People get all uppity when you start throwing around terms like “art rock” and mouthing off about bands being experimental. Luckily, we can circumvent these types of asinine discussions by calling on people like Glenn Branca to straighten shit out. He was one of the catalysts for the whole big bang of experimental music in New York at the end of the 70s. Bands like Sonic Youth and Swans, as well as everybody who's honked their way onto their coattails lately, most likely wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for his tutelage...
We were worried he was going to be some brooding, high-and-mighty “living legend” guy who wanted to yak about things like acoustic phenomena and obtuse musical theories. But he’s really just a laid back, straight-talking dude who likes reading science fiction and making sounds no one has ever heard before. Here’s what we chatted ’bout:
Vice: How did you get involved doing music?
Glenn Branca: When I moved to New York in 1976 I was really into the punk thing and couldn’t hold back the desire to start a band, although I was here to continue to do my theatre thing I was doing in Boston with the Bastard Theater. I met a guy who I was going to do theater with—we were going to use his loft in SoHo—but as it turned out he was a musician too, and I brought up an idea of starting a band, and he said, “Yeah, let’s fuckin’ do it.” We took this skewed, fucked-up kind of punk band and incorporated more experimental aspects. A lot of people think I was a rock musician who became a composer. It’s one of the big misapprehensions people have about me. In fact, it was very much the opposite of that.
What was the whole No Wave thing about for you?
We were all around the same age. We all came from pretty much the same types of influences and backgrounds. I thought the No Wave scene was, like, the coolest thing in the world. Everybody was doing something different, but we were all very much part of the same world. There was kind of a split between the East Village scene and what they thought of as the SoHo scene. They thought we were a bit artsy, and they were coming from more of the Velvets drug kind of thing. That was bullshit.
But you guys stuck with your guns instead of bending to the East Village scene?
We just got to the point where we were doing more and more experimental type stuff. The funny thing was that the more outrageous the music became, the bigger the audience became. It became clear to me that I could do anything I wanted. So when the opportunity arose to do my own thing outside the band, which was at a festival at Max’s Kansas City, I did this piece for six guitars. It sounded fucking great and people loved it. I just kept working in that direction, on different tunings and stringings. It was a completely different approach to the whole system. It really only interested me if I was doing something I hadn’t heard before.
John Cage didn’t have nice things to say about you encroaching on his supposed territory. How did you feel about him?
He very much didn’t get it, to say the least. I just recently released the piece that he got so worked up over called “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” and I put one of the Cage interviews on the record. So if anyone is curious about what really happened, it’s all very much there.
Why did you shift into composing for a more traditional orchestral setting?
The orchestra thing came really naturally for me. I thought the orchestra was the most spectacular instrument in the world, and the opportunity to write for it is something I wouldn’t pass up. It’s about building up sounds using a tremendous variety of voices and sounds.
Did it make you feel like a proud papa when people who played in your early ensembles started forming their own bands like Swans and Sonic Youth?
I thought it was totally cool. It was a definite progression. That’s one thing that was so cool about Sonic Youth was they figured out a way to combine more rock-based songs with the whole experimental approach. It wasn’t something that I was going to do, but I couldn’t help but be seduced by it. What happened was that the No Wave scene kind of broke open the art rock scene in New York. It was unbelievable.
Do you have any opinion on what’s going on with music today?
Well, like you said in one of the emails you sent to setup this interview, “You’re probably not sitting around listening to bubblegum indie rock bands.” You’re right about that. If I don’t go digging around on the internet and really try to find the good bands, I’m not going to find them. The truth is my leisure time is spent reading—I’m into novels and cyber-punk and shit like that. There is one really good band I’m familiar with and that’s the Paranoid Critical Revolution, my wife’s band.
Glenn Branca’s 100-guitar orchestra will be performing around the world later this year. Check his site for more details.
INTERVIEW BY ROCCO CASTORO
PHOTO BY PAULA COURT