erasing clouds

Orange Cake Mix's Jim Rao talks to us about his lovely homemade pop music

by dave heaton

Orange Cake Mix's Silver Lining Underwater CD/LP is 46 beautiful minutes of lush, dreamy instrumentals reminiscent of The Durutti Column and Brian Eno's Another Green World, with light electronic beats but a focus on guitar and synthesizers. It was the third volume in Darla Records' Bliss Out series, a subscription-based collection of ambient pop music, and the first release I heard by Orange Cake Mix, otherwise known as Jim Rao. I should correct myself, though: the last track on the CD, "Close to Heaven/Always By Your Side" is not an instrumental at all, but a gorgeous love song with male and female vocals. It's built on the same type of pretty music, but is more of a pop song. It's also a signpost indicating the range Orange Cake Mix's music has, within the general realm of pop music. Every time I buy an Orange Cake Mix CD, I'm not 100% sure what type of music I'll hear (unless I've read about it ahead of time). The songs on his releases vary from ambient instrumentals to dance-oriented pop tracks and more lowkey, acoustic guitar-based pop songs. Rao draws from many sources, from electropop to bossa nova, jazz to R&B, yet all of his releases share a taste for the beautiful, a sense of how various sounds interact and a knack at writing simple but touching songs. I guess I should say "all of his releases that I have heard," because Rao is an extremely prolific songwriter whose output exceeds what my pocketbook allows at this point in my life.

Since 1995, the name Orange Cake Mix has appeared on at least 10 full-length albums, two 12"s, six 7"s, two CD EPs, three cassettes and 20 compilation albums. And I'm sure my count is missing a few. Putting out that much material when you're not receiving a flood of critical notice or an influx of promotional money from labels is quite a feat, but it wouldn't mean anything if his songs weren't so good. As much as I love Orange Cake Mix's music, I've come across very few articles or interviews that would tell me more about Jim Rao, the man behind the music. So recently I sent him some questions over email, which he graciously answered. Here they are:

Well, first off, I have the simple question of what are you up to these days, as far as recording, etc. Do you have any releases coming up and what can you tell me about them?

I have a full length CD coming out on Blackbean in a few months [a shadow of eclipse and other phases of the moon]. Plus there's a few split 10'' records, one w/ Wookieback and one w/ Graig Markel and a split 12'' w/ The Knit Seperates. The CD kinda mixes influences from my favorite labels [Cherry Red, Pork, Friendly Science, Factory] and favorite artists and groups [Vini Reilly, Yo La Tengo, Felt, Harold Budd, Ian Masters, Brian Eno, Brian Wilson]. The first 10'' has pure pop songs. The next 10'' has a 10-minute, 2-part song that sort of combines Beach Boys/Chris Stamey melody w/ a drum and bass-ish intro that glides itself into the main pop song. The 12'' includes 2 cover versions, ''Night Time'' by Big Star and ''Female Star'' by Felt. The other original songs are a bit more spacepop and introspective drone tunes.

It goes without saying that you do a ton of recording; you put out more releases than your average musician. Personally I think this is exciting for fans. Yet I know that other musicians that are really prolific (like Bob Pollard, Lou Barlow, etc.) often hear the criticism that they're just releasing any noise they record, no matter how good it is. My question is, do you get the same criticism? If so, how do you react to it? In general, do you record many songs that you decide not to release or do they all eventually come out?

Yeah I think it might bother people, I'm not sure. I have hundreds of songs I'll never release cos they're just not good enough.

On a similar point, I'm curious about the practicalities of releasing so many recordings on so many different labels. It's obvious that you're not tied to one label: Do labels contact you and ask for recordings, do you contact labels you like to see if they're interested or how does that usually work?

Some labels come to me and sometimes I send out stuff to labels. Like right now I'm sending out a 44- minute tape of 20 instrumental songs that will be the true companion to the Silver Lining Bliss Out CD. So far, I'm sending it to Rocket Girl and a few others because it doesn't seem like Darla is interested in doing another instrumental OCM CD for some reason. They may think I have too much coming out, I'm not really certain. There is another set of 10 guitarpop songs, purely guitars and vocals which have a breezy early 80s Cherry Red feel [Marinegirls, Fantastic Something],maybe cos I've been listening to Nick Drake and Elliot Smith lately, but anyway....i took the best 10 songs of this style and made the perfect 24-minute songcycle I know people would enjoy. Its a shame because they're probably the best songs I've recorded in this style and I don't have a clue which label would want to release it. Maybe Blackbean as a CDEP.

How did you get into playing and recording music? For how much of your life have you been writing songs? What was the first instrument you learned to play?

I always enjoyed making songs from when I was a small child. I first started playing the drums when I was 9 years old and guitar when I was 14.

I'm not sure if I've ever heard mentions of Orange Cake Mix concerts. Do you ever play live? Have you toured? If so, what is a live performance by you generally like (given that your musical style often varies from recording to recording)?

I never play live since I overdub everything, i don't have a real band. I guess I don't have much enthusiasm for playing live. Since I usually write and record songs spontaneously, I hardly ever remember the chords. I'm already on to the next song.

Is music a full-time job for you? a hobby? I ask not to be nosy, but because you seem fairly quiet about your musical career, meaning I don't see lots of Orange Cake Mix advertisements/articles/etc.

Music is a hobby, though like most people I wish it was a full time job. I work in a supermarket too. The labels I work with aren't plugged into the promotional machine so I get no coverage whatsoever and I don't really do any self promotion of any kind. Either way, it works out. Getting the music to the people who enjoy it is number one. Making a profit is a fringe benefit. It would be great to connect to a major label so I could buy new instruments and electronics. Actually, it would be nice to get an article in a magazine. I mean, am I supposed to connect to these magazines? I guess they'd contact me if they really wanted to write an article or something.

I want to ask a question or two about my favorite Orange Cake Mix releases. The first release I heard by you was Silver Lining Underwater, the Darla Bliss Out one. Did you write those songs with the "bliss out" theme in mind, knowing that it'd be part of that series?

The Silver Lining was kind of a fluke. Thank god Darla existed or those songs would never have been released! Those songs were recorded over a 3-year period [94,95,96] and at the time I was releasing a few CDs and records for ''pop'' labels like Elefant and Bus Stop, so the spacey drone songs, mostly influenced by Durutti Column/Fripp and Eno/Kraftwerk, were ignored by the few labels I sent them to [Kranky, Drag City]. So at the time Sean Flowchart was starting the Fuzzy Box label and I sent him the songs that became Fluffy Pillow. Then Sean told me about Darla's Bliss Out thing so I just sent them a bunch of songs and James at Darla chose the ones he liked most and put them in that sequence. So if the Bliss Out thing never happened, those songs may have never seen the light of day which would have been a shame. They are some of my very favorites, I really would love to get this new CD of instrumentals out. I know people would like it as much as Silver Lining.

That recording and your others sound very cohesive to me, like they were written as one piece as opposed to being a collection of songs from different time periods, etc. I'm wondering whether that's purposeful; generally speaking, do you write similarly themed songs together and then put them out as a recording, or are your recordings collections of songs written separately?

There are groups of songs that were done in the same period, but these songs were brought together with the same ''drone/space'' theme in mind. The weird thing is, the way they were recorded is timeless. In other words, I create songs that fall together like a puzzle sometimes in the way they are sequenced. The songs can have days, months or years between them. But there's a universal sound, vibration or theme that connects the songs together. Of course this doesn't happen a lot. But there were a few songs I found on a tape recently from a few years ago that flowed really well so I used them on the tape of the new instrumental album. That probably doesn't happen as much with vocal songs. But as far as other albums, it's quite the opposite. I do record a bunch of songs with a song cycle structure in mind so that somehow they'll have some connection to each other and the songs from that particular time all come out on one CD. Or it's a combination sometimes.

Another CD of yours that I really love is Fluffy Pillow. That's a really gorgeous CD. To me it sounds like your quiet storm, slow jams album. What can you tell me about the motivations behind and the recording of that CD?

'Fluffy Pillow was my attempt at trip-hop love pop and loungecore parody. I just gathered my favorite songs that I recorded in the summer of 96 and those songs became the Blue Island Sound CD and the Fluffy Pillow CD. I really like both of those CDs a lot. But there are always a few songs I wish I left off, i.e. ''Space Rotation'' and ''The Ceiling Effect."

Lastly, I have a question I ask everyone: if there's an album, live performance or film that's really blown you away recently, please tell me what it is.

I really enjoyed the movie Ghost Dog a lot. I think the newest Yo La Tengo album might be my favorite this year. I've been listening to a lot of jazz CDs lately, like Herbie Hancock Maiden Voyage and In a Silent Way by Miles Davis and...mostly those jazz remastered CDs on Blue Note, etc. I like the new Moose, Gokart Mozart, ''Figure 8'' by Elliot Smith.

(Note: check out Orange Cake Mix's web site)

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