How post-rock forefather David Grubbs paved the road from punk to the American avant-garde.
The classroom is empty, the students more than an hour away, but David Grubbs sits behind a console in an unassuming Brooklyn College radio laboratory, tinkering with faders and talking about the aesthetics of sound art as if one of his classes already was in session. In this performance space without an audience, he's dressed in a neatly pressed blue-collared shirt and black jeans, with dark-framed eyeglasses, a sole ring on his right hand and a barely visible hoop in one ear. It's a uniform of sorts that's deceptively plain. Listening to the sometimes meticulously plotted patterns of his speech, the way sentences percolate behind the eyes before they leave his mouth fully formed, it becomes clear how Grubbs can layer even basic sentiments with meanings that beg further attention. Recently, he tells me, he invited students to analyze a highly reflexive episode of a popular television series, where the main characters would spontaneously -- and sometimes with a measure of resistance -- burst into song. "It seemed like a good way to talk about the unconscious," he says, "and expressing things one wouldn't care to express otherwise."
Since arriving at City University of New York's ivy-laced and tree-shaded Brooklyn campus this autumn, Grubbs has immersed himself in such subjects: dissecting radio documentaries, ruminating on interactive media, and persuading students eyeing broadcasting careers that there is a future in artistically conscious radio, no matter how seemingly small or marginalized the audience. The classes, which have dovetailed with the completion of his 186-page doctoral dissertation on John Cage and the American avant-garde, seem like a natural fit for the 38-year-old Park Slope, Brooklyn resident, husband and father. Grubbs, who cultivates a voracious hunger for new ideas, may be what some would call a natural academic, but he's also been productive outside classrooms and ivory towers -- an accomplished musician who has blurred the lines between independent rock, disparate modes of classical composition and theory, and the American musical avant-garde.
Beginning in the early 1980s with distorted but melodic strains of punk rock and expanding over three decades with edgier and more experimental fare, Grubbs has forged a critically lauded musical career as unprecedented as it has been maddeningly prolific. He has been called a father of post-rock, the typically long-form, textured and emotionally resonant music that counts as its cousins post-punk, emo and progressive rock. A central figure in the now-defunct Chicago-based avant-acoustic group Gastr del Sol, Grubbs has performed with minimalist composer Tony Conrad, the freewheeling art-rock ensemble Red Krayola and jazz musician Mats Gustafsson; recorded with the phantom-blues guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors, the electronic duo Matmos; served as a session player with alt-county troubadour Richard Buckner, Palace ringleader Will Oldham and cowgirl singer-songwriter Edith Frost; and collaborated with poet Susan Howe, filmmakers Braden King and Laura Moya, and with author Rick Moody in Wingdale Community Singers. In his solo work he's even more the chameleon, moving from the ghostly instrumental measures of the concept-album Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange and the genre-bending pop of A Guess at the Riddle to the time-release experiments of Act Five, Scene One and the theatrical streaks of The Coxcomb. When not recording or performing music, he has written for punk-spirited fanzines and contributed regular articles to the likes of Suddeutsche Zeitung. But the flurried pace and disarming diversity of Grubbs's career may have been anything but unexpected for those who know him. The arc of his creative life always has been about finding boundaries, pushing and then breaking them.
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David Evans Grubbs was born September 21, 1967 at Methodist Hospital in downtown Louisville, the second son of a Kentucky-bred attorney and a photographer specializing in children's portraits. Grubbs's formative years, though set in the communal comforts of the city's leafy East End suburbs, were framed by several boundaries. Though he wouldn't realize it until college, Louisville's neighborhoods were defined not only by their geography but by the racial segregation and class division that permeated them. These borders extended into playgrounds as well as classrooms. While many of his friends went through the city's public schools or attended the more experimental Brown School, Grubbs left the system in fourth grade and enrolled at the private Kentucky Country Day School.
Punk rock would knock down those walls. Grubbs first experienced the clatter and catharsis of punk not through trembling stereo speakers but through the filter of the written word. When he was 12, he started reading Rolling Stone and, much to his parents' disappointment, found himself riveted by Greil Marcus's and Tom Carson's reviews, their takes on early Clash and Gang of Four records. Next came fanzines and then a network of local musicians filtering their own experiences into nascent and unique forms of punk in such groups as the Babylon Dance Band and Your Food. ("There was a lot of 'Eat Your Food or eat shit' spray-painted around Louisville," he jokes.) Grubbs's father, who had grown up with fellow Kentuckian gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was particularly displeased with his youngest child's growing interest in these decadent strains of popular culture. "Hunter Thompson really shook my father's belief that you're rewarded for following rules," Grubbs says. "To this day, he can't believe that people consider Hunter Thompson a great cultural figure. He doesn't get it."
A piano student since age six, Grubbs switched to guitar at 12 and by 14 was one of the youngest members of the new-wave quintet Happy Cadavers. The group's With Illustrations EP, self-released in 1982, became Grubbs's modest recording debut. Cassette recordings of his noisy punk trio Squirrel Bait Youth, a precursor to the more polished Squirrel Bait, followed after the group formed on Halloween night of the same year. His parents, navigating through crowds peppered with punks and transvestites, would drive Grubbs and his friends to shows. It was an endearing phenomenon in an American city proud of its regionalism and sense of enclosure. Friends' parents would drive Grubbs and others to watch touring punks in points as far removed as Newport, Kentucky, and Indianapolis. Punk's energetic forms of self-expression and independent-minded ethics not only inspired Grubbs but became causes he could champion. Grubbs would later find this spirit in the American avant-garde. "It was a value in and of itself," he says, speaking of the sudden sense of purpose that drove his teenage years. "There was a lot of work to be done to supplant rock music with something that was tougher and more real."
So, Grubbs enlisted Clark Johnson, a close friend and former baseball teammate he'd known since he was two. One day in 1982, while they were listening to records, Johnson remembers, Grubbs pulled out a manila folder and started to draw on it the fretted neck of a bass guitar. "He basically said, 'Why don't you play bass? It's easy. I'll show you how to play.' That's how I learned." Johnson, now a 38-year-old husband, father and Louisville attorney, held down the bottom end in several bands with Grubbs, from the very short-lived Runt Pig and post-hardcore heroes Squirrel Bait to the more tightly wound, venomous post-punk of Bastro. The scene around them blossomed. By the fall of 1985, when Grubbs enrolled at Georgetown University, he was corresponding and swapping demos with underground musicians around the country and had launched the photocopied fanzine Hit the Trail. His band, Squirrel Bait, toured well beyond Kentucky and was touted by everyone from the Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü to indie-rock iconoclast Steve Albini.
Grubbs typified the spirit of a Louisville scene slowly growing in national notoriety and influence. As Grubbs described it to the British zine Comes With A Smile, "The people I grew up with in Louisville who are still making music -- Will Oldham, David Pajo, Britt Walford, Brett Ralph, et cetera -- all were really serious about holding one another to a high standard," Grubbs says. "That was the main thing when we were in high school -- that everybody else was pouring their soul into what they did, and you'd better be doing the same."
"In the early scene, there was so much energy and enthusiasm," says Britt Walford, another of Grubbs's early collaborators who drummed for Squirrel Bait, Languid and Flaccid, and Bastro and later formed the legendary post-rock group Slint. "It was just like nothing else I've ever been a part of. For me, it was, 'Wow, you can actually do something on your own, be yourself and actually be cool.' "
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Silence breaks with a single tone -- the dying whimper, perhaps, of some long-forgotten machine -- then swells into the shape-shifting drone of an organ, a calliope far along its journey to the bottom of some imaginary sea. The soundscape faintly pulses, more like waves dancing to the rhythms of a lingering moon than a succession of plotted notes, as jagged shards of feedback slash through, disrupting the calm but leaving the drones and pulses unaffected. The tension builds. And as the sound slowly roils to a crescendo, an unexpected arsenal of faux-jazz horns from some dusty cinematic symphony invades from all fronts, forcing the layers of sound to buckle under a grand gesture straight out of Ennio Morricone. After a flutter of notes, the song fades to the stargazing, almost elegiac coda of a keyboard.
This is "Our Exquisite Replica of 'Eternity,' " the introduction to Gastr del Sol's 1996 Drag City LP Upgrade & Afterlife, possibly the masterstroke of Grubbs's collaboration with Chicago musician Jim O'Rourke. For the better part of a decade, Gastr del Sol held a coveted place not only in Windy City circles but in the collective mind of the musicians, listeners, fanzine writers and scenesters who loosely define indie rock's "underground." For a post-Nirvana indie scene that yearned to migrate from the co-opted crunch of grungy guitars to more unconventional, genre-defying fare, Gastr del Sol was a Holy Grail: haunting, mostly acoustic song-skeletons framed by tabletop electronics and studio flourishes, hypnotic patterns and drones and a panoramic sense of composition. Not so much composed as captured, these songs were breathing creatures, with beating hearts. "Rebecca Sylvester," off Upgrade & Afterlife, or "Work from Smoke," off 1993's Crookt, Crackt or Fly, were masterfully written and emotionally resonant despite their opaque constructions. At the center of it all was Grubbs himself, a vulnerable and all-too-human voice in the midst of the indefinable, offering elusive word-pictures that seemed to compress the poetic heft of Eliot and Pound into the unbearable lightness of a haiku. "I think Grubbs doesn't place a lot of importance on the form of the lyrics. He places huge importance on the content of them," says author Rick Moody, who's written lyrics for Grubbs's solo work and performs with him and Hannah Marcus in the "pre-rock" acoustic group Wingdale Community Singers. "This may be an extension of how Grubbs thinks about music, which comes out of the avant-garde of the 1960s. If you gave Dave 20 lines from the Manhattan phone book, he could make them into lyrics without much trouble at all, in terms of form, but there wouldn't be any poetry there, and that's what he's interested in."
"I felt that Gastr del Sol developed its own idiom," Grubbs explains. "The band almost had a didactic mission of doing these songs that were deliberately oddly constructed." It also was a mission, Grubbs says, of calculated eccentricity that, in the true spirit of punk rock, was purposely confrontational. But there were also touches, however masked, of the autobiographical. In the oft-cited "Eight Corners" (recorded for 1994's Mirror Repair EP), Grubbs sings street names over a barely present, Satie-tinged piano, essentially cataloging roadways and creating imaginary intersections in Louisville and Chicago. One reading, suggested by Grubbs himself, is that the song is a rumination on Chicago's massive transportation grid, a network of roads so vast it seems to extend all the way to Kentucky. But the somber mood of the piece begs deeper interpretations, some of which are fed by an afternoon spent in Grubbs's native Louisville. Roads from "Eight Corners" run near the massive Cave Hill National Cemetery, intersect with streets lined with book stores and record shops staffed by people associated with Grubbs, or lead right to an abandoned quarry that now serves as a swimming hole for Louisvillians like the Johnsons and the Walfords. And does the closing lyrical couplet of "Eight Corners" -- "Longest Avenue / Chicago Road" -- merely mention the names of two roadways familiar to Grubbs, or is it some kind of guarded code to suggest the longest road out of his hometown, a frequent reference point in his work, was the one that led him to a new life in Chicago?
If turmoil or tribulation marked Grubbs's migration from Louisville to Washington, D.C. to Chicago, it hasn't been reflected in his prolific work as a musician. Out of the ashes of the Squirrel Bait -- whose members called it quits after their second record, 1986's Skag Heaven -- came Bastro, which started as little more than Grubbs, a drum machine and a sense of fury reminiscent of the explosive punk noise of Albini's Big Black. (The Rode Hard and Put Up Wet EP, essentially Grubbs's earliest solo work -- was released in 1988 but has been more or less out of print since the early 1990s.) The group, which Johnson joined in 1988 and drummer John McEntire shortly thereafter, was in part a vicious response to the melodic sensibilities and accessible verse-chorus-verse structures of Squirrel Bait. "I never got the sense that was a stated policy or an expressed goal," Johnson told me in a telephone interview, "but I certainly think that's true."
By 1991 Bastro was undergoing a seismic shift in sensibilities. Indie rock's underground was being upended and, to a degree, commercially exploited, after the success of Nirvana's major-label debut. However, Grubbs, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, was growing weary of the forms and formulas of punk rock. When Bastro toured Europe, Grubbs felt like he was trapped in the planned thrills of an amusement park. Onstage, when the band would make its way through an aggressive passage, Grubbs viewed the crowd's expectation for the music to come crashing down just as a carnival worker might regard the perfectly timed screams of those riding a roller-coaster. "To stop on a dime and really blast people again -- I saw that we could do that and I wanted to stop doing that," Grubbs says.
Bastro's sound also did not easily adapt to different performance spaces, a fate the trio confronted when they played what looked like no more than a lunchroom in Germany. "I just remember it sounding like a total disaster," Grubbs jokes. "I remember thinking, We should be able to respond to this situation, yet we couldn't . Why are we stuck in the tar pit of the rock power trio?"
The growing boredom with punk's well-worn forms came at a time when Bastro was finding its musical inspirations elsewhere -- in jazz and improvised guitar, electronica and avant-garde composers like Cage. "At the point where Clark left, David was beginning to explore some other directions for Bastro -- this was facilitated by John being more involved in the group, David listening to a wide variety of new sounds and finding ways to incorporate those things into the group," says Bundy K. Brown, who replaced Johnson in Bastro after Sing the Troubled Beast was released in 1990. "I think it was a time for really explosive growth for all three of us in Bastro, and we were excited to incorporate as many new ideas as we could." (The only recordings of this line-up surfaced in September 2005 as Antlers.)
By 1992, Bastro dissipated in the storm of its own ambitions. The group resurfaced under the Gastr del Sol moniker as a toned-down and, in comparison, unsettlingly quiet affair. The group's full-length debut, released in 1993 on D.C.-area label Teen Beat, sounded a million miles removed from the barbed-wire bark and roar of its predecessors. The Serpentine Similar presented Grubbs and Brown's atmospheric guitar-and-bass song-portraits with a nakedness that seemed as much a declaration of intent as Rode Hard and Put Up Wet was just five years earlier.
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Grubbs's voice offers all the hooks and shadows of handwriting but he leaves more indelible fingerprints on the frets of his guitar. Though accomplished as a lyricist and pianist, Grubbs has developed a tone and signature all his own on six strings. It's a style most apparent when played acoustically, as hypnotic as John Fahey and as spare as Loren Mazzacane Connors, as nimble as Bill Frisell and as sensual as Django Reinhart. It's also a distinguishable shorthand Grubbs has increasingly foregone for more unexpected terrain since moving to New York City about six years ago.
Shortly after arriving on the East Coast, Grubbs launched the Blue Chopsticks label -- a successor to Dexter's Cigar, the now-defunct Drag City imprint he directed with O'Rourke in the late nineties -- and sculpted it as an outlet for his more experimental leanings. He's appeared behind a harmonium on the ethereal drones of 1999's Apertura, his first, and iciest, collaboration with Mats Gustafsson, and created alien soundscapes with computers and piano on Thiefth, his recent outing with Susan Howe. Even when working with a more conventional palette, Grubbs has used Blue Chopsticks to push the envelope, as on the prepared-band recording of Act Five, Scene One, or toy with more long-form fare, as on the 20-minute Stephen Crane adaptation/homage "The Coxcomb." With Gastr del Sol, Grubbs often threw a number of influences and reference points into the mix, creating songs whose lineage was difficult, if enticing, to trace. But his years in New York City have been marked by a growing separation of performance and recording styles: Grubbs's experimental and song-oriented sides, once difficult to pry apart, now feel as if they've negotiated a trial divorce.
Blue Chopsticks is only part of a larger picture. Grubbs has continued releasing solo records, mainly through Drag City, that fall easier on commercial ears: straight-forward recordings driven by Grubbs's guitar and voice that adhere to verse/chorus/verse structures but offer their fair share of surprises. The foundations of these full-length offerings are frequently a desire to avoid foundations, to create new forms as some may create new refrains or reprises. It's less clear, though, what role emotions and personal trials play in Grubbs's music, as he is hesitant to map the role of his private life in the narrative of his work. "I'm not an entertainer," Grubbs said recently. "I've always felt the music I do is personally expressive, while I've never really made a point of saying something is autobiographical. Because there are better ways of expressing things than through music, more precise ways.
"Like George Bush nominating Harriet Miers, you'll have to trust me: I know David Grubbs's heart," he added, smiling. "I'm entirely reluctant to saying things like 'This record is about this relationship.' I'm entirely reluctant to saying what it is in my life that resulted in writing certain types of music."
But his work offers clues, particularly when he references Louisville, which appears in one form or another -- as a place, a character, a cultural or personal signifier -- in much of Grubbs's work. Guitars and bass mysteriously slink through Gastr del Sol's "A Watery Kentucky." Local roads creep into lyrics (Gastr del Sol's "Eight Corners"), as do the region's cemeteries (Wingdale Community Singers' "Family Plot, Mayfield Kentucky"). In one corner, Grubbs sings a mysterious couplet ("When you have stories to tell / You will tell them") over the piano reprise "Kentucky Karoake." In another, his sentiments pour out of the mouth of Mary Lass Stewart when she coos, "People's accents here are annoying / Where I come from, people talk beautifully" on "Buried in the Wall." Even the mention of Louisville's "strawberry yards" in 1996's "Rebecca Sylvester" invites a tide of sound that is one of Grubbs's most devastatingly beautiful and heartfelt moments. "I tend to advertise the fact that I'm Louisville," Grubbs says; in fact, the first four words of his official bio read "Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based."
Fellow Louisvillians -- and a fair number of expats -- seem just as expressive about their native city. "It's a unique place," explains Richard Schuler, who played with Grubbs and Johnson in Squirrel Bait Youth and briefly drummed with Louisville act King Kong. "There's something very ultra-hometown and small and comfortable about it. At the same time, there's something very -- I don't want to say cosmopolitan, but smart about it."
"It's so easy to live here," Britt Walford told me, as we sat in a Louisville pool club carved into an old quarry. "If you want to try something new, it's somewhere you can try it among friends." For someone beyond the looking glass, that strong sense of community lends Louisville an island-like mystique. "I could definitely see it as an outsider," says John McEntire, the Portland, Oregon native turned Chicago studio guru. "It was real hard to understand the dynamic of it. But, I thought it was really inspiring to see all these guys keeping really busy, trying different things, working together in different facets. They were kind of just this little island."
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We're flies on the wall of Clark Johnson's kitchen, standing in his spacious, three-story home in Louisville's East End Highlands. It's August, and Louisville is wet with darkness and fragrant late-summer humidity, one of those close nights you'd expect the city's native sons and daughters to gather on a veranda or rain-caressed cobblestones for fresh air, conversation, or bourbon and branch. Tonight, Johnson's home is a veritable who's who of the Louisville artistic underground. As Clark mixes margaritas, his older brother T.R., a Tulane University professor and musician flown in from pre-Katrina New Orleans, talks with Schuler, the bespectacled drummer who's returning for a brief visit to Louisville with his wife, the artist and singer-songwriter Carrie Yury. Sitting leisurely in the corner at a small kitchen table, in T-shirt and orange shorts, is Ethan Buckler, the bass-voiced frontman for King Kong. Nearby, the man who replaced Buckler in Slint, a now-bearded Todd Brashear, paces as he cradles his newborn son. Walford moves from room to room, unassuming in a well-worn white undershirt and sneakers, messy hair peppered almost undetectably with specks of gray. Country music plays in the background. A dozen friends and former classmates round out the picture. Noticeably absent is Grubbs -- in New York, perhaps, or returning from a tour abroad -- and this seems to allow those who know him to ruminate on his place in this community and makeshift family.
For T.R. Johnson, Grubbs, the musician, is nothing less than an enigma. "I don't know where David's playing comes from, quite frankly," Johnson said. "Early on, there's models. Really, after (Bastro), his influences were so much broader. If he still has models, I wouldn't know them He has a guitar in his head, and he's taking a shower, cooking breakfast, and he's working on an idea. It's kind of difficult to call him a guitar player. He's a composer and a recorder."
But depicting him as a cerebral musician-thinker, crafting concepts as readily as melodies, is not quite on the mark, though it may speak to his reluctance in dealing with formulaic modes of songwriting. "I can only write music with an instrument in my hands," Grubbs says. "Because I have never applied myself to writing in familiar forms, I'm usually evolving a form as I'm writing a song." Grubbs speaks in even more open-ended tones, occasionally cracking a smile, when he talks about his larger place in independent music. It's a concept he breached, if briefly, during his days with Gastr del Sol, when collaborations with the likes of Tony Conrad and Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson would lead to inquiries about directions in music. "A very typical Tony question is, 'What are you trying to do with this piece of music?'" Grubbs says. "And Mayo would say, 'Tell me, what's Gastr del Sol's thing, anyway?' And I really didn't have an answer for that."
Mayo's own answer seems a fitting epigraph not only of Gastr del Sol's modus operandi but for the arc of Grubbs's work as a musician and artist: "In a nightclub setting," Mayo told him, "to force people to confront music on a human scale."