Interview: Brendan Canty

Brendan Canty is best known as the drummer for Fugazi, the now-dormant post-hardcore / indie rock legends who influenced hundreds of bands both well-known and obscure over the last 30 years. And their influence extended beyond music, through their ethical approach to business and art. Highlights from the Fugazi catalog include the 1989 compilation of their early EPs called 13 Songs, their first album Repeater from 1990, and their final album The Argument released in 2001.

Before Fugazi, Canty had already made a mark on the Washington DC music scene with Deadline and Rites of Spring, the latter being notable because it helped push hardcore music into more introspective territory. In addition to many other projects, Canty was also the drummer for the recent MC50 tour featuring proto-punk MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer.

Canty currently plays drums for the band The Messthetics, with guitarist Andrew Pirog and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally. The band’s instrumental rock features a healthy dose of experimentation and improv, and their songs at times could even pass for Mahavishnu Orchestra outtakes.

This interview with Brendan Canty was done for a preview article for for the concert by The Messthetics in Santa Barbara on 4/21/19. It was done by phone on 4/9/19. (Antonia Tricarico photo)

Jeff Moehlis: How have the Messthetics shows been going so far?

Brendan Canty: It’s been great. We’ve played mostly east of the Mississippi, and went over to England for a couple of weeks and over to Japan for a couple of weeks. So it’s been going great. I guess the record came out about a year ago, and we’ve played a lot. I spent the fall last year playing with Wayne Kramer and the MC5, so I took a break from The Messthetics for a few months. That’s why it’s taken us a little while to get around to playing the West Coast.

All told, we really enjoy playing with each other, whether it’s in the practice space or live. They’re not too dissimilar for us. There’s a healthy component of improvisation and noise-making live, when we’re writing, and also when we’re recording. The whole process is really intertwined. Everything’s all miked up and we’re basically capturing things and using the studio as a writing tool.

The other thing that’s been huge for us is we’re getting out there and playing the songs over and over, working through the songs and changing them. The process of becoming a band is something that’s done on a daily basis when you’re on the road, more than anything else. All in all, we’ve had a lot of great shows over the last year.

JM: I’ve really been enjoying listening to the album. One of the big discoveries, for me at least, is Anthony [Pirog] on guitar – I wasn’t familiar with him. How did you connect up with Anthony?

BC: He lives in DC, and he’s quite a bit younger than I am – he’s 15 years younger than I am. I still go to a lot of shows and started seeing him playing out with his wife Janel Leppin – in Janel & Anthony she would play cello and he would play guitar. I also saw him playing full-on noise for half an hour. I’ve seen him play at Danny Gatton tribute night. So he just plays all the time, and he plays all sorts of things all the time, and he’s got a really beautiful, very musical sense, including proper harmony and writing. He knows so much about music. He’s been studying it his whole life, and he has good taste. He’s using the guitar for good, I think, as opposed to evil [both laugh]. I started really liking his sensibilities, and going to see him play a lot live.

And then I was looking for a way for us to play together on something, and I was putting together the Atlanta version of Burn to Shine, which is a film series about houses that are going to be demolished. They film about ten bands in a day in a specific city, and then demolish the house. We did these for a few years, my partner Christoph Green and I. One of them was still sitting on the shelf, the Atlanta copy of the series, and so we decided to put it together. I had to write music to the destruction of the house, and I thought Anthony was the perfect person for it. So Janel and Anthony and I got together – I played drums, Anthony played guitar, and Janel played cello, and we just ran through it about four times and then it was done. I was like, “Oh my God, I loved that. I love playing with you.” And they said, “Oh, we love playing with you!” So once we figured out that we wanted to play with each other we were just looking for the opportunity of when.

And when Joe Lally moved back to the States from Rome, he was another person I was trying to play with if I could figure out what to play, because as a drummer most of his stuff is pretty quiet, so there was not a lot for me to do on that stuff. So he played me some things that he had been writing with some jazzos over in Rome, more accomplished guitarists and noise-makers, and as soon as he played me that, which is all kind of in odd timings [laughs] and full of striking guitar, I was like, “Oh, I know the perfect person for this job!”

As soon as we got together with Anthony it really took off. We kind of incorporated some of Joe’s stuff into it, but really we just started writing really quickly and decided to make a record. We started playing around with ideas for a record, and then we played live, and Ian [MacKaye] said, “You should let me put out your record”, you know, over at Dischord, and we were like, “OK!” So it all went really quickly once we all came together. I feel like we were all very prolific, or the band itself suddenly became very prolific. And that’s a good sign. Usually I run screaming from things that are stilted and horrible. This was very fluid and wonderful, so we immediately started writing and writing and writing, and playing and playing and playing, and we haven’t stopped really.

JM: What has it been like playing with Joe again after all these years?

BC: I think a part is playing with Joe loud. Because Joe doesn’t really play loud in any other circumstance. He usually sings over his stuff. So I feel totally triumphant getting Joe to play loud, because it’s really fun. He’s great. Immediately we started playing at the Fugazi volume and speed, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is like nothing has changed.” Immediately we just clicked in together.

Joe is an incredibly great, solid bass player, so it gives me so much room to be able to play around with him. The more stable somebody else is in a band, the more you can kind of fuck around. I’m really lucky. I feel totally ecstatic to be able to play with them every night. And he really appreciates and loves what Anthony is doing, and his skill and his taste. So it’s a real circular musical and mutual love going on. I love Joe, Joe loves Anthony, I love Anthony, I think Anthony loves Joe and me [both laugh].

JM: I’m one of those people that knows Joe and you from Fugazi, so a natural question is: how is your approach to the music of The Messthetics different from how you approached the music of Fugazi?

BC: It doesn’t have to be as highly structured as Fugazi, because we’re not putting lyrics on top of it. So it really can be anything. It really opens it up. It can be much more experimental, it can be noisier, it can be looser live. There’s a whole host of things that are different about it.

Every time when we were writing in Fugazi, I always felt like every song had to be perfect, in a way. The dynamics had to work perfectly, to the point where I think sometimes we were just killing things. They didn’t need to be as constrained as they were. I’m not blaming anybody but myself for that. It was a mentality that I think we all shared, at least as a common band behavior. It felt like we were sometimes just overworking things, over-arranging things.

Believe me, we have done that in The Messthetics, but we tend not to do it very often. We try not to do it, which is what I’d say. Like if something seems that it needs that work, we do it, but oftentimes you get so constrained by the arrangement that you just are not able to allow it to breathe. I think there’s a sweet spot in The Messthetics where you create things that move around different ideas, but they’re open-ended enough that we can still let them breathe a little bit and improvise around on them when we’re in the live setting.

JM: A friend of mine described your drumming by saying that even when you’re playing a straight-ahead beat, it never sounds generic. Is that an individual style thing, or is that a conscious approach on your part that you had to develop over time?

BC: I don’t know… I mean, there’s only so much you can do on drums until you come up to something that you get attached to. A lot of times you do play relatively generic shit, you know, while you’re writing. But then eventually you come upon sometime, some way to change it up, and suddenly you feel like you’ve actually written the part. There’s a difference between bashing through a thing and actually writing a part, and once I feel like I’ve written the part then it really feels like the song is finished.

It’s kind of a pain in the ass, to be honest with you. You know, it’d be so much easier just to play super-straight, and I do in The Messthetics from time to time. I just play super-straight. Again, I’m not trying to overwrite every single thing. Also, I play a lot more in Messthetics than I did in Fugazi, in terms of fucking around more and experimenting more, because you’re not throwing the vocalist off or drowning him out by going nuts on your cymbals, and stuff like that.

That’s nice of him to say, but ultimately it does come down to at some point you want to love this thing you’re playing. If you have to play it every night, you want it to be something that you really stand behind. You still have to go through the process of feeling like it’s my own. Even if it’s total bullshit, I have to feel like I invented something.

JM: This is a very random question, because it turns out that your upcoming show in Santa Barbara is on Easter Sunday. Did you celebrate Easter as a kid, and if you did, do you have any crazy Easter memories that you’re willing to share?

BC: No… I celebrated Easter because I come from a big Catholic family, and I remember my sisters getting all dolled up and everybody going to Mass. There were seven kids in my family, so we’d have giant Easter egg hunts. It was very, I don’t know, just goddamn wholesome.

But I’m not religious anymore. My parents are gone, and none of my brothers and sisters are religious. But I do have four kids. We don’t go to Mass, but we do celebrate Easter by egg hunts and the usual business. But no Mass. But otherwise I don’t have any distinct memories of it.

I think by evening time everybody’s pretty ready to go see some music. That’s what I remember. A lot like Christmas and Thanksgiving – at some point after hanging out with your parents all day, you’re like, “I need to see my people.” That’s what I remember.

JM: You’ve played shows in California many times over the years. Are there any memories of your early visits to California with Fugazi that stick out?

BC: I remember certain things like sleeping on the couch at somebody’s house where the windows were knocked out and the flies kept landing on my face. I had to put a T-shirt around my face and blow the flies off my lips all night long.

JM: The glamour of touring, right?

BC: Exactly. We had a lot of friends in LA. We felt a great affinity to California. My family is from the Bay Area, and everybody has people and friends – you know, Henry [Rollins] and the Chili Peppers, and all sorts of people in LA, and Rick Rubin. We knew all those people and we would stay at Rick’s house. It was just a really lovely scene in LA. I always loved coming out to California and seeing everybody.

One aspect of being in a band, that continues to this day but that is one thing that I missed after a while when I was raising my kids for the 15 years that I was not on the road so much, you know, you get to miss these pockets of people that you grew up with. My community is local, but it’s also international. I have people that I’ve known for 30 years that I met through Fugazi who feel like my extended family.

So when I travel out to California a lot of those people show up and play with us, and we stay with them. After Fugazi stopped playing, I was like, “Oh that’s all going to disappear.” But none of it disappears. People don’t evaporate into thin air [laughs], and they may not be doing exactly what they were doing 30 years ago, but they’re still doing really interesting work. They’re still who they are, and I still feel a real affinity for them. I always look forward to coming out there.

JM: I have one straight-up Fugazi question. The compilation 13 Songs is going to turn 30 years old this year. What are your reflections thinking back on that collection of songs, and the early years of Fugazi?

BC: When we started out, I didn’t really have much aspirations at all. You know, I mean I was happy to get a record out. It sounded good. I was happy with the way it sounded. It was all recorded in Don Zientara’s basement. We all lived in group houses and were 20 years old. It didn’t seem like a life-changing event. I’d already been in Rites of Spring and Happy Go Licky and Deadline. I kind of assumed we’d put out a record and that would be it, because a lot of bands in DC do that. We put out a record and we do a little bit of playing, and then we break up.

I guess one way that Fugazi was different was that we really wanted to tour a lot, so we got in the van and hit the road over and over again. I kind of remember at one of the shows earlier on, about the time when the record came out, it felt like people showed up, and we made 250 bucks. It was like, “Shit, if we do 250 bucks every night, I could quit the bookstore.” I was working at Second Story Books at the time. It was on that level – it was a very small level. You know, when that record first came out I think we sold 3000 copies of it, and that was it. Then we put out Margin Walker, and we kept touring and playing all over the world and getting better, I think. The writing kind of took off when we did Repeater. Every record we put out sold twice as much as the one before, so it just kind of kept going exponentially.

But there were years… I think everybody should remember that none of this shit happens overnight. It takes time for everybody. It takes years. You’re basically starting a relationship with a lot of different people, and starting a dialog with people about what you’re doing. Nothing happens overnight. It just takes time, lots of time, and hard work. That’s what it makes me think. When I think about the inception of it and where I was mentally back then, I thought we were making good music but I didn’t think we were making music that was going to last forever, or for a long time. So I’m really happy that people still care at all, honestly. It means a lot to me.

JM: You mentioned playing with Wayne Kramer. I happened to see the MC50 show when you guys played in LA last October [at the Ford Theatres]. What was that experience like? You were playing with Wayne Kramer, but there was also half of Soundgarden and other people in the band.

BC: We only played about 5 shows with Matt Cameron playing drums. Most of the rest of the shows it was just me playing, and we didn’t have a horn section. In LA we had a horn section, too. It was mostly pared down to the five of us – Billy Gould, Kim Thayil, and Marcus Durant, and Wayne and I. It started to feel like a unit.

We had some great shows, and it reminded me of what I was shooting for from day one, which was basically the Kick Out the Jams record, which is to me the Holy Bible of explosive rock live events. I’ve always thought that, at least sonically, was one of the greatest evenings ever recorded. It’s one of the greatest live records ever.

In Rites of Spring and a lot of these bands we would cover MC5 songs for the simple reason that it allowed us to really try to get to that place, of having that communion with the audience where we just blow everything up. To me, getting in the band reminded me that’s where that quality comes from. That’s where that aspiration comes from, of utter destruction. That was from the MC5. So being out on the road with them was great, because I was able to try to channel that, but also be a receiver of that, of the vibe, of the other people in the room being ecstatic and joyful. I was, for that whole tour, like an ecstatic fanboy in the crowd. I just was one of the crowd, whether I was playing or not. I was just completely happy the entire time.

JM: Do I recall that it was 50 years to the day [that the Kick Out the Jams record was recorded] that you guys played in Detroit as part of that tour? What was that show like?

BC: We did a recording at Jack White’s place, at Third Man Records. A day or two days before we did the big Detroit show. The one at the record store, at Jack White’s place, I liked it a little better. These big concerts, they’re just hard to manage, they’re hard to get your head around. I felt that the one at the record store really worked out great. That’s coming out as a double record to benefit Jail Guitar Doors.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

BC: Don’t do it if you don’t love it. That’s what I would say. I mean, there’s enough times in it where it’s hard, and your ego takes a hit, and the money’s bad. If you also don’t like being in the band or playing the music or playing your instrument in general, then you should stop [laughs]. It has to be it’s own reward. The process itself of being in a room with people and playing your instrument and writing together kind of has to be enough, because the rest of it is just kind of a shitty business. Well, not a shitty business, but it can be hard.

I would also say look for community, and look for ways to help other people and mentor other people. And vice versa – look for ways to receive help, too. That community aspect of it has always been really important to me.

One more thing – don’t be afraid of learning musical theory, or learning anything about music. A lot of people are afraid of being trained as musicians when they’re playing rock ‘n’ roll. But any knowledge is good.

JM: Bringing it back to The Messthetics. Obviously you’re doing the tour. Any other plans? Are you going to record new stuff, or release some of the live recordings you’ve been doing?

BC: We have a whole record all ready to go. It’s supposed to be out now, but it’s probably going to come out in September at this point. It’s already recorded. It’s not finished being mixed, but it’s all recorded. We’re playing a lot of it on the road.

JM: Outside of The Messthetics, is there anything in the works that you’d like to highlight?

BC: I’m doing a lot of soundtracks for film and television. That’s basically it. Just a lot of touring. I’m doing a few more shows with Wayne in August, but otherwise The Messthetics are on tour all through July.


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