More Complex Than Pop
An Interview with Musician Jim O'Rourke
Chicagoan Jim O'Rourke, although by now a name more or less internationally ubiquitous, is perplexing. A brief and partial look at his resume will prove this: Stereolab and Superchunk productions, appearances with Luc Ferrari, performances under the direction of legendary Japanese composer Kosugi Takehisa for Merce Cunningham.
Having also worked with countless musicians of legendary stature including Evan Parker, Henry Kaiser, as well as with rock notables K.K. Null and Thurston Moore, O'Rourke seems to have inevitably drawn a peculiar and sizable following of fans that range from crotchety aficionados to willfully weird avant-pop fops to genuine music lovers. Making phenomenal solo albums probably also helped.
He is, without question, a cult-icon.
But the incessant and widespread labeling of O'Rourke as a "pop-guru," though never a blight to O'Rourke's creativity, is a bust on the part of rock-journalism.
The definition is a cop-out. O'Rourke does have a cunning pop-sensibility, making his recordings strangely comforting and disorienting at the same time, but never has he wallowed in pop excess - but this excess could be precisely what he toys with.
Yes, he has talked about using "loaded" information (i.e., pre-made music with cultural associations to test the limits of polysemy and taste), but his seemingly familiar songs result strictly from his innate talent.
Cheap and camp appropriation meant for associative recognition has no place in O'Rourke's music.
Flowing arpeggio, ripping pedal-steel, saccharine melodies, pristine guitar, textural dissonance, blips, droops, glitches, and quirks are often oddly and utterly of "Americana."
Though technically and stylistically far-reaching, O'Rourke is without a trace of showy hubris. Rest assured, choosing from his work ranging from improv guitar-based work to tape-collages approaching "musique concre�te", (the French tradition of electronic exploration,) shouldn't be hard.
It would be nearly impossible to find musicians as versatile as Jim O'Rourke. To carelessly brush him under the pop umbra would be an outright mistake.
O'Rourke's complex. He's not about cultural critique, nostalgia, or parody, but about social-navigation, awareness, and sincerity.
O'Rourke toured Japan this fall with Thurston Moore and Matta Gustafsson and has just finished recording a highly anticipated new album, which is due to be released sometime in the near future. Recently, he took part in an email interview on the tiresome "sin qua nons," (absolute prerequisite) of rock, the politics of the avant garde, his work ethic, aesthetics, and social observations.
RB: You've had an incredibly prolific career starting at an early age. How is it humanly possible to put out over 50 albums (records is what I meant), not even including collaborations, within about 15 years?
JO: Well, I haven't. It's a perception I don't understand ... of my "own" I've made maybe 10 albums. Engineering/producing don't count as my albums. Possible? It's what I do. I work 18 hours a day every day. I like to work.
RB: What do you do when your ambitions flag (if this ever happens)?
JO: Ambition never enters into it.
RB: You have said that many of your albums are about Americana. Are these albums parodies or the results of a genuine infatuation - or of something entirely intermediate, indefinite, or equivocal?
JO: Not a parody at all, or infatuation, it's more like trying to reconcile what is imagined, learned, real and imaginary. It really only applies to bad timing and happy days. Parody and its ugly cousin irony are generally signs of laziness. Is it really that impossible to believe that something can be funny and sincere at the same time?
RB: You have expressed an interest in culturally selective sensibilities, specifically in global marketing. Do you see parallels in music?
JO: Well, when the market is down, I usually like to clear out my portfolio, opening opportunities for growth potential in a fixed money market investment plan, which in turn cultivates a climate conducive to a growing APR percentage. Calpis and Pokari Sweat, two of Japan's best-selling soft drinks, refer phonetically to the basest of biological functions. What would be equally embarrassing musical bloopers?
RB:[Are there parallels in]Indie rock?
JO: The cover of Eureka is of a pudgy Asian man, splayed and elated, dreamy and downright bawdy. On the other hand, the cover of Halfway To A Threeway, released on the same year as the aforementioned record, is of a cute frog-doll.
RB: What explains your peculiar taste for drollery - especially this kind of frog-doll-drollery.
JO: Well, look a little closer at the frog, and you'll see...
RB: What's the most outworn word used in the arts to bloat the dull? To "prime the pomp," so to speak.
RB: What should fans expect from your new record?
JO: A tropical blend of milk chocolate with just a dash of Kahlua, so sit back, relax, and let the mudslide take you away.
RB: How did your label come to be called "Moikai," "once again," or "one more time" in Japanese? Is it still active? Any recent releases?
JO: Yeah, just recently two: the Triangles and Orton Socket. There is a plan for the complete solo recordings of Rik Emmet, the very rare Steve Allen/ Jack Kerouac AAA-sponsored On the Road - An Aural Guide to Road Repair, and a hilarious album of blooper outtakes from Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate.
RB: You will be touring in Japan shortly. Any anticipations?
JO: Girls, Girls, Girls... .
RB: Some of your work fringes on pop, others on scabrous noise. Do both have similar origins?
JO: The drum.
RB: Do you think experimental musicians prefer to play at arty venues instead of at honky tonks? Having been invited to play at museums as well as at clubs, does context of representation ever become an issue?
JO: Yes, now I know not to play at museums.
RB: When you played the Logan Square Auditorium last May, you performed on a balcony, invisible from the audience. Is this an approach that you take frequently? If so, why?
JO: What's there to look at? Unless it's Iggy Pop up there, generally, there's no reason to look.
RB: Do you see so-called experimental, semi-improvisational "artists" as contrived, tight-niched within leagues of inkhorn cohorts, and surprisingly incestuous at times? Any words of wisdom for the avant-swank?
JO: Stop now.
RB: This may be an outlandish question, but what recent buzz-band do you secretly approve of, if any?
JO: Jordan Knight.
RB: If antic angst characterized music in the 90s, what does today?
JO: Ironic antic angst.
RB: Were you exposed to a lot of music as a child? If so, how has it influenced your music?
JO: I was exposed to as a child, in response I kept to my room and played records.
RB: As a Chicagoan, what do you appreciate or disapprove most of the Midwest and its culture?
JO: The ability to leave.