TUSK Virtual is now almost upon us and now, even months later, we still can’;t get used to the idea that we’ve not only got Jim O’Rourke playing our festival but its in a first public performance outside Japan of his duo with the wonderful Eiko Ishibashi. Stewart Smith talks to Jim and Eiko about this new project.
Jim O’Rourke needs little introduction: a major figure in underground and experimental music, the Chicago-born artist’s solo albums run the gamut from electro-acoustic composition to lustrous chamber pop, while his list of productions and collaborations would fill the phone book. O’Rourke’s latest album Shutting Down Here weaves together instrumental composition, field recordings, and electronic textures. In recent years, O’Rourke has worked closely with Eiko Ishibashi, whose own releases span pop, improvisation and sound art. Since her most recent singer-songwriter album, The Dream My Bones Dream in 2018, she’s put out several excellent digital releases, and recently dropped the exhibition piece Hyakki Yagyo on Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label. For Tusk Virtual, Ishibashi and O’Rourke will be performing as a duo – their first such appearance outside Japan.
Jim, you’ve said that Shutting Down Here is the work you’re most satisfied with to date. What did you feel you got right and how does it build on or do things differently from earlier projects?
(JO) Well, first, it is far from me being satisfied, haha. It had a good two or three year stretch of not being right, so that I finally got it somewhat what it should be was more of a relief, haha. A lot of being “right” is being not what it shouldn’t be, and that changes with every change and every bit of time away from it, so I couldn’t say that there was a road map for it, as the road is always changing ahead, and is affected by every turn you make. A lot of it is just time, letting it take as long as it needs to take until it’s standing up on its own.
(SS) You worked on the album at your own Steamroom studio in Japan, and INA-GRM in Paris. Could you tell me about the process? I understand some parts date back several years.
(JO) There are some sounds in it that were recorded 30 years ago when I was in Paris the first time I went to GRM, but not recorded there. The final assembly and the 8-channel version were mixed at the GRM studios over a few weeks, but it was started about five years ago in my own studio.
(SS) The album features striking contributions by Eiko on piano, Atsuko Hatano on violin/viola, and Eiving Lonning on trumpet. Were these added relatively late in the process, with the musicians interacting with the electronics, or were they always part of the vision?
(JO) The written parts were recorded quite early on, about five years ago in Tokyo. Even though it was scored, things changed over the years and a lot was dropped, places changed, etc.
(SS) I’ve also been enjoying your latest album with the great Akira Sakata. You’ve collaborated with him several times, but Bonjintan is perhaps the most ‘jazz’ project you’ve done together. So I’m interested in how that band works and what kind of challenges it presents to you. Does playing double bass, as opposed to guitar or electronics, make you more conscious of being in the tradition, or is that not a factor for you?
(JO) Bonjintan has done a few tours in japan, and they can be really back breaking, get in the van, hit the road, blisters in your fingers kind of affairs. Playing bass does change things a bit in that you can change the context of what everybody is doing with one note, something special about the bass. It could be thought of as a tradition, but I don’t like to think of it as a role. Outside of being aware of that, I probably don’t change my approach overall, double bass is a much more physically taxing instrument than guitar, and you really just can’t pick it up and play without being in shape for it, so I probably prepare myself more before those tours than anything else.
(SS) Eiko, your latest release is Hyakki Yagyo on Black Truffle. For people who know you primarily from the Drag City albums, it might seem like a departure, but in fact, there’s plenty of continuity. Where would you say that it fits in your catalogue?
(EI) For me, Hyakki Yagyo does not feel like a new departure. Each time, I am hoping to continue making music that is out of kilter with what the apparent path is.
(SS) I’d also be interested to hear about how Hyakki Yagyo explores Japanese history and culture – common theme in your work.
(EI) Now, in these turbulent times, I think that living itself and learning history are inextricably linked. So, of course, it has had an impact how I work.
(SS) In the past few month’s you’ve put out a string of great digital releases. Can you tell me about Satellite? Was it made with the large synthesiser you’re photographed with in The Wire?
(EI) Is it the big one? It is maybe KORG PS 3100. Yes, I played it and Nord modular and I made a collage with many field recordings.
(SS) I guess there’s a similar process with Impulse Of The Ribbon, in that you’ve got the electronics mixed in with field recordings from Kofu City Yuki Park Zoo.
(EI) It’s certainly the same collage of field recordings and synth work as Satellite, but the starting point for me makes the work is very different. I was angrier, and this piece shows that I myself am also a ridiculous and pathetic person.
(SS) Memory Of Future uses the sounds of a coal mine. Can you tell me more?
(EI) It uses sounds from a documentary on the Miike coal mine, which was one of Japan’s largest mines. The music was made for a photo exhibition held at Manda Mine, one of the Miike mines. The photographer’s name is Takagi Hisao, who was a coal miner.
(SS) Regarding your Tusk Virtual set, is there a grand plan? And how does it compare to Kafka’s Ibiki, your trio with pianist Tatsuhisa Yamamoto?
(EI) We played a few gigs in Japan as this duo in the past few years. How we perform live is different every time, and it is very different from Kafka Ibiki.