Those familiar with Anthony Pirog from his work with the duo Janel and Anthony or from his solo record, Palo Colorado Dream, might be surprised by the pugnacious shredding he evidences in his new band, The Messthetics. They shouldn’t be, though. If you lie down with punks you wake up with aggro, and joining Pirog in the band is the former Fugazi rhythm section of Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty. The Messthetics also let’s Pirog channel his inner Sonny Sharrock, which combined with his mastery of effects makes for one of the most exciting modern guitar records so far this year.
First of all, thanks for turning me on to Fugazi, they weren’t on my radar in the ’90s. Did you grow up listening to them in D.C.?
I never saw them live but hearing them and Minor Threat, was pretty important for me at a younger age. I always admired that stuff.
How did you meet them?
Joe was living in Rome. When he moved back [to Washington D.C.], he was looking to play with some people, so he set something up with Brendan. I had done a Janel and Anthony show with Brendan and his duo. Brendan liked what I was doing and recommended me for the guitar role. We only did one rehearsal for a tour playing Joe’s music. The tour fell through though, so I waited a couple of months and approached them about this group.
Who writes the tunes in the band?
I came in with the initial ideas for all these tracks and then we worked them up and arranged them as a group. It wouldn’t have happened without everyone’s involvement and input. Because we rehearse every week, we can try a lot of different things out.
Where did the Messthetics name come from?
Brendan came up with that. There’s a track by Scritti Politti called “Messthetics” that was one of his favorite songs.
It somehow fits, I’m not sure why.
I knew having that name we could get away with a lot.
How much of the music is improvised?
I don’t know, half of it. “Mythomania” was all improvised on top of a bass line and groove, except for the melody before the breaks. “Serpent Tongue” is a head, solo, head, jazz form. “Once Upon A Time” is more like melodies and solos. My first thought was that this would be a total freak-out, improv thing, but the approach turned out to be composed melodies, forms, songs, and then guitar solos.
How did you record the record?
In a way I’ve never done before: we recorded in our rehearsal space, just like we heard it being rehearsed. There was a familiarity and comfort I’m not used to when recording. We just showed up and tried to do one or two songs a day. It was very relaxed, there was no isolation; our amps were facing the drums. Brendan recorded it on his rig in the studio.
What set up does he have?
It’s a laptop and Pro Tools. He has two racks with eight pre-amps on each rack. It was all multi-tracked. We recorded our rehearsals, so everything’s just set up to go. He mixed it and did a great job. He’s a great engineer.
Did you lay down everything together? It sounds like there are overdubs on it, are there?
Not a lot, which makes me happy. I’m happy with the energy we got in these takes. I’m very proud of it because it’s something that can be difficult to capture, as you know. “Mythomania” definitely has overdubs. I go through movements with noise, loops, and slide, but I wanted to cut out all the time it took to set them up and transition to them, so I overdubbed different parts. “Serpent Tongue” and “Once Upon a Time” are live. “Quantum Path” is live, but I overdubbed a couple of guitar synth things at the end. I used the Korg X-911, have you ever played one of those?
I never even heard of it.
It’s an analog, monophonic guitar synth that works really well. I used it and a Roland GR-700 at the end of “Quantum Path.” “Your Own World” has noise and circuit bent stuff overdubbed. “The Inner Ocean” is totally live, but we did some delay production after we tracked it. I have a Space Echo on the right channel and a Diamond Memory Lane on the left. We automated the levels of those to make it fuller. “Radiation Fog” and “Crowds and Power” are live, and “The Weaver” has overdubs.
What guitar and amp are you using for the recording?
The same set up as may last solo record, Palo Colorado Dream: my ’62 Jazzmaster with Joe Barden pickups, my ’65 Deluxe Reverb, and my 18-watt Marshall hand wired head that I run through a 1×12 Marshall cabinet. I’m using two amps with this group—not for stereo—just for a blend and to be a little bit more present. This is louder than my other bands.
Are the Barden pickups hum-canceling, and are they hotter than the usual Jazzmaster pickups?
Much hotter, they blow up any overdrive pedal even if the gain is at zero. One of the main reasons I got the Klon was because it was the only pedal that wasn’t being blown up and getting a really snarling tone from the pickups. But it’s a big sound.
What pedals were you using on this?
A Z.Vex Fuzz Factory into a Digitech Whammy, into a small Diamond Compressor, to the Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Mellotron.
That goes into a Boss Volume Pedal, the Klon Centaur, a Hotcake, into a Pro-Co Rat. After the Rat comes the Z.Vex Ringtone, then into the Boss DD-7 for reverse delays, followed by a small Moog Analog Delay pedal. And then, an Electro-Harmonix Nano Holy Grail goes into a Strymon Flint, into the Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay Reissue with the foot controller, into a Z.Vex Lo-Fi Loop Junky. [Live, Pirog also uses a Greer Super Hornet Fuzz and a Voodoo Labs Amp Switcher]
On “The Inner Ocean” I’m using the EarthQuaker Afterneath. It builds up to what would be the peak of the solo and then I just hit one note and there’s a wash underneath it—that’s the Afterneath. I put it on in the beginning melodic parts before I get distorted, as well. The Afterneath is also on “Once Upon A Time” when I start playing shreddy. That’s one of my main pedals. I hear it as like a series of very fast delays that create a sound like a spitty reverb. I just love it.
Do you have the 16-Second Delay up where you can reach it, to manipulate it?
Yeah, because I record the movements with the octave lever.
I was wondering about the sound on “Mythomania,” which sounds like it’s backward, pitch shifted and sped up. Is that the 16 Second Delay?
That is the Whammy pedal through the DD-7 in reverse. There are also loops in that part. It’s probably the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. When the bass drops out right before I take the real solo at the end, that skipping sound that’s the 16-Second Delay. I press record and move the lever around and stop record, so that it records the glitching, and then with the fader I can go over two octaves, with the glitching I just tracked.
“Serpent Tongue” has a Sonny Sharrock vibe. Was that conscious?
Sonny Sharrock is one of my favorites. The first show I ever played as a bandleader I covered “Ask The Ages.” His music and playing mean a lot to me, as does his tone. So yes, especially near the end of the solo.
What distortion where you using on that tune ?
It’s my RAT pedal. I had the RAT pedal and the Hotcakes overdrive pedal on at the same time.
What is the high-pitched sound that comes in behind the solo on at one point?
That’s just the loop. I’m hitting open E string and bending up to the same note in unison and looping it and pitching it up an octave.
Did you do that in post and then fade it in under the solo?
That was live. That’s a result of being comfortable and knowing that we didn’t have any set amount of time, like “we have to do ‘Serpent Tongue’ by two o’clock.” We had all day if we needed it, so we took a bunch of takes and that was obviously the one that stood out.
“Once Upon A Time” has a modulation effect that sounds like it’s coming after the reverb.
That is the MEL9 going into the Hotcake. I’m doubling the guitar with the Mellotron sound and that’s being distorted, then it’s going into the DD-7 set for reverse delay, into the Analog Delay and the reverb. The modulation you’re hearing on that track is a production thing where I have a Roland Space Echo on the right channel and a Diamond Memory Lane on the left, set to different times.
Does “Quantum Path” use the same overdrive setup as “Serpent Tongue?”
Yeah, the two pedals are both on.
It sounds like there’s more going on with that sound than just distortion though, and it’s almost like delay adding notes or is that just the split delays?
In the beginning I’m using the Whammy pedal when I’m doing the pull off run. But once the two-note riff comes in it’s just the overdrive.
There’s a warbly loop on “Inner Ocean.” Is that the Lo-Fi Junky?
Yes, I do the loops into the 16-Second Delay Reissue and then dump them into the Lo-Fi Junky. I usually have the original loop playing up an octave on top of the Lo-Fi loop.
Is there any modulation on the clean guitar, the melody guitar?
No. I’m not a big fan of modulation, so it’s going to be rare to find it on my stuff.
Is it going through those post delays?
Oh yeah, that’s what it is. I’m sure it’s the Space Echo. It gives that random modulation.
Is the solo on “Inner Ocean” still the Rat/Hotcakes distortion or was that the Fuzz Factory?
No, it’s the same. I come in with just the RAT when I double the riff and, when I come in with the octave melodies I hit the Hotcake.
It’s interesting that it sounds different on all three tunes I mentioned.
I just go to the bridge pickup, turn both pedals on, and I’m happy.
It may be the context that makes them sound different. And depending what the rhythm section is playing, I would imagine different frequencies pop out.
Yeah, but I don’t switch settings on my stuff for songs. I have my delay set to where I like it. I have a long delay setting and a slapback that I use in “Serpent Tongue” to get that Sonny Sharrock sound. I just know where the time knob goes and I don’t mess around too much.
Is that the same drive again on “Crowds In Power?”
That’s the Fuzz Factory with the Whammy pedal, and then, when it breaks down for that first little melodic thing in sixths, it’s the Hotcake. When I do the psychedelic, bluesy solo, that’s just the RAT, and the rest is the Fuzz Factory.
What acoustic did you use for “Weaver?”
I have a Gibson acoustic. It’s the only one I’ve had since a teenager I don’t know what style it is. I think it says “Gospel.”
Are the strings on the record real or sampled?
That’s Janel, who recorded two lines near the end of that song.
What are the plans for this band?
We have a lot of week, to week and a half runs coming up. I think in the second week of April we’re going down to Birmingham. We take a week off and go to Chicago. We’re going up the Canada, and over to Japan in May. There’s a bunch of stuff coming up and it’s all online. I’m still a little bit confused by the schedule.
What other projects are you doing right now, or are you mostly concentrating on The Messthetics?
For now this is my main thing. But, I’m also doing a Telecaster recording with Joel Harrison from New York and Dave Chapell from Washington D.C. We’re going to play with John Kirby and Barry Hart who played with Danny Gatton. It’s a tribute to Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan’s music and playing. I also recorded in a quintet led by the saxophonist James Brandon Lewis from New York. That’s tracked and should be coming out. Other than that, Janel and Anthony have finished our third record, but we are redoing some stuff. I have been working on another trio record with Michael Formanek and Ches Smith, but I haven’t finished it yet. I also have another band that I’m recording called Body Puzzle, where I’m using Ableton tracks with a jazz group. I have been working on that for a few years but haven’t finished it.
Are you having a great time working with the Fugazi guys?
It means a lot to me. On Palo Colorado Dream, I have an Avant-funk track called “Threshold” that was inspired by the beginning of Fugazi’s “Red Medicine,” so they’re always on my mind. The two of them have a feel that is so solid and together that I am totally free to play on top. I’m not used to playing in a group that plays with this intensity or volume; it’s much more rock than most stuff I have been doing. It’s exciting to know that I can open up and feel free to play however wildly I like.
The other thing is rehearsing; I haven’t rehearsed like this with a group since I was about 23. It feels good being prepared and not have to hand out sheet music and hope for the best. There’s an excitement to that, but with this I just feel much more comfortable. Even though there’s improvisation involved, I know what to expect as a unit. So, yeah, I’m having the best time.