The Home Key #11:

An Interview with Bill Orcutt


Rick Moody

Bill Orcutt’s most recent album is the moving and beautiful self-released Music for Four Guitars (Palilalia Records). He makes, and has made, albums featuring guitar, sometimes composed, sometimes improvised, sometimes solo, sometimes in duos (usually with percussion), albums that are as unusual and interesting as any being made today, and many of which can be found on his Bandcamp page here: However: the Orcutt body of work also goes way, way back, however, into the deepest redoubts of indie music from the nineties, and his astringent band from that period, of whom more below, which earlier music was all of the above and a whole lot more. This interview attempts to find a path from those earlier pieces unto the present, while likewise connecting in, even, Orcutt’s more recent computer-based music, recorded as Fake Estates We spoke on Zoom in September of 2022.

Rick Moody: Among the recent bits of material that I found in a deep dive on you was that you used to teach writing. I’m curious, therefore, about your literature background. Can you talk about that?

Bill Orcutt: Sure. This is a long story. This is a super long answer to your question.

RM: Of course.

BO: I’m starting way back. As a kid I used to paint. I painted every day, and I was really into art, and art was my thing. But when it came time for me to go to college, my parents, who didn’t go to college—I was the first person in my family to go to college—did not want me to study art in school. They felt like it was a good hobby, but not something you’d want to study. I studied architecture, which seemed like it could be like art, but a more practical thing from my parents’ perspective. And it was not a good fit. I think I lasted a year in architecture. And I had no other ideas, but I liked to read books, so I went to study English. I got a B.A., and I still had no other ideas, so I applied to a master’s program, and wound up with an M.A. in English. As part of that, I was teaching—I was adjunct faculty at University of Miami—and then after I graduated, I had at least the idea that I didn’t want to do any more English instruction. I lasted a couple years after I got my M.A. working around Miami in various adjunct faculty roles at community colleges, and the University of Miami and FIU and what have you. And that was it, really. I still like to read books. And I never taught literature. I only ever taught freshman composition.


BO: I guess I did it for about four years, and by the end I realized it was just not a good fit for me. At the beginning of everything, on the first day of class I would always be like, didn’t I have that person last semester? They all started to look the same. It was not a good role for me.

RM: In one interview I think you said that you had a sort of revelatory experience from being at a show that involved the work of Gertrude Stein. Do I have that right?

BO: I was looking for rhythmic analogues to what I was doing at that time, and the rhythm of her sentences was something that I felt like I understood. That rhythm worked for me. And I later did a show in New York—it was an intermission to this reading of The Making of Americans—and that might be the reference that was in the interview. But I was already in the Stein camp by the time I did that show. That is an amazing book. And A History of Every One has a quote from that book on the cover, I think. And that phrase, “a history of every one,” is also from the book.

RM: I want to go backwards for a second. I wanted to sort of be at the beginning and ask about Harry Pussy, about how–

BO: But that’s not the beginning.

RM: That’s not the beginning?

BO: That’s the first band that I was in that made records and got known outside of Miami, but I played in bands before that. If you heard the band I was in before that one, you might not be going down the path that you’re going.

RM: Meaning there was more conventional songcraft in that band?

BO: These terms you’re using are causing me all kinds of pains and feelings. I don’t really recognize the way you’re approaching this, because for me it’s all technique. You imagine a thing, a sound, some movement, some shape, some stuff, and then you put it up there, you put it on the canvas. And the thing that gets it on the canvas, if I can use it that way, is technique. Right? It’s all technique.

RM: Yeah.

BO: There’s no anti-technique. Anti-technique would be staying in bed and not doing anything. Technique is whatever you use to make the thing that you want to. There’s all kinds of conventional stuff. If you’re a drummer can you do a press roll, or if you’re a guitarist can you play a major scale, or whatever. But those things aren’t music. They’re just little widgets that you can use to talk about sound. But it’s not music. By the time Harry Pussy started I had been playing guitar for over ten years. Often I’ve dealt with people who think that was the first time I ever picked up a guitar, but it wasn’t. And the other problem is that people haven’t really heard the records. They just have a kind of concept in their head of what they sound like. Or they have a general understanding, but in fact they haven’t actually heard all three records, the three LPs that we did. The can of worms you’re opening… I mean, I could do a lot, but it would be like an audiovisual lecture, and then I would have to have samples to play you, and explain to you what’s going on. So I would say it’s best to just bracket this topic off. And say no. There’s no such thing as technique and anti-technique. There’s only technique.

RM: I’m interested in how the pieces got made. And what was the root through which pretty liberated and free drumming—and some more significant musical awareness on your part, and later when the lineup expanded—how those pieces got put together.

BO: The first single we recorded was literally the first time we played together, and the first time Adris [Hoyos] ever played the drums, so there was that. But that’s the first single. Now to hear the next step in that, you actually have to jump to a record that was just released last year, called Superstar. And that actually was the next step. There’s no improvisation in those pieces, and there’s no free drumming. Everything is completely composed. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that record, but if you wanted to know what the next step was, that was the next step. It’s just a complicated history and unless you know it intimately, it’s difficult to deal with assumptions about what was free and what was not free and so forth. And so that was the next step. The step after that was to take those composed pieces and then blow them up. To rip them open and crack the rhythmic spine of them. That became what is on the second 7 inch, and then the first LP that we did for Siltbreeze. I think that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about, like, “free.”
  Where we went from there was a whole other story. We started working with a different guitarist. It’s difficult, without pointing to specific things in the discography. We did an early 7 inch for Audible Hiss—I can’t remember what it’s called, but that has the early pieces that we did with Mark [Feehan]. And again, those pieces have no improvisation. They’re all set components, and we all transitioned between them using visual cues. By the time that you get to the last record that we did, the stuff that’s on You’ll Never Play This Town Again, there’s no improvisation at all. Everything, even the solos are the same from track to track. It’s tough to talk about that band because people’s perception of it is only about 20% correct. I hate to be pedantic and be like oh but no, you haven’t heard this, but it’s difficult to talk about in a meaningful way.

RM: When the band was playing out, were there different kinds of preparation and readiness than in a studio environment? And how did you adapt in that case?

BO: We rehearsed every night. We rehearsed every single day that we weren’t playing live. You’ve gone down such a wrong path. Your preconceptions are so thoroughly off base. I don’t know if there’s other things you want to talk about, but I feel like this topic is probably not a good one to talk about.

RM: Okay, let’s move on.

BO: Like I said, I would be happy to write you an email and give you an overview of the band, and illustrate what I’m expressing, but I feel like this particular angle doesn’t line up enough with reality.

RM: Understood. Let’s talk about how you’re organizing sound on the new record [Music for Four Guitars]. The new record has four guitar parts. Can you speak to why four is important as opposed to some other number?

BO: A friend of mine asked me in 2015 if I would write a piece for his guitar quartet. I was really intrigued, but was too busy and for whatever reason couldn’t do it. I put it off, and then eventually forgot about it. Actually, I didn’t forget about it, but eventually I stopped thinking that I would do it. But I thought about it, and I would return to it and be like, what would I do, or how could I do it? The new record emerged from finally forcing myself to sit down and think of the solution for writing a piece for a guitar quartet.

RM: In this case, how did you record? Tape? Or into the computer?

BO: I do it into the computer. I did this one into the computer as well.

RM: Did you compose out all these harmonies and stuff?

BO: I would start with a tuning, and then improvise a kind of basis, just a phrase, and then loop record on top of the phrase. In Logic, the software I’m using, when you loop record it creates a new track with each iteration, so each loop goes onto its own track. I could fill up thirty tracks of overlapping parts, and then go through the thirty parts and weed out the ones that weren’t any good, and then wind up with twenty-five parts, and then copy—"repeat multiple" is what the command is called—to create a grid of each of these little snippets spread for the length of the song. I’d mute all of them, and then unmute four voices per bar to create an arrangement. You can get pretty diverse results. And I should say no more than four voices. So you could just have a single voice. And then it gets doubled by another thing, and then you just add on things on top of it to create the arrangement. That’s how I did it.

RM: So you resisted at any point the desire to have a fifth harmony line, and just took four as the conceptual apparatus?

BO: I should say yes, but I should also say I had no desire to add a fifth voice. I did have in the back of mind that it would be great if this could be performed live, so that gave me a reason to be consistent.

RM: And when you say performed live, do you mean in an ensemble?

BO: Yes.

RM: Awesome. If you’re saying that you would loop the original line, that means that in a way the compositions were shaped by the computer editorial intervention. So you didn’t really know necessarily the contour of the whole composition until you got to the editing stage.

BO: The composition is created with the muting and unmuting of parts. There’s one track on there that has the same source material, and they sound completely different, but it’s just a different arrangement of the same material.

RM: I also wanted to ask about tuning. I’m curious to know, because I haven’t seen anywhere a totally definitive answer about whether you frequently use different tunings for the four strings.

BO: I have two tunings—one is standard. I remove the A and the D strings. It’s four strings, but the strings that are there are tuned the same way they would be for concert tuning, concert pitch. The other tuning I have is just tuning that low E string up to a G.

RM: Does the four string thing go all the way back to the dawn of Bill Orcutt, Guitarist, or was it something that you encountered somewhere?

BO: I got a guitar when I was a teenager—my parents bought it for me. And I got lessons, briefly. But in the eighties I was playing drums in a band and the guitar was not getting used very much. And somehow or another it wound up with four strings, those four strings. Instead of fixing it I just started writing songs around that configuration. And that was the beginning of it. But I was in my twenties, and it was sometime in the eighties.

RM: And you’ve resisted any urge to put one or two back on and see what happens?

BO: No, I mean, that is the way I play now. If I’m around a guitar with six strings and I have nothing to do, I’ll pick it and play, but four strings is how I play guitar. The way it’s configured is there’s the low E string, and there’s the top three strings which are G, B, and E. And you’re missing the A and the D. In conventional rock and blues and what have you, those strings are really the things that let you play a fifth, that chunky sound that you hear in rock and the blues. So you can’t really do any of that. That side of Chuck Berry, the rhythm part, is gone, unfortunately.

RM: Did you ever play cigar box guitar, a three string?

BO: No.

RM: Is it a totally way-out comparison to see the four-string configuration as a distant relative of John Fahey?

BO: I mean I’m not really a huge Fahey fan. I have some Fahey records and I’ll put them on. I can respect what he accomplished, and he’s an interesting figure, but it was never a thing that inspired me.

RM: How does what you’re doing with guitar now relate to your electronic-music composition? I’ve only managed to hear a tiny bit of the electronic stuff, but does it serve as an outlet, like a completely different opportunity for you as a player to do that? Or do you see them as mutually inflecting each other, electronic music and the guitar stuff?

BO: I have an ongoing interest in electronic music, and right now I have my own software that I use called Cracked, but before that I was using MaxMSP, and I use Pure Data to some extent. I go back a ways playing around with electronic music software. Part of it is that I like the music, and before I was ever making electronic music I was listening to electronic music. But there’s a way that it relates to just being a programmer, since that’s my day job. Having ideas about what it should be, what the programming interface should be. And that kind of draws me in, just playing with the code aspect of it. I like to make things, so playing with the code makes you then start to make music, make art with it. It’s some kind of nexus of coding and general music-making, and a well-established, ongoing interest in electronic music. The last label that I collected, the last music that I was really, really into was Mego. And before that I was way into Jungle. The closest record shop to where I lived in Miami Beach was a white label DJ store, and I used to go in there. You could listen to the latest stuff from England or whatever. It’s this combination of an interest in electronic music, and an interest in coding, that’s what drives this, and the natural tendency that when I’m around things I try to start making stuff.

RM: Do you mean electronic music that doesn’t have a sort of rhythmic aspect? Of the more sound art variety?

BO: No, I like stuff with a rhythmic aspect. It’s not all I listen to but having a rhythmic aspect doesn’t disqualify it. Music that’s made with machines, not acoustic instruments, is my idea of electronic music. That would include music made with samplers and hip hop. It’s a wide range of stuff.

RM: I really like Carl Stone. Do you know his work?

BO: Sure.

RM: He uses the Max program now, also favored by Autechre.

RM: Cracked is a different kind of thing, and one of the things that I liked about Cracked was that it was kind of limited compared to commercial software, because it was something I cobbled together myself. It was a little bit like a four-string guitar. It was missing some pieces, but the limitations could be inspiring.

RM: It seemed like what I heard in your pieces had polyrhythms. There were layers of rhythms that were against other rhythms that I found really satisfying. What I get stuck on with EDM-ish things is my own resistance to the four beats. Does this interest in complex rhythms get played out on guitar too?

BO: You’re right about the polyrhythms, or whatever the right term is when you’re hearing four against five, or five against seven or something, because there is a bunch of my electronic music that’s like that. I think of it as phasing, because you’ll have a loop with seven against a loop with something else, and how they shift over time. But on the other hand there’s nothing in Four Guitars that’s like that. There’s no phasing, there’s no shifting of relationships over the pieces. Like I said, it was created on a grid, so it definitely has a grid organization. My electronic pieces are either additive, like there’s something going on and then some aspect of that thing gets incremented as it goes through, or there’s phasing, basically. All pieces are like that. It could be two loops or there could be more loops on top of each other, or there’s just some line that becomes increments as it goes around.

RM: We’ve talked about the electronic piece of your listening, and I’m wondering if jazz is part of your musical diet too.

BO: Yes. I think I have pretty boring tastes in music, honestly. I like dad-rock and dad-jazz. I’ll do a lot of listening to the same thing over and over again. Very unadventurous in my listening. It’s always with the same record for a month. And I’m not sure what I’m getting out of all that repetition. It’s never anything interesting. It’ll be like a Keith Jarrett record, Bob Dylan. It’s really unremarkable.

RM: Many of your recent projects have involved duos, collaborations with one other musician. I’m wondering if those involve jazz methodology.

BO: With Chris [Corsano] and Okkyung [Lee], or are you just talking about with Chris?

RM: I really like the pieces with Chris so much.

BO: Yeah, those are all improvised. Chris is a real improviser. It’s always interesting to play with him. You get good feedback, playing live with him. You can tell when he likes something, or when he doesn’t like something. You can be like, oh, all right, let’s try something else. But yeah, all that is improvised.

RM: How do you order your projects in the Orcutt solo period? Do you do the duo projects as a palate cleanser after a certain amount of solo guitar stuff? Or, how do you think about, as it were, the way these things lay down as you go?

BO: Are you talking about records? I run my own label—labels. But the manufacturing side is so screwed up now, everything is at least a year out from when you complete it, and you can’t always know exactly, so sometimes the order of things doesn’t exactly line up with how they were finished. And sometimes there are archival pieces that were recorded a long time ago. I think I have all of 2023 already done, and it’s all in some phase of being manufactured now. I try to do a decent number of things every year. I have Fake Estates if you want to hear more of my computer music. That’s on Fake Estates’ Bandcamp, So I like to make sure that I do at least one Fake Estates release a year, and then for next year I’m trying to repress a bunch of records because I think there’s some demand, and I’m trying to keep more things in print longer, because they tend to sell out quickly and then there’s nothing until the next record comes out. I have a solo acoustic guitar record, the first one I’ve done in like ten years, and there’s a Fake Estates record with a piece that I really like. I got to play it live once. So it’s nice to see that be documented. I have an archival release of my band Watt that was a four-string guitar and drum duo that existed before Harry Pussy, and that’s coming out next year.

RM: And is that project named after the Samuel Beckett novel?

BO: It could be. Or the unit of energy, or any of the other things that watt applies to.

RM: And that acoustic guitar album, are you going to play standards again, or originals?

BO: It’s all originals.

RM: And do you think you’re done with the interpretation of standards gesture, which was a frequent approach a couple years back, or is that something that might return to one day?

BO: It might come back. I don’t know. At the moment I don’t feel the need to revisit it but you know, it’s out there. Could be.

RM: Is there a driver between acoustic guitar and electric guitar and how you think? Are the instruments themselves what drives these choices? And do you always use that blond Telecaster? Is that your main electric guitar, or are there others?

BO: I think I’ve recorded just as much with this Strat that I never take outside the house for some reason. Strats are kind of weird to play, they don’t fit the body really well sitting down. The Telecaster much more naturally fits, so I wind up using that live. I find with the Strat it’s always slipping and sliding and going different ways, but somehow I play it at home and it’s fine. But that blond Telecaster is the main thing that I use. There’s nothing special about it. I just bought it off the internet from Sweetwater maybe ten years ago now, just because I needed a guitar that would stay in tune. So I just bought the standard one.

RM: And you don’t have any kind of vibrato on there? You just use your fingers?

BO: Yeah.

RM: Are you headed back towards the acoustic because you’ve had enough of the electric, or is that just the release schedule?

BO: That’s a great question. I mean, I’m trying to think why…why was it, months ago, that I decided I was going to make an acoustic record? I can’t remember exactly. I think I was just in the mood. And then there’s also the question of the instrument. I recorded the acoustic record with this Harmony Sovereign that I’ve owned now for nearly twenty years, and it has just sort of sat in a closet and never been played. It was an old guitar when I got it, and now it’s twenty years older. But it was in great shape, and I was auditioning different guitars to see what I might use to record, and I was like, this Harmony sounds great—it feels great to play, and it sounds great on the mic—I should use this guitar. It had been long enough that I wanted to see, what do I sound like after having done all the stuff that I’ve done since 2013? What will it sound like? It came out good. I like it.