Looking at the lineup of Deathfix, whose self-titled debut was just released on Dischord, might prompt all sorts of expectations of what one might hear on their album. Guitarist Brendan Canty was one-quarter of Fugazi; keyboard player Rich Morel has been a house producer and worked with Bob Mould. The rhythm section of Devin Ocampo (drums) and Mark Cisneros (bass) come from Medications. And yet the seven songs heard here fall into a sort of dark, rhythmic pop sound, anchored by sonorous vocals. It’s cerebral yet catchy stuff. I caught up with Morel and Canty via email to learn more about the band and the creation of their album.
The two of you first played together in Bob Mould’s band. To what extent were you familiar with the music that one another made at that point?
Rich Morel: I knew Brendan’s work with Fugazi; Red Medicine was a favorite. After playing with Brendan I realized how much of his musicality is on those records.
Brendan Canty: I had played a marriage equality benefit with Bob Mould at 930 Club. It was one of the first times I’d ever played with Bob Mould live. Brandon Butler played bass for us. Anyway, Rich’s band Morel played that night and it was my first chance to see him live. I was struck by his voice. There’s a massive weighty presence in his voice that made me pay attention. Then I listened to his records and realized that though he was coming from a different world than mine, he was representing his vision in a true and complete form, and it was really intoxicating. The big sound of his voice and the way he wrote for it. Very masculine but soothing. and he writes very story-like lyrics. Sort of like Scott Walker in the effect it has on me, but obviously different.
There’s a very assured sound heard on the album. How soon after you had begun making music together did a style that you could think of as Deathfix come about?
Rich: “Better Than Bad” and “Low Lying Dreams” were two of the first song we wrote together. The demo versions of those songs have a gravity that can be heard on the final record. The combination of our voices and musical styles created its own identity. Lyrically we found a thematic center that flows through out the record too; loss, celebrity, obsession,vulnerability, excess.
Brendan: Yeah, the demoing of the songs is really important. Make it fucked up, push it, then figure out what you can replicate with a band. The assured nature of the record though I would think is Devin and Mark on bass and drums. They are really focused on making tight tracks. Make a great bed, then you can mess with it all you want. All the basic tracks are recorded live. We didn’t use hardly any Pro Tools trickery on it. Those are live takes that the band did together in a room.
It was recorded and mixed in a very analogue fashion. I think because we are ancient beings practicing the old ways.
When did the rhythm section of the band come aboard?
Rich: We were a year or two into it when Devin and Mark were added. Brendan brought both Devin and Mark in . I met Mark when he played play sax on a Yoko Ono remix I was doing. I hadn’t met Devin before. Both of them are such diverse and talented musicians that Deathfix expanded into what we are now.
Brendan: It’s so hard to do interviews and not under-represent the others in the band. Please take it from me that this is a band of equals. A year and a half ago we wanted to play out. Either we were going to show up with acoustic guitars or we’d have to find a rhythm section. I was open to playing drums, but also thought it would be a cop out.
Anyway, Devin and Mark were the two best musicians I knew. I’ve been a fan of the Medications for a long time. They are a highly undervalued commodity. Medications should be huge, but they’re not. The world is unfair. Anyway, they are skilled players, honest people, and inspired writers.
Do the songs on Deathfix reflect the current songwriting status of the group?
Rich: Yes. We improvise as a group to both develop songs that we have written and to write new ones. We improvise live too. It really opens up our live sets.
Brendan: The new songs are coming together more and more in the practice room. Just becoming a band more and more. Mind-melding. Making noise. Analyzing the noise. Reproducing the noise. I guess Rich and I are still writing the lyrics, but the music is really coming from the band collectively. And those guys are way into back ups and doing harm.
“Transmission” ends the album with an extended coda — was that always present, or has it arisen out of playing the song live?
Rich: That’s a great example of our process. Originally we had the top of the song which was built on a Brian Wilson-esque chord progression and lyric about passive obsession. Through late nights of playing together it expanded into what it is on the recorded version.
Brendan: I think it’s important to have things like that on records that will someday remind you of who you really were… more than perfect versions of perfect recordings. We love to write things and work them out and rave them up. I love the MC5 and they had that in spades. I love High Time more than Back in the USA because they use the studio to get great versions of them stretching out.
We went back and forth on how much to include of that. It could’ve been faded out, but there’s plenty of manicured events on the record already. I’m a fan of free music. Noise, jazz, whatever. This gets there a little.
What are you reading these days?
Rich: A Wizard a True Star-Todd Rungren in the Studio: A complete history of Rundgen’s solo work and productions. Sex at Dawn, an academic argument for infidelity.
Brendan: I’m reading the Max Perkins biography Editor of Genius. He discovered Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe. I love Wolfe, and I love reading about how hard Perkins fought for his writers. How he helped his writers in big and small ways, but that it all made a difference. How a little bit of support for young, poor, vulnerable writers can change everything at the right time. The lineage of those guys, especially Thomas Wolfe, is really inspiring. The focus on truthful writing about normal people and glorifying our commonality is really important to me.
Given that you’re on tour, I’m curious: does your tour reading differ significantly from what you might be reading at home?
Rich: Not much. I love music nerd books and Sex at Dawn makes for good conversation on the road.
Brendan: I do think a tour is as good as your book sometimes. At home I read in fits and starts and have about 3 books going at once because I can’t find the one I was just reading. I read the paper, The New Yorker, I’m on the computer a lot. On tour I get a big book and chill on it for a week. stay off the computer. Listen to music and read. Lots of downtime. It’s a beautiful thing.
Deathfix will play on Saturday, March 16th at the Knitting Factory.