theoretical girls - general press
to noise magazine – winter 2003
lohn, glenn branca and the theoretical girls provided a blatant pop/rock
alternative to the entropic no wave of mars, DNA, and
not clear who first coined the term “no wave”, but flying luttenbachers
percussionist weasel walter recalls seeing it used to refer to the may 1978
artist’s space show that eventually resulted in the no
the likes of cherry vanilla and harry Toledo were busy glorifying the mythology
of the epoch before it had even officially burned itself out, a younger
generation of musicians was already fed up with the bleary-eyed foursquare rock
of the new york dolls and looking to cross-fertilize it with both the
machine-honed precision of minimalism and a healthy dose of downright vicious
noise. Entropic and chaotic as
so-called “no wave” was, it’s hardly surprising that its definitive
history remains to be written; the most influential album documenting the
movement, no new york, produced by brian eno in 1978 and featuring four tracks
from four bands – mars, DNA (with arto Lindsay and ikue mori), james
chance’s contortions and Lydia lunch’s teenage jesus and the jerks –
remains to this day a sought-after collector’s item and is long overdue for
to walter, “there were two factions at the time.
The no new york bands were
primarily based in the east village while the gynecologists, tone death, red
transistor, arsenal, youth in asia, boris policeband and the theoretical girls
were around soho.”
theoretical girls may just be the most influential group you’ve never
heard,” crows the press release issued by acute records on the occasion of the
release of their long lost album (or most of it: see below).
Well, that’s debatable, although a line can be clearly traced forward
from the theoretical girls via their guitarist-turned-composer glenn branca to
sonic youth (whose Thurston moore and lee ranaldo played in branca’s notorious
apocalyptic maximalist guitar symphonies).
1976 and 1978, artist/poet phil demise ran a
about this time, the theoretical girls consisted of lohn (vocals, keyboard and
guitar), branca (guitar), Margaret dewys (keyboards), and Wharton tiers (drums).
Of their twenty-five or so originals songs, most were written by lohn,
the rest by branca. The group’s
name “came up spontaneously” in discussions with artist dan graham (the song
“theoretical girls” came later). Their
first gig was at franklin furnace in tribeca in late 1977, their last at max’s
attitude from the east village bands was that they were more “street” and
that the west siders were pretentious artistes,” recalls weasel walter;
“originally there were supposed to be more bands on no
version of the story confirms this; “we were referred to as “the fifth band
on the no
don’t know if that’s factually based”, comments weasel walter, “but the no
eno was interested in the theoretical girls at the time, lohn wasn’t
interested in eno, finding his work “boring and pretentious”.
He also admits to having had almost no interest in rock, preferring jazz,
afro-cuban and classical, from Gregorian chant to john
only tracks the girls recorded in a real studio (whose name branca and lohn have
forgotten) were lohn’s “
album had been intended to come out years ago, about 1984, with the tracks in a
different order,” lohn recalls. “the
master was ready to be sent when glenn suddenly refused to allow any of his
songs to go on. I decided to cancel
the whole project rather than release it with just my material.
I was buy with other stuff and forgot about it.”
was surprised when branca subsequently released the songs he’d written for the
theoretical girls on his atavistic album songs
’77-79. “he did so without
my knowledge and permission – and I played on all his songs,” recalls lohn.
my songs, man. It’s not billed as
a T-Girls record,” counters branca, adding: “I know very little about the
acute CD. Jeff hasn’t contacted me
about it. I didn’t even know it
not as outré as the more well known bands,” observes walter.
“they have tangents into noise, but also a blatant pop/rock sensibility
that the no
is proud of the baroque contrapuntal weavings of “polytonal” and “lovin in
the red” is a personal favorite “because of the way the organ and guitar
work together – the lines are very ‘classical’ but they’re sexy and they
rock!” “theoretical girls” itself (two versions are included, one live)
has no lyrics as such other than its title and the classic “1-2-3-4”
countdown, elevated in status from simple metrical cue to musical material.
the few occasions they got a clean recording (“no more sex”) the group
sounds closer to mainstream rock than their No Wave contemporaries do.
The hard-hitting lyrics of “mom & dad” are beautifully offset by
a catchy keyboard riff, and “
were well known but their public appearance was minimal, which added to the
mystique,” remembers demise. “they
became symbolic “darlings” of the ongoing merging of art, music and
performance. The art world loved
them – real art Brut!”
to Jeffrey lohn, glenn branca, Wharton tiers, weasel walter, phil demise, dan
selzer, marie warburton
kind of thing happens all the time. A band comes together, plays a few gigs.
After a while, they make a name for themselves. They've got an original sound,
and they're part of something bigger. Somebody asks them to contribute a single
for a compilation, which then gets released. Everything's looking good. And
then, for whatever reason, things fall apart: the band breaks up; some get a
real job, start a family; others join another band somewhere else. Life goes on.
is what happened to the Theoretical Girls. Drawing from classical inspiration,
the quartet used punk's form as an indirect reaction to popular music.
Disassembled blasts of noise and naked emotion. From 1978 to 1981 the quartet
was part of the loosely knit no wave scene in
life went on. Guitarist Glenn Branca has gone on to compose 12 symphonies.
Drummer Wharton Tiers is now a Grammy-winning producer, who has worked with
Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.,
Acute Records has put a compilation of mostly unreleased Theoretical Girls
recordings. The music is an unapologetic fuck you in the face of the
status quo. "It's a sort of revolutionary or striking out attitude—like,
'Don't even try to label me,'" explains Jeffrey Lohn.
been a renewed interest in music from the late '70s and early '80s lately, so
it's a rather propitious time to reintroduce Theoretical Girls. Can you paint
the scene. What was going on in
were a lot of artists involved. That was what was unique about it. Some of the
bands that were around at the time were "arty." That's the best word
to describe it. They were not just commercial pop kinds of people; they were
connected to the art world in some way. They were more philosophical,
idea-oriented people. We were just making a more creative, non-commercial kind
of music, more experimental, connected to ideas. Not slick.
think that definitely comes across on the record.
I'm trying to generalize here. With me, I was, then again, something else. I was
definitely involved in the art world. I was doing art before this group, but I
had studied classical music and I had never been into rock at all. I mean zero.
I was probably the only one in that scene who came to it the way I did. That is,
not via rock music at all. As a teenager I didn't even listen to rock music. I
was into world music and Cuban music and Afro-Cuban and Brazilian and classical
and jazz. All kinds of jazz, from old to new. I was a music fanatic, but I
wasn't into rock.
happened was one day I heard a punk rock concert in
to the record, there's a lot of experimentation and noise that probably didn't
exist in the other music around you at the time.
yeah. Even on some of the more popular stuff. Like "US Millie" [the
Theoretical Girls' first and only single available on ROIR New York Singles
Scene, Ed]. That's not noise, and the influence is classical. I mean, it's
not in a pretentious way, 'cause I really didn't want it to be pretentious. In
fact, I wanted to make it so that someone could like "US Millie" and
have not the slightest idea that there was a classical influence.
Stravinsky, the Russian composer. The choppy keyboard stuff and the chording and
the rhythmic stuff. Some of the other stuff, too. "Lovin' in the Red"
has some Beethoven influence, but I tried to do it in a way that wouldn't fuck
things up in a pretentious way. I wanted it to rock!
you happy with the reception of the record?
totally happy with the reception. The response has been unbelievable. There's
been something like 20 reviews in
So you know. It was supposed to be released, but because of disputes and things,
it didn't get out.
between you and Glenn Branca?
wasn't actually a dispute. He sort of pulled the rug out from underneath me. I
mean, I'm just giving you factual stuff, not opinions. I have some opinions as
to why he did it, but I won't go into that. But, factually, at the time, just
before this thing was to be sent to the manufacturer, he said that he'd changed
his mind and refused to allow any of the songs he wrote to be on the CD. I wrote
about 75 to 80 percent of the material for Theoretical Girls and he wrote about
20 to 25 percent. So, I just decided not to release it with only my material. I
just didn't think it was right at the time, and I was real busy with other stuff
so I didn't pursue it. I just couldn't understand why he didn't want this to
happen. I was sad because I liked the music.
did turn around a few years later and released his own stuff, the five or six
songs he had written. I wasn't even aware that he did it on his own, but he did
do it. It was a shock to me at the time. I didn't get it, so I just sorta forgot
about It until this guy, Dan Selzer, dug it up, because he was a fan of "US
Millie" and he was hoping it was going to be on the Branca release. When it
wasn't, he started sniffing around, and I was in
Selzer is the head of Acute Records, right?
Selzer is the producer of this record and the owner of Acute Records. Todd Hyman
is the owner of Carpark [who distributed the album, Ed]. They've done
everything. Dan has really worked his butt off on this thing. He contacted me
and asked me if he could release the material and if I'd cooperate on the
project; that is, supervising any remixing or editing. When he heard these tapes
he almost flipped out. He just couldn't believe that this didn't come out. He
did a great job. He baked the tapes, he digitized them, he preserved them, he
carefully went over every single tape that we had.
the songs were never meant to comprise an album, right? These are recordings
that were pulled together from different times and different sources, some of
them are live recordings…
you feel an affinity with any of the bands of today?
zero. I mean, I was into this kind of music for two years -- when I did it. Not
before, and not after. I was only into what I was doing. I'm into music, but
other kinds of music. It's funny. I got my inspiration to make this music
outside of the world it's pigeonholed in. A lot of people are wrong about it.
The producer keeps sending me reviews by e-mail, and I read 'em, and they're
wrong! They're all wrong. They say it comes from this, it comes from John Cale,
it comes from the Velvet Underground, it comes from Philip Glass. It's all
wrong! Totally wrong!
it makes sense in a way. There are similarities in sound…
it might be there, but I didn't put it there [laughs]. I'll tell you the honest
truth: I've never even heard the Velvet Underground! So, [Theoretical Girls
couldn't have been influenced by them] through me. I've never heard John Cale!
And I can't stand Philip Glass. He's totally overrated.
thoughts on Brian Eno? He was a controversial figure in the No Wave movement.
another one. He's at the bottom of my list. He was someone who actually loved
the Theoretical Girls, and he had some interest in putting us on the No New
But I think it got back to him that I was absolutely not interested in working
with him, and I just didn't want to get involved with him on any level. I hated
his music. Philip Glass I just don't like, he just bores me. Eno really, really
turned me off. The stuff I heard back then, I just couldn't stand it, and I
didn't want to work with him.
hope I'm not sounding snobby. That's not what I mean. I'm just saying I was into
tons and tons of music, but a different kind of music than a lot of my peers
were into. It's just that simple.
how did the Theoretical Girls come together from such disparate backgrounds?
met Glenn at a performance art place where I was performing. He saw it, and he
wanted to meet me. He had just hit
think one of the most interesting things about the record is that it looks
forwards and backwards. In a way, it's the missing link between Neu! and Sonic
yeah, yeah. A lot of people seem to think so. I
have no idea about Neu!, because I've never heard them. The only rock that
really interests me is just that first wave of punk rock that I heard, that
visceral feeling I got from hearing the Dead Boys. And, you know, being an
American you can't avoid rock and roll. It was not in my head. It's just a
coincidence. Things like this happen all the time. Two people come to the same
place from different paths. It's totally honest.
wave, a little-known flash of music movement, wielded more deconstructive power
than even punk. Listen closely:
discernible tremors from the anti-genre still register.
By charles spano
To some, it was indiscernible noise.
To others, a groove straight from the reptilian brain.
Most had never ever heard of it.
No wave was new wave’s id.
Between 1977 and 1982, no wave ignited
Apart from brian eno’s no
for no wave: the rite of the dead boys
Stravinsky’s ballet the rite of
spring caused a scandal when it debuted in
The dead boys also brought james
As chance describes, “the first no
wave band was really mars because they were already rehearsing when I came to
Chance played sax in teenage jesus
until his instrument became extraneous to lunch’s sense of minimalism.
So chance started his own band, the contortions, where james brown
collided with cecil
Jeffrey lohn started the theoretical
girls with drummer Wharton tiers, keyboardist and bassist Margaret dewys and
guitarist glenn branca; in 1978, the group released a single of the quirky
march, “U.S. Mille,” backed with “you got me”—the only purchaseable
records of their existence until now (a 1997 branca retrospective released by
atavistic, songs ’77-’79, featured a handful of TG songs).
Theoretical records captures the electrifying intensity of the girls,
lohn and branca’s slashing dual guitars, the chugging repetition and lohn’s
stabbing vocals. Grinding and
unforgiving tracks like “lovin’ in the red” illustrate exactly where early
sonic youth originated, while “no more sex” just might have prophesized the
jon spencer blues explosion….
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