Bill Orcutt, the brashly inventive guitarist and improviser, didn't release a record or perform live for ten years. After the 1998 breakup of Harry Pussy, his combative noise-rock outfit beloved by better-known peers such as Sonic Youth, he moved from Florida to San Francisco to work in software and receded from the music scene, eventually swapping a Mission District apartment for a house in Sunnyside to accommodate his young family.
Orcutt made some electronic music at home but didn’t share it. He felt he’d already reached a creative peak. “I didn’t want to be in anyone else’s band,” says Orcutt, 56, over lunch in a Chinatown noodle joint recently. “I’d already had the band where I could do whatever I wanted.”
Yet the past decade has marked a renaissance for the soloist and collaborator, whose recent Brace Up! full-length marks the latest scene in an incredible second act.
Orcutt's hibernation ended in 2008, when he was asked to compile a Harry Pussy collection, prompting him to pick up his battered, four-string acoustic and rediscover the instrument’s physicality—the way gestural subtleties inflect its sound. He also grew inspired by a niche of YouTube users documenting their tics, or involuntary behaviors, which emboldened him creatively and shed light on his own artistic urges and fixations.
One woman compulsively touched things, saying it released tension between her and objects, which reminded Orcutt of tonal resolution in music. While improvising on guitar at home, he started vocalizing—or stopped trying not to—and recording the feverish abstractions and elliptical reveries. “I wanted to understand why they’d document and share these strange activities with people on the internet,” he says. “But eventually, I realized I was doing the same thing. I’d really been trying to understand myself.”
In the past ten years, Orcutt has developed a style by turns lashing and supple, lustrous and coarse, and recorded and performed with an esteemed cast of experimentalists including Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls), Okkyung Lee and Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux). The force and breadth of his work, with some help from his old group’s underground clout, has made him a standout fixture of the free music scene, appearing regularly in dives, far flung festivals and white-walled art spaces alike.
Brace Up!, an improvisational cauldron recorded with drummer Chris Corsano and out on Orcutt’s own Palilalia Records (named for an involuntary speech disorder), is at least the guitarist’s fifteenth full-length since he returned to the instrument. (The release show is Thursday at the Center for New Music.) It’s another idiom-defiant entry in a catalog imbued with the thrill of precognitive expression.
The album, recorded amid a European tour last year, opens in frenetic fashion, with Orcutt’s undulating triplets colliding with Corsano’s clattering fills. The two merge to approximate a buzz saw attacking foil. They sometimes strike a woozy, ambling gait; occasionally open on to windswept space; and often upend Orcutt’s melodic clusters with frenzied mayhem. Orcutt seems to mew in delight when he lingers on poignant notes.
Corsano, another serial collaborator based on the East Coast, says playing with Orcutt leaves deep impressions on his own practice as an improviser. “He plays with conviction—it’s very convincing,” Corsano emphasizes. “Bill leaves a residue, like when you look at a light and then you can see the outline of it on the inside of your eyelids. There’s always a new way that I relate to my instrument after hearing how he plays his.”
Orcutt, who has a salty beard and a closetful of pocketed black t-shirts, prizes spontaneity. Approvingly, he recalls a performance with the guitarist Loren Connors that started while he happened to be in another room. “I thought maybe we’d tune, but no.” He says that he made the collage on the cover of Brace Up! in ten minutes after throwing away something more polished-looking. “I’ve done that a lot, actually.” (He also at first neglected to get one photographer’s permission, earning a cease-and-desist.)
His song and album titles, meanwhile, generally evoke the cackling-straight-to-hell irreverence of Harry Pussy. The name of one full-length fancifully references the industry in which he makes a living: An Account of the Crimes of Peter Thiel and His Subsequent Arrest, Trial and Execution. On Brace Up! alone, there’s zingers (“Clapton’s Complaint”), self-deprecation (“Bargain Sounds”), and, in one case, a song title befitting the track’s sense of romantic intoxication: “She Punched a Hole in the Moon for Me.”
Most of his recordings are fairly low-fidelity, often recorded with one microphone. When I ask about the clearer sound quality of recent titles, he quips, “I reserve the right to go back to making shitty-sounding records.” Part of the emphasis on unfiltered immediacy seems like an aversion to seeming self-serious. He is a wellspring of musical knowledge, but his choice in material to reinterpret (for example, “White Christmas”) skews towards what he called “middlebrow, core American garbage.” “I tend to be suspicious of good taste,” he says.
Orcutt is clearly savoring his privileged position as an artist. He answers to no record label, feels distant from the social aspect of the music scene and doesn’t expect, or need, to make a living from his work. Even though he felt creatively free in Harry Pussy, the music also to be “indecipherably complex or moronically simple,” he says. “Now when I’m playing, I’m going for joy.”
Bill Orcutt performs at Center for New Music with Zachary James Watkins on Nov. 15. Details here.