The musician and producer on Wilco, Sonic Youth and life in Japan
When touring for Sonic Nurse concluded, O’Rourke sold all his instruments. He moved to Tokyo, where he spent two years learning Japanese and working towards a visa. Once settled, he made The Visitor: a 38-minute piece which he recorded at home while his neighbours were out. He played every instrument – including the trombone – which he practised for five or six months, simply to get one short part right. After the recording was done, he gave the instrument away to a friend’s son.
“I’m really, really particular,” he admits as he attempts to explain Simple Songs’ six-year gestation. it transpires that much of this period was spent training his band to play in the manner he wanted. “It took a while, and these poor people had to keep playing the same songs over again. It was just driving everyone crazy. If I asked everyone to record it one more time, they would have killed me and put me in a dumpster.”
With Japanese studios inordinately expensive, O’Rourke recorded Simple Songs in the mountainous countryside two hours outside Tokyo. He and his girlfriend had become good friends with a retired dentist – a keen amateur musician who had built a two-storey wooden cabin on his land with the aim of turning it into a home studio. He never did, but was more than happy to host O’Rourke and his band – Ishibashi Eiko on keyboards, Sudo Toshiaki on bass, drummer Yamamoto Tatsuhisa, and Hatano Atsuko providing strings – for weeks at a time recording in the space. After sessions, the group would head off to the local hot springs, leaving O’Rourke to work exhaustively on the mixes and production. “That’s the only reason this record was able to happen,” he explains. “Because we could record there. To record something like this in Japan, especially when you’re recording drums, you need to get far away from people so you don’t get the cops coming. Even singing I can’t do at home, because it will annoy people next door. The walls here are paper. Even watching a movie late at night they may complain.”
O’Rourke reveals that much of Simple Songs harks back to the music of his youth – he pinpoints 10cc, Cockney Rebel and genesis as particular favourites. The latter, along with Peter Gabriel’s ’70s records, are strong influences on Simple Songs, from the complex rhythms and electric piano on “That Weekend”, reminiscent of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, to the evocation of Gabriel’s solo debut on “Hotel Blue”. “I’m a genesis freak,” admits O’Rourke. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, that’s my DNA. I must have listened to that more than any record in my life. Everyone who plays in the band is a Genesis freak. We keep talking about doing a Genesis cover band, called Japanesis. Of course, I would be Peter…”
At other points on Simple Songs, the spiky “Last Year” recalls Steely Dan’s jazzier excursions into Southern rock, while the beautifully produced, lush “End Of The Road” cheekily nods to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” with its “having a bad time, having a bad time” refrain.
“I’m glad someone picked that up!” O’Rourke exclaims. “It was hard to record that, because I would keep laughing. It was honestly an accident, but one day I realised, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the same thing!’” Lyrically, Simple Songs is a dark, cynical journey into heartbreak, with O’Rourke teasing “Please don’t cry/I might enjoy that” on “All Your Love” and warning, “If you were out at sea/They’d throw you overboard”, on “End Of The Road”. There are no plans to tour the album, aside from one show in Tokyo, yet another song-based record is slowly being developed. There’s also the tricky matter of recording an extended piece for group and orchestra, something O’Rourke has had written since 2000. “I hope that one day I could actually record it,” he says. “But it will take a miracle. There is no way for me to do it, because it would cost money I don’t have – the score includes full strings, a brass section and a woodwind section. It’s kind of a nice feeling to still like something after all this time.” He pauses. “Well, not ‘like’, but it doesn’t make me sick. I hear it in my head so that’s kinda like enough. I don’t think anybody would like it, anyway!”
It seems unlikely, he divulges, that more major-label album production will be forthcoming since record companies started asking the audiophile O’Rourke to provide MP3 mixes. “It was insanity,” he says. “I wanted nothing to do with that work, so I quit.” Meanwhile, Tweedy happily confirms that a new Loose Fur record is in the pipeline, while O’Rourke is spending the rest of 2015 writing a commissioned piece for a ‘new music’ group. “Somebody finally asked me to write something for them,” he confirms. “I don’t know why I went to college for that stuff, because it took this long to get a commission. I finally got the chance to write for ‘new music’ groups and I don’t want to screw it up. All the different things I do are almost like the phases of the moon. They all feed back into each other, in the sense that if I get sick of one thing I go back to another thing, then it helps me see the first thing in a different light.”
Finally settled in Japan and free of the ‘golden handcuffs’ of the music industry, Jim O’Rourke genuinely seems happy, relaxed and content. During our conversations, he merrily discusses his first gig (Wings on their Wings Over The World tour), his dislike of modern mastering, and the time he worked with Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog on the soundtrack to Grizzly Man. “That was the two greatest days of my life. If they exist, Mr Herzog’s an angel that has been put on this earth…”
As happy as he now seems, though, O’Rourke mischievously hopes that Simple Songs doesn’t show it. “I wanted to be good,” he says, “I am trying. This album is like a continuous descent. At the beginning, it sounds like it’s going to be a party, but it just keeps getting more and more depressing.”
He lights another cigarette. “I hope so, anyway.”