David Grubbs is a musician and composer, a PhD in literature, an associate professor at Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music and the MFA program in Performance and Interactive Media Arts (PIMA), and the author of the book Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014). Recent collaborations include The Wired Salutation, a live performance with visual artist Angela Bulloch at the Centre Pompidou, and a forthcoming fourth intersection with writer Susan Howe, to be presented at multiple venues including ISSUE Project Room.
That is David Grubbs professionally, in the now. As for my own personal Grubbs, where to begin? I can certainly talk about the first time I saw David perform as a musician. I had begged my underage head into the Empty Bottle in Chicago for—check this shit—Ruins, U.S. Maple, and Gastr del Sol. Or the first time I met him formally a couple of years after, when Grubbs was reviewing print proofs for a CD reissue of Swedish composer Folke Rabe’s masterful What? on the Dexter’s Cigar imprint he shared with fellow Gastr-mind Jim O’Rourke. My icebreaker was that I had a copy of Gastr’s appearance on the corporate college-radio filler program 7Up Listen Up!, a popular fizzy beverage mixed with my avant-garde—wasn’t that just nuts?
I can then fast-forward almost two decades later and disclose the scene around my cameo on his latest singer-songwrecker effort, The Plain Where the Palace Stood (2013). A gray day turned rainy night, hauling a suitcase of gear from a previous engagement from the Upper West Side down to the Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn—arriving late, a wet mess, plugging in, and already second-guessing my contribution. David, in his way, calmly directed the session, measured my violin slobber, and gave the thumbs up. I think it took a total of half an hour, maybe less. “That’s it? Was that okay?” Well, yeah—but this is the same set of deliberate nerves to memorably dub his first namesake missive Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange, a tightly scripted triptych of understated musical cryptics (yikes). What to make of the spaces I suspected—the personal and professional, the wry and slapstick. It moved me to ask, “That’s it?” Well, it’s clearly not “it,” and so we had a lot to discuss.
— C. Spencer Yeh
C. Spencer Yeh So, you were saying it was 1991, and you’re delivering the Chicago Reader.
David Grubbs I delivered the Reader starting on Thursday morning, and I decided that I would just power through the day and that’s how I would quit smoking.
CSY Was Gastr del Sol active at that point?
DG That was kind of the end of Bastro, the band preceding Gastr. I’d moved to Chicago in ’90. I lived there very conveniently from ’90 to ’99.
CSY It’s funny you mention it because I’d thought about just listening to a bunch of Bastro as part of my homework before I rolled over here.
DG You thought about it or you did it?
CSY I thought about it. (laughter) So Bastro ended because you moved?
DG No, I felt that Bastro had worked its way into a straitjacket. We did one thing well, which was to play at full volume and to kick ass live, and yet we were totally constrained by the acoustics of the room we were playing in. It was time to try to do more things. I remember thinking of it as a unilateral disarmament. I had this vague idea that the music needed to go back down to a living room scale and that we needed to get rid of the weekly rehearsal schedule, the rehearsal space, and the fixed membership of a group.
Around the same time, I started playing in the Red Krayola. Mayo Thompson described the Red Krayola as a “nonmembership organization.” That seemed like an interesting idea and a really fun way to make music with other people. It doesn’t give an alternative, just stipulates there are no members of the Red Krayola. At that time only roughly half the people in the Red Krayola would primarily identify as musicians. I liked that fact.
CSY When you started being involved in the Krayola was there a time at which your nonmembership was nonrenewed? Non-nonrenewed?
DG It was always kind of long distance. Definitely after I moved to New York and had a kid, I was less available for Krayola duty. I also started teaching college full-time. So I was sort of out of the loop. I’ve played shows in New York with them since but it hasn’t been so active the last couple of years. I was curious about the Art & Language opera at the Whitney Biennial last year. We had performed part of it in Tokyo in ’94 at P3 art and environment, a crazy performance space that was in the basement of a Zen temple. When we were doing the sound check a monk came down to ask us to proofread something he was translating into English.
CSY He didn’t tell you to turn it down?
DG No, he was really nice. It was an amazing show. Keiji Haino did a solo percussion performance.
CSY Not like at brain-melting volume?
DG No. It was the first time I’d seen him without a guitar. Otomo Yoshihide played and did a turntable performance with Red Krayola records and there was this performance group that Masami Akita [of Merzbow] did the sound for. It was like a bondage performance with lots of fake blood and meat. I remember this kind of highfalutin Japanese art critic, whom we had met before the show, storming out of there and saying, “This is an outrage!” Afterward there was a panel discussion, and at some point Keiji Haino, who was in the audience, jumped up and said, “This is an outrage!” He waved his cane and stormed out of there. I think his point was basically that it was utterly pointless to be talking about this music—just do it, you know? (laughter)
But I was having total déjà vu of watching pro wrestling as a kid in Louisville on WDRB channel 41. Haino waving his cane and running out was like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper jumping up and shouting, “I can’t take any more of this!” It was awesome. I’ve never seen anything like that in New York City.
CSY “This is total bull!”—
DG “I’ll see you in the ring next Saturday!”
CSY I’d like to go back to the evolution of Bastro into other projects. You said you didn’t want to be in a rock band.
DG I just wanted us to practice in Bundy’s living room. I’d never played a steel-string acoustic guitar before.
CSY Because before Bastro was Squirrel Bait, and before Squirrel Bait was—
DG The band I was in before Squirrel Bait was called the Happy Cadavers. I was probably 12 or 13 when it started and 14 when it ended. The Happy Cadavers was my eighth-grade band; Squirrel Bait was my high-school band.
CSY That’s really young to be rocking. How did you even know about how rock bands worked?
DG If you went into a record store in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1979, you would find copies of local fanzines like the Hammer, which was put out by Bruce Witsiepe who was in the band Circle X, and Modern, which was done by Jim Adams who was in the band Stutter. And suddenly you’re reading about punk rock and industrial music and Throbbing Gristle or whatever.
In 1979—which is when I first encountered this stuff—the Clash had already peaked and Sandinista! was just about to come out. People were trying to make sense of the Gang of Four and Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Punk had taken a really weird turn. There was an article on postpunk in Rolling Stone that had a picture of This Heat and a picture of the Raincoats. I remember that very vividly from when I was 11 or 12 years old.
CSY I don’t think I knew how rock bands worked until even a few years ago. Growing up, I didn’t really have punk rock or hardcore experience, which has a heavy dialogue between artist and audience, including participation. I’m still fascinated by people who say, “Well, I just started doing stuff.”
DG That’s why I stopped reading Rolling Stone and became more interested in fanzines made in Louisville. The people were so accessible. To me, every bit as important as hearing the records was the occasional bit of wisdom. I remember reading this interview with Public Image Ltd in Rolling Stone right when Second Edition came out where John Lydon reiterated that rock and roll was the enemy and entertainment was the enemy. Years later, when I read Peter Bürger’s description of the avant-garde as being hostile to the institution of art, I understood Public Image Ltd and I understood punk’s hostility to the institution—not only of music, but of entertainment, of pop music.
CSY Since then though, you’ve been pursuing this particular sound and way of writing and playing; let’s call it, for lack of a better term, precision. I don’t necessarily mean precision in the sense that you’re trying to nail down these runs or are listening to Steely Dan and trying to get close to that type of shit. By precision I mean that stripped-down and naked sound. At the same time, you have been surrounded by people like Keiji Haino who’s super sloppy and loud and all over the place.
Have you ever felt like, I’m going to play some power electronics; I’m going to smash some microphones? Maybe I should ask: have you ever kicked an amplifier down the stairs and recorded that? (laughter) I think whenever people are confronted with one thing, they wonder, What about its opposite?
DG I certainly fantasize about hurling an amplifier down the stairs—I live on the 12th floor and it would be amazing to kick it down all these flights of stairs. It’s not that it wouldn’t appeal to me; I just haven’t done it. I also think that if you’re doing something that appears formless, people have this inclination to justify it: “Yes, but he’s a classically trained violinist, or pianist.” That’s their way of understanding the skeleton beneath the ill-formed flesh.
In one of his essays on jazz that people justifiably hate, Adorno makes a great observation. It’s something like “the most reactionary of all musicians is the musical eccentric”—someone who justifies banging the piano with his or her feet and playing unbridled noise but underwriting it with this gesture of authority: “But, of course I do know how to play my instrument perfectly well.” There’s something totally reactionary about having it both ways, making something wild and formless and at the same time saying, “Kids, don’t do this at home. I can only do this because of my years at the conservatory.” Maybe that’s why I’ve never permitted myself to throw an amplifier down the stairs.
CSY There’s also the flip side: “Well yeah, we know he can play the guitar, but has he thrown an amplifier down 12 flights of stairs yet?”
DG (laughter) The longer we talk about it, the more appealing it sounds. There’s a little Blues Junior amplifier right over there.
CSY My entry point into your work was the time of Gastr del Sol, but for you that was almost a young mid-career shift, a reboot that’s informed your work since.
DG At the time of Gastr del Sol, people didn’t describe starting again as “rebooting,” but it’s a pretty valid way to say what happened. A lot of what I do now seems pretty consistent with things that came out of Gastr del Sol, for instance nonfixed personnel and in terms of singing and silences. In Bastro, it was hard to know exactly what to do with my voice. The idea in Gastr del Sol was: there are all these silences—relative silences or near silences—and that’s where the voice fits best. I think that’s still true for me.
After Gastr del Sol, I roughly divided the records I made into records of songs—for lack of a better term, pop records—and more experimental records. The album An Optimist Notes the Dusk (2008), which starts off as sort of a song record and winds up someplace else, is generally reminiscent of Gastr del Sol, I think.
CSY At the time of Gastr del Sol, you could say there was an identifiable sound, but it was also fucking with the idea of having a band and the idea of songs. There would be major records but then some of the EPs would be these studies, if you will. Looking back on all these works, you have your pop records and then the “out” records. You have a system of organization, of differentiation.
I find that if you establish a restraint and then see what happens within that restraint, the work becomes more interesting. Then you actually have something you’re pushing against. I’m thinking of that Lydon quote you mentioned earlier—
DG “Rock and roll is the enemy” was an amazing thing to read at the age of 13.
CSY If a lot of those bands weren’t presented within the constraints of what people perceive as “rock and roll,” it wouldn’t be as interesting.
DG Right, which is why it’s endlessly interesting to me still to make records—rock records—knowing that rock has been the enemy now for almost 30 years.
CSY Do you feel that there’s an end goal in sight?
DG I have no idea what that would mean! You mean like a farewell tour? Public immolation?
CSY (laughter) Sometimes there’s a certain something being pursued. What happens when you finally get there? Are you like, “Okay, well I’m going to stop that now”? Or do you ever feel an urge to say, “I’m just not going to use my name anymore”? You might still work within the systems you’ve developed as a “solo artist,” but now you’re going to throw it under a particular project name?
DG I think I’m happiest putting all of these things out under my own name, rather than changing it to Bonnie “Prince” Grubbs or Burning Star Grubbs or something like that.
CSY (laughter) Burning Star Grubbs has a pretty good ring to it.
DG You just put out a record of songs under the name CS Yeh, a subtle shift in the presentation. A transition as it were.
CSY Exactly, there you go. The Transitions record is hopefully a starting point for a new trail of metal and plastic. I’ve been thinking about backwards reflection and the romanticizing of artists’ arcs and trajectories. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the first solo Brian Eno records, which are fantastic works, but it’s not even the main thing that he’s remembered for. There’s this point at which the song-based records begin to break down for whatever reason. I’m chasing after this thread now. Records like Eno’s Another Green World (1975) become really interesting to me because you have the songs but also an increasing instrumental presence, which becomes the furniture music that Eno gets eventually known for.
DG I’ve always wanted to recapitulate that in miniature over the course of an album, and I feel like I’ve done it several times. Rather than an album having a recapitulation at the end that’s like the entire Broadway cast coming out and singing the overture again, on my solo records the group that you’re left with at the end of the record is very different from the one that you begin with. And that gesture—moving from tight songs to the more diffuse perfumy music—that’s An Optimist Notes the Dusk, to some extent, and that’s The Plain Where the Palace Stood. I didn’t have to wait until I was old for “late work.” Late work happens 30 minutes into an album!
CSY I am fascinated with those arcs that happen over the course of years and years. That is very much what I hoped to explore on Transitions. It’s tight songs, a lot of rules—nothing gets too weird. And it ends up being weird anyway because of those rules, but not overtly.
I’m on a couple of tracks of The Plain Where the Palace Stood. I was talking with Nate Wooley, who appears on Optimist, and I made this joke that as soon as I burst in on the scene on the first track, it feels somehow disconnected from what’s going on—
DG Oh, do you mean your violin playing is disconnected on that track or from the rest of the record?
CSY I generally feel that way when I hear myself playing on someone else’s record. The circumstances in which I contributed to The Plain were very much “in person.” There’s this live feel that I assume you intended to keep?
CSY Has that always been the case with the song-based records? Maybe because of your time in rock bands, you want to do whole-band takes and whole overdubs in the studio without too much editing?
DG I do a lot of editing, but I like to play with people who are good improvisers, who can really go for it in a way that I myself don’t necessarily do. In asking you to not prepare in advance, I was looking for a certain quality that I don’t hear in my own playing, which is more prearranged. I was looking for an improviser, a wilder, go-for-it quality, which is also the way that Nate Wooley has played on those records. On Gastr del Sol’s Crookt, Crackt or Fly there’s one song where it really falls apart. John McEntire is one of the most amazing no-sweat-I-got-it, first-take drummers, and I think it’s the one time ever that, while the tape was rolling, you can hear the gears jamming and the smoke coming out of his ears. I love it! It felt like a never-to-be-repeated moment from John, who is the most methodical of timekeepers and percussionists. That kind of unrepeatable quality is what I hope to find with other improvisatory musicians.
CSY You definitely got that in my takes on the new record.
DG There was a period when I felt, I’m the songwriter who plays with improvisers, with people who don’t repeat themselves.
CSY About an hour ago, I was trying to ask you about this particular “David Grubbs sound.”
DG My core musical identity—
CSY I feel like I have an insight now—
DG Colon: likes to revise. (laughter) I’ve always done a poor job of encapsulating what I do in a few words. When musicians describe what they do, for better or worse—although I usually think it’s for the better—it’s not as precise as with most visual artists, who seem to be trained in talking the talk.
CSY Do people still strictly approach you as “just a musician,” despite all your other interests and efforts?
DG The reason I love doing those collaborations is because there’s rarely a tidy division of labor. Playing live to a solid-light film by Anthony McCall made me learn more about McCall’s visual art and about installation practices in general. Also, through the conversations and projects with Susan Howe, I learned more about poetry. I believe, like a lot of people, that there can be a degree of randomness to one’s professional identity. My own professional identity is primarily as a musician, it’s what I’ve done the longest. But I’ve also been teaching for seven years now, so there are plenty of people who think of me as an academic. I’ve just finished a book that’s about to come out that will add a different wrinkle to my professional identity. It’s only troublesome when you feel like you’re being talked down to as a musician.
CSY I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.
DG Like Duchamp clearly felt that people were talking down to him as a painter. He couldn’t stand people thinking that he was, above all, just an intuitive maker of images. For much of my time, I am an intuitive maker of sounds and musical compositions.
The person transcribing this interview can’t see this, but I’m shrugging my shoulders very slowly, very dramatically. (laughter)
CSY You are writing and teaching, but at the end of the day, you would still be “just a musician.” I often think about that tag and about all the possible transitions, like actors with rock bands and musicians who become actors. I very much agree with you that it can feel random or like stumbling around. Maybe I’m envious of people who decide “I’m going to become this,” and just figure out how to do it.
DG I generally am not envious of people who found their callings as painters or as documentary filmmakers because oftentimes it’s stunting when people identify too strongly with their professions. One of the things that’s in fact difficult to take seriously in academia is the extent to which many people are so strongly identified with their areas of expertise. Everything I do as a teacher is to push in the opposite direction. I’m happy not to be a professor of English specializing in early 20th-century American poetry and living in a college town somewhere. I feel really fortunate that I didn’t wind up foreclosing all these other things that I have done and that I want to do.