Category Archives: Interview

Exclusive Q and A sessions with artists, music lovers and other people of interest.

Much “Better Than Bad”: An Interview with Brendan Canty

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brendancanty

If you consider yourself a music lover or just a casual listener, chances are you’re familiar with Brendan Canty’s contributions. Whether that’s his work as a musician (Deadline, Rites of Spring, One Last Wish, Happy Go Licky, Fugazi, Garland of Hours), album producer (Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, The Thermals, French Toast, The Aquarium), filmmaker (the Burn To Shine series, Wilco’s Ashes of American Flags, Bob Mould’s Circle of Friends, Eddie Vedder’s Water on the Road), or composer (various shows and documentaries for the Sundance Channel, National Geographic Channel, Discovery, The Learning Channel), Canty has built quite a prolific resume the past thirty years. His latest project finds him playing guitar and sharing vocal duties with keyboardist Rich Morel (Morel, Pink Noise) for the band Deathfix, a band rooted in, but not entirely defined by glam/psychedelic/pop soundscapes. Rounded out by Devin Campo (Faraquet, Medications) on drums and Mark Cisneros (Medications, Chain and the Gang) on bass, the quartet released their self-titled debut in February. Fresh from a fifteen city tour, I recently had the honor of speaking to Brendan about his new band, his past projects and what the future holds for him.

Deathfix’ debut album was released last month and the band just completed a fifteen city tour in support of it. How did it feel to play the songs live and to be out on the road?

It was great, it was really fun. It’s a total learning experience for me, to figure out how to get up and sing and play in front of people and deal with the vacillating shows. There’s just some shows there’s a bunch of people at and some shows there’s not. (laughs) It’s kind of a big experiment for me and absorbing the realities of being the front person in a band is really interesting. So that was different. I think as a general vibe it was great to be out and to be playing in front of people. It definitely was a big relief after fifteen years of raising children and not playing much. It was nice to finally get out and get on the road. It really felt good.

The band’s bio mentions “lots of love for 1972.” Can you please elaborate on what that era of music means to you and how it influenced your songwriting?

(Laughs) You know, that was something I said relatively off-handedly, and it’s kind of ridiculous in a way to focus on it. For us, it was like opening ourselves up to some of those sounds and some of the approaches of writing songs. Writing songs has always been a focus of mine, not just getting up and seeing what happens (laughs). Well, I mean it always ultimately is getting up and seeing what happens. I think that is a little bit overstated, that “1972 thing.” There’s a place where Rich and I met in terms of aesthetics when we were first writing this stuff. And it was a place where we were listening to a lot of Bowie, T-Rex and early Thin Lizzy and pulling from that. I think that would be a meeting place for us because we do come from two different worlds. He’s from a straight-up, hardcore dance scene and I’m from a straight-up hardcore scene. (laughs)

We had to find some place to bond and I think that is where it was. But also the general vibe of recording the record was very analog-based. We were really not trying to make a perfect record or a record that was so Pro Tools that it was super clean and finished and stuff like that. When we finally got the band together we basically got in the room and played the songs. We have our own studio, which is really nice. It’s just a big warehouse/practice space that we have a bunch of gear in and it’s all miked up. And that’s really a luxury.

Is that where the cover photo was taken?

Yeah! That’s exactly right. In fact, we moved studios upstairs and that’s part of the reason for taking those pictures and using that picture in that space because we were losing it. We lost the lease on it and actually moved up to a much nicer place. But we thought it would be good to memorialize the first place. I was in that studio for ten years. It’s one of the only parts of D.C. that’s cheap anymore. It’s this warehouse district up against the railroad tracks, just before you get up into Maryland and it’s mostly filled with plumbing supply stores and sign companies; it’s super blue collar. A lot of D.C. is government or service industry- restaurants or junk like that. And this is one of the only places where people are making things. (laughs) When you can find a 3500 square foot space for $1100 a month, that’s really cheap. And so we homesteaded it, got a bunch of artists together. People were painting in there, shooting videos and doing all sorts of stuff in there. But like all good things, it doesn’t last forever. We finally had to pack it up and then I went up to a slightly more cushy space, which will be where the next record will be recorded this summer. Or this summer and fall.

That soon, huh?

Well, we have a ton of songs that we want to put out, yeah. We’ve been writing a bunch. I don’t know if it will be a full record but I think we will try to get four more songs out before the fall.

I was going to ask you about that because I read that you had already written a lot of songs. I was wondering what the songwriting process was like and how you narrowed down the seven songs chosen for the current LP.

We want to make vinyl. And if you are going to make vinyl, you keep it to forty-two or forty-five minutes, or you make a double record and we didn’t want to make a double record. We didn’t want to just dump a ton of songs on everybody. I wanted to go through the process, get it done. A couple of those songs, I really wanted to be long, like “Dali’s House” and “Transmission.” I think they just have to be eight minute songs. I felt that was their purpose. We could have easily put them on there and faded them out, but it didn’t make any sense to me to withhold that aspect of the band just because you’re making a record. Definitely “Transmission” is fucking long, but I just started to like it more and more, the more fucked up it got, the more we put saxophones on it. Plus we got into this zone. If we’re going to do it, we might as well just do it. For me it shows the band as the band is, at a certain point in their growth. That song even is different now that we’ve played it a bunch live. Now it’s totally different.

I imagine playing it live gives you further opportunities to experiment.

Yeah, and that’s the thing.You make a decision, you say, “Well, I’m going to make a record that hints at your possibilities” or else you can take a run at it and actually show your possibilities. To me, the reality of “Transmission” is it’s eight minutes long- it has to be long. And there’s nobody telling you not to do things anymore, so we just did it. And it’s the same with “Dali’s House.” The point is to make a long-ass song. (laughs) It doesn’t make sense as a four minute song, it makes sense as a long piece. Those two were super-intentional. But if there’s going to be two, eight minute songs on your record, you’re maxed out. Suddenly you’re at forty-two minutes. And I am really into editing. Don’t kill somebody with a million songs, all at the same time.

So anyway, we’re going to record some of these other songs and put some out this year. I think it’s important for the band to keep writing. It’s really important to put out a product that engages you in the idea of finishing something. (laughs) Because God knows without any deadlines we would still be making that record. So the idea is to get it out there and start committing to the cycle: we have to make records, we have to tour and we have to be a band. That was important to get the band formalized and get everybody motivated to keep playing, because there’s so much keeping us home and keeping us from finishing. And so much stuff in our lives keeping us from going out and doing the work that needs to be done.

With family and other commitments, that must be difficult.

I am lucky that they’re committed to it. Personally, I feel lucky because I think everybody is really invested in it emotionally and there’s a lot of mutual respect for everybody’s opinion, input and creativity. And I think that will carry us a long way; it will keep us together for a while.

Were you able to try out any new songs on the recent tour or did you mostly stick to the seven from the album?

We had plans to play a few new ones, but the only one we kept bringing out was “Porcelain,” which is another long song that I sing the front of and Rich sings the back of. I am happy with that one. We had a few others things that we tried that we were going to bring out, but we just didn’t get them together. By the time you are done with the seven songs, it is kind of a workout, you know?

Among the four members exists a pretty extensive back catalog. Any thoughts about exploring old material or perhaps a cover song in concert?

We do a lot of cover songs in practice, but it’s usually Depeche Mode and stuff like that. (laughs)

I don’t think we would do a Fugazi song or anything from the back catalog because everything that we’re doing is so..um..divorced- I don’t want to say divorced from that. When you have four guys with their own tastes, and their own attitudes and their own skills and all that, you don’t want to ever bring another person into that conversation. It’s enough that you have four peoples’ input. I think it would seem really belittling if I were to say, “I think we should totally play a Fugazi song.” (laughs)

I think it would be really insulting and belittling to the other people in the band. Part of being in a band is exploring these potentialities you put before you. You have this great equation of aesthetics and you’re trying to find a road for everyone that meets their needs. Making a record is a lot of work. A ton of writing, it takes a ton of editing, a ton of mixing and a ton of performing. By the end of the day, it’s a total crapshoot what you come up with. Four million choices that take you to that one ending place, that one road. And ultimately when all of those choices turn into a few records or however many you get out there, that becomes who you are. Trying to keep the potential open and keeping our attitudes forward-thinking is really important.

If you start playing a song of yours from a million years ago, it really highlights how different you are in a way. I don’t think that’s necessarily what I want. I don’t want to be confronted with the fact I am a very different person than I used to be. (laughs) I don’t think it’s necessary. I mean, I am the same person in a lot of ways. I don’t want put myself in a place where I have to negatively react to my former self. I would worry that’s where I would end up: being bitter at my former self.

The short answer: No! (laughs) Not interested. I mean, I would be completely interested in playing those songs with Guy, Ian and Joe. Or to play all the Rites of Spring stuff with Guy, Eddie and Mike. Or to play all the Deadline stuff with Ray, Christian and Terry. Each band is extremely specific and it’s merely just the sum of those parts. In any band I’ve ever been in it’s never been the case or the feeling there’s one songwriter sitting up there. Like David Bowie playing and everybody’s cowering behind him. That’s never been the case. It’s always super democratic and communal.

If you start treating people like employees, you’re fucked. You’re never ever going to get anything out of anybody. It also makes your life more difficult. It makes you into a solo artist who everyone is mad at because you don’t communicate enough. I’ve seen it too many times and that is not the way I would want a band to function at all. You want people to come in and give everything. And the way to do that is share your royalties equally with everybody in the band and…make it a band! You’re either a band or you’re not a band. (laughs) I only really know one way to run a band and that’s like this.

There’s a short list of names that you thank in the liner notes of the album that includes Ian Mackaye. Obviously you have been friends and collaborators for many years, but I was wondering if he provided any encouragement that directly influenced the album.

I was thanking him for helping us by putting out the record more than anything. I wasn’t thanking him for contributing to the artistic side of things. He gave a couple of encouraging notes, but he didn’t really stick his nose into it too much. Guy helped a little bit with the sequencing of the record. Ian was encouraging and sometimes that makes all the difference. Somebody says, “Shit, I’ll put out your record.” He said, “I like you guys, let’s do it!” That gave us a lot of forward momentum and made us all feel legitimized in a lot of ways.

Ian is a pal, he’s a friend. A lifelong friend who I still see at least once a week and our kids are friends. That means more than any band involvement or thanking on a record. We come from a very similar place and background and I’ve known that guy since I was thirteen years old. So it can’t be overstated that he’s had a profound effect on my life in many ways. I’m really happy to be working with him again on this record.

You have tackled a wide range of responsibilities in the music world, including artist, record producer, filmmaker, writer, etc. At this point in your career, what factors determine whether Deathfix is a successful venture or not?

I really try to keep it under the same guidelines that we considered Fugazi a success. We said if we get up and can play one show at a time, that fulfills our function. Keeping our sights really low and just doing our thing. In some ways it’s complete folly to try and get out and play music again. I could judge Deathfix and Fugazi for the rest of my life and probably find something to complain about. The crowds will never be as big as Fugazi. And we will never sell as many records. Nobody would these days. It’s a different time, it’s a different band-everything’s different. I could spend all my time whining and moaning about why it’s different or how it’s different but it doesn’t change the fact that I want to play music. The only way I can play music is by getting a band together and going out and playing live. And the only way I can get a band together and play live is to write some songs and get into it. I have to accept it on a very basic level that I can either stop doing the thing that I’ve done my entire life or I can continue doing the thing I’ve done my entire life, that thing that brings me the most joy. And I’ve decided to not just sit back and hope that my legacy takes care of itself and hope I feel fulfilled by my legacy. I don’t get enough gratification off of that to supplement the feeling that I need to be out there playing. That’s the main thing: It’s a shitty tradeoff to say, “If I don’t do anything it’s better than doing something.” I just don’t see that. My impetus is to get out and just do it. Whether people like it or care about it, that’s a different story. I would like people to like it, but I can guarantee that there’s plenty of people who aren’t going to like it. I know there are some people that do like it. We played a few times in D.C, now we’re having pretty good size crowds and there’s people who dig it. It takes a while to get people’s attention. It’s like building any relationship.

You have to cultivate it.

You have to cultivate it, yeah. It’s not like you go and plug into a crowd. I would love to be able to say, “Hey Fugazi fans, everyone come over here now. There’s a new band you’re just going to love!” But that’s not how cultivating an audience works. It’s so much more intricate than that. It’s made up of experiences, individuals and moments. It’s super-tangential in a lot of ways. I think if I was trying to do that, I might be able to capture the Fugazi audience somehow. But there’s no guarantees that every single Fugazi fan would like Deathfix. There’s just too many variables. It seems like I would be setting myself up for a life of frustration. We’ll get out there and play some shows and sees who ends up coming, basically.

You’re playing Coachella in April and as you stated earlier will be recording this summer and fall. What plans does Deathfix have for the rest of the year?

I think we are going to be in California for a couple of weeks, beginning with May 28th. And I think we are going to be doing some one-off shows in the summer. Then in the fall, we’re going to Europe for a few weeks. It’s not a ton of touring, but all told, it will be a few months of touring by the end of the year. We’re trying to make it all happen, support the record as much as we can and get out there and figure out what kind of band this is. Every night, we’re trying to figure out how to communicate. The shows have definitely gotten better. (Pauses) I don’t know about better, but we’ve really gotten into some awesome zones playing the past few weeks. The last bunch of shows in the Northwest, we were really picking up steam. I am feeling better and better about the whole live thing every day.

I caught your show in Chicago, which was very early in the tour and I thought you sounded excellent then. You also seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Thanks. Yes, we are having a lot of fun. Thank you. But we’re better now. (laughs) Guaranteed. We’re figuring some shit out, definitely.

Trixie, the film production company you started with Christoph Green, has overseen many acclaimed projects, including Wilco’s Ashes of American Flags and the Burn to Shine series. Unfortunately you haven’t been able to release the last couple of BTS episodes due to Touch & Go having to downsize operations. Will it ever see the light of day?

Yes, I am planning on getting the rest of it out there, sometime this year. I just have to figure out exactly how to do it. I think it will be web only releases, as it’s hard to sell DVDs these days. I think the idea is to attach the remaining two to some local charity, make a portal and put it out that way. I would like them to be made available to the public and I will work towards that as soon as I possibly can.

Does Trixie have any other projects in the works?

Trixie is making a documentary called The Liberation. It’s about a program in D.C. that trains the homeless, ex-felons and ex-drug addicts how to become chefs. We went in there last year and shot for three months straight. Every day, we shot a class. We are almost done with the rough cut. We should be trying to finish it up by this summer as well as submitting it to festivals and things like that. That’s what we’re shooting for.

Sounds like you have no shortage of goals you are aiming for this year.

I’m fucked. (laughs) Totally busy. Gotta stay healthy. Keep juicing.

Surprisingly there have been few collaborations with your brothers. Might this change in the future?

(Laughs) That is a good question, man. I think it’s so funny that we have never done that. I mean, we have played. We play together all the time, we see each other in the summer. We go out to Montana together, hang out and play music. Kevin, my oldest brother, is a writer and he and I have talked many, many, many times about getting a screenplay to shoot a narrative short. I would really love that to happen so we need to pull that off at some point. James and I, I have no idea why we haven’t ever been in a band together because he would be great to play with. I don’t know what the deal is with that. And then I have a sister, Siobhan, who is probably the best musician in the family. She’s an amazing singer, she was an opera singer and she writes songs. She’s another person who I play with, but we haven’t done anything seriously together. It would be really great to do something with her. My brother Dennis plays as well, but again, we keep it to playing guitar on the dock in Montana. (laughs) And weddings. Anytime a friend of ours gets married we get together and make a big wedding band and blow it out. That’s always a blast. We also do a Halloween band- it’s called Blood, Bath & Beyond. And a Christmas band called Flock of Reindeers. We do cover bands, joke shit for our friend’s parties. So we play, we just don’t play seriously. We don’t write together.

Maybe someday?

That would be awesome. Someday, I’m sure. We won’t be alive forever.