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A Quietus Interview

New Transmissions: Brendan Canty Of Deathfix & Fugazi Interviewed
Glen Mcleod , March 5th, 2013 08:10

With new band Deathfix, former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty blasts off into glam-pop territory. He speaks to Glen Mcleod about teaming up with Richard Morel for this new project, filmmaking in knackered buildings and the near-psychic bonds that fueled Fugazi's incendiary live shows

Witnessing Fugazi live was akin to being on the high seas. Up at the front of the ship were Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, careering back and forth as if being swayed by the roll of the ocean - limbs flailing, buzzsaw guitar lines spraying chaotically into a foamy mist. Joe Lally would be stoically stood near the back of the stage, like a captain observing from the mast of the ship with his bass hoisted high. Brendan Canty on drums was the anchor; his always inventive clamour would keep the vessel grounded whenever it seemed close to drifting too far away from the shore. He came to using a ship's bell as a standard part of his drum kit, a signalling toll of a truly individual sound, clearing its way through a fog of mediocrity.

Fugazi were famous not only for their exploratory brand of post-hardcore which filtered through aspects of dub, funk, reggae and a myriad of other sounds to create something distinctly their own, but also for their DIY approach to the music business. They released their own records, booked their own shows - making sure they were always all ages - and made sure that both were kept at low prices so that all of their fans had access to them. But this, coupled with their strong political viewpoints, gave the impression that they were overly serious. There is a scene in Instrument, Jem Cohen's film about Fugazi, where the band discuss being labelled "a bunch of monks who all live in a house together, sitting around eating rice with no heat". The group had such a strong internal belief system ingrained into everything they did, a set of self-imposed rules which - while allowing them to function for such a long period without compromising their values - could at times overshadow how joyful the music really was.

In 2003, after seventeen years in action, the band entered what they labelled an 'indefinite hiatus', citing a need to spend more time with their families and pursue other professional projects. After just a short time on the phone to Brendan Canty, it's clear that he has spent the last ten years doing just that and then some. He started up his own film production company directing both musical and social/political documentaries, he composes soundtrack music for both TV and film, and continues playing live and recording with artists such as Bob Mould. Amongst all of that he has managed to raise four children, and has just released a self-titled debut album with his latest project, Deathfix.

Forming a prog/glam rock band with Richard Morel - who is most famous as a dance music producer, remixing the likes of Mariah Carey and The Pet Shop Boys - is, on paper, probably as far away from his previous work as he is ever going to get. Joining Canty and Morel are multi-instrumentalists Devin Ocampo and Mark Cisneros, and together they summon up a sound that wheels between 70s glam, psych-rock and straight-up pop. The joy so present in Fugazi's music, but so often overlooked, is also here in abundance, and Canty seems to be relishing in the sense of new found freedom that this project has afforded him. The Quietus caught up with him to discuss his journey from monk to glam via the back seat of a Cadillac.

Firstly, could you tell us a little about the documentary, The Liberation, that you have been working on?

Brendan Canty: I am really proud of that one. It explores Washington DC and what it is like from both sides of the class divide. It shows a side of DC that I think people don't know that much about. It follows a group of ex-felons, some who have come out of prison after 23 years, some former crack mums or crack kids who are going through this amazing program to train them to be chefs. A lot of it is life skill stuff - the documentary follows the lives of these people, and also the people who are trying to help them. My film partner Christoph Green and I shot The Liberation for 3 months last year, and we have been editing it since. We are just trying to raise funds for the final production costs to complete the film.

The Liberation trailer

You were also working on the Burn To Shine series a few years back, where you filmed local bands playing in a house about to be demolished. Was the concept a way to highlight the immediacy of live music and about appreciating a specific moment?

BC: It was both - it works because you are right next to a band and they are playing, and it sort of shows the levity of live music. It was also a way to capture a scene of people who exist at a certain time, knowing how tangential bands are. I started that project at a time in my life when Fugazi wasn't playing and people were just throwing bands together, and it felt good, but it also felt like it wasn't going to last, which happens. I mean, before Fugazi I was in five bands, and some of them lasted six months. Part of the impetus for getting Fugazi together was that it was four guys who wanted to get into the band and work as hard as they could, but most bands' primary function isn't to work as hard as they can for 15 years.

So this was just a way to document it all - we would talk to somebody in a particular town and ask 'Who's turning you on right now, and can you get them in a room for an hour?' and that was really all it took. We would just do it all in one day - get a band in every hour to play a song and then we would demolish the house and make this little time capsule that we would send out into space that had these performances in a place that doesn't exist anymore. Part of the reason we stopped was that some of the bands, like Wilco and The Decemberists, hired us to do films. That took us down a road for a while, and then by the time we looked up and thought about doing another one, we didn't have a distributor and there was suddenly all sorts of programming on the internet of a band playing in a weird space that didn't exist when we started. So I didn't find the same urgency. [Watch a clip of Shellac playing for Burn To Shine here.]

It was nice that you left behind a time capsule of a time and a place, so leave it at that?

BC: Right. And I always thought that it was going to mean more in twenty years than it did at the time, and I think that is true.

You have been really busy in both film and music over the last few years – do you find it easy to move between the two forms?

BC: Well, it works as long as you decide you are going to work all day and all night, which is basically what I have been doing. I've been trying to somewhat fashion a world for myself where I can basically do whatever I want to. I really love making films - I love shooting and being out there amongst people and getting to know your subjects - but at the same time I dislike sitting in front of the computer for days and days, making it all make sense.

Is it the same as recording an album as opposed to playing live?

BC: Yes and no. The movie making is a lot more solitary than being in a band. I also do a lot of music for television and films, and that tends to have a similar solitary reality to it. Being in a band and finding people that you like to collaborate with sort of carries you through that, and the whole thing is about creating something together. Deathfix is a highly collaborative band that I started with Rich Morel, and it basically wouldn't exist as a solo record. It really only exists because Rich and I get along so well.

The two of you were playing in Bob Mould's band together - is that how you met?

BC: Well I think we had met before that, but we really got to know each other by riding around in the back of a Cadillac touring with Bob Mould. It was not your typical Fugazi tour! We would sit around in the back, and it was just the two of us for a few months at least. We toured on and off for a year and a half and we recorded together, and so we got to know each other really well and we got to know each other's tastes, which were reasonably similar but not entirely so. Mostly we just got along and we decided when we got back that we would meet up and see what happened. I have a big warehouse full of musical equipment and everything is set up to record because I do a lot of my soundtrack stuff live. He would just come over and we would be jamming and throwing ideas at each other, and I guess it's just one of those things where we immediately felt like we were prolific, which is a really good sign.

Deathfix - 'Better Than Bad'

It seems like the two of you come from pretty different musical backgrounds - is that something that helped you have different ways of approaching making music together?

BC: It's not so much that we came from different musical backgrounds - I think we ended up in different musical places. He ended up making a career out of dance music and writing with people like Cyndi Lauper, and it's not hard to see why. He doesn't just mess with your stuff just to piss on it - he really gets in there and is very constructive. Fugazi was also a very highly collaborative thing and whether you can hear it or not, a lot of those songs deep down were pretty musical. I grew up in a very musical house and I play piano and have always appreciated the more fucked up aspects of contemporary classical music, and so does Rich. He has met John Cage and had all of these great experiences in his life, so we both come from a place of being into music beyond the rock world.

You were saying the Fugazi sound was very musical but it was almost a honed minimalism, where the Deathfix sound is more expansive. Was it a case of wanting to do something totally different to what you had done before?

BC: Yes, I think I am taking my foot off the brake a little bit. It's like I can scratch this big rock, pop, overblown orchestration itch. These are things I gravitate to pretty quickly and honestly. I mean, sometimes I don't have the best taste, and there is a part of me that thinks I probably shouldn't do it, but I really want to do it, so I am going to do it.

The Deathfix press release states that you and Richard shared a love of prog and glam from 1972. That's a pretty specific year to pick out - were there particular bands in mind or just a general feeling you were trying to aim for?

BC: There is definitely a love of Bowie, early King Crimson and T. Rex - that kind of vibe. If we were really to take the dog for a walk, buried deep in this band is a love of mathy prog, but we are actually trying to write songs.

Felt Letters - '600,000 Bands'

There is one song on the Deathfix album, 'Dali's House', which reminded me of something you did with Ian Svenonius a few years back - the Felt Letters single '600,000 Bands'.

BC: Wow. I am impressed that you know it.

That song is great! It wasn't the kind of sound I was used hearing from you, and 'Dali's House' is in the same vein - it was almost like a progression of that sound.

BC: Yeah it is a little bit. That is such a great song. Both of those lyrics are not written by me - Ian wrote that and Rich wrote 'Dali's House', but I agree with you they have a very similar vibe - totally absurd.

Just a lot of fun, I guess.

BC: Yes, exactly, and it is super liberating that we are allowing ourselves to do that. And it is just weird enough that it doesn't feel like total bullshit. With 'Dali's House' we already had the music, this cool groove that sounded like a shuffly dance track, and Rich was like 'I've got this crazy idea - I want to be so and so's house' ["I wish I was James Murphy's house – because you can steal ideas and Daft Punk is always playing there"], and we thought - who can we namecheck to keep the ball in the air the whole time? I am excited by that song. We have a couple of people who are doing remixes for that too.

I only saw Fugazi live once, but seeing you guys, you could sense you had this almost telepathic bond in terms of being able to look at each other and know what to play next. Is it hard to recreate that when you play with different people?

BC: Fugazi played over a thousand shows and that method of just getting up there and whipping through it - that level of trust was really something. It certainly wasn't there the first bunch of shows, it takes a lot of touring. You can practice all you want but you learn more in two days of touring then you do in a month of practices.

I don't know if you and the Fugazi guys ever get together for a jam, but do you think it still would be as intuitive as it was?

BC: Yes and no. Everybody is doing different things and it is tough getting yourself and the band in shape enough to play all the interstitial bits and to be able to shout out a song at somebody and have them start it within a second. With Fugazi it normally went back and forth between Ian and Guy vocal-wise. As soon as Ian started singing I would look over at Guy and he would tell me what we were going to play next. He would shout out to me 'Sieve-Fisted Find', and I would say ok, then I would tell Joe - and then whenever Ian got a break in the song he would come back and I would tell Ian. Guy would start SFF and Ian would then shout back to me what we were going to play next. So whatever they felt like singing they would play - but also everybody got the memo on it before we got to that point. To get to that level you have to have a bunch of songs and it just takes time. Luckily I do get to communicate with Guy and Ian and Joe and Jerry all the time. But Guy lives in New York now, and Joe lives in Rome. I went over to see Joe about a year ago and had a great time, and he stops in whenever he is on tour, but we don't get to hang the way we used to. We send each other a lot of emails with a lot of YouTube clips.

Fugazi - 'Sieve-Fisted Find'

Did you have any involvement in the Fugazi Live Series? [The band are currently in the process of mastering and uploading over 800 live recordings from throughout their career.]

BC: Early on I did a little bit of the mastering, but there is a lot of material!

It must have been a big undertaking.

BC: I just couldn't carve it into my life in that way. I have a lot of work to do and I have four kids. But I enjoyed listening to them. There are so many, so it is really helpful when people recommend one to me. Ian, Jerry or Guy will send me a clip sometimes if they hear something - 'you got to check out this version of this' - and it's great to hear the band when we were so on.

I guess you probably didn't take it in at the time, but looking back now…

BC: Oh my God, no - the whole perspective on the band has changed 180 degrees. I never felt that we were successful. We were always halfway up the hill, working our balls off every day to make a record or to play. It was just a lot of work - it was 15 years and I loved it - but I think it is something that happens to artists, where you are never really allowed to feel like you are successful, otherwise you are really going to fuck up.

Over the last few years so many bands that stopped at their peak have reformed and played together again, and appreciated a new kind of success and had new people listening to their music. It does seem that when you stop, people take stock of what you have done and appreciate it more.

BC: I think that people like to know how a story ends, and that is important to people not just in relation to music. You can't really tell a story without capping it at some point, and it is always nice if there was a happy ending and not some wretched suicide note, which has happened plenty. But if you can actually say: well, we did this, and we have decided to do something else, and it's totally amicable and everything is fine. I think people like that story. You just want to do other things, and there are a lot of films and babies to make.

Well you certainly haven't sat still for very long.

BC: No, I try not to. Having four kids, I will do anything - I'll wash your fucking car!