David Grubbs is someone I’ve admired for a long time. As a musician, scholar, teacher, and writer, he’s charted a long and wandering course through the arts. In a sense, he’s a contemporary Renaissance man, in that he’s skilled and knowledgeable in so many fields, but he’s much more unassuming than that revered ideal of an artist.
At the age of 16, Grubbs made a ruckus in Louisville with Squirrel Bait. Members of Squirrel Bait became Slint, and so perpetuated generations of bespeckled indie-rockers. Grubbs found his way into Bastro, along with Bundy K. Brown and John McIntire, and then Gastr Del Sol, alongside the now ubiquitous Jim O’Rourke. Since the dissolution of Gastr Del Sol, he’s completed four records under his own name (The Thicket, The Coxcomb, Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange, most recently, The Spectrum Between), and a sublime collaboration with Swedish reed player Mats Gustafsson called Apertura, which consists of two lengthy tracks of harmonium vs. horn sustained tone drone. He’s been a part of the Red Krayola, and raised a din with Tony Conrad. Grubbs spoke to me from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
How do you associate with India? I ask because I grew up with the harmonium being used in a traditional environment. On the weekends we would sing bhajans accompanied by a harmonium. You’ve also got a song called “Swami Vivekanda’s Way,” named after the prolific Indian sage. I’m a few feet away from an eight-volume set of his collected works. Do his beliefs play any part in your music making?
The title “Swami Vivekanda Way” came about through several coincidences. I was teaching at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and one day noticed that a one-block stretch of Michigan Avenue was designated “Swami Vivekanda Way.” Not long before that, Swami Vivekanda had come up in a discussion at my previous job as copy editor for an academic humanities journal. We were preparing an issue on post-colonialism, and if I’m not mistaken, wound up using for the cover an image of Vivekanda in front of the Chicago skyline. What attracted me to using the title was less an interest in Vivekanda’s work — I know very little about it — and more the strange experience that a very familiar place (one of the busiest blocks in Chicago) could have a designation that would be utterly unfamiliar to folks who spend a lot of time there. It was also a quiet call-out to people from the Art Institute.
One day, Jim O’Rourke and I were working on the Gastr del Sol record Camoufleur, and we needed percussion mallets. We went to a store called Andy’s Music, which had suddenly become filled with traditional Indian instruments — I think more to spruce up the look of the place, because no one there seemed to know much about the instruments. I had been looking at British-style stationary harmoniums recently, and was ecstatic to find a portable harmonium from New Delhi. I tend to play it in an unconventional style — unclasping both ends of the bellows and drawing them out to their full length, thus making the “breathing” of the instrument as slow as possible. I use the harmonium on Apertura, a record of improvised duets with Mats Gustafsson, and Pauline Oliveros’ Primordial/Lift.
The way I approach the harmonium has very little to do with traditional Indian music. That said, I love much Indian music; the first thing that pops to mind is one of the most moving performances I’ve ever experienced — seeing the great violinist V.G. Jog several years ago. Unbelievable! This elderly man seemed like he could hardly walk to the stage, much less hold a bow, and yet once he got going… extraordinary. Also, I particularly like the flute music of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and what Carnatic vocal music I’ve heard. As with so many things, I wish I had more time to study and enjoy Indian music.
How did the Apertura collaboration come about? Seeing as how you’ve played on the recent Pauline Oliveros CD you just mentioned, and Tony Conrad’s Slapping Pythagoras as well, have you long had an interest in sustained tones and drones?
Through the good offices of folks like Ken Vandermark and John Corbett, Mats has been a regular presence in Chicago. He lives in the Stockholm area, but he’s probably in Chicago twice a year. He saw a show of an electric Gastr del Sol (one at which I was twice pelted with full cups of a beer from a disillusioned Squirrel Bait fan visiting from Florida… true story!) and was not shy in his enthusiasm. A couple of years later, he was in town and I asked him to do some overdubs for The Thicket. We got those out of the way quickly, and then decided to sit down and record an improvisation with me on the harmonium. It lasted forty minutes. Then we did another. Mats had just been on tour with the AALY Trio, and his playing was marvelous, completely hot. The piece — which is now “Apertura Pt. 1” — begins with twenty minutes of Mats’ circular breathing on the fluteophone, very quietly, which is something quite other than doing that at circus-tent volume. The response to that record has been quite polarized, with free-jazz adrenaline junkies in particular being up in arms, thinking Mats’ reserves of firepower wasted, etc., etc. I love hearing Mats play in a style that’s unique among his recordings, and Apertura is a favorite of mine.
I hadn’t really gotten inside drone-based music before seeing Tony Conrad perform or playing with him. Sure, I had listened to lots of records with drones, but I had never experienced the drone itself as the sustaining center or wellspring of a music. People talk about timelessness in their experience of drones, fair enough, but I also had the sense of music being made and lived in real time — probably much in the same way that some people love free improvised music for a similar experience of time. Playing with Tony can be relaxing. You don’t have to compress or theatricalize your gestures, you can really take your time, you can let your mind wander, there’s much less of a demand to “perform.” Those all feel like real-time qualities.
Are you comfortable as an improviser? I’ve read an interview where you stated your hesitations improvising on the acoustic guitar. Has the harmonium changed the way you play?
About the acoustic guitar, what can I say? This is my own situation, but I just don’t find myself stirring, much less satisfying, my soul with the acoustic guitar in free improv contexts — I’m always striving for some kind of harmonic input that I never realize; I think I unwittingly confuse the process with that of composing music, which is what I’m usually doing with the guitar in my hands. For improvised settings, I’d much prefer to thump on a floor tom. Or play synth or electronics. Or play the harmonium, because the texture is so rich and everything can move so slowly — not so with the acoustic guitar, which, unless you’re willing to dive into well-mined territory of extended technique, feels like note after note after note. For me, no thanks!
Do you see a lot of theatricality and gesturing within freely improvised music? It’s interesting, because from what I see, there is less of that sort of thing in improv than in say, singing songs. You’ve seen both sides of the issue, though.
In improvised music, the kind of theatricality that I particularly dislike is the didactic kind, the kind that thinks of itself as critical, demystifying, etc. — specifically things like deliberately bumping microphones, the sounds made from plugging and unplugging instruments, changing strings, etc. Classroom stuff.
Could you comment on the recent debate between Tony Conrad and La Monte Young about the recently issued Day Of Niagara CD?
I find Tony’s arguments smart and very moving, and I’m on the side of regarding the work as collectively composed and produced and making it available. I also think that the debate is producing a much more nuanced understanding of that period, and that’s an excellent thing. I find La Monte’s arguments sadly legalistic, and when he does things like bitch about the sound quality on the ToTE release (or its artwork!), I think it’s telling how far he’s strayed from the terms of the debate. I actually find a real pathos to his position, in that he seems to be arguing his side so wrongly, so unpersuasively. Really out of it.
What prompted your move to Brooklyn?
I moved for love. It wasn’t a matter of being finished with Chicago or needing to get the hell out of Dodge or anything like that. I make records for a living, so I could uproot more easily. But I haven’t come close to finding a comparable group of musicians with whom to work. Oh well, I see lots more movies. Always a trade-off.
How did your recent tour of Europe go?
It was a tour in Italy, and it had its moments. I’ve had the good fortune to do three tours in Italy in the last two years, plus a residence in Catania, Sicily, in a project to work with musicians there. Agostino Tilotta and Giovanna Cacciola — who people know best from the band Uzeda — do tireless work in arranging the next-to-impossible for bands and people that they like. They also seem convinced of a kind of mystical bond between Catania and Louisville, Kentucky — where I’m from — and who am I to argue with that?
Are you still teaching?
Nope. I’m doing some freelance criticism, but apart from that, I’m doing music exclusively. Professionally, that is. To think of doing music exclusively in one’s life! Never mind — it made me laugh.
Do you think that there is a pop sensibility that pervades the music you’ve put out under your own name? From looking at your conversation with Van Dyke Parks and your songs, the Beach Boys — and Smile, especially — seem to be reference points to some of your music. To be honest, I’m just trying to prompt you to go on at length about that record, and how it affected the way you write and orchestrate songs.
Chalk me up as a fan but not particularly a student of Smile and other Beach Boys records from that period. I’ve been transported by the sublimity of Pet Sounds and much of Surf’s Up many, many times. Don’t even think of playing any of those songs on a jukebox — I’m bound to make a scene. On the other hand, would that there were more jukeboxes with Van Dyke Parks’ music. I feel more of an all-around affinity with Van Dyke’s music than with that period of the Beach Boys in that the latter feels so precarious, troubled, manchildish, etc. Van Dyke’s music — and my favorite records of his are Number Nine, Come to the Sunshine, Song Cycle, Discover America, and Jump! ; additionally, I saw a couple of very wonderful performances by his trio last year — is so thoroughly conceptualized and executed, everything so purposeful and accounted for, and yet to such — what’s the word I’m looking for — selfless ends? That’s not exactly right. The man knows how to take up a topic and treat it thoroughly. See it through. In this regard, his music, even from the same period, seems so different from the Beach Boys’ tragic, angsty “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” baseline sentiments. I also think Van Dyke is a first-rate lyricist — wait, that sounds like something said at an awards ceremony — a lyricist not to be confused with any other, and a vastly underrated wrangler of words. Something like that.
What have you been reading/watching/listening to as of late?
Reading: Henry James, The Golden Bowl, The Other House; Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales; Open City (anthology of postwar Italian writing); Francine Du Plessix Gray, At Home with the Marquis de Sade; Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk.
Watching: Flowers of Shanghai, Gimme Shelter, Chronicle d’un Ete
Listening: Sam Rivers, A New Conception; Chapottin Cuni Miguelito, Los Senores del Son; the Red Krayola, Blues, Hollers and Hellos; most of the releases in the Unheard Music Series (esp. Sven-Ake Johansson [Schlingerland], Nachtluft [Belle-View I-IV], Mt. Everest Trio [Waves From Albert Ayler]); the Marquis de Tren and Bonny Billy, Get on Jolly.