Catching Up With Jim O’Rourke
The reclusive polymath on his ambient work, Gastr Del Sol, and why he never wants to play live again
Jim O’Rourke is searching for a word he’s forgotten how to say in English. After more than a decade living in Japan, the experimental musician doesn’t speak his native language much anymore and warns me at the beginning of our interview that he may occasionally have trouble. He’s trying to describe his new album, Sleep Like It’s Winter, and he’s pretty sure the word he’s looking for is not “exhume.”
“Express!” he says after working his way backwards with an online Japanese-to-English translator. It’s a significant word. Pick nearly any genre and O’Rourke can express a deep knowledge, critical understanding, and sly humor. But generally, he likes to let his music do the talking. Curious about his thoughts on guitar rock? Listen to 2001’s Insignificance. Americana and folk? Bad Timing. Classic pop music? Grab Eureka — and if you enjoyed that Burt Bacharach cover on it, well, he made an entire album of them. His latest is being called an ambient album, but he sees it more as an album about ambient albums.
For many, O’Rourke is best known for his work with other artists. You’ll find him in the credits of records by foundational indie artists such as Bill Callahan, Stereolab, Superchunk, Brainiac, and Joanna Newsom, as well as experimental legends Faust, John Fahey, Nurse With Wound, Tony Conrad, and Keiji Haino. As a producer-turned-member of Sonic Youth, he was key to their 2000s renaissance on late classics like Murray Street. And of course, there’s Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record as much myth as music due in no small part to his presence.
None of those artists come up during our hour-long conversation. They’re other artists’ stories and O’Rourke prefers the sidelines even in his own career: Interviews are rare, live performances even rarer. Yet O’Rourke subverts the trope of the reclusive musical genius, and the last few years have actually been some of his most prolific. This spring, he released the 40th album in his Steamroom series. Though it started in 2013 as a place to put archival material, Steamroom has evolved into a sort of sonic diary. In 2015, he returned to Drag City with Simple Songs, a collection of hilarious, cynical, and immaculately recorded pop tunes, and he continues to make collaborative releases with longtime friends such as Fennesz and Oren Ambarchi.
During our talk, O’Rourke offers rare insight into works old and new — from Sleep Like It’s Winter to his legendary ’90s post-rock duo with David Grubbs, Gastr Del Sol, to his favorite lyric and the one record he wishes people liked more. Like his music, he’s sharply intelligent, hilariously self-deprecating, and leaves you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface.
STEREOGUM: Are you at home?
JIM O’ROURKE: Yeah I’m at home in the studio, now that I have a studio.
STEREOGUM: I read you had to move your studio after the earthquake. How do you have things now?
O’ROURKE: When I lived in Tokyo, the second floor was where I worked, and the house got … it got kind of … you have to excuse me occasionally, I don’t speak English very much anymore. [Laughs] It became too unsafe to have the stuff up there. But I moved out of Tokyo just under two years ago. I live in the countryside where you can probably buy a block of buildings for the same price. I have something that is more like an actual studio now, although it doesn’t look like it yet. It’s still a mess. I’m about two hours outside of Tokyo in Yamanashi. It’s near Mount Fuji and all that stuff. It’s up in the mountains.
STEREOGUM: How did this new album Sleep Like It’s Winter end up on Newhere, which is a very new label?
O’ROURKE: I’ll make the long story short. The label Newhere, the mother label, or whatever you would call it, is this label called Felicity here and they’re the label that puts out Eiko Ishibashi’s records. I don’t know if you know her.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I enjoy her records.
O’ROURKE: I’ve produced all of Eiko’s records on that label so I knew [Newhere founder Hiroyasu] Hirakawa from Felicity. So the other side of the thing is people don’t really use things like Bandcamp in Japan because Paypal is near impossible to use here and just the culture of download music isn’t really what it is overseas. People still buy CDs here. Everything’s about CD still. So he wanted to start this label and he was like, “People here aren’t hearing the things you’re putting up on Bandcamp and I want people to hear those things.” It would have ended up there otherwise, but I made it specifically for him. It wasn’t like, “Oh I got that thing I was about to put up on Bandcamp.” I did work on it for about two years.
O’ROURKE: He said, “We’re starting an ambient label,” which got me going down the rabbit hole of conceptualizing the record for a much longer time than I usually would. Usually I give myself the problem to deal with, but the fact that somebody else was giving me a problem to deal with made it take quite a bit longer.
STEREOGUM: How would you say this album differs from some of the Steamroom releases?
O’ROURKE: I think the main difference was this certain stimulus, this problem that I had to pose myself was coming from an external source, which really made me feel on the hot seat more than usual. Also, that’s not anything I would have challenged myself with, like what the hell does it mean to make an “ambient record”? I wouldn’t. That would be something I would just talk about with someone or think about or make jokes about. But because I said I would do it, I actually had to finish it. I would say 80% to 90% of the things I do, I don’t finish, because I’m not necessarily interested in making something for other people to hear but that I’ve learned something from doing it.
STEREOGUM: You have an interesting way of approaching a genre too. When you look at Eureka or Insignificance, there’s a certain slyness to the way you’re making “a pop record” or “a rock album.” Did you have that impulse here?
O’ROURKE: Well in the end, this one really is the same thing as all those. I don’t know what the right word is because a lot of the words are very misleading — I guess it’s an album about ambient albums. Eureka was an album about pop albums. But for me the real challenge is how to do that and still for it to be that thing …
STEREOGUM: To still function in that genre?
O’ROURKE: How can it be able to be both? I really admire great genre filmmakers like William Friedkin, people who make these genre films that are simultaneously about [genre] but still completely succeed in being that thing. For me, that is the most interesting area. You can see when a genre filmmaker decides to make their experimental film, it’s almost always an absolute disaster because their strength is in informing the genre film conditions, the tropes or whatever you wanna say. If you try and do it directly it just completely fails. It has to be rooted in the language of what you’re working with.
STEREOGUM: Were you happy with the result?
O’ROURKE: I mean, I’m never happy, but it came out fairly close, more than usual. But I don’t mean that like I’m miserable — it’s just not why I do these things. If I wanted to be happy I would just sit and watch movies all day. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: You also just hit number 40 in your Steamroom series. Did you have expectations when this series started five years ago? Did you think that you would be releasing up to Steamroom 40?
O’ROURKE: I didn’t think about it, because I would have been making the things either way. It’s what I do with most of my time. It’s just that I like the way Bandcamp works. There’s like 50 or 60 people out there who want to hear those things, and they listen to them and that’s great. I don’t have to get involved with the whole cycle, I just want the stuff to be there and then when I’m gone, it’ll get taken down and thrown away and that’ll be it. For me, that would be the optimal way to do things because by the time I’m done with something, it’s really way behind me. I’m honestly only interested in the work, in doing the work. And when it’s done, I’ve learned something from it and now I can move on from what I’ve learned from that and put myself in another screwy position.
The funny thing with 40 is, I was talking to a friend about one record in particular that I took a long, long time to make and is maybe the closest I’ve ever been to being happy with making something, and no one liked it at all, which is fine. And we were joking about it. My friend said he makes a track in ten minutes and people love it. So I decided I’m gonna see if I can make a track in exactly the amount of time that it takes to listen to it. And that’s what that was, and I put it up and of course, like my friend said, easily the most popular one that I ever put up. And I literally made it in the exact — I put a mic out the window, actually you can hear, they’re out, the cicadas here are year round. Can you hear?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I can hear the birds too.
O’ROURKE: So that’s the window to the studio. I put the mic out there and then I played with a speaker outside so they could react, ’cause they do react to it. And then I just played for 40 minutes and I put it up. [Laughs] I didn’t even listen to it. Obviously I’ve been doing something wrong all these years.
STEREOGUM: How do you approach field recordings when you’re not just putting the mic out the window? Do you set out with your recorder to find something or is it more spontaneous and you just are trying to grab something that catches you?
O’ROURKE: I was really adamant when I was younger, in Chicago, because there were so many places to go to get sounds. I lived in an area where there were a lot of factories and stuff. And it was also the dawn of the first sort of really high quality portable recorders — before, you would need a Nagra or something really expensive. I don’t go doing it so much now because I don’t travel anymore really. If I went around where I live here all I’d get are these same goddamn cicadas everywhere, which is why they’ve been on the last six or seven things I’ve done, ’cause I can’t avoid ‘em. When I find something I wanna record I do try to make a point of doing it right. It’s now more like I’m looking for something that’s really special as opposed to when I was younger I was like gathering.
STEREOGUM: One of my favorite field recordings is the one you put on “The Seasons Reverse” from the last Gastr Del Sol record. You’re recording the kid lighting off firecrackers, and it’s a great sound, but then he notices and actually gets quite upset with you.
O’ROURKE: [Laughs] Yeah, I got yelled at once by somebody that called me a cultural imperialist for that. He yelled at David [Grubbs] and he said, “No that was Jim!” — which was true.
STEREOGUM: Gastr was so different from most of what got lumped in with post-rock at the time. That last album, Camoufleur, was released 20 years ago, so I’m curious what you think now about the project.
O’ROURKE: This is gonna sound weird, but we were fuckin’ great. [Laughs] We were! We were.
STEREOGUM: You were.
O’ROURKE: David and I were at a criss-cross point in our lives. I was like 24, 25 and all I was doing was making tape music and playing improvised music and he was a guy coming from his world of music, which was not my world, and we criss-crossed at a perfect point in our lives. I was someone who genuinely knew how to make tape music. That’s what my life was. So we met with his growing interest in that kind of music and his knowledge of things like Derek Bailey and I was getting more interested in finding ways to do what I did in other ways, besides making just straight up tape pieces. How could these things meet? And I think we — this is going to be a little roundabout …
STEREOGUM: That’s ok.
O’ROURKE: There’s a lot of so-called “avant-garde” pop and rock music and I absolutely fucking hate that stuff. It treats the other forms of music as sprinkles that you put on top of things. It’s not genuinely integrated into the songwriting, it’s not integrated into your choice of instruments. It’s just treated as like a stylish scarf draped around the neck of what is not interesting music. It really offends me, because my whole life has been about this other kind of music and it still is to this day. But I think what we did was absolutely genuine and was really an honest, true integration of those things, consciously. So I’m very — I don’t wanna use the P word, but I’m — I think it’s the real thing. So I’m very happy about that. I mean l don’t listen to this stuff, I don’t listen to stuff I’ve worked on, but I think what we did was better than people thought it was at the time. I know this is probably gonna be on print, but please somehow express that I’m not boasting while I’m saying this. I’m not boasting. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Eureka and Insignificance also have dedicated fans. Those are albums that were received one way and then, 20 years later, have grown to have a certain …
O’ROURKE: Well, I think because when they came out it was the height of that construct of that idea, this post-rock. And everything was seen through that prism. And thankfully that prism’s gone away and it’s like people, now they’re seeing things directly. I don’t know this directly, but I hear from friends, like my friend Glenn [Kotche of Wilco] who plays on all those. He’ll send me an email on occasion just like, “I’m in Morocco and someone just asked me to show them the beat from ‘Life Goes Off.’” So you hear stories, which is neat. I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. And that one song, the lyrics still make me laugh to this day. The one where the guy dies in bed. There’s a line — “I sure picked a winner” — that I think is the best thing that I ever came up with in my life. If I came up with one thing in that life, it’s that line. It still makes me laugh. I know you’re not supposed to laugh at your own stuff, but that’s one that’s pretty funny. I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.
O’ROURKE: I had to. I went like a year and a half trying to avoid it because I knew it had to be a trombone part but I was like, “Oh, I can’t play trombone.”
STEREOGUM: You played every instrument on that record.
O’ROURKE: Yeah, I played everything. That was sort of the challenge.
STEREOGUM: What was the challenge for Simple Songs, which had a whole band?
O’ROURKE: There was no challenge. It was guilt, because I’d made these people go through this record I don’t know how many times over five years. So I felt obligated to put it out because they had put so much of their time into it. [Laughs] Yeah, I’m still not far enough away from that one to be objective.
STEREOGUM: What was the experience like performing it live for those few shows?
O’ROURKE: That was horrible. I never wanna play live again. Everyone who played was great of course, but I’ve seen video of it. You can see how fucking terrified I am in my left hand. I think it’s maybe the beginning of “Hotel Blue,” my hand is freaking out. I do not like playing in front of people. It’s fine if they’re not looking at me. I’m fine when I’m playing for someone else or in somebody’s thing I have no problem. But if they’re looking at me, I’m terrified. Glenn and Darren from the old band will vouch for this. I mean, I would throw up after shows. It just terrified me.
STEREOGUM: A lot of people don’t realize you taught the kids in Richard Linklater’s 2003 movie School Of Rock.
O’ROURKE: Yeah, I taught them how to play, I taught them the songs, because except for one scene, that’s actually them playing. So for those scenes I’d be on set to keep the music part off of Mr. Linklater’s mind, sort of on the side music-directing, you know? That was a fun experience. I was supposed to be in the movie, but there was a Sonic Youth tour during the shoots so I couldn’t go back to do it.
STEREOGUM: Who were you supposed to be?
O’ROURKE: I don’t think I would have had a line or anything, they said they were gonna have me be one of the judges, you know sort of like a little in-joke, but it ended up that when they were shooting those scenes I wasn’t even gonna be in New York.
STEREOGUM: You’ve collaborated with so many accomplished musicians — what was it like suddenly working with kids?
O’ROURKE: It wasn’t like a music job at all, it really was a film job. I mean, the fun part was getting to be on set, meeting Mr. Linklater. If you get me talking about film you can’t shut me up, so I probably was annoying, but talking to the crew, just asking them technical things and talking to them about their jobs was really fun. I generally don’t like being around kids, so that was interesting. The kid who played guitar and the kid who played keyboards, they were really nice and genuinely very talented. I liked working with those two a lot. It’s funny because the guitar player kid [Joey Gaydos, Jr.] kept asking me, “Man, I want one of your records.” And I was like, OK. So actually the last day I saw him, they were at that place where they, the last scene where they’re playing at the, what do you call it?
STEREOGUM: A battle of the bands?
O’ROURKE: Yeah, they were setting up and it was my last day before I had to go on tour, and I brought a copy of Insignificance on CD for him. And I handed it to him and then I looked at the cover and remembered the pictures inside. And I said “Hey, you know what, I’m gonna sign this or something for you and get it back to you later.” And I took it back and then I left and went on a plane and never saw the poor kid again. But oh my god, if he had opened that, the parents and the film. They would have gotten sued or something.
sleep like it’s winter is out now via Newhere.