Brendan Canty is one of the founding fathers of the Washington, DC punk rock scene, and the multiple bands he has been a part of also played major roles in the storied success of legendary Dischord Records. His drumming set the tone for Rites of Spring, introducing Canty to the music-listening public, and he then rose to prominence as a major piece of underground darlings Fugazi. Canty has become a modern day jack of all trades, splitting time between roles as a musician, producer, composer, director, and father, while being successful with each venture.
Canty’s latest project is the band Deathfix, which sees him teaming up with Rich Morel, Devin Ocampo and Mark Cisneros. The foursome have found common ground in their musical tastes, delivering a self-titled debut album full of chunky rock rhythms and melodic pop undertones that is a modern take on classic rock from the early ’70s — think Bowie, Bolan, Reed, and Ronson.
Mr. Canty took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his latest band, the new album, and some of his past projects.
With Deathfix, you team up with Rich Morel, Devin Ocampo, and Mark Cisneros — how did this group materialize?
Rich and I met traveling around while playing in the Bob Mould band a few years ago. We spent most of our spare time talking about our record collections and came to realize that we had a lot of mutual interest in big old pop records, but there was also a lot where we didn’t cross over. Anyway, we decided to get together and try to write and see what happened.
Because we are both producers and both play piano and write all the time, I think it felt immediately prolific. I love to collaborate, as does he. So we came up with a big pile of songs to play, but needed help to play them live. I asked my brother Kevin for advice and he said, “Just go out and get the best two musicians you can” — and so I did.
Devin and I have known each other for years. I’ve always admired and truly loved his work. He’s an amazing songwriter, player, producer, and performer. But he’s usually on guitar. I knew he was a bad ass drummer, so I asked him on the grounds that it would be just one show. Now, a year and a half later, I’m hoping I’ve got him trapped. Mark Cisneros is an old friend of Devin’s from California. He’s also a complete bad ass on bass, drums, guitar, and sax. But really, he is a fabulous bass player.
I’m really lucky to be playing with all three of these guys. Now, when we get together, we are writing together and we have this big warehouse that just gets enormously loud. The whole thing kind of sounds like the end of time when we get going.
Is this the first time you guys have worked together?
Devin and I have worked on a Medications record and a Mary Timony record together.
When you look at your band lineup, it is kind of like the old game “One of these things is not like the other.” Ocampo, Cisneros, and you have made a name playing blistering loud rock and punk music, while Morel has a dance/DJ background. Was it easy meshing these different styles?
Rich played in Bob Mould’s band, but before that I had seen his band Morel and thought he had a great voice — and Morel was really a rock band too [when performing live]. Ultimately, Rich has a lot of the same sensibilities as we do. I think there may be less of a propensity to get “math-y” or hyper-discordant, but we get there.
And we all share a love of songwriting and pop and all the things that turn your ears up. It’s funny, I think we are so used to playing these songs loud that we don’t really notice how poppy they are, but they are, ultimately. I guess it’s what the four of us make: big, loud, poppy rock music. Lots of vocals — everyone sings in this band. You also have to remember that I worked with Lois [Maffeo] a lot in the past, up to now my best outlet for that side of me. This is a record I’ve always wanted to make.
With each of you having more on your plates than Deathfix, how was the album written? Were you able to write together as a group, or did you just find time whenever possible?
We practice every Tuesday and Thursday night and have for a year and a half. The album was recorded at the warehouse, and vocals and mixing were done at Rich’s studio, which is in his house. We would go there whenever we could. Beyond Tuesdays and Thursdays, I liked to do my vocals in the morning, and I did a lot of guitars on my own.
The album reeks of early 1970s’ rock sounds similar to Bowie, Reed, Bolan, and Ronson — is this a musical era you and the rest of the band were influenced by?
Reeking, yes — we wear our influences on our sleeves, dust jackets, and in the grooves of the vinyl (which have been pressed!).
Where did the name “Deathfix” come from? It sounds like it should be the moniker of a Goth or metal band.
Rich and I started calling our collaboration Deathfix early on. I said, “Let’s call it Deathfix.” He said, “Yeah, that’s awesome! It sounds like a 14-year-old hesher from Minnesota made it up.” I said, “Oh shit.”
It kinda stuck — you know, like when you make a face and it sticks? Sorta like that. I like it now; I like the idea of renewal after death and the idea of fixing death somehow and the Jim Morrison lyric, “the end of nights we tried to die.” We made a logo that looks good on men and women and the occasional misfit child.
There are some tour dates already on the schedule — is there a plan to expand the tour and cover more of the US?
Yeah, we will get all the way around before the end of the year.
Is this project a one-and-done entity, a band that has more music in the wings, or a wait-and-see?
We are already working on our next record. We have loads of music and songs and ideas. Basically, I’m really hopeful we can keep this one going a while. I am really loving it; I love the guys in it, and it works.
While known as a damn fine drummer with Fugazi and Rites of Spring, you handle vocals and guitars on this record. Does your approach to recording differ whether or not you are behind the drum kit?
Yeah, [while] playing guitar, it’s hard to get as much perspective on the total sound occurring. Drumming, you get a much better sense of the way things are meshing or not. I prefer guitar though, because it’s so much more musical. I still play drums from time to time, with Kid Congo these days. But guitar does it for me.
You wear multiple hats: artist, composer, producer, writer, director, and so on. Which fits you the best?
Father, composer, performer, writer, producer, director, and artist, in that order. I’ve been a father first and foremost for the last 10 years, and so I was composing for TV because that’s something you don’t have to leave DC to do — but I am really loving being away from my computer and writing with other people in a very analogue way. I still produce, but it’s mostly my own music or films, and so little of what I do is directing. I’ll leave the “artist” moniker for someone who deserves it better.
Had you always set goals to make your way into composing scores and directing films, or is it something that presented itself as your career progressed?
It presented itself as something that should be done. If we have the ability to write our own histories and catalogue our communities, then we have the obligation to do it. Out of that, there was a time I thought it might be a good thing for me to do full-time, but I feel that less now. Sitting in front of the computer editing all day is not sustainable as a lifestyle.
The Burn to Shine collection is great, a true original way to look at local music. Where did the idea of pairing local bands with a rundown house originate?
I wanted to show a photograph of a community. That’s about it. I was interested in just capturing a moment in time; all scenes are in flux. I was hoping we could learn something from stopping time for a day.
Each episode had a good selection of bands. I am in Atlanta and the list of artists on that episode was pretty sweet. How do you go about choosing which bands are invited to participate?
You ask a local person — in the case of Atlanta, it was Lee Tesche — and he or she asks everyone on your behalf. Portland was Chris Funk, Seattle was Ben Gibbard, Chicago was Bob Weston, etc.
Any plans to continue the series?
Not right now. There are a lot of people doing it now. I don’t think there is as much need as there was in 2004.
Fugazi had their own unique sound; with a tenacious work ethic and damn fine music you developed a rabid following. Is there any future Fugazi music in the works?
I wish. Not right now though.
With the release of Six Song Demo there is renewed interest in Rites of Spring. Would there ever be any interest to revisit that band, or has that door been closed and locked?
I love those guys, and working on that demo record was so fun, but we don’t live anywhere near each other, and if music is anything, it is for locals.
You have been a part of many types of music, whether playing, writing, or producing. Are there any new bands today that have caught your ear?
I saw Prince Rama the other night and they were great. I spent a lot of last summer listening to Father John Misty. I saw both Morrissey and Soundgarden last week, both of whom were great. My kids have got me into Macklemore, Skrillex, Wale (all of whom we’ve seen), and a lot of rap, but I think the best of those big records last year has to be the Frank Ocean record. That one is right on time.
I’m a big soul music head, and DC has such a great scene and lots of support for every age.
What is one album that you can listen to day in and day out that never gets old?
Hunky Dory or Low by David Bowie, or Illinois by Sufjan Stevens. Or any Beatles record. Here Come the Warm Jets by Brian Eno. Red by King Crimson. Anything by Monk or Miles.
Digging music since he was forced out of the womb, Chris Martin has always been a fan of good tunes. With his abilities to play any instrument being nonexistent, he has dedicated his life to listening to as much music as possible. After working at music stores and in college radio, attending numerous shows, and listening to a constant flow of tunes, writing about it became the next logical step.