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The Messthetics’ Anthony Pirog on Influence & Improvisation

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The Messthetics’ Anthony Pirog on Influence & Improvisation

Aaron Rogers

the Messthetics photo by Antonia Tricarico

Throughout their fifteen years of existence, Fugazi performed without a setlist. Telepathy was the rule, not the exception. Night after night, members of the band were prepared to play any one of the seventy-plus songs in the repertoire with little more than a few scraping sounds on a guitar or brief eye-contact as a signal.

It’s been another fifteen years since Fugazi's last performance, but their improvisational impulses remain intact in the Messthetics, a jazz-inspired group led by virtuoso guitarist Anthony Pirog and featuring Fugazi’s unmistakably muscular rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty.

Clocking in at a brisk thirty-three minutes, the Messthetics’ s/t is almost over too quickly. The leadoff track, “Mythomania,” announces the return of the Canty-Lally rhythm machine with a defiant snare drum roll, setting the table for Pirog to snake his way through the tune with subtle backmasked guitar textures before working up to a solo which may only be described in technical terms as “face-melting.” And then there are eight more songs.

The Messthetics live at Survival Kit in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Aaron Rogers

The Messthetics live at Survival Kit in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Aaron Rogers

Aaron Rogers: I read in an interview with Brendan that you met when he walked up to you after a show to tell you how awesome you are. Can you talk about meeting Brendan and Joe and how you formed the band?

Anthony Pirog: I met Brendan at a show in D.C. We had two groups on the same bill. I have a duo with my wife called Janel & Anthony that’s a cello/guitar duo, and Brendan was doing a duo with a bass player. He came up to us after we played and was really excited about what we had just done - that felt really good.

I also do this Danny Gatton/Roy Buchanan tribute thing on Telecaster, and there was a big performance here in D.C. a few months before, and he said he was there, which surprised me and made me really happy. He said he loved that and we hit it off and hung out after the show.

I can’t remember how much longer it was after that, but he contacted me and said Joe just moved back to town and there was potential for a tour and he was looking for a guitar player. I said yes, obviously. I went to play with them and it was really exciting. It felt really good to play with them. It’s a sound that’s pretty recognizable. It felt solid. I felt free to do whatever I wanted on top of it. The tour didn’t end up happening, so we just played that one time.

I built up the courage over a couple months and asked them if they wanted to get together and try some of the things I was working on. We started playing, and we just became a band and started rehearsing multiple times a week. That’s how it started.

AR: Did you grow up listening to Fugazi?

AP: Yeah. The best way I can put it is that I released a trio record [Palo Colorado Dream] with Michael Formanek and Ches Smith on Cuneiform Records in 2014, and I have a track called “Threshold” which was inspired by the beginning of Red Medicine. It was on my mind.

AR: You’re talking about the distorted boombox bit at the beginning of “Do You Like Me?”

AP: Exactly. Even though I was doing a quote-unquote “jazz record,” that approach was on my mind.

AR: Right, an homage. Living in D.C., I’d imagine their influence is pervasive to this day.

AP: Yeah, of course. I love living in D.C., and the music that’s come out of here is very important to me, whether it’s Fugazi or the Danny Gatton/Roy Buchanan thing.

AR: Yeah, between Dischord, the twang guitar stuff like Danny Gatton, and Go-Go, it seems to me as a Midwesterner and outsider that D.C. still maintains its regional musical identity. Like, Trouble Funk was on NPR a few days ago, and I think of them as a very “D.C.” band.

AP: Yeah. I feel really lucky being a guitarist here because I weave in and out of the different scenes. I was playing jazz gigs when I first got of music school, then I got involved in the Roots scene because of the Danny Gatton thing, and I met and played with all the people who are still doing that style, like [Danny Gatton drummer] Dave Elliot, [rockabilly vocalist] Billy Hancock, and Joe Stanley, this great saxophonist.

I’ve been involved in the experimental scene. I’ve played the Sonic Circuits Festival ten years in a row. It’s been a very good thing for me to be here. A lot of the scenes don’t really intermingle, but I’ve been welcome in all of them. I’m really happy I’ve been able to do what I’ve done here.

AR: Do you think having a music school background has allowed you to become some kind of musical chameleon connecting the different scenes?

AP: In a way. I was always interested in all the different styles, but before I got to music school I didn’t know any theory.

Learning theory helped me to get out there and get through sets without even knowing a lot of the songs. But I always gravitated towards what I was into. Just because I went to music school didn’t make me feel like, “jazz is good.” I was into it. I was also into Minor Threat, surf, and rockabilly. It helped for sure. It gave me the time to study what I wanted to. I don’t get as much time to practice now as I did when I was in music school. It definitely helped a lot.

AR: I think the biggest lesson to be learned is that yes, you can like Minor Threat and also know how to read a chart, and that’s okay.

AP: Of course! [laughs] A lot of people do.

AR: Perhaps I’m oversimplifying a bit, but in the visual arts, “Messthetic” refers to the intentional embracing of ugliness, disorder, and viscera. Is calling your band the Messthetics a reference to the semi-improvised (or messy) nature of your music?

AP: We were struggling to come up with a name for the group. We had a long list of things we didn’t really like. Then Brendan just said, “Messthetics,” which is a song by Scritti Politti that he really liked growing up. It sounded good. We added “the” so it’s The Messthetics.

Yeah, I mean, it refers to [improvisation], and we’re instrumental. There’s a looseness to the music I really like that works with the name and what we’re going for. It makes me feel like we can get away with a certain amount of things just because of the name. It’s not always gonna be like that super tight fusion thing. The music kind of breathes.

AR: Is this tour coming up the first Messthetics tour?

AP: No, we’ve been out on the road a few times. We’ve been to New York twice. We went down south and opened for Pinback on a handful of gigs. We have stuff coming up. We’re gonna go to Japan. We’re coming to the Midwest, as you know. We’re gonna keep doing runs through at least next year. At least that’s what we’re looking at for the time being. This is going to continue for a while.

AR: That’s great news. So, are you a gearhead? What’s in your rig for the upcoming tour?

AP: Yes! I am. Okay, so on tour, I play a 1962 Jazzmaster with Joe Barden pickups in it. They’re Two Tones. And then my pedals: I start with a ZVex Fuzz Factory, then I go into a Digitech Whammy, then I have the Diamond Comp Jr., then I go into an [Electro-Harmonix] Mel9, and I just got a Greer Super Hornet, which I really like because it has a momentary octave fuzz switch. Then I go into a Boss volume pedal. I have two sides to the pedalboard: the side where I can control the volume of like, the Fuzz Factory, so I put everything that’s noisy before that, so I can be dynamic with noise stuff.

In the tuner jack of the volume pedal, I have the [TC Electronic] Polytune. That goes into a Klon Centaur, then a [Crowther Audio] Hot Cake, then my old Rat (which is the first pedal I got when I was twelve), then I go into your Afterneath (which I love), then into the Zvex RingTone, the Boss DD-7 for reverse delays, and I currently have the Moog MF Delay, a Holy Grail Nano, a 16-Second Digital Delay re-issue with the foot controller, and then I go into a ZVex Lo-Fi Loop Junky, and from there I go into the Voodoo Lab Amp Selector.

Anthony Pirog's Pedalboard. Photo: Aaron Rogers

Anthony Pirog's Pedalboard. Photo: Aaron Rogers

I’m running two amps. Not stereo, just a mono blend. I have an early 1965 Deluxe Reverb without the logo on the grillecloth, and then I’m also running one of those 18-watt hand-wired Marshall heads through their 1x12 extension cabinet.

AR: Are you using the two amps in a wet/dry configuration? Or do you just want to blend the sounds of the 6V6s and EL84s?

AP: It’s to blend the tones. I got the Marshall in 2006 and was using it for everything. Then I got the Deluxe Reverb because the opportunity presented itself. For the Tele stuff I was just using the Deluxe. This band is much louder than the cello/guitar improv stuff so I’m running both just for a little bit more [volume].

Anthony Pirog's guitar rig. Photo: Aaron Rogers

Anthony Pirog's guitar rig. Photo: Aaron Rogers

AR: What drew you to the Afterneath?

AP: I teach at this guitar store called Action Music in Falls Church, VA, and they carry your stuff. I can’t remember if I heard someone playing it or if I saw a video, but I was like, “I really need one of these Afterneaths,” so I plugged it in and immediately knew I could use it in this band. It’s on a lot of the tracks on this record. I use it as the peak of what I’m trying to get at in the songs. The way that it washes over the sound is just like, incredible to me. I love it. As soon as I got it, I knew I could be expressive with it.

I use it on “Mythomania.” It’s on there a lot. It’s in the washed-out section where I’m playing the melodic stuff.

In “Once Upon a Time” I use it at the peak of my solo when I start getting really fast like [makes guitar shredding sounds], just to have a total wash out.

It’s on the end of “Quantum Path” when I’m playing the half-time melody into the organ outro.

I use it on “The Inner Ocean” right when the song builds up to its highest point I bend one note and turn it on. Oh, and also earlier during the melody.

I use it on “Crowds and Power,” for the drone-y low C# stuff. It’s on five or six tracks out of nine.

AR: The song “Once Upon a Time” is a cover of [free-jazz guitarist] Sonny Sharrock. I became familiar with Sonny after accidentally tuning into Space Ghost Coast to Coast late one night when I was nine or ten years old, but I feel like he’s still relatively unknown among guitar players. How did you come to know Sonny’s music?

AP: This is all pre-internet, but when I was in high school I got into the whole John Zorn downtown music scene. I heard a track with Bill Laswell, Fred Frith, Dave Lombardo, and John Zorn off of Taboo & Exile. I can’t remember what the track is, but it blew my mind. So, I got into the improv stuff—the freer kind of improvisation.

I would go to New York and go to Downtown Music Gallery to buy CDs. And I went to school in New York, so I was hanging around the store, or I’d go to Tonic and see a show and look up [albums by] who just played. If it was Elliot Sharp, I’d go look up the Elliot Sharp section. I pieced it together by going to this record store or the music library at my school.

I can’t remember how Sonny Sharrock came up, but I found him while I was in school, and then I kept talking to people down here in the Roots scene, some people would be into him. I can’t remember the exact details, but I found Ask The Ages and that totally blew my mind. Pharaoh Sanders, Elvin Jones, Sonny Sharrock, Charnett Moffett. Every song on it is just incredible. If he’s still unknown that’s really sad to me. Everything about his playing and sound is so beautiful.

Anyway, Ask The Ages is his last record and it’s the last song on the album, and I was talking to Joe because he really likes free jazz, and we got really excited that we both knew it so well, and I started playing “Once Upon a Time.”

I knew it because my first show as a bandleader was covering this record as a quintet—tenor sax, my wife on cello, bass, drums, and me. We started playing it, and for some reason it was coming out in 7/4. The original track is kind of Rubato and played freely. Brendan started playing in 4/4 and the way phased with the beat sounded really cool. It sounded like an original approach to what Sonny Sharrock was doing. But yeah, he’s one of my four main guitarists. I’d say my favorites are Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Danny Gatton, and Sonny Sharrock. It meant a lot to me that we could include one of his songs on the record.

AR: That’s one hell of a top four.

AP: Yeah. When I do the Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan tribute stuff, it’s really intimidating to get up there and be like, “Hey, this song’s by Danny Gatton!”

I don’t try to play like him exactly, but I just try to honor the tradition.

AR: I read an interview with Joe recently where he said that during his time in Italy, he was woodshedding Eastern rhythms in seven and thirteen. Could you tell me a little bit about the Messthetics’ rehearsal routine? What about your own personal practice routine?

AP: When we first got together Joe had some songs in seven and it was exciting to explore odd time signatures with him and Brendan. I did a duo concert with Joe playing his music here at a place called Slash Run and he has a tabla box, and he’ll write basslines to the tabla box in different time signatures. When we rehearse we’ll play along to the tabla box. We’ll run that through the PA and play a groove in thirteen, or something.

When I knew that was a serious option, it challenged me to write some things in odd time signatures, which I haven’t done a whole lot. “Serpent Tongue” was one of the early songs. That’s in five, and there’s one bar of six during the solo, then during the melody it changes a little bit when the chords change.

As a band, we practice a couple times a week. It really gives me a feeling of comfort knowing I can work on this stuff and we can work on the band’s sound. A lot of times in the jazz or improv world, I’ll just hand out a piece of paper before the gig and hope for the best. Having the time to rehearse and get these ideas really grounded and let everyone develop their own vocabulary over the tunes is really exciting for me. I haven’t done something like this since I was twenty-two. It’s mostly been just getting together and playing, and if I get a rehearsal that’s incredible.

The way that the band rehearses—at least for these songs—is that I come in with the ideas, and we develop them as a group and come up with the arrangements and the form together. I’m really grateful for that because everyone had great ideas and it wouldn’t sound like it does without everyone’s input. That’s not the way I was working before. I was in my room coming up with the whole concept, and that gets a little old. It’s nice to bounce ideas around.

I never thought about playing for people until a week before our first gig. We rehearsed for like, six months before that. We were just having a great time laughing and working out these ideas that were difficult for us and then a week before the show, I was like, “Oh my God, other people have to hear this.” “I hope they like it.” [laughs]

In my own practice routine, it depends. I do basic maintenance with arpeggios and scales and intervallic exercises. I have a bunch of books on approaches to improvisation that I look at for lines and linear-based ideas.

I’ve also been working a lot on chords over the last few years. I’ve been working out of Mick Goodrick’s chord books. He has three volumes all about voice leading. I’m trying Drop 2s, Drop 3s, Drop 2 and 4s, Drop 2 and 3s, closed-position voicings, adding tensions, etc.

I like to look at Ben Monder’s composition books. There are two volumes that Mel Bay released. That’s been challenging and a real source of inspiration. I also look at guitar compositions by Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Morton Feldman. I don’t necessarily try to play the compositions all the way through, but I mine them for weird intervallic structures or sonorities.

Also, the Miles Okazaki book Fundamentals of Guitar has really been inspiring—the triad section, especially. It’s not the four types of triads, it’s just every combination of three notes. [He labels the notes] zero through eleven and then he shows every fingering for every three-note grouping within a five-fret range. I’m just trying to come up with stuff for composition and improvisation.

When I read Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, the thing that stuck out to me the most was that he said he spent his time developing a vocabulary for improvisation and that’s what I try to practice when I’m not doing physical maintenance. But I also have to set aside time to write, which is the most important thing to me.

AR: In what I as a fan would consider “true Dischord fashion,” the Messthetics’ Cleveland gig is at the Survival Kit art gallery, rather than a traditional rock club. In our time of booking tours through email and social media, how important is it to host music in nontraditional venues?

AP: Most of my career playing my own music has been in spaces that are nontraditional venues. It’s probably the most important thing to me to have spaces that aren’t bars or clubs to perform in because that’s where I or anyone can really stretch out and be adventurous and not have to worry about certain things that come with playing in a venue. It also strengthens the sense of community wherever you are.

That’s basically been my career—playing house shows and art spaces, and it means so much to me. I think it’s critical, because places keep shutting down here, but it’s the same community and it moves, and it has to. There isn’t always a huge turnout, but there’s music every night, and it’s challenging, and people keep coming from all over the country and the world, so it’s the most important thing to me. My favorite concerts have been in house venues and DIY spaces.

AR: Yes, absolutely. Here we are, thirty years on from the “American Underground” that Michael Azerrad wrote about in Our Band Could Be Your Life, and as unfortunate as it is to hear about the Silent Barn closing, or whatever, you can take comfort knowing that if one venue closes, two more will pop up to take its place. And you know that it’ll keep going.

AP: It has to.

The Messthetics’ s/t is available now on Dischord Records and at your local independent record store.


Aaron Rogers does Copywriting & PR at EarthQuaker Devices. He also works as a freelance live sound engineer and plays the bass guitar in Ultrasphinx.