Brendan Canty

Brendan Canty
Burn to Shine’s Seattle stop for volume five finds the DVD series looking and sounding its best. Producer Brendan Canty (Fugazi) and director Christoph Green continue to scout condemned buildings (mostly houses) in specific cities, calling upon local musicians to gather fellow artists for one day before the structure disappears. On January 27, 2007, Death Cab for Cutie‘s Benjamin Gibbard curated rare, living room performances by Eddie Vedder, Harvey Danger, hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, Minus the Bear, and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, among others. There are fewer chances for snazzy camera angles leading to some inventive techniques but it’s sonically tough and, where a montage of the building’s destruction is usually included, this home was actually transported across Seattle, providing the most unique Burn to Shine ending yet. Brendan Canty tells us more.

Brendan, the Burn to Shine concept remains essentially the same yet there’s some particularly unique aspects about this Seattle edition. What makes volume five distinctive for you?
Every volume is dictated by the tastes of the curator, if you will. Ben Gibbard gave us a slice of Seattle that is very acoustic for the most part and he definitely brought more of that angle out. The house itself was much more earthy with stained glass, so to me, this is a pretty version of Burn to Shine, as opposed to some of the other ones, which were more funky — like Chicago, where the house was really well used with pink curtains and green walls. This one is much more exposed wood and stained glass and I think the musical performances really reflect that. I think the acoustic versions of songs by Ben Gibbard, Eddie Vedder and Dave Bazan all fit perfectly within that room. It’s not until you get to the crazier songs that there’s any disjuncture whatsoever. The floor plan and the light allowed us to make a much prettier than grittier film.

It also has a much more positive outcome.
Well yeah, that was totally unexpected. I mean, I really tried to get the guy to not save this building and destroy it but unfortunately… [laughs]

[Laughs] Wow. That’s evil of you.
‘YOU’RE RUINING MY FILM!’ [laughs]. No yeah, it was great actually. The whole way it went down was great: this guy just happened upon the house, saw us in there recording these bands, saw the commotion, looked through window, came in, and was shocked and dismayed that they were gonna demolish the building because he lived in the neighbourhood. It really is a cute little house, a typical, early 20th century Sears-Craftsman bungalow that any one of us would give his right arm to own. We’re in a state, during this housing boom, where houses like that just get out-moded, not necessarily in terms of space but because of sellability, location, and of the market in general. People want to maximise every square inch of their property, and now it’s all coming home to roost and the housing market’s gone bust but, if you think back to the heady days of ’07 [laughs], things were a bit different. They were knocking down things like that, and they still are, and putting up some condos. That’s what happened here except for in this one instance, because this guy just happened to be there, talked to the owner and bought the house for cheap, put it on the back of a flatbed truck, and rolled it down the hill into Ballard and is now living in it.

That’s so crazy that he could just do that. I’ve seen it happen but I thought those houses had to be specially built to be portable like that.
Well, I think they have to be well built. This house was built in 1918 and it’s beautiful construction all the way through it and it didn’t surprise me. I was talking to the guys who moved it and they do this stuff every day. In fact, they have a big lot outside of Seattle that has like 200 of these homes just sitting there. They just pick ’em up and re-sell them. So, it’s a really cool thing, I just don’t think anybody knows about it really.

It does seem to pose a problem for your series.
Yeah, well, I’m gonna have to stop them [laughs].

Right, again, with your evil ways.
This kind of thing happens all the time. The one we shot in Atlanta recently was similar where people don’t want these old houses to go down, which is great, but it is screwing with my films [laughs]. No, but I’m really pleased. In some ways, these are somewhat protest films. Really, the worst thing about this series is going down there on the day of demolition. As cool as it is, it’s a really shitty feeling in the end and really makes you feel like crap. So, when this happened, I was overjoyed really and all the parties involved were pleased at the outcome. I’ve gotten a couple nasty letters about this one though.

About what?
People being bummed that we didn’t deliver on the demolition aspect of the films, if you can believe that.

That’s very odd. As you say, they’re protest films highlighting the situation and what happened was, you made the film and someone actually answered your call.
One thing we didn’t do on this DVD was offer any explanation for anything.

Right, normally there’s some text included.
Yeah, there’s lots of text, stuff on the website, and lots of interviews like this one, and that all helps. And I figured I’d have more to talk about if I didn’t talk about it in the film.

Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab curated this volume; did you know and like most of these artists before the day of filming?
I didn’t know half of them. It really was Ben’s deal and it’s that way everywhere. I called Eddie but Ben knows everyone too. I hooked up with Ben through Ted Leo, who’s a good friend and was opening for those guys. So, I went down to see them and I gave Ben a DVD and then, I think within a month we hatched plans about it. When I finally got a house together and I called him up, that guy had this thing booked — I’m serious — within a day. He had it in order, everyone signed up, and was done thinking about it in a day. It was remarkable. With minor shifts in schedule, everyone did as Ben told them to.

Is it crucial for you to like the artists that are in the series?
No. It helps to edit if you like the bands but… I like the bands in this one.

No, no I appreciate that but when you hand over the curatorial duties to someone else yet it’s still your series…
Well, we go back and forth, honestly. We definitely talk about it and there’s a lot of dialogue. This Seattle one was different than most of them because Ben really ran with it, and locked it in quickly. There’s usually more reminding people of when they’re supposed to be there. Like this Portland one; man, I gotta tell you, I think those guys run on a Mayan clock out there.

Was there anyone you were hoping for that couldn’t make it?
Well, I kind of wanted all of Death Cab honestly but Chris [Walla] was, as usual, producing a record somewhere. Who else? You know, a lot of the bands that I always loved from that area were from Olympia. So, in some ways, I was like, ‘Maybe I should bring Lois [Maffeo] and Calvin [Johnson] or someone up and do it,’ but it’s more interesting to me to make it an insider’s perspective and get Ben’s take on it. Like, who do you go to see? Who’s your community? That’s a huge thing; community to me is everything. If we can get a snapshot of somebody’s community, then… Otherwise it’s a hodgepodge and I don’t think you do anybody any good. I’d rather get in on the ground floor with a band like Minus the Bear than try to make some kind of overarching history of Seattle. That’s a film I’m not interested in making; I’d rather make little time capsules that we can send into the future.

I understand that Volume 6 is in post-production but Seattle also precedes the release of Volume 4; can you discuss what’s happened there?
It’s kind of tricky. We had a bunch of technical issues with the demolition but also with the scope of the story because the house is a lot more interesting than usual…

Is Volume 4 Louisville?
It is, yeah. Basically, we just got a bit thwarted by it. There’s 18 minutes of the Magik Markers making noise in the middle of it and the house footage is great. The story behind the house is that this guy built a poor man’s Hearst Castle; he just built and built and made this funky house in this suburban neighbourhood and then fell off the roof and broke his hip. He passed away this year but he wrote music himself and lots of letters and we’re allowed to use all that stuff if we want to. It’s just a trickier story though. It’s a lot harder to put something together that resembles a narrative. So, we were working on it and hit a wall and moved on. I think it’s gonna be in black and white but that’s about all I can tell you about it. It’s longer and more difficult to make this kind of movie.

I also understand that you’re working on some film projects outside of Burn to Shine including a Wilco film; can you talk about this?
We’re just shooting a bunch of shows and we’ll see how it comes out. We have no huge plans except to make a tour film. We’re trying to capture Wilco in their present-day glory. I’m just such a fan of theirs, each player; Nels Cline, Glen Kotche, John, Pat, and Mike. Just as a fan, I really find that, by the end of the set, you’re more refreshed than when you go in there. That’s pretty anomalous these days; usually you get so beaten down. But the way they massage their sets, the way they go back and forth, their dynamics are amazing. They’re really intellectual in a way in their arrangement choices and each person, just from the amount of time on the road, you can tell each person has really mined their space in those songs. So, I think they’re great and I’ve been wanting to capture this band for a long time because man, I tell you, I think right now, they’re better than they were two years ago.

You know you mentioned a few names there. Are you a fan of Jeff Tweedy’s at all?
Oh yeah.
No but you know [laughs]… I love Jeff.

[Laughs] You mentioned everyone but Jeff.
No, no, no, I love Jeff. We made the Jeff Tweedy Sunken Treasure film, the acoustic tour. Have you seen that film?

Yes I have. Yeah, see that was my… I thought my love for Jeff could go unsaid by virtue of the fact that I made that film. But I guess not! You’re a mixer man!

I’m being silly because you mentioned everyone but Jeff but they are an unheralded group of guys behind them.
Well, I gotta say I love the songs and everybody knows the songs. Jeff’s brilliant and he’s focused and he’s in it for the long haul. I love his voice and as a person he’s hilarious and we get along great. But that band has become, to me, one of the great rock bands of all time. They sound like the Band in a way where everybody’s doing their part, stepping back and up at just the right time and they’re becoming a real thing, not just six guys on stage.

I have had some arguments with people when I say they’re my favourite American band.
Oh yeah, well I think they’re the best band in the world but that’s just me! [Laughs]

Your most high-profile musical venture outside of Burn to Shine these days is likely playing drums with Bob Mould; what’s that experience been like?
Well, I’m actually not playing with Bob on this tour because I couldn’t swing it. The touring itself is great. Being in the band with Bob and Jason Narducci and Rich Morel is fabulous. They’re great guys and the shows were great and people love Bob. We were breaking out the Hüsker Dü songs and people loved them. It was the first time he’d played them in years and years and I think those were special shows for people. But it was a really different situation than Fugazi, that’s all. It was surprising because I’ve never committed myself to that sort of thing without being in a proper band, which to me is everybody contributing to the song. Everybody splits everything equally, songwriting credits, everyone’s forced to bring stuff in, you talk, you work, you talk, you work. Then you own those songs — and I don’t mean financially — but when you go out there, you’re presenting a part of yourself to people. Going out with Bob is not that way. I mean, I can play drums to Bob’s songs but it’s not the same. That was the big difference. I love to invoke the songs but they’re not my songs and I didn’t quite realise how much that aspect of it meant to me.

Are you distancing yourself from playing with him then or is this just a scheduling thing?
I won’t be able to do anything until the summer and he’s touring now. I love recording with him and I’ll do anything I can with him. I’m not trying to distance myself from him but the experience, just on a personal level, is just different. Supporting somebody else’s songs is not what I feel that I was put on this earth to do. We’re only on this earth for a short time and I don’t want to get to the end of my life and not have anything to show for it, so I spend every day making things. Records, films, or doing something that I can leave behind. I know that’s a morbid way of looking at it but, being a dad, I spent years making money doing campaign spots and mixing television shows and, when you get to be 42, you’ve done some of these things. After three years of that, at the end of the day, you feel like Rip Van Winkle. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you paid your bills for three years but what do you have to show for it?’ I don’t re-watch or re-listen to any of the records that I make but I like to make things that I can call my own. That’s really important to me.