Here’s a fascinating interview with Bill Orcutt from Folio Weekly. Bill Orcutt will be performing this Monday at the Legs.
PICKED APART: BILL ORCUTT DECONSTRUCTS AND DETONATES THE REALM OF SOLO ACOUSTIC GUITAR
by Daniel A. Brown
In 1993, two inscrutable records floated up out of the roiling ooze of the underground music scene. Apparently released simultaneously, the pair of 45s both had cryptic cover art: One featured a smiling girl holding a frog, the other a close-up of a freckled girl with a nose ring. Void of song titles or band line-up, the only clue offered was the band’s name: Harry Pussy. The two tracks on the “nose ring” single were driven by shimmering, languid guitar tones rising and falling over a wash of cymbals, sounding apparently random, and then folding into a weird logic. “Girl with a frog” was the diametric opposite, five tracks of brutal guitar-and-drum assault, as a woman screamed her lungs out over the carnage. In roughly 15 minutes, Harry Pussy completely immolated then-concepts of noise, improv, experimental music and all points in between.
Based in Miami, Harry Pussy was formed in 1992 by husband-and-wife duo Bill Orcutt (guitar) and Adris Hoyo (drums, vocals). They were eventually joined by guitarist Mark Feehan (1993-’96), who was replaced by Dan Hosker (’96-’97). Even for the somewhat-open-minded underground music scene of the day, Harry Pussy was an adult dose, yet its indefinable sound was featured on more than two dozen releases.
They did, however, earn a devoted following, including Thurston Moore, who played a live clip of the band on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Orcutt and Hoyo eventually divorced; the band broke up in ’97. On the 1998 posthumous double LP Let’s Build a Pussy, Orcutt captured a one-second sample of Hoyo’s voice, which he then digitally manipulated over the course of the set’s four sides, a fittingly radical and arcane epitaph for the band.
In the late ’90s, Orcutt moved to San Francisco during the dot-com boom, where he landed a job as a software engineer, remarried and started a family. After a decade-long hiatus, he began releasing, oddly enough, solo acoustic music. On A New Way to Pay Old Debts (2009), Orcutt runs his four-string acoustic guitar through its paces, shifting between contemplative drones and frantic, scattering runs along the neck. A History of Every One (2013) is a collection of standards. Over the course of 12 tracks, Orcutt shoots classic songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Black Betty” through a prism of microtones and vibrato, yet maintains a glimmer of the essential melodies of the originals.
Orcutt’s music is based on his own kind of hermetically sealed world of harmony, melody and even rhythm. Locked in full-blown improvisation, Orcutt can evoke acoustic guitar renegade John Fahey and The Germs’ Pat Smear, generating riffs and ideas that dance around accepted conventional ideas of guitar-playing.
While the now-53-year-old Orcutt walks the path of “outsider” music, his enigmatic guitar style is getting greater attention. In 2014, Orcutt appeared in mainstream media outlets like Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Village Voice and NPR. Locals can now check out Orcutt’s inimitable take on solo acoustic guitar at his gig this week at Sun-Ray Cinema.
Folio Weekly spoke to Bill Orcutt at his home in the Bay Area; he talked about his musical roots, crowd alienation and picking on a four-string guitar.
Folio Weekly: Growing up in Miami, did you go through the almost-standard suburban experience of having guitar heroes like Hendrix, Clapton or Page?
Bill Orcutt: Yeah, absolutely, but my main thing probably would have been Hendrix but definitely Jimmy Page, too. I got diverted pretty early into blues and jazz. I guess I knew blues existed and I had some understanding of it, but I saw Muddy Waters in The Last Waltz and totally connected with that. Then I remember very clearly buying my first blues album, a Muddy Waters record, at this shop on 153rd Street in Miami. It was one of those comeback records Johnny Winter produced, I’m Ready.
So you’re basically a contemporary blues artist.
Ha ha! Well, I didn’t have any older siblings and I was a bookish kid so I got a record player really late, when I was 15 or so. I didn’t really have any interest in music when I was a kid. I really started buying records based on whether or not they had good reviews. Reading reviews definitely led you into a broader scope of the things. I would go to this chain store called Specs Music and you could buy cheap cut-outs of punk stuff. I remember getting a Richard Hell & the Voidoids record; that was a classic ninety-nine-center.
With some exceptions, the Florida music scene in the late ’80s/early ’90s seemed to run rampant with a lot of skinhead hardcore bands and preening hair metal. Acknowledging those two poles of greatness, what was the impetus in forming Harry Pussy?
I didn’t really have any friends, I didn’t hang out in bars and didn’t get out much. (Laughs.) I had a vague awareness of underground music. In 1983, I was at school in Gainesville and saw some cool punk bands up there, like Roach Motel. I moved back to Miami in ’84. I was playing drums in a band called the Trash Monkeys. I had a guitar that just randomly happened to be strung with four strings and I just started writing songs around that configuration. I started a band called Watt and worked up a set based around my four-string setup. We did that for a couple of years and kind of ran it into the ground; at that point, Adris stepped in on drums.
Harry Pussy sounded as if you were in you own little galaxy. Sun City Girls is the only other band I can think of that was equally off the radar.
Adris had never played drums before and we just decided we were going to start this band. And the first time we ever played together, we were in a studio and just recorded it. That first single is literally the first time we played together. I mean, who would do such a thing? (Laughs.)
In 1995, you opened for Sebadoh here at Einstein-A-Go-Go and cleared the deck. Did you usually alienate most audiences?
In those situations where we were opening, we surely did. We did two tours opening for Sonic Youth and two tours with Sebadoh. And we had a pretty interesting reaction from their audiences. (Laughs.) I read an interview with Lou Barlow and he said something like “letting Harry Pussy open for Sebadoh was our greatest mistake.”
After that 10-year break, why did you decide to return to music, playing acoustic no less?
I had put together this Harry Pussy compilation for Load Records in 2008, and that got me interested again in playing guitar. I was playing at home for a year and it just kind of grew from there, building and building. I was never really thinking, “Now I’m playing acoustic instead of electric guitar.” I thought, “This sounds really good to me; I’m going to record it.” And that became A New Way to Pay Old Debts.
Do you use alternate tunings on the four-string guitar?
Standard tuning, depending on the guitar or situation, I might tune it down a step or two steps. The only other tuning I’ll use is when I tune the low ‘E’ up to ‘G.’ I really just switched to acoustic because it was just easier. I was recording at home and I wasn’t playing with a drummer so there was no reason to be loud. Playing solo acoustic has really practical advantages. I have that bottom string that’s like a bass and a lot of times I think of it as a kick drum, but I’m usually playing against that or with it. So that sets up the key and I can play in the same key, or a relative major to that key, or against that key. There are various levels of dissonance or consonance depending how I play against it.
In my mind, you’ve already created your own vernacular and signature sound on the guitar; your playing is instantly identifiable — which surely can’t be said about most guitarists. That seems like the whole goal of playing. Was that an aspiration of yours when you were setting out, or did it evolve over time?
I don’t know if it was a conscious goal, but it is something that I really admire. I love someone like Derek Bailey or James “Blood” Ulmer. A guitarist, where you hear it and it’s them; there’s no question in your mind who you’re listening to. But I agree with you. I think that’s the whole point. You want to be so distinctive that people immediately recognize who you are.
Improvisation is hit-or-miss. Since it’s a live experiment, do you label your performances as good or bad, or do you even care?
That’s a good question. I used to feel like something was good or bad and sometimes you still do when the show is over. I’ve been playing again now for over five years and doing a lot of live shows, so I’ve learned to not be quite as judgmental about my own playing. And remember to be present. Your memory of the show might be that it’s great, then you listen to the recording and go, “oh, man, that was terrible.” Or vice versa; you remember it as being a lousy show but the recording sounds amazing. You’ve got to cut yourself some slack and I tend be rather negative. I’ve realized that perfection is one thing, but it’s always a moving target.