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Escape Velocity

Function Is The Key: An Interview With The Messthetics
Brian Coney , April 17th, 2018 06:30

Brendan Canty talks to Brian Coney about breaking new ground with fellow Fugazi member Joe Lally alongside Anthony Pirog in The Messthetics, as well as the future of Fugazi

Band portraits by Antonia Tricarico

It’s 9.30am and Brendan Canty has just returned home from walking his dog in Washington D.C. In a few hours, The Messthetics - his new band alongside former Fugazi bassist Joe Lally and guitarist Anthony Pirog - will meet at Canty's studio attic to practice ahead of a two-month U.S. tour.

It was at this “very large, unimproved” space overlooking a busy street in downtown D.C. where The Messthetics recorded their self-titled debut album last year. Blurring the lines between breakneck power trio instrumentalism, jazz and stripped-back, pastoral reprieve, it doubles up as a feature-length confirmation that, above all else, Brendan Canty and Joe Lally aren’t interested in emulating past glories.

Having played together as Fugazi’s world-beating rhythm section from their inception in 1987 until their indefinite hiatus in November 2002, The Messthetics is the first time Canty and Lally have been bandmates in 15 years. But it’s D.C. guitarist Anthony Pirog, whose shapeshifting wizardry takes centre-stage on The Messthetics, who ensures they avoid familiar territory. “I’m drawn to jazzos,” says 52-year-old Canty. “But also musicians who play with tones, noise and has a lot to say musically. I started to see Anthony around and hit on all of these different points that I love. He’d be playing a thirty-minute noise piece, and then be in a Danny Gatton tribute band, and then he’d be playing just with cello with his wife, Janel Leppin. I thought, “This guy is doing all sorts of really interesting things.” I went to see Janel and Anthony play and was totally blown away. I was gushing all over him, basically.”

It was when Canty was wrapping up the final instalment of his rock-documentary series with Christoph Green, Burn To Shine, that he found a way to creatively connect with Pirog. “We finally finished the film but there was a scene with the destruction of a house at the very end,” he says. “I didn’t have any music for it, so I was really just bullshitting my way to try and get Anthony in a room with me. I was like, 'Why don’t you and Janel come and help me do the music for it?' And we got together. I’m so from the punk rock vein where I seriously consider them to be quote unquote real musicians, so I just really wanted to work with them one way or another.”

Considering their towering work ethic in Fugazi, it’s no surprise to learn that Canty and Lally have kept busy since their old band pulled the brakes. As well as raising families, Lally released three genre-warping solo albums and lived in Rome until 2015, while Canty focused on composing, producing and filmmaking. When Pirog came into the frame in 2016, it made a lot of sense to break fresh ground. “I hadn’t been playing very much drums,” says Canty. “Right about the same time, Joe had moved back to the States. He had a bunch of songs that he had written over in Italy that had a couple of different very jazzo guitarists on it. So I said, “Let’s bring in Anthony and play on your stuff.” The thing that happened almost immediately was Anthony bringing in ideas and laying something on us that was really very different, and jagged, and fucked up and wonderful. So, immediately we decided to do that and it all clicked really well.”

Having played their first show in a small club in May last year (“It never really felt like it was properly formed until we played that show,” Canty tells me) it soon became clear that The Messthetics were much more than a nostalgia-stoking proposition. “We didn’t really know what we had in terms of it being, like, a proper band,” continues the drummer. “I’m still a little bit shocked that nobody brings up the fact that we don’t have a singer. In that way, it’s always felt that something like we’re cheating the system a little bit, you know? But because it’s 'just' music, we end up having a much easier go at it, finishing songs and coming up with ideas. Completely working in musical form is a very different way to writing songs where you try to fit in a vocal or a standard song structure.”

While minimalist vignettes such as ‘Radiation Fog’ and ‘Your Own World’ are more reminiscent of Pirog’s more contemplative solo work, it’s on loose, often quite complex instrumental tracks such as album opener ‘Serpent Tongue’ where the sheer love of the craft shines through on The Messthetics' debut. Live, this manifests itself via one of the band’s collective strengths: intuition. “We gear the whole set towards the improvisational segments,” Canty reveals. “Every song structure is set up like a jazz song. More with like a header, and then plenty of room to fuck about in. The process is we’re spending a lot of time throwing ourselves into these live situations and trying to figure out how to hear each other, how to play with each other and how to play off each other. Kind of like Hendrix and Mitchell, or Fripp and Bruford, or whatever. Those are high watermarks but the idea of the communication between the band members, once you get up there: that to me is absolutely the point of the whole project.”

Despite having spent 15 years lodged in each other’s pockets in Fugazi, establishing themselves as the most potent rhythm section in modern punk rock, Canty and Lally are nowadays happily kept on their toes in The Messthetics. “There’s a definite challenge to everything that we’re doing, because Anthony is a real whizz,” says Canty. “He’s an amazing player. Everything gets set to be just that much ahead of our skill level, and that much ahead tempo-wise, so it really is throwing us into a more frenetic zone, which is great. It’s super fun. To me, the joy of it is remembering - finding out that we still have the muscle memory of playing, and that the same high octane level that Fugazi played at is still there.”

“Fugazi has gotten together here and there just to play,” Canty continues. “We’re all still really close to each other, so we do get together every once in a while to play music, and I do play music all of the time, but it’s always been in a practice situation with Joe - just dicking around. To actually get up on stage with somebody that you last played with 15 years beforehand was phenomenal. We’re still pals, but we hadn’t actually got up and done the live work and stood in front of people. It was a revelation in practice to be able to play with him on some of the stuff, but to play live with him has been unreal in the most real terms. You forget - it’s like finding an old friend from your childhood who holds a bunch of your memories. He is somebody who I relied on, night after night after night. He is, to me, the best bass player in the world. He’s just so solid and he allows me to fuck around and be my annoying self. It’s been an absolute dream come true to be able to play with him again and I think he’s pretty amped-up, too. ”

With The Messthetics, the past and the future are overlaid in a way where the past is entertained but never worshipped, and the future plays second fiddle only to the present moment. But make no bones about it: that Fugazi are getting together in a room to play music is a wonderful thing. That they have no pressing urge to take it further right now is - in straight-up Dischordian style - more a practicality than anything else. As MacKaye bellowed on 'Waiting Room', the eminent opening track on Fugazi's 1988 self-titled debut EP: function is the key. One can’t help but wonder, though: have modern-day Fugazi recorded new material in Canty’s attic? “It’s hard to tell,” the drummer hesitates, with a laugh. “I mean, it’s at my space - so things get recorded, but it’s hard to tell how seriously to take anything. You just don’t know. Nothing is set in stone, ever, really.”

As they have publicly conceded over the years, a Fugazi reunion, one day, isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. But doing it right - just like doing it yourself - remains the mantra. “The clarity is that we’re still very close,” says Canty. “I was up in New York at Guy’s (Picciotto) house all week, and he was down here last night because he was town and our daughters are very close. Ian (MacKaye) lives about a mile from me, and his kid and my kid are friends. He was over here yesterday, actually. I see Joe all the time, of course, and Joe is playing with Ian a bit. So, there’s just tonnes of cross-pollination. I think the main thing is that Ian and Guy have kids that are relatively young - my kids are older. So they’re sort of in the throes of that. So, it’s a bit of a non-starter either way. They’re not really interested in being full-time musicians or in a band full-time, especially Fugazi, which would take up all of our time.”

“If we decide to do it we will do it full-time,” concludes Canty. “We’re all still very close and very active players, and we do like each other’s company quite a bit - especially when it’s the four of us together. It’s funny - when the band stops playing you think, “That it”. But that’s not it, ever. The story of our lives continues and it turns out you refer to it constantly for the rest of your life. There is no outrunning it.”

The Messthetics is out via Dischord Records now