Gastr del Sol


Chicago in the 1990’s was the home to a cultural touchstone for experimental music. The Midwest served as melting pot boiling over for the burgeoning post-rock, math rock, and noise rock scenes. It is a time and place that has become revered for the exponential amount of groundbreaking influential underground music that flourished there in the years leading up to the end of the millennium. Gastr del Sol was forged by David Grubbs in Chicago in the early 90’s as an avant-garde acoustic group out of the ashes of the loud and heavy first generation math rock band Bastro.

The beginning on the band, like much of the aspects of Gastr del Sol’s music, is enigmatic and difficult to pin down. Bastro quickly built a reputation as pioneering post-hardcore and math rock in the late 80’s and the band’s final lineup consisted of David Grubbs, John McEntire, and Bundy K. Brown. In 1991, Grubss, McEntire, and Brown went into an incubation phase in which Bastro dissolved and Gastr del Sol emerged with a shift towards quieter, less rock-based experimental music.


The group’s first album, The Serpentine Similar, released in 1993, is a radically inventive record focused on the gentle dynamics of quieter acoustic based avant-garde music that came out in contrast and seemingly almost in opposition to the noise rock, grunge, and post-hardcore maelstrom happening in the 90’s rock music mainstream as well as large outposts of heavy experimental rock music and dynamically loud slowcore circling fringes of the avant-garde music world of the time. McEntire and Brown soon left after the first album to focus on the Chicago post-rock band Tortoise. Around the same time in the early 90’s, Jim O’Rourke was entrenched in the avant-garde and experimental music world and then joined Gastr del Sol to cement the group officially as a duo for the rest of their existence.

Gastr del Sol’s music sounds like it’s from the beyond. The collaborative duo albums Grubbs and O’Rourke released between 1994 – 1998 are all classic works of avant- garde music, especially their final full-length album, 1998’s Camofleur. The duo is a shining example of what post-rock can aspire to be in the sense that Gastr del Sol took guitar based contemporary 90’s experimental music to a place that feels outside of rock music entirely. There is a Lynchian quality to both Grubbs’ surrealist lyrics as well as the fluidity of emotions and fleeting moments of warm nostalgia found throughout the music of Gastr del Sol’s discography.


A major aspect of Gastr del Sol that set them apart from many of their 90’s contemporaries was their restraint. Albums like 1994’s Crookt, Crackt or Fly and 1996’s Upgrade and Afterlife are albums that are a perfect balance of quiet lush melodies mixed with elements of music concrete and noise and can often sound like a score for a movie that hasn’t been made yet or at least you haven’t seen. Grubbs would still occasionally pull from the same creative well that Bastro seems to have stewed in and about once an album Gastr del Sol seems to pull back the curtain just for a moment to remind the audience that they are also capable of playing like a more typical post-rock or math rock band with electric guitars and drums like on the song “Is That a Rifle When It Rains?” found on Crookt…, and the second half of the song “Hello Spiral” off of Upgrade and Afterlife. These rare musical flirtations with loud rock music accompanied with John McEntire on drums only further show the full restraint they laser focused on presenting in their music, and puts a spotlight on the music first approach of a truly innovative group.


Now more than 25 years after the band officially ended, We Have Dozens of Titles delivers in further cementing the legacy of truly unique and original musical exploration and discovery that Gastr del Sol excelled at. The new archival album features nearly an hour of unreleased live recordings in addition to nearly another hour of studio recordings culled from hard to find previously uncollected singles, EPs, and compilations. The whole album is a highlight of Gastr del Sol’s body of work, and it’s great to hear so many live recordings as in their tradition of being radically different from their contemporaries in the rock music world, Gastr del Sol was not a live focused based and tours were rare and far between during their run of albums released in the 90’s. The 1997 live recordings sound like a group at the top of their game including live versions of “The Seasons Reverse” and “Blues Subtitles No Sense of Wonder” which both songs have very different final studio versions that were on 1998’s Camofleur.

To talk more about the new album and reflect on different parts of the band’s history and style, David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke answered some questions that we’re more than happy to share with everyone on Fecking Bahamas:

FB: We Have Dozens of Titles is such a treasure trove of studio recordings and unreleased live recordings, can you go into the backstory of how this release came to be and what the process was like to curate the archival release 25+ years after the band disbanded?

DAVID GRUBBS: Not long after we stopped working together — in 1998 — I remember drawing up a quick list of non-LP tracks we had made that I thought one day should be collected on an album. But at that point we had just made two records (Camoufleur and Upgrade and Afterlife) that I felt worked quite well as complete albums, and so the list of non-LP materials didn’t seem that it would be nearly as strong. During the pandemic, I found myself organizing what few live recordings of the group, and none seemed essential to release. I remembered that the CBC had broadcast a portion of our final show from 1997, and it wasn’t until someone was able to locate it in an archive in Montreal that the album really came into focus and seemed like it would be a satisfying release.

FB: Listening back to the recordings that ended up on the boxed set, was there anything that surprised you? 

DAVID GRUBBS: Two main things; one was how much care had gone into some of the more brief compilation tracks that hardly anyone seemed to have heard, and also how free and loose and even funny some of the live recordings of material that we were then working on for Camoufleur.

JIM O’ROURKE: It was much more assured than I remembered, seemed to know exactly what it wanted to be, the only problem was my slight obsession with extreme dynamic range at that time, because of new recording technology finally being available at the time.

FB: In recent years there have been some live videos of the band, mostly from the 1995 tour you did with Tony Conrad, that have surfaced on YouTube and shared on social media that have amassed tens of thousands of views and to many of us offer some of the only glimpses into Gastr Del Sol as a live band. Was it difficult to arrange Gastr Del Sol material, which featured a lot of non-rock music instrumentation, for live shows? What were your feelings of Gastr Del Sol as a live band in the 90’s? Was the music appreciated live by audiences as much as the studio recordings are revered?

DAVID GRUBBS: I will say that my gut reaction to a number of the live recordings that I’d had on hand for years — often pretty crappy sounding recordings — was that the songs were better served by their studio versions! That said, with the discovery of the tape in the CBC archive we were able to set the bar nice and high for what was to be included in the new album. How hard was it to arrange these for live performances? My main recollection was that it was fun to reimagine them in a live setting, and I don’t think I ever experienced it as difficult.

JIM O’ROURKE: I don’t think we were ever concerned about reproducing the recorded versions live outside of what material was needed to be the song, and even then so, was fine for it to be just another version of it. Only in the last few shows when we both started using CD players, and then my laptop did we look into the possibilities of that, but they were still just versions.

FB: In the early to mid 90’s when much of the mainstream rock scene and labels were focused on Seattle and the grunge music coming out of the PNW, you guys were in Chicago doing something radically different (and quieter) that in a way was the punk antithesis to the commercialized mainstream rock music of the time. Could you maybe go into what it was like being a Chicago band back then and what influence (if any) that time and place had on the music you made together? Were the seemingly DIY punk aspects of Gastr Del Sol intentional or purely accidental?

DAVID GRUBBS: Most everything we did had a pretty high degree of intentionality. Sometimes it was a shock to my or maybe our system dropping these very delicate performances into the settings of loud bars because I hadn’t really gone into it thinking about how an audience would or wouldn’t respond to it — the focus really had been on the music itself. Sometimes that makes for a gripping situation — quieting a typically
loud environment – but sometimes the bar won!

JIM O’ROURKE: I personally had no connection to or interest in that music outside of personal favorites like Killdozer, Slovenly and Minutemen, for example, so it didn’t really have that kind of dynamic for me.

FB: This question is specifically for David, and Bastro is considered by many to be one of the first math rock bands and early post-hardcore pioneers, yet the final lineup of Bastro with yourself, John McEntire, and Bundy K. Brown were the same musicians on the first Gastr Del Sol record in 1993. What caused the shift in music that led to Gastr Del Sol evolving out of the heavier math rock of Bastro?

DAVID GRUBBS: Ah, I feel like I could write a book about it, and in fact there are passages in my book The Voice in the Headphones that more or less could be about this chrysalis phase whereby Gastr del Sol emerged out of noisy, troubled Bastro. The most direct thing to say is that Bastro did more or less one thing and did it well, but at a certain point I had a wish to be in a band that could be responsive to its surroundings, and that would exist not only in a pumped up fashion, but at a more human scale.

FB: With We Have Dozens of Titles bringing fresh attention to the band and to your music, is there any chance of re-issues for the rest of the back catalogue with any additional unreleased material?

DAVID GRUBBS:There will be new pressings of a number of the albums, but no additional unreleased material.

FB: If someone is just finding Gastr Del Sol now for the first time and is interested in finding similar music and music that influenced the band, what would you recommend someone check out?

DAVID GRUBBS: Luc Ferrari, Van Dyke Parks, Derek Bailey, Roberto Cacciapaglia, Ennio Morricone…

JIM O’ROURKE:Anything on the Italian Cramps / diverso label from the 70’s Anything on Lovely Records, Charles Ives, Luc Ferrari…

FB: How do you discover new music today? 

DAVID GRUBBS: The same as always — through people whom I trust.

JIM O’ROURKE: I wait five years, and if I am still hearing someone’s name bandied about, I’ll check it out.

We Have Dozens of Titles is out now via Drag City Records, and it’s a well-crafted reissue album that is a necessary listen for those who appreciate music that has the power to take you to new undiscovered places where the risk is definitely worth the reward. Check it out on Bandcamp here.