After over a decade of silence following the breakup of Harry Pussy, guitarist Bill Orcutt re-emerged in 2009 with a self-released, limited-run 7-inch, “High-Waisted” b/w “Big Ass Nails,” followed shortly thereafter by a self-released LP, ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’, an art-damaged collection of improvisational acoustic guitar tracks. These releases were remarkable not only for their blunt force, but for the sheer aesthetic breakthroughs taking place. Although informed to some degree by the work of Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor, Orcutt manages to carve out a violent idiom all his own, adapting the arresting style of guitar-playing previously heard in Harry Pussy to an instrument that, at face value, would seem unable to handle it without snapping in half.

In May of 2010, I met with Orcutt for lunch at a dim sum restaurant near his place of work in the San Francisco Bay Area. An altogether friendly and forthright guy, he discussed his recording history, giving special elaboration to his album artwork and the unusual history of his guitar. The following week, he would leave for New Zealand to play a couple of shows, culling together the material that would comprise ‘Way Down South,’ a one-sided 12-inch showcasing the gasping live permutation of his current work. He more recently answered a couple of follow-up questions regarding the release of ‘Way Down South’, the recent CD issue of ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’, and his future recording plans.

TB: How long have you been in the Bay Area for now?
BILL ORCUTT: My wife and I moved here in ’97, it’d be 13 years I guess, in October.

TB: So that was right about the time of the last new one you put out prior to ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts.’
BO: The one that came out on Audible Hiss [‘Untitled’] was ’96.

TB: What were you up to artistically in the interim? Were you doing much musically?
BO: No, nothing. I pretty much stopped playing. I really wasn’t doing anything.

TB: Do you go out to see music much around here?
BO: When I first moved here, I used to go out to shows a lot. But we got busy with our lives and still are. It’s just really hard after work to go out… I just don’t really get out to see music anymore.

TB: There was that one solo record before – how does this project differ from that one? I suppose that wasn’t a solo record in the purest sense.
BO: No, not really. Ned Hayden, who was running Audible Hiss, had got funding from Caroline, so he had money to put out records, and [Harry Pussy] had recordings that hadn’t been released so that became my solo record.

TB: I was curious what made it a solo record and not a Harry Pussy record.
BO: There’s different people on it… actually there’s a different drummer on all the tracks. So it is different in some sense.

TB: Am I right to believe that you were going to do this record [‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’] on electric guitar originally?
BO: No, I didn’t really know what I was going to do – I knew I wanted to record something and I had no really clear idea of what that was going to be. I knew it would involve me playing guitar, that’s about all I started out with, but the specifics of the kind of guitar were worked out after that by recording and listening to it, hearing the sound of it.

TB: Was there anything in particular that provoked you to start playing again?
BO: It was putting together that compilation for Load [2008’s ‘You’ll Never Play This Town Again’] – I hadn’t listened to any of that stuff since I had stopped playing. It had been over 10 years since I had even heard that. Hearing that got me fired up about wanting to play… that’s what happened.

TB: Was it a long process getting this record together?
BO: It was months, I would say. The Load compilation was summer of 2008, and it was about a year after that when I finished the LP… about a year of playing and recording and messing around.

TB: Were you surprised at the level of interest in the new recordings?
BO: Oh yeah. I mean, I put out the 7-inch to sort of gauge whether there was interest in putting out an LP. I sold out of the 7-inch and I was like, “OK, I guess I can do an LP.” But yeah, I was surprised.
TB: The LP’s gone through two pressings now?
BO: Yeah, it’s been two or three.

TB: What’s it been like playing shows again?
BO: Fun. I mean, it’s been weird, because also I’m playing solo.
TB: You had never done that before?
BO: Yeah. It’s been interesting, and fun.

TB: You played in Belgium?
BO: I played Dylan Nyoukis’ thing [“Colour Out of Space” in Brighton, England] and that was with a drummer [Paul Hession], and I played solo in Brussels. I was supposed to play in Portugal, but the volcano cancelled that… that’s been rescheduled for July. I’ve been getting ready to go to New Zealand.

TB: I’m trying to imagine what playing with a drummer would’ve sounded like. Was that an acoustic guitar performance?
BO: I actually had a pick-up on it. Playing solo I’ve just been doing it acoustically. I tried playing with a pick-up when I played at the Hemlock a few weeks ago, but it didn’t feel right.

TB: The acoustic guitar – you string it the same way that you strung your electric guitar, right?
BO: Yeah.
TB: You’ve been doing that for a good while, right?
BO: For a long time.
TB: How did you arrive at that?
BO: Accident, really. I was playing drums at the time. I had played guitar before and then I was in a band playing drums and had a guitar around, and it just turned out that I had a guitar that, through strings breaking, happened to have four strings. I wrote a bunch of songs around that configuration and started another band with a drummer, playing guitar. That was called Watt.
TB: That was out in Florida? Did you grow up out there?
BO: Yeah, in Miami.

TB: With playing shows again, it must be interesting getting invitations to play museums and such.
BO: Playing with Adris [Hoyos, vocalist/drummer for Harry Pussy], we would play galleries. Playing a museum is not that different – going to New Zealand to play or someone paying for your airfare is different. We really only toured the US and did a couple of shows in Canada.
TB: Did you come out west?
BO: We did two tours of the West Coast, yeah.

TB: Going back to that guitar you use, is it doctored up that much beyond removing the A and D strings?
BO: It’s pretty much standard. It’s old, and it’s had a lot of work done on it, been broken and fixed a few times. It’s had repair work done on it.

TB: Do you play in standard tuning?
BO: Standard tuning, but the E string is tuned down to a C because the neck is no longer strong enough to support it at that tuning.

TB: Could you tell me a bit about recording these two records – was it a home recording thing?
BO: Both the 7-inch and the LP were recorded at our old apartment on 24th Street [in San Francisco]. Not a very elaborate set-up – just recorded into the computer. I had a home office that was at the front of our apartment, right on the corner of 24th and York – a lot of the street sounds are just coming up because there’s windows on two sides of the room, and it’s, you know, a really loud neighborhood.

TB: I suppose you would have to have been recording during the day to avoid any neighborly issues.
BO: It’s an acoustic guitar with an amp, but the amp is so quiet that it’s really not much louder than the guitar, so the neighbors wouldn’t have really heard anything.

TB: I really like the artwork on the LP – how’d you come up with that?
BO: The LP artwork is based on the Carlos Santana/Mahavishnu John McLaughlin record [1973’s ‘Love Devotion Surrender’], I don’t know if you’ve heard or seen that LP. It’s a record that came out in the ’70s on Columbia. I’ve just been aware of it for a very long time, and think it’s kind of hilarious. They pressed an enormous amount because it’s a Santana album, but the music is not Santana music – it’s maybe like, ‘A Love Supreme’ jazz stuff. It’s really like a guitar record, and you used to see it all the time. When I was growing up, it would always be in thrift shops and flea markets and stuff. It was when they were both studying with Sri Chinmoy, so they’re in robes (laughs), wearing these white outfits. I love that record – it’s a good record to listen to as well but I used to get a real kick out of the artwork. (Shows a photo of the album cover on his phone) That’s the back cover of the LP – their heads are cut off. That third guy is Sri Chinmoy, I believe. I had always wanted to do something with that cover, even when I was playing with Adris. Seemed like a good opportunity. For the 7-inch, it was just a spur of the moment thing – I happened to have that Jimi Hendrix postcard over my desk when I was looking around for an idea. It’s hard to get the right level of trashiness for my artwork – I tend to do things on the computer that are a little too polished and clean. I have a lot of covers I’ve never used because they don’t look like they belong on one of my records – it works better when I work spontaneously without a lot of preparation. If I spend too long on the covers it doesn’t end up looking right.

TB: Did you do the artwork for all those old releases?
BO: Yeah, I did all of the artwork for the records I’ve put out. That’s my favorite part!

TB: That’s funny that you think there’s a certain trashiness required for the artwork.
BO: I work with computers for a living and I’ve done design stuff as well, so it’s easy for me to do something that looks like it was done by someone who knows what they’re doing. It takes a little bit of effort to get the typography just screwed up in the right way.

TB: Speaking of computer-related things, I found a video that I’m fairly sure you made that I thought was kind of funny from a couple of years ago where you’re playing a Monome with the ‘New York Times’ web site.
BO: Yeah.

TB: With the odd percussion going on, I couldn’t help but draw a connection to your regular music.
BO: I like that idea.
TB: Are the songs purely improvisational?
BO: Some of them are. Usually it’s a scale, and then it rides around the scale or a certain mood. There’s one on the LP that’s not improvised – “Pocket Underground.”

TB: Interesting you say that as one of them you label as a cover [“Sad News From Korea” by Lightnin’ Hopkins].
BO: That one, I guess, is not improvised. I really just like the title, wanted to use the title. It’s a liberal interpretation.

TB: Yeah, I was listening to the original and thought, “If this is a cover, it’s pretty darn deconstructed.”
BO: Yeah, Adris and I did a Lightnin’ Hopkins song.
TB: Which one was that?
BO: “Black Ghost.” That was the second cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins I’ve done. “Black Ghost” was a tour 7-inch that came out on Siltbreeze.

TB: I had read about some of the names of people who had influenced what you’re doing on this record – some people hear this new stuff and seem to think it’s not in the same domain at all as your own music, but I thought there was a certain continuity.
BO: I think there’s a lot of continuity. Lax just called it “Harry Pussy unplugged,” which is kind of true, you know. I don’t think I was playing that differently than I was before. Without the drums, you can hear the guitar a bit more – it’s a little more clear what I’m doing. In terms of influences, I was listening to a lot of solo guitar stuff – it wasn’t a specific player or type of music, but was just focusing on what people do when they play their guitar without any accompaniment. As I was recording it, I was doing a review in my mind of what had been done before of what a solo guitar record might be, and solo instruments in general. I was listening to piano as much as I was listening to guitar records… Cecil Taylor, for instance.

TB: Going back to earlier, playing with a drummer… did that sound much different?
BO: There’s actually a video, on YouTube. You know, yeah, you can look at the video.

TB: Have you been writing or recording any new material?
BO: I just started recording again, this week. I’m trying to get something done before New Zealand. I’m going to New York and the East Coast in July, so I’m trying to have something done by then if I can get it together…. Something to help fund the trip.
TB: Is it in the same kind of vein as what you’ve been doing lately?
BO: It’s a 7-inch, yeah, it won’t be a big departure from what I’ve done before.

TB: Any more releases on the horizon?
BO: Yeah, after we moved, it took a long time to unpack and get set up. I finally got things back together and have been back recording the last week or two.

TB: So you’re playing New Zealand, New York…
BO: New Zealand, and that show in June in Berkeley, and then July is Philly, New York, Boston, and maybe Baltimore. And Portugal, and Chicago.
TB: A lot of demand for shows!
BO: Yeah, it’s surprising. It’s all surprising.

TB: Who’s the woman whose face is split with Obama’s face on the back of the 7-inch?
BO: That’s Diana Ross. That was a 5-minute cover.

TB: Are you planning to self-release stuff down the road?
BO: Yeah, that 7-inch is gonna come out on my label, just gonna sell it on tour. I have a bunch of shows in October.

TB: Going back to the stringing of the guitar, I thought it was sort of a blues influence on this record – because it seems like removing that middle range would disconnect it from those sorts of sounds in a lot of ways.
BO: It totally does – one of the things that’s weird about playing with those strings missing is because much of rock and blues is that fifth on the E and the A, and the A and the D. That’s a core rock/blues sound, and it’s gone, you can’t do it. That’s the main thing you notice – you don’t get any of that chunkiness. You have to play those intervals in different ways – that’s why there’s a lot of stretchy spots when I’m playing guitar, there’s a lot of stretching to get up in the octave and other things you’d be able to do fairly comfortably if you had those strings.

TB: That stretching seems to have a lot to do with the kind of violent sound of the recordings. I’ve never really heard a record of acoustic guitar that sounded like the guitar was about to break or snap.
BO: It’s weird – you know, I just started playing again, and in the year or year and a half that I’ve been playing, I’ve been wearing away the wood around the sound hole to such an extent that now, at the bottom of it, there’s a hole in the wood. It’s nothing I’m doing intentionally – I don’t even really know how it’s happening, but it’s like the guitar is literally turning into dust. I’m playing it and I had to apply a piece of tape, I don’t know what else to do. I could get a pick guard, but I really like the sound of it… I’ve actually bought some other Kays of the same model, trying to find a guitar so I just have a backup when I inevitably destroy the one that I’m playing now. I can’t find one that sounds the same way, so I’m really reluctant to get a pick guard. I’ve had some work done on it because the nut got destroyed, but I’m just having them do the bare minimum amount of work to make it playable. That is a concern, how the way I’m playing affects the guitar.

TB: Had you played acoustic much in the past?
BO: I’ve had that guitar forever, but I never really played much acoustic. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, so it’s been through a lot of different styles of music. I did this soundtrack for a friend of mine’s film in the ’90s, playing with a cello player… that was the first time I recorded it. And then I broke it at some point, it’s been glued together several times. It was only about 5 or 6 years ago… after I moved to San Francisco, it was broken when I moved here, and 5 or 6 years ago I finally had the money to get it rebuilt. The neck was broken off and the body was smashed, so they really had to piece it together from scraps. When I did the soundtrack for that film, we recorded it and also performed it live at some film festival in Miami, and at some point I banged my fist down on the body of the guitar and smashed it. We were in the dark so it wasn’t like anyone saw this! At some point the headstock came off too. I took it to some place on 24th Street in Noe Valley, and they told me to never tune it higher than C or I’d break the neck altogether.

TB: And you were tuned to E before.
BO: Actually I was never tuned to E, I would tune one step down. A lot of what’s unique about its sound is that it’s been broken so completely and put back together. The guys who put it back together were very good at what they do, but they were like, “This guitar is trashed,” they didn’t seem to think it was worthwhile, they tried to talk me out of getting it fixed, saying it’s a $100 guitar and it was gonna cost several hundred dollars to get it fixed.

TB: But you had a sentimental attachment to it.
BO: Yeah, I’ve had it since I was a teenager. I’ve bought two more Kays off eBay, and there’s another one that’s supposed to be delivered today, but so far none of them have lived up to what I wanna hear. I took my guitar to some other guitar place and they said it has a non-standard bridge that looks like something someone built themselves – the bridge is built out of fret-wire. The Kays, they’re all really old – I bought one that was from a preacher that sat in a closet for 60 years, basically untouched. It’s absolutely brand-new, but the sound of it, it’s useless. It has none of the same qualities of the one that I’m using – I’ll probably end up selling these ones I’ve bought on eBay.

TB: That bridge was on there when you got it?
BO: Yeah, it was. And it has the best action I’ve ever seen on an acoustic guitar, it feels fantastic. When I had to have the nut replaced, they custom-made the nut for four strings, so if someone steals it, they won’t be able to play it in the standard way. I get paranoid about bringing it on planes – they always try to check it, so I have to get in an argument to bring it in the cabin. Once I get it into the cabin, the flight crew is very friendly, they’ll put it in the closet… it’s the hoops you have to get through before you get on the airplane that are the problem.

TB: Are you thinking of collaborating with anyone else at any point in time?
BO: I’m not planning on it right now. I’d actually like to start playing the electric at some point. I’d like to do one more record with the acoustic and figure out what else there is to say or do. At the moment, I’m still focused on acoustic guitar.

[The following questions were answered in follow-up correspondence via email in January of 2011.]

TB: Could you tell me a little bit about the recording of ‘Way Down South’, and what prompted you to release it? When I ran into you at the Berkeley Art Museum show, you were telling me a bit about hanging out with the Dead C guys down in New Zealand on that trip.
BO: ‘Way Down South’ was recorded in Christchurch, New Zealand. Altmusic, an arts group there, brought me down to do some shows around the country. It was a lot of fun, and I met and played with a bunch of great folks. Saw the Dead C dudes again (played with them on their first US tour), got to see Bruce and Michael play and had the honor of having Robbie accompany my set in Port Chalmers with totally out of time handclaps. As far as the record goes, I needed something to sell for some shows I was doing in the summer and thought the Christchurch set was one of my better ones. The sound in the venue, a gallery with a largish space, was good too.

TB: I noticed that there are a few bonus tracks on the CD reissue of ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts,’ could you tell me about those? Are they from the same recording sessions as that album?
BO: Yep, there are four unreleased tracks on there, all from the same sessions as the LP. The first 7" is on there as well.

TB: Do you have anything planned currently for future releases or live performances?
BO: Talking to some folks about shows now, nothing confirmed yet. I'll probably try to record something new this year.


'Untitled' CD (Audible Hiss - 1996)
“High-Waisted” b/w “Big Ass Nails” 7” ( Palilalia - 2009)
‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’ LP (Palilalia - 2009)
‘Way Down South’ one-sided 12” (Palilalia - 2010)
‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’ CD (Editions Mego - 2011)

Bill Orcutt on the web here.

Pics provided by Mr. Orcutt, if anyone would like a credit please contact the editor.

Interview by Mike Harkin, May 2010/January 2011.

To read other TB interviews, go here.