August 13, 2008

David Gubbs, the incidental optimist

Friday, Aug. 15

David Grubbs is probably a lot smarter than most people. So smart that his latest solo effort, An Optimist Notes the Dusk, seems to fly over your head upon the first few listens.

Grubbs is used to being considered a heady listen. His first outfit, the late, great Louisville band Squirrel Bait, burst on the scene in the mid-80s and, upon their dissolution in 1988, became more famous for what their members did afterward. Some went on to form Slint, while other members had stints with The Lemonheads and The For Carnation. 

Photo by Thatcher Keats: “Yes, I was in Squirrel Bait. Moving on.”: Grubbs’ latest Drag City Records release, An Optimist Notes The Dusk, contains late-night intimacy.
Photo by Thatcher Keats: “Yes, I was in Squirrel Bait. Moving on.”: Grubbs’ latest Drag City Records release, An Optimist Notes The Dusk, contains late-night intimacy.

Then there was Grubbs, who took all that punk had shown him and created Bastro, which took Squirrel Bait’s punk-rock spirit and explored the artier territory of math rock.

Later, Bastro morphed into Gastr del Sol, and with it, Grubbs’ metamorphosis from punk shoegazer to experimental music machine was complete. For him, the progression wasn’t about changing musical sceneries as much as finding the next new sound. 

“I was always intrigued by whatever sound I heard that was new,” he says. “At first it was punk, then thrash, then I heard Sun Ra. Everything I’ve done is about hearing the next extreme sound. I don’t like to think of where I’ve been and where I’m going artistically as a progression; something about that word seems so linear to me.”

But the David Grubbs audiences hear on Optimist isn’t the thrash-music-listening closet jazz enthusiast of yore. Instead, it’s the sound of Grubbs as the new father. But before you think he’s gone all Kenny Loggins on us, allow him to explain.

“I became a father about four years ago, and a lot of this album was written late at night,” he says.

“There was a ‘don’t wake the baby’ approach to the songwriting, which explains some of the space.” 

A song often begins as a sparse ringing of notes, a curious strum of the odd chord, with Grubbs’ voice over top, alone and ringing out the ready for his MFA-in-English lyrics. It’s a sparse approach that is at once jarring and compelling.

“I love solo performance simply because, as a listener, it’s interesting to hear the notes as they are struck and then listen to them decay,” Grubbs says.

The sparse sounds and subdued nature of the album may take a moment to digest at first, but the artistry is still there, and it will be on display at The Pour Haus (1481 S. Shelby St., 637-9611) on Friday (8 p.m.).

Expect plenty of hubbub about this show — it is, after all, Grubbs playing his hometown. Also expect to see Grubbs with a rather unusual accompanying instrument: electric guitar. “Piano and steel guitar were my instruments of choice in Gastr del Sol, so it’s been interesting to pick up the electric guitar again after so many years and rediscover it,” he says.