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Expat Gets Back

David Grubbs/No Hard Feelings


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In their time together as the avant-rock duo Gastr del Sol, David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke functioned as Chicago ambassadors as much as musicians--touring Europe, attracting visiting artists from both sides of the pond, and exposing fans to new sounds on their own label, Dexter's Cigar. Like Tortoise, they became a lightning rod for the media attention focused on Chicago music in the mid-90s. But the duo split acrimoniously in 1997, and both members have since moved to New York.

O'Rourke, now a member of the indie-rock institution Sonic Youth, backed out the door shooting last year, trashing the entire Chicago scene in a cover story published in the British music magazine the Wire. (Thurston Moore elicited a few audible boos by introducing O'Rourke as a native son at one of Sonic Youth's Metro shows last month.) By contrast Grubbs, who left in 1999 to live with a girlfriend, has had little to say about either the breakup or his own departure. "There was no reason for me to turn on Chicago," he says. "I didn't leave the city for musical reasons. I was very happy living and working there."

Grubbs returns to Chicago for the first time in almost a year on Thursday, September 12, for a one-off performance at the Abbey Pub in support of his latest solo album, Rickets & Scurvy (Drag City). A native of Louisville, Kentucky, where he cofounded the seminal indie punk band Squirrelbait, he admits it's taken him a few years to feel comfortable in New York. "I guess you could say that musically I'm feeling a little more settled in New York because whatever expectations I had, like 'This is bound to change who I am and what I do'...things like that have been tempered," he says. He works regularly with the same stable of musicians he did when he lived here, including early Gastr drummer John McEntire, avant-garde violinist Tony Conrad, Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson, New York drummer Dan Brown, and French guitarist Noel Akchote.

Since the move, though, he's become for the first time in his career a full-time musician--in Chicago, where the party line is that cheaper rent frees musicians from other labor, he'd also taught literature and sound at the School of the Art Institute. "I think I was halfway settling into a professional identity that combined teaching and writing, playing, and producing music. I felt happily bifurcated: 'I'm an academic and a musician.' But now I'm doing music full-time and I consider myself really fortunate."

His newfound focus seems to have paid off. This year Grubbs has released two of his best recordings (for a dissenting opinion, see Spot Check). Act Five, Scene One (released in February on his own Blue Chopsticks label) is an hour-long instrumental experimental work with Conrad and Brown; the newer Rickets & Scurvy is his most concise and focused song-oriented collection, bristling with catchy melodies and taut execution. Gastr del Sol attempted to meld pop and hard-core experimentation, but Grubbs says he's realized that "certain kinds of impulses are satisfied by certain kinds of records....As I was working on a wider diversity of projects all of the time, the song-based records somehow got tighter and more finished. It increasingly makes more sense to me than trying to pack it all into one record."

While the new album contains its fair share of noisy textures, there's no mistaking its pop ambitions. Hooks abound, guitar lines are sharp and punchy, only two of the songs are instrumental, and many of them flat-out rock. For such accessible music, it was recorded in a fairly convoluted fashion--in several sessions, one musician at a time, then assembled on a computer using Pro Tools. Grubbs started by recording McEntire's drum parts here at the percussionist's Wicker Park studio, Soma, in a novel way. "I wanted to have him playing on the record, but I didn't want it so immediately identifiable as his playing," he says. "I think the main signature aspect of his playing has to do with a kind of flow, the McEntire continuity. I wanted to interrupt that as best as possible, so I asked him to think very drum machine or very sequencer. All of his parts were recorded individually, like the kick drum on one pass, the hi-hat on another. He played the rhythms, but he recorded them one element at a time."

Upon returning to New York, Grubbs began tracking his own parts on guitar, bass, piano, and laptop, and waited for other invited contributors to come through town and do their thing. Several tracks feature manipulations by the San Francisco electronic-music duo Matmos, who collaborated with Bjork on Vespertine and toured with her behind it last year. The duo's Drew Daniel also grew up in Louisville. "I think he's three or four years younger than I am, and I sort of knew him in high school, but that was an insurmountable gulf when you're 18." Daniel called Grubbs socially when he was in New York rehearsing for the Bjork tour, and the plans evolved from there. "By the time I had come up with the tracks I wanted them to work on, they were already on tour," says Grubbs. "I like to imagine that they were onstage performing for the king of Sweden or something and Drew was sitting there remixing the things I sent him during the show."

The lyrics are typically abstruse on the new record, but Grubbs has learned to poke fun at himself. In "Don't Think" he acknowledges his own rep as an egghead, describing a relationship where the narrator is chided by his partner, "You're in my nest, you have to give it a rest." He cowrote lyrics to two other songs with Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm and The Black Veil, whom he'd met through another former Louisvillian, writer Robert Nedelkoff.

Grubbs is bringing an acoustic and an electric guitar as well as a laptop for the Abbey Pub show, which will focus on material from the new album but also include some older stuff. "The individual records seem to be separating out more stylistically," he says, "but the performances are an opportunity to throw it all back together in one 45-minute duration."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Roe Ethridge.

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