by Ron Hart
Anyone who has talked seriously with me about music in 2011 knows of my love for the solo output of Bill Orcutt, former guitarist for Miami's premier post-hardcore icons Harry Pussy.
On his own, however, Orcutt has re-imagined himself as a junkyard bluesman who, armed with an old beat-up Kay acoustic guitar and a discarded pickup, records some of the most visceral rotgut folk blues this end of Howlin' Wolf's scorched throat.
This year saw him sign with the excellent Editions MEGO, who reissued his 2009 debut A New Way to Pay Old Debts, in addition to its freshly released, completely unplugged follow-up How The Thing Sings, a pair of modern day blues classics that turns every cliche the last 40 years of white blues performers have inflicted upon the art form and essentially turns it inside out and upside down before dousing it in a vat of acid-drenched D'addario strings.
The following electronic conversation with Mr. Orcutt took place before Thanksgiving. A big thanks to Bill and his stateside publicist, Eric at Forced Exposure, for making this happen.
Both A New Way To Pay Old Debts and How The Thing Sings are available at better record shops everywhere.
IRT: When was the first time you ever heard the blues?
Bill Orcutt: The first time I really remember hearing the blues was seeing Muddy Waters in The Last Waltz. It fucked me up. I was probably 16. I went out the next day and bought his I'm Ready LP. I still have a really clear memory of standing in the record store holding the record in my hands. Much later I used the cover image for one of my own records.
IRT: How did you come into configuring the tunings you utilize for acoustic guitar?
Bill: Well, I remove the A & D strings which is the most distinctive thing about the sound. The tuning is basically the standard E/A/D/G/B/E tuning. On the old beat-up acoustic I usually play I tune it down to avoid snapping the neck, but the pitch relationships are the same. On electric or my other acoustics the pitch is standard. Removing the strings that way pulls the meat off most chords and just leaves you with the bone & some skin. It's a lonesome sound. I started doing it over 20 years ago and it's just become the way I play the guitar.IRT: What kind of amp settings do you use to gain the sound you achieve in your solo work and do you use any pedals?
Bill: The new record is completely acoustic so there's no amp or pedals there. The previous record I used a pick-up on the acoustic and mixed a bit of amp sound with the sound coming from the guitar itself. I think I wasn't completely comfortable yet with the idea of playing the acoustic. The amp wasn't very loud in the room – just enough to blend in with the sound of the acoustic. I think I was using an Mesa Boogie Mark I. I never use pedals even when I'm playing the electric.IRT: How did you link up with Editions MEGO? What is it about their ethos as a label that you admire most?
Bill: Peter wrote me to suggest a CD release of A New Way To Pay Old Debts. I was a fan & collector of the old Mego label and was aware of the Editions offshoot. I really dug the Blue Note-like vibe that goes into the mastering, pressing and presentation of their releases and wanted to have a record on the label.
IRT:What is the story behind all of those Stevie Ray Vaughan picks on the cover of How The Thing Sings?
Bill: I'm kind of obsessed with classic rock and when I was researching cover ideas for the Mego record, I stumbled across the Stevie Ray Vaughan picks on a pick collector website. It seemed like a good image to represent the culture of classic rock and white blues.IRT: Who are some of your heroes on the acoustic guitar and how do you feel they shape your own style?
Bill: I've got a ton of guitar heroes : Fred Gerlach, Joseph Spence, Richie Havens, Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside's early acoustic records, Carlos Montoya, etc. I'm always looking for stuff to steal and these are guys who have something I need. I love 'em for different reasons, but they all have a certain freedom I'm looking for in a hero.IRT: Do you ever play any Harry Pussy songs live acoustically?
Bill: I wish. I can't remember any Harry Pussy songs.IRT: Has Harry Pussy been invited to reunite and perform at any of these festivals going down throughout the year? Are you adverse to the idea of reforming?
Bill: No, we've never been invited to reunite. Reforming seems unlikely because of our interests, schedules, responsibilities, geographic locations, etc.
IRT: Has there been any talk of reissuing the HP catalog?
Bill: Not from the band. Maybe someday if the right offer comes along…IRT: What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Bill: Same stuff I always do – As I'm typing this I'm listening to the Bartok String Quartets which is something probably everybody should hear. I just got the Miles Davis '67 quintet triple CD thing that just came out. That's a great record, been listening to that a lot. And Dylan always, probably everyday. I tend to listen to the same records over and over again for some reason.