Interview: David Grubbs

It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of “culture.” John Cage

You could never accuse David Grubbs of laziness. With scuzzy ‘80s hardcore merchants Squirrel Bait he perhaps unwittingly helped usher in the sound that would prefigure grunge. He then went on to form Bastro before hooking up with Jim O’Rourke in Gastr del Sol and holding down positions in Bitch Magnet, Codeine, the Wingdale Community Singers and even long-lived Texan psych outfit the Red Krayola. And that’s just his straight musical output, the ‘pop’ side of the coin.

And that, as they say, ain’t the half of it. Over the years he’s written film scores, taught at various colleges and universities across the United States, got himself a Ph.D. in English. He’s been a critic, a visual artist and a documentary subject, and on top of his forthcoming solo record he is about to publish a book about John Cage.

In an unprecedented feat of journalistic good fortune, I manage to pin the man down for five minutes. He’s just finished performing an installation in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a collaborative project with Turner-nominated artist Angela Bulloch, The Wired Salutation, which he describes as being ‘composed of 45 minutes of music for the trio with [regular Grubbs collaborators] Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia (and Angela joins us on bass in one section) matched with 3-D animation and a lighting composition by Angela. I guess you’d have to see it… and hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future’. It’s not the first time Grubbs has worked with Bulloch – he has soundtracked three of her pixel-box works – so a further reunion is a distinct possibility.

If there is a recurring motif in Grubbs’ career it is his willingness, or rather his determination, to challenge musical and artistic norms: the same kind of informed, intelligent iconoclasm that drove John Cage. I ask him about Cage’s own writing, and in particular about Silence, the unflinchingly honest, brilliantly modern collection of Cage’s essays on – amongst other things – music and mushrooms:

Silence is one of my favourite books, and I can say that I’m grateful that Cage was such a terrific writer – which made my job over the years on and off working on this book much more compelling.’ For Grubbs, one of the most important lessons we can take if we ‘dive into Cage’s work and thought’ is the challenging of suppositions. ‘My entry into punk,’ he tells me, ‘had to do in part with bands like Public Image Ltd. and the Gang of Four challenging the basic idea of music as entertainment, and that questioning stance is something that I see echoed far in advance in Cage.’

This helps to explain the wilful, uncompromising nature of Grubbs’ own work, but what of the protean nature of the output? What of the musical schizophrenia he seems to cultivate? I broach the subject of his need to change, or to rejuvenate, and wish I hadn’t. It makes me feel like I’m talking to a kind of musical Timelord, and I can’t shake the image of Grubbs in a Tom Baker scarf.

‘The desire to change is absolutely part of the desire to work, to continue. Absolutely. Whether that counts as rejuvenation, I don’t know. I think I’ve always assumed that rejuvenation is impossible, and usually tied to flawed ideas about revisiting earlier styles. I don’t think that I’d find a Squirrel Bait reunion rejuvenating; I think it would make me feel like I was a hundred years old.’

And what of the new solo album, The Plain Where the Palace Stood? For me, it sounds like a logical progression from his previous offering, Rickets and Scurvy. There are fewer vocal pieces, but the album remains accessible and has a certain clarity about it. I’m interested to know if it’s becoming more important for Grubbs to appeal to a wider audience, one weaned on pop music.

‘The fact that the new album only has four vocal pieces really was dictated by my sense of how to make it flow as a start-to-finish listen. It wasn’t the sort of thing that I could have decided in advance. Whether or not it makes it more accessible to a wider audience… I don’t know. I certainly imagine various ways in which an album might be interpreted by a range of listeners, but in the end I think it always comes back to satisfying my own impulses.

The Plain Where the Palace Stood was two years in the making and is certainly satisfying. Grubbs is joined by Belfi and Pilia (with whom he is currently touring and, you’ve guessed it, mixing yet another album), as well as Spencer Yeh on violin, to create deceptively measured guitar-led tracks (and a song about a beard) that rarely conform to the limiting structures of most popular music but are never difficult to listen to. It’s the precision and the tone of the guitar that makes it all hang together.

Grubbs: ‘As you probably imagine, I obsess over guitar sound. I’m always trying different combinations, new pickups, new amps, etc., etc. But I think that in the end it all comes down to the fingers. I’m left handed but play right-handed, and I think that 90% of my focus as a player is in my left hand, and in the instrument’s intonation. It’s hard to explain, but I think my hands are more responsible for my sound than the gear I use.’

Whatever’s responsible, long may it continue: David Grubbs has quietly become one of the unsung musical pioneers of our time. Buy his records, read his book, go and see him. Just don’t expect him to play any Squirrel Bait.

The Plain Where the Palace Stood by David Grubbs is released on 15th April on Drag City

David Grubbs with Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia will perform live at Café Oto, London, 10th June

Words: Thomas Blake