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Jim O'Rourke: Curse of the Noise Monger

Composer, producer reflects on Wilco, Sonic Youth and more

April 11, 2002 12:00 AM ET

In the days leading up to Wilco's departure from Reprise, much was made about label concerns regarding the inaccessible sound of their fourth record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And in a flurry of finger-pointing, no small number of digits were directed towards the man who mixed the album, composer/engineer/music man Jim O'Rourke. They're charges to which he pleads not guilty. "There was all this press accusing me of 'adding atonality,'" O'Rourke says. "It's like, are you kidding?!? I was pulling it out! You should've heard the record before. This whole myth about Warner Bros. turning it down for being uncommercial . . . you should've heard the original. But it's like, fine, I'm a 'noise monger.'"

Noise monger actually is one of the more common labels slapped onto O'Rourke's rock smock by those less familiar with his work, or more particularly those who take but a moment to cross-check his resume. Granted, the Chicago-born, Brooklyn transplant's palette is spattered with the colors of numerous and various avant musical genres and pursuits from his ten-plus years of composing, performing and recording. But in the past year, O'Rourke has taken on two high-profile jobs spitting distance from the mainstream -- mixing Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and serving as the fifth member of Sonic Youth -- and more mainstream coverage has ensued, frequently peppered with fang-baring terms like "noise monger." What it immediately misses is that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a challenging, exciting, yet hardly "noisy" listen, and that with O'Rourke on board, Thurston Moore claims Sonic Youth's upcoming Murray Street is "a mutation of classic rock." "I was playing it for Jeff [Tweedy] last night," O'Rourke says, "and he said, 'This sounds like Mountain.'"

And then there's his not-so-noisy engineering and production work for the likes of Smog and Stereolab, and Rourke's loose trilogy of excellent solo releases, Bad Timing (1997), Eureka (1999) and Insignificance (2001), as well as the beautiful, four-song acoustic recording Halfway to a Threeway.

An avowed fan of the likes of Sparks and Supertramp, a friend of the late John Fahey, and with a classical music education tucked into his back pocket, Jim O'Rourke is well-versed in twentieth century music, but perhaps more enjoyable than the breadth of his knowledge is his boundless enthusiasm for songs. O'Rourke's demeanor and genuine lack of artiste-tic snobbery pokes holes aplenty in the notion that fringe forms of music are the terrain of a beret-wearing, nose-thumbing elitists. Whether it be belting out Sparks songs with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in a karaoke bar in Sweden ("Jim was Russell Mael and I was Ron Mael," Moore says. "And he knew all the words, the dance moves and everything.") or the loving cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Something Big" on Eureka, or penning music for the likes of the Kronos Quartet, O'Rourke's musical vocabulary is broad as hell, and it exudes reverence without the shield of a knowing wink.

"That's one of the only things that ever upsets me is when people say I'm being kitschy or ironic," he says. "I like Supertramp, I'm sorry, but I like it. I'm surprised at how so many people don't understand how you can love something and still see the flaws in it and laugh about it simultaneously. Laughter doesn't have to be detrimental towards anything."

Among the most striking elements on O'Rourke's less noisy recordings is just how much they can speak in the pop vernacular while still utterly screwing with its half-century old constructs. With each album in the "trilogy" and Halfway offering up seven songs or fewer, lazy tendency is to think of O'Rourke's more user-friendly records as EPs, but rather they contain a vast cross-section of different offerings, some of which clock in at seven minutes or more. Yet, they aren't the result of jam-band noodling, as the instrumentation is varied and the patterns cyclical and always serving the song before serving the soloist; the excitement of drastically shifting tempos is frequently sharing space with the more time-honored rock & roll tradition of "oooh-oooh"'s and "la la la"'s.

And then there's the regular use of a pedal steel guitar, with nary a nod to alterna-country and its Gram Parsons totem. "That's the thing with the English press, and then labels write up these press sheets, 'southern-fried boogie rock!' I've seen that in fucking almost every review," he says. "Well yeah, if you listen to the first ten seconds. The pedal steel thing to me isn't a southern thing. I don't even think of it regionally. It's just my favorite instrument.

"But there's no conscious effort to weird the songs up [laughs]. I know that I tend to write that way, but one of the things I find interesting is to try and disguise that stuff. It's like sleight of hand. I do put a lot of work in making the songs work. But I don't like highlighting the oddness of them. To me they're not odd; the logic of them makes sense. But I know that if I take a certain route it will become quirky! Quirky music! Well, I don't like quirky music [laughs]."

That sense of meticulous craft also creates a tip of the iceberg cliche for the amount of music that O'Rourke releases (which is still a lot) and what he scraps, an amount he estimates to be about eighty percent. "This past week that's been a slight source of regret, but yeah, most of it gets tossed away," he says. "But the last thing I would listen to is my own stuff. It's narcissistic. Why would I listen to mine? I'm gonna listen to [Genesis'] The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway before I listen to my own record."

And despite a newfound level of recognition, O'Rourke continues to play on the fringes. Late last year, he also released the laptop-created album, I'm Happy and I'm Singing and a 1,2,3,4. "People can always tell it's my record," he says. "I don't know why. To me they're all related. You're just dealing with different material. I think because of the Drag City records, or the Wilco thing, that people think I'm moving in some sort of line away from avant-garde music. Well no, it's just that the records of weird sounds are still only of interest to a thousand people, and they aren't noticed as much."

And his work with Sonic Youth and Jeff Tweedy (the two are also working on a project due on Drag City later this year) must still be assessed as only relatively mainstream -- it's not like SoundScan glory and a role in a teen pop ensemble are arm's length away. "I couldn't even do that," he says. "It'd be like, 'Well their dance moves have been a bit odder lately. Obviously the effect of noise monger Jim O'Rourke.' It's like fishmonger for chrissake. I don't wanna be a monger. I mean, god, I haven't made a good brutal noise thing in a while now. It's almost to the point where I say, 'OK, you want a noise monger, I'll give you a goddamn noise monger. Noise monger! Noise merchant! -- I've heard that one too. Merchant, for chrissake!"

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