PROFILE: David Grubbs of Squirrel Bait

Originally published in Popdose on July 30, 2014

Before Louisville was associated with Palace, though after, I suppose, Hunter S. Thompson chronicled its seedy decadence during the Derby, there was Squirrel Bait, a nascent punk group of area teens churning out intricately layered but surprisingly accessible post-hardcore gems, a group of seemingly-always-do-wells who drew rave reviews, and rightfully so, from the likes of Husker Du’s Bob Mould and Big Black’s Steve Albini. Rumor has it that even the likes of Kurt Cobainworshipped at the altar of the group’s 1985 debut.

Though bands like Languid & Flaccid and Maurice, two other great Louisville bands from the 1980s, circled in and around Squirrel Bait’s orbit during its heyday, it became even more renowned as time worn on in the decades that followed. Two of the band’s members, David Grubbs and Brian McMahan, went on to form Slint, Bastro, Gastr del Sol and The For Carnation and, in Grubbs’ case,pursue notable careers solo.

Filmmaker Lance Bangs recently released a documentary on the rise of Slint, timed with a re-release of the group’s epic Spiderland, that went to great lengths to catalog the second wave of Louisville punk from that period and the catalysts for what arguably could be called the birth of post-rock stateside. Squirrel Bait, again, understandably, entered the conversation.

Popdose sat down with Grubbs recently to talk about the video footage of the band that Bangs found, restored and featured in his film. It is rumored to be the only surviving video footage of the band in action.

POPDOSE: Thanks for talking. Was listening to Brian [McMahan] talk about his time in Slint recently and he laughed about how history has treated what essentially was his adolescent and post-adolescent years. Did you think you’d be discussing Squirrel Bait’s 1985 Newport, Ky. show 30 years later? With a music magazine no less? I guess what I’m asking is, did you think what you were doing at the time had that kind of staying power?

GRUBBS: I had no thought whatsoever that you and I would be discussing a Squirrel Bait gig from the Jockey Club thirty years later. And yet, by that time I was a number of years into a mania for the minutiae of various kinds of punk and post-punk, and definitely a hoarder / bush-league archivist, so I did have a sense of value for all of the things that my friends and I were doing, but I couldn’t have imagined that it would have any particular aesthetic or emotional charge for folks beyond our circle of acquaintances.

POPDOSE: How well-traveled was Squirrel Bait at the time this video footage was shot? You guys look pretty comfortable on-stage for a bunch of kids rarely playing outside Louisville. And how old were you?! You can’t be older than 16 or 17. [Laughs]

GRUBBS: In the spring of 1985, I was 17. Clark was 18, Ben Daughtrey was 19, Brian was 16, and Peter was either 16 or 17.

POPDOSE: What exactly did that drunk guy in the front of the audience yell? Hard to tell on the Web. And was he drunk? I suppose I shouldn’t assume.

GRUBBS: It was a guy from Lexington named Gerald who had a huge mohawk. He’d just been in some kind of fight on the dance floor during the previous song, and he wanted to vent into the mic. Peter obliged him. I believe that he says “I’D LIKE TO THANK THE ASSHOLES WHO THINK THEY’RE FULL OF SHIT BECAUSE THEY ARE. PUNKS RULE [garbled, but probably FUCK FOOLS] . . . ” The story is that he’d gotten into it with some rock dudes from Dayton who later formed Guided by Voices. I’ve never been able to confirm the story, but there you go.

POPDOSE: Fair enough. Talk to me about the Husker Du endorsement. That must have been huge for the band’s cred at the time.

GRUBBS: We couldn’t have been more thrilled to have Husker Du offer to put out our record on their label Reflex, and then to rave about us in Spin just a month or two before or first record came out in late 1985. Incredible. I think that was the main propellant for our first record.

POPDOSE: And Steve Albini also was an avid supporter, right? Wasn’t his scrawling of the band’s name your “logo?”

GRUBBS: Yes, I met Steve when I was a junior in high school — I saw Big Black play on campus at Northwestern, with their trusty opening band of friends, Urge Overkill. The Squirrel Bait logo came from a flyer that Steve made for Squirrel Bait, Urge, and Big Black at the Jockey Club — and I believe that it’s spray-painted.

POPDOSE: Years later, David Grohl gave Squirrel Bait a shout-out in a Rolling Stone hardcore run-down/Top Ten list and said a fellow Foo Fighter likened the band to Nirvana. Did Kurt’s rise and fall — or Grohl’s growth thereafter — have any impact on the band after the fact? Haven’t read much in this regard. I guess, has it played the same role or a similar role that the Mould endorsement did early on in the band’s career?

GRUBBS: Not so much. I heard from a friend of someone in the Melvins that Kurt Cobain was really into the first Squirrel Bait record — no word what he thought of the second one. But the Husker testimony was the thing that attracted folks’ attention.

POPDOSE: Explain to me how Squirrel Bait ended. Was it amicable? Did you guys have any shared footage, like videotape show clips or audio recordings and demos from practices, that sort of ephemera, that circulated after the break? Has this sort of thing ever circulated among band members? Or is this the only real deal?

GRUBBS: To (over)simplify, Squirrel Bait more or less broke up twice — the first time at the end of the summer of 1985, as Clark and I were going to college. Then definitively in the summer of 1986. I wouldn’t describe it as amicable, but not so toxic either. It was a weird assemblage of personalities, but at least for a while it was a hell of a lot of fun and we certainly clicked musically. The Jockey Club video (and there’s a full set on video — we’ll dribble out it slowly) is to my knowledge the only live video of the group. There are a handful of unreleased pre-first record studio tracks from 1984 that can be had pretty easily online.

POPDOSE: Talk to me about the role Lance Bangs has played in bringing more of this early second-wave Louisville punk to the surface with his doc Breadcrumb Trail.

GRUBBS: Lance loves this music — that’s for sure. I think he did a fantastic job with Breadcrumb Trail, and I couldn’t be more impressed by his tenacity and his desire to get every detail straight. Even after the first New York screening, his first question to me was whether there was anything that needed correcting or that he might be able to improve. So good.

POPDOSE: Last question. In the Lance Bangs doc, you say Squirrel Bait, originally Squirrel Bait Youth, was shorthand for “nuts,” as in “crazy.” It really was a reference to testicles, was it not? Let’s clear the air here. [Laughs]

GRUBBS: It really was not a reference to testicles! Scout’s honor!

Haven’t seen the video yet of Squirrel Bait playing “Sun God” live? Watch it on Drag City Records’ Web site by clicking HERE.

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