Meet Anthony Pirog, the virtuoso guitarist exploring improv noise in The Messthetics
The Jazzmaster-toting guitarist has recruited an unbeatable backing duo from Fugazi to move from avant-garde jazz into something altogether more uncompromising.
Image: Shervin Lainez
Anthony Pirog’s work is otherworldly – feverish in its delivery and interstellar in its complexity – but his feet have long been planted on the ground in Washington DC. When he was a kid he soaked up the city’s music, studying Danny Gatton and blues transplant Roy Buchanan while grunge giants raged in the long twilight of the revolution summer.
But what’s the most DC thing a DC musician can do? Well, they could start a band with members of Fugazi and put out records on legendary DC punk-indie label Dischord. That would do it.
The resulting band, The Messthetics, are a freewheeling power-trio orbiting Pirog’s pyrotechnic guitars and the rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty, who proved themselves two of the best to ever do it across six LPs with the post-hardcore giants.
“They asked me to play with them, because Joe was looking to start a trio to play his music,” Pirog says. “I was just excited to go in there. Joe just started calling tunes and as soon as they started playing, they sounded incredible together – so locked. I was like, ‘Oh, there’s that sound.’ I felt like I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, because they were such a strong foundation.”
After the tour, they’d been working towards was wiped from the schedule, Pirog eventually plucked up the courage to ask Lally and Canty whether they’d be interested in working on some of his instrumental compositions. “Initially, I thought the group would be a freakout – free improv, noise, just the most wild thing I could imagine,” Pirog says. “But pretty quickly, we started developing songs and that seemed like the thing to do.”
The songs that found their way onto The Messthetics’ self-titled bow in 2018 were thrilling, knotty slabs of distorted experimentation. During rough and ready recording sessions at Canty’s rehearsal space, Pirog channelled his avant-jazz roots through a filter that could be described as J Mascis, Nels Cline and Glenn Branca fighting in a sack. When they began playing live, they thundered into the crowd’s chests – loud, visceral, exciting.
“A lot of the avant-jazz that I play is very intellectual and I wanted people to feel a pulse,” Pirog says. “If we’re playing a 21-beat cycle, I don’t want that to be the point of the piece. That’s the challenge for us as a group, but I like that pounding beat to be the thing that people react to, and maybe not even notice that it’s in an odd time signature.”
On their second album, Anthropocosmic Nest, the band’s palette has evolved. After playing something in the ballpark of 200 shows together, they have entered a different improvisational realm, seeking to capture a true representation of their competing creative urges and live prowess on wax. That’s how you end up with a song like Drop Foot – an explosion of noise and off-the-wall soloing – segueing into the unsettling jazzcore of Section 9.
“We’ve been performing a lot of the songs from the record live for a while,” Pirog says. “They’ve had time to breathe, and we’ve been able to develop our own vocabulary. When we were recording the first record, we had only played a few shows. I’m very proud of the first record, but this one had over a year to develop and see where things led in the live situation.
“We were working in the practice room for the first record for however many months before we played our first show. We’ve definitely become a different kind of group. And, again, not much is said about the way things are working. They just take shape themselves and everyone makes the decision that they think is best for their part, or role in the group. It’s easy.”
Pirog is an offset aficionado, having first picked up a ‘63 Fender Jaguar – a remnant from his father’s time in a surf band – before turning to a Mustang during his college jazz studies. “I was 11 in 1991, so offsets were all over the place on MTV,” he says. “A lot of the players that I love played them. Between the whole 90s thing and the surf thing, I didn’t have much of a choice.”
Later, after finding that bending on his Telecaster sounded a little too clean, he went all- in on a ’62 Jazzmaster kitted out with Joe Barden pickups – and it remains his go-to recording guitar. “I bought that on eBay and sold an amp and guitar to get it,” Pirog says. “You can have a relationship with an instrument and that one almost melted into me. I feel like I’m able to be creative with it. It’s not like that with every Jazzmaster – that guitar is a special one for me.”
So special, in fact, that it doesn’t make it out on the road. There, Pirog brings out a monster board, running close to 20 pedals, and his signature Shelton GalaxyFlite. Fitted with a GraphTech bridge and modular piezo/Barden pickup system, it’s also home to multiple outputs to facilitate his love of vintage guitar synths such as the Roland GR-100 and G-707, which pop up on Anthropocosmic Nest standout Pacifica. “There’s a lot going on under that pickguard,” Pirog says. “I think there’s like 54 wires. It’s crazy and I love it. It tracks with the synths very well.”
He adds: “It would be hard for a clarinet player to control a laptop, but for us, it’s not that hard and it’s exciting to have that sound available. John Abercrombie, in the 80s, was using guitar synths on ECM jazz records. I’m just trying to explore what’s possible, what’s mobile and what I can use as overdubs, because I’m not a good keyboard player but I like the sound of synthesisers.”
During his career, Pirog has been a lot of things. There’s his work in the virtuoso guitar/cello, husband-and-wife duo Janel and Anthony, his solo stuff and the recently unveiled cosmic improv of Five Times Surprise. Among these projects, The Messthetics are a one-off – abrasive, limitless, face-melting. Don’t sleep on them.
Anthropocosmic Nest by The Messthetics is out on 6 September through Dischord Records.
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