It might be stretching it a bit to call Tim Olive a guitarist. His instrument generally has a single string that he attacks as much as plays. But if Keith Rowe is a guitarist, then we must suppose so is Olive—just a minimalist version. It is ultimately harder to make music out of noise than notes, but Olive succeeds more often than he fails, serving as a fine example to those who toil in the garden of chaotic improvisation, attempting to grow something beautiful in the soil of pure sound.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I started off playing electric bass, and though I now play a (sort-of) guitar, my experience playing “normal” music was as a bassist, and I think that experience still informs my music: I seldom play solo, and I find my greatest fulfillment playing with other people. I guess the first music that made me want to play, that felt like “my” music, was Black Sabbath, especially the “Paranoid” album, and through Sabbath I found all the great ’70s rock sounds. I loved the heaviness, the explosive feeling of the bass, guitars and drums all together.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
As I became a better player and studied theory and harmony I started to listen to blues, jazz and Asian music, then 20th-century “serious” music, and finally electronic music and noise, as well as recordings of natural sounds. I began to realize that music was really limitless. More and more I felt I wanted something that was beyond tempered pitch, beyond rhythm, in a sense beyond what is generally considered to be “music.” I still think of myself a musician; I still love to listen to all kinds of music, but the music I play now is the only way I can feel like I’m being myself. When I pick up an instrument and play notes, I feel like I’m trapped in somebody else’s music.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
At first it was Black Sabbath, Kiss, pre-keyboard Rush and that world, then punk (Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Jam, The Minutemen), then Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Captain Beefheart, Albert King, Mahavishnu Orchestra, James Blood Ulmer. Reggae too was very important for me. I also got really into Javanese music and post-punk bands like Joy Division, Pere Ubu and The Gang of Four.
I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan. As a kid I heard older country music, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but I never really got it until I moved to Montreal in my early twenties. I guess the distance allowed me to appreciate it. Later, I became aware of the John Cage/post-Cage developments and noise. These latter two were very important for me, because they helped me realize I wasn’t completely mad in feeling limited by pitch and steady rhythms. It is all a continuum: from Black Sabbath to what I’m doing now can be heard as a natural progression.
I still listen to all kinds of music: lots of early tape/electronic music, Ethiopian ’70s music, doo-wop, blues, ’70s rock, and pre-drum machine reggae. I love to hear what my peers are doing. But I also like to take a break from music and just listen to my apartment or the street. I never wear headphones. I live near the mountains here in Kobe so I often go up there and listen; I love hearing how the insects, birds and wind all change throughout the year.
How did you hone your current style?
Just by playing. Working at home, trying things out, seeing what happens when I do this or that. But the most important thing for me has been playing with other people. The real magic happens when playing with other people.
I was playing bass but began to realize that I didn’t need a bass; through experimentation I realized I just needed pickups and a string or two. I love looking at photos of Telecasters, old SGs, Rickenbacker basses and so on, but I’m all set with what I use now: a tiny slab body, short neck, one tuning peg, and one string, usually about .048. The pickups are very important, so I have a couple of DiMarzios. There is one volume knob, and a blend pot to mix between the pickups.
I think in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s idea of the fox and the hedgehog— I’m a hedgehog: I concentrate on my ground, I get down in there and root around and explore all the parameters and minute variations. I love limits. I use very few effects, and I rarely use digital effects, just a spring reverb emulator every now and then. I try to get maximum sound from limited means. I focus.
What are you trying convey with your music?
I’m not trying to convey a specific emotion or message. I just want to play and hear what happens. I’m not a conceptualist; I don’t start with an “Idea” to realize. Nor am I interested in symbolism: “This sound symbolizes this concept, or this piece represents X.”
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I use the “guitar” I described above, using the pickups to amplify sounds made by metal, wood and plastic objects. I always use some sort of preamp: I love the Tech 21 Sans Amp series. They allow me to control the EQ and gain without having to reach behind me to futz with an amp, but they have a real dynamic amp-like response that’s enjoyable, and allow me to get a consistent sound everywhere I play. I’ve been using a Leeds for a couple of years and I also have an Oxford, before that I had a Para Driver DI. I used the Para Driver on my upcoming CD with Katsuri Mouri. I also used a Boss FRV-1 reverb on parts of tracks 1 and 4 of that release; I prefer to get reverb sounds from actual springs placed on the pickups, but that old-school spring reverb sound from the Boss pedal is fun every now and then. Fuzz is great, especially gated/synthy/glitchy fuzzes. There’s no fuzz on the CD with Mouri-san, but I often use a Zvex Mastotron, a Fuzz Factory, and a Catalinbread Ottava Magus. I’m always looking for other fuzzes. I’m quite interested in the Fairfield Circuitry Four Eyes.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I definitely enjoy playing live. It can be stressful and taxing but the excitement and depth of experience makes it all worthwhile. Recording is also very rewarding but not as thrilling as playing live. I prefer to record in real time; I don’t like overdubbing, it feels like karaoke.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I’m not particularly good at self-promotion. I have websites both for my label and myself, but I stay away from social media. I don’t want to live my life in front of a computer. I like to meet people and play with other musicians; so playing live, touring, and collaborating are most important. Reviews in magazines and on websites and blogs are very helpful.
How did you end up living in Japan?
I had been living in Montreal for a few years and really enjoying it, but my girlfriend at the time was offered a job in Osaka teaching French; she asked me if I felt like moving Japan, and we moved within a couple of months. I knew very little about Japan, but I felt quite comfortable. Apart from a few experiments with living elsewhere, I’ve always been pulled back to Japan. It suits me well.
Do you think the scene is more conducive there than other places for your music, and noise music in general?
There are a lot of interesting musicians in Japan, but that’s true everywhere. Audiences are knowledgeable and listen closely, but there is no coverage of non-mainstream music (perhaps even less than elsewhere), so it’s very hard for people to find out about the music. Venues have extremely high operating costs and there is no arts funding, so this adds to the difficulties of getting paid—though money’s not the reason I play music. I guess the answer has to be a semi-no: Japan is not more conducive, but not less so. Every place has good and bad points. I’m happy to be living here. I have a good job that pays reasonably well, doesn’t eat up all my time, and allows me to play, record and tour. I can play and record with interesting musicians, both Japanese and foreign, audiences are attentive, and I can play overseas also. And, there are some great music shops here!
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
There’s no wish list of people I want to play with. I learn from and enjoy collaborating with anybody who is doing interesting work. Sometimes I get a hankering to work with experimental filmmakers.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
The next release will be “Various Histories”, my duo CD with turntablist Katsura Mouri, which will be released in April 2013 on my label 845 Audio. It will be available directly from the label website, but also from Squidco in North America, Metamkine in Europe , IMFJ in Japan and others. Also coming up is “No Flag”, a duo CD with Nick Hoffman on the American label Copy For Your Records http://cfyre.co/rds/, as well as releases with David Brown, Kelly Churko, Crys Cole, Jason Kahn and Guilty Connector.