Monday, July 1, 2019

'The main thing, try to be honest with yourself': Brendan Canty discusses drumming and life / Interview

Brendan Canty with The Messthetics in Seattle. (Cat Rose photo)

By Andy

A seemingly endless arsenal of drumming components.

Brendan Canty's got his familiar Fugazi farmer's bell to go along with regular sticks, brushes, mallets and sleigh bells.

And there's his intense glare at his kit that turns into a beaming smile. At points, he'll unleash a yell to emphasize a crucial part of a song. He's as entertaining a drummer you'll ever find, and you'd be missing out on the full experience if you didn't exit the gig with a greater appreciation for drumming. Enlightenment supreme.

I sat down with Canty for a chat prior to his gig with the instrumental Messthetics -- a jazz-rock amalgamation also featuring Joe Lally on bass and Anthony Pirog on guitar -- on June 23 at the Vera Project in Seattle.

*** You've played with everyone from from Ian (MacKaye) to Bob Mould to (Wayne) Kramer, Joe Lally, different people, Anthony now as well. What are some of the major takeaways you've come out of this with, what are some of the most important kind of things you've learned from playing with all these different people? 'Cause they all bring something different to the table.

The spirit of collaboration is what it's all about. Not just the spirit but the practice of collaboration is a huge aspect of what I'm always looking for. It's funny because when, with Ian, I had a very long relationship with him and that was like a proper band where we were actually writing songs together, as is this band where you actually go through the process of establishing what you're gonna be playing, every night for the next however many years, and that's a really distinctive criteria. So being there has the inception of those songs, (and) means you have to make some really tough choices about what you're going to be able to withstand night after night after night. You can feel it. If you start writing a song and you're just going to get sick of it in five minutes, you know... so it's important that you spend the time to write a song that you are eventually going to be attached to and want to deliver with passion to people and give a shit about every night.

Playing in somebody else's band like Wayne Kramer or Bob Mould is really different. So those are things I come with as a fan. So that's a totally different process. I just plug myself into it. I pretend like I'm in the audience and I just do the thing.

*** You're a fan on stage from behind, playing these great songs that you grew up with.

I enjoy it immensely and especially those two guys. And Wayne Kramer specifically, because I really, honestly, grew. I mean, he was one of the first things that I found on my own. Maybe I got to him through the Damned or something, and I was like, "Oh."

*** When they covered "Looking At You."

But then I really got into them. Initially, I was like, "That was my band," and I collected everything. I read John Sinclair's book and I was like, "This is it." And just listening to that live record and knowing that it was like, the whole world was: your job, and then night is to blow up the room -- fucking make it happen. So to me, that was the main goal and that all came from Wayne Kramer. Or MC5 in general, everybody in that band. Dennis (Thompson) is a huge influence, so that band to me was everything. And then you mix it with...

*** All those guys that you were playing with.

Coming to it from different angles. But one thing I will say of playing with Fugazi and when I finally figured out how to play drums relatively acceptably, I was like, I love playing with musicians who are really good.

When Bob Mould and I first sat down to play, we went in the studio and we must have played for six hours straight. I mean, it was just, "I'm like, holy shit." Everybody knows Bob Mould can play guitar, but you don't know that he can rip it and jam like Hendrix for six hours at a time, and he's hearing you and you're hearing him and he's a big jazz head. You know all these things are coming up and I knew as soon as we did that first jamming period that we were gonna be able to do something together. So yeah. I kind of wish we were able to write more with each other at some point.

*** I just find it interesting kind of your trajectory going. You've been with a lot of the top dogs, so to speak, and you've got to glean some of that knowledge and everything from those guys along the way.

Yeah, well most of it is just about communicating, right? If you're in a moment, if there's non-verbal musical communication, and so Wayne is great at it, Bob Mould's great at it. And Anthony is fucking great at it, so is Joe. So being able to do stuff on the fly, very fluidly. In Messthetics, we've been able to come up with things very quickly (snaps his fingers) and that's a real key -- not just the writing, but you can improvise together. Everybody's excited about it equally, everybody (has) a different but equal job to do in that band. And that makes it really balanced and lovely. So yeah, it's been nice. I really cherish this group for that reason.

*** From Deadline to Rites of Spring and all the way through, what's kind of got you from there to here. You know, in your drumming life and in your life in general? It's been a journey I would imagine. 

The last 15 years has been piecing together a bunch of different things. I was playing with Bob and I was doing a lot of soundtrack stuff, then I put together a band called Deathfix, which I was singing and playing guitar. You know, in Fugazi and Rites of Spring and in this band, I write stuff. It's not easy to always make somebody play your part. I just don't like singing. I like writing the songs, I like writing the guitar parts and the bass parts. I like everything about it except I don't like being a front man, you know?, and singing in front of people, it's really fucking hard. So that's something that I learned along the way, and so when this band happened, I was like, there was no need for vocals, I was pleased as punch.

Throughout the years, mostly it's just been about a series of daily collaborations with people, whether it be musical or film or whatever it is. For me, the excitement is getting the fuck out of the house and off the computer and meeting with people and having a real experience outside in the world.

Cat Rose photo

*** What's been your proudest moment? You've had quite a lot on the table. 

My kids and my family are my proudest moments. They're amazing. And the fact that I'm still married after being with the same woman for 30 years and have four kids, two of which are grown and two of which are still in school. They are amazing kids and we have a very healthy family group chat going on that we talk to each other 20 times a day when I'm on the road.

*** That begs the question, what do they think about about you and your musical journey and your producing and your writing and everything?

They dig it. They took a while to contextualize it and understand it, but they like it. They're all musicians. My oldest is a filmmaker and a musician. The second one is in school still up in Manhattan. He plays. He writes music. The oldest one's in a band called Young June. Second one is a band called Humor that's mostly electronic stuff, it's like textural, but you'd love it. The third one's a cook at home. That's his passion. And then the fourth one is a 12-year-old girl, and she's totally brilliant in her singing and performing and her songwriting. They all do it. They dig it. I don't think anybody likes the fact that I'm gone as much as I am these days. And that sort of started up when Messthetics and MC5 started playing. All of a sudden it was like, "Oh shit like I'm gone a lot."

*** Feeding off that through all your experiences, what's some good words of advice that you have for them in their musical lives that you've learned over the years. 

I just try to give an example that they see what I do makes me really happy. And then they should try to do something that makes them happy. And if they do something, it makes me happy -- it's not work. The main thing, try to be honest with yourself. Don't lie to yourself.

*** If you had a choice of any drummer, who would you want to have a dinner with and kind of pick their brain about stuff? 

That's a good one. I think (the one) that would be of all time is not alive. Nobody is alive anymore. It might be Elvin Jones. It might be Tony Williams. He's kind of my guy. So if I could, if he would really answer any question that I posited to him, then I would say Tony Williams. I doubt people can answer the questions I wanna know (laughs).

*** What was it about him that go you going?

His relationship with space, with silence. Part of it was that band with Miles (Davis) with him and Herbie Hancock. Wayne Shorter. That  band is really particularly special for me, exhibited on like "Miles Smiles," "ESP" and those records. Those were the first time I really tried to understand what the band should be. Which is like a dialogue, you know? Tony's my main, lifelong inspiration.

Album cover. Courtesy of Dischord Records

*** What's been your biggest challenge throughout the years, whether it was something that maybe happened with the band, maybe a song that you weren't really sure what you were going to do with it that you kind of turned into a positive?

Interesting. That's a good question. Persistence is part of it. Maintaining and getting through bad shows is really hard. After a bad show, it's like debilitating. And then I'm sure you'll see me after the show miserable. No no I don't (laughs). There are some nights where you're just like, "Man, that's just not happening. I'm not feeling it." You're trying to sell something to somebody and they're not buying it. And then the whole thing didn't sound good, or whatever it is.

*** What do you do to get through that? What's the key to not let that linger?

When you're in the middle of it, you're just trying to turn it around every single second you're on stage. And if it's not working for yourself... physically what I do is find a relationship with my body and my drums -- that changes every day. Sometimes you just show up and your drum set... not just sometimes, every day you show up at them and talk to them. You're like: There's so many pieces up there in front of you and they're a little bit different. They're set up a little bit different, your seat's a little off or whatever the fuck it is. Drives you crazy, that shit drives you crazy. But mostly, the hardest part I think is having a bad show and feeling like you're not meant to do this. And then the next time you a great show and feeling like you're on top of the world. It's really crazy.

*** Feeding off that is when you guys, at least when you guys played here in Seattle with MC50, you had (Matt) Cameron drumming right next to you the whole time, the whole set. What was that like? That had to have been kind of a trip. We were looking over there and you guys were doing it the whole time. 

It's great. We played really well together. Just as soon as we did it once, we were like, "Oh, let's do this as much as we can." So it was nice. I really love Matt. He's a great, beautiful person and he's a great fuckin' drummer.  Playing with him is a total utter blast.

*** Did you learn anything from him or vice versa that maybe you guys kind of fed off each other?

I learned Keplinger makes really loud snares (laughs).

*** He hammers it. 

He does, yeah. It's a blast, you know, playing with two drummers. I wouldn't want to do it every day. Because it's sort of like wearing training wheels. You're just like, you can't fuck up that much. I saw King Crimson with three drummers. And I was like, "Oh this is so not working."

*** It was a treat that was fun to watch.

The show was great. That was a great crowd. They were all in from the first note. And if you do that, anything can happen. Every night, the crowd is half the show. For real. It's just like you can't differentiate the two. It's a symbiotic relationship. A great show is a great crowd.

*** You know that through your whole career with all your variations of different bands that the crowd is part of the show. It's where it's gonna take the gig to a special place.


*** See Canty and Cameron team up on the MC50 video clip at the following link:

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