photo © Roe Ethridge 
David Grubbs
Interview by Dan Warburton, June 28th, 1998
Though I'm seriously anti-mobile phones, if I'd had one on June 24th I might not have missed attending a recording session with American guitarist/pianist/songwriter David Grubbs, who was in Paris to record an album for Quentin Rollet's Rectangle label, with local musicians Noël Akchoté, Didier Petit, Thierry Madiot and Yves Robert. But, Quentin being Quentin, the schedule was changed at 3 a.m., I wasn't told in time and spent an hour sitting in a café in Montreuil waiting, by which time it was too late to go along. As a consolation prize though I was invited the following Sunday to Rectangle's world headquarters, i.e. Quentin's wonderfully chaotic apartment in Belleville, to take David Grubbs out for a late breakfast. It was 5 p.m. and they'd been out late celebrating the French victory over Paraguay in the World Cup. So most of the following was recorded walking the streets of Ménilmontant until we reached La Mère Lachaise, where, over coffee and numerous cigarettes, we discussed the multifarious projects of this intriguing, talented and affable musician, from his work with Jim O'Rourke in Gastr Del Sol to his forthcoming solo albums "The Thicket" and "The Coxcomb".

David Grubbs at Rectangle Records in Paris

Tell us about the Rectangle album.

"The Coxcomb". It's based on Stephen Crane's short story "The Blue Hotel". The A side of the record is a piece entitled "The Coxcomb" which is a description of the main characters in the story. Coxcomb signifies the Swede's resiliency, and there's a description of him walking in a snowstorm. ["One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smitten, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it."–Ed.] It's a fantastic short story. Basically, in Fort Romper, Nebraska, a snowy night, a Swede walks into a hotel and is terrified of his surroundings. He thinks this is the Wild West, and acts very suspicious, trying to make pleasant conversation by saying things like: "I suppose a lot of people get killed here..."! People start playing cards and he's really afraid of the card game, and he says: "I suppose I'm going to be killed before I can leave this house." So the hotel owner comes to his aid and gives him a couple of drinks of whisky to calm him down, and he just goes ballistic, starts playing cards, great description of him boardwhacking, you know, thwacking the cards down on the table. Finally he accuses the owner's son of cheating at cards, gets into a brawl with him, beats the living tar out of him and leaves the hotel, walks into the next saloon, picks a fight with a real gambler and gets killed.

That's the end of the story?

Well, there's an epilogue that has two of the characters, the Easterner and the Cowboy, who were in the Blue Hotel, and the Cowboy says something like: "He'd be alive now if he hadn't accused the owner's son of cheating." The Easterner says: "But he was cheating. We're all responsible..." And the Cowboy has the last line, rebelling against this mysterious fog of theory: "Well, I didn't do anythin', did I?" So that's the record. Stephen Prina is the narrator; I play the Swede and Sasha Andrès from the group Héliogabale plays the Cowboy, singing in her lowest voice. It's all sung, seventeen minutes of story-song. That's the A side; the B side is a seventeen minute duet between me and Noël (Akchoté), where I'm playing organ. It's entitled "Aux Noctambules." The first take was completely improvised, but by the fifth take it was a composition. (Laughs) I'm playing this weird instrument called the Hohner Organa, which is a plastic reed organ with a fan on the inside. One of my favourite instruments is the harmonium, which I approach in a similar way, in that if you depress the keys very slowly you can play with minute fluctuations of pitch. So I'm mainly playing octaves and fifths, it's a concentration game introducing the reed as slowly as you can, finding a rhythmic beating pattern that you like, and then stopping. The end result sounds like I'm playing an analog synthesizer.

What was Noël Akchoté doing during this?

Sweating... He didn't have any idea of what I was going to do!

How did you hook up with Noël and Quentin Rollet?

I played at Le Pop-In last fall, and Quentin kind of... cornered me afterwards and said: "You have to do a record for Rectangle." And that was it! I think it's a fantastic label.

Did you have a conventional musical education as such?

Classical piano. But that was just like being trained like a robot to play piano. The guitar came in when I wanted to be in a band, when I was twelve or thirteen. I'd been playing piano for about five years, and guitar was really easy to pick up, and I started a punk rock band immediately. This is what happens when you're thirteen years old in Louisville, Kentucky, and you like The Who and The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, and you're reading "Rolling Stone" in the grocery store and Greil Marcus is writing about Gang of Four and Public Image...

When and why did you move to Chicago?

In 1990, for graduate school.

How did Gastr Del Sol start off?

I was in a rock band called Bastro, which was a power trio with John McEntire and Bundy Brown, and it was always the same sound, the same group, the same instrumentation. We needed to change the working procedure, so I went back to playing piano and took up the acoustic guitar. I'd never played a steel-string acoustic until I was twenty-three years old. I'd just gotten tired of always playing at full volume: with Bastro it only sounded best at full volume, so we were always hostage to terrible live sound. You'd walk into a room that you knew you really shouldn't be playing in, and think: "Well this is going to be a bad gig..." There was nothing we could do to put a stop to that. That's the reason I went back to acoustic guitar–I felt that I'd have more control over the sound. I've never been a guitar player with lots of pedals. I had my distortion pedal stolen a couple of years ago, and I don't own a single pedal anymore. I own one guitar lead.

Where does your guitar style come from?

I don't know. I'd say playing with Jim for four or five years had a great influence on me. But I hear our styles as completely distinct. He has a really individual style. (Pause) I don't know... if you wanted me to play in a dixieland pick-up band, or play pedal steel on something, I'd learn to play guitar on the basis of the kind of music it was. That's how Gastr Del Sol evolved, just working with the sounds of acoustic instruments, playing largely without percussion. The first record we did is basically Bundy Brown and myself. John played on some of it. Then Jim called me to ask if he could be in a rock band, because he'd never been in a rock band, and he knew I'd been in Bastro and he wanted to be in some kind of heavy guitar thing. So we practised once or twice and it was awful... (Laughs) Terrible. Then the first Gastr Del Sol record came out and Jim was like: "Can I play in this?" Basically it became just me and Jim, because Bundy and John were concentrating on Tortoise. Jim, as the strong personality, kind of crowds people out of bands, and I think Bundy felt like, OK, three's a crowd... So for the next four years Gastr Del Sol was basically Jim and me, with John McEntire when touring. Ease and portability have always been primary considerations of mine when touring. But shows in Chicago could have up to eight or nine people.

Explain the name, for our less erudite readers...

There's no erudition involved. Gato Del Sol was a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, and I was in a group called Bastro, so there was some sort of associative blending of the two.

The rock press has tended to lump you and Tortoise together as "The Chicago School", in much the same way as Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead are "The Bristol School"... Do you think that "school" is a fair description?

It's more of a methodology than anything else. It's just that people in Chicago are so incredibly generous with their time. John McEntire is one of the busiest people I've ever met, and yet he always has time to play on a Gastr Del Sol record, or on any record of mine. It's rarely the case that somebody absolutely refuses to be involved in a project.

While we're on the subject of terminology, certain magazines, notably The Wire, have coined the term "avant rock" or "post rock"–both of which I think are meaningless–to describe a whole host of unclassifiable groups including Tortoise and Gastr Del Sol.

What term would you use to describe your music?

Post-punk. I picked up the guitar to play punk rock and I started listening to really diverse musics because of punk rock. For me, punk was not about narrowing it in terms of stylistic reference, but more about, "I like this, so maybe I'll like that gamelan record, and what about that West Coast Jazz?" (Laughs)

How do you work? How does a song come out?

I always work on a solo instrument. Either guitar or piano. It rarely comes about from being in a room with other musicians, or scoring something before it's on tape. The music and the words come separately. With Gastr Del Sol it was always much more of a challenge, and a game and a pleasure, working according to the principle of forced cohesion, forced coherence, which I think is something I picked up from The Red Krayola, that any text can go with any piece of music, and the more unseemly the fit, the better. It is less of a case now of me doing that; I'm writing five-beat lines, with rhyme schemes... it had to be so for this Stephen Crane thing.

Are you surprised by the success you've had?

Absolutely surprised. I don't know how to explain it. I don't know that it's my job to explain it.

What's the position now with Gastr Del Sol?

I've stopped working with Jim, and Gastr Del Sol is, to all intents and purposes, inert. I guess if I want to work in some group structure again, it could conceivably be Gastr Del Sol, but the idea becomes less important. (Pause) This has been a time of making lots of records. Just a couple of days before I came out here I finished a record which is coming out under my own name, but I wanted to have a consistent group feel, feel like a regular band. So Tony Conrad plays hillbilly violin, John McEntire plays drums, and there's a lot of brass on it. Trombone, fluegelhorn, trumpet. It's called 'The Thicket" and is coming out in September or October on Drag City. Jim and I have stopped doing Dexter's Cigar (as we're not working together in Gastr Del Sol anymore it felt right to make a clean break–he's incredibly busy), so I'm also starting my own label. One of the first things I'm going to do is Luc Ferrari's "Tautologos 3" and "Interrupteur" which were once on an old EMI record that came out in about 1970. "Tautologos 3" is a fantastic piece: the instrumentation includes electric guitar and Hammond Organ... It's just fantastic. [see our interview with Luc Ferrari-Ed.]

How did you discover him?

I've always had a soft spot for musique concrète and Ferrari is my favourite. He came to Chicago to speak at the universities, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and the Art Institute. I teach at the Art Institute and went to my job one Monday morning at 9 a.m. and someone came up and said: "I suppose you know you're introducing Luc Ferrari today..." I'd been out of town for two weeks, didn't even know he was there. So thirty minutes later I'm doing this extemporized explanation of the "Presque Rien" series to people who had no idea what they were about. I've taught "Presque Rien No. 1" in every class; you can start anywhere with it–I've done it in a Radio Play class, in Introduction to Sound (as apart from Music Composition), and I've taught it in History of Recorded Music in the LP Era. He's an incredibly sweet person. Knocked everybody dead with his fashion sense! Bright red Doc Martens boots, the soft bad-TV-reception horizontal-brushed grey woollen suit, coat way too large...

I see Zorn's picked up on him too...

Yeah, I'm not too wild about the first piece on that Tzadik CD but the second one's great. (Pause) I just can't believe that there are twenty-year-old college types around obsessed with disseminating this type of music. I think it's because record distribution is so good these days. The economics of selling CDs makes things much easier.

Was it through Jim O'Rourke that you met Tony Conrad? How instrumental was Jim in getting Table of the Elements to bring out Conrad's "Early Minimalism"?

Jim played with Tony at a festival in Holland, I think. For the box set, I think it was probably Table of the Elements. They have a Grand Idea every week! I think they'd gotten in contact with Tony independently of Jim to re-release the album "Outside the Dream Syndicate" [Tony Conrad plus Faust; and see our article about Conrad's influence...–Ed.] Because of the renewed interest in Tony's work, Gastr Del Sol did a couple of shows with him, and I play with him any opportunity I can. The only piece of his I play on regularly is "Ten Years Alive in the Infinite Plane", on a monochord that he built back in 1970 or so. There are two strings tuned to the same pitch, played with a guitar slide. There's a guitar pick-up. Basically, you just find three or four pitches, a tonal centre you never quite reach, and it's an hour and a half piece with slow ascending glissandi for the first half of the piece and then slow descending glissandi for the second half... And you never quite reach the tonal centre... you always let the sound die.

"Minimalist" is a word that frequently gets associated with your work, along with that of Jim and Loren Mazzacane Connors... Are you comfortable with the term, and to what extent, if any, do you think your work has links to "established" minimal music as such?

When I think of what is intellectually interesting about minimalism, I don't necessarily think about minimal music. I tend to think about visual art, and I suppose there's even less of a correlation between what I do and Donald Judd, Carl André or Robert Morris' sculptures. But it's a period I find intensely interesting, and I'm always pestering Tony for anecdotes–though by the time minimalism was highly regarded, he was already picketing museums and feeling generally disappointed with what he saw as the moral and ethical lapses of people who'd been friends of his and who suddenly became twenty-five year-old art-world "stars". I'd say I feel more of an affinity towards process works like Michael Snow's films... For me there's an inextricable connection between a film like "Wavelength" and early Steve Reich pieces like "Four Organs." Do you know "Wavelength"? It's a forty-five minute pan across a loft space where you start with nearly a full view of the space and at the end just a close-up of this photograph of waves tacked up on the far wall. (By the way, the original recording of "Four Organs" uses this photo on the cover.) It's just a fantastic film, one of those films that's best experienced as film, rather than by me trying to describe it. It has a fantastic soundtrack which is a synthesizer piece by Michael Snow, and there's some very strange rhythmic use of different film stocks and lighting techniques... it's just a great looking movie.

Are you tempted to use any of Tony Conrad's film material yourself?

No, not particularly. I like things like "Wavelength" or Ernie Gehr's "Serene Velocity", but it seems a bit dusty and nostalgic to be screening them. It's great that Tony's films are being shown a lot more now, but he stopped doing film years ago to concentrate on video, and now he does less and less video to concentrate on community-access cable TV. He runs a bulletin board for high-school students in Buffalo, New York. I think he'd prefer to be elsewhere, but he's a tenured professor there.

David Grubbs and Quentin Rollet

Being in Buffalo, did Tony have any contact with Morton Feldman?

I asked him about that, and he said Mortie was always around. He was a little creepy, kind of hyper nerd... The Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Chicago–I'm a grad student in English (I've still not finished my Ph.D. dissertation)–was talking to me about the music I was interested in, and I mentioned Feldman, and he said: "Morton Feldman!?" When he was a student he saw Feldman giving a talk once, with two pianos and a brick to keep the pedal down... He'd hit a C on one of the pianos, drop the brick on the pedal, truck on over to the other piano, hit another pitch and just listen to the two die away... And he did this over and over again, as an explanation of sounds in space, or why you didn't need to write for two pianists when one would do, or something... The Dean was amazed that anybody remembered this guy; he thought he was a complete charlatan!

Why do you think his music has come back in fashion?

It's because it's so fucking good. And because there's so much work. It would be the same if there survived only five Feldman pieces, but there's so much work. I remember seeing a Goethe Institute tribute concert to Stefan Wolpe once, with music by Wolpe and students of his. The Wolpe pieces were all political pieces, you know, like, rousing arrangements of traditional German leftist songs. And right at the end of the programme there's a Feldman solo piano piece, one of the Intermissions series. I was only five rows back and I was, like, "could you please play that a little louder?" (Laughs)

There's a great story of when he came to York University to supervise some concerts of his music. During the rehearsals in this enormous concert hall he was sitting right at the back of the room, and the students were really uptight, trying to play this incredibly quiet, slow music... They asked him at the end of the piece what he thought, and he shuffled up, cigarette in mouth, and said: "It's too fuckin' loud and it's too fuckin' fast!" (Laughs)

Are you familiar with the music of Bernhard Günter? His first record had the highest ratio of silence to sound of any record when it came out... (I think he's upped the stakes since then: there are a lot more silent pieces now!) People who'd met him in Germany said: "Oh, he lives in a real quiet place..." His music is really meant to be at the threshold of audibility. All of his albums say: "Play at extremely low volume"... he's a great admirer of Feldman's. He was in my apartment in Chicago, and he had a CD-R of a new piece of his. I thought: "This is almost like a weird challenge, this is someone for whom the recorded work is the absolute, the ideal form... how are we going to listen to it?" He started by saying: "Do you mind if I move your speakers a little bit?" I thought: "Uh-oh! The stern disciplinarian..." So I put on this CD-R of his at very low volume, and we listened to it for about a minute before he said: "Stop!" He jumped up and cranked up the volume and started it again! (Laughs) I thought that was very interesting...

Feldman once said: "I never feel that my music is minimal; the way fat people never really think they're fat." [see more quotes by Feldman on our site...] Would you say there's anything Feldmanesque about your work?

I love Feldman's music but I'm loathe to describe him as an influence, or draw any kind of parallels between his music and mine, because I have such respect for his music, and feel so warmly towards it. I've never studied the scores, and I don't know the pieces inside out. I listen to them for pleasure. It would be facile and self-serving to say: "I've been influenced by Morton Feldman"... On the back of this Table of the Elements record, they asked John Corbett to write some blurb about the record, and he used the phrase "Feldmanesque undertow"... It was incredibly difficult for me to OK that.

But if pushed, who would you say has definitely influenced you?

(Without hesitation) Mayo Thompson. Everything he does. I learned a lot from The Red Krayola. Taking risks, like arranging to make a record in Paris with musicians I've never met before of a work I didn't start writing before I was in the airport on the way over here! (Laughs) This after playing in rock bands for years, which is the least risky kind of musical organisation. I don't want to be immodest about this, because there are people who are much more extreme risk-takers than I am. But that's part of growing up, taking risks. I guess that's what adulthood means to me. Taking risks.

Where do you see your music going from here?

I can't imagine what the next five years hold. The most valuable thing for me these past six or seven years has been collaborating with other people. (Pause) And also playing solo. Naturally counterbalancing things; work intensely with another person and then be by yourself. As far as collaborations go, I'd like to continue working with people from The Red Krayola. I really enjoy working with Tony, and people like Quentin and Noël at Rectangle are an invaluable resource. I mean, I come out here saying: "I want two trombone players and a cellist!" and they find Thierry Madiot, Yves Robert and Didier Petit! How can I go wrong?

A-ha, so you had some idea of the piece before you flew out...

I had asked Quentin to recommend certain musicians he found interesting, and he sent quite a long list of people... From that list I saw there were two trombonists. And Didier Petit is just fantastic on the cello. I'd love to play with him again.

Tell us about your record collection.

It's a well-chosen collection. 1500 to 2000 records. Not overwhelming. It fits very comfortably along one wall. I'm in a record store every other day–there are fantastic record stores in Chicago, particularly on the South Side, which is fantastic for jazz.

As warned, you're now invited to choose just ten of them.

(without hesitation) Mayo Thompson: "Corky's Debt to his Father". Van Dyke Parks: "Song Cycle". Luc Ferrari: "Presque Rien No. 1". Tony Conrad: "Outside the Dream Syndicate". Derek Bailey: "Aida". I'm halfway there! Beach Boys: "Pet Sounds". Charles Ives: "Old Songs Deranged" (settings for chamber orchestra). (Pause)
John Cage: "Sonatas and Interludes". (Pause)
There's a Sonny Rollins live in Stockholm on Dragon Records, "St. Thomas" from 1959. I have no formal training in jazz. I guess what I like best in all types of jazz is the contrast between strong personalities and flexible line-ups. I guess that's what every jazz fan has in common... they really want to hear that record of, say, Sonny Rollins playing with, say, Monk...

You still have one more record to choose...

I'm trying to select which Feldman. (Pause) It's a choice between the solo piano works and "For Samuel Beckett", and I think it has to be "For Samuel Beckett".

Do you think you're ever going to finish that Ph.D?

Eventually...! It's a degree in literature, and it would prepare me for being in the market for a job in literature, an English job, Language and Literature. I'd probably find a job in a grad school in Utah or Georgia or somewhere, and I know I'm just not going to do that... Teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago is ideal. I teach in the Liberal Arts and the Sound departments. It's a weird job that just fell in my lap: John Corbett hired me on the basis of my knowledge and practical experience in the business of making records with Gastr Del Sol, not because I was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago.

What is your doctoral dissertation on?

It's on the perception of Cage in fields other than music composition. Three sections, three decades: his reception in the visual arts in the 1960s, his place in an emerging field of audio art–as opposed to music composition–in the 1970s, and finally his canonisation as "man of letters" in the 1980s, not so much through the mesostic works he was doing, but through things like the "Lecture on Nothing" being anthologised.

Sounds like a great subject for a dissertation!

There are times when I'm sitting in the library at the University of Chicago, counting down the minutes until I can take my lunch break, when I think this is really not the best use of my time! (Laughs) There are a couple of people working on Cage right now who are doing really fantastic work: there's Brandon Joseph at Harvard writing about Cage and the visual arts in the sixties, and he's done fantastic research on it. I think that what I'm doing could just about provide him with a couple of good footnotes. I get terribly depressed whenever I talk to him. (Laughs)

Are you tempted to move to New York?

Never have been. I know it too well. I like the place very much, but if I moved there, I know the people I would see and the places I would go... Chicago seemed much too big when I moved there. It's the Big City you move to when you come from Louisville, Kentucky. I would like to live in other places than Chicago–the temptation has been stronger lately. I've actually been thinking about spending a lot more time in Europe, preferably Paris.

I thought you didn't speak French. There's that bit on the last Gastr Del Sol album where you're recording some French kids setting off fireworks and refusing to speak English...

No, that's Jim! People always assume it's me, and that I don't understand anything when I come over here! (Laughs) But no, I studied French for five years! I'm still based in Chicago though, and it would be difficult to move... I have two cats, my job, and my record collection. I don't think it would travel well.

Would you say there is anything specifically American about your music?

This last year I've started playing tenor banjo and mandolin, and Tony Conrad plays a kind of hillbilly violin on "The Thicket"... I imagine that in some parts of Europe people will feel that's typically American. But the manifestations of what is American in my music are elusive. They've got to be elusive. It can't be Americana. Americana is kitsch. And I'm a little too young for kitsch.

Links to related pages: Interviews with Eugene Chadbourne, Luc Ferrari, and Fred Frith; funny and trenchant quotations from Morty Feldman himself; reviews of Feldman's concerts in Paris in 1996; a controversial article on Tony Conrad, and of course lots more on our table of contents page. Interview copyright 1998 by Dan Warburton, Paris Editor. Paris Transatlantic Magazine, Summer 1998. Photos courtesy of the Rectangle website.