Brendan Canty is best known for drumming in Fugazi, holding down solid, tightly controlled grooves in a band that always sounded like it was about to explode. Canty also wrote guitar and bass parts for Fugazi during their 16-year run, but he didn’t front a group himself till he formed Deathfix in 2009 with Rich Morel (they met while touring in Bob Mould’s backing band) and Medications members Mark Cisneros and Devin Ocampo. The sound of Deathfix is the sound of punks aging gracefully—gritty, dark, and moody, but with an excellent melodic sense. Canty has always been ahead of the curve, and that’s still the case with Deathfix.
Interviewing Canty for this week’s Artist on Artist is local musician and screen printer Jay Ryan. Since 1999 Ryan has run the Bird Machine, a shop in Skokie where he creates his instantly recognizable show posters. And since 1995 he’s played bass in posthardcore outfit Dianogah, a band that proudly carries a torch for Fugazi. He’s also working on a new project, Whelms, which he hopes to debut this summer; like Canty in Deathfix, he’ll be playing guitar there for the first time. —Luca Cimarusti
I was lucky enough to get to make three posters for Fugazi over the years. Joe [Lally] told me he’s got one hanging above his dresser, which sort of makes my head swell.
They’re definitely some of the nicer ones ever. I love your work in general—through Wilco I’ve seen more and more, because I’ve been working with Wilco for years.
I think, really, what we need to talk about is—what I know that you want to talk about—is Fugazi re-forming just to play the [Steve] Albini Kill Taker demos. Do you think that’s a good idea?
No, I’m joking.
I actually messed around with those Kill Taker demos at one point. “I wonder if we should put these out?” And then, though they sound great because, you know, Steve’s a genius, our performance was so lackluster compared to what the actual record turned out to be. But anyway. I knew you were joking, but I’m happy to talk about ’em!
I’m excited about coming to the show. I’ve seen Medications before, but I’m not actually all that familiar with Rich Morel. I know that you two were working together for a couple of years, starting to write songs. How direct is the link between what you guys were working on and what’s on the record, put together as a four-piece?
It’s really direct. The demos are pretty similar to what’s on the record, except for they’re mushy—they’re just ill-formed mushiness and they don’t actually resolve or anything, but the writing is all there, and the lyrics. Some of the more extended songs on the record, like “Playboy,” which ends up shifting time and gets really complicated—all that was done with Devin [Ocampo] and Mark [Cisneros] in the practice space. The core of the writing, a lot of it just conceptually and lyrically, happens still with Rich and I getting together. It’s really important to have some quiet time, you know? Some peace and quiet when you’re trying to write. And we’re really—I mean, you’ve seen the Medications. Maybe you’ve never seen Devin play drums, but he’s kind of a monster. And we practice in this big warehouse space. It’s like a cavern. It’s really loud and bombastic and great. We love to play together, but it’s not always the best for communicating small ideas to each other.
When it was Rich and I, and I was like, “Are we really gonna play live? This is crazy,” I just called up my brother [Kevin]. He’s sort of a mentor to me, you know—he’s 60ish, he’s a writer out in Missoula, Montana, and he’s a great musician in his own right. And I’m like, “What do I do?” And he’s like, “Just go out and get the two best musicians you can.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s Devin and Mark! That was really easy!” So I called ’em up and we started playing about a year ago. But mostly just kind of getting together every Tuesday and Thursday night and recording. We have everything set up to record all the time, multitrack, in my warehouse, and—
I’m very envious of that situation—that’s pretty awesome.
It’s not heated or cooled. But it’s really cheap! I’m often playing with my guitar over my down parka, you know, my hand’s freezing and it’s just great. You can be envious in the spring and the fall if you want, but in the summer and winter you’d be psyched to be anywhere that’s not my practice space. But it is great to have everything set up. It’s fabulous to be able to record your record yourself these days. Most of the recording and a lot of the dubs were done in my space, and then we took it over to Rich’s.
Rich does a lot of remixes. He’s done like five for Yoko Ono this year, whoever, the Killers, Lady Gaga. I mean big big remixes, you know, in the clubs. And he runs these really successful big bear nights with Bob Mould, the Blowoff stuff, which I think they do in Chicago, and he does another one called Hot Sauce which is taking off too. But really what he is, he’s such a music head, and he’s just so great to write with—he’s just so full of optimism and ideas and interests. So it’s one of those things where, because I play a lot of piano too—I score for TV and stuff like that—we get all excited when we can include a ninth chord. It’s really geeky.
You’re mainly known as a drummer, but you’ve played guitar and written on guitar and piano and bass, historically—you had a lot of input in Fugazi at least. But is this your first time doing a substantial amount of work live playing guitar as your main instrument?
Yeah—first time ever singing and playing guitar live. I was just like, let’s see if this works, you know? I play guitar every day, and I have forever, and I’ve written tons of stuff, but it was a total leap of faith. I still have a ton to learn about the process. I’m assuming that being on the road for the next month or so it’ll get better. Hopefully by the time we roll into Schubas we’ll be passable.
I don’t think you need to worry about that anymore.
I would like to feel confident, but the best part about starting a band and doing something you’ve never done before is not feeling confident, honestly. Not knowing if it’s gonna work.
You’ve been doing a lot of video production. Was there a particular project that brought you into that world?
Have you heard of the Burn to Shine project? We did Burn to Shine up there with Bob Weston. I had been scoring for TV and political spots and junk like that, sort of making a side living doing that stuff because I’d been asked. A lot of our friends who were initially in the D.C. punk-rock community ended up moving on—not people who were in bands as much as people like you, who were artists or had magazines. A lot of ’em went into TV and went into CD-ROM video games, just whatever was out there when all that stuff was kind of blowing up. They were just trying to hire the people they trusted. The first thing I did for the Discovery Channel was a series called Buildings, Bridges, and Tunnels, and it was just that. It was just scoring for skyscrapers and bridges. This was before Pro Tools, and I was doing it on an eight-track reel-to-reel with a stopwatch—just totally BSing my way through it.
And then they re-edit the film after you’ve written the piece, so nothing matches up.
What makes the jump from “I’m going to score someone else’s video” to “I’m going to be in charge of creating this video project”?
So I’m doing more and more of that kind of stuff, more and more Discovery Channel or whatever—it was turning into sort of a business, and I was feeding my family and that was awesome. But you know, Fugazi stopped playing about then, in 2002 we stopped playing, so there were a couple of years when all I was doing was sitting in front of a computer. It was just killing me. I was really missing being out on the road and seeing my friends and seeing what was happening and seeing the bands that were playing and all that.
That’s when I met Christoph Green, who’s my partner in Trixie [Film], who did all those [Burn to Shine videos] with me. He’s a great graphics artist. We were sitting around working on the Kerry campaign next to each other—all these new cameras were coming out that were shooting at 24p, and digital started to look really good. And right about that same time a friend of mine had bought a house—this was also during the real estate boom—from this old woman who lived until she was 97, and they were about to tear it down. And he felt terrible about it because he knew the woman and he knew the history of the house. So he asked me if I wanted to do anything with it—he just wanted to memorialize it somehow—and we came up with this idea of creating a portrait.
I was playing with this band Garland of Hours, Medications were getting going—all these bands were kind of happening, just starting. But it felt like everything was a bit in flux—like, Q and Not U were about to break up. I felt like it was worthy of taking a snapshot of that, and it would probably mean something to me in ten or 15 years. And then we could memorialize the house—he was also a firefighter, my friend, and he donated it to the fire department so they could do their training for the firefighters that needed to get certified. So they were gonna burn it down. So there it was, a perfect storm of a desire to document what everybody was doing, a space about to be demolished—and suddenly it kind of made sense.
We were just going to do the one. Bob Weston was definitely the one who was like, “You gotta do more of these.”
It’s a great idea that’s beautifully executed. You’ve got four of them out, and I read that you’ve got a couple more in the tube.
When Touch and Go went under, we ran out of steam. We didn’t know how to put ’em out. And now we’re hooked up with MVD, and I really want to get those out in the next couple months—definitely the Louisville one. I think our idea right now is to make them available for a charitable donation on the Internet—like, if you donate five bucks, you can download it, and then we just find a charity or a person in each town. We have that one ready to go. It should do all right—I mean, those things, we still get questions all the time. The Louisville one is really good but the Atlanta one is fucking awesome—it’s got Mastodon and Deerhunter and Black Lips.
Nowadays I’m back in that same position as I was at the beginning. I like what we’ve been doing with Wilco and making all these films, and we’ve been prolific, but we also do a certain amount of commercial work as well. I’m ending up in the same boat where I’m just sitting in front of a damn computer all the time. And I also was finding myself going out on the road with a couple different films. There’s actually this one film called Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, which is about the owner of the Louisville house that we shot the Louisville Burn to Shine in. Someone [Brent Green] made a stop-motion film about the guy, featuring all sorts of Chicago people—Mike McGinley? You know Mike? He was in . . . shit, I can’t remember the name of that band [the Bitter Tears].
I’m sure I know them.
Mike and Al [Scalpone]. It’s some of the Califone people too. We were touring around with this film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, getting out of town more and more with that. Also I was doing more and more with this film—you know the Weather Underground documentary that came out a bunch of years ago? In 2004, with Sam Green and another Chicago guy [Bill Siegel]. Anyway, Sam Green was doing a new film called Utopia in Four Movements, and I was doing live things with them, and I was just getting away more. I mean, I have four kids, so it’s been a little tough up till now to get away, but they’re getting older. I was like, “Oh, this is working. I can get away for a week and go to Turkey.” Then all of a sudden it’s like, “Well, why aren’t I just doing a band? Because that’s what I really want to do.”