wasn’t understood in that historical context, really, except to the handful of people like Charles Amirkhanian, who somehow discovered his music and took him very seriously. So now it’s sort of running after the tail of a bird that’s already taken flight. Nancarrow’s work is still very hidden. The context decides how seriously something is taken, especially within academic circles. So, for example, any composer going to Darmstadt [where countless twentieth-century avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono studied and taught] knew their work was going to go through that filter and was going to be perceived in a certain way—it’s heard by the ears and it’s heard by the eyes.

There are just certain people—and I’m not saying I’m like Nancarrow at all—who don’t care about what those people think in order to validate what they do. I know what’s in what I do. If someone gets it, that’s great, but I’m not so insecure that I need to have my name in some gilded book with brown fake leather and gold stamping. It’s never gonna happen and it doesn’t matter if it happens. I just can’t imagine spending any part of the day pursuing and nurturing one’s place in that world. That’s gotta be soul death. Where’s the work?

JS Have ideas of context drawn you to different types of musical material over others, or is it all taste and interest? Is it ever a political decision to work in one rather than another?

JO I definitely can’t work with music I don’t respect in the first place. I can’t use something to refer to that musical history for the sole purpose of referring. And I definitely don’t want to work with anything that I don’t have an actual understanding of. If I don’t have the understanding, I spend a lot of private time learning about it. If I have to brush up on my counterpoint, I have to put time aside for that. You could call it research, but it is also a question of having these things at your disposal and not finding out they are all rusty and falling apart. But that should be done in private, and shouldn’t even be noticed, if all goes well.

I don’t even know, at this point, what the point of making something public is anymore. Just because you’ve done something doesn’t mean you have to make it public. This is something I learned luckily very young when I was working with some people who would put out anything they recorded, back in the ’80s, in the cassette and noise days. For some people that’s great. More and more, I couldn’t do that. You know me; one of the fundamental things about me is my allergy and my disgust with narcissism. Some would say it’s a wall holding me back: my reluctance to do things that smack of being about me as opposed to being about the work. Just because I did it doesn’t mean anyone has to hear it. It hasn’t bothered me for a long time to work on something for years and then decide that it’s not good enough to make public. All that matters is the final result.

JS I really liked that dialogue we did for John Zorn’s Arcana book series (2007). I remember you saying then that holding on to material for a long time might be an important way to let the context shift so the work could emerge in a new light, and to get you out of yourself and out of the present. So, with this new record, Simple Songs, I was thinking about what it might have been like to take fourteen years since Insignificance and six years now since The Visitor. Was the time between both albums important to the project or did it just take the time it took for you to want to put out a song record like this again?

JO It definitely took that much time. I would have liked to keep working on it. Putting out a record like that is different from putting out a record for Editions Mego, or labels that are under the radar. It involves a machine, you know? And I had sort of gotten the machine out of my life, when I moved here, and I wasn’t producing for or playing with the groups I had been collaborating with before. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the work; I just didn’t want to be a part of that machine anymore, where things get taken out of your hands. Once this record looked like it was close to being done, and I got involved in getting the artwork and the mastering ready, I started to get that smell of “it’s happening again.” Having to do press for it was really weird on several levels. First off, I hadn’t done interviews for a long time. Even with The Visitor, I only did two or three.

Having to talk about an album in the context of “Oh, this is my new record” is so odd. It’s hard to get people to understand why it took six years, and that this is normal for me. What shocked me the most, because I’d been so out of touch with normal culture, was how much the world has changed since I’d last visited. Even magazines or big websites that had always been really supportive were like, “No, we’re passing on it,” and I wondered why. I mean, it’s fine if they don’t want to do it, but I was curious. It seems that everything now has to have some sort of viral capability for them to have interest, which is fascinating to me because a lot of the lyrics in Simple Songs have to do with aspects of that. From the moment you met me, you’ve known of my fear and distaste for the Internet. And it’s not like an old man kind of thing. I just saw where this was going. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for someone to do something seriously at this point. It’s such an uphill battle to keep your position in relation to your work, for it to be about the work and not about all this nonsense around it, which is going to be over in a couple of days and replaced with other nonsense.

JS There’s a noise of things that bounces around. It’s not even reception.

JO Refresh noise. It’s like the world is filled with this continuous clicking hum of people pressing the refresh button, and I know there’s not a refresh button, but, you know….

JS The opening song, “Friends With Benefits”—it’s something we’ve talked about—I immediately think of that very funny Facebook episode of South Park, “You Have 0 Friends.” Or later in the record, the song “These Hands.” The way I hear it, it sounds like a cynically prophetic update of that old Yellow Pages slogan, “Let your fingers do the walking.”

JO In a way it’s like that classic routine in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch about the talking asshole. Eventually it didn’t need the human at all and all you see is dead eyes staring. I’m paraphrasing, of course. It also reminds me of the time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I was mostly in Europe, and I saw so much of this artwork by Peter Weibel, Stelarc, and folks like that, who were looking toward this body/machine integration of the future, some for utopian reasons, some for others. What struck me then was not so much that I had any personal feeling for or against their work, it was more a feeling of “ha-ha, when this comes you’re not going to like it.”

JS Last week, while I was driving out of town, I was re-listening to your previous song record, Insignificance, which I hadn’t put on in a little bit. It’s such a guide to insults, a litany of new ways to insult someone, but also a study of perversions and strange characterizations. (laughter) The lyrics are fantastic start to finish. With the new record, there are lots of different kinds of characters: a psycho neighbor, the Grim Reaper, a corpse….

JO Those always seem to show up, don’t they? (laughter)

JS Is everyone already dead in your music?

JO Probably, yeah. In Insignificance it’s mostly people who are about to die, but in Simple Songs most of the people are dead. The Grim Reaper always shows up. He’s always there. I’ve been surprised that no one has caught on. I mean, I was worried that it was going to be too obvious—that “Last Year” is “Get a Room” part two. I guess it is really only funny if you think of it in that context. I just love the idea that the song fades out, but this woman has to wake up to find this dead guy in bed. (laughter) So what’s she going to do? Of course, she’s going to dump him in the forest, you know? The thing is I didn’t say she lived near a forest in the previous song. I screwed up.

JS There are a few songs over the years—“Get a Room,” “Last Year,” and I think “Eureka,” too—where there are two voices in a dialogue. Two characters, and you sing the parts differently. Whenever there’s a dialogue like this, there’s about to be big trouble for one of them. (laughter)

JO I emphasized it this time more than before. I’m very picky about when to double the voices or when to use a chorus, because that implies that it’s not an individual but either an abstract third person or a group. So in “Last Year,” I only let there be harmonies or a chorus when the joggers are running by the guy’s body each year. But also in the way I mixed it in the middle section, when the dead guy is singing to them, it’s a different sound.

JS Yeah, you hear it. It’s a different voice.

JO This is really stupid, but there’s software to make your own reverbs by recording a space, analyzing it, and then using that space, what’s called the “impulse file,” as a reverb. So to amuse myself, I actually went out in the forest and recorded it. So in the middle section’s vocals the reverb is an actual forest.

JS It lends some authenticity.

JO Well, it sounds different and I thought it’d be funny. It amused me and only me. I mean, overall I did go a little bit further than I have before to delineate these kinds of things within the songs. I felt that no one had gotten it before, so I must have done it wrong. And I did it wrong this time too—I can’t get anything right. (laughter)

JS Did you think of the songs as autonomous missives, or was there some sort of overarching shape to the record?

JO Part of the reason it took so long is that it just wouldn’t feel right as a record. The overall arch of each song’s story and where that left you, and picking up to the next one and where that takes you, it had to work. Basically it did end up being what I had imagined. The songs sort of happened. That’s, of course, just when they start. Eventually they have to get molded by everything around them and they’re affected by that.

JS I re-listened to The Visitor too. There’s something so astounding about that record. It has so much of everything you’ve done before in it. And it’s wild, how you get from one section to another, what changes underneath it and what instrumentation emerges or recedes. So many balls are hovering in the air at any given time, throughout the whole thing.

JO Don’t get hit!

JS The more you hear it, the more you hear, for sure.

JO I would hope so. There are a lot of relationships, rhythmically and harmonically, going on that hopefully reveal themselves. When I was a kid I was going to see a movie and my dad said, “Didn’t you see that already? Why do you need to see it again?” I remember saying this even as a kid: “People put years of their lives into this; there’s so much in there. How do you think you can understand years of someone’s life in two hours?”

JS There’s this way that you subtly build your own context with all your work. Some of it expresses or pays homage to the different music that inspires you, but it’s very much transfigured through the way you handle the musical material. In some ways, The Visitor feels like a real apotheosis, in that all these things that you care about and study deeply are brought to bear and then can actually change form through the work you do with them. The idioms and forms you work in, and all your compositional decisions, always take the whole somewhere further than the sum of its parts.

JO That’s very nice. I mean, I hope so. That’s the way I look at it. I’m not doing this to entertain myself. I can’t make work that isn’t that. It’s unfortunate but it seems like I’m à la carte for most people. There’s got to be only a handful of people out there who have heard the bulk of what I’ve done. Those who only know the Drag City records don’t know the other stuff so, unfortunately, that particular aspect of what I do gets lost for a lot of listeners.

Most people don’t look at a musician as someone who’s thinking with these big plans. When people think about the work of film directors, it’s natural to think of their body of work as a life’s work. There’s only a handful of musicians like that—someone would think of Neil Young or Bob Dylan that way. I’m not comparing myself to them, of course, but it’s unusual to think about music that way, or anything that touches on pop music. If you do make claims to that, you’re called pretentious. But I’m like, Well, why not? Is it because the music’s in this format, or this genre? Who says it doesn’t have those possibilities? If you’re saying that, then you’re the one insulting the form.

JS You work in many ways at once. In the last several years, you’ve created these different distribution lines for your work: the Old News series of LPs through Mego, which is primarily your electronic music; the stuff you’re putting on Bandcamp which includes reissues, live recordings, soundtracks, and studio work; the song-oriented Drag City records; and the collaborative projects. Has that sort of approach been helpful? With regard to Old News, does having a consistent line or platform on which to release stuff give you an additional context to work in? Is there a conceptual strategy?

JO There is, because with the way things have changed, I don’t want any of those LPs to be looked at as “my new record,” because they aren’t. It’s something I’m working on constantly. With Old News, each new one is released only once the previous one is completely sold out, because I don’t want to hurt Mego by encumbering them with continuing to put these things out, which is why the LPs have been coming out slower and slower. It’s been about a year and a half since the last one.

JS With Old News, the deprecatory title, the drawing on the album cover that disappears line by line with each subsequent release, the fact that you’ll pair something from twenty years ago with something new—it all does a lot to circumvent and muddle that idea of the next fresh slice of your work.

JO Yeah. The disappearing cover is definitely part of the idea. I don’t even know if I’ll ever get it to be blank. With the amount of people interested, I’ll maybe never get another one out. Occasionally, some people ask me to make some electronic music for a festival. In Europe, and especially in France, there’s been this long history, since the ’60s, of playing tape music at a concert. The composer … I don’t want to use the word composer … the person is only sometimes there. This is very normal. There’s been a resurgence of interest amongst the people who want to put on performances like that, but the audience isn’t used to it. So, I’ve done one or two of these things: one for Cafe OTO in London, and then I just did another for this festival in Australia. The audience gets mad, because I’m not there, which I find baffling. Like, Conlon Nancarrow wasn’t there.

JS No, and he apparently preferred the tape recordings to the live piano for concerts.

JO Why are these doors closed? What’s happening that is causing this disjunction, insisting on deciding something’s value based on its “value”? It’s bizarre. It’s the endgame of capitalism, that’s what it all comes down to. (laughter)

JS As you said with Old News, and definitely with the song records, there are parallel lines with the design decisions; the conceptual, visual aspects of the covers; the album and song titles; and even some of the promo photos you’ve done around the records. These lines are key to creating connectivity. With the Drag City stuff, if you look closely, there’s a kind of visual algebra that’s formed, in a quiet but clear way, between all the records, starting with Bad Timing.

JO Definitely. With the earlier ones I was being driven by this idea, but I wasn’t being so eloquent about it. As time went on, I had a much sharper picture of what I wanted to do, and of how to do it. So, for me this record’s cover, and more importantly the back cover, is, in a way, the period. That’s it. That’s the end, right there. The printing process that was used to get what I wanted—

JS —that black mirror reflectivity.

JO Yeah. In the end, it’s just “you” that you see. Years ago I was complaining, as usual, about the Internet or something, and I said that the only time your computer screen is a mirror is when you shut it off. That’s the sentiment, though not in relation to computers, that’s stayed with me. The back cover has something to do with that.

JS I agree that the whole record itself feels like a way out. The extra-musical aspects, like the cover, are intrinsic to the project, but could also be part of an exit strategy, in a way, or might open onto a whole different field—whether that opens this project up, or is punctuation for it.

JO I definitely feel it’s punctuation. And also, I don’t like how these records overshadow everything else. If the work was looked at in the ways I wish it was looked at, that wouldn’t bother me, but if an album like this is just a product, it isn’t worth my time. The wider context is a black hole. No matter how hard you pull it’s going to go in that black hole. I felt that way when I did Insignificance.

The thing is, it’s not worth six years of my life. The other things that I can do by myself in my room every day maybe take me eight months or a year, it doesn’t matter—and I get something out of doing them.

JS I feel like there are enough people who see your work the way it should be seen, see the potentiality in it. In truth there aren’t that many artists in any medium that are really working on the deep realities of their form—creating problems for themselves. I would think that in the long run these things do become more visible to more people. When that reception happens, and how, is complicated, because your work, by its nature, problematizes itself all the way through.

JO There’s the reality of my day-to-day life. Making a record like that, it’s like guerrilla recording: “You guys can come in for a few hours.” So we run in and hopefully it’s a good performance, and you spread that out over six years. And I can’t give the musicians much money. I’m not making anything on it, you know? Those records just put me in the red. I’m not doing it for the money. I mean, what’s the point, really? It’s like if you’re working hard to make cheesecake but they keep putting it where the mozzarella is. You’re not going to be encouraged to make cheesecake anymore.

It’s a tough time for anybody making music, of course. It’s not about doing shows. Especially the song stuff’s not meant to be played live, because the mixing and everything else we’ve been talking about is so much a part of what I’m trying to do. It’s not meant to be played live, so that’s strike one. Strike two is that I don’t want T-shirts and stuff like that.

JS (laughter)

JO It sounds funny, but that’s how people get by, which I think is insane. That makes sense if you’re talking about Paul McCartney and Wings, but you’ve got small little groups of people who are paying their bills from T-shirts. The stress of how difficult it’s going to be to make it happen really dampens your energy for wanting to do it.

JS It’s such a dopey question, but, what have you learned from the past project, and what is your position artistically in terms of the questions you want to have answered, and the difficulties you want to get into in the future? You’re always propelled to be working on something.

JO One thing I have to do is learn to find a way to work with other people without feeling horribly guilty about it. I don’t mean playing with other people; I mean asking other people to do things for me. That’s where the guilt comes in. I’m totally happy to play with other people. I love playing with Oren Ambarchi and Keiji Haino or Eiko Ishibashi. I love all that. But, that’s not my work, you know? Luckily that’s something I enjoy doing, that I can learn from, and of course does have something to do with what I do. But, when I ask someone to do something for me, the guilt is insurmountable. I just had this meeting the other day, because I had to get a string quartet together for the thing in October. Atsuko, who plays the strings on the record, found three people, and she brought them here, and I explained what I was going to do. Just having to meet these people and talk to them for a few minutes, I was fucking panicking. I’m going to pay them as much as I can because it’s their livelihood, but they deserve better than that, you know? It’s a fundamental flaw of my character that I can’t shut off the empathy for other people. Every day I’m faced with this existential problem—I wish I could be more of a jerk, because I would get a lot more done in life. If I could just be like, “Yeah. Whatever. Just do it.”

JS (laughter)

JO In my early twenties, out of ignorance, I could do that, which is why I got a lot more done then. It’s not that I don’t want to work with other people, because obviously I do.

I really have to go back and just study again. I’ve been saying that for a few years, but I just really have to hit the books again. Because things are getting rusty.

JS You mean like listen to records, or reading?

JO Mostly—I hate to say it—playing the instruments better. Basic things like harmony and counterpoint, which I understand and can obviously do, it’s just that I don’t have the agility at them that I’d like, because I’m so bad at math. It takes me a little bit longer; I have this problem where if you put one number in front of me and then another number next to it, when you put the third number in front of me, I can’t remember the first one, so I get lost. I’ve got to really work hard on it. That’s all. That’s what I’ve been doing for a while now, since that stupid record’s been done.

JS It freed you up, hopefully.

JO Well, I hope. I’ve got to figure out a way to pay the bills, in the meantime.

JS Hopefully those upcoming concerts help with that.

JO With the amount of people who are playing on it, I’ll probably have to sell a whole bunch of stuff just to make those shows happen. And it’s all because of this new record; it’s that kind of record where you have to do the show, and this and that, and I never intended for this to happen.

JS I get it. It’s ironic; the thing is the thing, but because you’re singing—there’s a voice and an artist attached to that voice—it feels like a band, then that should be something you can deliver live. But of course that’s one of the conundrums the work itself is bringing up. Whether or not it’s the song records or other stuff, do you get something out of going back to older work and revisiting it or working it up again? Does it lead to other approaches to the material?

JO I try to make it new in how I approach it. I don’t really enjoy going back to the old stuff at all. It just seems cheap to me, like cheating. “Remember this classic… .” It was never a classic. “Remember this thing you immediately forgot… .” What was that thing I used to do? Once at Sear Sound when I was working on somebody’s record I made these Classic Notes. (in a radio announcer voice) “Lou Reed, 1976, The Palladium: F#. This has been Classic Notes.”

JS This might be a good end point. (laughter)

JO “This has been Classic Notes.”

Jay Sanders is Curator and Curator of Performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His recent projects include DANCENOISE: Don’t Look Back and Anywhere in Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival

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Originally published in

BOMB 133, Fall 2015

Featuring interviews with Nari Ward, Jim O’Rourke, David Diao, Rachel Rose, Tonya Foster and John Keene, Alice Notley, Deana Lawson and Henry Taylor, Annie Baker, and more.

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