Orange Cake Mix - A Decade In The Making
Interview by Jeff Penczak (May 2002)The incredibly prolific Orange Cake Mix (a dozen full-lengths, another dozen singles and EP's, and nearly two dozen compilation appearances) is the brainchild of Connecticut resident, Jim Rao. Beginning with several tape-only releases nearly a decade ago, Rao combines AM radio-friendly melodies with the intricate guitar stylings of Vini (Durutti Column) Reilly and Maurice (Felt) Deebank, and tops his musical confections off with gorgeously cheezy synth swashes, a la Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet. This one-man jukebox has issued recordings on over two dozen different labels in the U.S., Spain, and Japan, yet he has never toured...in fact, he's never even set foot on stage, claiming "I don't think I'd be very good at it." In commemoration of Rao's first decade of creating music so clean, crisp and beautiful you can practically taste it, we conducted the following extensive e-mail interview over a cold winter's weekend in early February 2002.
PSF: Jim, you seem to be a big fan of AM radio from the '60's and '70's--at least very steeped in its history. On the Microcosmic Wonderland EP you namecheck a Carpenters' song "Yesterday Once More" in the lyric to "King of Inertia." "The River Flows To The Sea" on Fluffy Pillow approximates a lyric in The Byrds' "Ballad of Easy Rider." "Sexylovemachine" sounds like a title Prince would kill for. You've written songs about Wings' Greatest Hits and you mention a few bands in "Don't Ever Tell Me You Miss the 70s." Tell us a little about your childhood, particularly your own introduction to music and how you later adapted a lot of this sound into your recordings.
I grew up listening to a lot of '60's and '70's AM radio songs. I used to buy a lot of 45's. Everything like Bread, America, T. Rex, Hall and Oates, The Beatles, Badfinger, The Byrds, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rascals, 1910 Fruitgum Co.--mostly everything on the radio influenced my style I think. In the '80s, groups like Felt, New Order, Biff Bang Pow, Durutti Column... they were some of my favorites. Todd Rundgren, Laura Nyro, Nick Drake, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Love... too many favorites!
PSF: I was recently speaking with Kevin Coral of The Witch Hazel Sound, who's very influenced by many of the same artists, and he mentioned a possible collaboration between the two of you. Tell us how that project came about?
I sent Kevin five or six songs to add things to. I'm not sure what he's adding, but I'm sure it will be cool.
PSF: You two seem to have quite a few things in common with Kevin: I take it you've both written or contributed to Tape Op magazine (the studio geek's bible), you both have similar tastes and influences in music, and you both have indirectly recorded with an orchestral lineup--Kevin released that Witch Hazel Sound with Strings EP on Camera Obscura and you recorded the Microcosmic Wonderland EP billed as Jim Rao and his Orange Cake Mix Orchestra.
Actually, I never recorded with an orchestra! That was just the way the label released it. It's always just me and my 4-track. I've never recorded in a studio. Sometimes I use a music sequencer that creates the illusion of a more refined recording technique. I have a digital effects unit, too, so it adds some depth and texture to the 4-track sound. It sort of maybe stretches the limitations. As far as contributing to Tape Op, I never have as of yet. I don't think I'd have much to say. I can't understand any of the technical jargon I read in there! I'm extremely studio illiterate.... I know almost nothing about equipment. I don't even know the type of microphone I use. I don't have an equalizer or mixing console, anything. Just press play and record...mix it down to cassette and/or CDr.
PSF: I know from speaking with Kevin that he also likes to be in control of almost all aspects of the recording and producing and mixing of his music and since you rarely work with outsite musicians, is it safe to assume that you're pretty much the same, or would you like to collaborate more in the future?
It's true, I just record everything by myself, [although] my wife, Ritsuko, sings on ''Always By Your Side'' [Silver Lining Underwater]. So I'm always in control of the entire process [but,] you know, I would [collaborate] if it came easy to me. I mean, I don't seek out collaborators, but if the situation just fell into my lap I'd be more than happy to work with other musicians. Maybe if I had the money...if I was able to travel, if I was financially more stable enough to seek out situations that would be productive in some way...sure. I [always] wanted to do something with Ryuji in Color Filter...Todd Rundgren...Sarah Cracknell...Kaji Hideki. I've also recorded a bunch of songs with Verna Brock (Beanpole, Holiday Flyer), too. They came out on different 7'' releases. I'd like to work with more singers/players; I guess I'm just too lazy to seek them out or they live so far away it's hard to get together. I really want to work with more people...everyone must think I like to work alone, but it's not totally by choice really.
PSF: There have been nearly a dozen split releases that you've been involved with and I've noticed that you've worked with innumerable different labels--there's almost as many labels as there are releases. Do they typically approach you for a record or single or compilation track, or is it usually the other way around?
The label usually approaches me and I rarely say no. Recently I've recorded some mostly acoustic songs I think I have to shop around just because I don't think any of the other labels I've worked with would be interested. But for comp[ilation] stuff, labels approach me. That's just the way it's worked out. Any label that approaches me and offers me money, of course I'm not going to refuse. Even when a label can't offer much money, I'll usually do it anyway. I'm happy they ask me, I always have more than enough songs to share.
PSF: Occasionally, you incorporate soundbytes and snippets of dialogue into your recordings: "Some Sweetness" and "Wind Painting" on the Microcosmic Wonderland EP; and "Sonic Surfer 2009" on Dream Window almost sounds like you had a TV on in the studio while you were recording. I even hear an actual sound effects record being played in the background of "First Day of Spring" on A Shadow of Eclipse and Other Phases of the Moon. Is that something that you do consciously to compliment the song, or do you usually go back and work that into the song after the fact?
It sort of falls together by chance somehow. Like "Wind Painting" started with the radio static sound, then I built the song around that. The voices in "Sonic Surfer 2009" I added later to compliment the song. I think with "Some Sweetness'' I just turned on the TV and the voices seemed to go with that middle part of the song, and those sound effects [were taken] from the record Environments. I was glad the scratches and pops were loud enough to be heard in the mix. So, most of the time it's planned out, but sometimes it's not.
PSF: "Shadow of Eclipse" has a very nice St. Etienne feel throughout, at least I thought of them a lot while listening to it, particularly their Foxbase Alpha debut. Is that a valid comparison?
I'm really glad you made the St. Etienne connection because I think it's a valid comparison being that they are one of my favorite bands. A few of the songs on that CD I even imagined Sarah Cracknell would have done a great job singing on...maybe ''Sail Back To Yesterday" being one of them.
PSF: You've done a lot of work with the Darla label out of San Francisco and contributed Silver Lining Underwater as the third volume in their "Bliss Out" series. You originally released that as a tape, correct? How did that arrangement come about and was that simply a reissue of the earlier cassette-only release?
I was talking to Sean [O'Neil, from the band, Flowchart] at Fuzzy Box and he was getting ready to release Fluffy Pillow [Sean also runs the Fuzzy Box label]. He told me to call James [Agren] at Darla because of all the instrumentals I had. I mean, Darla was a godsend because I had all these cool instrumentals piling up from the years 1994/1995/1996 without a label to release them. So Sean told me about the "Bliss Out" [Flowchart contributed the first volume in the series] and James chose his favorite songs and he did such a great job putting it all together. It's my favorite OCM CD for sure...the packaging and presentation was so cool, too. And, yes, I had released a tape on Clover , but the tape had all different songs. Neither one had anything to do with the other. Darla just liked the title so I said sure, why not.... Some of the songs on the tape, however, came out on Dream Window four years later.
PSF: The first track, "Streetlights and Stars" is similar in style to Vini Reilly (Durutti Column) and Maurice Deebank (Felt), two of my favorite guitarists. In fact, every release of yours in my collection starts with a guitar-based instrumental in the DC/Felt style, and you've even covered a Felt track. Were they major influences in the development of your own style, and would you ever think about having a go at one of Vini's compositions?
No way, his songs are way too difficult to learn. I'm more influenced by his sound than his technique, maybe. I don't have the same talent...his guitar abilities are far more accomplished than mine. I covered one of the more obscure Felt songs, ''Female Star'' [originally on their "Space Blues" 12"] because it was easy to do, it's more like an old simple folk song or a song by Donovan. So, yes, they were, in fact, very major influences and I guess I make it more than obvious sometimes, almost too much, maybe. But, while most of the time the similarity is intentional, I really do try to pay tribute to their style rather than imitate it.... It's totally from my subconscious. I mean, I've heard their music so much that it's saturated in my psyche. And I do begin my CD's that way on purpose as sort of an introduction--start of film. It's getting to be a real tradition...I think I've done that on the last seven CD's now!
PSF: A lot of your song titles seem to reflect an apparent enjoyment with sleep, dreams and relaxation: "King of Inertia," "Half-Baked Elegy," "Twilight Sleep," "Early Morning Space Time," "Dream Window Shade" "Zzzz," and the entire Dream Window album, which almost seems like a concept album about sleeping and dreaming. Are you basically a laid back, mellow kind of guy that views making music as an enjoyable past-time or hobby, or does it all seem like a career or "job" to you?
Making music is fun most of the time; sometimes it's like a meditation for me. It's very fulfilling and relaxing. I always hope people will get some kind of enjoyment out of it. But I would also love to make a living doing it as a real job/career.... But, as time goes by, that seems to be a bit unrealistic. I work part time at a local supermarket and it's not exactly the best place to be. Music is like another part time job as far as money goes. I love making music, so it's that old cliché...a labor of love. I certainly wish I can make a living from it. That would be a dream come true.
PSF: Dream Window is also noticeable to my ear as much harsher than your other work, particularly the latter half (side B, if you will)--the guitars are more prominent and they have a very rough, distorted sound to them, even resorting to what appear to be backwards guitars on "Song About Floating Down The River." If we can assume that this is a concept album about the dream state, can we also assume that most of your dreams tend towards the nightmarish, as reflected by these harder sounds?
I think when I recorded the second half [early 1994] I was into psychedelic drone and Spacemen 3.... I liked using fuzz guitar sustain and echo. A bit dark, but spacey...I wouldn't say nightmarish, really. Not at all. I was into a more fuzzy space rock sound at the time. I hardly ever have nightmares; maybe I was projecting what I felt around me at the time...Who knows? The songs in the beginning were more recent...early 1998 maybe.
PSF: There are several instances where you've recorded a song that subsequently appeared as the title of an album: "Silver Lining Underwater" doesn't appear on the album of that name, but on Dream Window, and "Dream Window Shade" isn't on Dream Window, but it's on A Shadow of Eclipse and Other Phases of the Moon. Was that a space issue where there simply wasn't enough room for the title song to fit on the album?
I did that on purpose so that people would ask the exact same question you're asking now! I guess I do like to confuse people and keep people wondering. But also, I really do that mostly because I want each CD to have a thread of connection to the previous CD, be it a song title or lyric...something. Sort of like a thread of continuity.
PSF: You're a very prolific writer--the discography on your website goes on for about 4 pages with literally dozens of releases in all formats, all in less than 10 years. Are you writing all the time, or do you usually wait until you have a project lined up before you sit down to compose, and about how long does it typically take you to complete an album?
I just write and record songs whenever the mood hits me and then worry about where they're going to end up later. Sometimes I'll record like 20 songs in a few weeks. Sometimes only a few a month. It depends on what I'm feeling at the time. Usually three or four out of 10 songs are good enough to release. The rest are usually garbage. It probably takes anywhere from three to six months to finish an album. Once in awhile I'll find a few songs leftover that just didn't fit well in the last song cycle but they might go better with the current song cycle so it's sort of like a puzzle that slowly falls together over time. Sometimes a few extra pieces are put in the puzzle that creates a whole new scene/sound. All the other extra pieces get used for CD EPs/comp tracks/7'' records, etc.
PSF: Do you ever go back and recycle ideas or melodies intentionally if a previous riff or sound fits perfectly on a subsequent song you're writing? I'm thinking specifically of the keyboard riff from "Introduction To Love" apparently reprising itself later in the melody on "Radio Magic Static" on Dream Window.
Yes I do. All the time. I don't know many chord changes so I'm always recycling melodies and stuff.
PSF: I've interviewed several artists who work exclusively or predominently in the instrumental vein and I'd say at least half your material is instrumental. I'm curious about how you come up with song titles? Chicken or the egg question: which comes first--the title or the song?
Usually the song comes first and then I title it after. Sometimes I have a whole list of titles and I just write songs around the titles. For example, with the "Alice Coltrane" track [off Silver Lining Underwater], I just wanted to name a song after her because she's one of my favorite musicians.... Other times, I use titles for whichever song they might fit.
PSF: The music on Silver Lining Underwater is very visual to me--I would think that someone working on a student or indie film could make good use of that music to accompany their images. Were you thinking along those lines when you composed it and have you ever toyed with the idea of composing for film?
Yes and yes. I would love to make music for films. That would be my dream come true once again. My true dream: my music would be used in a soundtrack of some sort. If I have a chance to be a part of something like that, I would do it in an instant. Music for commercials, anything. I really need to buy new equipment! I do not own a real synthesizer. Would you believe that most of Silver Lining was done on a $5 casio keyboard I got at a garage sale? I put it through a fuzz[box] and the effects unit. The guitar I used on that was a cheap Ibanez guitar. I think the effects unit and the fuzzbox makes everything sound cool, but I can only go so far with that stuff. I have a keyboard that's a little better...a Yamaha something...but it was cheap, too.
PSF: "The Soul of Trees" on "Silver Lining" has a very nice relaxing, almost prog-y vibe about it and Harmonies and Atmospheres has a couple of track titles that appear to be nods to the krautrock genre: "Clustertone" and "Deluxe Harmonia," two of Mobius and Rodelius' bands. In fact, the second Harmonia LP was called Harmonia Deluxe, which I have to assume you were aware of. Are or were you ever a fan of "progressive" rock or krautrock?
Yes, I'm very into all of it: Fripp/Eno, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Cluster, Camel, etc., etc. I purposely named the song after that Harmonia LP. I really like their music a lot. I think now and then I do try to incorporate elements of the prog rock style, but as I've said, my equipment limits me by far on experimenting further into the realm of space rock. So, as much as I would like to recreate these sounds, I don't have the money and the equipment to do it properly. But eventually I will be able to afford better equipment. I hope.
PSF: What type of music do you enjoy listening to when you're not working--who are some of your favorite artists?
I really like a lot of new French pop bands like Tahiti 80, Phoenix, Mellow, Daft Punk.... I also like the new His Name Is Alive a lot [Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth (4AD)], the most recent Kaji Hideki [From Cafe Scandinavia With Love-for cafe Apres-midi (Trattoria/Polystar) is really great pop music, mostly sung in Japanese, and the latest Teenage Fanclub [Howdy (Thirsty Ear)].
PSF: "Some Kind of Drug" on Fluffy Pillow has an ethereal, other-worldly feel to it and your vocal approach on that track and many others has an almost effeminate-yet-romantic style akin to the popular singers from the '60s like Frankie Avalon, James Darren, Bobby Vinton that were satirized to no end by Bill Murray as a lounge singer in some of those old "Saturday Night Live" skits. Was that approach a sort of "guilty pleasure" of yours?
Yes, guilty pleasure for sure. I would say Bill Murray is right on! That song was kind of a mixture of Spandau Ballet and '50's lounge music and maybe even Wham! On that song anyway. It was done tongue-in-cheek, making fun of '80's pop songs. I got so carried away. I guess it could have been worse.
PSF: It also seems like a 12" remix, going on for about 6 minutes or so. And aside from only a few other tracks, like "Seeds and Stones" on "A Shadow of Eclipse...," you predominently stick to the short pop format: 3 minutes--often less. Do you enjoy stretching out and letting the song go off on tangents or are those anomolies and you really prefer to keep it short and sweet?
I think short and sweet is my better format most of the time. Once in awhile I like to stretch it out a bit. Get a groove going, maybe hypnotic and trance inducing.
PSF: "Interlude for Love" [on Fluffy Pillow] has such a stick-in-the-head melody that I was humming it for days after I heard it. A lot of your material contains these brilliant little riffs or melodies--reminiscent of those trumpet lines in some old Bert Kaempfert songs. Do you spend a lot of time hunting around for the perfect melody, or do these just come to you in a burst of inspiration out of the blue?
Yeah, pretty much out of the blue. I just start playing and I find a nice riff out of nowhere. If it's catchy and it has that magic, I know it's going to sound cool.
PSF: Fluffy Pillow has a light and airy, space age bachelor pad vibe to it, yet it's also very romantic--I'd almost include it on my Desert Island Disks of great "fuck albums" with titles like "Sexylovemachine," and "Feel Your Love." Is that a subgenre that you're particularly enamored with--say, the work of Les Baxter, Esquival, etc.?
I always wanted to make a Fluffy Pillow-type of album, a combination of '50's lounge mixed with '80's synthpop, with some '90's guitarpop sprinkled in. The love theme was intentional, it was made as a homage to romance, silly and sweet and sometimes downright embarrassing in all it's glory.
PSF: I've often wondered about the title "Revelation at 3:33 a.m."--it seems like a thinly veiled pun on 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Was that literally written after you woke up with some great revelation at 3:33 in the morning or is there a pun at work there. AND, did you ever toy with calling it "Revolution at 3:33 (r)p.m."?
No, I never thought of that! I guess I should have. Really, I just named it that because I like when the clock says 3:33. I always liked the way it looks on a digital clock: 3:33.
PSF: Jim, talk a little about your fascination with Japan and the orient in general. Dream Window was released on a Japanese label and the liner notes include references and "thank you"s almost exclusively to Japanese individuals and organizations, right down to the photos and art work. Was this recorded in Japan or were the ideas based upon a visit over there?
My wife Ritsuko is from Japan and I visited there three years ago, it was so great! Anyway...when Elefant [the Spanish label] licensed my CD [Blue Island Sound (1997)] to Tokuma Japan, Tokuma offered me a deal to release an exclusive CD for Japan [Ocean Rainbow (1998)]...then Vivid Sound approached me through Blackbean [& Placenta] to release an exclusive CD for Japan [Pink Grapefruit (1999)]. Also, Clover Japan released Dream Window in Japan a year before Clover USA. But no, none of [Dream Window] was exactly based on a visit to Japan, although a few songs on ''A Shadow Of.." were.
PSF: Have you ever toured Japan, and how did your reception in Japan compare to your reception over here?
I never played live in Japan or even in the USA for that matter. I don't think I'd be good at it. Although it did seem like most of the record stores there knew OCM.
PSF: The new release also has a track ("June Moonbeams") that sounds like it has a Japanese female vocalist in the background. Who helped out on that track and was it perhaps left over from the Dream Window sessions?
That was the voice from a sound effects CD that I used...It really worked out cool for that song, because I thought my guitar playing was a bit like an electric koto or something.
PSF: "Void If Otherwise Unknown" off Dream Window has a very nice Guided by Voices vibe to it, particularly in your vocal approach, which reminds me a lot of Bob Pollard and Tobin Sprout. In many circles, GBV are considered the apex of lo-fi, home recording. Have they been an inspiration, not so much musically--although that similarity is there on occasion--but with the whole home recording approach to making music?
GBV were sort of an influence maybe 10 years after the fact, I mean, I've been recording since the mid-'80's, too. It just wasn't very good at all. Not nearly as good as what they were doing in the mid-'80's.
PSF: For those of us who might want to mix up a little of our own Orange Cake Mix at home, could you give us a brief rundown of the equipment you use to create your music?
Well, hate to say it, but I have not much to mention for equipment other than what I've already mentioned. I do have a new guitar and drum machine...Same old 4-track and effects unit. Kind of a compliment since you think my music sounds that well recorded. I know how to adjust the volume and treble. Simple things like that.
PSF: "Sticks and Stones" is one of your longest tracks, pushing the nine minute mark, and it has a beautifully hypnotic, almost hallucinotory quality to it--"trance-inducing," as you've mentioned earlier. Do psychedelics ever play a part in the creation of an Orange Cake Mix recording? [Not that I'm asking you to admit to anything illegal, mind you!]
Nah. No psychedelics necessary. Maybe I was taking codeine or vicodin back then for back pain a few years ago...tends to relax me and give me energy at the same time. Maybe that's why that song went on so long!! I just kind of got lost in the groove.
PSF: Finally, what's on the horizon for Orange Cake Mix? You put out your latest release (Harmonies and Atmospheres from last year) as a CDr on your own Twilight Furniture imprint. Was that just to get it out there for your fans and are you still hoping for a regular label release, or do you intend to continue self-releasing material for the foreseeable future?
That was kind of a pre-release in a way. That will be released as a proper CD soon, probably manufactured by North of January. I also have a new CD coming out on the label Chocolat Art Returns called Infinite Beauty. It's a mixture of soft acoustic pop, ambient textures, space, and other things like that. Probably will be released in May or June, 2002.
Jim Rao can be contacted via his website at http://orangecakemix.virtualave.net.
Jeff Penczak is the host of the "No Soap, Radio" program on Monday evenings between 9-11pm EST over WNTI-FM, 91.9 in Hackettstown, NJ USA. You can listen to him live via www.wnti.org.
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