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Anthony Pirog: Chords and Harmony in an Angular, Free World

by Mark Beeson

Photo by Shervin Lainez

I first met Anthony Pirog when he filled in for our guitar player Nate Taylor at a corporate show in Leesburg about four years ago. I knew ahead of time that he had a reputation as a top-notch musician. Little did I know that his skill with a Telecaster would cause what has come to be known as the Leesburg Incident. During our performance of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Anthony broke into the solo, and I was so awe struck by what he was playing that I nearly dropped my bass. That doesn’t happen very often, but if you’ve ever had the chance to see him live or hear any of his recorded work, you may have your own incident.

For this interview, Anthony and I talked about his many musical endeavors including his latest project, the Messthetics with the former rhythm section of the legendary Fugazi; bass player Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty.

AR: You had a pretty busy 2019 with the Messthetics. Touring and a new album this past September.

AP: It’s pretty nice to be home from being on tour for, I guess, almost two years.

AR: What was your favorite memory from 2019?

AP: There were a lot of them. We did a lot of really exciting festival shows. I went to Europe twice. It’s hard for me to pick my favorite moment. It was very exciting to release our new record because I felt if documented and showcased the band in a different way because it seemed like a step in the direction we wanted to go.

Photo by Antonia Tricarico

AR: You’ve released two albums in the last two years. Do you plan to keep that pace going in 2020?

AP: That’s my hope. We are working on stuff for the third record right now. My goal with this project would be to do a record every year.

AR: That’s prolific in this day and age. Thirty years ago, maybe not so much.

AP: It would be the norm, but I feel very lucky to be working with Joe and Brendan. Rehearsing when we’re home is a priority and getting together to write, so we’ll get together two or three times a week and work stuff out. That’s not something I’ve done with a group since I was about 24 years old, beside maybe with my wife Janel. Just the fact that everyone wants to work on ideas is very exciting

AR: Did you bring a different mindset to the studio on Anthropocosmic Nest?

AP: The big difference was that we had been performing a lot of the material on the record for about a year before we recorded it. The first record was recorded only after maybe a handful of shows, so the material didn’t have time to evolve in front of people. But we spent months and months rehearsing before our first show. The big difference would be that these songs kind of grew on the stage. Brendan’s a great engineer. He has mics set up on our instruments when we rehearse, so everything is recorded, and we take rehearsals home and listen. We get an opportunity to show how the arc of each song develops. It’s different when you’re in front of people when there’s that energetic exchange. That was the big difference. It just felt like it showcased the band.

Photo by Shervin Lainez

AR: At times it seems like you’re channeling a completely different instrument. Like on “Pay Dust.” I could hear that main lick played on a reed instrument. Do you think about things like that when you’re coming up with parts? How would this instrument play it, or how would I reinterpret this?

AP: I just finished another record, and I was just listening to it, and when I’m writing I don’t think about it necessarily as a guitar song or a composition for a specific ensemble. I like to think of the song existing with just chords and harmony that can be stripped down to just a piano part. So, yes, what you’re saying about it being more like a sax melody is true because I’m really into melodies by saxophone players like Anthony Braxton, stuff like that. I’m just thinking about it as a melody. It’s not like a blues guitar melody. It’s coming more from an angular, free music world.

AR: I saw a couple of years ago that my favorite guitar player, Andy Summers, mentioned you as one of his favorite new guitar players. That must have been pretty cool.

AP: It was very exciting for me because I woke up one morning and saw on Facebook that he had mentioned me. I actually got in touch with him because I knew the journalist that did the interview. He writes for Guitar Player and Guitar Moderne. I contacted him and asked for Andy’s publicist, and he gave it to me. I contacted the publicist, and she said she would pass my information along to him, and he called me. We talked, and we were kind of emailing, so it was really nice to read that and kind of connect with him. We had a nice talk about guitar pedals and ourselves. He was really kind.

Janel and Anthony

AR: Has your work with the Messthetics influenced any of the music you’re doing with your other projects?

AP: Not really. I feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing with Joe and Brendan because it’s not too far off from what I would be doing anyway. They are amazing musicians individually, and together it’s just like total powerhouse. So that’s the big difference. The intensity of the music was not something I was doing before. I always wanted my music to get to this big, powerful, loud, dynamic kind of place. But when I was playing with other groups, we might not have a rehearsal, actually we barely had a rehearsal, so I’d hand out sheets of paper and just hope for the best. I was never really sure I could get to that dynamic with other groups. So, I would never go that far. But with them, I feel totally free, and can open up and play in a way that I don’t and didn’t normally get to.

They have been so open to all of my ideas. They’re bringing in amazing ideas, too, and they bounce ideas back to me when I bring an idea in. The Messthetics are very special because everyone has input. We rehearse all the time so it develops, and the songs wouldn’t be what they are without the three of us. I’m very proud of all my other work, but to be working so intensely has really been a gift. That’s all I can say.

AR: The music has a lot of muscle. That’s the first takeaway I took from it. It reminds me of some of the later first phase of King Crimson, for instance the Larks Tongue in Aspic album. What the rhythm section is doing and then you’re on top of it layering these beautiful melodies and interesting sounds and tones. It really just has a lot of muscle.

AP: That’s basically what I felt when we first got together. They sounded so amazing together. I felt as soon as I was in the room with it, I could do anything on top and it would be ok because the support is just so strong and the foundation is so strong.

AR: Your co-conspirators in the Spellcasters were just featured in Vintage Guitar magazine. You might, and mistakenly so, think that The Spellcasters would be a 90° turn from the Messthetics style of music, but I can hear similar musical sensibilities in both projects. Your music with them runs the gamut from hyped up jazz-tonk to dreamy fusion. Some songs have a very cinematic/noir quality to them, like “High Mountain.” Tell us about that project.

AP: The music and guitar playing of Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan has been very important to me since I was about 13 years old. It’s obviously mind blowing in terms of technique and tone, but the fact that was happening here in DC was very important to me even as a little kid. I never got to see either one of those guys.

I’ve been working on that style since that time. I would kind of flirt with the idea of playing that kind of stuff out, but I didn’t start until maybe five years ago going out with a Tele and playing the music with groups. My intent was not to imitate it but to honor it as a regional tradition, because there are still venues around like JV’s where you can play that stuff. My first gigs out of school were the Surf Club on Kennilworth Avenue, so I was always in that Tele root scene, but I never stepped out as a leader until like five years ago.

I released Palo Colorado Dream on Cuneiform Records, and Joel (Harrison) was releasing Mother Stump at the same time, so Steve, the guy that runs the label, asked if I would set up a show in D.C. with Joel because his record was loosely based on the guitar playing of D.C. So we played a show at Iota, and he asked me to play “Harlem Nocturne” with him, so we kind of hit it off. We also had the weird jazz thing in common too.

Then he asked if he could come back down, so I set up a show at JV’s. I asked John Previti to play bass, which I don’t think I’d ever really played with him. Joel asked him, and I was really nervous, but I knew all the records. He said yes, he’d do the gig. Then he suggested Dave Chappell sit in, and Dave Chappell has been one of my heroes for years. I’d go to JV’s to see him play and figure out what’s going on. He sat in and when the three of us played, it was just really cool. It reminded me of the Hellcasters, but more wild.

Photo by Shervin Lainez

AR: The Hellcasters, their music covers a lot of real estate. It’s not what you’d expect someone to play on a Telecaster. For instance, Danny Gatton. He could go from one genre to another. He could work tuning and changing a string into a song. I’m kicking myself for never taking the opportunity to see him play.

AP: That was the thing for me. I was 14 when he passed away. I had a transcript book for 88 Elmira Street, and I had his two instructional videos. I remember being 20 or 21 and having an internet connection that was too slow, but there was a Danny Gatton website that had live videos. I was like, they’re coming up and I’m gonna see them at some point, but I have to be patient. It took a couple years and then things started popping up on the internet and YouTube. It didn’t really help (chuckling). It didn’t look like his fingers were moving at all.

It was interesting because that’s what started off in bars, but then in the recording we wanted to make some of our own compositions, and maybe do some songs that weren’t the obvious covers. Joel chose “Kindred Spirits,” which is kind of like a jazz fusion, Wayne Shorter-ish kind of song to me. Then he wrote “High Mountain.” I wrote that rocky kind of song “Running After.” I feel like that record wasn’t imitating the style, but it was like interpreting it, and that’s what I’m proud of. Half that record is live. Brendan actually recorded us at Rizome. I can’t remember which ones are live. The first track “High Mountain” is live, and there are at least two others. That was exciting, too, because I haven’t done much live recording.

AR: It’s hard to tell what’s in the studio and what’s live. The sound quality is fantastic.

AP: That’s because Brendan is awesome.

AR: So what are you and Janel up to?

AP: I’m glad that you asked. We just finished our third record two weeks ago. We’ve been working on it for a while, and it’s far different from our other work. Our first two records are all instrumental, or mostly instrumental, and it’s kind of pushing boundaries. This one is all vocal. Janel is singing on every track, and it’s more produced up like a band. We played everything, but it’s a lot different.

AR: Where did you record it?

AR: We recorded it where we record all our solo projects, at the Brink in Centreville. Mike Reina. It’s just my favorite studio. I finished the Janel and Anthony record, and this past weekend I finished up a follow-up trio record with Michael Formanek and Chess Smith. I’m really excited about both those projects. That studio is amazing. Mike Reina is one of my best friends.

AR: Are you going to be hitting the road again with the Messthetics this year?

AP:  Yeah. It looks like we might be going to Europe twice in the summer. We have a couple of shows coming up in March. We’re playing the Ottobar in Baltimore on March 31st. We’re going to be booking but not too much is confirmed. We’re playing New York in May, and we’ll do a run up the East Coast to Canada. Things will pick up again. Everyone needed a break, but not Brendan. He’s in Australia right now touring with the MC50. It’s Wayne Kramer, Brendan’s on drums, Billy Gould from Faith No More, Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, and Zen Guerrilla singer Marcus Durant. Brendan has been doing it off and on for about a year and a half.

Mark Beeson

Mark Beeson is a musician, songwriter and studio producer/engineer at Fred n’ Elvis’ Guitar Lounge. He grew up in the Philadelphia area and is a die-hard Eagles and Penn State fan. Occasionally Mark will step and out conduct an artist interview when he’s not busy in his role as the art director and content manager for Alchemical Records.

Karen Yadvish

Karen is an avid music fan and guitar player and collector who has performed on stage with Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick. Karen is the Editor and SEO manager of Alchemical Records. Many people don’t know that Karen is a former genetic scientist who worked on the team responsible for sequencing the human genome for the first time.

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