Heart of Gold: Remembering Trey Gruber
Trey Gruber, frontman of rising Chicago band Parent, passed away last month at 26.
Just over 1000 people live in New Vienna, the rural Ohio village where Gruber grew up. From childhood on, he worked on the family farm, but grew more restless and disaffected by the pastoral setting with age. He channeled his provincial alienation into music, emerging a highly emotive, prolific songwriter. Musical catharsis was not enough to keep Gruber in New Vienna, and at 18 he left the farm, drifting between the Midwest and South before settling in Chicago. There, his easy charm and unmistakable talent quickly won him new friends and musical collaborators, allowing Gruber to hone his sound while building a true home within the tight-knit artistic community.
Parent's golden 70s-era pop music generated a palpable buzz throughout the city despite being a young band, formed in 2016, with only one single - the dark and hauntingly beautiful "I Tried," released via Noisey. "I Tried," like all Gruber's songs, is highly personal, born from his trials with addiction and love. While Gruber's nostalgic style of rock is experiencing a modern pop resurgence, Parent's distinctive sadness and authenticity lingers with the listener, carving out a separate niche within the genre. Through Gruber's original voice, songwriting, and self-effacing perfectionism, the group soon became regulars at top Chicago venues Thalia Hall, Lincoln Hall, Schubas, and The Empty Bottle, earning the attention of numerous record labels.
Parent's debut record is set for release in 2018, and will be pressed with the help of Secretly Canadian. The following is a collection of poetry, art and stories told by some of Gruber's closest friends and family.
Sarah Jane Quillin
“Is it okay that I’m just talking freely?”
“Yes, please, I actually prefer it.” He twists uncomfortably and I apologize for my stock questions about his childhood, his inspiration, and his process, and thank him for being a good sport.
Trey, born Benjamin Trey Gruber in Cincinnati, has a lot of stories of riding horses in the country as a kid, rural boredom and drugs, and the romance and despondency of an Appalachian adolescence. He started playing music in a folk band in his town’s church with spoon players and a fiddler named Tex, growing up surrounded by impoverished, resourceful musicians who nurtured his yearning to write music. They introduced him to the sounds of Michael Hurley, Dock Boggs, and Henry Thomas, training his ear with old Americana before he was ten. Living in cities for the latter half of his life, he feels somewhat detached from that bucolic culture; though, among his peers, Trey feels simultaneously removed from the trivial urban air of Chicago.
“Right now, it’s just, I write songs and tell people what to do. Maybe eventually I’d like to share the role and take some weight off, but not right now… I don’t want it to turn into other bands. People just want to play more Logan Square garage rock, but there’s no shelf life… After a party at the end of the night, coming down from a long night of drinking, you don’t go home and put on pizza beer rock and roll, ya know, you put on things that touch you on a different level.”
“I write about things that separate me,” as it turns out those are ex-lovers, homelessness, thoughts of suicide, and addiction. “I know it’s really played out, but lyrics are secondary for me. A lot of musicians consider themselves great poets, but if I was a good writer, I’d be a writer, ya know.”
Mostly consisting of poly-syllabic words and halting intonations that create their own rhythmic layers and syncopation, his lyrics use a lot of junky slang that he knows sounds like nonsense.
“It’s not some Lou Reed glorification of drugs — ‘makes me feel like a man’— I talk about the disconnect and the ugliness and they’re sad pop songs.”
I am reluctant to ask if his music is therapeutic; though, as cliché as that notion is, in his position, music is quite literally the one thing that has steadied him.
Still, Parent is the manifestation of that rural restlessness. Throughout periodic hiatuses, the intentions and overall tone of the music has changed, largely due to the irregularity of the players involved. In the past year, the band has gone through three bassists, two drummers, handfuls of pianists and guitarists, and a flute. Though Parent is not a collaborative project, the music is impressionable; Trey is always craving new textures. This time, he thinks he’s gotten the formula right.
Excerpt from an interview with Trey by Rebecca Ridge
The very first time I saw Trey he was sitting on a bench near the Logan Square monument reading a book, drenched in sunlight. I remember thinking who the hell is that. A few weeks later, mid-December 2015, we met for the first time at our mutual friend's birthday party. That afternoon quickly faded to evening and then slowly, into the rest of our lives. It was 2am. We were standing on Milwaukee Ave in front of The Owl chain smoking cigarettes and shivering. I was grateful the cold gave me an excuse to stand close to him. Almost immediately he told me that he was an alcoholic. “But I’ve got a year” he said. “A year?” I asked. “Sober” he replied. At some point during the conversation he asked me to marry him. I laughed and told him he was crazy. “We just met” I said, but gave him my number. He told me he’d call me tomorrow and I warned him I never pick up my phone. “Then I’ll leave a voicemail and keep calling until you do.”
The next morning around 10am I got a voicemail from Trey. We met up that afternoon. I took him to my friend's show where he politely told me he hated the music, which I thought was a bit forthright but appreciated the honesty. We made our way back to my place and sat on my back porch talking until the birds started chirping. He grabbed my hand at one point—“I’m happy you have such beautiful hands.” I looked down and noticed his, they were enormous and delicate. I took his hand in mine and it stayed there the rest of the evening. “You seem so well-adjusted” he said. I told him to stay tuned. He loved that. Later that night we curled into bed and he asked me to his be his girlfriend. For the next two years, we were—more or less—inseparable.
Three months into our relationship I picked him up from a meeting and we went to the Salvation Army. I was dancing in front of a broken mirror wearing a big gaudy coat when he walked up from behind, slipped his arms around me and looked into my eyes through the reflection in the mirror then turned to me: “I Love you." It was the first time he had said that.
Trey and I broke up often, and fought even more. We tried blocking each other's numbers, asked our friends to never mention the other's name, banned one another from each other's shows… Nothing worked. We also briefly tried therapy, we had a code word in place to take a step back when fights got too big, we set boundaries and talked endlessly about how to fix things… Nothing worked. After awhile we kept our relationship a secret, it seemed easier that way.
This February I was fresh off a plane ride from Florida. Trey and I had been separated for 3 months—our longest break. I remember despondently walking to the Square, feeling weak, being upset that it was a nice sunny day, missing Trey, loving Trey, hating Trey, and mostly just hoping I would run into him. A few moments later there he was, strutting down Milwaukee Ave. My heart stopped. “Oh, God, I look like shit right now,” I thought. He waved with a smile that was more of a frown and half-stopped and but I pretended to be tough and kept walking. After about half a block I turned my head around, he stood there looking back after me. I walked back toward him knowing full well that if I did, we were getting back together. I remember that evening dancing around his apartment in Pilsen to John Fahey’s "Silgo River Blues". We both cried because we knew we were fucked.
I found a picture of us at Target on an old hard drive I forgot I had. He's giving me a piggyback ride in the candy aisle. I texted him after he died—“Trey they are remodeling Target. It looks so different now you would hate it. Why didn’t anyone tell us they were changing it.” I keep texting him. I bought a airtight container to preserve his clothes so I could smell him forever, but now they just smell like weird plastic. Garret and I carved his name into a table at Best Sub on Division, but I didn’t dig deep enough and it’s barely legible. I went to the currency exchange on Fullerton where I wrote “TREY & JESS" in a heart on the wall the first month we were dating but it’s since been painted over. I found two of his broken phones in a bush in front of my house and put them in a little box along with some other things. I poked holes in the box so the things could breathe. I’ve been leaving his favorite food on my windowsill. I keep finding things in my room, a sock, candy wrappers, an empty pack of Newports. At night I cling onto his dirty pillow, sprinkled with specks of blood, It’s my favorite possession.
One of the last times we talked on my front porch he told me, "I’m going through a hard time right now, but you know what? These experiences are going to uniquely qualify me to help other men struggling in AA in the future."
The night he died he went to a meeting. He never stopped trying.
I think about his face so much that at times I can barely remember what it looks like. I can still hear him. Waking up in the middle of night, squeezing me awake—“I love you baby" —he’d mumble with his eyes closed.
And when I’m walking I can still see him popping out from around the corner— his wide legged, limping hop, lurching forward, tilted head, curled grin.
Everywhere I go, I still see him. I still feel him. I will feel you forever Trey.
Trey singing David Allan Coe's "If That Ain't Country" in Jess' apartment in Logan Square
I wish I had the ability to perfectly describe Trey. I spent most of my life around him, looking up to him, loving him, watching him grow as a human being, wondering how such an enigma of a person could exist. He did so many beautiful, great deeds to the benefit and aid of others, with the utmost courage and honesty. You could plainly see he perpetually had a thorn stuck in his side, something gnawing away at him. He would at times burn down every single dimension in his life without any hesitation. Yet come back out the other side with wisdom, perspective, insight, hope and usually another song that would tear you goddamn heart out. The impact he left on people in every walk of life was remarkable to see. Breaking down your wall and making you feel vulnerable was his forte. He was the absolute most charismatic, intelligent, gifted person I will ever know, with such large capacity to love anyone. I am so lucky to have had him as my best friend, to have shared the same blood, to have felt his love, and to have loved him back. He taught many of us what it means to work hard, to have faith that life will work out, and how to live without fear, even in the darkest of times. He truly lived a life full of an infinite amount of happenings, happenings of light and happenings of dark. The inbetween happenings that occur to most of us never really got around to him, or more so he was unable to pay attention, his mind was always stuck somewhere else. He has left a gaping hole in my heart and I will never stop missing him.
Trey was a little kid with a big mouth. I knew I'd like him immediately. We met in treatment in Florida and we found a common interest in character assassinating everyone and everything. We just clicked. He'd make fun of my Boston accent and I'd make fun of his jaundiced skin. I could tell right away that the kid had seen some serious shit. I could trust anything he told me about himself which is rare in treatment. We had a low tolerance for bullshit. He was this skinny kid but had no problem telling you exactly what was on his mind and I respected that.
I was doing some bad things with some bad people and I needed to get the fuck out of Florida. I called Trey in Chicago and told him I needed to leave. He suggested that instead of going back to my old friends and old ways in Boston that I come out to Chicago and try to start fresh, which I did. I detoxed on a Greyhound for two days. When I arrived he was the literally the only person I knew in Chicago. He introduced me to everyone I know today, and helped me start a new life out here. I came for Trey and now I'll stay for Trey.
Trey and I used to have sleepovers when one of us was “too scared.” We would go “halfsies” on jugs of wine or try and get bars to let me in without an ID when I was 19. Later when I was first getting sober he would take me to meetings and buy me candy when I cried. He would give you a cigarette even if he had no money whatsoever. When I didn’t know where he was for a couple of months I wrote in a journal “if Trey dies then I will die too.” Eventually he called me from Miami and said he had to go to the hospital because his whole body turned yellow.
I would sit in the park and wait for him to get off work and text him “Hurry up bitch.” We always called each other bitch. Half of the way that I talk is because of him. I used to ask him to marry me over and over because I liked to embarrass him. I remember laying on his bed in the apartment on Drake, crying while he played fucking genius songs that he later decided were crap. He was so comforting when I played a bad show. He was such a good liar. Once I booked it on my bike to see him play at the hideout when it was pouring with rain and kept yelling "GEORGE HARRISON!!" at him after every song. I was soaking wet. (He used to say “It's yucky out.”)
He helped me move and we held hands and I gave him my favorite shirt to make him feel safe when he was feeling heartbroken. It’s big and yellow with blue stripes. When we got in a fight I told him he had to give it back. I’m only getting it back now and it feels stupid, I don’t want it back. I want it on him. I want him back.
Trey wasn’t afraid of anyone when they were at their absolute worst. He would show the fuck up. He was so generous and caring. I hate cliches in death, I hate these vague and repeated phrases; but I truly think Trey was too sensitive for this world. His heart and his movements were too big for any of us to handle at a time, sometimes too much for everyone to handle even as a team. And as much as I think any of us would give anything for another chance to try to help, its like Tyler said, “It was so hard for him just to live.”
You can’t replace a person who dies. No other person can fix the hole. The hole is big and unfillable. The person was perfect. RIP Trey thank you for everything, I'll miss you forever.
Music video for "Sister Say" by Parent, video shot and edited by Dan Geddes
Parent’s official music video for “On Fear” will be released in the near future. It’s a compilation of footage that Trey and I acquired over a warm weekend in October 2016. Trey never got to see this footage in its completed form and I think I owe it to him. Forever in my thoughts Trey, I will see you again.
Teaser for Parent's music video "On Fear" Shot & directed by Frank Frankowski, edited by Josiah Marshall
If you weren’t familiar with Trey's music or more specifically the way he made it, his attention to detail was impeccable. Typically he would have an idea for a song and demo it out on his computer and then teach it to whoever was playing with him. Working quickly and efficiently he was proficient on most instruments; Drums, bass, guitar and piano. He loved what he did and it showed in the quality of music he made. While sometimes it seemed nothing would satisfy him, other times he would wake up in the morning and say,” I’m going to write a song today.” By noon he would have an entire song written and demoed out on his computer by the end of the day. He was brilliant and was fascinating to watch work. He knew what he wanted and knew exactly how to get it. That's something rare in music and in life in general. I loved him dearly and I am going to miss him very much.
Trey recording in his Humboldt Square apartment, photos by Tyler Bixby
Promo for Parent song "Get Your Fix" Video by Dan Geddes
“It is not our corporeality that keeps me begging to see you, it is the sudden disappearance of everything else.”
Trey replied to a Craigslist ad I put out when I was looking for a new roommate in Chicago. My friends who had moved to Chicago with me had to bail for various reasons so I was very much alone in a city where I basically didn't know anyone. Trey told me he was into Marx and played rock 'n roll and I decided to give him a shot. Before he officially moved in someone had told me he had a past of struggling with addiction but insisted I shouldn’t weigh that in too much. I let him move in anyway and proceeded with caution. He once tried to fight me and cried in my arms in the same night. Years later, he revealed to me exactly how troubled he was when he first moved in and that if I hadn't gotten him a job at the restaurant i worked at, he wouldn't have been able to pay me rent. No matter how much shit Trey would get into or get me into, I always cared about him and wanted to help him. Most addicts I have known give up on people and their friends around them and act only for themselves. Trey would fuck himself over all the time but he cared way too much about his friends to fuck them over.
I don't know at what point Trey transitioned from being my roommate from Craigslist to my very dear friend. He told me that the first time we lived together was the longest he had stayed sober. A lot of this was through his own hard work and effort to turn his life around but it made me glad that I could play a small part in that. When he moved in again a year and some months later, he told me about how Parent was going, I was so profoundly excited for him. He was so close to making all this shit work and he knew it.
Months later I’d find myself picking him up from his practice space after he had lost it and we’d have a serious talk about reevaluating who his friends were. How people who allow spaces for him to drink or break sobriety knowing full well what that could do to him, knowing what is at stake, are not his friends. Eventually I left Chicago. I heard from Trey when Mikey passed. He knew how much pain a lot of our friends were going through when Mikey died and hit me up to make sure I was doing okay. A couple weeks later he messaged me saying he's been thinking about me and that he’s glad I found a home for the dog I was fostering.
Several days later I get calls and texts from our friend Jack while I'm working. I couldn't answer for several hours but I had a feeling before I knew. With so many more little shimmering moments in between, this is the beginning and end of my time with Trey. It’s becoming more common to get a phone call about someone leaving us these days. There's never a right time to receive that sorta message- about how we’ve lost another friend- and somehow you know what it's gonna be about before the words come out. I made a couple other calls to make certain he was actually gone. Trey had gone so close to the other side and pulled through every time, this didn’t make sense. It didn't feel right and I still feel him fighting to come back and try again. Trey had a lot of care to give to the world. He showed me what it could do for your friends when you show up for them. His soul was bright and infectious and for that reason it still feels like he’s around.
I will never forget the few week period that Trey and I continuously ran into each other at Village Discount thrift store. Unbeknownst to each other, we would turn a corner into a new isle and laugh at the sight of the other in full browse mode. One of those times, I had been eyeing a baseball cap with a "W" on it, but decided it wasn’t for me because it looked silly on top of my poofy hair. A few minutes after I had hung the hat back on the rack, Trey walked in and put the hat on before running into me in another aisle. I know this might seem silly, but the fact that he chose the same hat that I had out of the maybe 100 available made me feel so good about myself. This was a power that Trey had. Sometimes, I would be 100% certain that he was well aware of it and played it. And sometimes, I would think maybe he really had no idea at all. For someone with such seemed assurance, he needed constant affirmation, validation, and love.
Trey was really into the song “Cactus” by Sam Evian and ever since he had showed it to me, the song reminded me so much of him. I must have listened to it 20 times consecutively the day after he died. The lyrics read, “...greenest envy waits with the coming day and I’m soaking up the water like a cactus.” Trey always reminded me of a cactus. He could really SOAK UPPPPP your water. But, you loved him, and he needed it. You gladly gave it to him, and he gladly took it because, I think in his mind all he really could see was desert. A lot of people's wells ran dry eventually, but the love and rooting was endless.
A few times every day, it feels like my heart squeezes tight and I’m reminded you're gone. In that cold bitter grip though, I’m reminded of how invaluable our friendship was to me. I wish I could repay you physically in this world. I will try my best to honor you by continuing to write bass lines like you’re sitting next to me just waiting for me to leave so you can recut the take the way you see it in your genius desert brain. Just like when you were here. ;)
When I first met Trey his persona and attire reminded me of a freight-hopper with a story to tell. Getting to know him I learned he wasn’t into trains, but had a gift of self-expression that was raw, visceral, and no-bullshit. It felt good to make him laugh because you knew it was real. Whatever it is that certain artists have that seems to be a blessing some days, and a curse in others, he had it. You saw it, sensed it, and heard it. The world lost a true artist.
I like to think Trey and I saw ourselves as each other’s big brother. We were always looking to bring out the best in each other, and we were pulled to each other because we both had something the other wanted. I always liked relationships like that, he had an ability to give me exactly what I needed from him, and so naturally, I would do whatever I could to give him the same. It just felt right, working with him on his music like that.
That always made me feel really special, but I know I’m not the only one who feels like this about Trey, He was lots of people’s brother, big or little. I wish I could wake up to him knocking on my door with a Dunkin coffee in hand, one more time.
The night I met Trey he literally appeared out of the dark at one of the worst dive bars in Wrigleyville for a sub-par show. He sat there alone at the bar as we performed and it really was all it took to make it worthwhile. Meeting Trey that night and talking to him made it seem like there was some hope in what I was doing. I know he made a lot of musicians feel this way. After learning of Parent, sitting in at one of their rehearsals and watching them perform, those hopes were bolstered. The road Trey was going down seemed clear. Just knowing him and listening to him talk about a shared dream made it seem very real and for that I am forever blessed.
I’ve spent a lot of this month learning about the asteroid-sized hole your absence has left us with. Let me just tell you baby, it’s a big one. I swear to god. The atmosphere tastes different with you pulled through it. Lights moving different. And all of us are just wandering around, in this slow dilated time- holding each other, being weird, feeling awkward, feeling devastated, not knowing what do to with our hands, our faces, our sleep habits.
But in this month I’ve also spent a lot of time getting to learn the gratitude of knowing you. Surrounded by your family, your friends, and the people who barely knew you, I see how lucky we all were to get to be near it- the source- the light and charisma and pain and love that made up the whole of you. You were the easiest person I’ve ever met to fall in love with, and one of the hardest to then figure out what the hell you were supposed to do with that...all that ‘muchness’. I might have wanted it another way, but I’ll take what we got, because it was one of the best, the very best, the tops.
So, what I mean to say is: thank you. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being here for as long as you were. And thank you for being all the muchness that you are. I love you. Be good baby & visit when you can.
Parent performing "Fool's Gold" at The Hideout
Thinking of you in the casino with your only five dollars that was promptly eaten by the slot machine; you didn’t even get to play. The last time I saw you we wandered around a building for half an hour looking for a nonexistent meeting, and you told me, like always, you were gonna die and like always I agreed. You offered for me to come over and watch a movie and I just sat at the street corner lingering with you knowing I should. But I didn’t. My pictures of us are on an old phone that I’ve been trying to resurrect for hours.
Trey smashed my childhood guitar and tried to gouge my eyes out in front of Columbia college. I think we were probably in love at first sight. We got colds from sharing Newports. I tried to run with him when he skateboarded but he just zoomed away. We went to shows of bands neither of us liked together because we knew it’d be good for us even if we just talked shit the whole time. We went to McDonald's a lot. The only time I’ve ever been to the beach in Chicago was with him. We got very sunburned and he almost ran over an old lady on his skateboard. We made sick beats a lot while giggling. We were both always pretty miserable but at least we had each other. After we fought, we immediately hugged to much applause from Columbia college students. He used to make me play guitar for some reason. We talked about the left and changing the world. We mostly talked about love and death though, and if we could ever escape the two. We held onto faint glimmers of hope together. He got drunk once and told me what song he wanted to be played at his funeral, and I fucking yelled at him. It was something by The Band. He was the big brother I never had, a terrible role model, but I wouldn’t be as good of person without him. He taught me how to grow up, how to be cool (lol so we thought), how to be comfortable in my own skin. In that regard, i don’t know if anybody was quite as influential in my life.
We’d play dumb board games but had tons of fun, ate lots of ice cream. I tried hard to help that boy but I gave up. He was the only person I feel like I knew how to help stay sober and it gave my life so much meaning. I bought him a lot of fucking food lol. He showed me Chicago DIY. We’d go months without talking sometimes but whenever things got bad he was the first person I called, and even though he was miserable, god he was such a good friend and so fucking understanding. I’d never heard "Crimson and Clover" until he started playing it back when he used to make me listen to him play guitar for hours on end. I never know if these things are selfish, I wonder if I’m turning my dead friend into a meme. Either way he’d probably find it funny. I didn’t think I had anything to say about you bub so I just rambled. I love you so much, and I needed to remember how much you meant to me. Thanks for being the most interesting, violent, maniacal, genius, caring, attentive, miserable, irresistible, charming, delusional, morbid, fascinating, selfish, selfless, kind, sweet, witty, talented, tragic, intelligent, miraculous, and beautiful friend I ever had.
Three weeks today
And the sun still shines
Three weeks today
And the moon still glows
Three weeks today
And the mountains stand silent
Three weeks today
And the rivers still flow
Three weeks today
Since the world was upended
Three weeks today
Yet nothing strange shows
Three weeks today
You left on a journey
Three weeks today
And all that I know
Has been changed