issue 5 :: Spring, 1999

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Interview: David Grubbs

I first saw David Grubbs perform with a Gastr del Sol quartet in Chicago, maybe in April of 1993. Two bass guitars, a drummer (these three would soon become Tortoise) and David on electric guitar. David’s singing and sparse guitar over the hypnotic, intertwining bass melodies powerfully effected me. I moved to Austin before I could track any of them down, not at all suspecting the imminent arrival of Jim O’Rourke into the group.

Much later, after being in contact with both David and Jim concerning the Jim O’Rourke Discography, David gave me the original English exchange that was translated into French and printed in Octopus. Most of the interview concerned Gastr del Sol’s then soon-to-be released album Upgrade & Afterlife. So much has happened since then, that it seemed somewhat pointless to print for this issue. David said I could print the more recent original English exchange that was translated into Italian and published in Blow-Up. I have added some of the more relevant answers from the Octopus interview.

The Blow-Up interview was conducted by Stefano I. Bianchi and published in Italian in Blow-Up #8.
The Octopus interview was conducted by Morvan Boury and published in French in Octopus #33.
The Thicket differs from Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange. It sounds like the album of a band, and listening to it, it’s impossible not to find similarities with the last Gastr Del Sol album, Camoufeur. Isn’t that so?
it’s a compliment to be told that it sounds like the album of a band-that was definitely a goal of making the thicket. i wanted to create a fictional group—if all groups aren’t to some extent fictitious!—with a coherent feel, even though these musicians were never in the studio at the same time. every gastr del sol record saw us determined to create a different group with each song. while this was a worthwhile modus operandi for gastr del sol, i had decided with the thicket to create a consistent group sound for the entire record, even if the group had to be constructed in the studio and solely for the purpose of making the thicket.
I would call The Thicket a “country” album on the inside. I mean the feeling, the mood, some scale, even if surely not, how can I say, the music in itself. Every American musician has to “pay the bill,” along his career, to some kind of ancestral roots, I think.
even though i’m from kentucky, i’m not sure that country, bluegrass, or any recognizably “american” style counts as my roots. what are my roots? what music did i listen to growing up? my father liked epic stuff. bach recordings by e. power biggs and helmut walcha plays the great organs of europe. i remember my mother listening to the carpenters, the fifth dimension, and mama cass elliot. for me, elton john and then kiss and then the beatles-stones-who and then punk rock all in quick succession. the gang of four and public image ltd.: that’s my roots-music! i think i carry the mark of punk and postpunk—no complaints—just like mayo thompson carries the mark of psychedelia: these are the musics of our comings-into-the-world. it wasn’t until later that i listened to bluegrass, music that was virtually being made in my back yard. so i’m not convinced that everyone has to pay the bill to some sort of ancestral roots. (i must say though that i’m all for people “paying the bill,” i.e. being open about the sources from which they are borrowing or stealing.)
Toniutti
First of all I wasn’t saying that your music is country! I was meant, maybe a better term is bluegrass, or to call it “roots” music. Let me make an example. Every Italian “rock” band is immediately recognizable for just one fact. They are melodic. Melody is an heritage we all have into our blood (our DNA!), it’s impossible to avoid even if we’d want to. That’s the reason why every kind of music Italian kids listen to is always a melodic one (melodic punk, melodic rock, melodic electronic music-don’t make someone listen to no wave or minimalist music here!). So, even if your “roots” are wherever you “think” they are, when you were a boy, you surely listened to country and bluegrass (and blues, why not), just because that was the music “your people” was listening to. Is it wrong to think so?
to some extent. as i mentioned, my father listened to bach and vivaldi because he would have had a long day at work, and not particularly because it’s in his dna. my mother would have also had a long day, during which she listened to the carpenters, etc. my grandmother is in her mid-80s had recently moved to louisville from elizabethtown, kentucky, a much smaller town. i’m very interested in music from the first burst of electrical recordings, circa 1927-1932 (the period eccentrically and brilliantly documented on harry smith’s anthology of american folk music), particularly blues and early country music. so on a number of occasions i’ve asked my grandmother about this time. did her family own records? if they bought records, were they records of local or regional performers? did the existence of records change performance styles? these are fantastically interesting questions to me. my grandmother always has the same answer: it was fun to go to the road houses and dance, but she only really learned to love music when she discovered opera. italian opera, as she always specifies! she says “german opera” and makes a terrible, pained face. but italian opera! it’s one of the real pleasures of her life, and again—am i being too literal?—not at all in her dna. don’t a lot of people hook onto music not because it’s deeply encoded in them, but quite the opposite, that it’s otherworldly?

i could propound examples. less dramatic ones. take uzeda. i know that giovanna likes italian opera. and i’ve heard agostino improvise melodies brilliantly. but if i’m enjoying uzeda, it’s usually for something other than melody. the people from the group may have a fantastic feel for melody, but in their particular configuration as uzeda they’ve chosen to emphasize other aspects, sheer intensity, the unpredictable play of agostino’s guitar against the mechanical regularity of the rhythm section, etc. the last time that i was in someone’s car where they were blasting recordings from the skin graft label was just outside of milan. and what was i listening to as i write this? monteverdi!

but then again within a half and hour i’m going to pick up my guitar and play with an open tuning that is likely to suggest bluegrass or blues. it’s difficult to know how to conclude the answer to this question. i’d like to suggest the accessibility of different forms, above and beyond blood and soil, without going to the other extreme of claiming a flattening-out of value, generically described in postmodernism as “pastiche.” please!
If you take some japanese musicians like Boredoms, for example, you can see that they go out of every “common” western sense in what they do. They put together things (exotica themes and hardcore, metal and easy listening) in a way that we (the “western” people) don’t know and aren’t use to do. Making a strange—and even “difficult to recognize at a first look”—ideas association, I’d say that they are making that strange kind of music because they are a people without a recognizable and a “one only” God. They do not have a “creed” to observe, their minds are not “fixed” like ours in a harmonic universe where melody is established... Is it possible to say that they don’t have any pre-established ideas—even in in their DNA—like we have, and their universe isn’t going like ours in some linear sense...?
while i can agree with you to some extent about the connections you are drawing in your example about the boredoms, what is more compelling for me is not making conclusions about japanese society considered as a whole, but about the vernacular, what is both characteristic and idiosyncratic within individual expression. that is, not about how the boredoms reflect or represent japanese society, but how they both confirm and dissent within that society. the “trivial” in culture is usually where my interest lies. if someone says, “it’s very difficult to explain exactly how...” that’s an enticement to know more.

it is widely held that italians have a deep feeling for melody. and there must be some amount of truth in that. but my question is this: why seek to confirm what is already popularly held? similarly, there’s no real purpose in denying it, every example will be met with a counterexample. instead, what is exceptional (and yet absolutely characteristic at the same time; this is a dialectical idea) in the vernacular—within the culture, not representing the culture as a whole—is what keeps me bringing my plate back for more.
David Grubbs
How much would you say you feel yourself as a part-as a confirmation or a dissension-within the music (the culture) of your society? Are you feeling like a part of a specific musical “heritage?”
that’s a good question, and the answer is “no, definitely not.” in my experience, musical heritages tend to be orthodoxies. stylistically they tend to be narrowly defined. and while my own tendencies to blend or jump-cut between styles comes much more from a zeal or passion for whatever styles i may be referencing—as opposed to a postmodernist’s pleasure more in the act of quotation or radical juxtaposition—i think i fall outside the rules of most any musical heritage that you could name. and i’d be deceiving myself to say otherwise.
I also hear the influence of the canterburian sound (we could find it also in Camoufleur), for example Robert Wyatt, a musician you pay homage to in a song dedicated to him. Do you think that some music from the Seventies should be “brought to the light of the sun” again, after many years of complete neglect?
i’m quite a fan of robert wyatt, but i can’t say that there’s too much else connected to canterbury that i’m so wild about. “40 words on ’worship’” came about when a magazine from san francisco asked me to contribute and i demurred, saying that unfortunately time was too tight. they came back with increasingly short writing assignments, and “40 words on robert wyatt’s song ’worship’” was one of these assignments. a terrific assignment!
What are you playing in the first track of the album, a banjo?
it’s a tenor banjo, a 4-string rather than 5-string banjo. it’s more often strummed, as in dixieland music, but i play it with a bastardized, ad hoc three-finger technique.
Tony Conrad is one of the musicians who play with you in this CD. How has it been working with him, how much is important minimalism in your music and how much importance has it in modern music?
tony is a friend and a pleasure to play with because of his nearly infinite reserves of humor, stubborn individualism, egalitarian outrage, and soul. and it is precisely those qualities that have drawn me to some minimalism-the most interesting and inspiring for me is that which is anti-virtuosic and less composed, also less stamped with the personality of a composer.
I’ve read that you’re preparing a new album due out for December. What will it be like, something like a solo album or the one of a band like The Thicket?
it’s a band, but another one put together for the purpose of the recording. the record is called the coxcomb, and it will come out on the parisian label rectangle in january. the group for it consists of stephen prina, sasha andres, yves robert, thierry madiot, didier petit, quentin rollet, and noel akchote. it’s a strange project: the adaptation in song of a short story by stephen crane, “the blue hotel.” ok, so perhaps i’m paying my bill as a student of literature, my alter ego for many years. i’m also tentatively planning to be back in italy to do more solo shows in january.
Can I ask you why your musical ties with Jim [O’Rourke] have ended?
because of personal differences; not particularly because of aesthetic differences.
I recently made a long interview with Jan St. Werner of Mouse On Mars. Among a lot of other things, he said that today instrumental music is more important than the “sung one” because not having words in itself, it makes people “think about the way it is,” “makes their brain move” and so on... And the more the music is a difficult one, the more it “forces” the listener to think and not to assume music like a “background sound” (he made examples like Oval, Microstoria, FX Randomiz and, of course, Mouse On Mars and Lithops...). You have made a lot of instrumental music, so what would you say about this? Why during these years we see so many instrumental bands around?
that’s a very interesting claim, although i don’t see how the divide between foreground/background should occur on the basis of words. i’m of the opinion that there is vocal music and instrumental music both that successfully demands to be taken as foreground music, or not at all (probably as an irritant, if not in the foreground). but a more interesting question is whether a particular music works on a number of different levels, be it as music that makes you think, but also a good soundtrack for combing away your cat’s fur balls or dancing or writing or sleeping. i mean, this is one of the things that i would say in favor of oval and lithops in particular out of those groups that you’ve named, that a number of different levels of engagement are rewarded, and rewarded differently. i’d say that in its favor, rather than saying that it “forces” the listener to do anything, because any of those groups certainly can be enjoyed as background music. i think the important thing to say is that when those groups occupy the foreground, there’s a lot to chew on, that it rewards that kind of foreground attention. but it’s the way that it works on various different levels—for instance, in all sorts of listening environments, including “inappropriate” ones—that is of the greatest interest to me.
Are you interested in making “pure” electronic music?
absolutely not. i’m not interested in making “pure” anything. it’s a word that creeps me out, sounds like “racial purity.”
I was referring to the ’pure’ electronic music of Mouse On Mars or Oval, for sure I wasn’t thinking about some racial meaning... Will you ever give up your guitar to use just a computer?
oh, i knew that you weren’t intending a racial meaning, but that’s the overtone that i always hear in the term “pure.” i just hear that word and want to talk politics, precisely because the people who talk about “purity” in aesthetics usually think themselves above politics, and that sort of egotism is repugnant to me. aesthetic purity: what interest could that hold? will i ever put down the guitar? certainly, yes. but almost as certainly i’ll pick it up again. working with new media for me has never necessitated the renunciation of other forms.
Someone here (maybe just here) thinks that your music has become more and more “intellectual” (maybe Squirrel Bait were much more direct than Gastr del Sol, I mean) and this has been assumed like a parting from the punk aesthetics... Would you say it is so?
the music that i’m making at present is more reflective—more the product of reflection—than squirrel bait, which was often about using the most direct expression. is this a departure from punk aesthetics? well, it’s a departure from sex-pistol aesthetics, and it’s a departure from ramones aesthetics, and maybe even from black-flag aesthetics, but no, generally conceived, it doesn’t strike me as a departure from punk aesthetics. the field is still open!
A little question about [Chicago]. During the Nineties we have seen that the most interesting things in alternative music have come from there. Maybe not, but that’s what a lot of people think. We could say post rock, now wave, Kranky sounds and so on. Your opinion about these sub-genres from Chicago...
i think i prefer individual groups or artists to scenes. i really like u.s. maple, but not everything on skin graft. and i like the sea and cake, but not everything on thrill jockey. i also quite like what the jazz / improvised label okka-disk has done as far as making records by chicagoans (ken vandermark, hamid drake, michael zerang, kent kessler, fred anderson, etc.) together with out-of-towners (peter kowald, evan parker, georg graewe, etc.). and there are also fantastic improvising musicians who are not well documented, at least not yet.
Don’t you think that one of the major problems these days (in music biz, and I’m talking from my point of view...) is the fact that there are too many releases that could disorientate the listener (and the reviewer). Aren’t there too many CD and albums released, today? Don’t you think that if it wasn’t so easy to record and release there should be a little more masterwork in our music shops? I listen to lots of records (too much, I fear) and everyone has some good idea but very few last more than a month or less...
the idea of being a fanzine editor (i was one from 1983-85: hit the trail) and having to give a fair listen to dozens if not hundreds of new releases sounds incredibly depressing to me. what a waste of time! also doing short reviews (unless they’re exceptionally short reviews, which can be terrific) falls under the category of “nightmare.” i buy lots of records. i tend to comb through used sections, because i like them to be cheap, and i like to be surprised by what turns up, rather than going to a gigantic store like tower records and simply choosing among what they’ve stocked. i like “masterworks” as much as the next person—i just finished listening to albert ayler’s live in greenwich village, a record i’ve loved for years, and it still amazes me—but i don’t begrudge the existence of albert ayler records that i’m not so crazy about. if there were only masterworks, i’d be missing out on lots of eccentric—to some people just plain awful—records that are near and dear to my heart. who isn’t touched by failure? johnny cash made masterworks. charlie feathers or warren smith were also early sun records artists who made some pretty rousing music that not too many people would call masterworks, but i love the stuff, warts and all. i remember the first gastr del sol show in l.a. with john fahey in which most of the crowd walked out during fahey’s very long, meandering, unsteady set; at the end, mayo thompson—who isn’t exactly a live-music nut—was one of the handful still standing, and he was knocked out by the deliberate roughness of fahey’s playing and the existential drama of seeing someone struggle onstage (i.e. the music bore little resemblance to fahey’s better-known fingerpicking style that by contrast sounds effortless). no one would have called the show masterful, but in many ways it was terrifically gripping. i think you catch my drift about masterworks. are there too many cds? yeah, but you can sift through the crap, and hopefully quickly.
I forget: why this new album hasn’t been released under the name of Gastr Del Sol? Will the band publish something else or not?
maybe not. probably not. it will undoubtedly become less of an issue over time. when i said in response to the question about dropping the guitar in favor of the computer that no renunciation is necessary, i think the same thing goes for gastr del sol. no need for a referee to call time. no need for a penalty kick to break the impasse.
[The last three questions are from Octopus]
What French intellectual(s) (Derrida, Debord, Canguilhem, Foucault, Althusser) do you feel close to?
Michel Foucault’s writings have been revelatory in directing my thought towards histories and critiques of institutions. In particular, Discipline and Punish was instrumental in my volunteering for two years to tutor college-level courses in literature and philosophy in a maximum-security prison in northern Virginia. I began college in 1985, when grappling with deconstruction was compulsory but also often exhilarating, and Derrida was unquestionably the most-discussed figure in American academia at the time. Although he is not on your list, Gilles Deleuze is someone whose work I have spent time with, most recently with Difference and Repetition (just published in English for the first time last year) and Bergsonism.
On the photo Drag City sent us, you stand in front of Stalin and Lenin destroyed statues. Where is it? Is it only a provocation for the US audience or do you think Marxist analysis is still helpful to understand our world?
That photo was taken, of all places, in Vienna. That’s one thing I very much like about the photo, that it’s impossible to guess where it was taken, which reflects the dispersal of Soviet artifacts. I think Marxist analysis is quite helpful to approaching cultures of late capitalism. I’m not sure that US audiences would even think of it as a provocation; probably people think of it more in terms of tourism: “did Gastr del Sol really play in Russia?” That is to say it was not planned in advance. We were playing in Vienna, Manfred Rahs wanted to take photos because he is a friend who likes our music, and we chose to stand in front of these Sphinxes, Lenin and Stalin. But I do think we were most attracted to the statues because of the general phenomenon of the dispersal of Soviet objects.
“The Japanese Room at La Pagode” [Gastr del Sol 7” the split with Tony Conrad released on the Table of the Elements] is a reference to a movie theater in Paris. What does that song tell about this particular personal experience? And what about cinema?
The title has an oblique relation to the lyrics. I was thinking about the lyrics when watching Jean-Luc Godard, JLG at La Pagode. The lyrics are about a monolithic church (“monolithic labor / monolithic remainder”) in southwest France that I had seen earlier that week. The text on the sleeve refers to my confusion at a short film about Egypt that preceded the Godard film. I watched the film about Cairo thinking that this was typically perverse Godard, making an autobiographical film in which a middle-aged Egyptian writer (the focus of this preliminary short film) was to represent Godard. It wasn’t until the film about Egypt was over that I realized that it was not JLG. My French is pretty poor, I admit it. [This is the theme of this issue. —ed.]
[I would to specially thank Stefano I. Bianchi for his help in translating a section from Italian into English. Without his help, one of the paragraphs above would have made absolutely no sense. —ed.]
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