Five days ago, David Grubbs released one of the best records of his storied career and a real contender, especially in avant-indie circles, for Record of the Year. The LP in question? Creep Mission, a collection of eerily emotive, eerily intuitive guitar pieces punctuated with careful interjections from drums, trumpet and electronics. The whole record hangs together and displays its treasures in ways at which some of Grubbs’ other best work only hints. Popdose recently got the opportunity to connect with Grubbs after he toured Japan and celebrated a birthday. Here’s the play-by-play.
POPDOSE: So, you have a new record, Creep Mission. And, let me say, I don’t know if you’ve ever sounded better in your solo career. I liked Prismrose a lot but this one just climbed to a whole new level. What do you think contributed to the tone of the record? Why does it hang together so completely?
DAVID GRUBBS: Thank you. I feel like I’ve hit on a rhythm of working where I play guitar most every day—I can’t say that that has always been true—and that I’m more patient about letting a piece develop more naturally over weeks and months, and that playing in the studio has never felt more of a piece with playing live. I also think that I’m damned fortunate to be playing with Eli Keszler (drums), Nate Wooley (trumpet), and Jan St. Werner, and that Creep Mission owes so much to this first-time combination of these extraordinary players and friends. Also: perhaps its wordlessness—no lyrics—made me approach these compositions through the category of “songs without words.”
POPDOSE: The record has an amazing sense of intuition to it. How many of the songs were improvised at time of recording?
GRUBBS: Nearly everything was written in advance; only “Jeremiadaic” is fully improvised. That said, Eli and Nate are tremendous improvisers who never play the same way twice, so any subsequent takes — there weren’t many — tended to be quite different in feel.
POPDOSE: Talk with me about your live performances — I saw you have a record release party in October. When we once talked about Bastro, you said it was difficult to adapt to different spaces. Do your solo performances in galleries differ from those at rock clubs? And, if so, how?
GRUBBS: It will be on October 19, at Outpost in Ridgewood, Queens, as part of Che Chen’s excellent “Fire Over Heaven” series. Following up on that comment that I made to you about how inflexible Bastro were—we kinda did one thing and we did it well, but we weren’t really able to respond to the exigencies of a given venue or even of a given mood—I think that one of the things I’m happiest about playing live today is that as a solo performer I can make it happen anywhere. If I’m on tour in Japan, as I was last month, and audiences are pin-drop quiet and intensely focused on the listening experience, the pacing can be altogether different, where a given tempo correlates to the decay and dissipation of a sound into silence. The dynamic range can be altogether different depending if you’re playing for a microphone in a studio or people sitting in chairs in an acoustically profound space or a rock club where everyone is standing. Playing solo guitar, even with fully composed material, I can’t say that I have the feeling of reciting my lines.
POPDOSE: Talk with me about collaboration and working with Eli Keszler. How do your current collaborations differ from your band experiences — Jim O’Rourke in Gastr del Sol, Brown and McEntire in Bastro, Searcy and McMahan and the rest of the crew in Squirrel Bait?
GRUBBS: Given different obligations at different points in life—for example, I’m a month into a semester of teaching, where I’m a full-time professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center—collaborations assume different rhythms. I might dive into working with Eli where we work intensely for a short period of time and then reconvene x number of months later. I feel that I dive headlong into collaborations—a recording, a tour—and then pick up the conversation half a year later. If anything, in my experience this makes for longer ongoing working relationships—especially because you’re able to reflect both on the work and the process through which it emerged during these “off” periods—which are always on periods with other folks.
POPDOSE: When we spoke previously, you talked about friends of yours — especially those from your Louisville youth — still making music. How can you account for the wide variety of music even among Squirrel Bait alums? I mean, listening to Spiderland or The For Carnation is worlds away from Creep Mission or The Thicket, which is worlds away from the new Peter Searcy LP. That says nothing of your other bands and collaborators, which is a pretty storied list. To what do you attribute this?
GRUBBS: I’d say that it’s because we came together to make music in what was stylistically a fairly straitjacketed moment: US hardcore punk c. 1983-84. Squirrel Bait pretty quickly shed those constraints, and I think all of us have been expanding ever since.
POPDOSE: What were your influences on Creep Mission? Following you on Facebook is an education, but I can’t help but feel Loren Mazzacane Connors — with you worked on the wonderful Arborvitae — was factored in somehow.
GRUBBS: Loren is a long-time favorite, and perhaps maybe the single greatest revelation for me around the time that Gastr del Sol made The Serpentine Similar. I seem to catch him live around once a year, and I’m always slayed by his example. I also sense that there was greater continuity from Prismrose into Creep Mission than with other album-to-album junctures: that I wanted to build on the feel of a piece like “How to Hear What’s Less than Meets the Ear” rather than to pivot and strike out in a different direction.
POPDOSE: Will you continue to work with Susan Howe? Plug away!
GRUBBS: Her new book Debths is completely extraordinary, and we’ll be performing WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER at the Yale School of Art in November. And I’m always waiting for the word to start work on a new piece.
POPDOSE: What’s next for Blue Chopsticks? Any daydream releases you wish you could issue/reissue?
GRUBBS: I had such a blast working with Taku Unami this summer on a duo record called Failed Celestial Creatures, which will come out on the Hong Kong label Empty Editions next spring, and I would love to release new music by his trio Hontatedori with Tetuzi Akiyama and Moé Kamura.
POPDOSE: Can we switch gears for a minute? On Twitter, you are an active poster and re-Tweeter of some anti-Trump material. Care to share your two cents about how you think the president is doing in his first year, and what impact that’s having on the larger world?
GRUBBS: I have stopped making predictions about the scale of the disaster that is the Trump presidency — except to say that it could easily rival or exceed the worst disasters of human history. I have real fears of his presidency leading to nuclear war — and at no other point in my life did I ever sense anything like that as even a remote possibility. We only have his sheer incompetence to thank for the ACA not having been repealed. (If I were a Republican who supported the ACA repeal, I’d think Trump the most maddeningly lazy and ineffectual president imaginable.) I’m responding to this question the day after the NFL more or less united against him — and those kinds of comings-together on a mass scale seem the best possible outcome of this nightmare. – Popdose, Sept. 27, 2017