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David GrubbsWith an unguarded inquisitiveness that led him to occasionally approach his former project Gastr del Sol like an overactive infant jabbing a screwdriver into a toaster just to see the effect, David Grubbs' musical output thus far can perhaps best be described as schizophrenic. In the, cough, 16 years since the release of Squirrel Bait's eponymous debut long player, Grubbs' time-honoured eclecticism has cast him as something of a sonic journeyman. Avoiding dilettantism, he appears to operate on a plane where, true to the age, everything is up for grabs. Currently cleansing his palate after the demise of Gastr del Sol, whose unspoken dictum seemed to be to revel in the meeting point between acoustic and electronic music, his recent work has seen him alighting on the angular acoustics of The Spectrum Between. It's a record that's a nudge more accessible than its predecessor, 1999's The Thicket, even at times embracing a kind of celebratory pop, without sacrificing its cryptic, cerebral core. Recent years have also seen Grubbs releasing an album of ambient solo instrumentals, Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange, as well as overseeing his own Blue Chopsticks label, which, in addition to Apertura - his collaboration with horn player Mats Gustafsson - has ensured the recent US release of his own Coxcomb EP, which puts Grubbs' spry acoustics behind a 'play for voices' rendition of the Stephen Crane short story The Blue Hotel. Having recently relocated from Chicago, I met with Grubbs at his basement workspace in Brooklyn.
How do you feel about interviews? Do you see them overtly as about promotion or selling product?
by Martin Williams / pictures by Steve Rose
I guess the first question is do I think that interviews are really about promotion. Sometimes they are. I generally like doing interviews actually, I think I'm one of the rare people who enjoys them. I always feel that the records are a narrow and provisional opening on what's fermenting, or what people do.
In terms of the ideas that go into them?
The ideas that go into them or whatever ideas are at play. Records aren't reducible to people and vice versa.
Do you ever feel trapped by the constant references to your musical past?
It's cumbersome sometimes to have to explain, like, "and after that I met so-and-so or moved to so-and-so." But I don't feel like somebody who is forced to explain the difference between their new record and a record they made 20 years ago because the differences between different records and different groups that I've been involved in are pretty self-evident.
You recently moved to Brooklyn from Chicago. There's a lot spoken about the musical spirit of Chicago. What are your reflections on that now that you're no longer an immediate part of it?
Chicago had a certain kind of centredness that I don't see here. I would know that on Wednesday nights I would go and see improvised music at the Empty Bottle and that I would be likely to run into the following people there. Or I would go to the Rainbo, which is a bar near there, and I would be likely to find people. Everything was kind of proximate and accessible in that way, just walk over to the Empty Bottle and you'd find people there. Maybe if I lived across the street from Tonic I world feel the same way about New York, but I'm a little remote here, a little removed, and I kind of like that actually.
How has that affected the way you make music, presumably certain people that you might have called upon are more than a phone call away now?
Well, everyone comes through New York and for The Spectrum Between I convened a lot of the familiar suspects and corralled other folks who were coming through town to play shows.
Were the songs for 'Spectrum' honed over a period of playing live?
I work track-by-track, part-by-part, none of the group performances are real-time performances. Everything starts with an acoustic guitar or a piano and a click track, so the songs are written over a long period of time, but they begin with a concrete element. I'm always making myself promise that I'm going to road-test songs before the next record, but I rarely am able to make myself do that, because I'm reluctant to finish things, I hold off until the very last. And then once I've finished a record, playing the material live the process of rearranging the material continues. That's one of the things that is most seductive about playing solo, I can remove the Scotch tape and reassemble any which way. I don't sit down and write a song from start to finish, I'm not sure if I've ever done that in my life. They tend to be...modular.
Is that how Banana Cabbage... originated? That it could conceivably have been 'songs' but was extended?
With that record I had a very clear idea that it should be an album length record of three pieces: acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar. That was clear to me before I started writing the material. But that's rare for me, I don't usually come at a record with boundaries like that. I find it very hard to step back and know where the material is going in a larger way. I'm normally working with my nose just a couple of inches away from the material, it was nice to just step back and know that, okay, there were three pieces, three solo pieces and three different instruments.
Eno's definition of ambient music seems to narrow down to a description of music that you can work around or ignore, back-ground music almost. Is that a description you'd be happy to apply to Banana Cabbage...?
My experience of Banana Cabbage... is that it's music of a particular scale, in that they're solo performances, it's a piano and you can tell how hard the attack is on the piano and you can imagine how loud that would be and it's very easy to set your stereo to the scale of that and live with it. Without needing to listen to it, I enjoy that record because it seems like a good snapshot of music I would make around my house. The scale is very apparent to me, if I were to bring home a Metallica record and because my landlord's a fiction writer and works right above me I probably shouldn't play the Metallica record that loud and there's this horrible quandary about maybe I'm not doing justice to the Metallica record. It's pretty apparent how to do justice to Banana Cabbage... That and Apertura are records that seem to me easy to live with. Anybody who makes records and hears them played by other people learns to get over it. When someone says, "bring over a copy of your new record." And you're like, "no, no, no, I don't want to listen to it." "Oh no, we're going to put it on." And you get there and one speaker is down here on the floor and the other is hanging next to the ceiling and they play it very quietly, listen for a minute then open some drinks and keep turning the record down. You don't have to make music for airports to have your music taken as ambient music.
You initially embarked on Gastr del Sol as a reaction to the power trio format of Bastro. Are your choices often made in this way?
It's certainly been the case on a number of occasions, where Bastro's been a reaction to Squirrel Bait and Gastr del Sol's been a reaction to Bastro. And having made a couple of extraordinarily spacious records, like Banana Cabbage and Apertura, then I felt somehow free to move in another direction. But those are probably more pendular shifts than, like, "you'll never catch me doing that again!" I don't progress by renouncing what I've done before. It always seems very open to me, like if someone asked could I make a record that sounded like Squirrel Bait, the answer is certainly yes, though it might be really boring if it were like that from start to finish. But I rarely have this attitude of like, "I'm not going back there, I've done that already." Sometimes it amazes me, like, "I could make a record that is with electric guitar and a bass player and a drummer." It isn't like I've been sentenced to avoid making records like that, it's open to me. I can do that.
Was there ever a feeling that you couldn't, that you had to move on?
Unconsciously, I think I thought why would I want to do that and sometimes it's a shock to me that it's absolutely open to me what I choose to do on the next record.
You played solo as Gastr del Sol. Did you ever consider retaining the name?
Not really. I think the only time I did that was before Jim [O'Rourke] and I split, there was a tour in the US that he bailed on the morning that we were leaving, so I did maybe ten shows as Gastr del Sol, just me. It made no sense to continue on with the name once he and I stopped working together. Some of the shows, like in the UK, still say 'David Grubbs of Gastr del Sol.'
Does that bother you?
It's not such an issue for me. I like most of the work that Gastr del Sol did, it seems okay to me that copies of those records still exist, you won't find me buying any spare copies off of people so I can destroy them.
What was the division of labour within Gastr del Sol?
The only things that were strictly divided was that Jim did all of the engineering and I wrote all the lyrics and titles and things like that. Apart from that, there were tracks that were virtually solo on either side, there were things that from their very inception were two people sitting in a room improvising. Apart from the word/techie split there was not a charter describing division of labour.
Having seen the demise of previous projects, were you able to take the end of Gastr in your stride?
It was an unhappy split for personal reasons, as a matter of making music it was also exciting and liberating, but there was great personal disappointment and sorrow attending the split. Not a happy one.
Have you finished your PHD?
Nope, never finished.
I tried to think from your music what literature you might be interested in.
What did you think?
Well, I've read references to John Cage, and some of the wordplay suggests a certain thing, Joyce maybe, but I really wasn't sure.
What I was studying was contemporary poetry. I was studying Modernist poetry to start with and kind of moved forward in time, as it seemed more exciting to be someone with a stake in what was happening in literature rather than a literary historian. The dissertation that I wound up starting was actually more on the subject of interdisciplinarity, and how little academic disciplines tend to speak to one another or know what the other is doing and the test case for that was the reception of John Cage. You would have different areas like visual arts or poetry or audio art each coming to the lessons of Cage at a different time: in visual arts in the sixties and he's widely anthologised as a poet in the 1980s. It's not that Cage's poetry in the 1980s is being responded to or his associations with visual artists in the sixties, everybody is kind of going back to his writings in the 1950s and it's as if these disciplines are coming to him anew because they seem to speak so little amongst themselves. Which was my experience of being a graduate student who was involved in making music and also interested in visual art and, at least on paper, studying literature. And my disappointment at what felt like the overspecialisation of each of these fields. While I was languishing through a year of working on the dissertation I was invited to teach at the Art Institute in Chicago in the sound department, and then later taught classes in the Liberal Arts department there, those seemed actually very nicely interdisciplinary. One of my major responsibilities was doing studio visits and critiques, quite different from my experience of the University of Chicago and Georgetown University. I was 30 years old and having these revelatory experiences in an art school.
You taught a class in radio drama?
I taught a radio play production class. People were writing and executing a radio play, so the first half of the class would be writing the scripts and the second half would be going into the studio and working on them.
Where's the outlet for that in the US?
There is virtually none. Just a couple of weeks ago I did a project in Winnipeg where I created a radio play with seven or eight people as part of a festival there. There doesn't seem to be much of an ongoing tradition of doing radio plays in the US.
Does literature inform your music, theoretically or thematically?
I think one of the reasons I do music full time is that I can spend so much time reading, but I don't see the lyric writing that I do as an extension of a literary style.
Do you write fiction in any form?
No, I don't really write anything creatively other than writing lyrics.
Does this take the form of an ongoing journal that you squeeze into a song structure?
Squeeze is a good verb. I chop and squeeze and invert and reverse. I used to take a lot more pleasure in Gastr del Sol with fitting the lyrics in the most difficult spots in these songs that should be instrumentals or all of this activity and then a little bit of silence and I'd try to fill the silence with words, those kind of strange strategies of working lyrics into music that was something I enjoyed doing in Gastr del Sol, but now I'm trying other things.
Fair to say that your lyrics are oblique?
[Silence] I'm not trying to be coy, nor would I say something like, "what are you talking about? They're perfectly clear, if they're oblique it's because your brain is oblique." I suppose they stand out in a crowd.
To put it another way, are you happy for people see the lyrics as vague or non-specific?
Vague is not a term of approbation for me. I always think they're quite specific, but maybe not denotative.
Have narrative songs never appealed?
I can't quite write a song like Rocky Raccoon or a story song where the character dies in the 4th verse, I don't think I'll ever be able to do that. I could say with the last couple of records that effects of continuity are more appealing to me than effects of discontinuity. Where Gastr del Sol's lyrics were spiked with non-sequiters, that's not where I'm getting the most pleasure out of writing lyrics now. There's a certain kind of uproarious quality to Gastr del Sol, of shoehorning something in that was the wrong fit, absolutely the wrong fit, the most obstreperous thing.
You've taught and written about audio art, have you ever been exhibited as such?
I've done one installation, I did an installation at the Pompidou Centre last Summer called Between a Raven and a Writing Desk that was in the show called Elysian Fields. It's at the forefront of my mind because I'm in the next couple of weeks making a proposal to do a similar type of installation. I taught several classes in sound composition for artists who are mainly doing installations and things like that, so I've certainly logged a lot of hours talking with people about like, "why do you think this installation is interesting?" But I've only ever put my money where my mouth is once, at the Pompidou.
What form did that take?
It was an installation for 12 speakers. It was just a two channel stereo CDr that had a 4 minute rock song that was pressed into an hour long cycle in which the rock song plays at the hour and the half hour, the coda from it plays at quarter of an hour and forty five minutes past the hour and the intervening time is filled by individual parts of the percussion track. So you hear this really dark, really dense rock instrumental - me playing electric guitar and John McEntire playing drums and a lot of percussion - and then the song ends and it shades into John shaking maracas or playing the tambourine or the kick-drum, all at kind of a steady pulse that sounds more or less like a second hand. When it was installed it was scaled such that the tambourine should be approximately the volume of someone sitting in the room shaking a tambourine, but when the song played at the hour and the half-hour it was really loud. It was conceived of as sort of an alarm clock.
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001