photo by Brad Miller
Interview by Jason Gross (January 1998)
I don't know a better way to describe Chicago (the city not the band) guitarist Jim O'Rourke than to say that he's a gadfly. Here's a young guy who's had his hand in everything, working with or producing or remixing the likes of Sonic Youth, John Fahey, Faust, Tortoise, Tony Conrad, Barbara Manning, Red Crayola, Guided By Voices and... well, it'd be easier to tell you who he HASN'T worked with. In all, an impressive resume that even Ry Cooder would be jealous of. This isn't even mentioning the bands that he's working in such as Gastr Del Sol, Brise Glace, Illusion of Safety and others. BUT... that doesn't even say anything about Jim's own work, which ranges from gentle folk melodies (especially well heard on his recent Bad Timing on Drag City) to string quartets to tape collages. You have every right to be jealous of a guy who already has an incredible track record and will no doubt amass an array of noteworthy projects in the future. As of now, he's working on new releases for his own label and reconsidering giving up the guitar (even though he'd pioneered some fascinating modifications/reworkings to it through his improvised pieces).
Special thanks to Gene Booth
PSF: You've talked about changing your guitar style- numerous experiments with guitar tunings and playing. Have these experiments been successful in your own opinion? What was your thinking behind this work?
Well, I have been playing for a long time, and go through phases I guess. When I was younger and began to really find the idea of being a "musician" more and more upsetting, I moved to just doing prepared electric, and wasn't playing the acoustic at all (this is around 19-25). More and more, I was trying to get away froma guitar sound, but it interested me to be playing a guitar because the audience will hopefully ask the question, 'why does he bother?' Didn't really happen. So, when I reached a certain point with the electric (guitar), being that far away, I had to stop, because once the points made, why do it again?
I remember in maybe '94 or so, I was doing a show somewhere and decided to do a cover song or something like that and I could hardly play. It was crazy. So then, I sort of started playing again. I remerber one tour through Europe, '94 or so, where people were expecting prepared guitar nonsense or whatever and I came out and played like a folk player, just 3 chords over an hour. That did it. I killed it and put the electric away, and started playing the acoustic again. I immediately fell into the Derek Bailey patterns I have, and began working on getting back the the kind of finger-picking and more "normal" playing. Still haven't gotten there! Once I've done what I want with something, I move on. But that's the public presentation. I'm usually working on things in private for quite a while.
PSF: Do you still think that there's a lot of creative potential with the guitar?
Oh, it's always a back and forth thing with me. I just picked up the guitar again for the first time in maybe a half year. At least the first time seriously since finishing Bad Timing. I always think it's over, but so far have found ways back into it...
PSF: Why the change with Bad Timing versus your earlier work? You seem to be moving in the direction of Fahey as he moves in the direction of your work
Well, streams of Womblife can be seen as early as Requia and other early records, and as much as I hate to admit it, most of my records have been 'musical.' But mostly because before now, I had not found yet what I wanted to do in those areas. I have a real love for what I like to call 'second generation Americana,' in the sense that I relate to an already seperated Americana (Charles Ives, Van Dyke Parks, and Fahey) and those three are real keys to that record, and to my love of that music.
PSF: A quote of yours- 'Music is not critical of itself at all' How so? Does your work try to go against this?
Well, it's not 'critical' in the sense that it takes a the meaning of it's gestures for granted. If you REALLY wanted to scare somebody, wouldn't you find a new way to do it? Or else it's 'Whew, it was only the cat!'
PSF: How do you approach your remix work as opposed to your own work?
Well, the thing I like about remixes is that your working with loaded material. It already has meaning to the listener. It isn't just raw material. You can work with the way the original functions. That's the main difference.
PSF: When do you decide to stop working on a remix?
Oh, that really depoends from project to project. Some take a few days, some weeks. The remix for the Tortoise 12" took me three weeks to make. It just 'settles' into place. Much of that time is letting it sit, then going back. That distance is what helps me find a good stopping point.
PSF: What kind of elements draw you into projects with other artists?
Mostly if I like what they do. Find some connection. Think they kick ass. Right now I'm mostly doing work with John McEntire, Kevin Drumm, and Rafael Toral on several projects. Real fun.
PSF: What kind of input do you think you add to collaborations? How does this effect your efforts to do solo work?
Jeez. It's really a case by case basis. I couldn't say i have a "collaboration plan." It's always different. It's a place for learning stuff, of course, and that feeds back into my own things- the lessons learned.
PSF: You have a really impressive resume of people that you've worked with. Why do you think you've so sought-after as a collaborator?
Jeez, well... I don't know... Hmm. I've been told it's my "ears," my knowledge of stuff both musical and technical. I'm easy to work with. I work 'til I drop. I don't settle for things easily. There's only 2 or 3 people I ever really had a problem working with, which seems pretty good considering how many folks I have worked with. Um, I don't know if I'm really qualified to answer that. Maybe you should ask some folks like Edith Frost or Bobbt Conn or Arnold Dreyblatt. I don't know. I like to work??
PSF: With all the side projects going on, is there center-point for your work?
Well, the interest comes mostly in how each area defines itself, what it is that makes it 'it'. Finding that is of interest to me. Of course in collaborating, that is the process of finding some 'click.' Improvising is a natural for that of course...
PSF: Do you see threads between work among hip-hop, ambient, avant garde? You have a lot of involvement in so many seemingly disparate projects.
Well, the 'critical theory' on that subject I find to be quite, reaching. A lot of these connections are more related to work habits and the realities of working, and a lot of these ideas of 'connections' are more conceits of writing than a reality of interaction. But, I do think there are connections, but they have more to do with the easy availability of materials (i.e. records) and information. To me, nothing is really 'disparate' if your concerns are similar. It's only a belief in genre distinction that make for that perception.
PSF: You've been working on music for Merce Cunningham (dance company)- any other plans to work in other media?
Not really, and for Merce, I am more of a musician than 'maker.' It's a strange position, feels like the late 80's, for me... But i like the change of pace..
PSF: What are you listening to now? Who do you think are the most under-rated performers/composers?
A lot of things on the Mego label (Fennesz, Pita), Kevin Drumm, Jack Nitsche circa 1973, New Souled American, Art Garfunkel Breakaway, Thurston Moore/Tom Surgal klangfarbenmelodie, Michael Nesmith Nevada Fighter. Underated?? Arnold Dreyblatt, Kevin Drumm.
PSF: Could you talk about any experiences you've had with music where you've felt overwhelmed?
Oh man... Van Dyke Parks, Arnold Dreyblatyt, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, "Greaser's palace" by Robert Downey Sr., "Sweet Movie" by Dusan Makavejev, the last 2 Talk Talk records, BAD TIMING and PERFORMANCE by Nicolas Roeg, anytime I wake up alive....
PSF: What's your biggest challenge?
Figuring out how to move on. It's those moments after I've done what I want that I'm lost. But that's probably the best feeling in the world.
PSF: What about the label you're starting? What's happening with that?
Oh, well it's gonna be called "Moikai" which means 'play again' and these are the plans:
Lithops Umit Uni
Solo disc from Jan St. Werner of Mouse On Mars/Microstoria
Nuno Canavarro Plux Quba
Brilliant, little known portugese record from '88, a cross between Microstoria and Automatic Writing era Robert Ashley.
Ray Russell Retrospective
1 or 2 CD set of English free jazz guitarist Ray Russell, who was even less known, but comparable to his contemporaries Masayuki Takayanagi and Sonny Sharrock. Really awesome. Notes by Henry Kaiser, Alan Licht, David Toop, and Thurston Moore
Then there's going to be:
Kevin Drumm Organ
Organ record from Chicago genius, who has a record out now on Perdition Plastics just called Guitar which is the greatest solo tabletop record ever.
Phill Niblock For Guitar Four
Guitar minimalism monster performed by Drumm, Rafael Toral, and myself.
Those are the confirmed things for '98. There are a few others for sure, but working on 'em... Also just finished producing an Alan Licht/Loren Mazzacane Connors disc for Drag City that has them backed up by a 10 piece free jazz group culled from Chicago's best that includes Ken Vandemark, Rob Mazurek (Isotope), Kevin Drumm, etc.
See Jim's favorite music
And now as an added attraction...
Jim's favorite culturally-sensitive slogans and mottos
Coors put its slogan, "Turn it loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer from diarrhea."
Clairol introduced the "Mist Stick," a curling iron, into German only to find out that "mist" is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the "manure stick".
Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."
The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, "Salem-Feeling Free", was translated into the Japanese market as "When smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty."
When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what's inside, since most people can't read English.
Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, the name of a notorious porno magazine.
An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope's visit. Instead of "I saw the Pope" (el Papa), the shirts read "I saw the potato" (la papa).
In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into "Schweppes Toilet Water."
Pepsi's "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" translated into "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave," in Chinese.
Frank Perdue's chicken slogan, "it takes a strong man to make a tender chicken" was translated into Spanish as "it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate."
When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read, "it won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you". Instead, the company thought that the word "embarazar" (to impregnate) meant to embarrass, so the ad read: "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant".
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