Note: this is a longer transcript of our Jim O’Rourke interview
I woke up with this awful hangover today...
Me too, me too. I got a bottle of this nihonshu called ‘Taxi Driver’. It's a local thing – usually you can only get it in Golden Gai, but some guy who made it gave me a bottle. So we got home last night and were watching a movie, and I just didn't even notice how strong it was and drank the whole bottle. I woke up this morning and felt like Travis Bickle. It was pretty strong… I only drink nihonshu. Other stuff just gets me drunk way too quick. And I actually like nihonshu a lot: I can drink a whole bottle of it and be fine. I mean, I'll get tipsy, but to get really drunk I need to have a bottle and a half of it. [Laughs.] Unless it's really strong.
I find it's really hit-and-miss for me. Sometimes I'll be fine, other times it really screws me up.
I love it. One of the best things that ever happened in my life was to start drinking that stuff. [Laughs.] I didn't really drink until I moved here. It shuts my brain off: it stops my brain from thinking about work. I'm not against it, but I never took any drugs, so until I moved here I just could never get my brain to shut the hell up. It would be thinking about work no matter what I was doing, and I couldn't go to sleep because of it. Now I can actually stop work for the day.
Do you think you're more mellow as a result of that?
I don't know if I'm more mellow. [Pause.] I just stop thinking about work for a bit. It's new and exciting. [Laughs.]
Sorry to drag the conversation immediately onto the subject of work, but… When I talk to friends who haven't heard of you before, pretty much their first reaction is: well, what does he do for a living? What are you main earners?
For me? Basically, working my ass off for the last twenty years. I make more of a living based on what I did twenty years ago than what I do now. [Laughs.]
Just from royalties?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's not like it's huge or anything, but… it's like 200-plus records, blah blah blah. Actually, the luckiest things have been the fact that sometimes when I produce other people's records, I help write the songs, and those records obviously sell a lot more than anything I ever did. One thing might only be 25 cents a month, but if it's 200 of them, it eventually adds up to enough to pay the bills. I tried to move here about 15 years ago, and I failed completely – I didn't understand a word, I was too young, I didn't have any money. But I kind of knew in the back of my head I was determined to do it, and I just saved for ten years – and luckily those were the ten years when I was doing the most high-level work, doing major label bands and stuff like that. Your friends here would know, but it's not that expensive to live here – it really isn't. I lived in New York for six, seven, eight years; it's so easy here compared to there. If you don't have a car, you don't have things like that, it's actually quite affordable to live here, I think.
How far do you have to go from the city center to find an affordable apartment?
It doesn't exist. I didn't live in Manhattan – I lived in a really shitty area that didn't have even a convenience store nearby. The nearest supermarket was a 20 minute walk, and my rent – keep in mind this is 14 years ago – was a thousand bucks a month.
That makes London sound cheap…
London's expensive too, Jesus. I used to live in South Croydon. [Laughs.]
When was that?
Late '80s. I lived on couches, basically, for 15 years. I'd live in London for two months, and then I'd be in Germany for two months, and then I'd be in France and went back to Germany for two months, things like that.
So where was the first place you settled? New York?
Actually, here. In New York, I had the apartment but I was always on the road. If Sonic Youth wasn't on tour, I'd be in another city producing somebody's record in my downtime; the only time I was ever really in New York was if Sonic Youth was recording, because every day we'd go to the studio. So really the first place I've ever lived is here – you know, where I actually have my own place, and I'm usually there every day.
Was there a sense when you came here that you wanted to make a clean break with all the touring?
I didn't want that life any more. I understand why people do it, but if you think about it: okay, say you have a show in London. It takes one day to get there, it takes another day to get back, you're probably going to have to add another day in there, and then the day of the show. So that's four days for one hour. It's just not worth it any more. When you're young, it's exciting: you go places, you meet people and blah blah blah, but I did it for 25 years. Why would I want to keep doing that? Especially for myself – I'm not really interested in playing shows, I'd rather make things in the studio.
Oh yeah. If I didn't have to ever play a show again, I'd be happy.
Have you felt like that for a while?
I've always felt like that. But, you know, I don't make money off most of the things that I do – that I do. You know, some edition-of-1,000 LP – if you get anything, if you're lucky (usually with that kind of stuff you don't get anything), it's 100 bucks, 200 bucks. You can't make a living off that. [Laughs.] But a long time ago, I made a clean break between what I do and what I do for a living. When I was young, I taught myself to engineer and started working in studios, and eventually, because I could play and arrange and stuff, people were asking me to work on the records more creatively, so I slowly started doing producing and stuff. That's how I paid the bills, so that with my own stuff, if it took me five years to do something, it wouldn't matter. If it didn't make a penny, that didn't matter. I didn't want fear of making a living to have any effect on my own stuff. I've always kept that separate, so that the only way I could make money off my own stuff is if I play a show. And even then, I end up giving money to the other musicians, because I feel guilty for making them play this crap! [Laughs.]
It's nice that you have such a high opinion of your own music…
You know, somebody has to! [Laughs] Now it's worse, because you don't make any money for putting out records – you don't make a penny – and I won't do any of this downloading crap. Not like you make any money from downloads: I don't know where that myth started. Because I know. For my own stuff, I can actually say no – no iTunes, no nothing – but for stuff like Sonic Youth I can't make that decision, so I actually see how much you make from… [Laughs.] It's such a load of bullshit. And you know, you spend a year mixing something, and then it's [turned into an MP3]. And people are like, ‘Yeah, but they want to hear it’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah, but I didn't make it for them.’ I made this stuff for someone who sits down and listens to it on speakers, and if there's other people, great – but I didn't make it for them, that's not what it is.
What was the first Japanese music that really piqued your interest?
The first music would probably be things like [Toru] Takemitsu and stuff like that, because I was like a New Music freak (and dork) at high school. Takemitsu and [Toshi] Ichiyanagi… Takemitsu's stuff I knew first, because his stuff was actually released in the States. I remember, it was a split album between him and Messiaen: I think it was his ‘November Steps’ and Messiaen's ‘Turangalîla-Symphonie’ or something like that. Then some of the free jazz stuff was released – I knew about the Yamashita Trio – but then I was a big fan of Wha Ha Ha.
Wha Ha Ha?
Wha Ha Ha was this band [Akira] Sakata had in '79 or '80, They made two albums and an EP. It's not jazz, it's sort of – what's the best way to describe it? – it's kind of jokey. Semba Kiyohiko was the drummer. It was when all the Japanese jazz guys had gone fusion, but this band, it was more like… Do you know that band Kalahari Surfers? I mean, it was more songs and stuff, but it's all goofy and progressive. I was a big fan of that stuff, and that's how I found out about [Haruomi] Hosono and things like that. I mean, I don't know if it was necessarily just because it was Japanese, although I always liked Japan more than any other country, so I was more interested in finding out. But then I got into Guernica – I really got into the '80s Japanese pop stuff. [With Japanese interviewers] of course, they love it when you like Japanese stuff – and to this day, people think I listen to this stuff every day. You know how it goes…
Is there any music you do actually listen to every day?
I listen to The Necks almost every day. I'm crazy about them – I've been a fan since their first record. Mostly I just listen to electronic music.
When you say electronic music, what kind of stuff would that be?
Mostly old stuff. There's one guy named Roland Kayn who I listen to pretty much every day. You know, there's the famous people like Pierre Henry and all that stuff, which I listen to a lot. And I still get new records by my friends – if Kevin Drumm has a new record, I'll get it. There's a new guy named Kassel Jaeger, he's someone who I've enjoyed lately. His stuff's really good. But otherwise, I kind of listen to the stuff I liked as a kid, After years, you just know what you like. I never understood, just because something's new, why I should listen to it. I'd rather listen to Led Zeppelin than some new rock band. I mean, seriously: what's the point? I can listen to a Led Zeppelin record 500 times and love it, and I really doubt anything I could hear now would be as good as that.
Do you have a favorite one?
Oh, Presence. [Laughs] That was an easy one.
It's probably quite a controversial choice…
Presence is perfect, absolutely perfect. If ‘D'yer Mak'er’ wasn't on Houses of the Holy, it would be Houses of the Holy, but ‘D'yer Mak'er’ sucks. [Laughs] I hate reggae rhythms, it's just the most boring thing I could hear – but it's just my taste. But Presence, absolutely… just without a doubt.
What did you take away from that record?
Presence is just perfection. Even the attention paid to what kind of guitar tone he uses for each phrase. The thing I really love about that record is that everything is so considered and so perfectly chosen, and then it's just done. It doesn't sound fussed over – but it is fussed over – but it sounds like it's just being done off the cuff. And that's one of the hardest things to do. I don't like hearing the difficulty: I don't want it foregrounded when I listen to things, that's not interesting to me. Otherwise it's sports to me – listening to Yellowjackets or something. I think half of the interest of making things is finding ways to hide what you're doing.
So as a producer, how would you go about doing that?
I've heard about you making The Visitor, and it sounds like you made things as difficult for yourself as possible…
I had to do what I had to do. I mean, it's different every time, and each time you do it you hopefully have moved on to the next level of difficulty, and the next level of difficulty of hiding the difficulty. With other bands, usually [I do it] by not letting them come into the studio while I mix. I don't let bands have any say in the mix. This may sound weird, but in that world, that's what I'm know for – so you either want that, or you just hire a really good engineer. That's the only thing I really hardcore about, just: ‘Out! Out! Out!’
Anyway… let's talk about these shows you've got coming up. I can imagine how you might go about preparing for something like the Happy Days gig, but what about the '80s tape and tabletop guitar performances?
For the tabletop thing, by actually remaking the kind of guitar I used to use in the '80s – because it had pick-ups everywhere and switches – so I've been remaking the guitar, and that's almost done. So when I'm done remaking it, I have to start playing it and practicing it. The string quartet score, unfortunately half of it's missing, so I've been having to rewrite from memory what it was. I don't have the tape any more – but the tape part for that is actually just oscillators. Each string goes into its own ring modulator, and then there's a control frequency for that. Luckily I still have the notes, but I have to remake the four-channel tape for that. Some of the old tapes, it's just cleaning them up.
You still have the old tapes?
Some, yeah. I partially chose what I did based on what still existed. So it's been a lot of just cleaning up tapes and restoring them and stuff like that, and just building the guitars. And soon: lots of rehearsals, things like that, which I don't like doing. I feel guilty making people play stuff.
But these are people you play with on a regular basis – surely it isn't such an imposition?
Well, for this it's people I don't. Because it's a lot of people – some people I don't even know. Like for the string quartet, I had to get a string quartet, and I know the one violinist but I don't know all the other people. And, you know, they have to play one note for thirty minutes, that kind of stuff: it's easy, but it's not. [Laughs.] And I also have to fight the temptation to change stuff now. I keep remembering, ‘I was 18 years old, I was 18 years old…’ It's kind of tempting to get rid of the embarrassing stuff. I'm not going to do any of the stuff that would just make me cringe… which is most of it. [Laughs.] There's been a lot of physical prep, and I'm not nearly done yet. There's really not that much that I can just let slide. The trio with Eiko [Ishibashi] and Tatsuhisa [Yamamoto], that's always improvised so that's no problem, but the other trio that day I have to write tunes for it.
It's the ‘jazz trio’ – which is Tatsuhisa and this bass player named Chiba, and we haven't played yet! So that should be interesting. I mean, it's something I wanted to do next year – but I think I said that to myself last year.
You've got a lot of new material lined up, actually. Were you trying to make sure that it didn't all end up being too backward-looking?
No. In a way, I would rather have done more old stuff, because it would be easier to prepare.
Is there any reason why you didn't?
There's not that much of it left. I used to have a habit of throwing everything out, so there's not a lot of the old stuff left.
What form would that old stuff take?
Lots of scores. I stopped writing scores, basically, during college, when I realized that you'd never get to hear these goddamn things, but I used to have tons of them. I never thought that I'd be doing something like this – not that it's a big deal or anything, but I never thought I would need them. There was a sax quartet – I think that was actually unplayable. It was all circular breathing, so I think people would pass out after a while. [Laughs.] When I was younger, I definitely didn't like any breaks: I definitely liked continuous sound. So the big band is just something I always wanted to do, and I'm kind of just going off notes that I made over the years. That one's actually been the hardest, because I can't decide how specific to be: some of these people I've played with before, and some of them I haven't, and I can't waste everyone's time. They of course want to rehearse, but I can't pay them for the rehearsals. For these shows, I'm basically giving the musicians all the money, because that's the only way I can… you know…
Yeah, really. That one, I'm still working on that one… I'll probably finish all of these things an hour before soundcheck. I'll probably keep fiddling with all of the stuff until then: I have a bad habit of not stopping. [Laughs.]
What was the original impetus to do these shows?
Mike [Kubeck, booking manager for SuperDeluxe]. I would never do this: he's been bugging me for a while about it. I think he's the only person in Tokyo who asks me to play shows. It was his idea, and I don't know why I said yes. I think I thought it would get me off my ass – especially because the last year, I haven't been able to do very much of my own things, because I've been doing other people's records a lot, so I thought this would get things going. That was a stupid thing to do.
I'm interested that you're doing Happy Days and Bad Timing but not, say, Insignificance…
I'm sure people would probably be happier if I was doing more of the song things, but I kind of want to keep that separate, because I'm almost done with the next song record – after 12 goddamn years.
This is songs with lyrics and everything?
Lyrics and singing and rude, rude subjects. I've recorded, like, five of them already, and I just won't finish them… I don't know. Probably this year, I'll finally put it out, and then I really want to do the band show, really properly. The band show will probably be fairly loose – which is how I usually do it, actually. I don't tell the band which song we're going to play until we're about to play it on stage; I don't do setlists or anything like that.
With a band?
They have to know! I've only had two bands. Basically, when I finished Insignificance, I was producing all the time, and the way that record was received just didn't give me any inspiration to keep doing them. And it was also released on 9/11, which was fun. But that band – those were people I'd played with for years, especially Darin Grey, the bass player, and [drummer] Glenn Kotche. Then I introduced Glenn to [Wilco frontman] Jeff Tweedy, and he became GLENN KOTCHE. Basically, I was spoilt, because for ten years I could never find another drummer who was Glenn Kotche – because there isn't. And Tatsuhisa's the first drummer that I've met since Glenn Kotche that I can play with. I'm not talking about improvising and things like that: I'm talking about actual song material. He has the thing that Glenn Kotche has, that all other drummers don't: they understand that when they're playing songs, they're playing songs on a drumset, not playing drums. And that's a big difference – it's a subtle difference pretty much no drummers understand. I can't play with those people, I just can't.
So who's in the band?
It's Tatsushisa, and Ishibashi Eiko, and Sudoh Toshiaki. It's the same band as Eiko's band. Sudoh, I've also known for years and years. He used to be the drummer in Melt-Banana.
One of many…
Well, he was the first. He was the original drummer, which is how I know him, because I did their second album. What was it, '94, '95? I've known Sudoh all those years, but he's an amazing bass player – he's great. He's like the other Darin Grey. So I started playing with Tatsuhisa and Sudoh, with the idea of starting to do that stuff again, and then I decided that I wanted a piano player this time. Usually on the records I would play all the keyboards, so I can't do it live, so they suggested Eiko, and then that also became Eiko's band, which also became Maeno Kenta's new band. That different band has different names for everybody, but it's actually all the same people.
Moving on: when you read magazines like The Wire, they often make it seem like there's a specifically Japanese sensibility that musicians have. Do you think that there's any real difference?
Oh, sure. With that kind of stuff, it's swing, just a sense of swing. [Looks coy all of a sudden.] Don't print this. [REDACTED]
So the musicians you've gravitated towards here, are they kind of the exceptions?
Yeah. I'm not saying some musicians are better, it's just their sensibility is... I don't like Musicians, you know what I mean? They like their instrument – I don't understand that. I don't understand liking your instrument, it's just a pain-in-the-ass thing you have to use in order to do what you want to do. Having an interest in your instrument – I don't understand it, it just makes no sense to me. Why don't you just stay home and caress it and stuff? Why are you playing for people?
Are there people you've played with here who you really felt are doing something that people aren't doing in the West – in a positive way?
Sakata. For sure, Sakata. Absolutely, Sakata. Sakata's amazing. Sakata's really great. I don't subscribe much to that whole East/West thing. Well, [Keiji] Haino, of course – but Haino's Haino.
Is it a challenge playing with him?
No, I've never had a problem. I have a problem when he points the amp at me on purpose. I remember that show – that show really hurt. I didn't hear for three days after that show. Right before we started, he just turns the amp to me and gives me this smile. ‘Oh, you asshole!*
You're not wearing earplugs, I take it?
No, I can't play with earplugs. Wow, that was… No, I never have a problem playing with Haino. I don't want to say it's easy, but it's like, you know, it just happens – it's no problem. Playing with someone like Loren Mazzacane is difficult, because all of a sudden you're in Loren Mazzacane [country], you don't know where the hell he's going – he just suddenly veers off-course, and… he's always right. But it's like, ‘You're off on some tangent now! Where did that come from?’ Which is of course exciting, but you really have to stay on your toes, playing with someone like him. Sakata too, sometimes: he decides to just drop and go off…
Gets out the bells and starts singing…
Well, that's actually… you always expect that. I always expect the bells and singing. It's more like, ‘When is it going to come? Is it going to be the first set or the second set?’ Nah, especially with his clarinet playing, you really have to be on your toes. Haino, not so much. Haino throws curves, but they're a different kind of curves – they're easier to follow, in a way, because you're not playing with him in the same way you play with other people. You're kind of more accompanying, with Haino. I mean, some people don't play with him that way, but I play with him like that: I'm like, ‘I'm going to make frames or change the lighting’ – that's kind of how I think about it. Haino's very special, and Sakata's very special. … I also think he's [Haino's] changed a bit in the past few years. I think he plays with other people differently than he used to.
Interview by James Hadfield