MUSIC There's a point at the start of Bill Orcutt's recently reissued, acclaimed 2009 album, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (Editions Mego), during the violent, staccato blues of "Lip Rich," when a telephone rings. Slight pause. And then the San Francisco musician picks up where he left off, with shattered, crashing runs of proudly broken-ass guitar notes, the occasional shout and cry. Pummeling his old Kay acoustic until it reverberates like a piano, Orcutt sounds as if he's busy ripping apart blues guitar lines at the end of a long metal-clad tunnel — and exorcising a few demons while he's at it. There, at Orcutt's end, semis, motorcycles, and homegirls rumble past and Mississippi blues players still wander, stumbling into pale-faced strangers deconstructing Delta drone with their bare hands, nails, and bones.
The reality is that the police sirens, roaring buses, and streetside groans on New Way — all of which lend the music the beautifully devolved faux-authenticity of an old field recording — are the same sounds you can hear any day at 24th and York streets in the Mission. Orcutt and family moved to that spot when they relocated to San Francisco after the 1997 breakup of his old band Harry Pussy, the noise-experimental band he founded in Miami along with fearsome vocalist-drummer Adris Hoyos. New Way — a document of a new solo approach in an old room perched above an even older Mission thoroughfare—was recorded during the spring of '09 in a window-lined spot within their corner apartment.
"It was just insanely loud," Orcutt recalls now from his current home in Sunnyside. It's late, but it's one of the few times Orcutt, who holds down a job as a software engineer, can talk. "There were constantly trucks and people going by outside, so there was no way to record and keep the background out. I realized I should just go with whatever happened — and the phone rang in the middle of the take."
As chance would have it, one of Orcutt's favorite guitarists, English experimentalist Derek Bailey, also had a recording released, posthumously, that was punctuated by a disruptive phone call ("Wrong Number" on More 74 [Incus]).
At least it wasn't simply a noisy trendoid bellowing in the brunch queue outside St. Francis Fountain.
"When we moved there, St. Francis was closed — it was weird when it first reopened," says a dryly amused Orcutt. "Suddenly there were people waiting for tofu scramble, and we were like, 'Why?'"
"Why?" also comes to mind as one listens to New Way: why hasn't Orcutt played and recorded since the dissolution of Harry Pussy? Perhaps it was the move or work demands — more important, Orcutt got reinterested in playing music when he began to assemble a retrospective of Harry Pussy's music for Load Records, You'll Never Play This Town Again: Live, Etc 1997 (2008), and began to listen the furious skronk his band generated and the remarkably damaged, thick, and grotty guitar sound he developed.
"I hadn't heard that music in 10 years. It was pretty extreme, and I forgot what it sounded like," he says. "I was like, 'Whoa, that is weird.' I was listening to a lot of it because I had to, and it naturally made me want to pick up a guitar and start playing again."
It was a slight case of being inspired by yourself — though the modest Orcutt immediately disavows this ("That sounds weird — don't say that!") — and remembering your roots, be they buried in the same hot soil as Mississippi Fred McDowell, or the same swampy morass as kindred noisy Floridian Rat Bastard. "Honestly, there were like two or three people that were doing strange stuff in Miami at that time," Orcutt remembers. "It wasn't much of a scene. It was just isolated weirdos going off on their own tangents — that pretty much described us."
Orcutt's incredible, atonal guitar playing is the uncommon element connecting Hoyos' formidable shrieks and 24th Street grind. These days Orcutt prefers to play acoustic rather than electric, though it's rigged as a four-string, with the A and D strings removed, much the same way his electric once was. The modification predates Harry Pussy: "It just stuck," he notes. "At this point, there's no rational reason for doing it. It's just what I sound like in my own head."
The acoustic was also an intuitive choice, and as Orcutt started listening to guitarists such as McDowell, Bailey, and Carlos Montoya, "just to see what had been done before and to get the lay of the land and an understanding of what the perimeters were," its sound and mobility started to appeal. "It's a nice way to be self-contained and self-reliant. As long as you can get it on the plane, you're good. And in a really small venue, you can even get away without having a PA," he explains. "If I have to, I could wind up at the BART Station and I'm good to go."
And it exposed Orcutt as a musician, apart from the protective mob of a band. "Honestly, once I got into it, I really wanted to play solo," he observes. "When I started playing in front of people, it was scary, but I have this weird compulsion to play solo." That urge is still a puzzle — in Harry Pussy, he adds, "Adris [Hoyos] definitely led the way and it was easy to hang back. I don't know ..." Slight pause. "There's some kind of process I'm working through by playing solo, and I'm definitely still working on whatever it is."