October 15, 2002

Musician goes to Europe...

I'll wager that more than a few Squirrel Bait cultists walked through this hallowed institution during the 90s without realizing that a member of that band was laboring as a graduate student in the English department. I'll further wager that more than a few Gastr del Sol fans were unaware of the same fact. Finally, I'll wager that the respective fans of each band, listening to a release by the other, would not initially guess the connection between them. Welcome, friends and sympathizers, to the world of David Grubbs. His early work on the Louisville post-punk scene - with Squirrel Bait and Bastro - resulted in raw, adrenaline-soaked rock. His work with Jim O'Rourke in Gastr del Sol changed directions completely, with the emphasis changing to experimentation and musicianship. Combine all this with a budding career in academia, and we get a lexicographically viable case of an "eclectic" career.

Grubbs has been working as a solo artist since his move from Chicago to New York three years ago. This year alone saw the release of two albums - the instrumental Act Five, Scene One and the more traditional Rickets and Scurvy - which further illustrate the eclecticism of his work. Act Five, Scene One works something like a musical clock, consisting of four precisely timed fifteen-minute movements, made up of repeated instrumental melodies and sound samples. Rickets and Scurvy is more of a traditional singer-songwriter effort, but it's an adventurous work that showcases his full range of skills as a musician. As different as these albums are, they are both among the strongest releases so far this year. Through the magic of email, Voices caught up with Grubbs in the midst of his European tour to talk about his new albums and his plans for the future.

Chicago Maroon: First, how is the tour going? Has Europe been hospitable?

David Grubbs: Greetings from a van one hour into the five-hour drive between Marburg and Hamburg. The tour has been going quite well; it's the first time that I've played in a trio with Noel Akchote and Thomas Belhom, and I'm enjoying that aspect of it tremendously. I usually do very leisurely tours—the most recent consisted of six shows in a month in New Zealand and Australia—so this one is part experiment, part penance. Not counting a DJ set in Vienna and a day of rehearsal in Manchester, it comes to twenty-three nights in a row. I love the rhythm of playing every night, but it's quite a schlep. I need to find that ideal city where I can do a twenty-three-night stand.

CM: You were in the English department at the U. of Chicago in the early nineties. How did you balance being a graduate student with your work in Gastr del Sol?

DG: Well, "balance" probably isn't the right word. "Cram"? "Shoehorn"?

CM: Was it difficult to decide between a career in music and a career in academia? Did you ever find that your work in one influenced the other?

DG: I've been doing music full-time for the last three years, but I don't feel that I've definitively cast my lot. I imagine that I'll return to teaching at some point. I had a very good experience teaching in the liberal arts and sound departments at the School of the Art Institute, I give infrequent talks, and I do a fair amount of freelance writing—music criticism for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, book reviews for Bookforum, etc.

CM: A few years ago you left Chicago for New York. What do you find to be the major differences between working in the two cities?

DG: I was in Chicago for nine years, and by the end of that period I felt very much a part of a community of musicians, artists, and academics. I was also there throughout my twenties, which is a time in which people tend to be hot to rub ideas together—a time for more personally intense collaborations. Most of the people that I've worked with in the last several years live scattered about the globe, so I'm not possessed of the same sense of community that I enjoyed in Chicago.

CM: I understand that Act Five, Scene One was originally intended as an exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris. How did you get involved with that a project like that? Was it ever installed?

DG: Act Five, Scene One borrows its structure from a piece entitled "Between a Raven and a Writing Desk," a sound installation that was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in the summer of 2000. It was included in the exhibition "Elysian Fields," which was curated by Purple Magazine, and one of the curators contacted me directly. "Between a Raven and a Writing Desk" is the only work I've made for installation,

CM: You've described Act Five, Scene One as working in "repeat-mode rock and roll," with the compositions coming at the beginning and then thirty minutes into the piece. Could you elaborate a bit on how you went about reworking the composition during the course of four 15-minute movements?

DG: As I mentioned, the structure of the work came from "Between a Raven and a Writing Desk," in which a four-minute group performance occurs at the beginning of and 30 minutes into an hour-long cycle. The piece's coda appears at the 15 and 45-minute marks. These signposts are linked by individual elements from the piece's percussion track, scaled at a volume intended to represent the percussion elements played acoustically in the exhibition space. For Act Five, Scene One, I used the same hour-long cycle (I hoped that it would work both as a start-to-finish listen and in repeat mode) and 15-minute sections, and I wanted to continue working with dead time and exact symmetries.

CM: Your other new album, Rickets and Scurvy is - I don't know if this is how you would describe it - it sounds like a more traditional rock album. Do you find that its very different working on something like Rickets and Scurvy from something like Act Five, Scene One?

DG: I find it satisfyingly different.

CM: Some of the lyrics for Rickets and Scurvy were written with Rick Moody. How exactly did your collaboration work?

DG: Electronically. Rick proposed a collaboration, so I sent drafts of lyrics-in-progress, and was shocked when he replied with a first set of stabs that matched my "free" meters—not—and rhyme schemes. Very Marianne Moore!

CM: Did you feel left out when, in the course of trashing everything else Rick Moody's done, that Dale Peck review in the New Republic didn't mention his work on your album?

DG: Oh, I get my share of being trashed, so the answer would be no.

CM: What are you planning to do next? Will you record when you get back home, focus on your label [Blue Chopsticks, an imprint of Drag City], or perhaps just take some time off?

DG: Time off sounds glorious, if unrealistic. I've just finished a soundtrack for an installation by Angela Bulloch at the Cambridge Institute for Visual Culture, so when I get back to New York I'm going rework that material for a release in the spring on FatCat. I'm also releasing new records by myself and Mats Gustafsson (Off-Road) and Van Oehlen (Rock and Roll Is Here to Die) on Blue Chopsticks in early 2003. Then writing songs.

CM: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. We really appreciate it. Best of luck on the remainder of your tour and beyond.

DG: Thank you!