The Home Key #13: An Interview with Grumbeaux


Rick Moody

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   There was a time ten years ago or more when two writers of my acquaintance wrote a pseudonymous book about the New York Mets, pretending that they were regulars, routine fans who just happened to have scored season tickets, fighting with the feelings of disconsolation that any Mets fans would have (and have still). They followed along for a whole season, made a diary of this season, which then became the book. Everything about this baseball saga was great, especially the hoax part. For a brief moment in the book world it was a subject of speculation: who made the disconsolate Mets book? At one point, I myself was considered the author. I was not. On one occasion I was interviewed on the subject; I suggested a few names, without ever affixing to the project the actual identities. I helped with the project, that is, because I felt like the absence of the actual authors was what made the project good, that the authors, in their fictional guise, had real texture that they did not have in so-called real life. The hoaxing quality of the work was part of why it was valuable. In a similar way, I revere the Ern Malley poems of The Darkening Ecliptic because they, the poems, have now passed through all the fuss, the residue of the subjectivity, the laugh-riot, the outrage, the test of time, the historical context, the conservative blather, to some other state. Now there is a “real” Ern Malley, made possible, retroactively, by the work itself.    Recently, I received a copy of this album by Grumbeaux. You’ve Been on my Mind (sic, per the jacket art). Most of the people who send me their music without asking first, are, somehow, not a perfect fit, where I am concerned, and I don’t end up in the long-term consideration of the work that might cause writing to appear. Maybe I have kind of recondite taste? Or maybe this is music fixed on the contemporary, when I like to mull for a long time, decades even, and that’s when the words want to get compiled. I mean: it was rare for me to receive this recording from Grumbeaux and to have this emotional response that I had. But I did have an emotional response. I thought the record was good because it was highly unexpected: a mixture of old folk-inflected material that sounded goth, prog, and glam, all at once, with especial attention to the rhythm section in a way that no one really does it anymore. Sort of like The Birthday Party, or Love and Rockets, if those bands were raised on singer-songwriter material. Or like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum if the had all grown up in Moscow, Idaho. This is a very unusual mixture of things as one might expect with a name that suggests a kind of culinary grab-bag. But it’s not only how the music sounds that moved me. It’s the ache of the thing.    I have reason to suspect that I actually know who Grumbeaux is, though Grumbeaux has so far not revealed this information to me. I mean two things, 1) that there are certain kinds of intimate artifacts, things sent between two artists who are friends, that are in reality bits of stray communication, that say, in effect, this loneliness that caused me to make this work is a thing I know you will understand. You may not know a person well at all, you can be in their company only once or twice in a lifetime, and still feel this intense kinship with their work, like the person is your deeply felt friend. And I felt this way about the Grumbeaux album: it wasn’t made for me specifically, but it was, in the sense that I am the kind of listener who would understand this big ache. Is this feeling of kin an illusion? The feeling that you know someone through their work and that their work is somehow made for you, even though you know it is not? Maybe this is to ask what illusion means. An illusion can be an illusion and still be very true. Stories have this quality, fictional and deeply true at the same time. The other thing, though 2), is that I know certain people who played in certain bands and who somehow came to be in exile from those bands, sundered off, and they are the only ones who can produce a work this exalted and confident. Only someone who had played a lot could have as much unique sensitivity to songcraft as this record has, however isolated and alone they are in the production thereof. On this record they, Grumbeaux, both seem pretty alone and like the adoring audience awaits them just out of the edge of the frame.    Of course, I didn’t have anything to do with making this record which is to be found on all the streaming services–for example on Tidal–though by saying this–that I didn’t make this recording–I admit that I create a degree of uncertainty that might oddly help celebrate the Grumbeaux album. I am simply telling you the truth, however. I don’t know exactly who made these recordings, though I have my hunch. I do, however, think You Been on my Mind is really exceptional, very strange, and, by reason of its resistance to having an author, liable to achieve a hovering, ghostly cult status.    Have you ever heard the Rocks and Waves Song Circle ? I don’t think the guy who made Rocks and Waves Song Circle, one of the most truly strange albums of the last thirty or forty years, made the Grumbeaux album. I don’t think he is Grumbeaux. I don’t think Grumbeaux is Jandek, a.k.a. the Representative of Corwood Industries, who has produced many dozens of albums over the years, all of them to be gotten by mail order, and all of them evidence of an artist in crisis. I do think Grumbeaux doesn’t have an “I” in the way that these artists don’t have an “I.” The songs themselves create the context for those artists; those artists are effects of the songs, and the legends surrounding the works spring up around the mitigated selfhood of the artists, in which the songs are more important than the authors or performers, and the same is perhaps true of Grumbeaux. Grumbeaux is an effect of certain ideas about folk music, the music that comes from an annihilation of self, in the past, in the present, and forever. I think you will really like this album, which is very strong. And, now: see Grumbeaux attempt to answer some questions in the lines below. This may be the only interview they ever give.

Q: Hi Grumbeaux, I’m listening to your record, which you sent me out of nowhere without asking first. Who the hell are you?    A: Many pardons for the presumption.

Grumbeaux is what you ate for dinner last night; it’s what stuck to your mother’s sole in the parking lot of Kohl’s; it’s your grandfather’s look when his false teeth pop out; it’s the elephant in the room and the lion that keeps you awake at night.

Q: Grumbeaux, this answer is excellent and reminds me of that famous remark by Subcomandante Marcos, “Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.” Etc. Your reasoning connects to this mahatma-like porousness of self, this opening outward of self. Does that porousness in turn connect you to these songs? And what can you tell us about these songs?  

A: Am I porous? Very well then, I am porous. Poetry opens us outward, and these songs were chosen for their poetry, which claws you in to open you out. “You gotta get in to get out,” as the refrain goes in “Carpet Crawlers.”

(Ed., I noticed just today that the author of the disgraceful song referred to above has a similar thought on a brand new song, produced nearly fifty years after the above: “Stuff going out, stuff going in, I’m just a part of everything.” We are talking, it seems to me, about whether there is really an inside and an outside, and whether these are obverses or, rather, part of a continuum.)

Why not trek deeper into the lyrics of old folk songs to draw more of the darkness out? Giving the killer a second voice in “Nebraska,” for example, one that cunningly pleads for sympathy in your left ear. Or making “Bobby McGee” hint at becoming a murder ballad by emphasizing certain phrases, like everything I done and Bobby’s body. Or having “Once I Was” sung from beyond the grave instead of the relationship.

It’s Singer-Songwriter material reimagined as Experimental Rock or Alternative Metal, or whatever you want to call it. An engineer at a studio I visited dubbed it Synth Metal Cash. A Leonard Cohen song might be next – a songwriter who was a poet first. When the lyrics are that good, it’s almost an invitation to get in there and draw something out.

Q: Can you speak a little more to excellence in the matter of lyrics? What makes a lyric excellent in your view? Is there a literary quality to that?

A: There’s definitely a literary quality. The concision and evocativeness of poetry. Every word doing work. Showing over telling to earn the effects. Songs can be simply entertaining, of course, exciting, sad or dark, but if they’re going to have lasting meaning, it’s in the quality of the lyrics, the hardest thing to get right. Van Zandt was a master, as was Cohen and several others.

There’s a bitter depth of meaning to these songs. Take the devastating but inevitable conclusion of “Waitin Round to Die”: “I got a friend at last. He don’t drink or cheat or steal or lie. His name’s Codeine.” Or the angst the killer triggers in us with his last statement in “Nebraska”: “You wanna know why I did what I did? I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Or the singer in “Bobby McGee” betraying the steep costs of playing at being free: “Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free,” an echo, perhaps, of Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing.” Or this line, hidden among a songful of reasons why the singer must don his flyin’ shoes: “I’d like to stay.” It doesn’t get more real than that.

Q: Your nothings remind me of Beckett, too, in Malone Dies, “Nothing is more real than nothing.” Do you agree that all these songs are sad, Grumbeaux? Is there especial meaning to be found in the sad song?

A: I happened to read an article last night about a study showing that sad songs can benefit mental health by making one feel more connected. I’d say that here, though, it’s more about catharsis from looking such feelings in the face. You don’t want to get stuck there, but you don’t want to hide either. Hello, my old friend sadness, I know that you are there (as Thich Nhat Hanh might have said). Acknowledgment is everything. Life is indeed suffering, but it is also joy, and a special piquancy can be won by embracing the lot. “You gotta get in to get out,” when applied to life itself, suggests a means of transcending the “slaving meat wheel” (Kerouac, “211th Chorus”) by embracing it first.   Q: How did you think about the arrangements here? To say they are “non-standard” with respect to the originals is to understate.

A: The arrangements grew organically, limb by limb. Each started with acoustic guitar and vocals, much like the originals, but then maybe an erhu was added and its siren call lured the other instruments to the tempest, or a bass line made the ground grittier, and soon roots were hardscrabbling for water, and rough new monsters creaked outward from there. The trick then is to inhabit those monsters, to operate the limbs, however grimly they may reach.

Q: One cannot overlook the rhythm section, in particular. The relationship between bass and drum suggests, perhaps, an acute education on your part, Grumbeaux, with respect to the way a rhythm section should work. True or untrue?

A: Breastfeeding on the rhythm sections of John and John, Cliff and Phil, Les and Tim, Justin and Danny, Tim and Brad, Geddy and Neil, Flea and Chad and the like whets the appetite for infiltrating the body of the song. Just the right unsettling changeup or emphasis shocks the senses into letting go; just the right bass note (or run or chord) floods the receptors, as with the notes after lover and smiled on “Once I Was.” And the body knows when it’s there because the bottom is the body; it’s the bones beating at the skin – but from the inside.

Q: How did you record?

A: At Low Lore Studio with Apollo interfaces and a variety of mics, from Shure to Neumann. A Sphere L22 was used for most of the vocals. Monitors were Genelec 8351B’s. Acoustic guitar and vocals came first. The rhythm section, or part of it, was usually next, after which the acoustic was often erased. Then the phantom swooped in and lit on them bones to fashion the flesh. There were certainly malformations along the way and the killing of many darlings for the sake of the song.

Q: And how long did it take? Was there a hardship with the letting go?

A: Four years, more or less, if you go back to the earliest acoustic versions. Other songs were worked on too in that time, but it was the first four of these that began to reveal throughlines between them of meaning and tone and to trace a multi-song arc of suffering and release, thereby making their case for deeper focus and thought. It was much later in the process that “Once I Was” established itself as the necessary closer.

The hardship was not so much in letting go but in getting all the sonics just right. A lot is going on in these songs – from layering upon layering to multiple melodies weaving in and out. Each note had to come through in just the right voice, with just the right tone and dimension for each particular moment. And then one fluttering touch to the dial on the 2-bus compressor, and it’s like those fabled butterfly wings – everything is affected – so there’s a constant balancing and rebalancing along the way. Letting go was fairly easy once the rest of that was done.

Q: And can you speak to singing here? Your singing is both elevated and with a faint whiff of the sprechgesang, like maybe your background is the poetry slam. Am I right?

A: Interesting. I didn’t know that word. Dramatic vocalization between speech and song. Barrett Jones, on hearing this version of “Flyin’ Shoes,” compared the “talk singing,” as he put it, to Nick Cave’s delivery, and that was the first time I’d considered it. Yet, on listening back, I heard only singing, so the speech aspect is not deliberate and sounds like singing to me. Not the final words of “Bobby McGee” or “Once I Was,” of course, but pretty much everything else. Maybe the first-person storytelling nature of these songs brought out some of that.

And you may be correct in that there’s always been a love of voice, of spoken presentations of poetry, plays and fiction. Ezra Pound reading his Cantos, for example, or Steven Jess Bernstein reading his poem “More Noise Please,” or Dylan Thomas reading his “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait,” or Barrett Whitener’s embodiment of the characters in the audiobook of Confederacy of Dunces, or the crippling intensity and painful beauty of almost every word uttered in Olivier’s “King Lear.”

Q: The cover art is really unique, arresting, in a nice way. Can you give us some insight?

A: I was working with Christian Clayton on it, and he had this piece already done, showing the dilapidated busts of this tragic couple and titled “You’ve Been on my Mind.” Both the image and the title made perfect sense. There are certain people on the singer’s mind in each of these songs, with the last two referring outward to include life itself. “Flyin’ Shoes” is almost an ode to the life he’ll be leaving – you’ve been on my mind – and is followed by the distant voice in “Once I Was,” longing from beyond the grave “for the days when we smiled.”

Q: Grumbeaux, this took four years, how are you possibly going to follow it? Are you going to make another album that takes this long? Like the guy who wrote “Carpet Crawlers” taking twelve years between albums? Will you do something consequential to collect material, like a walking tour of the North American prairie-lands, or go snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands?

A: I could be out on a walk, hearing every note in my head, and notice by some tree that, however much I love those two glockenspiel notes at the start of that chorus, they dilute the introductory statement of the electric guitar, which is the more necessary element at that moment. So, yes, it will take time once again, far more hours than what show up on the clock. One brings to it the whole of one’s life to that point. How am I connecting to these songs, these rhythms, these melodies, these lyrics, given what I’ve seen and heard and felt and learned on my particular, clumsy two-step around this indifferent rock?

Snorkeling wreaks havoc on my sinuses. Walking long distances does the same to my arches. Perhaps material will be collected by sitting in various postures in varied locales, sniffing at the regional molecules, looking over my shoulder for browbeating weather and monitoring all frequencies for signs of the message.

Yes, there will be more because Grumbeaux is what hides behind corners and beneath bowls of soup. It’s what you left “on the Spanish steps the day you said goodbye” (Guy Clark, “Dublin Blues”).

Q: And if you could pick an imaginary landscape for the listener to think about while in the consideration of these songs, what would that landscape look like?

A: A bathtub full of seafood soup. Life is Grumbeaux, is it not? And we’re all in it. The question is, as one writer put it, whose spoon comes a-fetching.