Tone Glow 014: Jim O'Rourke
An interview with the incomparable Jim O'Rourke
Welcome to Tone Glow, a newsletter focused on experimental music edited by Joshua Minsoo Kim. Tone Glow generally has three features in each issue: an interview, a “download corner,” and a writer panel in which our contributors all write about the same album. This week, Tone Glow is dedicating its entire issue to an interview that Kim conducted with Jim O’Rourke. The two spoke on the phone on April 28th for 3.5 hours, discussing major events and pieces of art that had the greatest impact on O’Rourke’s life.
A note about this interview: This interview was modeled after Pitchfork’s 5-10-15-20 interview series. I had initially asked Jim O’Rourke to pick something that defined his life at five year intervals. He told me that everything that had the largest impact on him happened earlier in his life, so I agreed to have him choose 10 events or pieces of art (music or otherwise) regardless of his age at the time. The following interview is presented with these ten events that O’Rourke emailed me as headers. While we used these topics to guide our discussion, other stories are mentioned as well. Please read chronologically. At the end of the interview please find a list of 25 albums that Jim personally recommends people check out.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello?
Jim O’Rourke: Hello! Hi, how are you?
I'm good. How are you?
I’m doing fine.
This is a bit funny, but 20 minutes ago my SD card got corrupted, which is kind of horrifying because I had to reformat it and I lost some—
Do you need some time?
Oh, no, it’s fine! It’s fine now. It's just a bummer because I lost a couple interviews that I failed to backup, which, lesson learned now.
Are they things that hadn’t been published yet?
Yeah, they hadn't been published yet. So I'm gonna have to talk with the artists again, and I’d really hate to burden them with that.
(in a playful tone like that of a psychic) Do I see another interview in my future? (laughter).
No, no, we should be good! The SD card is good now and the whole memory is wiped, so we can talk for dozens of hours if you want.
Oh, goodness. I see a long interview in my future (laughter).
Ha, it doesn't need to be super long.
Where do you live?
I'm actually in a suburb of Chicago.
Oh, goodness gracious. Don't tell me Elgin!
(laughs) Ah, not in Elgin, no.
God, not Schaumburg.
Ha, I live around Schaumburg!
NOOO! You’re doomed, get the hell out of there!
(laughs) Well, I’m a teacher and also teach in the North Shore, in Skokie.
Oh, God almighty! You're hitting all the hot spots. Schaumburg!
(laughs) Do you have any specific thoughts on Schaumburg?
I spent way too much time in Schaumburg. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.
What sort of stuff do you associate with Schaumburg?
Schaumburg was sort of the center of the tape, cassette noise scene in the ‘80s. That's where all the noise bands from Chicago kind of… what would you call something that grows like a mold? (laughter).
I didn't know that Schaumburg was such a hot spot for that!
Oh yeah. A lot of stuff was happening in Schaumburg. If you're from Chicago, that's where the Cheer-Accident comes from. Illusion of Safety. All that stuff comes out of Schaumburg.
Oh wow I had no idea.
I don't know what Schaumburg is like now but back then it was the Chicago outside of Chicago because of the big shopping mall, which maybe doesn't even exist anymore. At that time I think it was like the biggest in the world or something when it opened.
Yeah, the Woodfield Mall! It was a big deal. Good God Almighty. (laughter).
So I did want to structure this interview in a way that we could talk about the pieces of art that meant a lot to you, that informed who you are. I think it's also a good way to sort of reflect and talk about stories from these times. Personally I’m less interested solely asking about your thoughts on album after album.
I wouldn't remember anyway (laughter). Actually, I would (laughter).
Age 7: A mixtape from my guitar teacher that had the recently released Genesis song “Trick of the Tail.” At that time, Genesis’s earliest records were not available in the states, so I got them in Ireland. Both started my record collecting mentality and love for Gabriel-era Genesis.
Yeah, so let's start things off with your guitar teacher and Genesis.
He was my first guitar teacher and I think I got a guitar when I was six for Christmas. I wanted an 8mm camera but I got a guitar, and I've said that a million times in interviews. I forgot his name but I think his name was Gino. He was probably actually a young guy at the time but I mean, he seemed like an adult to me. He gave me a cassette and said, “This is what I'm interested in, this is what I think is good”. On one side was King Crimson and I think it might have even been a live recording or something from the radio. It was much more common back then for live shows to be on the radio, there was the Flower Power Hour or something like that.
I remember it had “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but then the rest of it was Red-era King Crimson. The other side had Genesis, specifically A Trick of the Tail, the first album after Peter Gabriel. But Steve Hackett was still in the band, so they hadn't become totally… like, until Steve Hackett left they were still great. I really, really liked that and at that time, earlier Genesis stuff was not available in the States, and I don’t think they had American releases until Selling England by the Pound. So I went to Rolling Stones Records in Norridge at the Harlem Irving Mall, where I spent most of my childhood, and I picked up The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Selling England by the Pound. My family is from Ireland—my parents are not American—so there was a lot of going to Ireland when I was a kid, when school was out. In Ireland you could get the earlier records, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot. So I actually got the earlier records there.
How often did you go to Ireland with your family?
You know, it's kind of hazy. I mean, it seems like we went every year but we probably didn't. My mom was a maid and my dad dug holes in the street for the gas company. It was cheaper to go to Ireland because they were both orphans—that's a long story—but there was some sort of family in Ireland who basically lived in shacks, but we would stay there. So it was kind of free, you know? So I think in some ways it was cheaper to do that. I don't think it was every year, but it was a lot, I spent a lot of my childhood there. I have more memories of Ireland than America.
Yeah, just because it was out of the ordinary.
It was something different.
What's something you remember fondly about your times in Ireland?
I remember being shocked by the record stores because the records there weren't shrink-wrapped and the records themselves were behind the counter—which of course became normal in the States later on in used shops—but I was mortified by that. I remember as a kid I was like, “But it's not new! You opened it!” (laughter).
I distinctly remember pleading with my parents not to go back to the States because the day after we were gonna go back, the movie Tommy was gonna be opening and I wanted to go to the movie theater to see it. I didn't quite understand that movies opened up worldwide (laughter), but I pleaded with them to stay so I could go see Tommy.
And then did you?
I didn’t, but you know what? It opened in the States a few months later and my dad took me and my sister to go see it because I was bugging them constantly, and then we got to the movie theater and the theater had two screens—which was kind of strange at that time—but the other theater was showing The Apple Dumpling Gang. It's like this Disney movie with Don Knotts, and my sister, who's 4 years older than me, said she wanted to see The Apple Dumpling Gang. So we went to see that instead of Tommy and I didn't get to see it on the screen until… maybe I was in college. Although I'd seen it on VHS, I never got to see it on the screen until I was in college, which was a bummer.
Were your parents into the music that you liked?
Oh, no, no. Absolutely not.
What did they think about it?
They just thought it was weird. When I was younger, I constantly wanted to go to shows and— (laughs) Oh, what year would this be? This should be either ‘79 or ‘80. I wanted to go see Jethro Tull and my dad—as I said before, he dug holes in the street for the gas company—and so he had these giant, like, not headphones, but ear mufflers for when you’re using the jackhammer. He would bring these to the shows with him. So we're going to like, I don't know… it might have actually been Poplar Creek. But he brings these to the show and you know, I'm always mortified by sitting with my dad at these concerts as he has these giant, white, jackhammer headphones on.
We're in the parking lot, which is basically just a giant field filled with gravel, and someone's playing an 8-track of Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull in their car. It’s all nice acoustic guitars and flutes and stuff. And I go, “Dad! Dad! That’s what they sound like. They're not like the other stuff I like,” and he goes, (in the voice of his dad) “Oooh, okay.” So he leaves the headphones in the car. And we went in and this Canadian prog-rock band Saga opened up. But then Jethro Tull comes out and they start with “Aqualung” (laughter). Oh, I was in trouble (laughter).
When I was about 12 I finally convinced them to let me go to a show by myself, and it was at the University of Illinois, and it was Frank Zappa with the Jerry Garcia Band opening for them, which was totally bizarre. They completely sucked (laughter), but half the audience were Deadheads, so when I came out after the show, my parents were waiting for me at the curb in the car. I think they just stayed out there the whole time. And my mom sees all these Deadheads wandering around and she says, (in the voice of his mother) “Get in the car, get in the car!” and she closed the latch on her door and this Deadhead goes, (in the voice of a Deadhead) “Hey man, the old lady’s scared of us!” So no, they weren’t really into the music. (laughter).
It's nice, though, that they allowed you to go to all these shows.
I’d probably never let up, though. Just because of the way they were raised, if I was going to a show, I had to work to get the money for the tickets. I mean, they weren't buying me tickets or anything like that.
Were you working at, like, 9 years old?
I was working from 12 years old. Well, I did kid jobs until then but from 12 I was actually working. I worked at a factory after school, which of course was completely illegal.
What did you do?
My first job, which was every day after school, was working at a potentiometer factory. Part of making a potentiometer is that there’s this carbon strip that has wire wound around it, and that goes in the inside of the potentiometer for the sweeper. But in order to make those, what they do is they get dipped in an acid solution and get blasted with something that’s basically baking soda.
So for my job, there was this concrete room with an air compressor in it, and the floor is completely covered with this baking soda solution—it looked like something out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker or something (laughter)—and my job was to clean up that room and to change acid. And then in the backroom was a machine shop where they drilled the housing for the potentiometers and underneath everything was all these metal shavings dipped in oil, so I cleaned those. And I did that for a couple years. That's basically how I paid for shows and my first computer. So I worked there for like four years until I was 16 and could get, like, a legal job. Because, you know, that was basically illegal. I think my sister’s boyfriend—and later her husband—worked there.
That's how you got in?
Yeah I think he worked there, which is basically why they looked the other way. So I had to work every day after school.
What was school like for you?
Boring. It was completely boring and stupid (laughter). That was basically it. And a lot of stupid Catholic shit, and old men teachers and priest teachers who touched a little too much.
That’s what it was like.
Did you have any friends that you were able to talk to about music?
Not in grade school. I had a couple friends, and I remember them but I haven't seen them since then.
Right, right. To circle back to Genesis, what stood out about them to you?
I mean, now I know why, but I couldn't articulate why back then.
I'm probably remembering it differently than it actually happened, but even though I just started playing the guitar then, I think I somehow knew that that's not what I wanted to do. I probably wanted to be able to play guitar well then. I'm not saying this in any sort of boasting way, but I did play better than other people my age at that time in school. So it got me some sort of respect or whatever, which probably encouraged me to keep playing, but I think I already knew that that really wasn't what I wanted to do. And then when I heard Allan Holdsworth, I knew that's not what I wanted to do (laughter) because I knew I was never going to be able to do that.
I was listening to a lot of prog-rock and Zappa at the time, too. Zappa also helped because on the inside of Freak Out! there's this list of all the stuff that he was into. And I just went to the library and immediately found out about Stockhausen and Ives and all this stuff. I think that and my taste in the prog rock stuff which, like, you know, like… Emerson Lake & Palmer did not interest me, Yes did not interest me, King Crimson I liked a certain ratio, but with Genesis there was something about it that was way better than this other stuff. And of course later I realize it’s because in terms of writing it's so much better. You can basically play a Genesis song on a guitar without losing the guts of it because they're actual songs, and Peter Gabriel's lyrics were the first lyrics that kind of showed me that you could create these images.
At the time I was already reading Burroughs and shit like that and especially The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which was like my fucking Bible when I was a kid. I mean, it was like the greatest thing I'd ever heard in my life. And even to this day, there's this one song on the record called “Anyway,” which is completely amazing. There’s this one lyric, “Different orbits for my bones,” which fucking blew me away as a kid and made the connection between that and Burroughs and all that—the way that words could create images that had more depth. I mean, I'm talking as a kid now, you know, but I knew there was more resonance to it. There was something there that I didn't know, which was appealing to me as a kid. So that record became very important to me.
This is a true story. I had this cassette deck, and at first I taped the record from the library, and it was a 90-minute cassette and the song “It”— the last song on the record—got cut off, which was a big bummer for me. But this was a Soundesign stereo tape deck and it had one speaker that was under a plastic grill that had little holes on it. And I wasn’t supposed to listen to music at night, but I would go to sleep with this tape deck under my ear, under the pillow. I would end up sleeping on it to get my ear right into the speaker. So what would happen is I’d wake up in the morning and I had these impressions from the holes, like I had a rash. Every day I’d have this rash on my face and my mother would be like, “What the hell,” and I was like, “I don’t know,” because I didn't want to tell her I was listening to music, so eventually my mom took me to the doctor (laughter) because I was having this rash every day. But the doctor said there was nothing wrong with me, but I just wouldn't let on. I listened to that cassette every night.
Did you ever tell your mom?
No, of course not. I ain't gonna give her that satisfaction (laughter).
Age 10: Get Spectrum, the Chicago licensee of LA’s Z Channel, where I saw Godard, Downey Sr., Roeg, Herzog, Friedkin, The Ruling Class, etc. for the first time. Definitely Performance and Greaser’s Palace.
It’s crazy to me that you were seeing all these films when you were only 10.
It was a good time! You missed the good times. Your world sucks (laughter). You’ve got, what is it called… Dooplo?
I’m not sure what that is? (pauses). Oh, you mean Diplo.
Ah I don’t know, I just see it on the Google News page.
I feel somewhat okay with the time I was growing up because I was able to access all the private torrent websites.
So when I got onto those sites around high school, and especially in college, I was just devouring everything I could in terms of music and film and I feel like there's no way I would have been able to see or listen to, I don't know, even like a tenth of the stuff that I did.
Anyways, you mentioned a few directors and a few films. You said Greaser’s Palace, which is interesting given your Catholic upbringing and what the film was about. What drew you to that film?
I had never seen anything like it. I mean, at that point I was into Lenny Bruce, and—well, I’ll explain everything for people who don’t know. When cable TV hadn't come to Chicago yet—I think it was only in LA and New York at the time—and there was this thing called pay TV where you got this descrambler box and it was broadcast on UHF, but it was all scrambled so you’d need the descrambler box.
There were two companies in Chicago. There was ONTV, and the big deal with that was they had all the hit movies, but of course, like, a year or two later. And then there was Spectrum, and their big thing was that they had all the boxing. So my dad got that, which I was actually bummed about at first because I wanted to see the movies. But there was this cable channel in LA called Z Channel—there’s this whole documentary all about it—and it’s where Tarantino and all the directors in that generation were schooled. It’s how Oliver Stone became famous.
From what I understand from looking into it later, Spectrum’s budget was all basically going into these sporting events, so for the rest of the programming they just licensed this Z Channel to Chicago. The thing about Z Channel was you’d get a book every month, like a program guide of all the movies, but there was text about the movies in the book. So it's basically like you were getting a film book every month along with this channel.
So a lot of stuff on there I didn't know but I just wanted to watch movies. So that's where I first saw A Clockwork Orange, O Lucky Man!, I mean, I could go on hours about the shit I saw on that. But because it wasn't on TV, and it was actually a curated channel by this guy—who later killed his family—
Oh my god.
Yeah, that's why you should look into this documentary, it’s by Cassavetes’s daughter. So if 1970 to 1975 is the era that you care about, that's all it was. Because I was really into, like, Lenny Bruce and Buñuel and all this shit. I kind of became a weird kid because my history got shifted. All my reference points are in a period in which I was alive, but not a period in which I would have, like, tactile memories about. But I did, because that's the only culture I was devouring and it became my DNA and still is to this day.
It was non-stop. It was who are now the biggies, you know, Godard and Herzog and Fassbinder and Losey and Lindsay Anderson. You know, a lot of those films were exciting because (whispers) these were obviously films I wasn't supposed to be watching.
Were your parents concerned?
No, because it was in another room! I was down there watching movies. And that's all I did, and I devoured these film books that came out every month.
It's funny how you say you were devouring this media and that it became your culture—
But then I didn’t even really know that.
That’s true. You were also into all this stuff that other kids weren’t into—
I mean, I didn’t care about that. That's their problem. (laughter). One of my friends thought Stravinsky was weird, so I was like, okay, whatever. He was, like, a trumpet player, but for him Stravinsky was pushing it, so, you know, whatever. It’s their problem.
Were you generally someone who kept to themselves?
I mean I wasn't, like, a hermit or anything, but basically, yeah. I mean, I had my records and I had the movie channel, so what the hell do you need?
Right? That’ll occupy you forever, for life.
And then the library was a big deal for me, because there were a lot of records there. And books.
I’m always interested in how musicians are influenced in mediums outside of music. Would you say there are certain films that informed any of your albums?
Well, first of all, there's the term musician—we’ve gotta address that. I'm not a musician.
Yeah, you’ve said this a lot in interviews.
I don't mean that in a derogatory way. But I mean, I wasted a lot of my life playing instruments, which was foolish. Musicians are people who really love their instruments. They think of their instrument as a vessel for expression (laughs). I have no interest in expression (laughter). I have no interest in anything being a vessel for expressing something. It’s something I wish I learned and had come to terms with earlier in my life than I did, but that was always there with me even before I realized it. So I wasn't approaching things that way.
I'm not meaning to demean musicians, but it really is a different thing. Musicians look at life and creative work differently than non-musicians. So, influence and everything also manifests itself differently with a musician. So, okay (laughs)—
No, it’s good! Thanks for explaining.
I think what film did to me was help make me realize I was not a musician (laughter). It took the form of alienating me more and more, but I can't think of a time—even as a kid—when I saw a film and thought, “Oh, I'm going to do that but in music.” It was more that it made me look at things differently and, whether I realized it or not, it was helping to undermine the things that I thought before.
An early example is with Nicolas Roeg. It was the editing style of him and Frank Mazzola, who probably deserves a lot of credit. It was the first thing that nudged me into thinking about nonlinear time, for example. And there was a lot of writing, like that whole period with Stockhausen and his momente pieces and how to approach nonlinear time in music. The way he approached it is kind of hamfisted, but the elegance in which time is approached in Roeg’s films pushed me into thinking differently about that. And I was already making tape music and shit at that point. I mean, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at that point, I was just bouncing cassettes back and forth. It wasn’t overnight that I felt, “Oh, this is it,” but things like that did push me.
In general, just the type of films I was into at that age—I probably didn't realize this because I didn't have enough experience in life yet—but it was leading me to have a generally, uh, unoptimistic approach to life (laughter). That as well as my Irish DNA was leading me into a particular way of looking at life (laughter). Performance was big. One of my friends, Tim Hendrickson—I wonder where he is now—but he was a Rolling Stones freak.
That makes sense.
Tattoo You had just come out and so the same record store, Rolling Stones Records, they were the first place where you could rent VHS cassettes. And there was a VHS of Performance which of course has a picture of Mick Jagger. So we rented that and we watched it at his house and that changed my life. And he fucking hated it (laughter). He was like, “What the hell is that?” And I was like, “That’s the greatest film ever made.”
How would you say it changed your life?
Oh, come on! Have you seen it?
I have! Was there anything about having seen it when you were 10—
I don’t care how old you are, you’ve never seen anything like that in your life. That blows all the fucking doors off. It was amazing! I mean, come on, it’s Performance! As a kid I had been to Ireland and had been to England so there was that weird resonance. And since that time I've gone to all those places. I've been to the phone booth, I've been to the house. I was a weird kid. I remember when I first went to the house, I just stood there on the porch—I don’t think anyone was home.
How old were you when you went there?
I was 12 or 13. The phone booth was actually many years later and it was an accident. I think I was in the Domino Records office and someone goes, “Hey Jim, you know that’s the phone booth in Performance?” Everyone knew about my Roeg obsession. So I went to the phone booth and that was awesome.
Earlier you said you don't see yourself as a musician. When did you finally realize that?
Probably a few months ago (laughter).
What would you say you are, then, if not a musician? I guess there doesn’t need to be something that takes its place, but… is there something?
I always like to say, “I do stuff.”
That’s good. That’s really good.
I really, really don't want to ever play an instrument ever again in my life.
You keep churning out these Steamroom albums, and you've been pretty prolific with that. What is the enjoyment you get from having this regular process of creating?
Well, they're basically just byproducts of me studying. And (pauses) basically I study and do tests and those are the byproducts (laughs).
So you just see the process of creating these recordings as an avenue through which you can understand and figure out ideas you’re working on?
Yeah, I guess that’s a fair way to put it.
Me and a lot of other people I know are really into Steamroom 47.
47? (laughs). Really? God, I thought people were going to hate that. I sat on that for a while and I sent it to one of my best friends in an email and he was like, “No, you have to put this out.” So if he hadn't said that I wouldn't have put it out.
Yeah, it's one of my favorites of the recent Steamrooms.
Oh, for sure, totally in my wheelhouse.
I'm curious—what was the process behind making that album? What were you studying?
You really wanna know? Because you might be disappointed (laughs).
Who cares! I want to know.
Well there's this whole area of research, this grouping of disciplines called MIR—music information retrieval.
I'm not familiar with it.
The results of that are those things on your phone where you can ask, “What’s that song?” and figure out what it is.
Oh, apps like SoundHound?
Yeah, so basically that world of research is called MIR. Which is a combination of other disciplines like FFT (Fast Fourier transform) analysis and delta signals and all that shit. As a sort of adjunct to my near-lifelong obsession with Roland Kayn and the idea of music based on cybernetics, I was researching various things about MIR over the past couple years—not because I'm interested in it as a technology, but because of the parts of technology that make it up.
What that album is, and the name’s sort of a clue—I’m surprised no one’s caught on, it’s not that obscure. But basically I made an FFT analysis of—
Yeah, Glenn Gould! So I did an FFT analysis of all the Goldberg Variations. But what I did was, for each particular variation, based on the simple ideas of—and they were simple because I was just doing tests—how many modulations and blah blah blah. When you're doing FFT analysis, it's basically like a time domain analysis. Depending on the sample rate you're working at, you’re cutting up music into slices of time, almost like plastic overlays. It’s kind of like when you see those things when you make slices of the brain and you’re putting see-through, plastic pieces on top of each other for each slice.
So with the Fourier transform, you're taking time slices and you're reading the energy levels of the frequencies as sine waves—sinusoidal—for each slice. Then to recreate it, these slices and the sine waves and particular amplitudes are recreated in the same time domain. But what I was doing was changing the time domain as well as resynthesizing it—not with sine waves, but with a wave table of a hundred and fifty different wave forms that were dependent upon both the frequency and the amplitude in regards to something particular about that Goldberg variation.
So I was recreating those performances of the Goldberg Variations with this kind of skewered, nutso, FFT resynthesis. And then what I did (laughs) was once I resynthesized those—which is that kind of crazy, squelchy, noisy part—I ran that through a program which tries to read musical material out of the audio. And that made a new score that was played on the piano.
You thought I’d be disappointed by that? (laughs).
Yeah, probably (laughs).
No, that’s super fascinating.
It actually took a long time to make that—mostly just a lot of programming. It's information taken from Glenn Gould, put through this FFT process, and the results of that FFT process are then searched for pitch information—which has nothing to do with the original. Some didn’t work very well but I was taken aback because I actually liked the piano parts a lot (laughs). I didn't touch it at all. The piano parts are literally what the software I wrote read out of these FFT files.
I never would have guessed anything like that. If all your Steamroom recordings are studies, which Steamroom recording would you say was the most illuminating or informative?
I mean, with that one, I was really taken aback with what I got out of it. It seems silly, but just the fact that it had a piano on it made me feel like I shouldn't put it up.
I don’t know. (pauses). I guess I got a good result out of that experiment and that's all it felt like to me.
Is it because the results were too clean?
It’s probably because it sounded too much like music (laughter).
You wanted it to sound messier.
No, it's not that… it’s… I don't know. It sounded like music (laughter).
That's a good enough reason.
Age 12: Local Library gets Influx of ECM records, including the Derek Bailey/Dave Holland duo and Eberhard Weber’s Little Movements.
Let’s talk about when you were 12.
Oh God, what a time.
It was funny just reading the sentence that you sent me because it was like, of course these are the ECM records you highlighted.
You’ve gotta keep in mind that ECM was still a really young label at this time. This is around ‘80 or ‘81. It was basically nearing the end of the first phase of ECM. At that point it was infallible. There was not a single bad record on ECM—you can't find one! ‘82 is when things got weird. Look up the Epidemics record if you want to know what I mean.
I've not heard that one.
You want to check that out.
I was more so just saying it’s funny because it makes sense that it’s these two records that moved you given the other stuff you were into. Everyone has their own ECM favorites but I feel like I usually don’t hear people repping these albums, and of course you’re repping them.
Oh well I love the other stuff as well. I love Jan Garbarek, I don't care what anyone says, that early Jan Garbarek stuff is the shit. It’s nuts. And he’s playing a tenor! He’s playing a tenor! Most people don’t even realize that!
Were you familiar with ECM prior to your library receiving those LPs?
I'd already bought some at Rolling Stones Records, so I did know about them, but a lot of the earlier ECM records—and especially the Japo records, the sub-label on ECM—were not available in the States outside of as an import. The fact that the library somehow got these was a big deal.
There was a radio station in Chicago called WXFM and they would publish this monthly, full-on magazine called Triad that you would get for free at Rolling Stones Records. And that’s actually something I forgot to mention, that’s actually a big deal too. It was filled with ads, like classified ads in the back, which is where I bought—by mail—the first Talking Heads 7-inch. Talking Heads! New band from New York. First 7-inch called “Love Goes to Building on Fire”! And you’d send two dollars and get it. I think that’s also how I got Little Johnny Jewel, the first Television 7-inch.
So there’d be ads for ECM in the magazine. At that time, that kind of music was popular, it was in regular record stores. There’d be posters of Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti. I think that’s lost on a lot of people younger that me: It wasn’t hard or weird to be into that music—it was at your local record store and there were posters for it. There's no difference between buying that or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. There's a poster for Blood on the Tracks and a poster for Sheik Yerbouti and they're both there—there's nothing weird about it at all.
But the library getting all this stuff that was not at the record stores was a big deal for me, and then later, I think a year or so later, when ECM switched distributors from Polydor to Warner Bros. and all of the copies of ECM records that were distributed by Polydor all became cut-outs. Do you know what I mean by cut-out?
I don't know what you mean.
Okay, I thought so. Labels would be charged taxes on the remaining stock of a record, so what they would do, and I’m sure you’ve seen it, is they’d cut one corner off the top of the record and it could be sold at a lower price as damaged goods. And this is how I understand it and why they did that: it was to avoid the tax on overstock.
Oh yeah I’ve definitely seen that. I never knew that was the reason.
These cut-outs were always sold at half-price or so. There was this record store in Chicago, an amazing store called Rose Records. There were like two or three of them—it was kind of like the prototype of Tower Records. Rose records had all—all—these ECM records as cut-outs for super cheap, so I sold my guitar amp and bought every goddamn ECM record that I could. And I never owned a guitar amp again (laughter). I never got around to buying another one.
[At this point, we take a short water break. We come back two minutes later to talk.]
I have a funny cut-out story for you I just remembered.
Let’s hear it.
When I was in college, the way I would pay to go to Europe when school was out was through selling records. I’d buy what I knew was cheap in the States but could get big money for in Europe. So the first time I went to Japan I did the same thing and I found out what records were wanted in Japan. One record that you could get really, really cheap in the States—because it was a cut-out—was… Terminal Love… what’s his name?
Peter Ivers, right. I’d get them for, like, 99 cents and sell them for, like, 20, 30 bucks in Japan. So I had all these Peter Ivers cut-out records, like, 20 of them. That was one of the things I had. In Japan at that time, there was actually this Kiss record with a pink cover, and that was the big one. You could get it in the suburbs of Chicago for, like, fifty cents but it was worth, like, 50 bucks in Japan. So I sold all these Peter Ivers records to Disk Union in the early ‘90s.
Zoom 20 years later and I’m living in Shinjuku. Long story short, someone I knew in Tokyo had gotten interested in Peter Ivers and I was like, “Oh yeah that’s a great record, let me pull it out,” and I can’t find it. I realized that somewhere along the line, I must’ve sold my copy because I was broke or whatever. I went to go buy it again but I hadn’t realized how expensive it had gotten—it was 50 or 70 bucks. I go to Disk Union, I find a copy and bring it home and put in my collection. A few months later, I’m looking at it and thinking, “This is a corner cut copy…” and I had bought a copy I had sold like 25 years earlier (laughter).
That's hilarious (laughter).
Yeah. So that’s what a cut-out was.
What’s the most you’ve spent on a record?
I really should not say that.
What was the record, then?
Let’s say it’s Derek Bailey connected.
(through chuckles) You don't want to tell the people how much you spent?
No, but the two records I've spent the most money on were both Derek Bailey records.
What were they?
One is a Derek Bailey record, the other is a record that he plays on.
Which one was that?
That’s the Basil Kirchin record, Worlds Within Worlds.
Oh that’s a great record.
It was an original, of course.
And at a time when that record was almost rumored to be a myth. I mean the copy I saw was the first copy I had ever seen and I've only seen it once since—and it was on the same day (laughter).
What? How did that happen?
It was at a record fair, the guy had two copies. I bought it and— (laughs). Nah, I can’t tell this story, no.
You can tell the story, Jim, it’s fine!
No, I can’t, because it makes someone seem foolish and they're not foolish.
That’s okay then. Do you want to talk about Derek Bailey?
It’s kind of tough at this point. He was a big deal for me because he was, I think, the first musician that I respected that I actually met. Talking about his music is almost pointless for me, but he was a big deal for me because he was the first person I met who was doing this stuff that was outside the realm of the usual, but he was holding his ground. He was actually just getting on and doing it. He was very kind to some dumb kid, you know? I went to his house… I forget how old I was?
Did you first meet him at [British festival] Company Week?
Oh no, oh God no. It had been years at that point, which is why he invited me there. I met him at a show of his in Chicago in the early ‘80s. What happened is that I wanted to go to London and there was this boat there called the hydrofoil. It was like a boat on cushions that went from Ireland to England. My mother had a half-sister who lived in London. If I saved enough money to get a hydrofoil ticket, they would let me go to London when we went to Ireland.
So I saved up the money from changing acid (laughs) at the potentiometer factory and I went to London for the first time, and I went to Derek’s house. I went into his closet (whispers) where all the Incus records were—it was like going to heaven, they were all in there. It was amazing. His refrigerator was making noise and he mentioned he wanted to get it fixed or something, and I went over and just shook it or something and it stopped. He was very happy about that and he gave me an extra discount on all the records.
I remember having tea. He lived on the second floor and there was a window that looked out into the garden in the back and two doors down there was a guy painting and he was like, “Hey, Jamie” and it was Jamie Muir [who collaborated with Bailey and was the drummer of King Crimson]. It was all so amazing.
Derek was the first one who gave me my first big jolt—this injection—of standing my ground, of “you can do what you want to do, you can live the life that you think you want to live.” That was the most important thing I learned from Derek. It was this idea that this is possible. He was very kind to a stupid, young kid.
How old were you at this time?
I was 14, I think. I was somewhere between 14 and 16, because Company Week was a few years later and I was, like, 20. I had known him for years. Anyway, he was filming the BBC documentary version of his book, Improvisation. And he came to Chicago to film a trombonist. Give me a second (thinks out loud) a trombonist, a trombonist… oh, it's horrible that I'm blanking right now. AACM, trombonist, very nice guy, interesting composer who also did a lot of interesting stuff with MIR…
Right, George Lewis. Nice guy. He had the Voyager. He was filming George Lewis for the BBC, so he was staying in Chicago and he hit me up to borrow a guitar to just practice, because I think he liked to practice every day. So I lent him my guitar, and at that point I had a Roland guitar synthesizer (laughs) like the old classic one that Pat Metheny used. My guitar had all these extra knobs on it and Derek looked at me like I was crazy, because he wanted a hollow body, of course. But at the end he actually said, “This is actually a nice guitar.” (laughter). And it was!
So that was ‘88 or ‘89, and we would go out to eat when he wasn’t filming and that’s when he invited me to Company Week. That was like being asked to play Woodstock.
Age 13: Teacher at my high school gives me a copy of Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New Music America festival.
I want to backtrack to when you were 13. I can’t believe your teacher gave you that book. Where were these teachers in my life? (laughter).
The weird thing was that this teacher was actually a brother. I don’t know if they still exist. They're not priests, they were Jesuits, like a Jesuit brother. He was the brother who was assigned to the music department and he had a little office in the music room. I went to, of course, a Catholic high school that was all-boy and the school next door was the all-girl one. And your first class, homeroom, was the music class. The boy school had concert band and the girl school had orchestra, and I was in the orchestra. So I would actually start my day at the girls’ school. I was playing double bass and there were two other guys, they were cousins, actually—one which played trumpet, who is the guy who thought Stravinsky was weird, and his cousin Paul on viola.
So at that school there was a very tiny record room, and there was a hip teacher. He conducted the jazz band, which I was also in, and he had two pianos in his office. Me and my friend Pete Adamczyk—he was brilliant, now that guy was a musician, he was a fucking virtuoso—we would go into the teacher’s office every day. We would play Steve Reich’s Piano Phase every morning on the two grand pianos. This went on for years, and by that time I was totally into that stuff. I would tell him, “Check out this Anthony Braxton” and he’d say, “Oh c’mon, stop with this stuff.” I was like, “Oh I thought you liked this kind of music, we played these two pianos every day in your office” and he said, “Yeah, because it keeps the girls out of here” (laughter).
So anyway, there was this brother at the boys school. I was also in the concert band—I was marimba and percussion. He knew that in my off time I’d try to play Zappa’s “The Black Page” on the drum set and the teacher at the boys school would get really pissed off at me. But the brother noticed that I had an unusual taste in music—I was also into Weather Report and all this stuff. He told me that he had this book that he thought I’d like. It was a hardcover copy of Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond and it changed everything.
Scan from Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond
That book taught me about aesthetics, values, the political element of music—everything. I don't know if I really caught on immediately, but a lot of it really comes from that book. It’s the way it delineates approaches and what their implications are. And like a stupid kid, I immediately started imitating everything in the book. I got a raincoat from the Salvation Army and I sewed pockets in it and put all these tape recorders just like Gavin Bryars did (laughter) and I would walk around into stores with like six or eight cassette players playing different things inside my coat like a dumb kid.
That's what you gotta do, though. You first imitate and then learn to do your own thing.
I did this dumb thing here about 10 years ago. I made this fake band called Time Slippers. We did a couple shows. What we did is show everyone a picture from that book. Say, that picture of John Cale, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela and La Monte Young, and I said, “Look at this picture and try to figure out what the hell it sounds like.” And then we’d do the show and set up on stage just like the picture and play what we thought the picture sounded like (laughter). There’s also that classic AMM picture. It looks like Keith Rowe is playing a white triangle or something (laughs). I looked at that picture and I was like, “What the hell is that.”
Photo by Frazer Pearce. AMM, 1968.
Around that time, AMM played Chicago and I started corresponding with Eddie Prévost. I went to London and saw a trio—this is probably the only time it ever happened—that was Eddie, Keith Rowe, and Derek. I think it was maybe at that show that I met Eddie. The weird thing is, there was this English kid, about the same age as me, who would be at all these shows. And because we were the same age we would talk. We didn’t stay in touch but we’d always see each other at the shows. I don’t know why we didn’t hang out—probably because I had to go back to my Aunt’s or whatever. Years later, I find out that was [comedian] Stewart Lee (laughter).
How’d you know it was him?
Because we got in touch much, much later and we started talking and realized, “Oh my God, that was you!” (laughter).
You collaborated on that album [Third Straight Day Made Public] with Eddie, what was that like for you?
It was great! It’s not really collaborating—we just played! I don’t know if the first time I played with Eddie was at Company Week, which is on that CD, but we did a gig at a rock club called The Roundhouse. But yeah, he was always such a nice man, and he's the way I met David Jackman, because he had made this record with him. I was telling Eddie how much I loved it and he said (imitating his voice), “Well, you should tell David!” So that’s how I met David Jackman.
Age 16: Go to London for the first time, meet David Jackman.
Can you recall for me a memory of meeting him in the ‘80s?
It was like meeting someone who was connected to a history that was an abstract thing to me. It’d be like meeting Lenny Bruce or something. And he was really kind and—this was ‘87 or ‘88. It was probably ‘87 because I was a freshman at DePaul [University] and I had this Orchestra thing I had written and played and recorded, and I gave him a cassette of that. He was very kind about it considering how crappy it probably was (laughter).
He offered to do a split 12-inch with me and he said, “I’m gonna talk to my friend Christoph [Heemann] about putting this out,” and I said “OK.” He said I should meet Christoph and I said “OK, maybe I should.” So he got in touch with Christoph and told him that he met this kid who was interesting, or whatever he said—he must’ve said something nice. So Christoph said, “Come on over to Aachen.” So I got on the hydrofoil to continental Europe for the first time and went to Aachen and stayed at Christoph’s for a while.
He had the legendary record collection, he had it all. He had all those records that supposedly don’t even exist. So that was just a crazy education in one week. It was nuts.
I’ve only interacted with him once online several years ago—he was super nice. He ripped a record for me that I was curious about. He was just like, “Yeah, I’ll do that for you!” and I was so surprised.
What record was it?
Oh hold on, give me a second. (pauses). It was Fabrice Baty’s Guitares. 1976.
Guitares? (pauses). Oh, yeah yeah yeah. Right right right. I’m surprised he still had it.
Why is it surprising?
Well, it’s because he sold a lot of his records over the years.
He singled that out as being a record from an artist that seemed to come out of nowhere. He mentioned that alongside Plux Quba.
Ah, Nuno Canavarro. Obviously I don’t do a lot of interviews, but I've always been kind of shocked by how nobody ever asks me about the years I was part of Organum. To me It seems like one of the most amazing things that anyone could ever say—“Yeah, I was in Organum.” (laughter). But no one ever asks about that stuff. Maybe it's not as big a deal as it seems to me, or it doesn't have the cachet it used to. But I mean, David was in the fucking Scratch Orchestra.
I did wanna ask you about Organum, you were on Sphyx.
I’m actually on a lot of them, it’s just that there aren’t credits. I was on like ten of them. Sphyx was kind of the result of Eddie introducing me to write with David Jackman. We recorded that in this studio in this area of London, it was really kind of brutal. But it’s down in the south of London and it’s that studio the band Skullflower recorded in. Do you know the band Skullflower?
Yeah I know Skullflower, though I don’t know what studio they recorded in.
Let me look this up. They were there recording their first 7-inch for Shock [I Live In The Bottomless Pit / Bo Diddley's Shitpump]. (searches on computer). It doesn't say where it was recorded, but it was interesting because David records things differently than most people. I mean, it's really just collage for him. He was like, “OK, record this, OK, now record this on top of it, OK, we’re done.” He’s very, very conceptual, as you can guess.
After that I became his engineer guy. For the next few things he would book like two hours in the studio, we would go in there, and I would either be behind the desk or playing, and then I'd mix it and we'd be done in two hours. It was like that up until—let me look this up (searches on computer). He was really conceptual—until we had the idea, we didn’t go into the studio.
After Sphyx it was a lot of 7-inches. I think all the things up until Shovels. I guess a lot of these came out as an edition of fifty 7-inches or whatever so I guess it’s understandable that people don’t know.
What’s your favorite Organum release?
That I was a part of?
Let’s do one in general and one that you were a part of.
Probably Sphyx, the one side is just crazy-ass awesome. I feel stupid saying that because I’m on it but it’s David Jackman and Eddie Prévost together, it’s completely awesome. The Pulp 7-inch was a big deal for me, I loved that. But the one I liked the best was probably Tower of Silence. I mean I didn’t have the Pulp 7-inch at the time. He had two copies, and I bugged him for years and years and years for him to give me one. I was probably horrible.
Christoph worked on a lot of these things too. As a matter of fact, for Wrack—the Organum & The New Blockaders 7-inch—Christoph and I made that at Christoph’s studio without David there. But under his instructions, of course. I’m not saying we made it, we just did what he wanted. That was maybe the second time I went to Aachen. I may be remembering it a little wrong, but that’s what I remember. There was also the other 12-inch he did… oh and there’s also Meister Nix—(in a playful tone) oh, the memories are coming back. Oh man, what was the 12-inch we worked on… Christoph had a label then, too, Dom. But yeah, that was great stuff.
I definitely feel like he’s an underrated figure, or at least he doesn’t come up as much as you’d hope.
There’s a lot of great music from that time that has sadly, for whatever reason… well, I think P16.D4 has finally gotten its due. But at that time, for people into a certain kind of weird music, it was—of course—Nurse With Wound, Organum, and Hafler Trio. That was like the Holy Trinity. I mean, you grabbed the Hafler Trio record the second you saw it because it was gonna be gone. The store was only getting in maybe one copy, you know?
That particular time, you know, early Touch, Strafe Für Rebellion—one of my absolute favorites. There’s an early compilation on Touch called Vögel that’s a masterpiece.
I’ve not heard that.
I love Strafe Für Rebellion. They’re geniuses. Vögel is gonna blow your mind.
I’m excited to check it out!
There were so many classic records from that time. Kill the King [by The Hafler Trio], what a masterpiece! And then of course my good buddy, John Duncan. I mean, these guys are legends.
Age 17: Organize shows in Chicago for Phauss, Hafler Trio, Merzbow, John Duncan, etc.
It’s cool that you were booking shows for these artists you really cared about.
Well, that was normal, it wasn't weird.
I guess, for me, it’s just that you were 17.
It was normal, you know? This was like the residue of the Black Flag, put-these-shows-together-yourself mentality. You just did that—if you could, you would. I mean, I helped put on shows for artists I didn't really care for—I didn't dislike them—like a lot of Alternative Tentacles bands and stuff like that. And you could also open for them (laughter). I’m sure people still do that, though I would think it’s not as easy now since clubs operate differently now than they did then.
You’d have to get yourself into specific circles where there are already curators and—
Yeah, there weren’t curators then, that’s a whole other talk (laughter). (disgusted) Curators… oh God.
What gets you upset about the term curator?
Oh, I’m not getting into that, I’m not gonna shoot myself in the foot. But yeah, I put on the Haters, and Con-Dom! (laughter).
What show that you booked were you most proud of getting to happen?
Oh, the Hafler Trio one, because of Phauss—I got to meet Micki von Hausswolff, who I didn’t really know at the time. He didn’t have that many records at that point but he was so awesome, and he’s still my friend to this day.
What were the places you were organizing shows at?
There was Club Dreamerz, there was Batteries Not Included. This was before Lounge Ax opened, and I went to college right around the corner from Lounge Ax. At that point, Sue [Miller] was booking at the Cubby Bear, which is a club right across the street from Wrigley Field. So I knew her from the Cubby Bear because she booked the stupid band I had at the time, (in a mocking tone) the Elvis Messiahs (laughter).
There was another place, Exit, that was famous. [Einstürzende] Neubauten played there—I remember seeing them and they nearly set the place on fire. The Rapeman Budd EP was recorded there. There was this first wave of American industrial bands in Chicago at the time. There was this one band called Burden of Friendship and they had an offshoot band called Research Defense Squad. They played shows at that place and they would sometimes ask me to open for them. The club would let me play, but because I was under 18, I wasn’t allowed in when it opened—I had to be outside. When it was time for me to play, they’d let me in, and I’d play, and then I’d have to pack up and leave (laughter).
There was also things happening… I think it was called Soundworks? It was this roving free jazz thing, it was before John Corbett. I forget his name, but I can find out real quick because the Hans Reichel shows were put on by him and there’s one CD that is actually from a tour. (searches on his computer). Yeah, it was Angel Carver, 1989. And it was Southend Musicworks! But they didn’t thank him… that’s interesting.
Southend Musicworks was run by this guy [Leo Krumpholz], who I was really grateful for. I think he’s since disappeared or something but he put on AMM at the University of Chicago in ‘82, Hans Reichel, and basically all the FMP stuff. At that time, the great and unfortunately late Davey Williams had a magazine called The Improviser. It was kind of a zine, you know, like a xerox-and-stapled thing. I was in touch with him and Eugene Chadbourne, you know, just being a dork kid.
Something that a lot of younger people don't realize is that it was really hard to get these FMP records—they were only distributed by one company in the States. And that's a long story, and it was a pain in the ass to buy from them. There was New Music Distribution Service, but they went out of business fairly early and they were New York-centric. The easiest way to get records at that time was from Subterranean, which was out of San Francisco. It was mostly putting out proto, weirdo punk stuff like the Club Foot EP and stuff like that.
So Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith are doing a tour with Peter Brötzmann and they're playing Chicago in Southend Musicworks. Davey writes to me and says, “Can I borrow an amp from you?” And I said, “Sure!” (through chuckles) That whole day I could talk about for hours, but I’ll just get to the funny part. So I get there early and I have my amp and Brötzmann is there in his black leather trench coat—really, really scary. They're doing a sound check and I'm just listening to it and at the end, Davey goes, (in Davey’s voice) “Hey Peter, this is my friend Jim! He lent me an amp today!” (mumbling that’s meant to resemble Brötzmann).
I go up to him, like an idiot, and say, (in a nervous child’s voice) “Mr. Brötzmann, do you have any records to sell today?” (in a deep German accent) “No.” And I was like, “Oh… I’ve been having a hard time getting your records and was wondering if you had any advice on how to get them.” He opens his black leather trench coat and pulls out his flask. Without breaking eye contact with me, he opens it up, takes a big swig, closes it, puts it back in his jacket and goes, (loudly, in a deep German accent) “GOOD LUCK.” (laughter).
That’s a great image!
Oh God, I’ll never forget that. That day had a lot of stories. And Davey was such a nice guy, he was terrific—really underrated.
Age 20: First show in continental Europe in Aachen and meeting Christoph Heemann.
We’ve touched on Christoph a bit already. I’m assuming you’re still keeping in touch with him?
Oh yeah. I was doing the tabletop guitar thing back then.
Do you regret that?
No, I wasn't terrible. I don’t know anyone who was really playing like that back then. At least that’s what Keith [Rowe] and Derek [Bailey] said. When Derek would explain my music to people he would say, (in Derek’s voice) “It’s like if Keith was in Blade Runner.” (laughter).
What does that mean?
Keith is very direct and is informed from collage. I was trying to erase—as much as possible—whatever was guitaristic. It was the same thing I was trying to do with the tape music. That’s around the time I was making Tamper and stuff like that. I was using regular instruments, but I wanted to erase whatever was programmatically inherent about that instrument. That’s what I was trying to do with the guitar. I got to the point where I was playing it from the audience with remote controls (laughter).
So Christoph put on the show in Aachen and Ralf Wehowsky put on a show for me in, I think, Mainz. I was opening for P16.D4 or some P16.D4-related thing.
How was that?
Oh, I mean, meeting those guys—Ralf Wehowsky is awesome, he was so kind to me. Again, these people were being kind to some stupid kid from the States. I've said it before but the one thing I think was very lucky is—if you think about my age and think back then—there were hardly any people my age doing that stuff. There was Oren [Ambarchi], but I didn’t know him at that point. I think he was in New York studying at that point so he wasn’t traveling around and stuff, so the only person my age doing that kind of stuff actively was Alan Licht. I wracked my brain over the years and I can’t think of anyone else.
I think I was lucky because I was novel to these older folks. That’s why Derek and Henry Kaiser were so kind to me. It was just like, “Oh look, there's someone new!” I think that’s why they were all so kind to me—it’s not because I was any good, it was like, “Oh, at least there’s someone interested in what we’re doing.” Later, there were people who got into it, maybe after like ‘95 or ‘96. But I’m talking, like, late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there really wasn’t anybody my age going to shows. Like I said about Stewart Lee, it was like, “What the hell!”
I didn't realize it until years later, but I spent almost my entire young life around people at least 10 years older than me. At least until the mid or late ‘90s, I didn't work or play or do anything with anybody my age. Even Christoph’s older than me, but he was the closest to my age—the only person even near my age—and he's the same age as my sister, four or five years older than me, so there’s still some disconnection there.
It worked out, though. You were talking and working with people who you—
Yeah, yeah but I think it affected me more profoundly than I realized for years and years.
Can you explain that?
Music was never a social thing for me. There were periods in my life where I fell into the trap of being involved in the social element of music. For most people it’s natural—it’s something that they want to do, it's part of their interest in music—but I really have no interest in that at all. As I got older and a lot of the people around me either passed away or became really old, I was— (pauses) yeah, it’s a tough one. This is something I’m thinking of as we’re speaking. It’s not something I’ve really pondered upon (laughs).
That’s ok, don’t worry.
My lack of social skills, combined with having no opportunity to improve them because I was surrounded by people older than me—who were kind enough to overlook that—left me on the path towards becoming a hermit (laughs).
I resonate with that. The social aspect of music rarely appealed to me, though it’s slowly been changing as of late. Like, I don’t often go to shows in Chicago—
But you’re in Schaumburg!
Right! And that’s part of it too.
What are the clubs there now?
Well for experimental music there’s Elastic Arts, the Experimental Sound Studio—
Oh I worked there as an engineer!
Oh I didn’t know that!
Yeah, in the mid ‘80s. One of the first things they did was these radio shows. There was one I engineered for Sheldon Atovsky, who was one of my professors at DePaul. And then there was Frank Abbinanti. Now there’s a story.
Let’s hear it.
Oh that’s a long story. I’ve got lots of stories, maybe that’s why I’m in hiding, because I know too much. I know all the stories. (laughter). It’s not even worth telling the story about Frank Abbinanti. You don’t know who he is, right?
Ah well that’s alright. With ESS it was Lou Mallozzi and…
Eric Leonardson and Perry Venson.
Eric Leonardson! Eric Leonardson from Upper Links. That was the main place where shit happened. Upper Links, run by Eric Leonardson and Michael Zerang. In the same building there was a club called Lower Links and that was the place. That was like the Cafe OTO, SuperDeluxe, Knitting Factory, whatever of that time in Chicago. Upper Links was curated and every month a schedule would come out and that’s where you’d go see Eugene Chadbourne or Davey and LaDonna. And that’s where my first band, Elvis Messiahs, started. My high school friend, the guy I played Piano Phase with every day, was in the band as well as this guy named Perry Venson who was part of Upper Links. He did stuff with Mike Zerang and Eric Leonardson.
Mike Zerang had this group called Liof Munimula which was sort of the house band at Upper Links. And Lower Links was run by a woman [Leigh Jones] and that’s where I put on the Hafler Trio show, Zoviet France, C.C.C.C.!—I put on that show! That’s right, that’s right. That was an interesting show. Of course Merzbow, John Duncan—Lower Links was the place. Just that place alone I wish somebody had written a history or something. The guy who co-ran it was this musician named… hold on just one second. It’s all related to WZRD, this is another key thing to understanding Chicago at that time.
WZRD was a radio station at Northeastern University and since it was a community college, all you had to take was a one-credit class to be a DJ. So people would take something like Tae Kwon Do and you didn’t even have to go to the class! But you’d pay $50 a year and you could be on the air and there was a show on there, when I was really young—like 12 or something—but I mentioned the Burden of Friendship and Research Defense Squad, and they would be on from like 8 at night until the morning. They would just set up in the studio and play noise and collaging records, it was basically a collage for 10 or 12 hours straight. When I first heard this as a kid, I thought I was intercepting something from another fucking planet (laughter).
The cool thing about the station was that you couldn’t say what your name was as a DJ. You couldn’t be like, “Hey it’s blah blah blah with blah blah blah!” The station had this weird mystique and eventually almost every DJ on there was playing, like, Whitehouse. All of that and Lower Links was interconnected. And that’s how I got into all that! You just dip your toe in the pool and get swept into it. It was great.
Thanks for saying all that, I’ve never really heard people talk about these things.
I think a lot of people in Chicago now would not believe it if you told them that Zoviet France played there. That stuff eventually moved over to Lounge Ax. I don’t think it was looked upon well at first (laughter) but people were coming out. That’s when Table of the Elements and all that stuff happened. So that’s when people in indie rock started getting interested in that music, and it was because of me (laughter). And I mean that as an insult to myself (laughter).
Age 21: Company Week in London and going to INA-GRM in Paris.
We’ve talked about Company Week a little bit. And I know you’ve talked about meeting the GRM folks in previous interviews, I remember you saying they were nice.
Oh the GRM folks were really, really nice. At that point, I was spending three to four months of the year in Aachen. Long story short, the apartment building that Christoph lived in was owned by his parents. The ground floor apartment, which was a studio—and he didn’t actually use it very much—was a size that meant they couldn’t legally rent it out at full apartment rate. His parents liked me so they told me I could use it, that I didn’t need to pay for it. I was living like a bum. This was from ‘88 to about ‘94, though once I was out of college I was basically there all the time. If I got a show, it meant I was going to be in that city for a year or two (laughs).
I’d get a show in Nijmegen or Amsterdam and I would stay at John Duncan’s for two or three weeks. I feel so horrible now, thinking about it. I mean, it was probably the best year of my life, but I basically lived on people’s couches. I’d like to think that I wasn’t a bad guest, and maybe I wasn’t because they put up with me for so many years, but I was poor. I probably was not contributing to the groceries as much as I should have. But I really couldn’t because I was doing one gig every two weeks and living off that.
I was either in Aachen or Amsterdam, and I didn’t have a friend like that in Paris and they were these people who put me up. One was Eric La Casa. He was very kind but he wasn’t a close friend like John or Christoph so I wouldn’t stay that long. In ‘89 or ‘90 I knew I was going to be in Paris so I wrote to INA-GRM and IRCAM, asking if I could see the places. And I actually got letters back. I wanted to go to the Institute of Sonology. I wanted to get out of DePaul because there was no electronic music class, well there was but I ended up having to teach it, which is another story (laughter). The electronic music studio there was just a quarter-inch 8-track machine and a DX7. So I wanted to go to the Institute of Sonology because I thought that Roland Kayn taught there. The story of me going there is, I think, in The Wire.
Yeah, in the Invisible Jukebox segment.
Right. Well, Jean Schwarz was really, really nice. I think in France it wasn’t that unusual for someone to become a composer and work there. But I think having a kid from the States was novel—I think I amused them. Not in a bad way, but sort of like, (chuckles) “OK kid.” But they were really nice, they gave me a few reels of tape because they had so much. He invited me to a concert that night and it was one of those acousmonium concerts in the hall with all those speakers. And it was a Pierre Schaeffer concert. That night I met Bernard Parmegiani and Ivo Malec, who were both really nice. François Bayle just sort of looked at me and walked away (laughter).
I was telling Ivo Malec how much I love Triola and I think I kind of freaked him out. He was like, “You actually know my music?!” and I was like, “YES! YES!” because Triola is the shit. It’s just fucking awesome. It was great. It was amazing, it was amazing. And Brunhild Ferrari was kind to me even back then.
That’s so nice.
Yeah I don’t understand. She was always really nice to me. I mean I never got to know Mr. Ferrari much at all—I only really met him once or twice—but she was always kind to me. Still is.
You had that album with her from this year.
It’s from a couple years ago but it was released this year, yeah.
Had you two ever worked on music together before?
No, it was really just a concert. It’s really just a live show. Basically, it was pieces of hers—tape—with a person improvising. Like a lot of pieces Luc made, it was basically that. She was playing the tape and I was improvising. So really it was as simple as that. I never actually worked with her, I just did the shows with her.
Can you share how she was looking out for you?
She would make sure I was OK. I really had so little French and—maybe it's changed—but if you’re in Paris with no French, you're going to be ignored real quick (laughter). Jérôme Noetinger would watch out for me too. But I basically didn’t have friends in Paris—I didn’t really know anyone—and I think she knew that. And maybe it’s also because of the Aachen connection, because she’s from Aachen. It might be that. I think she might have known Christoph at that point, but maybe not. I was also vegetarian and at that point it was not easy, so she would make sure I would have food to eat.
Is there anything you want to talk about with Company Week from that year, that stands out for you?
God, a lot. (pauses). Well the most life-changing thing that came out of Company Week was meeting Henry Kaiser, and Henry Kaiser deciding I was OK. That guy was my fucking guardian angel from that point on. I didn't have a guitar amp, I had a $100 Strat Bullet. The neck was actually great, it was a Japanese Strat—which at the time were the cheap Strats. He got me my first acoustic guitar. Before I met him, I called up Derek to tell him that I arrived and he said, “Henry’s really interested in meeting you” and I said, “Really?” “Yes, he asked, ‘So is he copying you or copying Eugene [Chadbourne] or copying me?” (laughter). And Derek’s like, “Well it’s more like Keith if he was in Blade Runner.” (laughter).
So Henry was very suspicious of this young kid, but he decided I was OK and very soon after, he called me up and invited me. He said he needed to have his record collection reorganized—he said he’d pay me to come out and reorganize his record collection. Thinking back now (laughs) it sounds a bit suspicious. And I did reorganize this record collection, but it was basically just an excuse for him to play records for me for a week. He was doing a guitar solo show, and he was still doing the It's a Wonderful Life-type stuff then, using the Eventides and shit.
He asked if I wanted to play an encore at McCabe’s. We get there and he was just like, let's just do a duo. I remember the McCabe's guy—or at least the booker—was really upset because he thought he had booked a solo show. That happened too with the first CD we did [Tomorrow Knows Where You Live] because the guy who ran the label asked Henry for a record but he said, “Yeah but I’m gonna do a duo with this kid” and the guy was like, “Who???” (laughter).
He really went to bat for me, introducing me to people like Ligeti (laughter). You know, just hanging out with Henry’s pal Ligeti (laughter). Conlon Nancarrow too. Many people don’t know this but Henry recorded those first Conlon Nancarrow records, the ones on 1750 Arch Records. Henry’s roots are deep. People should pay more attention to what he’s done because he’s involved in a lot more things than people know. A lot of things happened because of Henry.
He would help me out financially. I couldn’t afford to buy a decent guitar, so he found this Max Krimmel acoustic guitar. They had one where the finish had come off, so they couldn’t sell it. So Henry got the guy to sell it for me. It was actually a lot of money at the time for me—it was a couple hundred dollars, but at the time it was a couple thousand dollars for the guitar. So that was my first acoustic guitar—that’s the Bad Timing guitar.
So this guitar that Kaiser got for you—
Yes, I got it from him and then it disappeared for 15 years.
How did that happen? Did you just lose it?
What happened was, I was recording [Wilco’s] A Ghost is Born, oh wait that’s the bass story—that’s another story. I’ve confused my memory. I don’t actually remember how it disappeared, but it was found in the Wilco Loft 15 years later. I must have left it there and forgot, and they found it there 15 years later. That’s how much I think about guitars. It’s now sitting in a room and has not been opened since (laughter).
With Bad Timing, what naturally comes to mind is John Fahey. And how you helped track him down—
I wasn’t the one who tracked him down. That was down to Jeff Hunt of Table of the Elements and Byron Coley.
Ah ok. What was it like talking with him?
(laughs). It was interesting (laughter). He was a character. I was lucky because I don’t know if he liked me, but I know he didn’t dislike me. I never got any of the legendary John Fahey thrown my way. I mean, I was indirectly because of things he would do that I would have to clean up after, but he was generally nice to me.
He was in Chicago one time and he asked me, (in John Fahey’s voice) “Heeey, you got any pot?” And I was like, “No, no I don’t. I’ve never smoked pot.” “Can you get me some pot?” “Oh… okay.” So I called up a guy who I knew who had at some point smoked pot. I never really had those kind of people around me. I asked him, “Hey! Where do you buy pot?” And he was like, “…from a pot dealer.” So I’m asking around on the phone if anyone knows a “pot dealer” and finally I find someone who tells me, “I will sell you some of the pot.” (laughter). I’m really scared to do this. I’m terrified.
When was this?
I was like 26. This is when we were recording Womblife. So the person sells me this stuff, and I don’t even wanna touch this, you know? I give it to Fahey and he says thanks. Weeks later, after he’s gone—because we recorded that record at my apartment—I find the bag behind the bed where he was sleeping. He never even opened it (laughter). (in jest) He made me a criminal! There’s more to it but that was the gist of it. I could honestly fill a book with Fahey stories. It was nuts.
Well here’s one of the more nuts stories. So we’re playing in Cologne at this club in a basement. I forget what this place was called, but John would very often decide that he didn’t like the promoter. And if he didn’t like the promoter, he wasn’t going to play. So he decides that he doesn't like this promoter in Cologne and—oh God, even just the day in Cologne alone is a book. I’m just remembering—oh God, I don’t want to get into that story. Jesus. Let's just say it involves a restaurant, a bookstore, and Nazis (laughter). I'm not kidding. A very crowded restaurant and Nazis.
It’s important to know he had various health issues. Before the show, I go back to the dressing room and John's just kind of there slumped in his chair with his sunglasses on. I don't think anything of it, and the promoter goes, “Hey John, it’s time for the show!” and John doesn't move. The guy goes, “John! John!” and am asking him if he’s okay and he’s not moving. I’m like “Oh shit” and I’m wondering if he’s having some sort of diabetic shock.
The promoter goes off to call an ambulance and I’m like “John! Are you okay?” but there’s no response. You have to understand that this club is in a basement and there’s a very narrow stairway to get up. I go upstairs and the ambulance arrives and they’re like, “You have to get John up here!” and I’m like “Oh, Christ” because they can’t bring the stretcher down the stairway.
John was huge. I get one one of his arms over me and I pull him out of a chair—I’m basically dragging him over to the stairwell. I start climbing up the stairs—and God he was so heavy—and no one is helping me! To this day I don’t understand why no one helped me. So I’m dragging him up the stairs and his head’s right by my ear and I hear him say, (in John Fahey’s voice) “Keeeep going.” (laughter). So that’s how John got out of the gig in Cologne. I think we still ended up doing that, though.
I can’t believe that happened (laughs).
Oh that’s not even the most crazy thing that happened that day. That involved the Nazis.
Do you mind sharing that?
No it’s too long and it’s insane. It’d actually be irresponsible to tell that story.
(laughs). That’s okay.
It was insane. “Keeeep going.” (laughter).
Age 24: First tour in Japan
Let’s move on to when you were 24.
Oh God we’re only at 24!
Well, it’s only this and then one more thing you noted and then we’re done.
Oh good, right. And then my life was over.
Were there any artists you met in Japan that you hadn’t already met at that point?
I didn't really meet anybody in Japan who was important, and who I didn't know already, until I met Akira Sakata, and that was many, many years later. I already knew [Keiji] Haino and other people. At that time, the first tour was put together by K.K. Null of Zeni Geva—we had made two records together at that point. It was a tour of Zeni Geva, me, Melt-Banana—who I already knew because I mixed their second album—and at various shows there were other people like C.C.C.C.
Haino and I did a duo show, which I actually have a tape of. I was still doing tabletop guitar then. There was also this band, the Dazzling Killmen—that was a band on Skin Graft, Darin Gray’s band. I had done a show in Lounge Ax, opening for Dazzling Killmen, and I was doing tabletop guitar and afterwards Darin came up to me and asked, “Do you know Derek Bailey?” So that’s how we became friends. The Dazzling Killmen broke up the day before they were supposed to go to Japan.
I think I was in the middle of making the Brise-Glace record for Skin Graft at the time. I was already starting to record bands at that point—I think I had already done the U.S. Maple record, so I think that was my connection with all that. Almost for anybody, especially then, it was a major culture shock to come to Japan. I was already really into a lot of stuff from Japan at that point—not necessarily music—but I just was drawn to it.
From that point on, and a key thing that I didn’t realize for years, was that coming to Japan is a big thing for people. Oren [Ambarchi] was there all the time, but there was nobody new—I was the only one. I believe Oren came once with his band Phlegm, but I was coming once or twice a year from that point on because I was getting work recording people’s records. I didn’t realize at the time but it was a big thing in Japan.
It’s almost like going to the zoo—I was the token weirdo guy from overseas. It made me feel welcome, and it was a place I wanted to go, so I would take on any job—I would take on anybody—as an excuse to go there. And it’s record collector heaven. And it’s filled with Japanese girls (chuckles) if that’s your thing (laughter). It’s completely unlike what you’re used to, and if you wanna run away, it’s the perfect place to go.
And obviously you’re still there.
I love living here.
What are some things you love about living in Japan?
I’m alone (laughter).
No one’s bothering you?
No one bothers me. Especially now, now that I’ve removed myself from the major cities. You can disappear really easily here. And there’s no influence of religion in society here. Don’t believe anything people say—”Oh, zen and Buddha”—No. It’s not like what we know. Not where someone’s belief in something from the other side of the country can directly affect your life. That does not exist here. And being a very big non-fan of religious endeavors, it’s very nice.
You said you were interested in Japan before, and it wasn’t necessarily the music.
Some of it was the music. Some of it was the films. I mean, I didn’t know a lot then.
Like Art Theatre Guild stuff?
I didn’t necessarily know it was the Art Theatre Guild but there was a film place in Chicago called Facets, it was actually the first video rental place for good film and it was a movie theater too. They were the first to put out Dušan Makavejev’s films on VHS. Chicago was fairly good culturally in the ‘80s. New Music America happened there. It was really easy to see good films in Chicago. I basically went to the movie theater every day. There was the Music Box. I didn’t go to the 3-Penny much. A lot of the classics—[Nagisa] Ōshima and all that stuff—was available. Even some of the Art Theatre Guild stuff was too. I remember going to see Ishii Sōgo’s The Crazy Family on a date. That girlfriend didn’t turn out that well.
Was there anything beyond the art from Japan that appealed to you?
My interest in art from Japan was more out of it being different than a lot of stuff that I knew. It didn't necessarily end up resonating with me in the end, or a lot of my enthusiasm for that stuff eventually waned, like it does with a lot of stuff. But overall I just felt more at home here. In explaining why I like it here, I would actually have to say a lot of bad stuff about here, you know what I mean? And I don’t really wanna say bad things about here, but it’s hard explaining what’s good about it without saying what’s bad about it.
I guess I'm not really understanding. Like what's one bad thing?
It’s better I don’t say (laughs). Especially in these times—I wanna keep my visa.
What’s an example of something that you really loved for a long period of time—or loved very intensely—that you don’t care for anymore?
Pop music! Definitely like Japanese pop music and stuff like that.
That’s pretty broad—like what type of Japanese pop music?
All of it. Any of the stuff I was interested in… it doesn’t mean that I dislike it now, but I just have no interest.
What’s the deal with that video of you singing enka?
Oh, I wish that fucking didn't exist. That popping up on YouTube was kind of a pivotal point in my life.
You have to understand what that show is. It's a show that plays way early in the morning and is for old women. The show usually involves old women in the audience going up and they're guided by this enka teacher to sing the enka. The old woman tries to sing it, people clap, and that’s it. My friend told me, “I know someone who works on this show. It would be awesome if you went on there.” The idea was that maybe one person would see the show who knew who I was. I would fuck their brain up because it'd be so incongruous that they would actually doubt their own memory. I thought, “If I could do that just for one person that would be awesome.”
So I went and did it and heard nothing, which is what I expected. And that's why I did it: for the possibility of one person seeing it and being freaked out, or maybe they’d be happy—I don’t know! But then someone fucking puts it up on YouTube and the whole point is lost.
When was that actually recorded?
It’s a long time ago, like a good 12 or 13 years ago. You know, that's when I realized that context is completely lost now. I have no control over the context anymore, so I thought, “Fuck it.”
Why was this pivotal?
I just wanted to stop. Slowly I did—that's a big part of it. Context is so important, and it's lost now. That's like a 10 hour talk in itself, but that really pissed me off. Not with me being all angry but I can’t work in a way in a way I like working anymore.
It makes sense. You had a specific goal and it was upended by this person and is now engaged with differently by everyone.
You don’t know how many fucking times I’ve heard about that video. Ugh.
People ask about it a lot?
Like it’s the only fucking thing I’ve done in my life. Either that or Eureka, Jesus Christ.
I actually wanted to ask you—
Don’t ask me anything about Eureka (laughter). Make sure you include I’m laughing when you write this out.
I wasn’t going to ask about Eureka, but I did want to interview you because I feel like most people have primarily asked you about your Drag City records, and those are such a small portion of your discography.
I’m glad people like them.
Is there an album in your discography that is most meaningful to you?
This is gonna sound crazy, like I’ve turned into someone on a talk show, but it’s actually the next one.
Is it a Steamroom?
No, it’s not. It’s coming out on an Editions Mego-related label, which doesn’t exist yet, so I can’t say what it is. I think it’s going to be the first record on this sublabel. And it’s something I’ve been working on for—well, there’s parts of it that go back 25 years. Outside of that it would be The Visitor. Those are the two that have gotten closest to what I wanted to do.
What did you figure out with this new record? How did you accomplish what you wanted to do?
It’s almost one hundred percent exactly what I wanted. It’s the closest that I’ve gotten.
Can you describe what it sounds like?
It was a commission for INA-GRM so you know what kind of stuff it is. Up to this point it’s the summation of everything I’ve been trying to do with that stuff going back to Terminal Pharmacy to now. It’s basically The Visitor of that stuff. It’s closer to Terminal Pharmacy and stuff like that than the Steamroom stuff. It took a long time to make it—years and years and years.
Does that mean you’ve been working on it here and there for 25 years?
I’ve been working on it for about ten years, but there’s sounds on it—recordings on it—that go back 25 years. Actually, it goes back 30 years because it does involve the first time I went to INA-GRM, which is 1990. I’m old! (laughter).
What’s a recording or album that you released that you hate now?
Oh I hate most of them. Do you mean stuff I’m embarrassed about?
That, or if there’s anything that you just think is shit.
How many hours you got? (laughter).
Well, what’s an example of something you’re embarrassed by?
Well, I can’t say a couple because it involves other people.
You can stick with the solo stuff then.
Solo stuff… (thinking) me being on the enka show? (laughter).
Fair, that’s fair.
I'm disappointed with all of them, but to me that's normal.
Because you’re constantly striving towards something better?
Well, the biggest disappointment would be releasing something I didn’t learn anything from, or releasing something just because you can release it. I have generally avoided that for most of my life. For me, that would be my biggest disappointment.
This is going to sound weird, but I know people who get asked to do a compilation track or something and they're like, “I've got this tape laying here with five minutes of guitar noise” and they just send it. That sort of cavalier attitude fucking enrages me. I can’t understand how someone could do that. I mean I do because people look at things differently than I do, I know that. I don't care what it is, if it's a remix or whatever—I'm going to put as much work into it as anything. I can't be cavalier about it, I really can't.
There are records that I worked on, that I played on, that are things like that, but they were things I did with other people. And when it's something with other people, I don't feel I have a right to that attitude. There are records out there that I'm insanely embarrassed about it that I wish did not exist. I mean you could probably guess what it is. Oh God Almighty, it’s terrible.
Do you want to go on record and say what it is?
No, no. If you don’t know about it, that’s great. It was made with other people, it wasn’t my thing. I really wish it didn’t exist but that’s life. It's luckily not that known now. Oh God… oh God…
Age 25: In this year I heard Tony Conrad, Maryanne Amacher, and Phill Niblock for real, which changed everything.
Let’s talk about you when you were 25.
What happened when I was 25… a lot.
You mentioned a lot of big names.
Well basically, ‘94 is the year of the Table of the Elements. It was ‘93 or 94. I was working with Codeine as their sound engineer, their PA guy. I had already been in touch with Jeff from Table of the Elements, which was those guitar 7-inches. I had already made mine, I think… which also has the acoustic guitar that Henry got me. We were touring with the Flaming Lips when they had just moved to Warner Bros., so the tour was actually kind of long and big.
At the time, the Flaming Lips would open their shows by playing Gavin Bryars’s “The Sinking of the Titanic.” We played in Atlanta, Georgia and I told Jeff I was coming through. This story might be ‘93, actually. That's when I first met him and that's when he told me about his plans to reissue Outside the Dream Syndicate. He was only the second person I’ve ever met who even knew that record, the first being Christoph.
The thing I do remember—and I feel guilty about it to this day—is that there was a member of the touring entourage who had met two women that night. He was interested in a frolic of some sort, and he told me that he found some place where we could stay for the night. And I was like, “Oh no, I’ve got a place to stay at with my friend Jeff.” Because Jeff and I wanted to talk about Tony Conrad. We ended up staying at Jeff’s and this touring member was very upset because his frolic was left, unfroliced (laughter). To this day I still feel really guilty about that. I apologize for…
Not being the wingman?
Yeah. I didn't even think about things like that back then. That was kind of home base for me for a while—Table of the Elements—because the fest happened, where Tony played. AMM was there. Haino was there. Faust (chuckles)—that’s another story. The only record thing of Tony at that point was the record with Faust. And he had only done the Tony thing live a couple times. It’s as legendary as legendary can be, you know it’s just all myth. Did you ever get a chance to see him perform?
I did not, no.
That’s the thing. The actual sound, like what happens, can’t be reproduced on a record. Have you ever gone to see Phill Niblock?
I have not, and I’m still sad about missing out the last time he was in Chicago.
There’s only a few people where you can really say, “No, it’s not the same on record.” The physical thing that happens at these shows cannot happen on a record. It was this year or maybe a year earlier. I was playing in this festival in Switzerland and Maryanne Amacher was in it too. What she would do is go to the space she was using for like a week beforehand. She was doing an analysis of the room—the resonance, the frequencies, everything. I was playing a show at this festival in a tent, and I was there for a week. I did have friends in Zürich who put me up, but I spent a week with Maryanne Amacher. And she’s a real character.
I had never heard her stuff in person either, but I'm spending a week with her beforehand just observing her work and her classic stuff, it sounds like there are holes opening up in your head and sound is coming out of your brain. It’s insane. It's all acoustic illusion stuff—combination tones, left right blah blah blah—so it matters where you’re turning your head and all that stuff. So in that one year, I got hands-on time of all this stuff I’d been obsessed with since I’d seen that picture in the Michael Nyman book. You know, the one with Tony and Cale and them in front of that gong. I mean that picture became like my totem (laughter).
Scan from Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond
It was a great time in Europe. That culture didn't exist in the States yet, you know. It was there a little bit in the ‘80s because of New Music America, but now that time has passed, a lot of people ask, “Why did you spend all that time in Europe in the early ‘90s?” I didn’t even play in the States until ‘95 or ‘96. Maybe improv gigs. But there was no culture for that music in the States up until the Table of the Elements fest. That’s really the root of something that felt like it was there this whole time, but really wasn’t. It wasn’t there at all. There were very few music distributors, definitely no festivals.
I have friends who live in the States and they tell me they’re playing at these places and I’m like, “The what? You’re playing at the what? And the what? And the what?” It seems like there’s more of that now, but none of that existed when I was there. It was all in Europe. I don’t know what the situation is like now in Europe but it was a great time. There was the Musique Action Festival in Nancy, that was terrific. A lot of great people were doing great stuff then.
You told me these years were the best years of your life.
Yeah, because how long could I be living like a bum on people’s couches and not making money at all and basically not living anywhere. More and more, I was able to start working as an engineer and make a living. I didn’t want to rely on what I wanted to do to make a living because you will compromise yourself eventually. Whether you realize it or not, you will compromise yourself.
More and more, I was doing work as a recording engineer and that turned into producing and that turned into losing eight or ten years of my life to that. ‘94 is the year that that part of my life ended. And by ‘95, the ten-year gap was about to begin.
You’ve produced stuff in the past few years.
Only Eiko [Ishibashi]. The only person I produced outside of Eiko was another singer-songwriter here named Maeno Kenta—did two albums of his—and that was basically because we were his backing band. Otherwise I haven’t. I think the last record I actually produced—in the real sense of the word—was the Beth Orton record [Comfort of Strangers].
I’ve done Eiko’s records, and I work hard on them, but she’s not like a client or anything (laughs). The Kahimi Karie records aren’t the same because I did tracks. I think the last one was the Beth Orton record.
That’s a long time ago!
It was work. And of course I tried to do as good as I could. Even though it’s work, my aesthetic is there. Eventually, it failed to be something you could make a living at. I can imagine it must be so difficult now. Producing is not something I want to do. And there are also very few people who I’d even be interested in producing now.
Who would be some of these people?
I can’t even think of anyone. If anything, if I was to go back to being a recording engineer I would record jazz musicians.
Because it’s music I like, and the technical side of it would be interesting to me. It’s music I respect, but in terms of being a full-on producer, I can’t think of anyone I’d want to produce now. Part of it is because I don’t know the music now, and I have no interest in—I don’t listen to it. In terms of my record collection, the pop and rock amount is maybe 0.5%. Outside of the few people I loved as a kid, I don’t listen to much. I only see what pop music is now by seeing a page on some website—my eyes might cross something. And none of it looks interesting.
That’s something I did as a job, and I think I did a good job on some of them. I tried to express my aesthetics of what records should sound like and do, and did find people who held similar opinions and it was good to work with them. Because of the Frank Zappa records and from reading articles about Pete Townshend, as a kid I thought being a producer was the most amazing thing. And I did wanna be a producer. But that world died basically when MP3s started showing up. That whole world changed. What was valued changed.
And I didn’t want to go on the full-on route, being involved in the record industry, which was gross. I would only get so far anyway because I didn’t even let record people into the studio. I think the only time was maybe on Beth Orton’s record and it’s because some guy just came (laughter). Otherwise, I wouldn’t let anyone who wasn’t working on the record in the studio. And when it came time to mix, no one was allowed in the studio—even the musicians.
What do you feel was lost when MP3s came?
The business model changed, and I knew it was gonna get much, much worse. It was a changing of the guard, as they say. There was no way I was going to work in that world. It was already obvious I wasn’t going to be able to because that meant I’d have to work with people I didn’t give a fuck about. Only once or twice have I recorded for someone that I didn’t care for musically, because it was a job. And it felt gross. I didn’t actively dislike their music, I just didn’t care about it. And I understand that if you want to do that as a job, you have to do that. But I realized I couldn’t so I didn’t continue. I was really lucky that I recorded good people for the period I was doing that. I am very, very happy that I recorded U.S. Maple. It brings me a lot of, uh…
(laughs) As you may have guessed I have a problem using that word. When I’m down on myself, which is usually every five minutes, sometimes I remember that I recorded those two U.S. Maple records. And even though the fourth one is the best sounding one and the best one, I’m happy I did those first two. Things like that make me think that I did something good.
What does your average day look like now?
I get up, I drink coffee, I have a couple cigarettes. Then I get working. I work usually until 10 or 11 at night. Then I cook while watching an episode of Law & Order—every day. And then we eat and watch a movie.
Who is “we”?
Oh, Eiko and I.
I didn’t know you were living together.
My studio is actually a separate house next door, because she has to work too. So the house has her studio, and I have a tiny house next to it in the forest, which is why I was able to do it. We’re in the forest and you wouldn’t believe how dirt cheap these houses were. It would make you cry (laughter). So yeah, it’s just that every day.
There were a few things people wanted me to ask. Would you ever consider making another Loose Fur album?
There supposedly is a third album.
Like it was already recorded?
I think. Not sure on the status of that.
You have your pop and your experimental albums. Do you approach producing them differently?
Oooooh, that’s really way too long. (pauses). I don’t know. I approach them the same way—it’s all the same to me. The details change, the concept changes, the manner in which you put forth the concept changes, but it’s all basically the same: I’ve got a problem and I’ve gotta solve it. Yeah, I don’t really approach them differently because it’s still me. I don’t change because I’m doing something else.
How big is your record collection?
It’s not as big as it used to be.
What was it at its biggest?
About ten thousand. Or that’s what I’ve been told. It was probably the biggest when I was in New York. That would be around ‘99 in my early 30s. The whole apartment was basically a record collection, but I sold most of it when I moved to Japan. It’s not as big as people would think it is, mostly because I don’t buy much anymore. I basically only buy new things from people I like, and I don’t keep things because I bought them, like you would when you’re record collecting. Do you really need Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler? (laughter). So my collection is very dense, let’s say.
Is there anything you’d like to say that you’d like to go out on?
That I’d like to go out on? Is there a hit squad outside? (laughter).
Sorry, didn’t mean to be grim (laughs).
It’s not grim. Hmm… let’s see (thinks).
Or is there anything that you’d like to share?
Share? I haven’t thought about sharing in a long time. (laughter). See, now I have to say something pithy! Let me think. What would I like to go out on… (thinks) stay safe!
I asked Jim to create a list of albums that he felt never got their due. The 25 albums in the following list are presented in the order in which he sent them. Discogs pages are linked for each entry.
It - Viaje (Movieplay, 1976)
Phauss - Nothing But The Truth (Anckarström, 1991)
David Ackles - Five & Dime (Columbia, 1973)
Jos Smolders - No Is E Monocle (Quiet Artworks, 1992)
Michael J Schumacher - Guitar Electrica / 01.01.18 (Quakebasket, 2000)
Radu Malfatti / Stephan Wittwer - Und? (FMP, 1978)
Albert Marcœur - Celui Où Y'A Joseph (Le Chant Du Monde, 1983)
Geinoh Yamashirogumi - Osorezan / Doh No Kembai (Victor, 1976)
Strafe Für Rebellion - Vögel (Touch, 1989)
Edward Vesala - Satu (ECM Records, 1977)
PFN - Akasa / Für Cleo (Quiet Artworks, 1992)
Mission Papua Holland - June 87 (M.P.H., 1987)
Georg Friedrich Haas & Jörg Widmann - Donaueschinger Musiktage 2006 Vol. 2 (NEOS, 2007)
Martin Smolka - Poema De Balcones (WERGO, 2016)
Kyle Gann - Hyperchromatica (Other Minds, 2018)
Elemend Technology - Matrixd 1ᴰ (self-released, date unknown)
Daniel Lentz - Missa Umbrarum (New Albion, 1985)
Salvatore Sciarrino - Lohengrin (Ricordi, 1986)
Salvatore Sciarrino - Sui Poemi Concentrici I, II, III (Kairos, 2009)
Friedrich Cerha - Spiegel (Col Legno, 1997)
Electronic Art Ensemble - Inquietude (Gramavision, 1982)
Espen Jensen & Kjetil D Brandsdal – Org (self-released, 1996)
Mike Oldfield - Incantations (Virgin, 1978)
Kingdom Come - Journey (Polydor, 1973)
Cockney Rebel - The Psychomodo (EMI, 1974)
Still from Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
Thank you for reading the fourteenth issue of Tone Glow. We hope you heed Jim O’Rourke’s final words.
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The best interview I've ever read in my life. Thank you, wonderful work.
thanks! super interesting