Alan Courtis and David Grubbs’ empathic mathematics in their collaborative work
di Giovanni Panetta
Interview with David Grubbs and Alan Courtis about their release Braintrust Of Fiends And Werewolves (Husky Pants Records), past and future.
Braintrust Of Fiends And Werewolves

Cover image of Braintrust Of Fiends And Werewolves, by Graham Lambkin.

David Grubbs and Alan Courtis are two of the main characters of the international alternative/experimental music landscape. David was a member of important alt/indie ’90 bands such as Squirrel BaitBardo, and Gastr Del Sol, with a peculiar soloist career, which expressed different sonic language in an emotional and intelligent way at the same time, writing some of the most important pages in music history, between pop and avantgarde.

Alan Courtis is an Argentinian musician who has an important role in the psych-noise project Reynols, which sound is characterized by a plastic, very heterodox expressivity, beyond the fact it roamed around the world through several touring travels. (We already interviewed him, here you can find another testimony).

The two main characters released a collaborative work called Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves (Husky Pants Records, September 2023) signed by a complex, emotional free improvisation. Above it, we have interviewed the associated authors about the cited release, past, and future. Following our conversation.

Alan Courtis

Tape Works (Pogus Productions, 2006) seems to be a tape manipulation, in addition to digital creativity. Many times everything appears plasticly innovative, with an edgy intuitive abstraction of the musical consistency. “Respiré Un Cordero” is a very interesting collage of spoken samples that are distorted and overdubbed with a very fervid and creative approach. How were born these idea and what the context was?

Alan Courtis: “As it is stated in the liner notes of the CD release, that piece came from a reel-to-reel tape I found in a street in Buenos Aires around 1994. The recording contained an audio commercial of baby clothes from the 70s which was discarded by a closed down radio station. The voice and what it says sounds between ridiculous and scary, so I reworked it adding several layers with reverb and delay processing to reinforce those mixed sensations. The whole CD compiles tape pieces from 1991 to 1998, they vary in sources and procedures but all of them have some analogue quality.”

The album The Krev Passport Sonata (Kning Disk, iDEAL Recordings, 2009) has a fuzzed, distorted sound organized in a peculiar plastic way, with a homogeneous consistency with many very diversified outliers, whereas the geometric, psychedelic graphical cover of the record reflects these interesting characters. If “Part 1” is smoother and has a certain inclination to relaxing sonorities, “Part 2” is characterized by a more granular, glitched-almost-noise sound. So can you describe the creative process and the intentions behind this work?

Alan Courtis: “Well the basic concept was to make music just with a passport, which as you can imagine is something pretty limited in terms of sonic output. That’s why I had to process it a bit to get some different sounds and develop something slightly more dynamic. Not sure if I can say anything about the intentions but at least it might prove something: sound can be a passport.”

David Grubbs

David, your most important first projects, one characterized by Hüsker Dü/fuzzier sonorities (Squirrel Bait), hard math rock (Bastro), and a summerish avant-psychedelia (Gastr Del Sol), represent a pop-ish or more classically experimental beginning in the sign of American indie/alternative rock. It’s easy to think where these organically and many times original experimental sounds will converge in your musical future. But what are your points of reference in your initial phase, and what do you impress about that period for the next craftsmanship?

David Grubbs: “My first phase was definitely under the sign of hardcore punk; that was the authorizing moment for me, whether or not the music that came after that sounded it like or not. Whenever people ask what kind of music I play – now that I’m in my fifties, people usually seem to ask, “Classical? Jazz?” – I usually say, “I grew up playing in punk bands.” And as much as at the time I may have thought that I didn’t have obvious models, of course I did! But the reference points at the moment . . . I think that they have much more to do with my accrued approach to particular instruments (guitar, piano, electronics), and that the working-out of ideas now primarily has its own continuity with work that I’ve done previously, rather than reference points from my listening, even if I still am a music freak, continually wanting to discover.”

One of your masterpieces, Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange (Table Of The Elements, 1996) is one of the most important added values in music. The suspended acoustic sonorities develop in a flow of consciousness, whereas a phrase stops, repeats, and then becomes something else or something more, contemplating aerostatic thoughts and consistences in the ambient. This idea in a very different form but with reprising any of the same musical concepts is your Prismrose (Blue Chopsticks, 2016), where the sound appears as more structured but with your attitudinal suspension. So how were born in you these ideas that characterize your poetry many times?

David Grubbs: “I think that the instrumental music that I make is discursive in as much as it resembles my own speech patterns – a statement, a reconsideration, a restatement, a self-interruption, etc. I once gave a reading from a book in Germany after which someone told me they understood little because of language difficulties, but they thought that it uncannily resembled my guitar playing. That made me happy.”

A Guess at the Riddle (FatCat Records, 2004) characterized by intelligent pop, sweet-and-sour melodies, and any outlier in the sign of ambient/noise sonorities (“Coda (Breathing)”). “Knight Erranti” is an interesting jangle pop hit with catchy songwriting. “Hurricane Season” has melodic but rarefied elements with a drone part at the end which encounters the the last, harsh, and homogeneous part, the above-mentioned Coda. So how happened this peculiar pop songwriting with an exp character?

David Grubbs: “For that record, all of the songs were written more or less at the same time – a concentrated effort, with the more abstract instrumental pieces reflecting a different period of working. Maybe it sounds like a compilation album?”

Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves

Talking about your last album, Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves, can you talk about your contribution and creative process behind this work, characterized by melodic and atonal bitter and sour tonalities?

David Grubbs: “Anything that I have to say about Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves is in retrospect, as everything was recorded as live improvisations, with very little editing. Between pieces either Alan or I might make a very small suggestion about how the next piece might differ from the previous one, but in general there was very little planning or before-the-fact composition. It really is a document of real-time playing.”

Alan Courtis: Yes, nothing was planned and everything flowed in a very organic way.

The title track has a jangle form in its guitar phrases, permeated by a melancholic creativity in its harmony whereas sometimes there appears a mandolin-like picking which gives a Southern Italian touch. So, how did happened these elements in this track?

David Grubbs: “Alan is playing the rhythmic part, which he described as related to some kind of Argentinean traditional or folk music. I played the leaping, descending melody – but again, as with the others it really is an improvised duo, nothing planned in advance.”

Alan Courtis: “What’s funny is that I realized afterwards that the rhythm had something related to Argentinian Northern Folklore. But I didn’t notice it while playing: the music just appeared there.”

David Grubbs and Alan Courtis

David Grubbs and Alan Courtis, during the sessions of Braintrust Of Fiends And Werewolves.

“Varsovia y Esparta” is more rarefied whereas there is a blue-colored landscape; it seems an autumnal caress, which has several homogeneous stop-and-goes in sight of wavering variation of volume. Anyway, its chaoticity remembers me of the complex geometry of a tree; I can conceptualize the shape but each time it will have a very different form from a viewpoint of scientific complexity which I can’t foresee, and this is a leitmotiv of tour discographic production, of both. Can you talk about this character in your music?

David Grubbs: “I think you’ve described it beautifully! I’m not sure that I can add anything else – I appreciate your words.”

Alan Courtis: “Well, Varsovia (Warsaw) is located in Poland and Esparta (Sparta) in Greece. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the piece can host some deep contrasts.”

The last track “Airborne Particles Of The California Central Valley” has deleyed patterns which gives an alien sensation of non-membership with the context. Again patterns become more violent and powerful with a sonic climax with an ideal many times in a sinusoidal but organic way, indeed it seems to give a mathematical shape to this chaotic but empathic approach. Are they your real intentions with this track and/or the rest?

David Grubbs: ““Empathic” sounds right, definitely “chaotic,” but I don’t know about “mathematical.” My recollection is that this was the final track on the album, and we allowed ourselves to really stretch out with a longer piece, knowing that it would be some time before we played again!”

Alan Courtis: “Maybe there’s some sort of “non-rational mathematics” involved, who knows…”

Now tell us the next news about other works and concerts, together or not.

Alan Courtis: “Nothing confirmed yet but we should definitely present it onstage.”

David Grubbs: “We’re dying to play together again. Spread the word!”

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