The band as instrument
Widely regarded as one of the best rock drummers of all time, Brendan Canty's percussive capers are only one chapter of his musical tale. Best known as a founding member of Fugazi and Rites of Spring, Canty's talents reach far and wide and he's also been producing records, making films and composing film and television scores since the 80s. Partnering up with Christoph Green of Tangerine Studios, Canty's company Trixie make music clips, concert films and shorts for bands and over the years has worked with The Black Keys, Wilco, Pearl Jam and many others. In more recent times though, Canty can be found tinkering with producer and DJ Rich Morel, making music as Deathfix with Jerry Busher and Mark Cisneros.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
My father was an amazing piano player, so I heard him playing all around the house. He would shout at me, "practice your tenths!" as his giant hands pounded away at the keyboard. All my older brothers and sisters (there were 5, and one younger) had seen everyone: Hendrix, the Doors, every blues guy imaginable, the MC5. they had all this key knowledge and a real passion for music and parting the good stuff from the bullshit. They really pushed me towards some unbelievable stuff. Even stuff like Miles at the Fillmore, which is an insane record, I was ingesting at a very early age. I feel so fucking lucky to have grown up in the family I did. Great, brilliant people and utter music snobs! Loved it.
So all those classic records were an influence and I gravitated toward fucked-up out-there jazz and noise. The more arty the better. Even in punk rock I was dead into Wire, but not Pink Flag, more like Document and Eyewitness. The weirder the better. I just hunted for things, records, weird sounds that ended up on vinyl. There were plenty. I worked in an amazing record shop and just ate it up. We had a boss there named Skip Groff, at Yesterday and Today records, he had been a DJ and his knowledge was as deep as it was ridiculous; he knew every damn b-side of every damn record in the world. I would just ask him over and over about all the records. Ted Nicely worked at that shop too, and taught me about people like Scott Walker and older, kind of obscure, hip records. I could go on and on. I guess PiL and Stravinsky were important. Flipper too. They taught me to never shy away from truly discordant music; that became really important to me. Just because it's loud doesn't make it interesting. It has to be loud AND Interesting. I get the sense I will be answering the rest of this paragraph in just a second with these next questions so I'll pause now.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Hanging out in Georgetown when I was 14 with Brian Baker, getting out of the neighbourhood and into a community of punks.
Making a full 90 minute tape filled with crazy songs by Guy Picciotto when we first met at 16, he became a lifelong artistic brother. Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky and Fugazi. All with him. He's a genius.
Meeting Ian Mackaye and him saying he'd put our songs on the Flex your Head compilation 1981. He made a commitment to keeping records in print and supporting and documenting our music.
Finally getting in a band with Guy and Ian and Joe, and hitting the road for 15 years. They were so patient with me and I with them and I will probably never be so lucky again.
Trying to get up and sing and play guitar in a band after all these years. It is an eye-opening experience. So hard, so rewarding, a complete mind-fuck.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Getting time with my bass player, Mark Cisneros, who is playing also with Kid Congo's band, The Pink Monkey Birds. He's brilliant and super fun to write with but he's a busy man, so we kind of have to sit on our hands for a while until he gets home. I understand where he's coming from though. Deathfix is not a profitable machine and he needs to make some bread, and Kid is amazing. So, he has to work and work at what he loves. It's just hard to fit music around the periphery of your life. It's a horrible modern malady. People just laugh at you when you say you want to make a living playing music now. They say you have to play weddings, and steal the cake.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
You know, a lot of times I start with a drum idea. I just go into my studio and lay down a beat that I haven't used before. Or sometimes I start with a drone, drones really help. I can see the relationships between the intervals in my head and that relationship really makes me intoxicated. I write something, then something on top of that and another, then I throw the first thing away.
I say, "oh this is interesting because I'm writing in C sharp minor", which I rarely do and that will turn me on. You just look for things that lead to something else. If it doesn't lead you elsewhere it's a dead end.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I am no Nels Cline. That man is composing while he is improvising. Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, those guys really did that. I'm not of their calibre.
I love writing. I love sound. I can get good sounds and I can play piano and guitar pretty well, so things come out and relate to each other. But I need time to come up with something I'm happy with. It takes a minute. I play in the studio by myself a lot though. I'm alone a lot when I'm creating.
These days Rich Morel and I get together quite a bit and we hash out Deathfix ideas and that's really fun. But it ends up being each of us bringing in ideas that we had on our own and then acting like each other's producers.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
I think at a certain point you are sort of seeing space in songs where you can fit in. At first everyone just throws their full force behind being heard above their band mates, or all playing the same thing, a la Ramones. But eventually you sort of start treating a band like its own instrument and composing for it as a whole. That's sort of where it's at. I felt like Fugazi did that well. I feel like Deathfix does that well too.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
I don't know if it's important for people to deduct the processes of writing music. I think in classical music it really takes learning a piece of music to understand what a composer was thinking as he was writing it. It's sort of like a crossword puzzle, things interlock and you can really see patterns of thought in the composition. But with rock music and computer-based recording all those ideas come and go in waveforms and so you have to open up a Pro Tools session and then you can discern what people are going through in terms of processes to get where they end up. I don't know if it's that interesting apart from the occasional Queen vocal track that ends up online.
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
I'm having a hard time dealing with your word "Culture" without breaking it down along race lines and I'm not sure that's appropriate. I also think maybe you are looking for something resembling a ethnomusicology study where I'm not sure I have one to offer. I appreciate you making me think about this, but I'm coming up at a dead end because I can't see how the music we make, or I make in other bands, relate to cultural differences. It's not really the main point when you are making music. You make music that you like, that you hope sounds different to what others are doing and you put it out there and hope people get inspired in some way. I guess I do steal from other people in other cultures pretty willingly. I guess I appropriate even from mainstream culture, which I guess is about as different as it gets for me. Maybe that's what you're getting at.