David Grubbs - Biography

Running the gamut from rigorous avant-garde composition to Americana-flecked songwriting, David Grubbs has spent most of his career drawing the lines of aesthetic influence between seemingly disparate types of music. His best music smudges those lines into meaningless distinctions to create hybrid new forms in sound. His legendary 1990’s group Gastr del Sol was extremely successful at this, especially in collaboration with Jim O’Rourke, by fusing abstract electronics, steel string guitar and American minimalism with Grubbs’ unique approach to songwriting. Since 1996 Grubbs’ solo efforts have produced numerous releases, including many experimental leaning records and collaborations as well as five records of “proper” songs. In combining these experimental tendencies with his unique songwriting to an even greater degree, Grubbs’ latest song oriented record returns to the smudged lines of Gastr del Sol and is arguably his most successful solo work to date.

David Evans Grubbs was born September 21, 1967 in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Chicago he was involved in the Louisville hardcore scene, founding the band Squirrel Bait with help from future members of the influential group Slint. After Squirrel Bait disbanded Grubbs formed Bastro with bassist Clark Johnson, later replaced by Bundy K. Brown, and drummer John McEntire. Bastro broke with Squirrel Bait’s hardcore roots to incorporate quick time changes and quirky rhythms, foreshadowing a style that would come to be called math rock. It was in Bastro that Grubbs developed his uniquely angular style of guitar playing, heard on releases such as Rode Hard And Put Up Wet (1988 Homestead), Diablo Guapo (1989 Homestead) and the excellent Sing The Troubled Beast (1991 Homestead). Grubbs recently released live recordings of the band from 1991 as Antlers: Live 1991 (2005 Blue Chopsticks).

The group decided to call it quits around 1992, although Grubbs enlisted both Brown and McEntire for what would essentially be a record of his own songs, released under the name Gastr del Sol. The Serpentine Similar (1993 Teenbeat) is the first record where Grubbs really begins to deconstruct the song. Slower and more deliberate than Bastro, it was also more fractured and unique sounding, losing a lot of Bastro’s obvious rock signifiers while maintaining Grubbs’ sense of songwriting. It has since been called the precursor to the dubiously titled genre of post-rock. In 1994 both Brown and McEntire devoted themselves full-time to their new band Tortoise, and Grubbs met Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke was a guitarist and composer working mostly in the experimental realm of underground music. From then on, Gastr del Sol was a collaborative effort between Grubbs and O’Rourke. The duo released three records and an EP for the Drag City label, as well as an EP for legendary avant-garde label Table of the Elements.

Gastr del Sol’s later releases are some of the most significant art-rock recordings made since This Heat in the late 1970’s. Crookt, Crackt, Or Fly (1994 Drag City), Mirror Repair (1995 Drag City), The Harp Factory On Lake Street (1995 TotE), Upgrade & Afterlife (1996 Drag City) and Camofleur (1998 Drag City) all warp and mutate the idea of song using elements of minimalist composition, abstract electronics, musique concrete, orchestral pop arrangement and raw American primitive music. Sitting squarely in the middle of this beautiful mess the listener finds Grubbs’ singular vocal delivery and surreal lyrics. Erudite and comic, Zen-like and self aware, Grubbs’ vocal style is all his own. Grubbs and O’Rourke pulverized traditional song form while managing to pay homage as well, always keeping it fully engaging and musical. All Gastr records are essential listening.

Gastr del Sol dissolved in 1998. Just before the final Gastr record, Grubbs released his first solo work on Table of the Elements. Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange (1997 TotE) is an instrumental set of guitar compositions. All jagged lines and angular melodies; it remains the definitive statement of Grubbs’ singular guitar style.

The Thicket (1998 Drag City) is Grubbs’ first record of songs under his given name and it remains one of his best. Taking off from the more conventional pop structures of the last Gastr record, The Thicket manages that great feat of high-minded art rock — to challenge content and form while incorporating familiar ideas and references. As a lyricist and singer, Grubbs has always owed a debt to Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola, a group that Grubbs has worked with frequently. Nowhere is this more apparent than on The Thicket. Another obvious nod to influence is the inclusion of American minimalist pioneer Tony Conrad’s roaring violin drone on the closing song.

In 1999 Grubbs founded the Blue Chopsticks record label. He has released his own abstract-leaning work, as well as the music of Luc Ferrari, Mats Gustafsson, Derek Bailey, Noël Akchoté, and others. That same year Grubbs released collaborative work with jazz experimentalist Mats Gustafsson (Apertura, 1999 Blue Chopsticks) as well as two solo experimental records (The Coxcomb, 1999 Rectangle and Aux Noctambules, 1999 Rectangle).

His next record of songs, called The Spectrum Between (2000 Drag City), sees Grubbs relocate from his long-time home of Chicago, where he was an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to Brooklyn, NY. This record shows a further maturation of his songwriting process, with a focus on rhythm and groove not heard on The Thicket. On the whole more accessible, the record still journeys adventurously into texture and atonality with contributions by Mats Gustaffson and Daniel Carter and remains one Grubbs’ best fusions of noise and melodicism. It also features some of his best writing for guitar. The Spectrum Between was named “Album of the Year” in the Sunday London Times.

In 2001 Thirty Minute Raven (2001 Rectangle) was released and 2002 brought Act Five Scene One (Blue Chopsticks) one of Grubbs’ most engaging instrumental releases. Rickets & Scurvy (Drag City) was also released in 2002. It is his third song-oriented record. Taking a more traditional rock angle, the record features excellent contributions from John McEntire, Dan Brown and Noël Akchoté, as well as electronic textures from Matmos. The record also has some of Grubbs’ most thoughtful and comical lyrics.

Further collaborations would follow in 2003 with guitarist Loren Connors (Arborvitae, Häpna) and Grubbs’ second with Gustafsson (Off-Road, Blue Chopsticks). The following year brought his next song record, A Guess At The Riddle (2004 Fat Cat), a further extension of the traditional rock sound he explored on Rickets & Scurvy. In 2005 Grubbs collaborated with Greek cellist Nikos Veliotis to produce the sublime minimal drone-work The Harmless Dust (Headz).

Four years would go by before Grubbs released his next collection of songs. An Optimist Notes The Dusk (2008 Drag City) is a departure from the straightforward indie rock of his last two records. Grubbs has seemingly separated his experimental work from his song records since The Spectrum Between, but on this new record he exhibits a rediscovered ability to do what he does best — blur those distinctions. Employing free jazz drumming, minimal drones, elliptical guitar motifs, dissonance and his trademark abstract lyric content, An Optimist Notes The Dusk is a fine return to the confrontational anti-form of Grubbs’ days with Gastr.

Still residing in Brooklyn, Grubbs is an assistant professor of Radio and Sound Art at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His academic activities make for an easy target, with some critics claiming the arch-experimental bent in both Gastr del Sol and Grubbs’ solo music is some sort of smart guy put-on. What they fail to see is the confrontational aspect of subverting structure and form — what could be more punk rock than that? No matter what structures Grubbs is dealing with, be it abstract instrumental music, solo guitar, folk songs or indie rock, he constantly seeks to add new depth to the form through subversion and challenging fixed notions. By smudging lines and drawing reference points into new contexts, David Grubbs has created an original, sincere and fully enjoyable body of work.

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