Brendan Canty interview

Brendan Canty was Fugazi’s drummer, but wrote bass and guitar parts as often as the other three members of the band. His permanently busy drums were one of the band’s greatest strengths, adding a groove rarely heard in a punk/hardcore context in the beginning, and proving versatile enough to handle the switches in styles the band would make in its later years. We spoke about feeling worthwhile as a drummer, Joe Lally’s nickname for him and a very specific problem I have with the song No Surprise.

Was guitar the first thing you learned to play or was it drums first of all?
“It was bass, then guitar. I had a lot of brothers and sisters, there were seven of us. My brother who was 14 years older than me, he’d seen Hendrix like five times, he was a total hippie in the sixties, as were most of my brothers. When I started learning guitar he said ‘you should really learn how to play drums. If you learn how to play drums you’ll always be in a band and you’ll always have a girlfriend’.”

Were your key drumming guys when you started? Were they all jazz players?
“Still my favourite drummer of all time is Tony Williams, who played in Miles’ [Davis] band in the sixties. He got in that band when he was 16 years old and he was just a monster. He really opened up for me what you could do with your small quiet exchanges between cymbals and hi-hats. Little things can mean a lot. He was why I started playing Gretsch drums. I was really trying to be Tony Williams.”

So Rites of Spring was the obvious band to join…
“Well, up to a point. So there was him and Keith Moon or Gene Krupa, who was a showier guy. DC’s a good town for jazz. It’s not the best, but there’s a lot of that music here. I was always sneaking down to Blues Alley whenever I could when I was in high school to see any of my heroes. Like, Elvin Jones, or someone like that, because you knew they weren’t going to be on this earth for very long. But I honestly don’t play jazz that much, I just like it a lot.”

A lot of the stuff in Rites of Spring and One Last Wish is so quick and fast you’ve got nowhere to go on the drums, you’re just keeping up. Was it fun when you started Fugazi to have more space in the music to do different things?
“Yeah it was. That really came down to the fact that I started playing with Joe Lally. He would hold the fort, and I could basically do I wanted, so that made a big difference. The last group before Fugazi was Happy Go Licky, which was a little more spaced out, more improvisatory. So we were going in that way sort of already. Guy and I had been playing together for so long and were getting into that mindset. But there are times to write songs and there are times not to. Happy Go Licky was a time not to really write songs, just to get together and make a noise together. It was not the most stable line-up. Guy and I were both like ‘let’s do this!’ we really wanted to go out and tour. DC’s a wonderful town, except that it’s a nightmare in your twenties. Back then especially there was so much less happening, I just thought ‘either I’ve got to move or I’ve got to get on the road,’ and basically Fugazi was four guys whose MO was they wanted to get in the van and just go. That was what tied us together initially. The primary function of Fugazi was to practice at least three days a week for five hours at a time, sometimes five days a week, and then we would tour. I was looking at a journal recently from back then and it was like 200 shows a year. That’s a lot of gigs. It was a really full-on experience, and that’s really the way to do a band. You immerse yourself, and when somebody starts falling behind you give them a tongue-lashing, and you keep it moving.”

Who was getting the most tongue-lashings?
“Mostly whoever was getting tired or cranky. You’re just bringing each other up. I would say it was me, mainly. But there were other people at other times. You get tired, and grumpy, and didn’t want to go play. It did seem insane to get home from a three month tour and have to talk about going out again two months later, for another three month tour. Or like a month in Germany. God, if that didn’t kill you… We played like every five feet in Germany. It was ridiculous.”

Did the drop in intensity of touring towards the end of the band affect the music, making a bit looser?
“Well some of the earlier stuff had some quieter moments on it too. We always tried to do that. I’m really proud of the last record, I think that may be my favourite. There’s times when you regroup and everyone’s on the same page and it’s a wonderful thing, and that was that record really. We’re in communication all the time, we talk to each other multiple times a week, there’s something quite illogical about the fact that we’re not still a band, because although we’re not playing we do get together and we have to talk about Fugazi stuff a lot. There’s still a lot of business and things to attend to. But beyond that I guarantee you we could kick out a record in a heartbeat, I think everybody’s head is still in the same place it was. It’s just a lot of work. Putting together a record like The Argument, it takes years. You have to go through a lot of drafts to get to a place you can all agree on. I do think there was a time at the end where there was less and less we could agree on musically. Not because we disagreed with each other’s tastes, just that we were all at a point that we had done so many records that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. That’s what took so much time. Somebody would come up with a part and you’d be like ‘well that’s great, but it’s just like that other song that we wrote four years ago.’ Usually if you get together in a band, whatever comes out of that collaboration is what it is and you’re absolved of responsibility. You don’t feel like you can be dictator and exercise your complete aesthetic on everybody, so you just kind of roll with it, you let a lot of shit go. As time goes on, when you’ve built up a body of work, and you’ve been down that road a number of times you start thinking ‘hey, I’m not gonna let this fucking thing slide! I’m going to put my foot down! And then I’m going to put my foot down again tomorrow!’ Everybody was kind of doing the same thing and that makes it harder and harder to find the gap in the sidewalk to grow your plant in.”

It’s surprising to me to hear you talk about The Argument like that, because that record sounds to me like a band totally at ease with itself, that’s found its groove completely.
“Well I think we got there. We threw a lot of stuff away, though. That’s really my point. We really weeded out a lot of stuff, as we always did. I think also that record was a little bit of a break from the past.”

How did second drummer Jerry Buscher coming into the band towards the end change things for you?
“It was fun. It was really loud. I loved Jerry and it was really interesting to start to write for two drum kits here and there. He wasn’t in on the writing process, but he was in there when we were recording sometimes. It was interesting in some ways, but we would just go and go and go. Two drummers is really fun but it’s kind of a nightmare for everybody else. There was not a lot of communicating going on during those practices because it was so loud. You’d have a lot of people just waiting around for us to stop, because we really loved playing together. He’s really like a metronome, and allowed me to do all sorts of monkey business. I had a little bit of a feeling of being redundant at some points, but that’s just because it’s hard as a drummer to know your position in any band. When you have somebody next to you who can do the job just as easily as you, you know… There was a thought that I could stop playing and these guys could keep being Fugazi and it would have been a much easier thing. By the end of Fugazi I was working on my third kid, and it was like ‘shit, we’re pregnant again, I better knock it off for a little while.’ In the back of my mind I did think these guys could do it with Jerry, there wouldn’t be any big weight on this, I wouldn’t have to stop the other guys from doing anything. They didn’t feel the same way. Which is nice! It’s good, yeah! But it would be nice if there was still a Fugazi out there touring and doing things, but at the same time I do appreciate that they thought I had some small part in the make-up of the band.”

Did you feel you had any mannerisms as a drummer that you would naturally fall into, and would you try to get away from them when you felt yourself heading towards them?
“I’m naturally an incredibly busy drummer. I never do the same thing twice, I fuck around tons and it’s restless. ADD. In fact, Joe Lally when we first started playing used to have a nickname for me, he used to call me Jazz-bo Flash. Once you start making more and more records you realise that you’ve got to shut the fuck up sometimes. You’ve got to settle down and treat your kick drum like it’s the entire low-end of the record. It makes a huge difference. If you really think consciously about the kick, snare and the cymbals as being different instruments, not just all part of one kit, you really think ‘if I just shut up with this kick drum every once in a while, and use it more sparingly’…The more you think about the recording process while you play the drums, the more you realise you have to amend all these things you thought were happening. Taking things out, and simplifying things. Simplifying the drums for the records is rewarding for that producer side of you, but it’s not really rewarding for making yourself feel like you’re doing your job – feeling worthwhile and creative. Ultimately your goal is to push your own boundaries, and push music in a certain direction. You get to a point where you feel like you really want to communicate with people on record by simplifying things. That’s a beautiful thing in one respect and in another respect it really makes you feel like anybody can do that job. That’s not a good place to be. It’s a built-in conflict, the more serious you get about making records rather than just making music. But I think making records is a beautiful thing, I really believe in it, I believe in the power of the document. There’s times when I just didn’t like being a drummer. I think that’s basically it. The more simple you get the more you think there’s just not enough musicality. Even if you are playing with people you really trust, love, and whose songs you like, sometimes it’s just not enough. Because you grow up, you get older, and you look for new challenges.”

How did teaching yourself piano and learning how to read music change your approach?
“It changed how I make a living. I do a lot of scoring for film and TV now. I’ve always been more of a tinkerer, nuts and bolts guy. By nature drummers are plumbers. They’re the guys who figure this shit out. There are so many bands I know where the drummer is that guy… like, I was always the guy brining in the 4-track and setting it up to record practices. That’s just who I am, I’ve always been trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of it and figuring out music theory and piano is just really rewarding in its own right. For writing music it’s just great. For playing with other people it just really opens your brain up, you can go to different places while you’re playing. Being able to read music or learning other people’s piano parts, it’s a wonderful way to communicate. It’s completely different to just listening to the music for me. It’s more like you’re living it. It feels like doing a crossword puzzle or something. Listening to music, I can get absorbed in it, but it’s not as intellectually stimulating as getting to know it in that way.”

Does your writing on the piano explain some of the unusual stuff Guy was playing on guitar on some of the later records?
“I really hasten to say that I can’t take credit for anything, I can’t say ‘oh, I wrote that part’….”

Because it was all so collaborative?
“Yeah. I did feel like the onus was on me, if I wanted to have input in the band, I’d always have to sit home and write stuff – a bass part, or a guitar part. I’d bring in tapes and say ‘here’s this, this, this, this, this…’ and they’d pick out one or two things and say ‘that’s cool’ and I’d show them those parts. So in that way I feel that some of the stuff that I wrote was more contemplative, and written. They would show up and mostly do that work while we were all together. We’d come up with things just by playing together, which is a wonderful way to do it. You just set up and when the whole band hits on something which sounds like it could be a song you’d just press record. I had a little machine to my left, and you’d just pop it on, and at the end of the day you’d have a tape full of music where everybody’s playing like one instrument. Whereas if you write something at home it’s more like you make your guitars a bit too busy, you can try to do the whole band’s job with just the guitar. I would never want to take credit for things that didn’t belong to me. Guy’s melodic sensibility crosses over with mine in a lot of places, but not in others because he’s got his own thing going on guitar-wise. He comes up with some amazing things on his own, as does Ian. I can see myself getting in trouble by agreeing with you in any way about this! I just don’t want to take credit for anything wrongfully. As much as I did bring in stuff every single practice – I had to or I felt like I wasn’t doing my job – we’d have to cross reference my own tapes of when we got down some of the parts. Things like Bed For The Scraping – I definitely wrote that. But other than that I’d have to sit down and take you through it, and that wouldn’t be an interesting interview.”

No, that’s no way to spend an afternoon. You never looked troubled on stage when I saw you, were any of the songs a challenge for you to play?
“Well, we practiced really hard. And being on the road that much, your muscles are all tuned up. Because we never wrote a setlist, so part of the sport of it was to change it up constantly. Improvise between the songs, and improvise in the songs. That was always how we got our kicks. The songs were always faster than they should be. So I’d liken it to being in a batter’s cage and having the pitching machine on, with balls whipping at you and you’re trying to catch them the entire time. I think it was hard, but I don’t think it was beyond my capabilities. It was beyond my physical capabilities from time to time, there were times when I was dying and my hands were all chewed up and my muscles were killing me. But the more you drum the more your wrists and muscles come together, and if everything’s working as it should it’s not actually that much work. As long as you’re not stiff.” 

Where did the bell in your drum kit come from?
“Guy bought it for me at a farmers’ market. I want to say it was when we were in Happy Go Licky, but I’m not sure. I used to have tons of stuff like that, I used to have circular saw blades. They’re perfectly symmetrical so they resonate for a long time. I had loads of junk like that I loved to play. When we went on tour in the early days we’d be playing squats and there’d be no PA at a lot of them so really the bell was the only thing loud enough to stick around.”

Finally, I’ve always been bugged by the hits towards the end of the song No Surprise. Is it me, or are they slightly out of time?
“It rings a bell… [I awkwardly explain what I’m talking about. I try to sing the bit I mean. Brendan remains confused] So, what, they sound out of time to you? It’s slower?”

The gaps aren’t quite right, they don’t sound like the right length to me.
“It didn’t sound right? Well, y’know…”

I just want you to apologise, Brendan.
“I do apologise. I have no idea… I do remember that a little bit. But we didn’t play to a click ever, apart from on Closed Captioned. I’m on Spotify right now trying to get to that thing [No Surprise starts playing on the other end of the line] It’s not even here… it’s later.”

I really appreciate your dedication to sating my ridiculous needs.
“[Brendan listens to the part of the song in question] Oh yeah, that’s way off. You know what it is, I think we switch the ‘one’ every time.”

It’s a trick!
“It is a trick. The first count is obviously… it’s way off. The first count, to me, comes in on the two. [listens again]. No it’s longer. I’ll work on it, I’ll put it onto sheet music and send it to you. I think that’s case, but we might have just fucked it. You have to realise that we’re just sitting in a room and your adrenaline’s up. There’s no-one there to keep it together. It could be way off. Next time we remaster, we’ll sort it out.”

I want a credit in the sleeve notes.
“I appreciate how picky you are.”