An afternoon with Jim O’Rourke

This is the transcript from the interview I did with Jim O’Rourke for the December 2018 issue of The Wire, where he shared the cover with Eiko Ishibashi. The occasion for the interview was Eiko’s stunning solo album, The Dreams My Bone Dream, and I approached my interview with her in a fairly orthodox fashion. Having interviewed Jim a few times before, I knew what a wide-ranging conversationalist he could be, so I decided just to see where the discussion led, and did my best to keep up. It was a rambling but illuminating conversation, and I’m not sure the article I ended up writing really did it justice. (Mayumi Hosokura’s photos, on the other hand, were fantastic.)

I was inspired to dust this off after reading Joshua Minsoo Kim’s brilliant interview for Tone Glow, which covers some of the same ground, but is much more thorough and focused. It convinced me that there might be a few completists out there who are interested in slogging through this (reader beware: it’s long). The conversation took place just after Takehisa Kosugi passed away, so it goes into a lot of detail about Jim’s work with the Merce Cunningham Company, as well as his estrangement from the world of academia and New Music. (The latter topic is particularly interesting to revisit in light of the release of Shutting Down Here, Jim’s long-gestating contribution to the new Portrait GRM series.) There’s also stuff about producing, record collecting, Autechre, Guns N’ Roses, and a detailed discussion of FFT that I swear made sense to me at the time.

The interview took place on October 14, 2018 at Jim’s home studio in Yamanashi. Note that I left out a lot of my own questions and prompts when transcribing the audio (most of which were pretty asinine anyway), which is why it reads like an extended monologue in places.

“I will feed myself off these dulcet tones...”

We start off talking about Hard Off, a second-hand chain specialising in electronics, audio and other assorted hardware. At the time, Jim’s regular crew had been posting photos from their trips to various branches around the country. The Matsumoto Hard Off is a good one, apparently...


I’m not actually looking for very much stuff. But, boy, do they have a good selection of speakers there. Fantastic selection of speakers. And some good synths. There was actually a synth I wanted to buy, but [laughs] someone beat me to it, by a minute.

There’s a few people doing tours who don’t understand the Hard Off thing, and are like, “Why are you spending all this time to go to Hard Offs?” It’s like, because... what did I say? “A place where dreams can come true.” A place with the possibility of your dreams coming true. I find a lot of stuff that, 5 years ago, if I’d found it I’d be amazed. I don’t know if it’s like families who, their father has passed away and he was an audiophile or whatever. But it’s got more expensive. It’s probably the internet.


I just like going. It’s like the equivalent of Vegas. If you’re not into gambling, it’s the closest thing to gambling.


A lot of stuff that I look for is stuff that wouldn’t show up. Strangely, it’s hard to find a short-wave radio. There’s not many of them. It took me quite a while, and I found it. It was funny: I was looking for a very specific [model]. I wanted any short-wave, really, but I wanted one John Duncan had, back in the ’80s and the early ’90s, when he lived here. I was looking for that specific one for years, and then when John came last year, we were somewhere in Kyushu. We went into a Hard Off (John Duncan in a Hard Off was really interesting), and in the junk corner I found this short-wave, and I’m looking at it and I turn to John and say, “This looks like the one you used to have,” and it was exactly the same one. It’s just funny that he was there when I finally found it.

Did you have a specific application in mind?


Well, I always used them. It’s just when I moved, I sold it. Now, the internet short-wave has really improved, but you can’t really use it like an instrument. You can find good source material and record it, but using it like an instrument, you gotta be able to touch it. That was another thing I thought would be so easy to get here, and it turned out not to be the case at all, strangely enough. And there still is a big short-wave community that’s very active in Japan.


Now it’s just really cheap consumer or super high-end. There’s no in-between—which seems to be becoming a problem with almost anything these days. It’s either this or that: very little in-between. I mean, with [key Tokyo venue] SuperDeluxe closing, that’s ridiculous. There’s no place else. You either have to play to, like, 30 people, or you gotta get 200 people in there. The only other place I can think of that is open and welcome to that kind of stuff, that’s of any size, is WWW. You’ve gotta have an audience to do stuff there. You’ve got full professional staff, you can’t just show up and improvise like you could at SuperDeluxe—I mean, about the gear and stuff.

It’s like you either play at the Apollo [tiny jazz/improv venue in Shimokitazawa] or you play at WWW. I’m not so in touch anymore, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything that’s in the middle, where 80 to 100 people could show up.

Somewhere like Soup or Forestlimit, maybe?


No, you can only fit 50 people in there.


[I mention that SuperDeluxe’s closure and the news of Takehisa Kosugi’s death has made this weekend a bit of a bummer.]


I worked with him for a long time. He was my boss when I was in the Merce Cunningham Company.

Really? I didn’t know that.


Four or five years. When John Cage died, Mr Kosugi took over John Cage’s position, and he picked me to take his position. Because with the Cunningham Company, there was always the music director and then the musician, and they would always usually ask a third musician, usually for a specific piece, or from the area or whatever. So in the past, it was Cage and Kosugi. First it was Cage and Tudor, and then when Mr Tudor passed away, Kosugi took David Tudor’s place, and then I took Kosugi’s place, and I did that for about five years. It was great, Mr Cunningham was fantastic.


The first one I did—if I remember correctly—was at Black Mountain, and the guest musician was David Behrman. So that was amazing. I was, like, 26 or something. It just blew my mind. So I worked for them for a long time—I think, right up to about a year or so before Mr Cunningham passed away. He was a big deal for me, he was one of the guys who helped me. I owe him a lot.


Yeah, I guess people don’t really know that, now I think about it. Because it’s not like I was going around shouting about it, and it’s not like... it’s like that world, and the world of people who are interested in that music, doesn’t actually coincide that much.

Did it feel like it was coinciding any more at the time you were doing it?


No, because it’s a different world. It’s like with orchestras and stuff. You have to be bringing in a lot more money, so it exists in that world where there’s a person... what’s the word? Fundraising, and things like that. It’s that world. So that world and concert-goers—people that go to SuperDeluxe—it doesn’t necessarily interact very much at all. And they would have to come to your city for it. Especially back then, there was no way to find out, “Oh, what pieces are the Cunningham Company doing now?” and check, “Oh, and they’re doing this Cage piece and Kosugi’s doing this.” There’s no way to know unless they happen to come to your town or you were on a mailing list.


I’m not a person to keep pictures in the first place, but I don’t have a single picture from that period. I have lots of recordings, but I have no documentation of that period of my life.

What were you doing with them?


You’d play. So, like... I was on electronics and, I think, computer—because it was still kind of novel at that time. I think that might be one of the reasons Kosugi wanted me to do it, now that I think about it. Because this is, like, ’96 or something, and playing a laptop was still [unusual]—outside of academic circles. There wasn’t much software at all then. I mean, unless you knew how to program in C or something like that. I had a 520c Mac, it was this bulky grey thing, and then a modular synth. That’s what I used, and then it would depend on the piece.


A lot of times, you’d be using David Tudor’s instruments. When we did “Ocean” it was all… a lot of the pieces would have gear that was built just for that piece, so you’d be using David Tudor’s stuff. I think I only played guitar one time, and that was actually—this is terrible, but—it was kind of one of the reasons I decided to stop. But also, simultaneously, I was starting to work more as an engineer and starting to produce people’s records, so for the first time in my life, I was having schedule problems.


We were doing a Gavin Bryars piece, and it was the last thing I ever did with them, and I had to play E-bow guitar—and I hate E-bow guitar. Mr Bryars I respect so much, it was an honour to meet him, but I didn’t like the music—because it was set. Not because the music was bad, but because it was set. It’s the same piece of music each time, and that’s so against the spirit of Cunningham’s work. I shouldn’t speak for him, especially since he’s just passed away, but I think Mr Kosugi had the [same feeling]. Because the manager was moving more and more towards getting big names in music.


It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I just felt like a pit musician all of a sudden. What was exciting about it was... I think the management changed or something. I don’t mean this as criticism of anybody, it just started to become something I wasn’t into anymore. And also, producing jobs had started to become more intense. That’s how the Goodbye 20th Century record happened, because Willy Winant, John Cage’s percussionist, went to—either high school or college with Kim [Gordon], and I knew Willy.

I was in New York with the Cunningham Company, doing quite a long... where was it? I think it was Lincoln Center. Willy happened to be in town, and I think I brought Kosugi to the Sonic Youth studio, or something like that, but that’s how that record happened. I was still working with the Cunningham Company then, so this would be, like, ’99 or something. And then Willy Winant called in Christian Wolff—so it was all kind of connected at that point.


Around ’99, the producing jobs were getting bigger and bigger. I’d have to block out months at a time, and there’d be some Cunningham thing right in the middle of it, so I had to make a choice. Both simultaneously with the music becoming kind of more traditional—not saying bad, but more traditional—I just felt like it had gone from being... the whole idea [originally] was that you’re a composer-musician.

They’d do these things called “Events,” which were really fun. It was like a long-running thing that Merce did, if they were at certain places where it wasn’t the right kind of place to put on a particular dance, a piece of his, like a park or something. I remember we did one in Central Park, which was awesome. So basically, they’d set up and he’d give each dancer, like: “You’re doing Dancer 2 from this piece, you’re doing Dancer 3 from this piece,” and then they’d do this collage of dancing, and in that case, the musicians just played. You played what you want, but you’re not supposed to improvise, in the sense that you’re not supposed to listen and react to the other musicians. So there’s just this mass—not collage, but overlapping of unrelated material. Those were always great to do.

Is that quite a challenge?


No, it’s fun. You just don’t listen. [Laughs uproariously.] For a lot of improvisers, it’s easy! HAHAHA! If you use that, make sure you say, “laughing.” Joke! It’s a joke. [Very quietly.] I don’t want any trouble.

Those were fun. Christian Marclay would do a lot of those. That was great. He’s so fun to play with, even when you’re not supposed to play with him. He’s such a terrific guy. And Kosugi would be over there with his table full of Boss pedals. In a way, he’s like the original [Keiji] Haino! Because he’d have a table full of Boss pedals, you know? [Laughs.] Now I think about it. I’ve never thought of that before! Maybe that’s where Mr Haino got the idea of the Boss collection.

Would he be running a violin through that?

No, because with the Cunningham stuff, the main thing is this thing called the matrix mixer. Do you know what that is? It’s basically, say you’ve got a 4x4 matrix mixer, so you’ve got four inputs here, and another four inputs up here, and then four outputs here. So basically, say you’ve got this output here, that output can get a mix from any of the combinations. It looks like a grid... actually, I can show you one real quick. It’ll make more sense if I show it to you.

[He takes me to his studio in the room next-door, which is still clearly a work in progress. Jim is planning to replace the tatami flooring soon, so we don’t bother taking our shoes off.]

So you see, you’ve got ins: this is all [in], and these are out. So this input from here goes to this, this and this; this input from here goes to to this, this and this; this input from here goes to this, this and this. So this output can have any combination of those four. The main thing with Cunningham, specifically with David Tudor [unclear]... And maybe you’d put that, in the feedback route, you’d put something on it. Usually he’d be using phasers a lot, because then when it feeds back, it’s feeding back out of phase with itself, so you create this feedback loop. And then basically you’re controlling the feedback with this matrix mixer, and everything’s kind of zooming back and forth. That’s kind of the key part of how David Tudor’s music was made. Because if you look on the covers of his records: on the cover of Pulsers, there’s even a diagram.

That’s what you’d be using. That’s what Kosugi would be using, and then the effects pedals are what’s in the loop of the feedback paths. He’d be using a lot of phasers. You hear phasers a lot on Kosugi’s stuff. He used pitch shifters a lot. Pedal pitch-shifters at that time were still sort of... really ragged, so they have a very specific sound. A lot of phase shifting. And he would use his violin sometimes, but a lot of it was mostly contact... one input into the matrix mixer would be a contact mic that he’d be playing stuff on the table.

I don’t have any memory of him putting the violin into the matrix mixer, although that would make sense. I mean, some of the pieces that were released, I think, were violin going into a matrix mixer with a phase. Catch-Wave is probably pretty much that: a violin going into a mixing matrix with a lot of phase shifters. I mean, you can hear it.


Mr Marclay would bring his turntables. If it was in England, it was mostly Mr Tilbury: John Tilbury did a lot. There were all sorts of people. It was amazing for me, all these heroes of mine. Not really improvisers, very much. Mr Tilbury would be kind of the closest. The musicians usually had to have some sort of connection to New Music. Christian Wolff, or Mr Behrman.


Although one time, in Japan, Eye did it. It was in Kyoto, and it was a piece by Stuart Dempster. Somebody had to walk around the audience playing a conch shell, and Eye did that. That was great. That was actually the tour where we were doing the Gavin Bryars piece. I remember... no. No, I’m wrong. That’s where I met him, in Kyoto. He came with Ichiyanagi, to the concert, so I met Mr Bryars—which was a thrill, because I like a lot of his stuff.

Any works in particular?


I like pretty much everything in the ’70s that he did. You know, the classics: “Jesus’ Blood,” the original, is a masterpiece. I like that... it’s probably not recent, but “A Man in a Room Gambling.” That’s good, I really like that. I was trying to catch up with some of his recent things, but those CDs are actually really expensive here—his own label. There’s a recent opera of his that there’s no recording available. I want to hear that, but it’s not released.


I try to keep up with that particular generation of English composers, despite being more fond of their older work. I still try to see what [Michael] Nyman’s up to or whatever, as much as I can. His book [Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 1974] was a really big deal for me, so I have a lot of respect for him. That book is really kind of like the life-changing thing for me. It was the first thing that made me realise there were aesthetics to doing this, and that I had to think about that. That you have to think about—not why you’re doing it, but how you’re doing it, in that you have to realise everything you do has both connotations and consequences.


I hate to use the word “political.” There’s the academic use of the word “political,” in the sense that there’s a political element to it, but I don’t like the implications of using that word. Because it’s not just an aesthetic implication. I mean, one of the main theses of his book is, he divides the book into avant-garde music and experimental music, and he explains why the two are different. That was the key thing for me, at that age. I was really young—a brother, like a sub-priest, in high school gave it to me. It was in his library. He was the music brother, and he noticed that I was listening to weird music, and he was like, “I’ve got this book, you probably would like this.”


At that age, having someone very articulately and very clearly explain—aesthetically, and kind of like in terms of how you’re going to define your life—why these two approaches are different, was really, really important to me at that time. That’s sort of like what killed the nascent Stockhausen worship and La Monte Young worship, and all that stuff. I mean, that book made me start to have problems with people like that, and start to appreciate other people that I didn’t necessarily know about.

So what was the distinction that he was drawing?


Well, that’s a whole book! [Laughs.] At this point, it’s such a part of my DNA that I don’t even put it into words any more. You should get the book—just for the pictures. There’s all these old pictures of, like, Gavin Bryars.


There’s this one piece Gavin Bryars did in, like, 1967. God, it’s really embarrassing—not the picture, but—this piece that Gavin Bryars did, he has this long overcoat with all these pockets he’s sewn in it. I don’t know what kind of tape players they were, because at the time the picture was taken, there wasn’t like Walkmans or anything like that. He had some kind of thing where on the inside of his jacket there were a bunch of tape players, all playing different tapes, and he’d close the jacket and just walk into places with these things going.


When I was in college, I actually did that. I thought I was being cool. I made a jacket like that, and would walk into places with these cassettes playing, and I just thought I was so edgy—imitating a picture from, like, 25 years earlier.


That book really kind of made it all happen. And it’s still... more the aesthetic of how you lead your life, and thinking about the implications of what you do. Derek [Bailey] was the other big thing, because Derek’s like totally... the way that Mr Nyman split the avant-garde and the experimental, Derek personifies the aesthetics and the values of someone experimental. His whole life was a manifestation of that way of living. So yeah, that book was a big deal.


I think it’s actually been translated into Japanese, if I remember correctly. It’s a great book, even just for the pictures. There’s so many pictures in that book that kind of like were subsumed into my DNA. Like that really famous picture of the Theatre of Eternal Music, where Tony [Conrad] and John Cale are kneeling. There’s a big gong in the middle of the picture. I just remember, as a kid, just staring at that picture like, “This. I want this.”


There’s an amazing picture of AMM in that book—I think, a very iconic picture, when Cornelius Cardew was still in the group. He looks like he’s playing a tetrahedron or something, Keith Rowe is just, like, bent over. You look at this picture, and you listen to the music, and it’s like: How are these sounds…?

Do you think the fact you were getting so inspired by these pictures was because it wasn’t so easy for you to get your hands on the music?


Well, I think at that age, it wasn’t like I was able to go to concerts very much at all, so it was that as well. The music was actually not that hard to get, because the library system in the States is actually quite good. You can get it from any library in the country. You find a library, you make a request and they find a library where it is. It was actually really easy to get.


[He also mentions a shop in Chicago called Rose Records that “had a huge New Music section.”]


Things that later I would find out about, like Charlemagne Palestine and stuff like that—that was probably not as easy to get at that time, but I was still looking for, like, Xenakis and stuff like that. That’s gonna sound weird, but “Entry Level New Music.” I don’t mean in terms of quality, but the big names. That stuff was actually really easy to get.


At that time, in the ’80s, it wasn’t that hard to get those records. It was more because I couldn’t see it. If Glenna Branca came, it was probably a club, where you had to be 21 or something because they had alcohol. And when things did happen... I mean, things did happen, but it was only once or twice a year. The one time I did meet John Cage was actually very funny. It was a performance of Robert Ashley’s... if memory’s right, it might have been “Atalanta.” No... it might have been “My Brother Called.” I think it was “My Brother Called.” And I sat down, and I just turned to my right and there’s this old guy who turns and says [in a purring voice] “Hellooo, how are you?” It was John Cage! Holy shit!


There’s a period from the late ’80s until, like—for the next 15 years—where that kind of music just disappeared: in terms of intersection with an audience that wasn’t necessarily pursuing that music, there was very little opportunity. It just sort of disappeared.


New Music America shut down, I think, in ’88. It kind of all happened at the same time. There was New Music Distribution Service, which was very important—that was like it. I think it was started by Michael Mantler. It was a distributor for records. All those legendary Loren Mazzacane records, where there are only 50 copies and they disappeared, because New Music Distribution Service went out of business, Loren didn’t have a car, so they just dumped all the records.


There were a lot of magazines, there was a lot of distribution, there was lots of funding for that kind of music. The Ashley thing was at the Art Institute of Chicago, and there were just normal people. You’d go and just see this Ashley opera thing. [John] Zorn was on Nonesuch. And then it was just like a [snaps fingers], just around that time, it’s like: Nothing. It all went back into its little corner of the world and didn’t interact with the rest of the world very much until... really until the later ’90s.

What do you think changed?


[Titters.] I think part of it’s my fault! Because it is partly my fault.

I was going to ask, because with Goodbye 20th Century, obviously it copped a lot of flak...


Did it get flak? I know, from the side of New Music writers, they really liked it.

Yeah, I think it was more like, from the rockists.


Oh, I didn’t even know. But I remember, Kyle Gann was very complimentary, and that was a big deal because Kyle Gann was a big deal for me. See: that too! There was Kyle Gann. In the normal newspapers, like in Chicago there was the Reader, in New York the Village Voice. You had people like Kyle Gann writing about this stuff every week.


It’s funny, because later... like, say in the late ’90s, when I started to do reissues and stuff, and all that, and people started to find out that I was interested in this music, a lot of people who didn’t know that music before, they’d say: “Bullshit! You didn’t know that guy. Bullshit! How did you know that?” It’s like: it wasn’t like that stuff was a mystery up until that point. It wasn’t hard to find out about that music. It’s always kind of strange that—especially now, in the last 10 years, when it’s easy to find out about anything—the idea that you would take initiative to find out about something is almost like a strange idea to some people, it seems. I don’t know. I don’t meet people very much anymore. [Laughs.] So I don’t know.


Shows did actually happen. Hell, I saw Derek in Chicago, like, 8 or 10 times. At first, I had to go to England or whatever but, you know... it happened. I mean, I saw almost everybody. There was this place called Ravinia, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would play in the summer. And then it had a smaller venue, an enclosed venue next door. And at this festival—this was like when I was in high school—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was there, Steve Reich and musicians would play at the pit. And then in the smaller place, within a 2-year period, I saw Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Max Roach, Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell. And these were places, you’d open the paper and there’s ads for this stuff! Everything hadn’t gotten... It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier, everything’s getting so… you either have to exist here or here. That stuff existed! I’m not complaining, it’s just... it did exist.


When I was really young, it was just that I couldn’t necessarily have access to that stuff. I couldn’t necessarily go to the shows. A lot of times, I’d have to find an adult to take me. Unless I was, like, maybe 15 or 16, I always had to have an adult take me to the shows.


My dad, very unwillingly, saw Miles Davis. Definitely unwillingly saw Jethro Tull. He worked for the gas company, and I think at that time his job was jack-hammering in the street for repairs, and so he had those giant mufflers—giant cans—and he would bring those to the concerts. And it would be horribly embarrassing. I remember specifically, when we went to see Jethro Tull, pulling into the parking place, and someone in the car next to us is playing Songs from the Wood, which is like the most bucolic record, and I was like, “Listen, Dad! It’s like that! It’s nice acoustic music!” And he goes, "Oh, OK" and he left the thing there. And then [laughs] first note, [sings the intro of “Aqualung”] DUN DUN DUN DUN DUNNNN DUN…” I’m in trouble! [Laughs.]


So yeah, it was mostly like, that was a way to somehow connect to these pictures. I think there’s a really great picture of Kosugi in the book as well, if I'm remembering correctly. It might be a Taj Mahal Travellers picture. Those records weren’t easy to get, of course! They never were. I had to wait a few years to find those.

Was something like Catch-Wave readily available?


No, no. That was easier to get than... I mean, now we’re hitting, like, 1990. I’m just out of college, now I’m mostly spending my time in Europe, living on people’s couches and involved in the record-collecting world. It got easier, but it’s because I had started being involved in this world of people looking for odd records. So Catch-Wave was always easier to find than the Taj Mahal Travellers records: those were always hard to find.


For some reason, Germany was a big hotspot for Japanese imports in the ’80s, so almost all the Japanese records I own I bought in Germany, in the early ’90s.


What kind of stuff were you getting?


You know, the Kosugis, and some of the pop stuff, like the [Haruomi] Hosono stuff. I bought all those in Germany. The [Toshi] Ichiyanagi everybody wanted—what was it? The one that he made with Yoko. I wasn’t really looking for rock stuff or anything, it was mostly the [in posh English voice] “avant-garde.” The Japanese jazz, there was actually a lot. There were a couple of German labels that released a lot of Yamashita Trio records, and Japanese groups at that time would play a lot in Germany, like at the Moers Festival and stuff like that. So by virtue of the fact that I was kind of living in Germany in the early 90s, I had a lot of access to that stuff, before I came to Japan.

Was there much apart from the Yamashita Trio that grabbed you, in terms of Japanese jazz?


[Akira] Sakata. I actually was a Sakata fan before I knew the Yamashita Trio.

That was from Wha-ha-ha?


From Wha-ha-ha, yes. And I liked—Sakata, obviously—and I really liked [Takeo] Moriyama too. But basically, I bought them because Sakata was on them. He’s really great on those, man. He’s so good on those! He’s so kick-ass. I wished that I’d pursued the more sort-of-traditional free jazz players, if that’s the word. You know, like [Masahiko] Satoh. I wish I’d known about Satoh earlier. They may have been there, but I didn’t know who he was at that time—and also because, at that age, I was just looking for the most extreme stuff, you know? So of course, I was look for [Masayuki] Takayanagi stuff.


Takayanagi stuff, I didn’t find in Germany. I had... [Laughs.] The first Takayanagi record I got, it’s actually funny. I forget this guitarist’s name—he played for a little while with Joe Henderson. He was a Japanese guitarist, but he lived in Chicago, and he played with Joe Henderson, and he was my guitar teacher at DePaul University. I had to take one year of jazz guitar.

I didn’t want to play jazz. All I was doing was playing like Derek, or imitating... probably imitating [John] Abercrombie. I was imitating Abercrombie a lot, and he’d be like, “Why do you wanna play that?” And I was like, “Well, because I like Derek Bailey.” And one day he was like, [disgusted] “Oh!” And he pulls a record out of his shelf and he goes: “Here, you’ll probably like this.” And he gives me that Takayanagi and [Masahiko] Togashi duo record—which is actually, Takayanagi is playing nylon there, and it’s... not so much Derek, but at that point, in my head, it’s more kind of like John Russell style.

Later, when I met Henry Kaiser, he had all those Takayanagi records. The first time I went to Henry’s house, in 1990, it was to organise his record collection—which I did, but it was basically kind of like an excuse for him, giving me a gift of: Come stay for a week and we’ll go see shows and I’ll introduce you to people and stuff. It was a very nice thing for him to do.


But during the day, I would organise his record collection with him. That’s how I found out about Loren Mazzacane. That was kind of a really important week in my life. It’s like, “Oh, this is another Takayanagi” and it was like the stuff. I’m like, “What the fuck!” I first heard Haino, he had a copy of Watashi Dake? No, I might be wrong... that might have been at Christoph Heeman’s house, which is around the same time. This is 1990. Basically, I was a hobo in Europe, basically from them until ’95. Yeah, Christoph probably played it to me, but Henry had it too. At that time, it was Guitar Roberts, and Takayanagi, and Ray Russell—the same week, I heard Ray Russell for the first time. That was amazing. Henry’s very guitar-centric, so it was very much finding out about all these guitar players.

In terms of weirdo guitar players, really the only person I knew was Derek Bailey. And there was really no-one like him. Takayanagi, and especially Loren and Haino are really not... you can’t necessarily... other guitarists I liked, I liked Abercrombie and I liked [Allan] Holdsworth, and it’s like, “Okay, that’s guitar playing.” Derek is this [at the opposite extreme], but they’re somewhere between those two ways of thinking.


The other Takayanagis, I kind of had to wait until I came to Japan in ’94 to find them, and kind of bought them all at once—at Disk Union.

Back when it was cheap?


They weren’t that cheap then! They were like 40-50 dollars, which at that point, basically I’m living from gig to gig, but I was young and stupid, and I just [said]: “Okay, I’m not going to eat today.” [Laughs.] “I will feed myself off these dulcet tones.”


And, you know, I didn’t eat well at that age. I ate cheap things. So yeah, it was just enormous consumption of that stuff. And it was weird: I didn’t have any friends my age, who were into this stuff. Henry, he’s like 10 years older than me. Christoph’s, like, 6-7 years older than me. All my friends were older than me. It was weird—I never realised it until later, until I became old enough to be old. Especially, you know, I met no friends who knew anything about this music. And I was blessed, because I was talking to the people who actually made this stuff.


[On Yasuaki Shimizu’s Kakashi] I was shocked that that record’s so expensive now. You used to be able to get that record anywhere for, like, a dollar. That record’s excellent. I really like that record. Yeah, the Better Days stuff used to be so cheap. The first two times I came to Japan, I went home with boxes of that stuff, because it was so cheap. All the Yen Records. But it was strange: I wouldn’t really find any rare Japanese stuff when I came to Japan. There would be, but usually it would be too expensive. I would find all that stuff in Germany—and also in Denmark. All the Vanity Records, I bought all that in Denmark. The Pinakotheca stuff—all that in Germany. All the underground stuff... because there was good distribution for that stuff then. Mail order and distribution was a very normal thing in the late ’80s.


It was funny, because when I moved to Japan, half of the records I was bringing with me were Japanese records. But they were all records you can’t really get here anymore! A lot of the stuff, like the pop stuff, I had long grown out of a lot of that stuff. Not “grown out”—that’s a bad implication. My tastes had changed. So that stuff was like... it had switched. Now I was able to sell that stuff at a fairly decent price in the States, when I moved, and they were dirt-cheap here at that point.


It’s changed since, but 15 years ago you could get Yen Records and all that stuff for, like, ¥300. It was really dirt-cheap. It’s funny, the flip-flop. But yes, the Kosugis were always hard to get. I may not even have originals—I’m not even so big on that, but I think I had to sell my Taj Mahal [Travellers] records to pay to move here, so I probably have a reissue of them. I wonder if Kosugi ever had a big article in The Wire? Maybe a long, long time ago.

He was a very nice man. He was very funny.

That’s good to hear. It’s depressing when these really talented people turn out to be complete tossers in real life.


[Whispering] Oh, there’s so many. [Laughs.] I haven’t met one in a long while, that’s a nice thing. But I also don’t go out very much any more. [Laughs.] I think they have something to do with each other! Let’s keep the probability low.

Going back to what you were saying about how you got so busy with production work—I was curious, nowadays, how do you decide which work to take on?


Well, I pretty much don’t produce anymore. I mean, I haven’t in a couple of years now. So now it’s not a problem, but before, I would have to have respect for the people in the first place. I don’t think I ever… you know what, once or twice I did do it, like, “It’s a job.” I always sort of tried to balance, because I viewed it like: This is a job I do to pay the bills, so that what I want to do doesn’t have to have anything to do with making a living. But at the same time—pretty much for the whole time—I would be picky. I wouldn’t work for just anybody. I was trying to find a balance of approaching it like a job, but still giving it 100% of my enthusiasm and integrity, so I wouldn’t record just anybody.


I think only once or twice, I did record someone just as a job. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of what they were doing. I didn’t dislike—I would never do any music I disliked—but those were really soul-crushing, those two times. It really was. And then I think, near the end, there was one job like that that really made me decide to stop doing it, because it was just really soul-crushing. It was depressing. And it was also because this was after I was sort of out of doing that, and especially out of the world of major label music, and to like dip back into that pool, for even a moment, was just really—and I don’t mean this in, like, I’m saying that what they’re doing is wrong, or whatever—it’s just it was soul-crushing. It was like: I remember now why I left this world. It was just like a splash in the face, like: “You remember you didn’t like this? You didn’t like living like this!” So that was sorta like: OK, I’ve just gotta stop.

So if you’re doing studio work just for yourself or one of Eiko’s albums, do you still enjoy the process?


I don’t know if "enjoy" is the right word. It’s challenging—especially Eiko’s recent record, it was very challenging. That’s what I like: being confronted with something that I’ve got to either learn a new way to do it, or learn a way out of the situation. “Out of the situation” meaning, like: OK, I’ve got to be able to do this, this, this, and this has to happen, and this has to happen, and we have to make this meet this, and how am I going to do this? That’s when I’m happiest.


Usually, then, once you figure out how to do it, usually the doing it is not necessarily anything I enjoy, because you’ve got to kind of concentrate and do it right, and push off the ever-growing... what’s the right word? Somehow push off the mounting feeling that you’re screwing it up, that you need to do better—because you’ve got to find a balance, you’ve got to keep going. With Eiko’s records, that was a very challenging record to make, so that was good. On a technical level, it was really hard to make.

How was it challenging?


Just for example, one thing: This record, more than probably any record I’ve ever worked on, was sort of like a cross between recording a record and doing sound design. More than probably any record I’ve ever worked on, there were more extraneous non-musical elements in the record, and it’s really easy to just, you know, “Just put ’em in the mix!” But on a technical level, as an engineer, you really have to find a way... because sound staging is the number one most important thing to me, when I’m mixing.


It’s like you’re the stage director. That’s the way I approach it. Everything has to have to have its place, because everything implies space in relation to everything else, so it’s a lot of mapping out. Not just in one slice of time of the sound, but how it goes from beginning to end. It’s like blocking: the actor moves from up stage left to stage right, and takes a turn, and blah, blah, blah. I think about that a lot, even before I start mixing, and I spend a lot of time just listening to the sounds individually and together, and then also, in a technical way: listening to the sounds again in an absolute technical way, like, “This is occupying these frequencies, and when I combine it with this, this is going to happen...”


And so with Eiko’s record, you had a lot of mono sources, like a lot of short-wave. You could say, “We have this mono sound, we’re going to put it to the right, we’re gonna put it to the left, we’re gonna put it in the middle.” Especially with the density—on this record—of the collage things happening, that’s just not gonna work, because the transparency goes away immediately.

For instance, one thing I did: I forget what song, but there’s one song in particular that has three or four mono short-waves, and then a train going on at the same time, and they needed to be permeable. There needed to be enough air holes in the sound, so that things could still co-exist, and not be masked by them. So, for instance, this time, I’d do FFT analysis. FFT is like Fast Fourier Transform: it’s basically a method of reading the frequency. Say you take a slice of time, it reads what the frequencies are and what the amplitude strength of those frequencies are, and then it’s mapped out on an axis. When you do the analysis of it, it’s basically an analysis of the frequencies: what frequencies there are, and the frequency strength and amplitude and all that stuff, over time.


Once you have that, between each slice… depending on the theory, there’s all sorts, there’s SFT, FFT, you either call them “slice” or “window,” each moment in time, and depending on how high resolution it is, you break a second into how many slices, how many windows... because you’ve got this information on a 3D axis. You can—say, this slice to this slice is like 100 milliseconds, that’s the amount of time it’s been split—you can move this over here, and then interpolate between the points, for instance. You can take a sound and, for instance, stretch it to two times its length, and you would interpolate between these windows or stretches.


So the pitches don’t change: if you wanted it to be twice as long, usually with a tape you would cut the speed in half, but with these kind of methods you can do that. But the main thing is, when you’re rebuilding the sound, it’s rebuilt by sine waves for every frequency that’s in it. Basically, you can cut the sound down [of?] everything, all of its overtones and everything. It’s all a combination of sine waves and their frequency relationship and their amplitude relationship.


Going back to Eiko’s record, I figure: OK, if I do an analysis of these sounds—and I’m not going to change the pitch—if I do it at really high resolution, the sound quality’s almost gonna not change at all, because I’m not doing anything. I’m not changing the pitch and I’m not changing the time, but the thing is, it’s rebuilt from these individual sine waves, so I can put these individual sine waves at different places in the stereo picture. So I can take this mono sound, and almost turn it into a gas—so it’s still mono, in the sense you’re sitting there and you’re getting just basically a mono sound, but the individual sine waves are coming from all over the stereo picture, and I can also make those pan and move over time. So the sound quality stays the same, but now you don’t have this—it’s not like putting a rock down on top of something, because it’s leaving these gaps open for all the other things.


A lot of preparing for mixing Eiko’s record was going through all the collage elements and all of the kind of non-musical sounds, and finding techniques that made sense. And it was really more like sound design, or doing a tape piece or something. That was really exciting for me, to do that. I mean, really the only other record I ever worked on that really had anything near that sort of level of sound design was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it wasn’t even nearly... I mean, that was very much more a musical [approach], like someone playing noise and stuff. Even the Stereolab records... Eiko’s record is really dense with sound design, with collage and that stuff. That was really exciting for me, to try to find a new way to mix these elements in.


I enjoy thinking about those things, and then, hopefully, successfully doing it. I don’t really enjoy programming, but I sort of do—I do enjoy it, but I’m not good at it. I understand math, but I’m not fast with math. And you kinda have to get involved with math to do that stuff. There’s, like, plug-ins and stuff like that now, that do that stuff—just kind of plug and play—but they don’t really sound as good, especially if you don’t want to alter the sound. You kind of have to get more into using more high-level programming languages or machines.


That stuff I really enjoy, and being able to kind of... because I hadn’t recorded—besides my stupid record [Simple Songs]—I hadn’t really recorded a band playing things since [Kenta] Maeno’s record, like, five or six years ago. So that was fun. Yeah, that was kind of the biggest challenge. And also, you get two drummers on a record, there’s always gonna be a lot of looking for problems. Even with two masterful drummers like that [Joe Talia and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto], it’s always rough. Especially if you’re doing a lot of multi-miking, because then all of a sudden you really do have to be picky. If it’s just like an old-school mono overhead, it’s like, “Well, that’s what they played!” [Laughs.] But the Pandora’s Box was open for me to move that... just that hi-hat, just a hair earlier.


Some of the songs were built up drum by drum. They weren’t all like them playing at the same time. A lot of things were: there’s two drummers, and they’re recording only the floor tom, and next track they’re only recording the hi-hat. That was Eiko’s idea, she had very specific ideas about the drums. More so than ever before, actually—I think because she demoed most of the record herself, with her playing drums, and I think she had them basically, like... kind of like how I used to do it! Although I didn’t play drums well, but I’d tell Glenn [Kotche]: “No, no, no...” But I’d write it out, it was a combination. So she was very specific about the drums. I was very hands-off in terms of, like, during recording. During the actual recording, I kind of purposefully kept the hands off, of telling the musicians like, “No, no..." because she had a so much stronger idea of exactly what she wanted the musicians to play this time.

More so than on previous records?


More so. It’s not like she didn’t before, but it was a situation where, like: “This is what I want. How do you think we can do that?” It was kind of like she knew, so I kind of decided to be more, like... almost invisible. And like, “While you’re doing that, all the technical things that you don’t really need to know about—all the things you’re asking for that are incredibly impossible—I will go over here and technically prepare for that.”


One thing you don’t want to tell anybody you’re recording or producing is, how difficult it will be to do something. That’s just something you don’t do. No matter how annoying—in this case, it wasn’t annoying, but in the past years, you know!

So you’ve never done the whole teeth-sucking thing?


Oh, I’m sure I have, especially when I was younger. I wouldn’t do that now. I definitely know, some time in my early 40s, I clicked—everything clicked, and my personality, like, I think I was more watchful about... Everybody is. When you’re younger, you don’t have as tight a gate on what goes out of your mouth and on your face. [Laughs.]


So I was very purposefully... because I knew there was going to be a lot of technical work that needed to be done, because it was enormous amounts of tracks. Easily the hardest mix—not because things were wrong, but because there was such an enormous amount of tracks, even though it doesn’t necessarily sound like it a lot of the time. The Visitor was the only record that was ever as hard. And in some ways this was harder, because I wasn’t mixing it for me. I mean, I was—because until it sounds like I wanted it to sound like, but, you know... there’s obviously another opinion. But just on a technical level, there’s definitely a lot of stuff that I would not technically have been able to have done before, just in terms of the amount of CPU power I needed. There was an enormous amount of tracks, and a lot of sub-mixing. I mean, the max of tracks that’s just the drums—there’s one song where the drums alone are 64 tracks.

How is that even possible?


It’s possible. You’ve got five interlocking drum parts, and even if you recorded kind of like a modest four-to-five mic per drum set... OK, here’s an example of my math: so that’s 50 tracks already, because you’ve got two drummers playing five different parts, so that’s 50 tracks already—and that’s with a modest five setup, overheads 2, bass drum, snare above, hi-hat—and I want a snare under, so we’re already at 6, and then if there’s toms, 7, 8. So yeah, it stacks high. And then the strings, the orchestra one, that’s something like 60 to 70 tracks, and that’s just me and [Atsuko] Hatano playing them all!

Oh, so you were actually...?


No, not the violin. The violin’s Hatano, but the cellos and the basses... Maybe I ended up not using the cello, now that I think about it. I’m not a big fan of cello. No, that’s right: I ended up not using the cello part. So it was a lot of tracks. But that’s fine. I’ve got no problem with that, it’s just lots of work.


Speaking of lots of work, I was going to ask you about the [Roland] Kayn set [2017’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound]...


Oh, Jesus Christ! It was really hard.

How do you even approach a task like that?


Well, first, it was just technical, because there were a lot of errors. I think, pretty much, from the sound of it and from looking at the waveform, I knew immediately the original had been recorded on DAT tape. Because the errors that come out, the drop-outs, the glitches that happen on DAT tape, are a very specific type of waveform. You can really tell it’s from DAT tape. DAT tapes are really bad—even, I think, 15-20 years ago, they were already starting to degrade. There was that problem already, and then from looking at the waveforms, I could tell that it had been recorded on a consumer DAT tape with this thing called—depending on the machine—there was LP mode. It doubled the length, so it ran at half-speed, hence less audio resolution—and it wasn’t like DAT tape was good audio resolution in the first place. And then those were transferred to CD-R at some point in the past, and the files from the CD-R was what I got.


So, basically, first it was just weeks and weeks of technically scrolling through the waveform, and kind of, by hand, rewriting the waveforms. And strangely enough, the funny thing is, because a lot of what Kayn—technically, what’s happening with Kayn’s music is phase shift of a slight delay, kind of like what I was telling you about with David Tudor, it’s kind of a feedback matrix thing—there’d be a broken wave. I know I have a picture of it somewhere: I have this amazing picture of what the wave looks like, one of the broken waves. But because there’s this… almost like shadow of it, within a certain amount of space, I could see the return of that waveform. It was kind of like re-etching.


I tried to stay away from using plug-ins as much as I could. And also, it had been—either when it was originally recorded, or when it was transferred—there was a lot of distortion, just basically from being overloaded. When you overload analogue tape, it distorts, but it’s like a harmonic distortion. But especially with DAT tape, when you distort, it goes like to the top of its voltage, and then it’s like you cut off the top of someone’s head, and then it’s just this line, at this voltage, until it comes back down again. Basically, you have to kind of like re-interpolate every single one of those, and there were around 7,000 of those for every 40 minutes of music. And it’s about 16 hours. So that’s all I did for about... I don’t know how many weeks it was. It might have been 6 weeks. That’s all I did, every day: I woke up, came in here, redrew waveforms until 11 o’clock at night.

You’re doing that for the love rather than the money, I take it?


No, no, no. I refused any money. Ian wanted to give me money, but I said no—because he’s got to pay the family, the Kayn family. That world, you don’t pay royalties, you pay it upfront. So, you know: just put the money into the box. It’s OK, he gave me a few boxes. [Laughs.] He’s a good guy, he’s given me stuff. He sends me records. No, I had to do it. I mean, there’s no way I was gonna allow it to come out the way it sounded. The tapes of his from that time, they need serious work. It’s already bad enough that they recorded it to DAT tape, because that’s that’s like Russian roulette. I did transfers of all my DAT tapes about 10 years ago. God, man! They sound so bad! Some of them... it’s just a minefield.

It’s amazing, because at the time that was really getting pushed as, like: this is the peak that technology has to offer.


In professional studios, I never... that’s kind of the time when I was starting to work in professional studios. I never saw real, actual engineers embrace it at all. The thing is, I was lucky: I was around engineers who were not involved in The Industry. You know, like Steve Albini or Walter Sear—these were people who were lovers of the recording arts, so they were much more... sceptical. Probably, out in LA, everyone was like, “Yeeeeah, got my DAT machine!” I mean, I liked portable DAT machines. Those were cool, because it was the first time you could really, if you didn’t have too much money, you could go out and do recordings in the field. That was a cool thing about them.


[He searches on his laptop for a screenshot of one of the Kayn waveforms.]


[Chuckles] It looks like Cardew’s Great Learning. Basically, there’s non-stop like that.

What magnification is that?


Absolutely the highest you can get. I’m dealing with... it’s .762 of a second, .763. You can see here: it’s starting to ladder. That’s because the bit depth is dropping off. Just non-stop. It was insane—but it was worth it. It seems like it was popular. It seems like it finally got his name out there.

It’s weird, the way that people like him just sort of got lost.


I think a lot of it is these people who don’t go out in the world. Unless you engage in the social aspect of music... because I think, for a lot of people, there has to be a personal... not personal connection, in the usual sense of the word. It’s kind of like how a lot of salarymen here are obsessed with buying first pressings of Beatles records. It’s because, then, it’s almost like a physical connection. Even though they couldn’t have been there, they were there in some way.


There’s some kind of physical connection that, subconsciously, people want in some sort of way. And I think, for someone like Kayn, after a certain year there were no concerts, he was at home or at the Institute of Sonology making these things. With that world—then you’re getting into the whole world of New Music, which is kind of a cloistered world unto itself—if you open the door to that stuff, you wouldn’t know who almost any of these people are. There’s this whole world of music that’s kind of unknown outside of that world, unless you make an active effort to keep track of what’s going on. Even electronic music from that world—there’s hundreds of people making music, thousands of people making music, you wouldn’t know who they are, because the only performances are at a symposium, or this or that. It’s not a world that really makes an active effort to engage with the general public.

Do you have any contact with that world now?


No, no contact, but I always keep track of it. I consciously... going to college for that stuff is what made me decide not to be part of that world. It’s kind of a key thing with me: I consciously decided to not engage with the social aspects of that music. A lot of the music, I’m not interested in the social aspect of it. I’ve never once said “I’m a composer,” although I am, and I do, but it’s a very specific and conscious effort to not use those words, because then you’re engaging with the rules of that world, and I don’t want to be part of that world.

So this comes back to the Nyman book, does it?


Yeah, a lot of it. And also particular professors in college, in their behaviour and in their actions, showed me how cloistered and closed that world is. That’s not necessarily the problem—it’s that then, later, thinking about all things in life, about how you engage with the world. When I was younger, of course, it was a much more un-nuanced, kind of blunt way of thinking, and I didn’t necessarily do the right things, but it was always kind of the reason why I didn’t do things the way that, you know...


I remember, I think in ’89, there was kind of like a small group of people in the States—there was this guy Ronald Lessard, who runs RRRecords, and there'd be like a guy in Pittsburgh. When people from overseas, like Zoviet France or somebody [visited], it was kind of like this hub of people who would put on the shows. It was me and this other guy in Chicago, a guy who was older than me, and we were like that hub in Chicago. So, you know, we put on Masami [Akita] and John Duncan, when he was still living in Japan.


So one year—I think it was ’89—Zbigniew Karkowski and Phauss and The Hafler Trio, me and this other guy were putting on this show, and I remember I was handing out flyers in class... Because at the time, I wanted to make tape music. When I first went to college, my parents said you had to have a job. So I went first as a double bass major, but all I wanted to do was make tape music, and there was no other student interested in making tape music. At that time, the college’s electronic music studio consisted of a 1/4-inch 8-track machine—which is about the lowest you can get—and a [Yamaha] DX7. [Laughs.]


But the thing is, at that time, I was already going to Europe when school was out. I was going to Europe, and basically spending the three months in Germany. I was fascinated by, like, P16.D4 and Hafler Trio and all the people like that, because I felt they were doing the actual continuance of the music of [Luc] Ferrari and [Bernard] Parmegiani and all that stuff, but it was outside of the academic world. So at that age, and being in college at that time, that world of music looked like: this makes a lot more sense to me than this. Because this is like, I love the music, but I don’t understand this world.

So I was handing out flyers for this Hafler Trio show, and I gave one to the professor, and he’s like, “Friday? That’s when blah-blah-blah’s recital is.” I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go to this.” And he throws down the paper and goes, “O’Rourke, you would.” I still remember that, to this day! That was kind of like a key moment of my life. That and this other professor—I’ve probably told this story before, but it’s kind of really the turning point in my life.


There was this one professor I had, he was the top composition professor—he was the head of the department. He was an excellent piano player, and I liked a lot of his piano music. It was very high-energy, very dense; it wasn’t like Cecil Taylor, but it had the energy of that kind of playing. He’d say like, “You know, what would make Cecil Taylor better is if he’d just sit down and write it out, so he can really fully develop the ideas!” This is like their way of thinking. Fine: that’s a whole other topic unto itself. I’m not saying nay or yay to that, but it’s indicative of a way of thinking.


He was an interesting professor, because in the ’60s, when he was in New York, he was involved in academia but he sort of had one foot in the Downtown. He actually made a lot of recordings of Cage piano pieces and stuff, kind of the austere period. Like the ’70s Cage stuff, when it gets a little austere, kind of angular—like “Winter Music,” things like that—so he would do a lot of recordings of that, but he still had one foot in the New York Upper Side, I guess it would be Columbia, like [Milton] Babbitt, [Charles] Wuorinen, things like that.


As a professor, they love things like Babbitt, because there’s rules that can be adjudicated, so you can look through a person’s score and say, “This is not right, because this is not an inversion of this, and you made a mistake in your row here, blah, blah, blah.” I’m not saying good or bad, but it’s a very easy stance to take when you’re a professor, because you’ve got a rock-solid point of adjudication. He couldn’t let go of that, and we would always argue about orchestration.

One day, we were talking about—I think it might have been Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto.” It doesn’t matter, but I think it was that. We were talking about one particular bass clarinet part, and I was talking about how I liked this part, and he was like, “Well, what do you like about it?” And I was like, “Well, it’s this and this.” On the bass clarinet, on those woodwind instruments, it’s almost like there’s three levels—there’s a break or something, about the way you’ve gotta blow it or something. So there’s a particular pitch on all those instruments, where it’s sort of the one note between, or where that break happens, and there’s a very distinct colour change.

It’s like when you’re going up the octave, or something.


Yeah, something like that. I know, on a bass clarinet, it’s like up to this point you keep this key open, and after the lower you’ve got to have this key closed, it’s something like that. And it had a very specific colour, and Stravinsky really milks it. And he’s just like, “Oh, that’s just extra stuff,” and he started going on about how orchestration is just extra stuff—all that matters, is pitch and rhythm. He says, “You can even organise sound colour,” and he starts going on about how these students of Babbitt’s have recently even discovered that the music of Ghana can be broken down into these systems of pitch and rhythm and blah, blah, blah, and I’m just looking at this guy and it’s like: You can’t see the forests for the trees, man.


All that research is all very interesting, but when you can’t see the bigger picture, you’re lost. It gets into a big thing of like: some scores are scores, they’re not music!


He had this composer timeline on his wall, and at the end he had written his own name. Whatever, it’s funny. He’s giving me this thing, and all of a sudden he kind of stops, and he has this really contemplative look on his face, he’s really thinking inside his head. He goes: “You know, I know what you’re saying, but maybe Babbitt’s right. Maybe he’s onto the next musical language.” And I was just like, “Why would you care about that?” And he slammed his fist into the piano, and he goes [shaking fists in the air] “Because I want it all!” He actually put his fists up, like, “I want it all!” And I remember, I just kind of got up and walked out, I was like, “OK.” I walked out of his office, and I kind of never went back. I mean, I went back to classes, but I never went back after that. I was like: I don’t want to be part of this world. I still want to do that music, but I don’t want to be part of this world. I mean, I didn’t make a clean break—I was young—but the page had been turned.


Eventually, the older I got, it’s like: every world has its problems. And that’s what I did. Look at some of my first records: they were all things that could’ve come out—I’m not saying of the quality, but what kind of music they were—they could’ve come out on INA-GRM. That’s the music I was making, but you have to kind of live a different life to do that. But meanwhile, I was like: Hey, Staalplaat’s putting out that kind of music, that’s not involved with the academic world. There’s other people who make music that has these aesthetics, there’s P16.D4, Hafler Trio at that time was fantastic, Strafe Für Rebellion was another group I really liked, and a little bit later, Bernhard Günter.


That doesn’t mean you stop doing it, it just means you have pretty much no opportunity for it to either be done or heard. But you don’t, even if you exist in that world! That’s the funny thing. Yeah, maybe you get your string quartet played—once, twice. I think what it is, is that a lot of the joy or satisfaction that some people get is... of course, the thinking part, all that goes before, but then the act of writing it. For a lot of people, the score writing is really the thing. And for me, that’s where I verge. I want to sit down in front of a tape machine, or a computer or a Serge or whatever. It’s just... it’s different.

So it’s not just a question of you working with the resources available to you, it’s like the stuff you’re doing now is actually the stuff you wanna be doing?


Yeah. I mean, with the Steamroom stuff, that’s what I’ve been doing since the beginning. My first records were the same thing. I’ve always been doing that. I’ve never stopped doing that. It’s just there was a period... there’s definitely a seven-year period where I was basically on the road non-stop or in the studio. There was also a period where there was, like, no point in putting those records out. There was definitely a period where the audience for that music... there was the post-industrial boom, which was kind of a glory day, with like Hafler Trio...

Is that when that Isolationism compilation came out?


That’s kind of like near the end of that. That was sort of like the gravestone, you know. [Laughs.] All respect: I think it was Mr Kevin Martin, so all respect to him. I don’t meant it that way. But it sort of got co-opted by a kind of more fashionable [crowd]... Although that may really only have been in the UK. Yeah, that was kind of a golden era. There was a lot of great… there was a lot of bad music, but there was a lot of great music on Staalplaat, Touchthat period of Touch is really excellent. That was a good time.


But there really is... around when? Like, ’92 or ’94, it sort of like [drops off], and kind of went away for a long time, until recently really. Really only recently, there seems to be a new audience for things like... I don’t know if Hafler Trio ever really got an audience again, but there’s things like... the hardcore fans have always been there, but I’m just talking about a new audience. I don’t know, maybe that comeback... there was a lot. Strafe Für Rebellion was awesome, they were great. P16. Ralf Wehowsky has always been great, the guy who did P16.D4. There was a lot of great stuff from that time. It was a good period, because there was a really interesting inter-mix of, like, people who were in academia who were a little more hip. That’s kind of where the crossover with Autechre and all that happens. That’s where you have what’s-his-name appearing at ATP. What’s his name, the computer music theorist? Curtis Roads.

I remember, when John Duncan lived in Amsterdam—which was where Staalplaat was, he lived right down the street from the Staalplaat store and office. You had people people like Curtis Roads, or Stephen Travis Pope, or Amnon Wolman—all these people who were academic computer music guys—who’d sort of like “get into the pits” with the noise weirdo guys. Karkowski lived in Amsterdam at that time, he lived just a little past John.

Yeah, because with Karkowski I really did get that sense, that he’s between those two worlds.


Yeah, yeah. Karkowski’s kind of like a perfect example of a person who was straddling that world, and he was living in a house with [Andrew] McKenzie, Hafler Trio. That was a wild time in Amsterdam. And you had a crossover: you had Staalplaat putting out a lot of academic [music], probably a lot of guys like, “I’m not going to get my stuff out. These guys want to put it out, you can put it out.” I’m pretty sure... like, through Russell Haswell. At that time, he worked for Blast First and for Touch records. That’s how I met Russell, it was at the Touch records office. And Russell was working at Blast First, so he knew... I think he’s the guy who brought Panasonic to Blast First. Russell, I think—if I remember correctly—is the person who’s responsible for the whole Panasonic thing. I mean, in the sense of their records being released and stuff. So he had his foot into that world too, so he knew the Autechre guys, and kind of turning those people on to computer music stuff, at a period of time when those guys are starting to get into programming and stuff. So it was kind of a perfect storm.


Yeah, and then it’s like they led this whole generation of electronica fans way into the abyss.


Well, they were always ahead of everybody. I’ve nothing but respect for those guys.

[Some back-and-forth about Autechre’s Tokyo gig earlier in the year. Jim missed it by a day because he was on tour with Sakata.]


You have to have a good PA for them. Especially what they're doing now, because it's so much about sound design.


I’m gonna do a show at this place in Tokyo...

Wall&Wall, right?


Yeah, because from what I’ve heard, it’s the best PA in Tokyo. It’s an insane PAthat’s why I wanted to do it there. It’s an 8-channel, insane PA. It’s like a dance club or something.

I was a little surprised that you were doing an album show...


Yeah, it’s because they [the label] want to. I wouldn’t, if I didn’t have to, you know.

What do you think you’re gonna do for it?


Well, I’m not gonna do the album. I’m making it now, because it’s going to be a multi-channel thing. I hope I’ll be done in time. “Oh, OK, I have to do this...” You know how it is. I just decided I didn’t want to just do what I usually do, so I looked for the craziest PA in town, and that was the one. I mean, it’s insane.

So what can you do with a PA like that, that you wouldn’t be able to do at a different venue?


You can do any frequency you want without worrying about headroom and stuff. It’ll be like having an audiophile stereo that goes 10 times louder. I don’t want to necessarily get loud, it’s just like a giant audiophile stereo, so it’s going to sound better than any clubeasily. If all goes well. I’ve gotta make it sound good in the first place, but it’ll sound really good, regardless of whether it’s any good or not.

[Back-and-forth about Labyrinth festival, PAs, why Paypal and Bandcamp haven’t really caught on in Japan. He talks about having to order an old G3 from Finland because he couldn’t find one in Japan.]


Actually, that guy, Curtis Roads, there’s a bunch of software he wrote that’s never been ported outside of OS9. A lot of the interesting computer music software has never gotten out of OS9.

And what kind of stuff can you do with that software that you couldn’t do with...


It just sounds different. Maybe a lot of the ideas and the synthesis techniquesyou know, there’s granular synthesis, there’s all sorts of stuff that you can do nowbut there’s this very specific kind of quality. You know, it’s like, even with old synths, a Synclavier, since it was all code, the software emulation is actually what the Synclavier was, but the hardwarethose old A-D convertorsthey had a quality. There’s certain hardware things you just can’t emulate in code. There’s also certain things about the OS9 system. I’m not that talented on the programming end to be able to tell you exactly why. I know a lot of people still make their music on OS9, just because there’s certain software that’s part of their sound.


The newest computer I have is 10 years old. I stopped. I forget what OS, I just stopped. Because after a certain point, then you’re involved in this weird sort of con game. I just noticed it enough to get off the trainI’m sure it’s worse than I think. And now, I’ve noticed all software is based on the subscription model now, which I think is absolutely insidious. Absolutely insidious. It’s not good. So, I just stopped. The ProTools I have works. It’s a glorified tape machinethat’s it. I don’t need a “You can instantly convert your track into an MP3 and upload it to Soundcloud!” plug-in. Who the hell needs that? You saved yourself 2 minutes. If you wanted to do that in the first place, you should be losing as much time as possible. [Laughs.] That’s your penance, for doing that. Instead of two Hail Marys, convert 10 songs to MP3 and upload them to Soundcloud.

Apart from the stuff you’re preparing for that gig, what else have you been working on recently?


It’s like lots of things at the same time. I kind of had to take a year off to do Eiko’s record.

Was it that time-consuming?


Pretty much, yeah. I mean, I think it took two years to make, but once it got down to time to start [mixing], that was pretty much non-stop for a year. I mean, during that there was shows, and there was the Kayn thing, but the bulk of the work of that year was Eiko’s record. So a lot of things got put on the back-burner for about two years there. So there’s a lot of things... one of them is like a six-hour long thing I’ve got to finish. [Laughs.] There’s not many, in the sense of like records that I have to finish for somebody. There’s like one or two. But a lot of things that I’ve wanted to make that were sort of like in the half-point. And also, you know, moving here two years ago, and slowly trying to get the studio to where I want itbecause it’s the first time I’ve ever really had my own studio. Before, it was just a room with my gear in it. Now I can hopefully do what I want to do. So a lot of stuff, but none of it is... done. [Laughs.]


I’ve already started, but the one thing I really wanted to do was, just as an idea to sort of organise work, is: I always make these tape things, or whatever you want to call thembut based on one musician. And the idea is I record them first, to get all the source material, then I make, pretty much only out of those sounds, and then I make a tape version that’s just that, but then I also write a score. I give them the tape, and I write a score for them, so that if they ever want to go do it with them playing live. So I want to do a bunch of those. I’ve already... there’s already two people that I started it with, but I kind of wanna do it with a few people. It’s kind of more like an organising principle, to keep my head a little bit straight on, like: This is what you’re doing. Because when it involves another person, I start getting the guilts, and that makes me work on things more than if I have no... what’s the word for it? I’m not indebted to someone else. It makes me work a little bit differently.

Do you have trouble seeing stuff to completion otherwise?


No, it just... [you] never know when it’s going to happen. With those things, I’m kind of guilted into speeding it up a bit. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing or not, but I guess I’ll see. Like the [Sleep Like It’sWinter thingthat, I had to finish, because they were waiting for it. And I was still a year late! Easily a year late. I think they asked me 2 1/2 years ago to do that.

Was that kind of the first album they were planning to put out?


Yeah. The label started about a year and a half late. It’s not my faultI told them! It’s done when it’s done. You know, outside of the world of, like, Lady Gaga and all that stuff, you can’t behave like that. It’s like, if you believe in that way of workingwhich is finework in that world. You can’t put restrictions like that on other people, it’s not right. It’s fine, I understand how it works in that world. I was in that world for 7 years. I know how it works, and I understand why, but you don’t have to do that in other situations.


“It’s done when it’s done” isoutside of Chinese Democracy, I think... although I’ve never heard it! I only know that one song on it. My generation is definitely the cut-off. You can really see the split in generation in America, with Guns N’ Roses. You either don’t know who the fuck they are, or they were the biggest band ever. I think anyone born after 1970. Kevin Drumm, righthe was born in ’70, he’s right on the verge of “don’t know who the fuck they are.” And then one year later, it’s like... ching!


I just know he goes [in high-pitched, nasal voice] “Jigga-jigga-jigga-jigga-jigga. [Laughs.] Right? That’s Gun N’ Roses, right? I do know Guns N’ Roses well enough. I’ll play you something funnyI’ll play you the first Guns N’ Roses track. The first one ever recorded. I’m not kidding you.

That you have in your collection?

I do have in my collection.

[He spends a while trying to find the right track on the album. It turns out to be “Friends,” off the first Tubeway Army album.]

It’s Guns N’ Roses, isn’t it? [Does a demented goblin voice.] You know this? The first Gary Numan record. It’s fucking awesome.

I was thinking that voice sounds familiar, but...

Yeah, no-one sounds like him. Do you know this record? You have to get this record. This record’s fucking awesome. And that’s his uncle on drums. The first Guns N’ Roses. Tell all the Wire readers that! When he went to make this record, it was originally just guitar-bass-drums, and when he made this record, when he went to that studio, they had a Minimoog there, and he’s like, "Can I use this?" He didn’t know anything about it. There’s a little bit of it on this record, but it’s kind of like this punk thing. It’s a great record. There’s a lot of synth on it, but not as integrated as it later became on the next record. It’s great.

And I also have another one... the birth of techno. It’s great, because you can actually hear the moment that techno was born. This is so much like a remix, whatever, waiting to be done. It’s fucking amazing. People have never caught on to this record. You do know who this is. Definitely.

It’s not something [Isao] Tomita was involved in?


Nope. Wrong country. Your country. Yeah, it sounds like they’re singing in Japanese. You can kind of tell from the rhythm guitar playing.

It’s not Mike Oldfield, is it?

It’s Mike Oldfield. His overlooked fucking masterpiece. [It’s Part One of “Incantations.”] This record is so fucking good, it’s insane. Ian, the Frozen Reeds guy, he posted that and said: the birth of techno. It’s kind of a little overlong, but it’s kind of amazing. You know what I mean? He’s got that kind of swing in his rhythm guitar playing, it’s so good. This was his first, like, “I’m a real composer” record—and it’s great, it’s really great.

[We decide to wrap things up here, as Eiko is waiting for me.]

[Checking recorder] That was a solid 2 1/2 hours.


Nothing intelligent said! I apologise.

With thanks to Derek and Chris at The Wire, and to Jim and Eiko for their hospitality.