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A Quietus Interview

Unacceptable Ideas: An Interview With Bill Orcutt
Vanessa Ague , October 30th, 2023 10:14

Ahead of his performance at Le Guess Who? next month, Vanessa Ague speaks to Bill Orcutt, who charts the series of serendipities and chance encounters that led to one of the most boundary-pushing and varied careers in experimental guitar playing

Photos courtesy of Bill Orcutt

Bill Orcutt hadn’t planned on becoming a musician. The guitar, now his primary instrument, didn’t excite him when he first picked it up. He didn’t study at a conservatory. Yet over the course of his three-decade career, he’s played it on somewhere around a hundred albums. “Music has been the project for most of my life, I guess,” he says over a Zoom call from his home in San Francisco. “It’s been a great outlet.”

Orcutt’s work is defined by his versatility and fierce independence. He goes where his ideas take him, no matter how impossible they may feel at first. His catalogue is vast. He’s released records of covers of quintessential songs, developed his own music-making software, made thrashing noise, and formed a Reich-meets-Television guitar quartet. But while all his projects seem different, his approach connects them: he crafts intricate music out of sharp riffs that strike like lightning.

Though Orcutt has been making music for many years, there’s been a renewed interest in his work recently. Live performances of his quartet work, Music For Four Guitars, with Wendy Eisenberg, Ava Mendoza and Shane Parish have won enormous acclaim, including a much-lauded performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk. The group will take on Europe next, making a notable stop at Le Guess Who? in November.

Growing up in Miami, Orcutt was an artistic child –he regularly painted with oils in the family garage – but it wasn’t until his teens that he got involved with music. His parents decided he should have music lessons of some kind, picking guitar because it was cheaper than a piano, but it didn’t stick. It was only when they got him a turntable as a gift that things started to change. He began to collect records, reading Rolling Stone and Creem for recommendations. The punk and post punk of the 1970s captured his interests, as did artists like Cecil Taylor and Art Ensemble Of Chicago whom he discovered through reading jazz books. And then, once he got excited about music, he found the guitar once more. “Getting into the guitar was a whole obsession,” he says, fondly remembering the hours he spent teaching himself the craft of the instrument in the attic.

Though Orcutt loved music, he never formally trained; he’s a true DIY artist, born out of Miami’s underground. In his early days in the scene he often played drums because that’s what was needed, and he wanted to be in a band, but guitar remained part of his life and so he embarked on his first guitar-percussion duo called Watt with Tim Koffley (Orcutt is releasing music from their archive in December, which gives a glimpse into their interwoven, grid-like groove). They eventually went their separate ways, after which Orcutt leaned further into noise, founding Harry Pussy with drummer/vocalist Adris Hoyos. From 1992 to 1997, they made brazen noise rock, stemming from Orcutt’s shrieking electric guitar and Hoyos’ feverish drums. The group put Orcutt’s music on the map, giving him the opportunity to tour with bands like Sonic Youth.

Through those collaborations, Orcutt developed his signature four string guitar style. He enjoys working within the instrument’s limitations, but initially it was another thing that came to him by chance. For years, he neglected his guitar, letting it collect dust while he played the drums. One day, when he decided to pick it up and toy with it, it was missing the A and D strings, but instead of putting them back on, Orcutt found a spark in playing it as it was, learning how to shape his hand into new chords while he watched TV. Though, for him, it was an exciting discovery, he’s careful to note that four stringed instruments have precedence; think of an orchestra, whose violins, violas, cellos and basses all have four strings, or the B-52s’ Ricky Wilson. “It's not like you need more than four strings to make music. Maybe six strings is an aberration,” he says.

While music has often been Orcutt’s path, after Harry Pussy broke up, he moved to San Francisco and stepped away from it for a decade. Then one day, he was approached about releasing a Harry Pussy compilation, which inspired him to relisten.The physicality of guitar always drew him to it and it’s what brought him back here. “It’s very satisfying,” he says with a laugh. Once he found his inspiration again, he picked up the acoustic guitar. That led him to record his solo LP, A New Way To Pay Old Debts, which brought the howl of his electric guitar to acoustic improvisations.

Solo work has made up a large portion of Orcutt’s career since his return. His melodies across these records are spiky, like the surface of a rock wall; they wind and roam like a long climb up a steep mountain. Each explores a different sound or idea: 2017’s self-titled album grows from stark electric guitar; 2013’s A History Of Every One presents covers of standards ranging from ‘White Christmas’ to ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’; 2019’s Odds Against Tomorrow has a ruminative feeling. These records leap between styles, but they also connect. His most recent album, Jump On It, for example, draws on some ideas he liked while recording Odds Against Tomorrow, only he plays an acoustic guitar. Others, like the Quartet, open pathways for him to try something completely new and see where it takes him.

Since Orcutt’s return to music, he has also begun to work with musical software. At one point, he got deep into the programming language MAX MSP, pouring through research and tinkering with it to learn all its ins and outs. It was his introduction to computerised music, and he then went on to develop his own open-source software, Cracked, which allowed him to explore other areas of musical interest and to make new means of expression. “If you're using the same tools as everyone else, it's harder somehow to find your own voice. But if you're building your tools from scratch, then whatever it is – and they may not sound good in any conventional sense – at least they're yours, and then you can just start working with them and you can figure out something to do with it,” he says.

With Cracked, he has created an array of albums that highlight his interest in the durational and the abstract, such as his ‘Counting Albums,’ which build phased patterns from voices counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” Ultimately, computer music is totally Orcutt’s space, the place where he can really let loose conceptually. “As my guitar music has become more acceptable to people, I needed a counterbalance to put all my unacceptable ideas,” he explains. “Computer music was a place to put all the impulses I had that weren't about the listener and how they may be feeling. All the anti-social music that I wanted to make could go into that.”

Though Orcutt describes himself as a solitary person, much of his career is marked by collaboration. His frenzied improvisatory work with drummer Chris Corsano has been a constant since his return to music, and right now, his guitar quartet has been on a roll. Like most things in his career, the quartet came to be by chance. A few years ago, Orcutt found himself in his basement crafting riffs and then piecing them together in Logic until they linked up like a puzzle. He then asked guitarist Shane Parish to notate the music for four guitarists to play. At first, Orcutt dreamed up this score to be a fun extra for people who bought the record. It grew into something much more – a community of guitarists playing music together across the globe. “It was a massive learning experience for me to be around people who could just take the stuff that had originated in the basement at home,” he says. “Suddenly it's being played by a group of people and you're like, ‘Wow, I never thought it could happen.’”

Orcutt’s career is made of these spontaneous occurrences and collaborations that lead to something more. He is a staunch advocate for independence in music, and he’s largely able to do whatever he wants because he releases everything on his own labels, Palilalia for guitar music and Fake Estates for computer music. Independence affords him a certain type of freedom to go down the roads that seem the most exciting – deemed by him and nobody else – and has allowed him enhanced versatility. “What I learned was owning your own stuff, putting out your records yourself and not being dependent on other people – to the extent that you're able to do that – is the best thing. It's the way of making the art that's going to be most true to who you are,” he says. “If you can do it all yourself, then I feel like you're going to be happier and you're not going to be put in a position where you have to do something and be uncomfortable with it. Nobody does anything over you, and you can just walk away from things that don't feel fun.”

When we chat, Orcutt is quick to let me know that right now, he’s at another crossroads. He never could have predicted the positive reception of the guitar quartet – he thought people might not like it – and he hasn’t had time to sit down to play something new or figure out what’s next. Maybe he’ll transform his computer music into a live ensemble performance, or curate an exhibit of all the album covers he’s designed over the years. Maybe he could write another quartet, or write for even more guitars (though, when asked, he says a 100-guitar symphony might be a little too much to organise).

These days, though, Orcutt spends his days with his wife, visiting the movie theatre down the street to check out matinees and logging everything he’s seen in Letterboxd. Crossroads haven’t stopped him before – rebirths got him here in the first place. In fact, it’s the many twists and turns that make Orcutt’s career so special. He makes the music happen, no matter how impossible it may seem. “I always think if I have an idea, and it doesn't go away, that I should do it,” Orcutt says. “If it persists for me, then it's my idea, and the business I'm in is putting my ideas into the world.”

Bill Orcutt performs at Le Guess Who? festival, which takes place from November 9 to 12, 2023 in Utrecht, Netherlands. Find more information here.