We Have Dozens of Titles

In a 1998 interview, David Grubbs once perfectly described the mysterious, impossible-sounding music he and Jim O’Rourke briefly conjured as Gastr Del Sol. “Every record saw us determined to create a different group with each song,” he said, capturing an amorphous quality running through their trio of perception-shattering albums, as well as the project’s initial debut as an entirely different group.

Grubbs started Gastr Del Sol in 1991 with Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire as an acoustic shift from their hardcore trio Bastro. Meanwhile, O’Rourke, emerging from the avant-garde music world, joined after one album just as Brown and McEntire were focusing on their own project Tortoise. Each album the duo made together—1994’s Crookt, Crackt or Fly, 1996’s Upgrade & Afterlife, and 1998’s swan song Camoufleur—feels like a classic of its era, but what many miss is how exciting, disorienting, and bizarre Gastr Del Sol could get on just a single, compilation track or the rare live performance. In the remarkable archival collection, We Have Dozens of Titles, Grubbs and O’Rourke shine a light on those obscure songs and oddities forming the shadow of an album that feels as rewarding as their main ones. Paired with recently discovered recordings of their final performance, it captures how this duo could feel so alive and unpredictable, across the span of a song or an entire discography, from a first rehearsal to a final show.

Listening to Gastr Del Sol’s music is like trying to grasp smoke. A soft piano chord, the hum of a harmonium, or a fingerpicked knot of John Fahey-inspired guitar might cast a sprawling shadow of musique concrète, erupt in guitar feedback by noise artist Kevin Drumm, or swoon into an orchestral sample from a ’50s monster movie like The Incredible Shrinking Man. In one breathtaking moment on “The Relay,” from Upgrade & Afterlife, a whistling tea kettle and a screaming internet modem form a quiet duet.

Dozens begins with a work-in-progress, a live version of “The Seasons Reverse” found on unearthed recordings of the band’s final performance at the 1997 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Québec. While the version that would appear a year later on Camoufleur adds McEntire’s hypnotic polyrhythms, glitchy electronics from Oval’s Markus Popp, flourishes of steel drum, elastic cornet, and Grubbs’ jubilantly surreal wordplay, the song’s most miraculous twist is already fully formed live. Its dense guitar work spirals endlessly deeper until the pop of Grubbs’ strings is as big as exploding fireworks. And then, as O’Rourke sneaks a field recording into the mix, you realize there are fireworks. It’s a humbling, beautiful climax that’s suddenly interrupted by an inquisitive French voice, then O’Rourke’s stammering “Don’t worry, keep doing it! It’s a microphone…I’m recording you blowing off firecrackers…” The moment simply blows up in O’Rourke’s face as he desperately tries to explain and salvage things with the perturbed stranger he’s been recording, only offering further apologies that he can’t speak French. As a field recording it’s a stroke of genius—while simultaneously roasting themselves and field recordings.

That concert offers more surprises like “Ursus Artcos Wonderfilis” from the 1991 debut The Serpentine Similar, the sprawling “Onion Orange” from Grubbs’ debut solo album, and another Camoufleur stunner, “Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder,” which leans even harder into its piercing organ melody. Grubbs’ tender vocal performance (including the lyrics where this collection takes its title) isn’t present yet, but a warped TV-sampling interlude that never made the final cut provides a jarring delight.

While the studio recordings on Dozens have all technically been released somewhere, they find a far better home here together. “Quietly Approaching”—which initially appeared on a Red Hot charity release—shines as one of Gastr’s most mysterious pieces. Its ominous textures and chords hang in the air before a brass ensemble erupts midway. “At Night and At Night” is a highlight not only of the Grubbs/Brown/McEntire era, but of the nascent days of the legendary Chicago label, Drag City—its angular peaks originally fitting comfortably on the Hey Drag City comp alongside early Smog and Pavement.

It feels true to the project’s time-bending spirit that Dozens’ shortest and longest studio tracks are its two most memorable. “The Japanese Room at La Pagode,” off a split with the late Tony Conrad, captures two minutes of the duo’s most precise and fractured sounds, from the single-second crack of percussion and Grubbs’ soft piano leading to a cold vacuum of humming electronics. It lingers just to the point of discomfort before a blast of digital noise signals Grubbs’ gentle coda. Meanwhile, the 17-minute epic “The Harp on Factory Street,” originally released as a standalone, functions even better here as an album-within-an-album. Gastr bloom into a 10-piece band, building a towering dirge in the first half before growing so quiet you can hear the chairs creak.

People often get to Gastr Del Sol looking for “more” of something and find a band that sounds like nothing else. It’s why people collected these rarities over the years, chasing any scrap of sound they could from this strange, mysterious project. And it’s why the notoriously self-critical O’Rourke also once perfectly described Gastr Del Sol in a 2018 interview with Stereogum: “This is gonna sound weird, but we were fucking great.” More than 25 years later, O’Rourke and Grubbs have polished and stitched together every scrap and forgotten rarity into one final album, closing off their beloved project as finely as a tape loop.

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Gastr del Sol: We Have Dozens of Titles