The experimental guitarist, composer and solo artist Reg Bloor reflects on her career and her experiences working with her husband Glenn Branca and David Bowie, among others
Reg Bloor is an experimental guitarist who brings a sense of melody and fun to her explorations into atonal, dissonant and angular composition. Her music is complex and challenges any preconceived notion of what solo guitar should sound like, yet has a frenetic energy that instantly pulls the listener in. It’s obvious that Bloor is making music she loves to hear, as opposed to experimenting for the sake of it.
A guitarist since age 12, Bloor moved to Boston out of high school to attend Berklee College of Music. She went on to perform with the Boston-based band Twitcher before relocating to New York in 1999. There she began working with legendary avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, to whom she is now married. She and Branca have worked together often over the years, including several “100 guitar orchestra” projects. In 2005 she launched a new band, The Paranoid Critical Revolution, whose demise paved the way for her current solo career. Bloor is about to release her second solo album, Sensory Irritation Chamber.
PKM: What had made you relocate from Boston to New York? At the time, how did you find that the music scenes compared between the cities?
Reg Bloor: At the time we left, a lot of venues in Boston were closing or switching over to dance music. The Rat closed and other places were closing. There were maybe three places that were open to weird music. New York was the place for weird music. I was making trips to NYC on weekends to see shows at The Knitting Factory, when it was still in Tribeca, and at Tonic. The people you could see at those two places were unbelievable. Then there was Other Music and Mondo Kim’s. Downtown Music gallery was still a regular store. So, I was thinking about making the move.
At the same time, I got a call from Sandra Malak, the singer from my band Twitcher at the time, saying that she was moving back to New Jersey. She was graduating from Berklee and was being evicted from her apartment. Our bass player, Ryan Walsh, had just graduated from BU and had already moved to Connecticut, commuting to do shows and rehearsals. The drummer had always hated New York, but he was becoming less interested in the band. So Sandra, Ryan and I made the decision to move. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to get us all in a room together once we got down here.
PKM: How did you meet and start working with Glenn Branca?
Reg Bloor: I first met Glenn when I was still living in Boston and making those weekend trips I mentioned before. He was playing at the Knitting Factory with Rudolph Grey, Z’ev, Maryann Amacher and Margaret De Wys. We met after the show and I gave him a tape.
He was selling books, particularly cyberpunk books, on his website at the time, so I bought some and we exchanged emails. He didn’t remember my name from the show and thought I was somebody else. Reading the name Reg, he was picturing some cross between Reg Presley from The Troggs and Blank Reg from Max Headroom.
When I moved to New York, he invited me over and recognized me from the show. We hit it off immediately. So, when he found out that I could read music, he asked me to play with his group.
We started doing a band called Branca/Bloor, but bookers didn’t want to bill it under that name. They just wanted to use his name. I think only the LA gig billed it that way. Eventually, he started getting offers to do the 100 guitar piece and that became our job for several years.
PKM: What made you launch a solo career?
Reg Bloor: The solo career came up because Roger Oldtown, the singer on the last PCR [Paranoid Critical Revolution] record, found living in New York untenable and in 2014, he abruptly moved to Nashville. At the time, I got offered a solo gig at the Red Bull Music Academy because they had an opening on the solo stage. It seemed natural to go solo at that point.
PKM: Was your solo material written specifically to play/perform on your own, or was there music you’d originally written for the band?
Reg Bloor: I had some material written for the Paranoid Critical Revolution. All the stuff on Theme from an Imaginary Slasher album that has drum machine was written for Paranoid Critical Revolution. All those tracks. I had done some solo gigs in between [original drummer] Libby quitting and meeting Roger, under the name Paranoid Critical Revolution but just playing solo. In fact, the same guy who booked the Red Bull Music Academy had booked Roger and I at St. Vitus, before we were entirely ready, so I did some of the set solo, just doing some of the previous material but without drums. That’s when he saw us and liked me playing solo.
He didn’t remember my name from the show and thought I was somebody else. Reading the name Reg, he was picturing some cross between Reg Presley from The Troggs and Blank Reg from Max Headroom.
PKM: Given that The Paranoid Critical Revolution went through line-up changes, with you being the consistent member, did you consider simply continuing with that name on your own?
Reg Bloor: There was never any desire to have my name up on the thing. My intention was always to be in a band. Playing under my own name was something I was hesitant to do. It seems like people understand that a band is about the music, even if it’s only one person. With a solo artist, it becomes about the person. I’ve watched the coverage of Glenn over the years, and so may articles spend more time describing his hair and what he’s wearing or projecting a persona onto him than they do talking about the music. They treat him like he’s a cartoon character or something.
I did do some shows solo under the name THE PARANOID CRITICAL REVOLUTION in 2011 when Libby quit and then at the OFF Festival in 2014 after Roger left because that was already booked.
When I was asked to play the Red Bull Music Academy gig in 2014 that kind of solidified it as a solo project. That’s what they wanted and following that gig up with a record was a no-brainer. It was a high-profile show and got a lot of press. For some reason playing under my own name has gotten a much better response than the band, which was totally unexpected.
I also kind of initially wanted to leave the door open to do band projects again. It all happened pretty suddenly and I didn’t know how it was going to work out. I’ve had so much difficulty finding people to work with. Once realized I didn’t need to play with other people, it was kind of a relief, actually. After Libby quit, I held auditions for drummers and it was just a disaster. Getting people to show up, and to have them be at all prepared was difficult, so it was sort of a relief to realize that I could play solo. I’m glad that Adam from Red Bull gave me that kick in the ass.
PKM: Having gone to Berklee College of Music, how much of an impact has the formal training had on your work?
Reg Bloor: It’s sort of weird. The formal training really showed me how inside my playing was at the time. I don’t play within the rules, but I didn’t realize I was so inside the rules until I learned them. I think that music theory is more of a history than a set of rules. It’s a history of broken rules. It taught me what’s been done, but also what hasn’t.
PKM: Your music is unique, but the melodic elements keep it accessible. As you write, are you thinking about how audiences might react?
Reg Bloor: I’m really just trying to please myself when I’m writing. When I’m choosing a set, I do think about what gets a reaction. But there is a sense of melody there, even though it’s dissonant and harsh. There is a sense of melody and rhythm in there that a lot of noise music doesn’t have. That appeals to me. I think the only way you can know if something is appealing is if it’s appealing to you. You can’t guess what’s appealing to other people. I figure that if it’s appealing to me, it must appeal to others. I’m not that anomalous.
PKM: How has working with Glenn Branca influenced you as a musician?
Reg Bloor: I purposely don’t do things that are like what I do with Glenn, because I’m already doing that. It has definitely increased my ear for density, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not! I don’t like to steal techniques from Glenn, even though on one track here I kind of did. I don’t think I’m the only one; everybody’s ears have been increased that way by Glenn. There are a lot of people who are influenced by him in that way in that you can hear these dense chords and still pick it out.
The exception would be the piece “122 Zeros (And Then A One).” That piece uses a harmonics guitar, which Glenn uses a lot when he plays solo gigs. Funny enough, I haven’t actually used the harmonics guitars much playing with him, just once in a small section of Symphony No. 15. Maybe that made it more appealing. For the most part I’d rather do things on my solo records that I don’t do with Glenn.
PKM: Do you feel that your work with him has an influence on how people perceive you as a solo artist?
Reg Bloor: People haven’t come up and told me they came to my solo show because they know me from playing with Glenn. It doesn’t follow. I have to earn them on my own separately. In fact, it seems I do better with people who hear me first and then find out about my work with Glenn. It probably gives me more credibility after the fact. People seem to understand that I’m not doing it wrong, that I meant to do that.
Lately I’ve been getting on more metal bills and that audience doesn’t know Glenn as well. That scene has become more open-minded.
It does work in the negative though. People who don’t like him don’t like me.
With a solo artist, it becomes about the person. I’ve watched the coverage of Glenn over the years, and so may articles spend more time describing his hair and what he’s wearing or projecting a persona onto him than they do talking about the music. They treat him like he’s a cartoon character or something.
PKM: How do you feel your new album compares to Theme from an Imaginary Slasher?
Reg Bloor: This is the first one we conceived from beginning to end as a solo album. I definitely tried to make it stand up on its own more. There is less exact repetition in it. Instead of just playing a part four times, I do four variations on it. I think a lot of it stands up to closer listening. I tried to do a little more variety. There’s at least one track where there’s more space but it didn’t get monotonous.
I think I recorded this record with more distortion than I recorded the other one. I wanted it to sound a little different, but in the end, I dialed back the distortion a bit for clarity. But I did want this to sound a little different from the other one.
It’s denser, I think. The chords are denser. There’s one piece called “Present Dystopia” where the chords were so dense I had to give it more space so that it was clearer. The original version when I wrote it, I filled up all that space. But when I recorded it, it was a little too much; it wasn’t very clear. So, I slowed it down and put more space; after I’d recorded it, I went back and re-recorded it.
PKM: Could you comment on the overall aesthetic of your solo work? The cover art and song titles seem to be in perfect sync with the music, giving the whole thing a personality often lacking from some experimental music.
Reg Bloor: It’s all done with an impish sense of humor. There’s a Tom and Jerry, Ren and Stimpy, Evil Dead II, The Young Ones, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Toxic Avenger sort of surreal, funny, violent slash-stick sensibility running through everything. It’s obvious in the artwork and should be apparent in the music and titles too.
Sckitz is the character featured on my fliers and album covers. He enjoys attacking people in various ways that result in copious amounts of projectile bleeding (hence the song title). I’ve been drawing him since I was in college.
BJ Rubin who has a [cable access television] show on MNN asked me to do an animation for his show. It hasn’t aired yet. I had a lot of fun doing it and have plans to do more.
PKM: You’ve worked with quite a few other musicians; are there any experiences that were particularly memorable?
Reg Bloor: The first project I actually worked on with Glenn was music for an installation by Tony Oursler, the visual artist, with David Bowie. I was in New York about six months when that came about. That was pretty intense. He [Bowie] wasn’t there when I recorded my part, but I was there when he recorded his. Tony Ourslaw had written sort of a cutup text and had Bowie read it. Tony does videos of faces and projects them onto things like orbs. Bowie, in this sort of apparatus to hold his head still, recorded a video while he read the text. It couldn’t have been very comfortable, but he handled it with grace. He was very entertaining in person. He was telling jokes the whole time, as if he was working a standup routine or something.
A lot of the others were people who played in the 100 Guitar piece. Annie Clark, who is St. Vincent, played in the “100 Guitar” piece, and so did John Patitucci and Mike Watt.
PKM: What was that experience like?
Reg Bloor: It was fun. We ended up getting a [regular] group of people. The idea was to have locals play in it, in each place where we went, but we ended up having a group of people who were willing to travel and be in it. We ended up with a core group who would use it as an excuse to go on vacation and play with us. There was great comradery within the group. We even had people who met doing the piece who formed their own bands. It was a nice comradery, a nice community of people.
I think it was a good 10 to 20 people at one point. They didn’t do it every time, but there was a good core, especially when we did it in Europe. We did it in Dublin, London and in Belgium, so it was easy for them to travel there.
PKM: With your solo work, what is your creative process like?
Reg Bloor: I come up with each little section one at a time, and I record them on my phone and write down the chords. I piece them together, which parts go with which ones. Once I have 10 or 11 finished, and am good at playing them, and it does take me a little while to get good at playing them, then I start recording.
There’s usually one piece that isn’t intended to be played live. But all the others are intended to be played by one guitar, live. I do overdubs, and in fact on this, I doubled and tripled everything just to make it thicker, and I’ll do overdubs to bring out a section that I think isn’t coming across very well. But overall, it’s meant to be played by one guitar, straight through.
Bowie, in this sort of apparatus to hold his head still, recorded a video while he read the text. It couldn’t have been very comfortable, but he handled it with grace. He was very entertaining in person.
PKM: You’d said that other than perhaps one piece per album, your music needs to be able to be performed live with one guitar. Have you ever been tempted to use loopers or other technology? Is it a creative choice to keep things simple/direct, or do such things just not interest you?
Reg Bloor: I use a harmonizer, but not loops, no. In fact, everything could be played without the harmonizer.
I don’t seem to have any trouble making plenty of noise without loops. There’s nothing that’s had to be changed in order to accommodate playing live. I very often play more than one thing at a time – there are 6 string after all. The trend now is to buy tons of pedals and that doesn’t interest me (or my budget) as much.
My interest is still in notes, harmony and dissonance, rhythms, melodies. There’s still room to explore there and still plenty of ideas to be found.
PKM: It’s common for experimental musicians to use non-standard song and album lengths, but both of your albums have followed a fairly traditional structure in that respect. Was this something you ever consciously thought about or is it just how the music turned out?
Reg Bloor: It’s partially because none of my solo work is improvised. It’s all worked out one section at a time. A lot of experimental music is improvised at least to a point and that’s going to make it more open-ended.
As far as the album length, I purposely choose 10 or 12 pieces and around a half-hour total. Maybe that’s old-fashioned. As far as the songs, I just get bored very easily. So, I don’t really like playing long or repetitive songs. They’re not all the same, but they are generally pretty simple and fast-moving structures. ‘122 Zeros (and Then A 1)’ would be an exception. A lot happens in those little songs though. Maybe it’s still punk at its core.