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Thursday, August 18, 2011

David Grubbs on Squirrel Bait: 10/29/08 Interview

Anthology Recordings was a pay download site last decade that had a wonderfully curated selection. And when Koen Holtkamp (co-leader of the uncategorizable and thoroughly excellent Mountains) worked there, he had me do some writing for the site. When he gave me this assignment, though, I developed a little mental block on it, partly because I was out of practice on interviews, partly because I felt too much self-applied pressure to prepare myself to talk to the great David Grubbs. Finally I emailed him the questions and he responded the same day. As usual, anxiety had made an innocuous situation seem more fraught than it was!

Anthology has been on hiatus for a while, and even before that had switched direction and ditched the editorial stuff, so I'm bringing this one back.

RAN: Anthology Recordings website, November 2008
TITLE: Squirrel Bait

The question of whether Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait was a little late on a trend or ahead of its time depends on what one focuses on while listening to them, but whichever side one comes down on, nobody can deny that they made great music that has stood the test of time, sounding great on vinyl, CD, and now online download.

Certainly when I bought their eponymous debut in 1985, it was because they were being compared to the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, big favorites of mine. They more than lived up to the hype on a disc full of propulsive, explosive songs, with singer Peter Searcy able to summon Paul Westerberg-ish tone at will but with something of Bob Mould’s phrasing and dark urgency. Guitarists David Grubbs and Brian McMahan whacked out chords that sounded like they might chew your leg off, sometimes expansive and fat enough to fill the room, sometimes bright and pointed enough to pierce walls.

Two years later they followed that up with Skag Heaven, which sounded even more dangerous. Drummer Ben Daughtrey’s rolled hardcore fills were tighter and more devastatingly deployed, but there was now more to this band than punk: there was often more metal in the guitars -- both the genre and the material’s timbre -- and the band more often sounded original enough to be hard to pigeonhole. Then a few years passed and it started to seem as if the band had been an influence on some of the less rote grunge bands

Band members went off to college, ending Squirrel Bait’s existence, and later went on to many other groups (Slint, Bastro, Gastr del Sol, Big Wheel, Lemonheads, Bitch Magnet, and more). David Grubbs recently had time to discuss the band.

The debut sounds like you’d been listening to what was happening in Minneapolis the previous few years, but there’s more to it than that, right?

The Replacements and Husker Du were major favorites, certainly. But also...let's see...the Meat Puppets, Big Black, Sun Ra, the Birthday Party, Leonard Cohen, Pere Ubu, Phil Ochs, Blowfly, the Red Krayola, the Babylon Dance Band, the Endtables, Malignant Growth, Maurice -- stuff like that.

$400 to record the debut, really? Where/how did you get the money?

Well, there were five of us. Waiting tables, cutting grass, playing shows. Then we got an advance from Homestead.

Based on the band picture on the debut, the Louisville punk scene didn’t enforce a very rigid dress code. What was it like being a punk in Louisville in 1984-5? What were your ages when that record came out?

Yes, the Louisville punk scene was pretty contrarian. I guess I'd say that I wasn't a punk but that I was in a punk band. You know? Punk rock was my life, more or less, but I don't think that I or most of my friends jibed with folks' ideas of who or what punks were supposed to be.

When the first album came out (fall 1985), we ranged from 16 (Brian McMahan) to 20 (Ben Daughtrey). I had just turned 18.

The first album and Skag Heaven could easily fit on one CD but were reissued separately. Do you feel strongly that they must remain separate entities? How had the band changed between the two albums?

Oh, I think that they're completely different. Very different sounding records. The first sounds like us blasting through our songs in Clark's parents' basement. The sound sounds like us trying to make something more like a coherent, conventional album. There's much that I like about the second one (particularly "Kid Dynamite" and "Tape from California"), but it's the first one that I love.

The intro to “Choose Your Poison” shows you trying out a style you’d make more use of in future bands. How did you come up with that at the time?

I think that that was our idea of free jazz. Ha!

Wikipedia’s Squirrel Bait entry says the band’s sound “clearly foreshadowed the grunge sound as well as math rock.”

Not so mathy, if you ask me. More like social studies rock. Or humanities rock.

That is where the published interview ended. I'd asked one more question, off topic:

A couple of Bastro reissues came out a few years ago for a week or two and were then recalled. (I work in a record store; I bought one each for myself and kept them after the recall -- I hope I'm not going to be arrested.) What happened there?

The Live 1991 CD wasn't recalled -- thankfully -- and it's still in print on Blue Chopsticks. The one that compiled the two studio albums was sadly recalled the week that it was released -- a dispute with the former owner of Homestead Records. Please don't get me started on it.

[When I was looking for a picture to use for this post, I found an excellent blog post on the band on the wonderfully named Lexicon Devil.]

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