Brendan Canty is the drummer for Fugazi, the rightly revered D.C. post-punk band whose page on the Dischord Records website still states "1987 - present." The group hasn’t played together or released an album since their phenomenal seventh LP, The Argument; in 2002 they embarked on what is looking increasingly like a permanent hiatus. Like his bandmates, Canty has been consumed by various other creative projects: he’s produced albums for Ted Leo and The Thermals, among others; recorded and toured with Bob Mould; composed soundtracks for film and television; directed Sunken Treasure, Jeff Tweedy's live concert documentary; and helmed an eccentric rock DVD series called Burn to Shine. Started in D.C. in 2004, each DVD is shot on a single day with a lineup of bands who each get two takes on one song in a house slated for demolition. Canty will be at The Kitchen Wednesday night to perform live soundtracks to Brent Green’s distinctive stop motion animation films; other musicians on the bill include Jim Becker (Califone) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (Wilco, Freakwater). The 8pm show is sold out; tickets for the 10pm show are still available.
How did this ongoing collaboration with Brent Green come about? Through a mutual friend, Amy Domingues, who is sort of a premiere rock ‘n’ roll cellist. She’s played with a ton of people like Chan Marshall and Fugazi.
She was on The Argument, right? Yes, and now she’s in Nashville recording with Benjy Ferree. She’s the one who introduced me to Brent and we really hit it off. I like the fact that is he just a really hard worker. Besides the aesthetic, which I love.
Yeah, he’s self-taught, isn’t he? He is self-taught. His first films were made by stringing together about 10,000 individual photographs in iMovie on his Mac. Anybody who goes through the trouble of actually using the tools at hand to make the film he wants to make on his own terms is someone I give lots of credit. I know this isn’t the most well spoken interview ever but I’m trying to get my head together while walking around pulling things out of my daughter’s mouth. She’s eight months old, and while I’m speaking to you she’s crawling around, picking up things to choke on, looking at me and then shoving them in her mouth.
She knows daddy can multitask. Yeah, I’m a lifeguard and a drummer.
That’s fine. What is it you like about his films? I like how beautifully primitive they are, how he exposes his own process by leaving the scotch tape on the prints. That made me think that he is more interested in rugged beauty and wasn’t someone who was going to hide who he really is. There’s an underlying honesty to the way he deals with his art and performance. He gets up there in front of the whole crowd, speaks the dialogue and really exposes himself in his work and in his performance. I know that sounds overtly emo but it’s something that really speaks to me.
There’s so much bullshit and artifice in the art world and music world where people just hide, especially in this age of Pro Tools music perfection and digital effects in photography. Brent chooses to highlight his blemishes. It sort of all goes back to the idea that the things we view as mistakes in ourselves our only considered mistakes because they set us apart from other people. But the mistakes are our individuality. I’ve never asked him if he wants to make a big blockbuster movie but I don’t think that’s where he’s coming from.
So when you perform music with his films is it improvised? For the most part, yes. I know the script and the dialogue now, having done it a few times, so I know when something’s going to come up. But he’s usually working on something that he’ll screen without telling me and we have to improvise to it.
Live? Yeah. Which is fine. [Laughs] It’s not always the most successful part of the show but it can be. But even when we know the film a lot of it is improvised.
So are you the one the other musicians are generally following along with? It depends. I think in any improvised situation you get into a pack mentality where somebody’s going to be alpha to a certain extent. And the alpha dog here is always Brent and his script. But sometimes people are better or worse at listening to what the script is suggesting, and that’s when I sort of take over and boss people around. [Laughs] Not boss them around, but I play a little louder so people can follow. Sometimes it’s just first-time people who sit in when we do this. Not often, but it’s happened.
When I played with Califone doing this stuff I would defer to those guys because they’ve toured with Brent and they taught me how much better the musical aspect of it works when you just create a bed of music for Brent’s script. It’s better when we make a soundtrack and resist the temptation to go for the wood blocks whenever someone in the film knocks on a door, you know?
Because you run Trixie DVD do you help him with any other aspects of the projects? I helped him with the audio on Hadacol Christmas. But I haven’t helped him with the most recent stuff. The things he’s working on now are pretty interesting; he’s been making more non stop-motion films up in his gigantic barn studio in Pennsylvania. He’s been tying birds to strings. [Laughs]
Live birds? He has. [Laughs] He has. I don’t know if I’m letting the cat out of the bag here, but I’ve just seen some footage of a little girl who’s got strings tied between her and the birds flying above her. He claims to have consulted a bird handler to figure out what the best way to achieve this vision was.
Is this going to be screened in New York? I think he might show some of it; he did when we were at a film festival in Charlottesville.
I see the Seattle Burn to Shine is coming out soon. How did the filming of that go? One of my favorite parts of the day was Jesy Fortino, you know, Tiny Vipers. We shot it up in the center of Seattle by the zoo, and seemingly everyone in the world would know how to get there - but not her. And she calls me and says, “I’m down by the airport. What bus goes there?” I don’t know what bus goes there! But she made it in and was just amazing. Eddie Vedder played a great song on his ukulele. Ben Gibbard played an unreleased acoustic song. I guess I shouldn’t spoil it but at the end the house doesn’t get destroyed, which is kind of a funny thing. At the last minute somebody came by - the day we were filming - and fell in love with the house and moved it down the hill to an empty lot. So instead of being destroyed like the houses in the other films, it ends with this really creepy final segment of the house rolling on the back of a truck in the middle of the night followed by a parade of people.
That sounds cool. It is; it’s a really great ending. It’s a very ‘Seattle-recycles’ kind of ending. The vibe was great at this one but the more of these I do, the more people want to do them and we end up with too many bands because we have a hard time saying no.
What are some of the biggest crises you’ve had to deal with during Burn to Shine? On this one [Seattle] we were shooting on Saturday and I lost our original location on Monday. I was in D.C. and had to find a new place to shoot this - a place that was going to be destroyed - by the weekend. So I called up an architectural salvage place and that’s when I immediately started throwing around the word Fugazi. “Hi, this is Brendan from Fugazi! Does anybody there know Fugazi?” We found this one guy John who really saved our ass. He had these two old outdated bungalows that people didn’t know what to do with. They were going to salvage all the stained glass windows in them and this guy fostered a relationship with the developer who owned the property. The name Fugazi didn’t resonate with him so I started throwing around Eddie Vedder’s name with him and pretty much sealed the deal by saying his wife could meet Eddie Vedder the day of the shoot.
But yeah. Getting a house that is going to be burned, convincing firemen that you’re okay and convincing owners and neighbors that you’re okay and that it’s okay that you’re going to bring 60 people into the house and play rock in there all day long and then film the demolition the whole thing is really a headache. I love it but it’s so much work. Getting the bands together is a cakewalk compared to convincing people this is a good idea to do in their house.
Will you be joining Bob Mould on tour in March? I would like to but it’s a month long tour and my wife started working again recently. She got offered this great job and I’m not really ready for a month on the road. I did play his last record. I’m also finishing a record with Ian Svenonius who was in Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses. We’re putting the songs together and we’re going to make a film out of it with this guy Tom Bunnell, a visual artist who’s a friend of mine.
There was a rumor over the summer that Fugazi would reunite to play a Fort Reno show again, which seemed to me immediately bogus. My impression is that you guys aren’t getting back together, and definitely not for just one show. Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, we might do it for a benefit kind of thing. But everybody is doing something different. Almost all of us have kids now. Fugazi was a real full time activity and the reason we stopped a few years ago was because it didn’t feel like Fugazi when we only did it twenty percent of the time.
But you’re right, I don’t see us putting it all back together, which would be a lot of work. We still see each other all the time, except for Joe, who’s moved to Rome. If there was a burning desire for us to get back together and do it, we would do it. There’s nothing necessarily stopping us. But I don’t see it happening. I’ve got to say, it doesn’t feel like things are pointing in that direction. It just doesn’t seem like that would necessarily be a step forward for any of us. It doesn’t really make sense, you know?
I love the guys. Everybody continues to make music and everybody is plenty stimulated in their lives. I don’t see us going back to Fugazi. I think everybody was pretty much ready for a break by the time it was done. Then again, we never put it out of our heads, really. A lot of the reasons why we stopped were logistical because of kids and things like that. It was mostly kids and death. Kids were being born and almost all our parents were dying at the same time. Everybody was like, “Okay, we need to take a break.” I’m not saying all our parents are dead but everybody in the band lost somebody.
It was interesting seeing the four of you split amicably. For someone like me, Fugazi is one of a small handful of bands who have consistently articulated, through music, a lot of things inside myself. So when this hiatus kept lasting it got confusing because I'm thinking, “Okay, they’re all making music but not together. What’s stopping them from doing it together?” The split was amicable and the last album is as great as anything the band has ever done. But recently it’s starting to make more sense because you see everyone getting fulfillment making music and doing projects on their own, which wouldn’t be possible while doing Fugazi, which seemed like an all-consuming project. Yes, that’s exactly right. When you do an all-or-nothing project you have to eek all of your artistic fulfillment out of it and you have to earn the dough from that project, too. Everything has to come from that one thing. And you end up being frustrated. No matter how fulfilling it is, the limitations of the other personalities and limitations of the system Fugazi set up for us to live in, in terms of economics, in terms of method of touring I stand behind all these things but something had to give, you know? I just felt like we were going to the same well to many times. I know I was in danger of being Rip Van Winkle, of waking up at 40 and realizing that I really only did one thing and I had other things I wanted to do! And I couldn’t do them all and I couldn’t make Fugazi do everything I wanted to do, because that wouldn’t be fair.
Do you go back and listen to the albums? Sometimes. I have a ten year old. You know, I have kids who play music and they make me listen to it sometimes. I don’t actually listen to the records so much but sometimes I listen to the Youtube stuff, that’s really interesting. A lot of the more memorable shows in my mind are up on Youtube, like Gainesville in 1988, which was the hottest show I ever played. But I don’t listen to the records really. I’m not sure I have them all. [Laughs] I give them away. I get a new box every time they get remastered. But The Argument was one of my favorite records we ever did and it was the last record and made me feel like at least we stopped on a high note. But you also have to realize that record really took three years to make. It’s just too long, you know. It kind of gives you the inkling that maybe your parameters are set a bit tight, you know.
What are the songs you’re most fond of? Let me see. I liked Bed for the Scraping. I remember writing that and thinking, “That’s a pretty good song!” I don’t know. I don’t really have specific favorites. I guess looking back on it, and this has very little to do with me, but when you look back at Suggestion and realize Ian [MacKaye] was writing Suggestion at the age of 20, that he deserves so much credit for that song. To be young and bold enough to write a song about rape, as a man, is something to be proud of.
One more question. That song Walken’s Syndrome. What is that sound at the beginning that sounds like an animal being tortured? I don’t remember the beginning.
I’ll play it now. Yeah, I think that’s Ian jamming his malfunctioning guitar head against something. No animals were tortured during the making of that record.