Glenn Branca didn’t want people to dance to his music. “I want them to sit there and be blown away,” he once said in an interview. No one was seated at Brooklyn’s St. Vitus Bar on Sunday, where the Glenn Branca Ensemble played in tribute to the late composer, who died last year after a battle with throat cancer. But you’d be incorrect to call the crowd’s movement “dancing.” Dancing is not always an act of free-will, but it is fueled by more intention than involuntary spasms. Looking around, there was no way any of us were moving this way on purpose.
Having the ability to stand at the Glenn Branca Ensemble’s performance of The Third Ascension allowed for an entirely new interaction with Branca’s music. The event was held in conjunction with Branca’s final work—a 2016 live recording of The Third Ascension was released on Systems Neutralizers two days prior. The concert was held on what would have been Branca’s 71st birthday. Like the new record, it was made possible by his wife and longtime collaborator Reg Bloor, who has played guitar in Branca’s ensemble for years.
I’d only ever experienced Branca’s ensemble concerts sitting down. The chair felt like a safety seat on a rollercoaster, and it would have made sense if it was equipped with a metal bar to pull against your chest. Even sitting down, the music felt dangerous enough to eject you from your seat. Without this precaution, what might we be capable of? I feared (and maybe hoped) that the crowd would be whipped into a frenzy of id and alcohol, rushing the stage like a pack of feral animals.
This did not happen, likely because Glenn Branca was not conducting, and because it is no longer the 1970s. But what was particularly exciting was the potential energy threatening that it could happen at any moment. Seeing Branca’s work live is far more of a physical experience than just a sonic one. The music seems to reach from the speakers and slap you in the face, punch you in the gut, and pull out your still-beating heart Temple of Doom-style. It’s not just loud, it’s emotionally exhausting. After every song I drew a deep breath, sucking in oxygen and blasting out a big sigh. Each piece made me feel like I’d just had a long, drawn-out argument with my husband, and I don’t even have a husband.
Branca’s work, especially when played live at such extreme volumes, can at times sound like the mind tearing itself apart. There is a beautiful dissonance between the performers, very diligently reading their sheet music, and the unraveling effect their playing has on the psyche. Conductor Brendon Randall-Myers gave a spirited interpretation of Branca’s work that could be measured in ounces of sweat. The remaining ensemble followed suit, smiling widely when they weren’t grimacing from overexertion. In addition to playing The Third Ascension in its entirety, Randall-Myers led them through Branca’s 2016 Bowie eulogy “The Light (for David).”
There was almost no talking between songs, save for logistical exchanges with the sound technician during tuning breaks. It was in those minutes that Branca’s presence was especially missed. These were the moments when you could really get a glimpse of Branca as a person—a wry, mischievous, and deeply funny human being who still loved what he was doing in a way that radiated through the room. “The only reason I even bother to pay the slightest attention to this fucking world, is because I love music,” Branca once said. “I love to write music, and I want people to hear the music. Otherwise, this fucking world is an utter waste of time.” Even in his absence, that love is still palpable.
I wound up at the Kitchen sort of by mistake. It was a Tuesday – February 23rd, 2016 to be precise. It had been a year since the worst week of my life, and sitting at my desk after a long day of designing women’s underwear, I longed for a little culture that evening, a little date with myself. So I scrolled through concert listings on Oh My Rockness, hoping for a name to leap out at me. February is not the most happening time for live music in the city, and my backup plan involved a movie and/or overpriced meal for one. But the backup plan wasn’t necessary; as I scanned through the concert listings, a name did leap out at me, and though I wasn’t positive why I recognized that name, I bought a ticket without hesitation.
That name was Glenn Branca, and in the days since his death last week, headlines, tweets, and obituaries can all agree on one thing: if you weren’t familiar with Branca’s music, there’s no way you have escaped the music he’s influenced. His brash guitar symphonies were loved by the likes of David Bowie, and imitated by Sonic Youth. He was a pioneer of the No Wave movement alongside John Zorn and James Chance, and he pushed the boundaries of music, noise, and everything in between. His first two solo records, 1980’s Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension from the following year demolished and restructured the contemporary approach to the electric guitar, rock’n’roll, and classical composition. Branca’s work was loud, dangerous, and so cutting edge that it moved legendary avant garde composer John Cage to feel “disturbed” by it.
Branca was the man that conducted serrated, unnerving orchestras with 100 electric guitars, slapped punk rock into something more upright and threatening with his early band Theoretical Girls, and released early music by Swans and Sonic Youth on his record label, Neutral. His legacy coincides with the explosive art movement in ‘70s and ‘80s New York, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Branca never lost a scrap of relevance—in fact, his mystique and ability to stun an audience only seemed to intensify with age. It must have been some peripheral knowledge of all these accomplishments that congealed in my gut when I saw Branca’s name on the concert listings for the evening. Perhaps it was the faint memory of an interview with him I’d read in a copy of The Believer’s 2014 music issue. Either way, I am glad I trusted my gut.
When I entered the Kitchen in Chelsea, the staff was passing out earplugs as guests took their seats. I remember thinking that I’d never been encouraged to wear ear protection at a venue with bleacher seating and a median age of 58, but I figured they knew best. I sat down with my packet of foam plugs and leafed through the pamphlet I’d been handed, which gave the whole event a whiff of the fine art or theater world. I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into. And then Branca and his six-musician ensemble crawled out onto the sunken stage.
It was rapturous. Branca, who had stopped playing guitar years prior during Symphony #1, was a dedicated conductor until the end of his life, though his methods of conducting were unconventional to say the least. He used his entire body to communicate with his ensemble, who that night included one drummer, one bassist, and four electric guitarists (one of whom was Reg Bloor, his widow). That evening’s rendition of the Third Ascension was marked by Branca’s spasmodic movements: flits of the wrist, flicks of his hips, and general shimmying that somehow effectively communicated volume, rhythm, and attitude to his performers. It was in fact loud, and so dissonant that it was blissful, like the moment pain becomes cathartic. I remembered a quote from that Believer interview I’d read two years prior, during which Branca said, “If you don’t like loud music, don’t bother with my music.” This, I learned, was a characteristic thing for Branca to say. He was a fabulous curmudgeon, who wore the same black outfit every day, his blazer pocket crammed full of pens like soldiers standing at attention. His teeth were chipped, and he looked like a more brawny, attractive older brother to Shane MacGowan.
In between songs at the Kitchen, while his group fiddled with odd tunings, Branca felt obligated to talk the crowd. His raspy voice and mischievous demeanor felt instantly familiar, perhaps because he seemed a kindred spirit to Tom Waits, or perhaps because he was simply the embodiment of the crotchety old man I hope to become one day. In an attempt to fill the silence, Branca told the audience, apropos of nothing, about the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. It was on a hoagie roll, not a bun. He talked some trash about John Zorn, and introduced his wife Reg Bloor, who seemed delightfully peeved by his antics.
I left the kitchen that night with my mind completely blown open, a side effect of the shrapnel storm Branca’s ensemble hurled toward the bleachers. Walking to the train I felt like I was floating, or maybe vibrating like a struck tuning fork. It was the same feeling of intoxication I had only experienced once or twice before: watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time; seeing Diamanda Galas live at a temple on Halloween. Considering the weight of my experience at the Kitchen, I checked weekly to see if Branca and his ensemble was playing in town. I did this in 2017, when they performed at BRIC, and I remember feeling particularly lucky to live in a city where one minute I could be sat at my bedroom desk reading, and the next I walking to see one of the most original and exciting musical performances in existence.
The week before Glenn Branca died, I typed his name into Oh My Rockness’ search bar to see if he had any upcoming gigs. I didn’t know he had throat cancer, but I wasn’t surprised by the news when I found out. Upon hearing about his death, I felt both devastated that I’d never experience his music live again, and immensely grateful that I got to experience it at all. Glenn Branca was a New York treasure you had to really dig for, if not allow yourself to stumble upon, and like all of the best things New York has to offer, he was liable to disappear at any time. Sadly, that day has come—but while the man is no longer with us, his work will be obliterating musical norms for decades to come.
Last year, before the presidential election tore through the fabric of reality like Dr. Who’s Tardis, a friend invited me to indulge in her Groupon – for a float. “Floating” aka “Flotation Therapy,” is a physically simple practice achieved by resting your naked self atop a highly concentrated saline solution. The super salty pool (upwards of 1,000 pounds of salt for just a bath’s amount of tepid water) suspends your bod like a buoy, and allegedly alleviates you of any tactile sensation. Though comprised of rudimentary ingredients, this spa trend can cost exorbitant prices ($75-$130 per “float”) when paired with mood lighting and Pandora’s “Enya radio.”
But what is the purpose of Flotation Therapy? The answer might be found in the treatment’s other name: the “Sensory Deprivation Tank.” Aside from sounding like the title of a Ken Russell film, the name taps into a deeper human longing than relaxation: the desire to feel nothing. Sure the tank suggests the separation of mind and body, spinal alignment, and even hallucinations. Benefits of a good “float” nod at the metaphysical – spiritual transcendence that can be accomplished by many trips to the tank over a period of time – but it was the nothingness I was most intrigued by (in part because I don’t believe in spiritual transcendence).
“Numbness” and “nothingness” are concepts more foreign to me than “health insurance” and “good credit.” Truthfully, I’ve always felt all the feelings; and if there’s one thing I’ve never felt, it’s nothing. I can’t help but wonder – if there’s a new age miracle treatment for feeling that boils down to a well-lit, salty bath – could music conjure a similar absence of stimulation…or better: emotion?
For music to negate feeling would be a true feat of inversion, like a baker un-baking bread. Music was made for emoting; it’s an especially potent dialect of emotional language that can make us dance to songs we think are crap and cry during trite commercials. But is there a song in existence capable of evoking the anti-feels? If so, I am desperate to find it.
Just as I was skeptical of the tank’s pledge of “sensory deprivation,” I doubted I could find a song, let alone an entire record, that would act as an aural anesthetic, an antidote to pop’s poisonous love songs, rap’s wrath, and disco’s boogie. But despite my suspicion, I knew right where to start looking: the ambient soundscape. After all, what better to numb ourselves with than the a-rhythmic, a-melodic wanderings of the ambient-electronic canon? I set myself up for a series of highly subjective, uncontrolled tests after a period of distress when even listening to the new Harry Styles single would make me weep (and not because it’s bad).
I first selected a couple of records – my “test drugs.” Then, during a moment of particularly intense emotion, I would pop one of my pills and see what happened. The first tablet to swallow was William Basinski’s groundbreaking Disintegration Loops. In making this four-album saga, Basinski recorded fragments of ambient music through a tape loop that captured the gradual deterioration of the tape itself – the subtle corrosion of the magnetic strip barely audible, but somehow still palpable to the listener. The result is a somnolent meditation on repetition, impermanence, and decay. It is a beautiful and delicate work that could probably benefit someone with insomnia, but that wasn’t exactly my problem. Sure, “somnolent meditation” and delicate beauty sound all good and anesthetizing, but then I thought about it a bit more: the Disintegration Loops are literally the sound of something (though tape) dying. Dying is sad. Sad is an emotion. Next.
Surely I could turn to my trusty No Wave hero Glenn Branca for a good shot of sonic Novocain – he doesn’t even believe in melody! I swallowed the eccentric composer’s 1981 album The Ascension like a fistful of Advil, and awaited its sweet relief. Unfortunately, The Ascension goes down a bit differently when you’re having an off day, and though I’m all for aggressive music, the record should perhaps be labeled thus:
“Side effects of listening to The Ascension during a period of emotional distress may include: discordant notes, furious drumming, agitation, crashing synth-cymbals, blood-boiling rage, satanic distortion, terror, and face melting guitar solos.”
I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. William Basinski was too soft. Glenn Branca, too hard. Where was my happy medium? And by happy medium, I mean complete and utter nothingness.
I trudged through countless artists; Michael Gordon, Nils Frahm, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Oneohtrix Point Never – each sound, though wildly unconventional, still managed to stoke that pesky human defect: feeling. I was about to call it quits on my quest…and then I remembered his name.
Steve. Reich. If I had taken in Basinski and Branca like vitamins, maybe it was time to inject myself with Reich’s 1976’s masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians. Reich has long been a pioneer of minimal music, and it’s silly I didn’t turn to his catalog for my little experiment sooner. Could his compositions truly make me comfortably numb?
The answer, at long last, was yes. I had found the song to feel nothing to.
Music For 18 Musicians, though technically an album, really functions as an unyielding 59-minute song. Its continuous nature (there isn’t one breath of silence in the entire record) is necessary for optimal catharsis, because while music is the space between the notes, those spaces can destroy you. Space allows for thought, and thought is no damn good when you’re trying to sedate emotion. Music For 18 Musicians on the other hand, is so relentless, so packed with notes, that your brain is constantly trying to keep up with them, and has no capacity for wandering thought. Perfect.
When looking into the history of Music For 18 Musicians, I found that Reich was inspired by Psychoacoustics, which is the scientific study of our psychological and physiological response to sound (noise, speech, and music). Knowing this I feel a bit less nutty for reacting in such an intense way to Reich’s piece. Perhaps he wanted to offer the ability to momentarily transcend sentiment in the same way Flotation Therapy seeks to transcend sensation. Maybe more than an aural anesthetic, Music For 18 Musicians is an antibiotic, obliterating the good and bad bacteria simultaneously, destroying all cells in its path. Like a natural disaster, it has no emotional motive; its dense mass is purely self-perpetuating.
Aside from being the anthem for neutrality, I must say: Music For 18 Musicians is also the best break-up record of all time – if you’re actually trying to get over the break-up, that is. Trust me, I’ve tried all the others, and a year ago my heartbreak playlist would be wildly different. I’ve bathed in Muddy Waters and drank Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” I’ve anointed myself with Nick Cave’s rage and drowned myself in the cold cruelty of Smog. But all they’re good for is salting the wound. Now, I don’t want a Hank Williams Band-Aid… I want a Steve Reich IV drip.
So what do you do when you’ve found the perfect drug? Get it approved by the FDA, patent it, and stock up. But the problem with any medication is twofold. Firstly, the effects wear off after a while, and secondly, you tend to build up a tolerance. Sure, the flotation tank and Steve Reich can suspend you in salty and sonic pools of beautiful nothingness – they can even eviscerate the pain for a whole hour. But what do you do for the remaining twenty-three, when you can’t be naked in a bath or listening to music? I guess therein lies the real experiment.
A few nights ago at a bar, someone asked me a reasonable but difficult question: what do I want to experience when listening to music? What do I look for in a band? I floundered briefly, rattling off some vague declaration about placing a “good song” above any technical music ability.
“What do you mean, a ‘good’ song?” my interviewer prodded (this person is a reporter by day). “You can’t just say, ‘good’ song; obviously you prefer a ‘good’ song – but what makes a good song to you?”
Touché. I stewed over the question momentarily, thinking of other forms of art I’m drawn to; imagining the display of fleshy imagery covering the wall above my home desk – a collection many houseguests find revolting. Boobs, hairless cats, cadaverous feet, Hans Bellmer’s doll. Nondescript, pink perversions.
I thought about my lifelong gravitation towards objects and subjects of disgust; the numerous occasions my parents would come home from work asking what I was watching.
“Confessions of a Serial Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer,” I would reply, munching a Cheeto. My dad still recommends movies to me by saying, “We just watched this really depressing, fucked up film – you’d love it!” without an ounce of sarcasm. We also have a game in which we text each other when famous people die. First to text wins.
I considered my fondness for bitter, astringent, and blazing flavors; my love of rare and raw meat; my affinity for unsettling (but funny!) books.
Looking back at my inquirer, I delivered the most succinct reply I could muster:
“I just want to be assaulted,” I said.
Sonically assaulted, of course…but what does that mean?
Last year, while still working as a panty designer for a big company called, let’s say, Veronica’s Privacy, I found myself in need of a date night…with me. I scrolled through concert listings in search of something unexpected. If there was one thing I was not in the mood for that evening, it was “good old fashioned rock n’ roll.” I did not want dream pop, nor chill wave, nor beach wave, nor dream wave. I craved something dour and unpleasant, like ya do.
Sifting through gigs by Sunflower Bean and Shark Muffin, I paused on a vaguely familiar name: Glenn Branca. Where had I heard it? Something about the name commanded respect. Though I was mystified as to why, an air of provocation and intrigue hung around those two words. I bought a ticket immediately.
Taking a seat at The Kitchen in Chelsea, I glanced around. The only other solo-goers were middle-aged men who looked like they used to be in bands. Silver hair. Black Sonic Youth t-shirts. Sensible, manly shoes. Leather belts. The low stage was set with a drum kit, a bass, and three guitars. When Branca and Co. sauntered onstage not a word was spoken before they crashed into a belligerent wall of sound. Fumbling for my complimentary earplugs (courtesy of the venue), I felt bathed in distortion – baptized in cacophony. Discomfort. A hail of splinters. Railroad ties and metal siding. It was all being hurled at us – and we loved it. Were my concert mates likeminded gluttons for punishment? Did they too adore unlistenable, violent music at all hours, even in the wee, small, pre-coffee hours? I left The Kitchen feeling like I’d been in a boxing match – no – like I’d gotten the shit beaten out of me by a biker. Boxing is too clean and dignified a sport for how I felt. And yet there was another sensation spread all over me like cream cheese on a bagel: elation. For lack of a less annoying word: transcendence.
There are entire message boards full of people who want to be tied up for fun. Fetishists get shoved into bags, closets, vacuum-sealed plastic. For many, there is pleasure in physical discomfort. Factions of the sex accouterment trade cater to such needs. So what about auditory discomfort? Where be the cottage industry for audio-de-philers? (see what I did there?) Where is the safe space if you’re looking to be cleansed by rage and mayhem and high decibel levels?
I’ve certainly found my fix in Branca and his No Wave ilk – John Zorn, Steve Reich, and John Cage, to name a few. Then there is Girl Band, the Irish foursome I’ve been admiring for the past year. The Dubliners are fresh on my mind as I just saw them live a few nights ago and felt intoxicated after their antagonizing set. Screaming? Odd time signatures? Squealing guitar? Weaponized bass? Yes, please. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside just thinkin’ about it.
Two nights ago I was speaking with an artist friend of mine. A brilliant photographer, she also curates at the Museum of Sex, and has a keen eye for the odd and outcast. “I’m always looking for art that is standing on the ledge and about to step off of it,” she said, her head bobbing over a goblet of frozen margarita at Dallas BBQ. I nodded in agreement, nursing brain freeze and thinking about why I’m so enamored of grotesque and furious things. Her mention of the “ledge” intrigued me. Is that where the fascination lies? Perhaps music and art that seems “out of control” is in fact the most controlled, as it assures us we can still keep it together while staring at the messiest aspects of humanity.
Girl Band is a prime example of this, in fact. The group’s singer Dara Kiley suffered an intense psychotic episode in the lead up to their debut release, Holding Hands With Jamie. Understandably, much of that record’s lyrical content was inspired by the event. You don’t have to listen closely to realize that Girl Band’s music sounds like a psychotic breakdown – or at least what you would expect one to sound like. If you’re drunk enough, sleep deprived, or maybe just malnourished, giving Holding Hands With Jamie a spin can make you feel like you are going crazy – but you probably aren’t. And maybe that’s the amazing thing – that someone like Dara Kiley can survive psychosomatic hell and then channel his agony into an unconventionally beautiful record with the help of bandmates. Perhaps some artists stand on the ledge, so we don’t have to.
High school. The quivering minutes before debate class. Perspiring and wobbly at the thought of blurting my tenth-grade arguments to a room full of…seniors.
There was only one way to properly cull my nerves before a debate: get furious.
While anger might make some frantic and unhinged, it has long been a friend of mine. Though I may never have realized its cathartic, downright productive abilities had it not been for debate class – and the horror of public speaking as a high school kid.
“Make me mad!” I would goad my classmate, Kim, moments before the great Bloom v. Luker debate of 2006, regarding the legitimacy of the Iraq War (guess which position I took).
“How? What should I say?” my sweet classmate would ask, utterly baffled.
“Talk about what a wonderful president George W. Bush is. Say Evangelical Christian stuff – like how homosexuals are going to burn in hell.”
Kim didn’t become any less confused, but I won that damn debate. Most of the damn debates, for that matter. But had it not been for that little boost of fury, I’m not so sure I would have.
Long has anger been a stigmatized emotion – more so for women than men, unfortunately. What is an incensed woman to do when she is told for decades that 12 Angry Men look like passionate, dutiful citizens, but one angry woman looks like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?
For the better part of my life, I’ve had an alchemic relationship with anger. What many saw as an unpleasant reaction, I viewed as a primal tool made for navigating the world differently. Getting amped up on adrenaline before debate class didn’t make me an irrational font of diatribe – it calmed me, gave me clarity, and the steadiness of a well-wielded scalpel. After discovering this effect, I naturally found a companion in angry music.
But what does “angry music” mean? I’m not exclusively implying topical music, like the Regan-era politico-punk of Dead Kennedys (though it is all the more relevant these days). What I find significantly more purgative is music that embodies wrath in sound alone – that weaves an aural tapestry of rage. The aggressive guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca’s The Ascension come to mind, as do the sparse yet sinister pieces from George Crumb’s Black Angels album. These records show emotion rather than speak of it, and while anger may not have been the impetus for behind them, it is how I appropriate the work.
Branca’s compositions in particular, especially when experienced live, create an all-consuming force field of sound that overwhelms in a similar way to being bathed in outrage. His incredibly loud, distorted and relentless cacophony of guitars verges on sounding stressful…but in a good way? And yet, after confronting that taxing sensation for a good hour: tranquility ensues.
For quite some time I figured that this off-brand “enlightened” reaction was solely an attribute of my own idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it was a fucked up feature of my being. I’m the person who considers The Exorcist to be one of the greatest movies of all time, after all. I was the kid who would watch tacky, History Channel documentaries on unsolved murders and serial killers after school. Maybe my relationship to anger and its musical spawn was messed up, even unhealthy.
But then, science rushed to my defense! In spring of 2015, Australia’s psychology school at the University of Queensland published a study entitled; “Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing,” which countered the longstanding assumption that listening to “angry music” increases the listener’s level of anger. The researchers conducting the study found 39 “extreme music listeners aged 18-34,” who were “subjected to an anger induction, followed by random assignment to 10 min of listening to extreme music from their own playlist, or 10 min silence (control).”
The study found that “hostility, irritability, and stress increased during the anger induction, and decreased after the music or silence. Heart rate increased during the anger induction and was sustained (not increased) in the music condition, and decreased in the silence condition.”
The researchers concluded that “extreme” music does not in in fact stoke extreme behavior or delinquency in listeners. “Rather,” as their report claims, “it appeared to match their physiological arousal and result in an increase in positive emotions. Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger for these listeners.”
Finally, there was a demonstrable argument for my fascination with one of our most feared emotions. I no longer feel the need to explain to people why I am unlikely to bop around to the Go-Go’s when in a foul mood. It seems more fitting to thrash around to Merzbow, or Girl Band, or Throbbing Gristle.
I mention all of this, in part because I find it inherently interesting; my fascination with the link between music and mood isn’t going anywhere. But I also mention it in the hopes of arousing the reexamination and repurposing of a sentiment that is so prevalent today. Last week I spoke about how Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer feels that “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again,” which would be a function of channeling our collective fury into an art form – something that humans are pretty good at doing.
So as we get closer to inauguration day, and to the nationwide marches in resistance of it, I hope we can remember that anger isn’t always such a bad thing. I hope we can remember that when focused and sharpened like a fine, diamond point, our anger can split the awaiting air, and get us to our destination sooner. Despite what those in power would like to convince us of: anger does not mean violence, just like angry music does not mean delinquency.
A friend recently mentioned something that’s never occurred to me before. He said that making music requires an enormous amount of restraint. That, whether it be at the songwriting or recording stages, holding back is of utmost importance.
Restraint. Patience. Modesty.
These may not be the first words that spring to mind while listening to the screeching sprawl that is Girl Band’s music. However, if you zoom in on their 2015 LP Holding Hands With Jamie, which was meticulously written and self-produced, you can hear the discipline. It is a methodical record; each stab of guitar and gurgle of bass strategically placed to maximize discomfort.
That same level of focus was evident at Baby’s All Right last week, where our own Emily Daly covered the group’s rapturous gig. The Irish foursome, comprised of guitarist Alan Duggan, vocalist Dara Kiley, drummer Adam Faulkner, and bassist/engineer Daniel Fox, were on point throughout, delivering a streamlined spike of rage in sound only.
At times, his feet obscured by heads in the crowd, Duggan looked as though he was kicking someone’s head to the curb. Snapping at the waist and convulsing slightly against his own instrument. Turns out, that’s just how he plays guitar.
But for all of their sonic violence, the guys in Girl Band are an amicable bunch. I sat down with Duggan and Fox before the show to chat about concept albums, Glenn Branca, and a winking dog.
Audiofemme: It seems like people have finally come to grips with your sound. Have the horrible comparisons to grunge you’ve faced in the past stopped yet?
Alan Duggan: Yeah it’s finally stopped.
Daniel Fox: Yeah, like Pearl Jam references and stuff…
Oh! I didn’t see a Pearl Jam reference! It was a Nirvana reference I think…
DF: Yeah, it was a Nirvana reference.
Which is worse? I think Pearl Jam.
DF: Of course, Pearl Jam! I really like Nirvana. I hate Pearl Jam.
What are you guys currently working on?
AD: We’re just writing new music. Pretty much.
DF: Got some songs, yeah. We’re not going to play any of it today, (laughs) but uh, yeah we’ve got loads.
I know you guys have said in the past that techno/electronic music has been more of an influence than people might assume. What electronic musicians have been listening to lately?
AD: At the moment I actually haven’t listened to much techno in a while. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Hecker for ambient electronic stuff. That new Factory Floor song sounds pretty cool. It’s called “Yah.” They’re really cool. They’re on DFA Records. They’re from London. I think. But yeah just really good techno, kind of early techno sound. I don’t think they still have a live drummer, but they had a live drummer and weird guitar sounds-all very stylized as far as the visual aspect…I don’t know. They’re just really, really good.
That’s an area of electronic music that the mainstream doesn’t always grasp: that there are sects of it that are outside of just trying to make people dance…something more orchestrated than just “four on the floor.”
DF: I’ve been listening to early electronic music people. The BBC had a lab where they were basically figuring out how to do it, called “The Radiophonic Workshop.” It was in the ‘50s. There was this woman Delia Derbyshire who wrote the theme for “Doctor Who.” So it’s all these weird like (makes space noises). A lot of those kind of people really set the tone for what ended up being electronic music. But there’s a lot that can be done with it as opposed to just dance music. It’s a whole sonic palette that people just associate with dancing, really. Which I always thought was weird.
Since you signed to Rough Trade and you started touring internationally, have things changed with your place in Dublin? Are you still accepted in the local music scene?
AD: Yeah, it’s always like a real warm welcome when we go back and play Dublin, you know what I mean? Ireland’s pretty supportive.
I know you guys produced this record, which sounds fantastic. Is there a dream producer you’d love to work with? Or do you think you’ll continue to do it yourselves?
DF: I like producing. I mean, it’d be cool to get peoples’ perspectives, but-
And you worked as an engineer, correct?
DF: Yeah. That’s what I do in my spare time. So yeah…sometimes working with a producer could be-especially for the first record, could probably be a hindrance really, to have to re-explain something…
It [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the record] would be covered in horn sections…
DF: Yeah, like a string orchestra.
I find that it rare that bands truly collaborate as a group, but it seems like every little detail has gone through everyone’s hands at this point. How do you guys write songs together?
DF: Sit in a room and hammer it out for ages.
For you guys personally, what were some of your earliest urges to make music? What brought you to it?
AD: For myself, all of my brothers were in a band. All of my family has always been really into music, so when I was a kid I used to sit down and watch them play, when I was about four or five, and just be like, “oh, that’s really cool.” They were real bad. They were terrible. They used to rehearse in my sitting room and face like they were playing a gig, so they wouldn’t even face each other, it was like real funny if I think back to it.
DF: They did it in the front room?
AD: Yeah, in the sitting room. But they’d set the PA up and face it out that way.
Oh, they had a PA?
AD: Yeah, it’s actually the PA that we use.
DF: It’s survived a long time.
AD: Yeah, cuz that would have been like, early nineties. It’s crap as well.
DF: It’s really not a very good PA.
(to Daniel) And what about yourself?
DF: My dad was a musician, like played bass as well, and I was around music a lot as a kid.
What aspect of what you guys do brings you the most joy?
AD: For me, I don’t really think it’s one – because you know usually you could be touring and it’s really, really fun, and you really enjoy it but-
I was wondering if someone would say touring because I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say that.
AD: Oh, I love it.
DF: Yeah it’s a lot of fun.
But it sounds like it’d be a lot of fun, or like, really awful. Correct me if I’m wrong…
DF: Depending on the people.
AD: Yeah, if you’re with people that don’t get along I’d imagine it’s hell, but we don’t fight, we’ve never raised a voice to one another, so we work, we just kind of function really well.
DF: They all have their different perks. It’s like a meal, you know they all have their different things that are good about them. You know, like, touring you get drunk for free a lot, but then when you’re writing it’s like, writing songs is something fun, and then in the studio it’s just, it’s fun as well, so…
We’re supposed to negate the Irish stereotype. Come on!
DF: Yeah, “get loadsa cans!”
That’s gonna be the header: “Get Drunk For Free.”
What kind of milestones, or, maybe it’s just kind of an in-the-moment thing for you guys, but do you have artistic milestones that you want to achieve, that you strive for?
AD: I mean, I just wanted to put out a record that I was really proud of.
Well you did that. You’re done!
DF: Double album
DF: I want the fifth record to be a double-
DF: Yeah a double concept record. I just want to rip off Rick Wakeman and do one about Excalibur.
Oh yeah, and then like, it will be a pop-up in the center?
DF: Oh yeah.
AD: That would be pretty cool actually…
Just an idea. Just throwing it out there. Your prog rock record, ha. I know I just condemned comparisons only a moment ago, but when I was listening to your guys’ stuff I was thinking: are you guys fans of Steve Reich or Glenn Branca?
AD: Yeah, big time.
Ok, I was thinking you must be.
AD: Yeah, hearing Steve Reich for the first time was a real kind of eye-opener, so that kind of just-
DF: “I can do one thing for ages…”
AD: Yeah, that whole No-Wave scene in New York.
Yeah, he’s incredible. I saw his orchestra live a few months ago and he’s a real…I mean he’s kind of like a Tom Waits, he’s just a weird guy-
AD: Did you meet him?
Oh, god no! No I was just there, I didn’t cover it, but…what a weird dude!
AD: Interesting! But yeah humor’s very important. I always think humor is a very strong way of conveying a maybe very meaningful thing.
DF: Especially since some of this stuff is quite dark. Like the music’s so bloody angry sounding anyway, so it kind of like, negates that a little bit so it’s not just like, “I hate you mom!” you know?
I think I was reading something about when you did the KEXP performance you were like, “this is our poppy song!” which I thought was hilarious.
AD: Yeah, heh.
I listen to it, and I’m someone who listens to music that some people might deem “difficult,” and I hear a lot of melodic things in it…but I understand some people might not feel that way (laughs).
AD: Especially if you’re rehearsing, and then you’re touring it, and then you’re recording it, which is what we were doing, when it came time to put it out, you really lose context of how-
DF: Aggressive it might be.
AD: Yeah, we were like, “oh, this is a radio smash!”
Top Of The Pops! Another thing I picked up from an interview with DIY Magazine, was something about how on “Umbongo” you threw around some car parts and someone threw a spoon…
DF: (to Alan) you threw the spoon.
I tried to hear it today and…
DF: (laughs) It’s in there!
I don’t want to disappoint you by saying I couldn’t hear it, but I was trying…
DF: It’s buried in the mix.
AD: It was actually just like, a slam-dunk from across the room.
DF: Yeah we played parts of like, big huge springs…
Have you guys ever thought of going even further to create specific sounds? Maybe even building your own instruments?
AD: Yeah, definitely. We really want to try getting in touch with this guy called Yuri Landman. He’s built guitars for Lee Renaldo and…
DF: He’s a Dutch guy.
AD: Yeah, we played a show with him in Amsterdam, about two years ago now I suppose…but he built all these insane instruments, and he’s obsessed with noise. It is something that I think all of us would be really keen on doing. Like, Adam’s drum kit is very creative. He’s got loads of different cymbals like, stacked up on one another…that kind of stuff.
DF: Yeah, pipe cleaners…
Like the fuzzy ones?
DF: No, no. Like, long springs (laughs).
Ohhh. Lastly, what do you both plan on doing, for leisure or work, when you return home?
DF: (to Alan) What are you going to do? Walk your dog?
AD: Yeah, probably walk the dog. I got a little puppy.
(gasps) what kind?!
AD: Uh, it’s a Collie cross. He’s quality. He can wink as well.
Really? On command?
AD: No, but soon though! Check it out…
It’s just a twitch…
AD: No, well, it is a twitch, but
DF: His dog is adorable.
AD: It is a twitch but it will soon not be a twitch.
What’s the dog’s name?
AD: Boomers. Check that out: (shows winking dog pic) What a wink!
Oh muh lord. He is just always winking though…
AD: No he just-
That’s a moment you caught?
He looks kinda badass when he does that.
AD: Yeah. This is him when he was just a little pup: (shows fluffy, adorable puppy pic)
AD: He’s really cool. But he’s gettin’ a snip soon.
(to Daniel) And what about yourself?
DF: Me? Ehh, I have to mix a record for a guy when I go home.
Nice. That’s fun.
DF: Yeah, it’ll be very fun, because I thought I’d have it finished ages ago, and uh I don’t! (laughs) So I’m going to finish it when I get home.