SINCE 2005 Jim O’Rourke, the once perennially busy American musician and producer, has lived in a small apartment in Japan, keeping to himself. He had flown there for work at least 50 times in earlier years; every time he returned to the United States, he said, his mood sank. At first his relocation was on and off, during the long process of acquiring an artist’s work visa. Now it seems pretty permanent. “It’s the only place I’m happy,” he said during a recent telephone interview, with a perfectionist’s mordant cackle.Skip to next paragraph
The American producer and musician Jim O’Rourke, whose new album “The Visitor” was made in his home studio in Japan.
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Mr. O’Rourke, 40, is about equally known for his own music — albums like “Eureka,” “Insignificance” and his remarkable new one, “The Visitor” — as for his work for other people. For about 10 years, starting in the mid-1990s, Mr. O’Rourke, based in Chicago and then New York, saw his craft, knowledge and legendarily selfless work ethic connect some far-apart poles in music: pop, improvised music, contemporary classical and noise.
Sure, most music connects over time. (This is where people start talking about hive-minds and the genius of the marketplace.) But Mr. O’Rourke put in the work for those connections to happen faster and deeper. During that period he produced, engineered or wrote arrangements for rock bands like Wilco and Superchunk, as well as acts with more cultish followings: U.S. Maple, Smog, Aluminum Group. He worked with some of his older heroes, including John Fahey, Tony Conrad and the Red Krayola. He recorded a new version of the composer Toru Takemitsu’s 1962 “Corona for Pianists” for Columbia Japan.
He toured as a musician with Merce Cunningham’s dance company. For four years he was a full-time member of Sonic Youth. He played on the soundtrack of Werner Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man,” sharpened the musical skills of the child actors in Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock” and wrote a soundtrack to Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” for no pay.
But something in him changed over the past few years. Back in Chicago he was the most animated advocate for little-known or underrated music that I’d ever met; he knew everything and connected the dots for you. Now, he said, “I don’t know that guy anymore.” He feels he’s learned what he wants to learn. He works mostly for and by himself and doesn’t hang out with many musicians in Tokyo.
“I don’t think they’re interesting,” he said. “I don’t really listen to music much anymore. I haven’t had a stereo for the last three years.”
It was 1 a.m. in Tokyo when we talked. He’d just come home from playing a concert with Alan Silva’s 18-piece, free-jazz Celestial Communications Orchestra. “Music-wise all I do are these improv things,” he said. “I have so many old friends here, and now we can just play together, casually.” He’s been spending more time, he said, working with filmmakers and writing film criticism for Japanese magazines like En-Taxi, Expo and Studio Voice.
That, and working on “The Visitor,” released this week by Drag City. It’s a nearly orchestral, fully instrumental album, his first in eight years. He made it alone in his home studio — except for the piano tracks, which he recorded in a rented rehearsal space — so it takes its place alongside the small number of other high-level pop records made completely or mostly by one person, including Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything?” and Stevie Wonder’s “Music of My Mind.” Mr. O’Rourke gives the sense that its gingerly dynamics were dictated by thin walls and respect for his neighbors.
“The Visitor” is so easy on the ears that it disguises its density. “There are parts where there are almost 200 tracks of instruments, but I didn’t want it to sound difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be virtuosic.”
Consisting of one 32-minute track, “The Visitor” took three years to make, including a year to mix. Mr. O’Rourke had exhausted his savings, and for one of those years, he said, he was prevented from earning an income in Japan because he didn’t have a work visa. (It finally came through early last year.) He lived off royalties from his past albums, some of which have sold upward of 50,000 copies in America.
“The Visitor” runs through chapters of folk, chamber-pop, progressive rock and jazz bucolia, and it’s crazily broad: a Leo Kottke fan might like it, a Pat Metheny fan might like it, a Morton Feldman fan might like it. As the piece moves along, holding together with its long-form logic, it can be difficult to discern that most of the music relates back to the album’s simple opening chords and theme. That theme develops through different rhythms and arrangements for an array of instruments — piano, pedal-steel guitar, organ, cello, banjo, clarinet — some of which he learned how to play for the purposes of this record.
The trombone, for example, which comes in after about 20 minutes, took six months of practice before Mr. O’Rourke could play the lines he’d written for it in a perfect take. (He kept a no-edit rule.) The trombone is mixed low, but it’s the loudest instrument he used; when he was ready to record it, he waited until his next-door neighbor left for her grocery run.
Mr. O’Rourke’s production style is precise and dry; he creates a sound picture in which tiny sonic details matter. But where his Drag City records are concerned, everything matters: the pacing, the length, the sound, the cover images. For this reason he won’t allow “The Visitor,” or any of his albums, to be sold as downloads, on iTunes or anywhere else. He’s taking a stand against the sound quality of MP3s; he’s also taking a stand in favor of artists being able to control the medium and reception of their work.
“You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democratization ...” he trailed off, disgusted. “It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it’s disastrous for the possibilities of any art form.”
His record company approves, perhaps a reflection of his being one of Drag City’s best-selling artists. “Frankly I’m really pleased about it,” said Rian Murphy, the label’s director of sales. “It may affect the way we’re able to promote it, and it may affect the wider range of listeners that come to get the record — if they can’t point and click to it — but it’s good to have someone standing up for that.”
Mr. O’Rourke’s music is full of sly reference and disguised intention. On his albums with vocals, the lyrics drip with misanthropy, which has upset some listeners. He loves the concept of the unreliable narrator, though he thinks many listeners aren’t ready for it. (“People want to believe that music is coming out of the creator’s soul and all that nonsense,” he complained. “I mean, I’m going to express myself whether I want to or not.”)
But “The Visitor” has no vocals — partly because he was tired of the reaction to his sense of humor and partly because, as he put it, “I had nothing to sing about.”
The titles of his four albums for Drag City refer to films by Nicolas Roeg, one of his favorite directors. “Bad Timing,” “Eureka” and “Insignificance” are actually titles of Roeg movies, but “The Visitor” has a more subtle connection. In Mr. Roeg’s science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” it is the name of an album made by Jerome Newton (an alien played by David Bowie) as a kind of goodbye message to be sent by the radio back to his dying planet.
Even after the lecture about unreliable narrators, one has to ask: Does the title signify that this is Mr. O’Rourke’s message from exile to those he’s left behind?
He cackled again. “I do enjoy that interpretation,” he said, “because it seems so pathetic.”
I've loosely followed Jim O'Rourke's career since "Eureka" and I must admit his NO MP3's policy does make me more curious to hear what this new record sounds like. Brilliant Marketing! :)