The Most Basic American Consciousness: Bill Orcutt Twists Old Standards into Bewildering New Shapes

The Most Basic American Consciousness: Bill Orcutt Twists Old Standards into Bewildering New Shapes Illustration by Anna True

The music of Bill Orcutt is potent and sharp. With its oblong chords and erratic jumps across the fretboard, it’s a ravenous exploration of what guitar music can be, expelling notions of meter and structure to focus on feeling and timbre. Though it’s often lumped in with the American primitive tradition, it’s got a rawness and complexity all its own. After honing his chops in the ’90s noise unit Harry Pussy, Orcutt resurfaced in the late ’00s and began deconstructing nearly every style of old-timey American music. On his 2017 album, Bill Orcutt, which he released on his own Palilalia label, he takes on big band standards, hymns, jazz classics, and even Christmas tunes, warping and refracting them until they point toward the future instead of the past. We phoned Orcutt at his California home to discuss his recent switch to the electric guitar, how he settled on reworking classic American tunes, and tapping into the creative power of the unconscious.

Orcutt plays with Chuck Johnson and Samara Lubelski at Union Pool on April 12

AdHoc: I read you’ll be playing electric guitar on this tour, as you did on your self-titled release from last year. What made you decide to switch from acoustic guitar?

Bill Orcutt: I started on electric [guitar], so it feels good to go back and play it. It’s not completely different, but they are different instruments and require different technique.

All of my acoustic guitars are kind of beat up, so to switch to the electric was nice, because it’s a relatively new guitar that plays in tune without a whole lot of work. I was able to record at home and on my own schedule. I knew that I was going to rework the same material that I’d been playing for the last three or four years, with electric, so there was plenty of time to [set about expanding] that stuff.

I want to talk about your 2013 album, A History of Every One, and your practice of reworking standards. Do you see yourself as doing something similar to, say, a hip-hop artist sampling an old record and making a new song out of it? 

I had developed this vocabulary of playing, these phrasings and rhythms and tunings and chord shapes. And I realized that it could be applied to existing material—that it might be interesting to see how “The Star Spangled Banner” sounded played in my style. I didn’t want to [come] from a position of taste and quality; I just wanted run-of-the-mill American songs. As somebody who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s the kind of stuff you’d hear when the music teacher comes in with an acoustic guitar and does sing-alongs.

There was a website—an index of song titles by the frequency of their mention in American literature. That was years ago, so I’ve forgotten the details, but that’s where I drew up this initial lists of songs to play. They’re not just collections of notes; they bring with them all this history, and their titles, outside of whatever meaning they actually have, have all these connotations. I wanted to cover a history as well, starting from the earliest American commercial music. I just wanted [to find] the most basic American consciousness as expressed in music, you know?

What was your working process like?

To work out the arrangements, I would just get out the sheet music and sort of work out the melody line for most of the songs, then figure out how to harmonize and what sort of chords you can create out of those notes. Then I started to work with the rhythm, because I have my own rhythm thing that I like to do. Arranging those songs took me to places I wouldn’t have gone on my own. And then, over the course of playing them for people for four years, you discover all kinds of new things. The project is running—it’s getting close to the end. Now with the electric record, I’ve kind of squeezed everything out [of them] that I can.

You’re working on original compositions these days. How does that process compare to interpreting somebody else’s composition? 

You know, I think I’ve kind of absorbed all that I was gonna get out of these older tunes. And now I’m just—it’s all unconscious. I don’t refer back to it intentionally. 

How do you balance a feeling of spontaneity with something that is composed?

When I’m working on a record, it’s a very intentional process. But no one sits down [to create]. That exact moment when you’re inventing has to come from somewhere that’s not a conscious place. Unless you’re doing 12-tone music and it’s a matter of executing some formula, you’re gonna be improvising, [and] the unconscious has a role to play. And then later, you’re gonna go back and figure out what worked and what didn’t and rearrange things.

I wish it was as easy as grabbing the guitar and going crazy. But sadly, I don’t have enough crazy to go around.

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