Circuit Sweet Interview, Feature

Gavin Brown Takes On The Messthetics | Interview + 2019 Tour Special

January 17, 2019

The Messthetics are an instrumental trio featuring Brendan Canty (drums), Joe Lally (bass), and Anthony Pirog (guitar).

Brendan Canty and Joe Lally were the rhythm section of the legendary band Fugazi from its inception in 1987 to its period of hiatus in 2002. This is the first band they’ve had together since then. Anthony Pirog is a jazz and experimental guitarist based in Washington, D.C. One half of the duo Janel & Anthony, he has emerged as a primary figure in the city’s out-music community.

In March 2018 the powerful trio released their standout debut which featured nine songs recorded at Canty’s practice space throughout 2017, live and mostly without overdubs. Described as a snapshot of a band dedicated to the live ideal, where structure begets improvisation.

Following the success of the release the band are set to tour the UK later this month. Back in November it was announced that The Messthetics will head to the UK and Europe for two weeks of dates. And then in March, the band will travel to Knoxville, TN to perform as part of the Big Ears Festival. Ahead of these live dates, Gavin Brown spent some time chatting with Joe Lally and Brendan Canty to discover more about The Messthetics, their live shows, their past, Dischord Records, Fugazi and more.

How did The Messthetics start in the first place? 

Joe : Brendan and I got together to play my solo music after I moved back to Washington, DC. I had played him some other instrumental music I was experimenting with while I lived in Rome. He said he knew a guitar player who would fit well and invited him over to play with us. That was Anthony and he was so good it seemed like we should be creating our own music. A few weeks later Anthony asked if we would be his rhythm section on a record he was making. Without hesitation we said yes and let him take his time working out ideas with us. It was no longer a solo record because we became a band after playing together a few months. 

Brendan:  There was an immediate chemistry between the three of us. I think a good sign is how prolific you are in the writing as a band, and almost immediately we were coming up with loads of tracks that excited us. It was the feeling of unlimited potential that excited me most.  

Your self titled debut album was released last year, how did the creation and recording of the album go? 

Joe: Ian was at the first show we played at Galaxy Hut in Arlington, VA. He liked what we were doing and thought it would be perfect for Dischord. We had been recording our writing and practicing at the studio space Brendan shares with the illustrious Jim Thomson above club Bossa in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in DC. It was only natural to record the record there because everything was sounding so good as we worked on the songs.

Brendan:  We record everything we do in multitrack because it helps to be able to listen to your music as others will hear it and see what translates.  It also allows you to work more quickly as you can use it to remember your ideas.  There’s been a number of tracks where we have used the first take, or locked in the arrangement to a song because the improvising made the song make sense.   

Was it always the intention for the music of the Messthetics to be instrumental or did you toy with the idea of having vocals to accompany the music?

Joe: Anthony’s guitar playing was standing up just fine on its own. Once we worked on the first song, I think that was Serpent Tongue, it was clear we could explore anything we needed to and how could you sing on that?

Brendan:  I could see collaborating with people, or having us sing some songs, but I would find it difficult to have a fourth person in the band. I think the chemistry we have in the studio and on the road is something I don’t want to mess with.  

What has the reaction to the band and the album been like so far?  

Joe: It’s been good. People seem to like the shows and the record. It was surprising to me, because I feel like we’re indulging in making music we like.

Brendan:  I’ve been floored that people are so receptive to instrumental music.  It’s a new format for me, and I just wasn’t sure if people would be into it.  But they have been showing up and giving us lots of love.  I couldn’t be happier.  

Was releasing the album on Dischord a bit of a no brainer for you regarding your history with the label? 

Joe: I guess I answered that above, but yes once Ian was into it we were happy to have it on our main label. And Anthony was relieved the album automatically had a home.

Brendan:  Dischord is a great label, run by great people,who do their business right.  If Ian’s into putting your record out, you should do it.  I was ecstatic that he offered.  The whole team there really work for us, and they are our friends.  DC is a small town in a way, and Dischord will always be home to me.  

Are you planning on a follow up record at the moment? 

Joe :   We ’ve been working on recording new songs that we’ve been playing live for some time now.

Brendan: We are almost done, but the last bit takes forever.  

Do you work on new music on the road or do you prefer to do it in a studio setting? 

Joe :We’ll develop and work out ideas whenever and wherever we have the chance to do it. There’s never enough time in our practice space. We’re really writing as often as we’re able to.

You have a series of U.K. and European dates coming up soon. Are you excited about hitting the road again? 

Joe: Yes, we’ve done a lot of playing from the east coast to the mid west in the US and we played 8 shows in Japan last May. We are looking forward to getting over there, indeed. There are shows coming up in Italy and other parts of Europe.

Brendan:  We have shows booked through the summer and will be doing about 2or 3 weeks on and 2 or 3 weeks off until then.  It’s going to be great.  

What can we we expect from a Messthetics live show?

Brendan: Besides the music on the LP, we play a fair amount of pieces we are working out.  It’s different every show!  

How did the show in New York at the Winter Jazzfest go?

Joe: It went well. Anthony had been touring in Europe last November with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, so he joined us for a few songs there and it was nice having a guest fit in well. Brendan and I drove right home after because he had a show in DC to practice for, so we didn’t see anything else in the festival, which was a shame. 

Are the band equally comfortable playing at jazz events as they are at more rock and alternative events or does it not really matter to you as long as you are playing? 

Joe: I don’t think it matters to any of us. We played a show in Tokyo with Akira Sakata who was nice enough to add us to the bill on a day off we were trying to fill in. He played sax with us and sang and we loved that. It would be nice if we could do those kinds of shows more often because we get to collaborate with people. Anthony has been doing that kind of thing for years. 

How have your previous live shows gone so far? 

Joe: Just fine thank you.

What have some of the live highlights been? 

Joe: Usually it feels best when things are about to fall apart, but we manage to hold it together.

Will you be playing any festivals in the summer? 

Joe: There is a Folklife Festival in DC we’ll play. We are playing Coachella, Primavera (Spain) and This is Not A love Song (France) before the summer.

You probably get sick of being asked! But will there be any further activity at all from Fugazi? 

Joe: We see each other when we can. There is no plan for the band to do anything, It would take a lot of time just being together, talking and playing just to find out what exactly we are now. I think of it as a large animal that needs taking care of and we’re not going to disturb its hibernation if we can’t look after it properly.

Do you still keep in touch with Ian and Guy and what are they up to at the moment? 

Joe: I am playing music with Ian and Amy Farina. We don’t have a name, but we’re also recording a record. Guy came to the Jazz fest show so I saw him the other night. We are all in touch with each other, yes. Guy has been recording Xylouris / White which is a great duo you should check out if you ever get the chance to. He’s produced a couple of records for them now. He also does live soundtrack to film with Jim White on drums. Ian continues working on Dischord and he has done a lot of work on the Fugazi Live Series site. He’s also archiving a lot of the work the label has done.

Fugazi went on hiatus in 2002, what were you doing musically between that time and when The Messthetics got together? 

Joe: I put out three solo records and toured around the US, Europe, South America and got over to Australia and Japan too. I lived in Rome for 8 years. 
During the last three of those I took off from playing so I could be at home more. I was feeling like an absent father.

Brendan: I raised 4 kids, did about a hundred different soundtracks for television and feature films, made a Deathfix record for Dischord, made a couple records and tours with Bob Mould, had a film production company and made 3 feature length films for Wilco (Ashes of American Flags, Every Other Summer, and Sunken Treasure), 1 for Eddie Vedder (water on the road), and a bunch of films of bands in houses that were demolished (Burn to Shine).  I also have done and still do cinema performances with directors Sam Green and Brent Green.  And I’ve produced a bunch of records, including Ted Leo’s “Tyranny of Distance” and the Thermal’s “Body Blood and the Machine” amongst others.  

Do you miss playing with Fugazi, both on record and in a live setting? 

Joe: Yes I do. I’ve learned to live without it. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue playing music that I like.

Brendan: Yes, very much.  Those guys are like brothers to me. It’s been a total joy getting to play with Joe again.  They are all such amazing people.  

What were your favourite memories of the times when Fugazi were on the road? 

Joe: Playing to people. That’s what all the work is for as far as I am concerned. A lot of the time you are driving and working on writing songs and recording them, but it’s the interaction with an audience that is the real payoff. There’s nothing like it. 

Brendan: I really loved the writing process and recording and the mashing up of different sounds and ideas.  Playing live was great too, especially the in between improv bits.  Awesome to back up three great singers as well.  

Was touring with Fugazi as intense as it seems as depicted on the Instrument film? 

Joe: That was the way we did it, we saw it as normal.

Brendan:  I think it was just long and thus physically taxing.  But since nobody was abusing drugs or a raving lunatic, it was mostly fun.  Lots of jokes, and listening to music, and reading.  Punctuated of course, by a couple hours of the most physical playing possible every day.  

And what stands out in your memory as the greatest gig that Fugazi ever played? 

Joe: Not any one in particular. Nights where the roar of the crowd was overwhelming was always special. It happened in different cities that I can’t recall completely at this time.

Brendan: There was a Berlin one in a circus tent that was pretty great. Also, the free outdoor shows we did at Fort Reno Park here in DC, and the protests on the mall, especially theone in front of the White House and at the Sylvan Theater.  There are loads of great memories.  

Is it inspiring to you that Fugazi are still as highly thought of today after all the years that have passed? 

Joe: Yes it is. I dedicated a good portion of my life to that band and it means a lot to me that anyone should care about it.

Brendan:  It brings me great joy.  I loved that band and those guys, and we worked really hard without any idea that anyone would give a shit about us down the road. 
I think Ian has done a great job keeping those records in print and we all continue to create.  

What were the all time highlights of your time with Fugazi? 

Joe: It would have to be living out an idea with the 3 other members of the band. Collectively aiming for the same thing and then seeing it through. It’s not an easy thing to do. We had a good time at it for 15 years. That’s a lot.

Brendan:  Just whole tours of great shows and making a community out of cool people coming to shows and making bands and booking bands and making records and distributing records and seeing shows by bands that are distributed and booked by friends of friends of friends.  It goes on and on.  Such a beautiful web of people that we are a part of.  Independent music is a family of self reliance.  

What music are you currently listening to and what were some if your favourite albums of the last year?

Joe: Lately it’s been Eric Dolphy, Eddie Palmieri and Sun Ra. I’m pretty terrible at knowing what came out in the last year. The remastered White Album doesn’t count I suppose.

Brendan:  I listen to a lot of podcasts honestly. When I’m walking my dog. Nerdy science podcasts.  But here is some of the music I listen to: I like Puff Pieces, Time is Fire, and Light Beams, all DC bands.  I love Jazz, and loved the release of the Coltrane stuff on Both Directions that verve put out.  I love Lonnie Holley.  His “I woke up in a fucked up America” is an instant classic.  Sons of Kemet “Your Queen is a Reptile”. Tony Williams’ drumming on just about anything.  Mahler.  Stravinsky.  Bach.  Miles.  Elliot Smith.  You know.

UK/EU/US Tour Dates  

A huge thanks to The Messthetics for their time and involvement with Gavin and Circuit Sweet. Good luck on those tour dates!

Words: Gavin Brown

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