As excited as we were to celebrate Glenn Branca’s 65th birthday at the B+B Newsroom last week, we didn’t expect our discussion with the trailblazing composer to be as epic as, say, the time in 2001 that we were blown away by his 100-guitar symphony beneath the Twin Towers, and (more recently, in 2010) the debut of his 15th symphony at Le Poisson Rouge. How wrong we were: the master rolled into 155 Grand with a bottle of whiskey and, just like when New York spoke to him in 2004, immediately lit up a cig. We weren’t about to tell him to put it out.
Instead, we asked him and his wife Reg Bloor (who plays guitar in The Paranoid Critical Revolution and also in Branca’s ensemble pieces, which she helps produce) to look back on four decades of mind-blowing and ear-shattering music and, of course, tell us what’s next. As it turns out, he’s working on an autobiography, some pencil drawings, and a set of solo pieces for acoustic guitar and harmonics guitar (an instrument he invented) that will be performed in Poland next summer. Play the video to watch the conversation in its entirety, and see below for some of the highlights.
On an unreleased collaboration with David Bowie
It was unreal; it was surreal. Wharton [Tiers, Branca’s former drummer, who attended the q&a and will play Coco 66 on Thursday, October 17] had this funky little studio down in the basement of his apartment building. His apartment was upstairs, you know? Bowie was totally cool about it but the thing is, he comes in and for the first 10 minutes he’s there he does like this stand-up comedy act, impressions and everything. It was like, “Whoa man, what’s this guy on?” … The job he did on this kind of stream-of-consciousness crazed text that Tony [Oursler] had written and I had written the music for and Reg had done guitar improv over (because my piece of music was an orchestral piece that had been sampled and I figured it’s Bowie, we gotta have some guitar…), he was like no one I’ve ever met before in my life, he was a trip. He really felt like he needed to be the person you imagined him to be.
On being commissioned by the French government to write a symphony for 2,000 guitars on the occasion of the millennium, and ultimately doing it for 100 guitars.
I actually sat down and ran the numbers and saw, just to feed 2,000 people – I mean, we’d have to feed them during rehearsals – would take hours, having nothing to do with how much it costs. Nobody sat down with a pencil and paper and figured this out. It was a completely ridiculous idea. But when somebody sends me a check I’m not going to tear it up. I mean, the piece got written and then some people in New York heard about it – the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, who have always been great with me (they actually commissioned “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” one of my favorite pieces — killer, killer piece). That was when they were doing Art on the Beach… They said, “How about if you do it for like 200 guitars?” I said, “I think even 200 guitars is too many,” I mean 2,000 is ridiculous, 200 guitars is too many.
I mean, I wouldn’t have done anything like this because to me this was like Rhys’s thing. Rhys Chatham had been doing these 100 guitars pieces and it was like I don’t need to step on his toes; that’s his thing, he can do it. I was more into orchestral music at that particular time and it was like if I want to have 100 musicians I’ll just write a piece for an orchestra (I was getting a number of commissions) but at the same time the piece was written so we did it at what I call the former World Trade Center. It went over very well but when I heard it I was really surprised. I thought 100 guitars was going to sound just like mud, especially with the kind of music I write… This sound was even more transparent than my small 10 guitar pieces… and I was shocked out of my mind, and I realized I can take the kind of ideas that I’ve been working with with the orchestra and incorporate them into this 100 guitar idea. I had no idea such a thing could be possible. So – people in New York aren’t aware of this – I threw that entire piece out and rewrote it from scratch.
On performing Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall
The acoustics sucked and everybody there who worked there knew it. The room just doesn’t work for amplified music and they totally knew that but John Adams, who’s both a wonderful composer and a wonderful person, really wanted to do this. He had actually seen me many, many, many years earlier. I think it was Symphony No. 5, and I think he’s the only person who ever did this – he came into the dressing room, he got down on his knees (we’re talking about John Adams, one of the finest composers in the world and certainly the best orchestrator) and put his hands together [laughs]. I don’t even have to tell you what he said to me, I mean it was unbelievable that such a great composer would’ve been moved so deeply by this piece.
On the rehearsal process
We usually don’t get a chance to rehearse in the room where we’re going to play, and that’s really a bummer because we can’t make any adjustments whatsoever except in the soundcheck and it’s a very complex piece of music, it’s much more complex than I really should’ve written. But musicians play it beautiful no matter where we go, whether we’re in St. Louis or whether we play Belgium, or wherever else. We’ve done it all over the place. The musicians are wonderful, and it’s an experience for them because the way we do it is we interact them online for months about questions they might have about their parts, we even set up an online site where they can talk to each other and kind of work things out, because everybody has to pretty much know their part before they get to the rehearsal. We have two 10-hour rehearsals, then the soundcheck, then the show. Which is kind of crazy but they love it. They absolutely love it. It’s like going to music camp or something. You just get totally immersed in it, plus the fact they all have the best seats in the house. They’re sitting right in the middle of this music which is meant to have what I call acoustic phenomenon, hallucinatory type of sound. And you don’t always get that when you’re sitting in the audience but I assure you you get it when you’re sitting in the middle of the group.
On the early days of Sonic Youth
Rat at Rat R [was] one of the great New York bands of the early 80s; everything about them was amazing. We released their first record on Neutral. They came up at the same time as Sonic Youth and in fact Sonic Youth was really pissed off when they played on the same bill one time and Rat at Rat R blew them off the stage and that’s what the reviewer said. Thurston [Moore] was not pleased to say the least, because even then he thought he was king of the world. You can’t even begin to imagine what he is now. He’s so fucking big, I mean the guy is a giant.
I mean, when Thurston used to play with my group this is the way he walked [stands up and hunches over]. This is the way he walks now [stands upright]. And I can tell you, I mean, we were doing a gig on the same bill as his band in France somewhere and Thurston was getting out of his limo and I go up to say “Hi, Thurston,” and I was reaching up to touch his shoulder and I had to keep reaching. It was like, “Oh my God,” he must be at least 6’7” or 6’8”…
Have you ever heard the Coachmen [Thurston Moore’s pre-Sonic Youth band] record? Right now I’m writing an autobiography and I can’t see having less than 2 chapters – in fact, I might dedicate a chapter [each] to Kim, Thurston, and Lee. A lot of people don’t realize I was actually a friend of Kim’s through, again, my friend Dan Graham who she was living with at the time I met her, long before she started Sonic Youth. A lot of people don’t realize that she started Sonic Youth, although Thurston was her boyfriend (you could say they started it together). But Kim [Gordon] had already had a couple bands in New York, although she couldn’t play the bass at all, she was learning… I played with the Coachmen. The Static was on the bill with the Coachmen, and they were a cross between Talking Head and the Feelies. How close would you say I am to the Talking Heads and the Feelies?
So if you want to know what Thurston was doing before Kim convinced me after bugging me for like six months: “When are you going to have Thurston in the band? When are you going to…” It was like, “Well, I can’t just kick somebody out and bring Thurston in; when somebody leaves the band he can join the band,” because I wasn’t using staff notation at the time. When he came in he was wonderful, he did everything I told him, he was a very good student (I’m just kidding around) but he was a very good musician. But Lee [Ranaldo] was one of the most important musicians who’s ever played in my band, and he was playing with me during a time when we were doing a tremendous amount of work and touring, new pieces, recording. Some of this stuff hasn’t even been released yet because I didn’t have the money to get it into a studio, I’ve just got live audience tapes, I will be releasing…
Well, there’s one thing we recorded in Wharton’s studio — it was a commission I had for a theater piece but those guys weren’t in it. I think since Sonic Youth kind of gained their reputation after I started doing my symphonies people didn’t really see the connection to what I had been doing in a more rock band concept.[Later:] I should tell you — to be fair, now that I’ve been badmouthing Thurston’s old band — he hated the Static when we played on the same bill with him; he fucking hated us, and he would tell you to this day that he hated it at the time. I doubt whether he hates it now, and I still haven’t released the damn Static record yet.
On about the 1% stifling creative talent in NYC
I couldn’t imagine anyone who was better at squashing creativity than David Byrne himself, and that sounds like a load of fucking baloney to me. I’m not a fan. I did like his record “Fear of Music”; I did think that was a good record. I don’t know where that came form. Out of all this crap he was doing, all of the sudden he comes up with this good record. I have a specific beef with him but I’ve never liked his music, I mean I like “Psycho Killer,” yeah we all liked that at the time. Well, that’s a single, I actually did like the album “Fear of Music” — I don’t know how he came to that because it just wasn’t him. When the art rock scene came along in the early 80s – this was after No Wave – at least half the bands were Talking Heads imitations because they thought this is what art rock was and to me it was like well, what can you tell em, I mean if this is what they think it’s what they think.
On playing (and watching The Ramones and Blondie) at CBGB
Hilly [Kristal] didn’t like us, but that didn’t matter because we paced the place so he would book us. There wasn’t much more to it than that. CBGBs was just a shithole where bands got up on stage and played. The one good thing about CBGBs was they had the loudest fucking PA system on the face of the earth. The only time in my life where I’ve ever actually had to put cigarette butts in my ears was when I saw The Ramones at CBGBs. The beauty of CBGBs was that it was small, so you could stand five feet away from Debbie Harry. I can tell you, I’ve actually been closer to Debbie Harry than that, but not in the way you’re thinking – in the middle of winter with our coats on running into each other on the street. That’s a totally different thing. Actually she came into the X Magazine benefit, that’s where I ran into her husband. But the fact is, you could be up close to people and when she walked on stage it was like Marilyn had come down from heaven and she didn’t move at all, she just stood in front of the mic but the sensuality just oozed off of her. I have never seen [that] – and I can see why that band ended up becoming so gigantically famous.
On his legacy
To me it was all entirely about what was happening at that moment on that stage in front of that audience and as far as posterity is concerned it wasn’t something I gave even the slightest thought to. But I can’t really admit that that’s true anymore. I do think I’ve written a few pieces that haven’t been recognized for what they really are. Because I hear them and it’s like, “Whoa, this is amazing,” but other people never talk about them. Stuff that’s released, even, stuff that’s out there, that you can buy on Amazon. They talk about Lesson 1, The Ascension, a little bit about Symphony No. 1, maybe a little bit about Symphony No. 2, it’s slowly working its way up – I’ve written 15 symphonies and I can tell you most of them if not almost all of them are fucking gorgeous.”