Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Jim Newberry

by Jason Gross

It's always been a bit of mystery for me to figure out David Grubbs' work. On one hand, he would easily craft sweet melodies and vocals but upon closer inspection, these were hardly crooning love songs but the kind of freewheeling psychedlica that comes naturally to a member of the fabled Red Krayola. With the sorely missed Gastr Del Sol and now embarking on his solo career, Grubbs surrounds his sublime songforms with seemingly incongruous backgrounds which he managed to resolve nevertheless. He manages to pull this trick off once again in fine form on his latest release on Drag City, The Spectrum Between, apply summed up in this bit of relativist philosophy: "Toss a dart/Wherever it lands- that's the center/We thus decide of our own unsteady hands/What's a bull's eye." Now wouldn't you want to find out what makes a guy like this tick?

PSF:You're from Kentucky originally- could you talk about growing up there and how that impacted you?

That's a well-timed question, because I just last night returned from the wedding of a friend who was Squirrel Bait's original drummer. And so I've just spent the weekend seeing friends who I got to know through Louisville's punk and hardcore scene in the early 1980's -- by and large a remarkable bunch of individuals who I'm still happy to know today. It wasn't the typical reunion-situation in which people commiserate about how lame they've become.

I lived in Louisville until I was eighteen years old, and I'm not sure how to begin describing it. It's the largest city in Kentucky, it's what's happening in the area, and it's somewhat inward-turned, proud, and vain. Not cosmopolitan, but self-sufficient and self-sustaining. I suppose I'm already thinking in cultural terms -- a bias of mine. Culturally, Louisville always felt very can-do and not particularly craven to other cities or regions. One of the ways that I came to know Louisville was through its newspaper, the Courier-Journal, which was an extraordinary paper to read growing up -- a well-written paper, and a politically progressive paper. Gannett bought and gutted it in the mid-'80's, and it's always struck me as one of the saddest things that happened to Louisville in that period -- that it ceased to know itself through the Courier-Journal, that it became destined to know itself through the bogus refractory lens of the occupying forces of Gannett, that Louisville somehow ceased to be as local.

PSF: Who were some of your early music influences (that made you want to pursue music yourself)?

The first groups that I loved were Kiss, the Who, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. But who wants to live in the past? I started reading Rolling Stone and picking up local fanzines at record stores when I was twelve or so. Rolling Stone -- actually Tom Carson and Greil Marcus, the ones I could sort-of trust -- were then trumpeting the Clash as the embodiment of rock and roll spirit and Public Image and the Gang of Four as dangerous dismantlers of the rock tradition. Who would want to dismantle rock music? Rock music as the enemy? That nearly untenable ambivalence -- wanting to find the contemporary spirit of rock music, the real stuff in the here-and-now, but also wanting to give up on it out of sheer disappointment a la John Lydon -- spun me around, obsessed me, made me start a band. Then I discovered what had been happening in Louisville for the past several years -- the Endtables, the Babylon Dance Band, Malignant Growth -- and that became the primary context, real peers to be had, much more so than anything you might read about in Rolling Stone.

PSF: Could you talk about your time in Squirel Bait? That band isn't very well-known and I thought that people should know something about them.

Squirrel Bait started in 1982 as a hardcore band, thrash beats and all. Clark Johnson and I soon found ourselves in the lucky position of being in a band with Peter Searcy, he of the phenomenal rock and roll voice. The tempos slowed, the guitar textures kaleidoscoped a bit with the addition of Brian McMahan, and we started playing outside of Louisville, opening for Husker Du, Big Black, the Meat Puppets -- terrifically exciting stuff for a bunch of high school students. The two records on Homestead -- now reissued on Dexter's Cigar / Drag City -- tell the tale. I'm more fond of the first one -- rougher, shorter, less artful or progressive.

PSF: I've heard conflicting reports about whether you were involved in Slint or not. What's the story?

Not. Britt Walford and Brian McMahan were the Squirrel Bait alums who graduated to the sublime Slint.

PSF: What led you to move to Chicago? How did you find the music scene there?

Graduate school in English at the University of. In 1990. Squirrel Bait had played there five years earlier, and I knew lots of folks there, felt roughly aligned with much of the music that came from there, and was excited to sample what the metropolis had to offer. Musically, that proved to be friends who made jazz, improvised music, contemporary classical music, and noise accessible and informal. Wow. No longer just the province of weird records without pictures of the performers -- you could actually get together with other folks and make unholy, unrepeatable noises! A time of stylistic freefall, hooray.

PSF: With Gastr Del Sol, what type of band were you looking to form?

Gastr del Sol came directly out of the band Bastro. In its final incarnation, Bastro consisted of John McEntire, Bundy Brown, and myself. In its first incarnation, Gastr del Sol consisted of John McEntire, Bundy Brown, and myself. Somehow, across the space between these two groups, there emerged the sense that the latter was only provisionally a band. No promises were made! Bastro's last tour saw us as individuals feeling like prisoners to the power-trio format. Could we as a group respond to different venues, different performance contexts, even to different sound systems? Not particularly.

Gastr del Sol began as a scaling back, a unilateral disarmament.

PSF: How did Jim O'Rourke change things (the dynamic of the band, the way you worked)? What kind of bond did the two of you have?

With Jim, things changed dramatically. The group now had a core, two people, and I felt for the first time that marvelous, adult freedom to collaborate casually with lots of people, all kinds of people. That rock-band thing can be hard to shake. Jim brought his talent and a truly immense knowledge of music. It became a very consuming thing. And we were quite tight as friends.

PSF: How did you and Jim work on songs?

Every which way. From scratch, from a couple of chords brought in by one person, from an idea gleaned from someone else's music, from one person's finished piece, from two people in one room, from two people working separately. The only things that involved a strict separation of labor were that Jim was the engineer (perhaps I moved an EQ knob once) and that I wrote lyrics, titles.

PSF: How did you you see Gastr evolving album to album? To me, it seemed like the band was getting more self-assured with each release.

Because we were trying different approaches not only from record to record but from track to track, it never struck me as much of an evolution. If I had to identify some kind of positive evolution in the group, two strains jump out -- one, that we got better at making songs cohere into albums (Camoufleur being the best at this), and two, that we gradually relaxed the self-censorship mechanism and allowed ourselves to make more pleasurable, more beautiful, and more fully realized music (ditto for Camoufleur).

PSF: Did you find there were any major turning points as the group went on (in terms of dynamics or with your own work)?

Camoufleur was the point of most significant stylistic change. Right before we started writing that record, we had both played on the Red Krayola's Hazel. When I brought in the music for "Another Song, Another Satan" -- and also for a number of things for the Prina record -- I remember Jim being dumbfounded: "Why don't you write things like this for Gastr del Sol?" So I did.

PSF: Why did Gastr end? Would you ever consider reactivating it?

Gastr ended when Jim and I stopped working together. He became much too integral to the project to consider carrying it on under that name without him -- what would be the purpose?

PSF: What led to that? Why did that happen?

Personal stuff. Not anybody's business, but thanks for asking.

PSF: How did you see your solo work as being diff from Gastr? What kind of freedom do you now have?

Because Gastr was such an open-ended entity, for a long time I couldn't quite justify doing solo work. I suppose that sounds ridiculous now, but the truth of the matter was that there was even room within Gastr del Solo to work all by one's lonesome. The first solo recording that I did, Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange, thus was born of the strict conceit that it be a record of solos. At that point I was in desperate need of thinking musically and breathing musically with some greater degree of autonomy or even privacy; not only had Gastr del Sol continued uninterruptedly for several years, but Jim and I were both active in the Red Krayola. Now I make records by myself in ways that are not so different from Gastr del Sol's methods -- I can tap a different cast of characters from project to project or even piece to piece; I tend to shape arrangements from a simple, recorded sketch that may or may not be so apparent in the finished version; and when I play live I rewrite and rearrange pieces such that they hang or clump together in ways that are hopefully quite dissimilar to the experience of the recordings.

PSF: Since you've brought Krayola up before, it seems that this was a very important, perhaps shaping, experience in your work. How would you describe the effect that being a member of Red Krayola had on your work? How would you describe your rapport with Mayo?

The Red Krayola has been terrifically important to me, well over and above the not insubstantial pleasures of playing those wonderful songs (The Red Krayola is still my favorite rock band. I'm a partisan).  My god -- what a remarkable, remarkably diverse group of folks in just the short six or seven years that I've been seated at the table. When I talk about the Red Krayola I always have to temper the urge to say things like "The greatest ongoing saga in modern music" and things like that. Sun Ra's dead, so . . . Mayo is Mayo, amen and a-women. Everyone should be so lucky as to know such a friend and such a heavy, heavy interlocutor.

PSF: What do you find inspires your work nowadays?

Friends who are doing excellent work, whether in music or some other field, cultural or otherwise. I also feel that I'm perpetually developing private, increasingly intuitive standards that take other works that I've done as their horizon. And that's a good feeling, not unnecessarily fretting and comparing oneself to others.

PSF: Who are you thinking of in particular?

I'm thinking of friends who do kick-ass jobs in the social services; I'm thinking of a friend I just saw this past weekend who has gone from being a disgruntled unappreciated grad student to running a fantastic online business selling primarily jazz and soul records and now seems really happy; I'm thinking of Albert and Markus Oehlen and Stephen Prina and their fearlessness in making records, films, paintings, etc., etc.; I'm thinking of people who get their shit together and make movies (how can it be done?); I'm thinking of people who are not tortured artists.

PSF: The most fascinating thing I find about your songs is that there is a seeming incongruity between your vocal melodies and the background textures of the songs. Any thoughts on this?

One of the biggest challenges with Gastr del Sol was to work words into the mix. I'm glad that there was not a decision at the start for it to be instrumental music exclusively. After Bastro, where the only place for the voice was atop the din, it was such an experience to this amazing amount of space -- where the words could be surrounded by or swallowed up by relative silence. Fantastic! And yet now I find myself wanting voice and music to be less dichotomous -- I want the two of them to work more intimately, more easily, more intricately. I guess I'd like that incongruity to be resolved, before your ears, moment by moment.

PSF: Are you a fan of tropicalia? Your latest album seems reminiscent of that style.

Yes. You think so?

PSF: It does seem to me that vocally, there is a distinct tropicalia flavor to your recent record. Do you feel this has had an effect on your work?

I marvel at Caetano and Gilberto Gil's ability to transfix with just guitar and voice. It's a fantasy of mine, and I'll leave it at that.

PSF: Could you talk your interest in tropicalia a little more?

The first record that I heard from that group of people was the Tropicalia compilation, which I loved for the who's-going-to-take-the-microphone-next quality (reminding me -- anachronistically, because these records come later -- of the Red Krayola's collaborations with Art and Language, e.g. Corrected Slogans and Kangaroo?) and the vividness and unpredictability of its arrangements. Also the evident joy of the whole thing. Favorite records of that period include the two self-titled Gal Costa records and Caetano Veloso's extraordinarily inventive, seat-of-the-pants Araca Azul.

PSF: What do you think readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I don't know. It's an interesting and difficult question, because I'm dubious about the possibility of people getting to know me through records I make. Not because I'm particularly mysterious or especially aloof or someone who tosses up personas . . . hmm. I'm just not sure of how expressive records I've made are of me, or to make a broader statement, how expressive records are of their makers. I presume that people can know a lot about my records without necessarily knowing much about me. This, however, might be the minority opinion.

See some of David Grubbs' favorite music

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