Notes of the Weird

“It’s not about pointing out what’s theological about a technological upgrade,” explains Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs, referring to the title of the group’s new album, Upgrade & Afterlife (Drag City). “It’s about pointing out what’s secular about something like afterlife. People now talk about the afterlife of computers, and I like this secular meaning.” In the work he produces with Jim O’Rourke meaning and music are both shrouded in a dense thicket of tangled but undeniable logic.

The record represents a dramatic progression for the duo. “We had the luxury of doing more stuff with tape,” says O’Rourke. “Normally we would have one day to record, while this record took months and months.” The album was recorded in O’Rourke’s new home studio, SteamRoom.

“It’s a much more detailed recording,” says Grubbs. “We just went over it and over it and over it. We would bring in small written things or an idea for the shape of a piece, but everything else developed in the studio.”

Upgrade & Afterlife largely dispenses with the more linear tack of previous releases in favor of gorgeously amorphous compositions that evolved over lengthy stretches of time. The duo’s daring tape manipulations reconfigure familiar sounds into unfamiliar, and their texture-heavy compositions are filled with outside sources–such as violinist Tony Conrad, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, and percussionist Günter Müller–incorporated at the mixing board rather than during live collaboration. Gastr del Sol’s musical abstractions now blur lines between song and sound.

While Grubbs’s background includes playing the forward-looking punk rock of Squirrel Bait and the numb roar of Bastro, meeting prolific experimental guitarist O’Rourke changed his musical conception. Gastr del Sol’s music defies categorization. Melodic vocal fragments drift into gentle guitar strumming that unfurls into a dense drone pattern. The music is full of surprises–such as the Morricone-esque trumpet that triumphantly blares out of a crush of squealing electronics on “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity.'” The album concludes with a lovely cover of guitar legend John Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley (I Saw the Light Come Shining ‘Round and ‘Round),” replete with a tacked-on hypnotic coda. “He was really very nice about it,” says O’Rourke. “He was being too complimentary.” After some twisting O’Rourke admits that Fahey said the Gastr version was superior to his own. But, O’Rourke says, “He’s wrong.”

While Gastr del Sol just returned from an appearance at this year’s Toronto jazz festival, they’re more likely to be heard at home in rock clubs than in jazz venues. The group’s increasing popularity is part of a growing interest in experimental rock and jazz, as witnessed by the strong attendance at the Empty Bottle’s daring Wednesday-night jazz series. “All you have to do is make this music available to people,” says O’Rourke. “There’s no reason it should be elitist. If you ask Deadheads what they liked most about Grateful Dead shows they almost always say the space jam. People like that weird stuff.”

Grubbs’s lyrics are extremely elliptical. “Instead of writing lyrics with verbs and connections between words, you just have a list of proper names, as with ‘Rebecca Sylvester,'” says Grubbs in reference to a tune with the lyrics “At Fullerton and California / California and Sacramento / At Fullerton and Damen and / Diversely.” “I spend so much time driving around that all of those street names have become hugely significant, although I know they won’t have the same significance for anyone else. I figure if I keep doing this long enough people will call me the poet of Chicago.”

“Then you can get a street named after you, and then you can sing your own name,” quips O’Rourke.

“A dead-end street named Gastr.”

Gastr del Sol perform Saturday at the Congress Theater as part of a three-night benefit for the relocation of Lounge Ax. Friday’s bill features Poi Dog Pondering, the Drovers, and Robbie Fulks. On Saturday Gastr will be joined by Shellac, the For Carnation, and Dianogah. Sunday will feature performances by Yo La Tengo, Eleventh Dream Day, Seam, and Red Red Meat. Call 252-4000 for more information.


The sad death of Material Issue’s Jim Ellison has served as a reminder of his band’s role in helping to pave the way for the barrage of major-label signings of Chicago bands. It’s unfortunate that Material Issue’s final and poorest-selling record, Freak City Soundtrack, was also its best. But Ellison’s impact as a booker of underground shows shouldn’t be overlooked. His most regular stint was at Batteries Not Included but he also put on shows at Wrigleyside and the old Exit, among others. Before the days when you could catch Nirvana opening for Precious Wax Drippings at Dreamerz, Ellison was booking acts like White Zombie, Pussy Galore, Celibate Rifles, Big Dipper, and, in one particularly notorious fell swoop, Volcano Suns, Squirrel Bait, and the late G.G. Allin. On the other hand, he was also notorious for ripping off local bands. Those days seem like ancient history, but Ellison was instrumental in affording the burgeoning indie-rock movement a chance to be heard in Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yail Routtenberg.