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Glenn Branca interview with Marc Masters

May 2018

Read a previously unpublished conversation conducted for The Wire contributor’s No Wave book

Before he found success as a composer and conductor of guitar orchestras, Glenn Branca – who died on 13 May aged 69 – was an integral figure in New York’s no wave scene. In 2007, The Wire contributor Marc Masters interviewed him for his book No Wave. Below is a portion of their conversation, covering Branca’s early days in New York of the late 1970s and early 80s, his groups Theoretical Girls and The Static, and his multiple guitar compositions that led to his later symphonies.

Marc Masters: Why did you move from Boston to New York in the mid-70s?

Glenn Branca: I came here to do theatre, but theatre for me also included my music. I wasn’t doing any kind of rock music whatsoever. I was completely into outside music of every possible kind you could imagine, whether it was contemporary orchestral music, or jazz, or something like MEV. But at the same time I was enamored of rock music, and I was a collector as well. I started playing guitar when I was 15. I worshipped the bands. I was one of those people that put all those guys up on a pedestal. But I was in love with the theatre, so that’s what I was pursuing.

I had been doing theatre in Boston, but it was a terrible struggle. The theatre I was doing didn’t have plots; it didn’t have characters. It was closer to performance art, but I thought of it as experimental theatre, and the music was what would be described now as noise music. In one of the reviews we got in Boston, the critic said, ‘The music of the Bastard Theatre makes John Cage sound like Victor Herbert.’ I came to New York because this was where I could do experimental theatre. Here it was clear there was this audience made up of people just like me. Whether they were visual artists or musicians or theatre artists or performance artists, they were all here. And the first day I got here was like, I’m home. It was unbelievable.

I met a guy named Jeff Lohn, who playing with a band called The N Dodo Band and was also really into experimental theatre. Jeff and I were going to start an experimental theatre in his ground floor loft in SoHo, but I just couldn’t hold back and I had to start a rock band. I didn’t tell Jeff I was starting a band; I just assumed he wouldn’t be into it. I put up some posters saying that I was starting a band and I was looking for musicians. And when Jeff heard about it, he said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re doing a band? I want to do it too, you asshole!’ Jeff was friends with a performance artist named Dan Graham who had a gig coming up, and Dan said, ‘Why doesn’t your band play as part of my gig?’ So we now had a gig coming up in three weeks. We didn’t have any instruments, we didn’t have a drummer, we hadn’t written all the songs, we hadn’t done any rehearsals. So we put the whole thing together in three weeks. And the show was a tremendous success.

Did you call the group Theoretical Girls at that gig?

No, we didn’t have a name yet. Originally we put an ad in the paper looking for a drummer, and we used the name The Rhythm Butchers, but Jeff didn’t like that name, so we had to keep searching. At that particular time there was no such thing as no wave – this is the fall of 1976. There were bands around, but none of the critics had given it a name yet.

In the beginning we were sort of like a twisted punk band, because both of us wrote this kind of noise music, so we wanted to incorporate that idea into this punk music that we liked. I do remember a changing point for us: just a few weeks after we had started, someone said there was this really cool new band that’s going to be playing at Max’s Kansas City. It’s their first gig, and they’re connected with this conceptual artist named Diego Cortez. That band was The Contortions. And I have to admit, when Jeff and I left that gig, which to me sort of sounded like Sun Ra for a rock band... we were like, OK, we’re no longer pulling any punches. We’re gonna do it. James Chance has this idea that we somehow ripped him off. I think James saw us as competition, and heard the story that we had gone to that gig. What James did was a tremendous inspiration for us, there’s no question about it, but it’s not like we already hadn’t been doing it with our band. It’s just that we said, fuck it, we’re going all the way. And that’s what we did.

We decided, OK, this band is going to be our theatre. But our idea was much closer to Brecht than it was to Shakespeare. We were doing a kind of non-theatrical theatre. I wanted to take the rock band away from the theatre, away from David Bowie and Alice Cooper and all these big theatrical stadium rock shows that were starting to show up, and get down to a band where it’s very clear that the musicians in every possible aspect are not one iota different than the people in the audience. This was very important to me. Sometimes I would get up and read a letter to my girlfriend onstage to open up a song. It was all very personal.

Were you aware there were other artists making rock music when you started?

It all was completely coincidental. A lot of people all had the same idea at exactly the same time. All of us were either coming out of or connected to the art world. I was very into visual art although I wasn’t a visual artist, but that’s another reason that New York was exciting to me, because that was where it all was. Also, a lot of it had to do with Patti Smith. Mars was an attempt to take what Patti Smith was doing and push it further. They’re pretty much considered to be the first no wave band by most people you’ll talk to… and there’s no question that their first single was very strongly influenced by Patti Smith, as all of us were.

I had no desire whatsoever to start a commercial rock band, or even a successful rock band. I had no interest at all in going on tour for a year, playing a set every other day, and getting into that whole mentality. I wanted to make art. I wanted to shake people up. This idea of just becoming another fucking rock band... I was already 29 years old at the time. I wanted to be an artist. And it was so cool that you could make art in rock clubs, which was something you absolutely could not possibly have done in Boston.

There was the East Village scene, the bands like Mars and DNA and Teenage Jesus and The Contortions. But there was also a scene in SoHo, and there was a great no wave band called The Gynecologists, and it was really a pity that they didn’t release any records. Rhys Chatham played with The Gynecologists and started his own band called Tone Death. They were just as interesting as any of these other bands. We were coming more from the SoHo side of things, playing galleries and the openings of art shows in art spaces. We were coming more from the art world side than the kind of East Village, Velvet Underground, druggie sort of side of things. Not that we didn’t do drugs, but it wasn’t part of our aesthetic.

There was almost a war between the two sides. When Eno came to New York to make [no wave compilation] No New York, the gossip got around very quickly about what he was up to. Jeff Lohn had an evening of short pieces at his loft and Eno showed up. So he was clearly aware of us.

Is it true there were originally going to be ten bands on No New York?

Yeah, that was what the gossip was. But the problem was it seems that Eno had personally met the people on the East Village side, and they convinced him that the idea of four bands was better. And very quickly the critics started to say that Theoretical Girls was the fifth band on No New York, because it was really strange that we weren’t included. But what were we going to do? None of us had met him. We hadn’t been able to talk to him or explain our side of the story.

On the other hand it was possible that he just didn’t like Theoretical Girls. Before we recorded a record, he came to our gig at The Kitchen. So I have to assume that he just didn’t like us. What I always thought is that he actually might have seen us as more direct competition with him personally than any of the other bands.

I didn’t really like the way he treated us all. He just sort of came sweeping in. All of us were totally broke; all the bands were completely unknown. And he comes sweeping in with this Virgin Records contract and his reputation as the great Brian Eno, and just kind of treated us all like we were some kind of sociological project. As if he had discovered this pathetic little scene buried in the depths of New York somewhere, and he was going to introduce the rest of the world to it. I guarantee you, if Eno had never come along, the rest of the world would’ve found out about us. The scene had really only been around for like two months when Eno ‘discovered’ it. Eno gets way too much credit for it. And on my part there’s a little resentment. I mean, what was he before he joined Roxy Music? He was exactly the same as any of us. He was a dirty little experimental musician who got very, very lucky. But I loved Roxy Music, and I would consider Roxy Music to be very important influence on the no wave scene.

I think one reason why Eno came to our show at The Kitchen was because we had put a rumour out that we were writing a song about Eno. Now as it turns out, we didn’t write a song about him. But when he heard “Fuck Yourself”, he might’ve thought that that was about him. It wasn’t. Sorry Brian, we never actually wrote a song about you. But that might’ve been why he came.

Mark Cunningham [of Mars] said that No New York essentially killed No Wave. Do you agree?

Yeah, it killed it. He’s totally right. Eno took all four bands and made them sound like the same fucking thing. They all had the same production. What is the likelihood that that would’ve happened if each one of those bands had gone into the studio and had complete control over their own project? How in the world could Mars ever sound like The Contortions? Those were four very different sounds. It’s nice for critics to try to find a way to say that there was a scene, and that we were all coming from the same place. In retrospect it’s really easy to see the difference between those bands, but the way critics are, they like to categorise, they like to pigeonhole, they like to group. We all had our own ideas. Look at Arto Lindsay. Without DNA, there would still have been an Arto Lindsay, doing that crazy fucking thing. It just so happens that coincidentally we were all here at the same time doing something crazy.

When we played the Artists’ Space Festival in the spring of 1978, it was the first time that all the bands came together in one place over a period of a week. Pretty much every band that deserved the name of being a no wave band played in that festival, but the name of the festival was just ‘BANDS At Artists’ Space’ [laughs]. I’m not sure if Red Transistor was on that. Red Transistor tended to be the band that was left out. They used to play at Max’s all the time, and they were great. If anyone wants to know the real truth of the matter, believe me, Rudolph Grey and Von Lmo were the most vicious, the ugliest, and the loudest of all no wave bands. In Von Lmo’s case, definitely the ugliest.

Did the Artists’ Space festival feel big at the time?

It was the singular event of whatever no wave was.

Was the no wave term being used yet?

It had been coined, but for some reason, Michael Zwack, who put the festival together, who was also a musician, didn’t want to use it. I guess it wasn’t well known. I’m not even sure if many people were referring to the term at that point. And it was also an arty, conceptual thing to do, to just say “BANDS”, even though everyone who saw the list of bands knew exactly what the hell was going on here. These were the bands.

Did Theoretical Girls only play out a few times?

About 20 times. We went to Paris and did about three gigs there. We were criticised a lot for only playing about once or twice a month, but whenever we played we always had new material. That was part of the attraction of the band; you never knew what you were going to be hearing. As no wave bands go, we were certainly more eclectic. But at the same time, it would be easy to take the Theoretical Girls songs and put together a single no wave album, which never happened. That album that came out called Theoretical Girls was only Jeff’s songs. Sort of a drag to me, because people consider that to be Theoretical Girls, and that does not represent the band correctly.

Although I’ve released some of the songs that I wrote for the band, there is a bunch I didn’t release because they’re crappy audience recordings – just somebody holding up a cassette machine at Max’s. I just can’t see my way to release them.

Were no wave bands more interested in performing than recording?

No, not at all. The only reason why we didn’t record is because we didn’t have any money, and there was nobody that wanted us to record. The only reason why you’ve got a couple of those really good Contortions records is because this rich art world label put up the money to record a really good fucking record. And I suppose if we had hung in there for another two years or something, eventually some label would’ve shown up.

It was all being done on no money whatsoever, and the idea of releasing a single that you made in your basement just didn’t exist in those days. If you were gonna put something out there, you wanted to put something out there that at least had production values close to what people were used to listening to. People would not have listened to a garage band type of record in those days. It’s just outrageous that neither The Static nor Theoretical Girls ever released an album. It’s absurd beyond belief.

How much did New York at the time have an effect on the music you made?

We were all who we were before we got here. I couldn’t wait to come to an urban environment. I was from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the most boring place on the face of the Earth. Also, New York in the 1970s was nowhere near as noisy and violent as people like to think. I mean, if you were stupid and went down a dark alley at 4am, yeah, you might get mugged. But this was actually a very congenial place to be. We used to have really crazy people in Boston who were extremely violent and dangerous people. And when I came to New York, the crazy just wasn’t here. It didn’t exist. I didn’t realise it was a Boston thing. I was mugged like seven times in Boston, and I’ve never been mugged once here, knock on wood.

So yeah, to me, we brought it here, it didn’t bring it to us. That’s the reason why we came here; we had bad ideas that people didn’t want to know about, unless you came to a place like New York. When I got on stage with my band, I was attacking the audience in my mind. This music was intended to challenge the audience, because when I went to a gig I wanted to be challenged. I wanted somebody to kick me in the face, metaphorically.

If you want to know why you’ve even heard of no wave, why anyone even bothered to give it a name, it was because there was this whole new scene of young visual artists who had grown up listening to rock music, who had come to New York only to do visual arts, to do painting, to do conceptual art. And when they heard these bands that were clearly coming from the same kind of sensibility that they were coming from, all they could do was imagine themselves up on that stage playing this fucking art music.

Was there something about being in a band that artists weren’t getting from making art?

It was just the music. Art’s just this dead thing sitting on a fucking wall. This was exciting. Just to hear fucking art rock, and hear it in a way that appeals to all of those basic instincts that rock appeals to, but at the same time to be doing something that isn’t just more commercial music... you can’t imagine how exciting that was to people.

At one point Theoretical Girls were offered a gig at Max’s which you and Jeff ended up each playing solo instead, and you wrote a piece for it called “(Instrumental) For Six Guitars”. Was that your first multiple guitar piece?

Yes, “(Instrumental) For Six Guitars”, which has never been released, was the first one. It was an opportunity for me to do something that I had been thinking about but wasn’t possible in a band context because I needed six guitars, and I also needed to completely retune all the guitars. It was one of many experimental ideas that I had, but this time I heard this sound that I’d never heard before. After all this experimenting that I had done over all these years, I’d finally found the sound, and I just latched onto it. I remember one rehearsal where I actually had to stop because I had broken down and started to cry. I could not believe that I was getting this sound. So there was no question in my mind, the moment I heard the piece, I knew this was where I was going to go from there on. And very quickly that was the end of Theoretical Girls.

You formed The Static after Theoretical Girls, and that group performed a multiple guitar piece that ended up on [1981’s] The Ascension, right?

That’s right. The Static got a commission from two dancers, and since it was a piece of music for a dance, I wrote an instrumental for it. It was originally performed by two guitarists in The Static. Then eventually I started to put together the instrumental band for The Ascension, and I used that piece, and reorchestrated it for four guitars, bass and drums. So it was all very much part of the same thing.

When I first started doing the instrumental stuff I still saw it very much in the context of rock music. I wanted people to hear it like that because I still loved rock, and I still thought there was so much more that you could do with rock. You could still take the guitar and make it more without using any digital delay, any reverb, any effects. You could still take the guitar exactly as it was used in 1958, and go somewhere else with it.

Once I started to write symphonies, that started to fall away. A lot of people think of my Symphony No 1 as a rock symphony. I didn’t really like it being looked at like that. Because I had already done everything I could in the rock context as far as I was concerned, and now I wanted to start fucking around with so-called contemporary music. And I also saw no reason why composers couldn’t be writing for electric guitar.

What do you think of the perception that no wave bands intended not to last long?

It’s totally fair. None of us were doing it for the money. There wasn’t any, and there was never going to be any. What’s so ironic about no wave is that by 1979, every single no wave band was drawing audiences bigger than Richard Hell, or Blondie, or Patti Smith, or Television was drawing before they got signed. But the labels didn’t fucking care. They did not want to know about us. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that it was possible for the commercial scene to even think about catching up. But I was out there touring; as much as I hated to, I was out there doing it. We were playing small punk clubs and art spaces, anywhere willing to book us. And we were bringing in crowds. Some of these club owners were shocked. There was a Monday night in Chicago where everybody in the fucking art world showed up, and we drew better than they were drawing for their crappy rock band on Saturday night.

This was the Ascension band that included Lee Ranaldo?

Yeah, this was the instrumental guitar band, in like December of 1980. I remember sitting in a bar and seeing a television come on with the announcement of John Lennon’s death, and we were about to go on in like five minutes. We got out there around the country, because they had unlimited airline passes on the airlines. We could do 18 cities in three weeks. This was just unheard of for a totally independent, unsigned band. For $350 each one of us could fly as many times as we wanted to any city in the country, and I took huge advantage of that. We would do a gig in San Francisco one night, Chicago the next night, Atlanta the next night.

I think it helped change things. It was the first time that art bands had ever played in almost all of these clubs that we played at, and the audiences had heard about the New York scene. They’d be like, you mean, one of the New York no wave bands is going to be playing at our little crappy club in fucking Denver? Fucking Fort Worth, Texas? And they came! Well, actually they didn’t really come in Fort Worth [laughs]. But there were some people there, and I bet they’ll never forget that gig as long as they live.

How did you manage to sell 10,000 copies of The Ascension?

It was hot, man, it was hot [laughs]. I think it was Glenn O’Brien of Interview who reviewed it and said “The Ascension is on the metaphysical top ten with a bullet.” It wasn’t on any other top ten. To think that The Ascension sold 10,000 records out of a little basement record store [99 Records] in the West Village! It’s a miracle. And the fact is that if it had been released on a major label, it would’ve been at least as much of a sensation as Patti Smith’s Horses, New York Dolls’ first album, or any other big record that had come out New York.

It was an honest-to-god hit, and I did not get one call from one label, and I lived about 20 blocks from the home offices of almost every major label in the world. My name was listed in the New York telephone directory. They could’ve come and knocked on the door of my apartment, and I would’ve opened it and talked to them, but I didn’t get one call, The record was recorded at The Power Station, which was the hottest, most commercial studio in New York, because my bass player was the receptionist. We recorded practically for free, and the day we recorded, they had fucking Barbra Streisand there. I walked past David Bowie going to the bathroom. That’s where we recorded The Ascension, and nobody was fucking interested. That shows you just how bad things were in 1981.

Why did you start your own label, Neutral?

I always wanted to have a record label, but the idea was completely out of the question, because I was always broke. But I met a guy named Josh Baer, who had a gallery in West SoHo and was a big fan of my music. He said, ‘Glenn, if you could do anything you want to do in the whole world, what would it be?’ And I said, ‘Start a record label.’ And he said, ‘Who’s the first band you want to release?’ I said, ‘Sonic Youth.’ And he said, ‘Ok, we’re on!’ – because that was also his favourite band.

I had already been trying to push Sonic Youth to Ed Bahlman of 99 Records. I kept saying, ‘When are you gonna go see Sonic Youth, blah blah blah.’ And he finally said, ‘I will never, ever release Sonic Youth on 99 Records. It’s not gonna happen, leave me alone!’ Part of it was he was trying to start a rock disco label and they weren’t gonna fit in. So my attitude was, I’m starting my own label, and Sonic Youth’s going to be the first record. And I can’t help but think that Ed might regret that a little bit now.

How did you meet Lee and Thurston Moore?

It wasn’t Lee or Thurston I met first, it was Kim Gordon. Kim was a good friend of Dan Graham. She was one of his art students from Cal Arts, and was staying at his apartment while she was in New York. At the time she was pursuing a career as a conceptual artist, and she made very interesting stuff. She started doing these art bands – one was called Red Milk, one was called City Of Men or something like that. And finally she met Thurston and started Sonic Youth with a keyboard player named Anne DeMarinis, who was also connected to the art scene and was Vito Acconci’s girlfriend.

I saw the very first gig they ever did, without a drummer. And I thought it was absolutely fucking brilliant. This is it – these guys are taking this to another place. It was hard to believe because Kim had only learned how to play bass a year before that. But Anne was a consummate performer, and Thurston as we now know was brilliant in every way [laughs]. So they got off to a brilliant start.

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