Krystian Woznicki on Sat, 13 Sep 1997 12:13:40 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> David Grubbs Interview

Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange
David Grubbs Interview

by Krystian Woznicki
for SA (Vol.14)

[17 700 Characters]

When David Grubbs first came to Tokyo with The Red Crayola, Gastr del
Sol's nocturnal follow up to their 93 debut album >>The Serpentine
Similiar<<  had just been released. I remember asking him about band
projects prior to Gastr del Sol--of which he together with Jim O'Rourke is
a founding member. His answer was plain ("Oh, just louder, and faster,
but basically the same program") and anything but unsettling as it
retroactively is, upon facing last year's reissues of his college punk
band Squirrelbait, and upon listening to >>Sing the Troubled Beast<<
(1990) by short-lived rock experiment Bastro. 
With six albums in the last four years, various contributions and
collaborations (such as one still in the making with Oval), Gastr del Sol
has been far more exhaustively featured by the press than Bastro was at
its time. During the following interview (conducted via e-mail in the
second half of July) I learned that Jim O'Rourke has left the unit after
completion of their forthcoming album >>Camoufleur<<. Speculation about a
possible end in the not-too-distant future evokes a deja vu. That is,
breaking up at this point would leave the media much where it was then:
'exegesis' has hardly begun... 
David Grubbs' insisting on a certain sense of continuity, suggests there
being an aesthetical "program" beyond genre categorizations (with their
inherent hierarchical order); a "program" not limited to the social
baggage dictated by a recognizable "style"; redeeming composition from
drowining in  its own sources. These traits have been embraced and
strechted by critics to the point of a continuous mis en scene: reviews of
new Gastr del Sol material reviewing the reviewers surprise, incapability,
etc. In short, reception resorting to the dubiously fruitful endeavor of
engaging upon what the music is not [italics: is not] about. 
In addition to the aforementioned, linguistic and cinematic references to
Gastr del Sol's compositional agenda are no novelty. They have, above all,
equally staged what is not [italics: is not] there, lacking, missing.
David Grubbs, now 29, has been also active in the field of film music.
Along with Ken Vandermark, Jim O'Rourke, and Will Oldham, he recently
appeared on the soundtrack for the film >>Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea
Breaks Its Back<<.  Mayo Thompson's The Red  Krayola, of which he and
Jim O'Rourke are steady members, have finished a soundtrack for Norman and
Bruce Yonemoto's  >>Japan in Paris in L.A.<<. Gastr del Sol had also music
in Doug Aitken's >>The Diamond Sea<< (which was in the Whitney Biennial).
Has he come full circle? Can we see his music making activity as finally
being (visually) completed? What would be an affirmative way of
approaching music that supposedly defies description, without stepping
into the pitfall of "easy" acceptance entailed by enshrining it e.g. as
Answers are not [italics:are not] to be found in David Grubbs' academical
career. But mention should be made of it at this juncture, since it
touches upon some of the issues brought forth. This year winter for
example,  he is teaching a creative writing course at the University of
Chicago entitled >>Sound Texts<<, "in which students will have to join a
community access recording studio and execute radio plays based on their
work." Since 1996, Grubbs  works on his  dissertation, which  deals with
John Cage's aesthetics as seen from the disciplines of literature, sound,
and the visual arts. One chapter of it is dedicated to recorded sound.
His first solo album >>Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange<< has
been released earlier this year on the Atlanta based Table of the Elements
label.   Three solo pieces entitled BA, PL, OO, generate recurring
patterns of sparse tonal harmonics and  silences. Written for piano,
untreated electric, and acoustic guitar they tend to communicate  within
inner structures, as much as they do with the listener. It made a lasting
impression on me, when, I think it was in Autumn 1995,  I received a fax
message from him, of which the head was the very title of his current

Krystian Woznicki: When and how did you initially come up with >>Banana
Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange<<?

David Grubbs: The title comes from a fruit market sign in my neighborhood
that I noticed four years ago.  Its text is laid out in such a way that it
looks like it's advertising three items with compound names rather than
six. Compound names for types of produce are not unheard-of; for example,
there are banana peppers and acorn squash and so forth.  So the sign was a
bit of a found object that had its meaning in combination rather than
juxtaposition of terms.  Instead of a making-strange, for me it suggested
more or less plausible compound names -- "'banana cabbage,' hmm, i' ve
never had banana cabbage before."
It was considered as a title before Gastr del Sol settled on >>Upgrade &
Afterlife<<, but seemed a little too aggressively unfocused.  A too-red
herring.  Then when I started thinking about doing a record by myself, it
occurred to me that I could do three instrumental pieces, that the pieces
would be entitled "Banana Cabbage," "Potato Lettuce," and "Onion Orange,"
and that the album title would be the combined title of all three pieces.
So yes, the title(s) preceded the recording and ultimately was suggestive
of how it could be structured.

KW:  How did it end up on your letter head?

DG: By using it as a heading, I was probably seeing if it pushed anyone's
buttons without having to ask directly.


KW: You play guitar since the mid-80's, continually in bands, units,
however always in a different musical context; with Squirrel Bait it's
been (post)punk, with Bastro experimental punk rock, with Gastr del Sol
experimental pop. Now you have again changed the context, and are
recording for the first time outside the social context of collaborators.
I wonder what it meant to you to write these pieces and to go  alone into
the studio.

DG: In some ways, it began with a play on words based on the ambiguity of
the term "solo."  One speaks of a member of a group stepping out to make a
"solo" record, meaning that it comes out under his or her name. But "solo"
also refers to performances by one person alone.  I decided that I would
be the arch-literalist and make a solo record that was bound to the
concept of recording solos.  I suppose that's my sense of humor on display
because the joke is that most solo records are really indulgent, that
someone decides that they finally have the place and courage to say what
is theirs alone to say; they blurt it out; and then it's later seen as
some kind of so lipsism that they had to get out of their system.  The
cliche is that solo records are about someone breaking through the
frustrations of collective work and really 'communicating' with an
audience.  That's why it can be such a dismal, interesting genre.

KW: As is the band.  With Gastr del Sol you have constantly expanded its
underlying presumptions. Starting with instrumentation, or rather
orchestration on >>The Harp Factory on Lake Street<<(94) where eight
additional members (including Gene Coleman on bass clarinet, Jeb Bishop on
trombone and others) come together. Then you would perform  rather duo
oriented projects as  >>Crookt, Cracked, or Fly<<, or >>Upgrade
&Afterlife<<, where a rather clear cut notion of the duo constantly blurrs
anyway, you would perform it, among variants, as a (semi) accoustical
guitar duo, respectively arranged for guitar and piano. Dialogism,
internal to the music,  is disrupted, if  reversals in sounds with
traceable/untraceable sources occur, challenging the listeners position.  

DG: Right, I forgot that the only thing more dismal (but also perhaps more
interesting) than a solo project was a group project.  The literalist idea
of a solo project needing to consist of strictly solo performances is
something that I was compelled to do for >>Banana Cabbage...<<, but it
need not be the only way to do solo work in the future.  The irony is that
Gastr del Sol is technically now only myself, Jim having left the group
upon our completing the forthcoming album.  And I'm going to take my time
and wait before I make any decisions about whether or not the group Gastr
del Sol will continue.  The one thing that I feel strongly about at this
point is that I don't want to make records entirely by myself and have
them appear under the name Gastr del Sol.  To me, the act of an individual
assuming some sort of collective nomenclature seems particularly played
out at the moment.  This is not to suggest that people who having been
doing so for some time ought necessarily to reconsider, but rather the
idea of launching anew some sort of one-person project under the auspices
of a group name really, from where I sit, seems stale.


KW: On the last Gastr del Sol album you play a piece by guitar innovator
John Fahey called >Dry Bones in the Valley< on which Tony Conrad plays
violin. Both are highly individual musicians/composers. I however wonder
whether the fact that they both in their own way catalyzed rock music at
its crucial stage, that is, them as historical capital, had any impact on
the decision-making concerning your work?

DG: The impetus to have Tony play on >Dry Bones in the Valley< came from
seeing Jim [O'Rourke] play it alone onstage as an encore to a Gastr del Sol
s how in Atlanta and standing next to Tony Conrad, who was literally
dancing with excitement. So yes, I'm sure it would have been possible for
us to come up with the idea of bringing these two figures together who
each have so much history attached to them, but what made it palpably
obvious was this small, epiphanic scene of seeing Tony weaving and bobbing
and really thrilling to the music.

KW: Does your current project however aim at enrolling a 'program' in
reference to influences and legacies?

DG: Playing with people like Mayo Thompson or Tony Conrad or coming into
proximity with John Fahey makes my relation to their history less
abstract.  That is, I don't find myself working on solo material or
material in Gastr del Sol that explicitly tries to articulate my senses of
influence or precedent.  To give a concrete example, on >>The Serpentine
Similar<< -- the first Gastr del Sol record and the only one made before I
knew Mayo  -- I worked the title of a song from Mayo's solo record into a
lyric as an homage.  Since working with Mayo, I haven't expressed that
sense of influence or precedent compositionally.  I guess it's because now
to get his attention I call him on the telephone.

KW: Using the title of a song from Mayo's solo record into a lyric as an
homage, was nothing but   trying  to get his attention?

DG: It was not exclusively an attempt to get his attention, but that was a
component of doing so.  It's also about trying to get the attention of
those people for whom the reference to Mayo's solo record would have
meaning, and in particular some sort of emotional affect.  A surprise.

KW: Does a sense of influence or precedent come to expression other than

DG: Sure.  It can be expressed in all matters of conception, from modes of
sociability to business arrangements to matters of style and image
presentation.  It's expressed in all modes of self-representation.

KW:  Thinking of "expectations" one cannot overlook an immense sensitivity
on part of the consuming public nowadays: isn't it time for yet another
"neo" and aren't the composers just mentioned (unwillingly) a part of it?

DG: I don't see that any particularly incisive "neo" has been put forth.
There are attempts at loose groupings, cf. The Wire talking about new
interest in minimalism or the connection between minimalism and folk music
or dance music.  And I do think that a lot of the connections being made
are a propos in, for example, speaking of minimalism as a more informal
practice, having at certain points had participatory ideals that are not
apparent in speaking exclusively of canonical figures such as Glass,
Reich, or La Monte Young.  But making these sorts of connections are not
the same things as making convincing "neo" categories.  Maybe someone will
coin another term that does the work that the term "post rock" did for
some.  But you have to hope that it will be more convincing (thus more
interesting to engage, pro, con, or otherwise) than "post rock" has been.
I mean, has "post rock" been enunciated any further than Simon Reynolds'
description of a vaguely posthumanist, inorganic, essentially combinatory
style?  Has anything been added to that description?

3. Write the Aural East

KW:  John Corbett's comments about your solo pieces accompany the album.
He refers to Morton Feldman...

DG: I didn't quite know how to respond to the Feldman reference in John
[Corbett]'s notes.  I certainly understand the reference, but, yes, there
was something strange about having it printed on the back of your record.
I decided to trust John and to trust Jeff Hunt's (Table of the Elements)
impulse in having a description and a critical appraisal as part of the
package.  I think what ultimately appealed to me was to have John's notes
appended to this otherwise rigorously abstract CD design...that in some
ways it flies in the face of the wordlessness of the layout, but that the
excessive abstraction and potentially excessively literal description of
the recording were appealingly contradictory.  It would never be in my
character to say, "No!  The design forbids text!"

KW: There are however other ways of having text(s) accompanying music. I
for instance remember when you  first  told me about the work of Bernhard
Guenter and that you were writing something that would account  of  his
"abstract" compositions...

DG: I would like to write something for Bernhard Guenter in part because
his music seems so forbidding of words and voices (except perhaps for
wordless voices).  I've made a couple of preliminary attempts, none
particularly satisfactory.

KW:  Could you dwell upon some of the diffculties?

DG:  I have been doing nothing but dwelling on the difficulties, and
that's why I haven't completed anything for him!  OK, that's a joke.  His
work  demands such focus from the listener, and it seems to me again and
again that putting words into his compositions would shatter the
listener's concentration; it would shatter the concentration that is
required of something as unfamiliar as Bernhard's music by bringing in
linguistic reference.  But I have by no means given up...

KW: It is sort of telling that reactions upon listening to some of Gastr
del Sol's compositions,  the acoustic life act (two guitars/piano), but
also comments about your solo album often carry the expression

DG: It is an odd fate to make beautiful music.  It is odd to be told that
what you've made is beautiful.  It is usually pleasing, but also leaves
you thinking about what other sorts of responses you want to trigger. It's
like being told that you're handsome.  It's like everyone around you being
high.  Of course making beautiful music is not my fate.  It is a
gratifying response, but the judgment "beautiful" also tends to preclude
conversation.  Often you say something is beautiful and leave it at that,
because "beautiful" is your way of signifying ineffable experience, one to
which words do no justice..  And I do find real pleasure in many of those
aspects that people find beautiful.  But for me the words always come
pouring back in.

KW: This is exactly what I am trying get an idea of: How to redirect words
as a non-descriptive means.  If wanting to escape the limitations of
accademical writing, is subjective 'lyricism' the inevitable choice?

DG: I don't particularly have an ideal of "non-descriptive" words.  I've
always gone back and forth over Cage's way of honoring Joyce by saying
that he went further than anyone else in making noise out of words.
There's something in the abstract that's very appealing about Cage's
suggestion, but I also cringe when thinking of particular free-improvising
vocalists making profoundly unfunny avant-garde comedy, you know, bubbling
like babies or holding forth like inspired lunatics.  Playing the
Shakespearean fool.  It also makes me think of cloying, really bad
performances of Schwitters' >>Ursonate<< and how truly painful that can
be.  That manner of presentation in the name of making words into noise
really makes me insane. And I think it makes me crazy because there is so
much about bringing out the thorniness or fecund ambiguity of words in
their very materiality that appeals deeply to me.  It's what appeals to me
about Cage's mesostics or much of Louis Zukofsky's poetry (for example,
>>80 Flowers<<) or also the poet Susan Howe's work with textual elements
such as marginalia and draft versions.  It's what I like about Charles
Olson's >>Maximus<< poems and much of what I still like most about Pound's


KW: Let me ask bluntly. It's my last question. Could you talk about the
signifying aspect of your new album?

DG: The use of the fruit market sign is akin to the use of street names in
Gastr del Sol songs.  There's a deictic, pointing function that is a
pleasure in the making-literal.  It's like the pleasure in taking
snapshots -- that sign is literally there and who could improve upon it?
Why would I want it any other way?  It is music -- beautiful music --to


The Interview with David Grubbs is taken from the forthcoming issue of SA
published in English and Japanese by the XEBEC corporation in Kobe. With a
focus on experimental, avant garde, and ethnic music, the magazine is also
concerned with documenting the sprawl of activities taking place in the
XEBEC HALL. Currently  the venue cooperates with producers in Hyogo
prefecture on a SOUND ART FESTIVAL taking place  form Septmeber 27th -
October 5th. The artists who are invited include  Alan Lamb(Australia),
Heri Dono (Indonesia), Ron Nagorcha(Australia), Larry Polanski(US) and
Yuji TAKAHASHI, Mamoru FUJIEDA, Yuji DOGANE and others.  

Among others, the following essays and interviews are included in SA#14:

>>The music of Michel Waisvisz<< 
An interview with Waisvisz conducted by Mikako MIZUNO
>>Talks about Khomei<< by Koichi MAKIGAMI

>>Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange<< 
An Interview with David Grubbs conducted by Krystian Woznicki

>>Festival as an Adventure<< by Kae UCHIHASHI

>>The sense of distance in computer network (Part two)<<
An Interview with Masahiro MIWA conducted by Hiromichi HOSOMA


For further information on the magazine S A please contact: 
SHIMODA Nobuhisa (XEBEC HALL director)
        XEBEC phone: hone: 81 (0)78 303 5600


Here is the itinerary for the shows that David Grubbs is doing in Europe:

23.9 Strassbourg        La Laiterie
24.9 Paris                     L'Arapaho
25.9 Haarlem               Patronaat
26.9 Koeln                    M T C
27.9 Berlin                   Knaak
28.9 Hamburg             Prinzenbar
29.9 Hamburg             Heinz Karmers
30.1 Munchen             TBA

The shows from 23-28 September are opening for Smog; the show on the 29th
with The Silver Apples. David Grubbs will play new material from his solo
>>Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange<< and also
material from the forthcoming Gastr del Sol album >>Camoufleur<<.


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