Jim O'Rourke in conversation with Martin Conrads. (Berlin, March 1997)

The following Interview took place in the cafeteria of the Info-box at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. The night before Jim O'Rourke did a concert at Podewil, playing the track from one of his latest solo record (Happy Days, Revenant 1997). For the following day a concert was annonced to take place in some new built, but yet unrented office rooms at Checkpoint Charlie, where O'Rourke was to be playing on an interactive basis with Nicolas Collins [x] and Oval.

Martin Conrads: The concert yesterday originally was announced to be a hurdy-gurdy-concert, but in fact you were playing guitar sitting next to a recorder with a tape of hurdy-gurdy music on it. I sat in the last row, so I didn't see if you did something interactive..?

Jim O'Rourke: No, actually part of the reason I do that: It's the first time I've done that. I've done it twice in public. This was the first time I've done this version. There used to be an older way which I didn't like as much. But part of the reason I do it that way is because: when the hurdy-gurdy starts to get loud, through the whole time the hurdy-gurdy is playing - which is almost 40 minutes- I still play guitar; even when you don't hear me. The idea of going in front of an audience and performing - I stopped doing it, for the last two years i haven't been doing it very much, because a lot of people don't address the question of what does it mean actually physically going in front of someone and performing. The argument that I hear from people is: ≥Oh, you're just playing and there's a tape - it's not 'playing'„, I don't like that argument because the real idea is that you go see someone present something to you. That person had to put just as much working to make the tape as he would have to perform it live - and vice versa. The fact that during the performance I'm being drowned out by myself from the past - the tape, or the CD in this case - there is hopefully attention that people think: why has he stopped playing, I can't hear him. That's kind of really all it is: The watcher has the post of a listener and he's thinking: why is he even on stage at this point. To me that is no different than someone performing this kind of music and just standing there playing it. Why are you bothering being here doing that? That's really all it is.

MC: So, is there a moment of accident when the CD is suddenly beginning to play while you're already playing guitar?

J O'R: I put the amount of silence on the CD that's needed to play the initial guitar part, and then, when the hurdy-gurdy is coming in, that cue means when to loop certain guitar parts. But then after that I really only play the e-string for the next forty minutes, so there is only one point where I have to hit the chord with the hurdy-gurdy-change. Otherwise the hurdy-gurdy is really just drowning at that point, so there doesn't have to be so much precision.

MC: I was reminded a little bit of Alvin Lucier, of his 'I am sitting in a room', the thing about the subject in space, and what's happening within the music, and what kind of alienation maybe happens when the music on tape is a loop. Also the sound of your concert yesterday was similar to it to a certain extent. Is it something you're aiming at with this work, this self-referential content?

J O'R: It's more that i'm interested in the self-referentiality: I don't really want to aim at it because I don't want to think that I have a place where I'm going to get to, like a goal I'm going to get to. I'm really more interested in constant requestioning, which is why I tend to work on something for two years and then only do it a few times in public and maybe make a record on it and then I stop doing it. The interest in me is the learning process of being in an uncomfortable situation, which happens when you question something, when you truly question something; that uncomfortable position is what interests me - how you find a way out of it, how you find a solution or how you find your honest position in it. It isn't so much a goal that I'm interested in, it's more the process of getting there. Which in some way is the way Lucier thinks.

MC: I also mentioned Lucier since I read that you performed with Nicolas Collins in the late eighties; for the most part his work also has this reference to Lucier's.

J O'R: Was it in the eighties? Maybe more in the early nineties. Oh no, you're right, in the eighties I did that, I forgot about that, that's when I first met Nic, that was in 88.

MC: ...being member of a band called 'The Elvis Messiahs' then, as I read?

J O'R: Oh no, how did you find out about that? Yeah, Nic came came to Chicago and he needed musicians for his project. A professor in the university he was visiting was actually sort of in this group with me, and so he had us come and we were his musicians.

MC: But that was in your very beginning...?

J O'R: Oh god, The Elvis Messiahs. It was terrible stuff, awful!

MC: Sorry, I can't tell, I never heard it.

J O'R: Oh, you don't want to, real bad music.

MC: The other thing I was reminded of yesterday -by sound- was this record by Tony Conrad, 'Slapping Pythagoras', where you are also performing on, this minimalist approach in sound.

J O'R: I've been interested very seriously in minimalism since I was very young. The main thing is, that I never was able to find exactly what it is that I could do with it, that I could say I'm not necessarily imitating someone. I would hope that to people buying records it would seem not so much that I'm copying Tony, but if you look at like my involvement, I'm involved with lots of these people: I work for Tony, I work for Arnold Dreyblatt, people probably don't know that yet, -not really worked with, I mean, I worked with Tony, I'm sort of his assistant. But with people like Phil Niblock and Arnold Dreyblatt, I've been doing a lot of work in the past few years getting their records re-issued or getting tapes restored. There's a certain period and a certain aesthetic of minimalism that I feel very connected to. It was only recently, about two or three years ago, I decided I was finally going to learn how to fingerpick - because I've always been a huge fan of John Fahey's. About a year ago or so it just hit me one day that that's where the meeting point for me was between minialism and everything else. What happened was: I listened to John Fahey when I was younger. What I got out of it was very much the guitar playing in it. But when I started listening to him again, when I looked at him again let's say recently when I started working with him, I noticed that another thing about Fahey's music that had always interested me but I didn't know how to say, was the sound of the guitar in these open tunings which, of course, is related to Niblock's music. I never made that connection verbally before. I mean, I could feel the connection but I could never articulate it and so I began writing these fingerpicking songs, with overtones to come on. It was something I felt natural for me, the thing I did last night. And then there is another record I did, it's not out yet, but I made a CDR of it for Drag City, which is more the guitar side of it ('Bad Timing', forthcoming). So the past two years, that's where it's been heading. Because I actually haven't made a record in two years. The last record I made was 'Terminal Pharmacy', which was finished in late 94, it came out in 95 but I finished it in 94. So I actually haven't made a record on my own since then in between those two. Terminal Pharmacy for me was the end of making tape music, that was it, it was sort of my tombstone and I stopped making music for a while. Minimalism is probably my real first love musically, so now that I finally figured out what I wanna do with it I'm actually working on a lot on my own things again.

MC: Saying this was your tombstone concerning tape music: has it to do with the phenomenon of like in the eigthies a lot of people did tape music, and now things have changed and people are doing digital process editing more and more? Did this have an influence on your decision?

J O'R: What it was, is, I spent so many years making tape pieces and tape compositions. And a lot of things I was doing were like a lot of the early records that use field recordings. I was very interested in the cultural baggage that comes with a sound. Because one of the things that interested me about musique concrète was, that many composers of musique concrète felt that you could actually make abstract music out of these sounds - which I don't believe: you can't use the sound of a car door closing and not expect the listener to bring whatever cultural baggage that comes with that. It isn't just a sound any more. Just like playing a piano is not a sound. You can't hear the sound of the piano anymore, because there's too much cultural wake to the concept of a piano. When you hear a piano, you hear a piano playing, you don't hear whatever sounds happen to come out of a piano. This question of abstraction in music was very important to me. I tried to make these pieces that would address the literal use of the sounds. Like what does it mean to have the sound of this car door but in the background it's the sound of a lake or something. That sounds like a dumb example, but what I was interested in is: don't listen to the sound anymore, listen to what the reference is! That's a car, and that's a lake; why is this here, and that there? It's not a sound and a sound. A lot of music in the -whatever- PostIndustrial world, they just use these sounds just sort of like say, the sound of birds would used to be mellow. But why is it mellow? It's only mellow because of its use in that way. And when it becomes used long enough in that way it starts to carry that cultural baggage within. But the thing is then: The next generation takes that for granted, and then they just use the sound, and it's just like saying: gesture A will equal result A; without thinking what is this gesture, using these birds, no: why? Oh, because it's mellow! But why is it mellow? Only because of its past use. So I was more interested in pointing these things out, like on the 'Brise Glace'-record I made, which is about pointing out the sort of the accepted gestures of a certain genre and continously either denies the expectations of the gesture or overdoses the gesture. Hopefully the listener will start to hear that it is a gesture and not take it for granted.

MC: Would you connect this to some topics of visual art, like - a pretentious example - in abstract expressionism: red, yellow and blue for Barnett Newman, taking the colours as gestures and maybe trying to redefine them as colours, abstracted from their cultural meaning?

J O'R: It's actually sort of in opposition to that, because I don't believe you can. I think once you start working with something that has cultural baggage, unless you find another planet of people to listen to it, they're going to be carrying baggage with it, wether you like it or not. If you are locked up in your painting studio and thinking about painting theory in your world in your head you can believe these things. But I don't think you can if you actually have to deal with an audience. And if you're not willing to deal with the audience's mode of perception then I don't see the point of presenting anything to an audience. I'm always keeping in mind how an audience perceives things and what the culture of the music is, and that's what I'm always very specific about, where the records come out, in what context they come out, because that also implies a cultural baggage.

MC: You mean, even concerning the labels?

J O'R: Yes, even to that point. The thing I did last night could very easily come out on one of these new music labels. But I don't want it to. I don't want to be in that baggage. That's just as much part of figuring out what I want to do as making the materials itself. What its context is.

MC: Yesterday, while the sound of the hurdy-gurdy went louder and louder, it happened not only that you disappeared with your guitar playing by loudness, but also a lot of people left the room. Do you think the context wasn't that good yesterday?

J O'R: I think the context for the show last night wasn't that good for what I did. It was good in a sense that it was so different (LAUGHS). If i did this in Chicago for instance, nobody would have walked out, or if I did it in most places in the States, nobody would have walked out. I never played in Berlin before. I was surprised how many people hated it. I mean, I had people coming up to me while I was playing and telling me I suck, which I was really surprised of, to have a negative advice. I don't know why.

MC: Do you think that wouldn't have happened in Chicago because there is more like a constant scene for events like this?

J O'R: I don't know. It isn't because it was Chicago, because I could say pretty much any US-city. Maybe there is more of a tradition of things like this in the States, that kind of music? Certain kinds of music you see on a festival here you would never see in the States, it just doesn't happen. I mean, Tony Conrad, over the last year and a half has become sort of a small rock star. The people who are buying rock records in the states are the people who are buying Tony Conrad records. You see arguments by rock fans about Tony conrad. It's an interesting situation. Someone like Arnold Dreyblatt is more popular to rock fans than to new music people. I find the new music world completely uninteresting. I don't like it. I was involved in that whole thing for a while, I hated it. A bunch of people who claim to be interested in finding out about new forms of music, but anything that doesn't sound like what they're used to they hate it - like last night. That's why I prefer to perform in rock clubs. When people come they are more willing to find out what's going on. That's been my experience with like Gastr Del Sol. The only time we played and got bad reactions had been two new music festivals - and they thought we were bad because there happened to be singing. Which is just ridiculous, it's people not thinking very much. What's Morton Feldman when there is a part with singing? Is that bad then? If you don't fit the mold of what new music is, ironically, then it's very uncomfortable for a lot of people. In the States, at least in the whole independent rock scene, there are no expectations. If people haven't heard stuff like this before, it's all new, it's exciting. Someone like Tony Conrad, that has to do more with rock music than with new music. There's nothing in new music that matches the actual physical power of Tony's music except maybe back in the early seventies with Phil Glass. But nobody does that anymore. The audience doesn't want it. New music is for a privileged audience, it's not music for the proletariat (LAUGHS).

MC: With the music of Gastr del Sol it seems very much like there are some kind of tools you can use, you can leave them out, later in the same track the appear again, certain acoustical devices like this. It seems like having a set of tools to use.

J O'R: Right, in a way that's like using characters, having a character reappearing later. One of my favourite things to do is - which you can probably hear on all the Gastr records - you can play the same thing for ten minutes and then stop, and then you can play the same thing for ten minutes and then play a five second thing at the end of it and that changes the last ten minutes completely. These can be characters. It's also, of course, something for making formal structures. But formal structures for formal structures' sake is also not interesting. Which, when I was at school, the complaint from professors about minimalism was, that it has no form. I mean, it does! But that shouldn't matter! Everything should be taken like tabula rasa, everything has to convey, whatever it is, its trying to get across on its own terms that it creates in the time of its actual conception. If it is referential to something outside of it, that's also fine. But to refer to a formal idea, a historical idea of a form outside of it like: this piece works because it uses sonata-form - I don't care, unless it addresses the historical questions of a sonata-form; that's different. It's the same I was talking about using sounds and forgetting that they actually came from somewhere. It's just using something blindly without questioning it.

MC: With Gastr del Sol you're using some musique concrète-like sounds, like voices on the street which might just fade out, or it all breaks down and something completely other happens, things like this. Would you say that this 'other' -piano, singing, whatever- would be the reference, like the lake and the car door, a citing of something different which wouldn't make the original sound necessary to be explained?

J O'R: It's partially that, it's partially like setting up expectations and defeating them, setting up almost like a mythology for the song. With Gastr it's very much half David (Grubbs [x]), half me, so sometimes there's decisions that I wouldn't do, but that David wants and vice versa. So it isn't as strict as the way I speek about these things, with Gastr it isn't as conceptual. Well, I shouldn't say 'conceptual', because that implies something like it just works in abstract terms, but it's not that. I'm trying to think about the last record: With Gastr it's hard to tell, because the work is strechted out over such a long time and it's such a part of another persons' influence, that it is hard for me to tell where the conceptual is going after a while.

MC: With Gastr there seems to be something cineastic in the music, could that be part of what you consider as being 'conceptual'?

J O'R: Like a lot of formal ideas, especially on 'Crookt, Crackt, or Fly', which is so much more a conceptual record than the rest, a lot of those songs were structured on those ideas like: we're gonna play this for five minutes because we're only gonna have a song for five seconds, things like that. Like the part where the Tinguely-sculpture is playing, like you gonna expect that drum part here and it's gonna be a Tinguely-sculpture. We should sit on this for a while, we have to sit on it long enough, so people expect it to become a section of its own. So where is the distinction line between 'this is now a section of its own', 'it's another song', or 'it's a section of that song'? Always trying to point out that 'is it a song just because David sings ten seconds'?, there's a lot of that on 'Crookt, Crackt, or Fly' where the song is ten seconds long and then it's like fifteen minutes of the instrumental fade out. The last album was done a bit more intuitively, for musical reasons, just like: oh, that sounds good (LAUGHS), which is, I think, why I like the last one a little better. With the last one (Upgrade and Afterlife) I was engineering everything, so it's hard for me to tell, because in addition to writing the stuff and playing it I had to engineer also. So my attention was almost always with the mixing and recording, it's sort of a big blur to me, that record.

MC: I was asking about the cineastic aspect because I was wondering what your assumptions are regarding the use of music for the listener. In the last years, there has been a lot of talk about what's its use or in what situations you listen to, or what's the use of the medium or which media are being used for listening to music, what is the aspect of 'live' etc. In your music there are different styles of dealing with time and space, like improvising, or the more 'compact' song formats with Gastr del Sol. Do you personally have a theoretical basis for what's the use of music?

J O'R: I know I probably do have it, but I can't articulate it. The thing that probably unifies everything is, I do stuff because there's situations I have to learn how to get out of, like there are problems I have to learn to get out of. How do I get out of this situation. Be honest and you find out something new about this situation! Which is, why I improvise less and less. There's a distinction between improvising and playing improvised music, like, a lot of improvised music you know exactly what's gonna happen, you know exactly what it's gonna sound like. Like if it's the first time for two people to meet you know what's gonna happen because it's gonna be their kind of like we've-met-for-the-first-time- kind of improvising. Or if it's a group that spent together for a long time, and that's playing improvised music just like playing free jazz, to me that's not improvising. One of the reasons I like Derek Bailey is, he is at the point now where he is almost always putting himself into situations which are ridiculous. When he plays with someone, how the hell does he get out of a situation of playing with a jungle dj and do something with it? I don't think, he's always successfull, I think it's the other people's learning. The thing is, he's putting himself into uncomfortable situations. As much as I like Evan Parker, Evan Parker continues to play in safe situations and that's just not interesting to me! For instance, Nic Collins is a great improviser, because each situation that he is in each time is completely different, and he takes it as that, he tries to relearn everytime. A lot of people in that improvise world don't do that, they're interplaying there instruments, it's an instrument thing. There are people who can sound the same every night, and are not playing the same. I've seen AMM four shows in a row, I could tell the difference between every night, if you played me two minutes I would be able to tell which show it was. The same thing with Tony Conrad. He sometimes just plays one note for an hour. I've played maybe fifteen concerts with Tony now, I have tapes of them all, I can tell within two minutes which concert it is. But there's also people who replay like robots, and they just do the same thing over and over again, that's just really uninteresting. That's a situation that I'm not interesed in - there's no grow.

MC: Some people are doing - or at least claim to do - improvising in a pop context. I talked with John McEntire last year about repetition and the difference between having tracks on a cd and be aware that everyone will hear it the same everyone other does, and the stage situation. He said their aim as Tortoise is to perform totally different from the cd and totally different every night, like a completely different concept of what a special song could be each time anew. Sure, this is far away from like AMM for example...

J O'R: Yeah, that's a different kind of definition of improvisation. Their situation is: playing a song and it's up to one person to decide when to move to the next part. And he may decide that they play on a part for only a minute or sometimes for five minutes. In that context that's a kind of improvisation. I think Tortoise actually does that very well but I also don't think that's uncommon with a lot of bands. With Gastr on one tour we were playing very similar sets night after night and that's why I said 'stop', we can't do this any more. That's why we are playing less and less now, cause I demand every show has to be completely rewritten from the ground up. We don't even do songs from the records anymore. The last tour we did was all the material written just for that show. So it means there are varying degrees, I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but I wouldn't use the word improvisation, I use the word 'flexibility' on stage. That sort of decisions of where to move live is not really improvisation. But that's just getting into a semantical argument. But it's just like a flexibility a lot of bands don't have. I've seen Tortoise as couple of nights in a row: the show is very different, I could tell them apart. They play the same songs but one night they play it like this, the other like that, and that's good..

MC: You mentioned the word flexibility. Tomorrow you will perform together with Nicolas Collins and Oval, which on the press release was announced to be an event of clerk-like 'editing'. Regarding the context of the rooms you will be in, it seems like a kind of decision making: forwarding information, working it out, binary, whatever. Would you say that, when you are improvising, it is a kind of decision making that can be compared to like how you deal with information.?

J O'R: Oh, yes, sure. It's just about how many decisions you have to make. In a free improvise situation you have to make every decision. But if I was playing with, say, Tortoise there is a certain amount of decisons I can make. They're all interrelated in that way: free improvisation is one of those situations where you have the possibility of having to make every decision - or no decision at all. It's a unique situation. Since it's a unique situation I'd personally like to reserve the word improvisation for just that. Tomorrow for instance I will be making decisions in the sense that I'm gonna be basically sitting there and working like I would any day. It's the same thing with the remixes: I hope every remix I've done is different. Remixing to me is interesting because I like been given something that means something to those people who did that song. I try to listen to the music and figure out some characteristic aspects of it and find the things about their music that make it, and amplify certain aspects of those. The Microstoria remix I hope is very different from the Oval remix. The Oval remix was about that track. It isn't about just remixing that track. And the Microstoria remix is about that track, it's not about remixing Microstoria. So, whatever I get tomorrow I have to listen to it and figure out what its character is. It's almost like giving a report on it.

MC: You worked with so many people that it must be the same on a larger scale: having a fair amount of information, and maybe, when collaborating, doing like a remix of a person's concept. For that reason you must have a special system of value or information. Would it be too straight saying that?

J O'R: Maybe a little. I try to re-evaluate it every single time. Working with other people that's something that happened a fairly long time ago for me, and it was by working with all those people that I started to get my ideas together: And since then the amount of people I worked with is actually very small. Like the last two years I hadn't worked with any of the people that I used to -not for anything personally. More and more I didn't like collaborating. The only serious collaboration I've done at all is Gastr del Sol. It's really like a month within the entire year. It seems like a bigger thing because there's these records and all that. It's just like a month of extremely intense work. The public image of all that is always a lot more than it really is.

MC: On the 'Mirror Repair'- CD there is this cover by Albert Oehlen, also you are performing with The Red Krayola. Is there a special relationship between your work and the visual art scene?

J O'R: With The Red Krayola that's with Mayo. Mayo is an old friend of Albert, because he lived in Düsseldorf for many years. Now Mayo is in Los Angeles, teaching at the Pasadena Art Centre, along with Stephen Prina. That's the art connection. Through them we met Albert. Both David and I actually like Albert, Albert is a great guy, for me he's just ≥Albert„ (LAUGHS). For me it's very difficult to remember that he's a famous artist. He's like your funny friend. In terms of involvement in art I'm not as much as I would have been a few years ago, now I'm very tired of it, I've burnt out on the art world. I'm involved because I am good friend with Stephen Prina, so there's this connection, but nothing really strong except for the personal ties, there's no cultural ties. We used Albert's painting because we liked the painting and he's a friend. Just with the new record we liked that picture and I knew people who knew Roman Signer. Also that picture actually makes sense with the record, programmatically. With 'Mirror Repair' that was a difficult cover, because the title of the record is so programmatic already that any picture having anything to do with the title would have been too much. That's I guess, why we optioned for the abstract. Oh, (LISTENING TO THE MUSIC IN THE BACKGROUND) - that's Alanis Morissette, I think she's great. She is a great phenomenon. The thing I like about Alanis Morissette is: the main difference between American pop music and European pop music -if I can be so general- is, that most European pop music is bubblegum-like, very connected with fashion, whereas in the States it's more like a genre-thing. Well, that distiction is not so important, but what's important with Alanis Morissette that I find interesting is, that most songs sung by someone like in a position of a young adult teen singer are usually written by someone else, and the lyrics of the song - even if they talk about the same subjects like lost love and all that, were written from a level of experience of the maturity of the writer, maybe a thirty year old. But if you listen to the lyrics of Alanis Morissette songs they are written as if they were written by a nineteen year old, like she gets mad over things only a nineteen year old will get mad over. And the way she perceives like what love is, is only what a nineteen year old would think, not a thiry year old would think. It's very rare in American pop music for that to happen. So I think she's very interesting - I mean: it's not, but it is (LAUGHS). I mean, I am generally more interested in pop culture than in anything else. I'm interested in how people perceive what's been thrown at them every day, and how they throw it back. And I'm always watching pop culture. That's why I find Alanis Morissette more interesting than most new music stuff. It doesn't matter to me wether she means it or not - the factor that matters is, it can be interpreted that way, and it is very strongly that. And there's other questions that can be asked if she does mean it, but there's plenty of questions to ask regardless if she means it or not. It's on a scale that communicates to a larger amount of people. So it's interesting to see how that language is changed and shaped to deal with a large amount of people. Alanis Morisette -wow!

last update: 2.3.1997

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