Published Jun 02, 2015Jim O'Rourke could talk about Genesis all day long. "My favourite prog rock band was Genesis, and their foundation is the songs," he tells Exclaim! after being asked about some apparent sonic references on his new album, Simple Songs. "You could take away all of the progressive elements and there's still amazing songs there. You couldn't do that with Emerson, Lake & Palmer and other bands of that era."
Long associated with avant-garde musical experimentation in his own work, O'Rourke has served as music consultant on films like School of Rock, produced key records by bands like Stereolab and Wilco, and has been a member of Gastr del Sol and, eventually, Sonic Youth.
Originally from Chicago and now based in Tokyo, he has released a countless array of records since the late '80s, but his rock-songs-with-lyrics-and-singing-based albums, 1999's Eureka and 2001's Insignificance, loom particularly large for fans and critics. Drag City just released Simple Songs, his first new pop-oriented record in 14 years. Has that gap between records weighed on him?
"God no, not at all," O'Rourke responds. "I just work every day. I don't separate things that way. I wake up and I get to work. It's just that the possibility to work like this wasn't there."
With his previous and primary collaborators — drummer Glenn Kotche (Wilco) and bassist Darin Gray — an ocean away, O'Rourke wasn't sure how to bring his complex rhythmic and arrangement ideas to life. Then he encountered Yamamoto Tatsuhisa, a powerful drummer in his own right, and O'Rourke's mind turned.
"Once Glenn Kotche became the Glenn Kotche and was on tour all the time, I just couldn't make that kind of thing because to me, he's the only person who understood my rhythmic sense. But then six or seven years ago I was doing this show in Tokyo and there was this drummer playing with someone else, and it hit me like a slap in the face, like a time machine to when I first saw Glenn play, which was on stage at Lounge Ax, backing up Edith Frost at her first Chicago show.
"It wasn't even a song show that Yamamoto Tatsuhisa, the drummer on my record, was playing. It was like going back to that moment. I was like, 'I think this kid could do it.' When I saw him, he was 23, 24. And then we needed a bass [player] if we were going to try this, and I remembered my old friend Sudo Toshiaki who was originally the first drummer in Melt-Banana and I knew him from then, and he can play almost anything, but is actually a really great bass player, and is very similar to Darin, who played on all of the old records.
"So, the three of us got together and tried a few things that were hanging around. I thought we needed someone to play keyboards, and they suggested Ishibashi Eiko, who almost within the same week approached me about producing her record. She came on board and, all of a sudden it wasn't like, 'Aw, I wanna do another song record,' it was more like, 'I now have the possibility of working in that mode again.'"
O'Rourke is now fluent in Japanese, so much so that he occasionally has to pause and speak to himself in Japanese to recall certain English words during our conversation. So, it wasn't a language barrier that impeded his new band's chemistry.
"It took about two years to get them to understand my way of working and my sense of rhythm and for me to get to know them better," he recalls. "So, it wasn't like I decided to do a song record again; it was just again possible. Up until that point, if it wasn't with Glenn and Darin, it was not possible. It was a sense of honour almost to me. And the fact that Glenn heard Tatsuhisa and was like, 'Okay, yeah. This kid's got it. He can do it.' I needed their approval. Glenn and Darin, to this day, even though we're not a band anymore, they're family to me."
Like much of O'Rourke's previous work, Simple Songs is rather timeless but does connote a certain kind of ambitious, '70s singer-songwriter rock. As the first song, "Friends with Benefits" unfolds, its biting lyrics and complex structure recall the late Warren Zevon. Meanwhile, "End of the Road" might be distantly related to something on Side B of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. O'Rourke is not put off by these comparisons, he just honestly can't connect.
This is what brings us around to Genesis and a conversation about the tenets and perceptions of "prog rock," as the term might relate to Simple Songs.
"The thing is, when you start using this word 'progressive,' this was a period of time where these were bands who could really play their instruments and when you can really play, you want to push yourself, hopefully. That's what excites you. So, if you have a keyboard player who understands how to modulate from this key to that key and all that stuff, that's exciting to them. That's what puts the fire under their ass. That's what a lot of people consider progressive. But it's not progressive; you're just playing the level field — that's the capability of your instrument and the harmony of songwriting."
O'Rourke is quick to say that if Simple Songs reflects any prog influences, it's only because the music is as vital or contemporary as it's ever been.
"I'm not nostalgic, I just want that music to still exist. There's no reason to look at it as a music that existed then and now I'm harkening back to it. There's no reason for it to still not exist."
Simple Songs is out now on Drag City, and you can explore his past via Exclaim!'s recent Essential Guide to Jim O'Rourke.