Jim O'Rourke - Biography

Jim O’Rourke epitomizes the explosion of musical diversity in the 1990s. He dabbled in as many styles and approaches as you can imagine, and he smeared a number of them together to create fabulous new aural soundscapes. His work with Gastr del Sol was tremendous — they’re the definitive example of the Chicago post-rock scene — and as a producer he helped shaped the direction of experimental music for a decade. As a musician, he’s peerless, a savant. Tony Conrad needed a sideman? O’Rourke taught himself how to play like Conrad. This is the most singularly rigorous performance idiom on the planet, and O’Rourke just sort of picked it up. Ditto with John Fahey. O’Rourke gets into Fahey, whose steel-string finger picking is the stuff of legend, and he just effortlessly mimics it.


He’s made some of the greatest electro-acoustic recordings in the history of the genre. He ran for years with the heavy hitters in the free-improv community. He’s the reason Wilco have a bunch of Grammy awards. He’s made a bunch of stellar pop LPs. Derek Bailey gave him his first break. He’s worked with Werner Herzog. He’s obsessed with Nick Roeg. Oh yeah — and he was in Sonic Youth. Like the 1990s, Jim O’Rourke was all over the place. He’s a kaleidoscope. You know School of Rock, the Richard Linklater movie with Jack Black? O’Rourke was the music consultant. He’s all over the DVD. He’s all over everything.


It’ll be a ramble to address O’Rourke’s body of work. Let’s see. He got his first break in the early '90s, when the late Derek Bailey invited him to participate in Company Week, the latter’s annual gathering of free-improv talent. O’Rourke’s first release was The Ground Below Above Our Head (1991, Entenphul); the first CDs were Tamper (1991, Extreme), Disengage (1991, Staalplaat), Scend (1992, Divided), and Remove the Need (1993, Extreme). These are all prepared, tabletop-guitar pieces in the style of Keith Rowe of British improv titans AMM. The CDs are good. Glacial. The first US release appears to be Muni/Michel Picoli (1993, Table of the Elements), which was part of that label’s “Guitar Series” of singles; it’s improv on acoustic guitar, heavily indebted to Derek Bailey.


Rules of Reduction (1993, Metamkine) is a fabulous electro-acoustic piece, and it foreshadows O’Rourke’s first prominent effort. Terminal Pharmacy (1995, Tzadik), commissioned by John Zorn for his Tzadik label, is a tremendous work, an electro-acoustic masterpiece that stands on equal ground with anything by Bernard Parmegiani or Luc Ferrari. Anyone with an INA-GRM itch to scratch should check it out. He followed that something completely different. Happy Days (1997, Revenant) is an amazing bit of mimicry and synthesis, as O’Rourke blends the drones of Tony Conrad and the steel-string lilt of John Fahey.


Chafing against his avant-garde background, O’Rourke slammed out a trio of finely crafted, sardonic — mildly snide, even — pop records, each taking their title from a film by his idol, '70s film director Nicholas Roeg. Bad Timing (1997, Drag City), Eureka (1999, Drag City), and Insignificance (2001, Drag City) are arch, melodic forays into personal relationships, interpersonal politics, self-indulgent wordplay, and show-offy, I-can-do-it-all, style-for-style’s-sake posturing. Which is to say they’re all really good.


At the same time, O’Rourke was a producer. In 1995 he took on his first significant production job, the reunion CD for krautrock pioneers Faust. Given that band’s subsequent efforts, one suspects that with Rien (1995, Table of the Elements), O’Rourke stitched a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That year he also paired with Steve Albini to helm minimalist Tony Conrad’s comeback vehicle, Slapping Pythagoras (1995, Table of the Elements). Oh, and concurrently, he and David Grubbs were making some of the most compelling records of the decade as Gastr del Sol.


This is insane. O’Rourke’s discography — especially when you factor in collaborations, guest appearances, and his work as a producer — is so vast, that I could lope off in any one direction and completely skip something totally crucial, like Gastr. Avant punk, atonal song-styling, delicate piano-guitar interplay, raw electronics, and modernist chamber music — Gastr traversed it all, with subtlety and finesse. The EPs Mirror Repair (1995, Drag City) and The Harp Factory On Lake Street (1995, Table of the Elements) are great; Camoufleur (1998, Drag City) is a chamber-pop bonanza; Upgrade & Afterlife (1997, Drag City) peaks with "Our Exquisite Replica of Eternity,” O’Rourke’s extended interpretation of the John Fahey track "Dry Bones in the Valley,” with Tony Conrad on violin. It aches.


It’s preposterous to reduce Gastr del Sol to a single paragraph, but there it is.


O’Rourke was also in the mid-'90s incarnation of Mayo Thompson’s legendary freak-out ensemble, the Red Krayola, along with David Grubbs, Tom Watson, Tortoise’s John McEntire, and the Minutemen’s George Hurley. Highlights include: The Red Krayola (1994, Drag City); the “Chemistry”/“Farewell to Arms” single (1995, Drag City); Amor and Language (1995, Drag City); Hazel (1996, Drag City); and Sighs Trapped by Liars (2007, Drag City). Apropos of nothing else, I love this Pitchfork quote about the original, '60s version of the band: “This is a band that was paid ten dollars to stop a performance in Berkeley. If Berkeley's not having it, you know you're in for rough sledding."


Another project is Fenn O’Berg, with Peter Rehberg (a.k.a. Pita), and laptop pioneer Christian Fennesz (a.k.a. Fennesz). They have two releases: The Magic Sound of Fenn O’Berg (1999, Mego) and The Return of Fenn O’Berg (2002, Mego). He’s also released several records as Diskaholics Anonymous Trio, with Thurston Moore and Mats Gustafsson. And he’s a member of The Supreme Indifference, with Kim Gordon and Alan Licht. It’s completely insane, actually. Overwhelming. Here are the groups in which O’Rourke appears: The Supreme Indifference, Loose Fur, Sonic Youth, Diskaholics Anonymous Trio, Fenn O’Berg, Mirror, Gastr del Sol, Brise Glace, Yona-Kit, Organum, the Red Krayola, Indicate, Mimir, Illusion of Safety, and the Elvis Messiahs.


The guy’s output is just overwhelming.


After Rien, O’Rourke became a sought after producer in Chicago, working with US Maple, Smog, Melt Banana, Lake of Dracula, Bobby Conn, and Sam Prekop. He produced and performed on John Fahey’s comeback CD, Womblife (1996, Table of the Elements). However, the first big break was with Stereolab and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (1999, Elektra/Duophonic). After that, things really blew up. Superchunk Come Pick Me Up (1999, Merge); Stereolab Sound-Dust (2001, Elektra); Stereolab Captain Easychord (2001, Elektra); Wilco A Ghost Is Born (2004, Nonesuch); Richard Thompson Grizzly Man Soundtrack (2005, Cooking Vinyl). He won a Grammy for the Wilco.


How prolific is O’Rourke? It’s almost an afterthought to mention: Sonic Youth/Jim O’Rourke Invito Al Cielo (1998, SYR); Sonic Youth Goodbye 20th Century (1999, SYR); Sonic Youth NYC Ghosts and Flowers (2000, Geffen); Sonic Youth Murray Street (2002, Geffen); Sonic Youth Sonic Nurse (2004, Geffen). He was also in Loose Fur with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche.


Jim O’Rourke left Sonic Youth in late 2005, moved to Japan, and announced he was retiring from music to concentrate on his efforts as a filmmaker. Wish him well. In a mere 14 years he gave us a lifetime of sound.

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