Bringing Down the House | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Bringing Down the House

What do you do when someone hands you the keys to a house slated for demolition? If you're Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, you start calling up bands.

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It's not yet eight in the morning, but a demolition crew is already at work tearing down the frame house at 1304 W. Ardmore. Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, carrying an umbrella to keep off the December drizzle, watches a backhoe tear out a chunk; bits of debris flutter slowly to the ground amid a billowing cloud of dust. As the 95-year-old building is reduced to rubble, filmmaker Christoph Green directs a three-person camera crew recording the destruction.

Three months earlier Canty and Green shot nine local bands playing in the living room of this house--including Wilco, Tortoise, the Ponys, and Shellac--for the second volume of their DVD series "Burn to Shine." Now they're back to film the conclusion of the Chicago installment. The first DVD, Washington DC 01.14.2004 (Trixie), released Tuesday, features eight bands from in and around D.C. playing in another doomed house in Maryland--burned down as part of a fire department training exercise before it was finally demolished.

Canty says the project aims to present live band footage without the cliches of a typical rock video or concert film. "What we're trying to get away from is the idea that music always has to be presented on giant stages with a bunch of lights and tons of people," he says. "We're trying to put these bands in a context that actually focuses on the playing, on the songs. . . . That's the backbone of this whole thing, to release us from the bullshit."

The opportunity to film in a building about to be demolished fell into Canty's lap. His friend Pat Paddack had bought a house in Bethesda from the estate of a longtime neighbor, intending to raze it and rebuild on the site. "He was feeling really ambivalent about tearing it down," says Canty, "so he wanted to do something good with it, make some use of it." In December 2003 Paddack decided to donate it to the fire department, and asked Canty if he wanted to do anything with the house before the firemen had their way with it.

Canty called Green, whom he'd met through his work composing scores and sound tracks for TV, advertising, and film. "The first thing he said to me was, 'A friend is giving me a house, let's have a happening,'" says Green.

Green, founder of a production company called Tangerine Studios, had been fascinated with filming bands for years. "It's one of my obsessions. But it's really hard to do it in an interesting way, because concerts and videos are limited mediums."

Canty and Green decided to shoot all the bands in the living room of the house in a single day, with each act playing only one song. "You don't have to go through the filter or process of dissecting the good stuff out of the big disgusting concert environment," says Canty. "It's a much more microscopic presentation." There would be no audience and no overdubs, and the filmmakers hoped to get a final take from each act in one or two tries.

Thrown together in a little more than a week, the D.C. event was "very much a let's-see-who's-gonna-show-up kind of thing," says Canty. He recruited artists he thought would make up a snapshot of the city's scene: the roster includes his own band Garland of Hours; the Evens, a new project from Fugazi front man Ian MacKaye; Weird War, fronted by Nation of Ulysses vet Ian Svenonius; Ted Leo, currently a New Yorker but a longtime D.C. fixture; and recent transplant Bob Mould. Green assembled a small crew and rented two $125,000 high-definition video cameras, whose crisp, high-contrast images supplement the regular video footage.

In May 2004 Green and Canty showed a rough cut at a couple D.C. festivals. Despite the video's arresting visuals, its lack of exposition vexed early audiences. "It seemed kinda confusing as to why there were fire engines at the end of this film about bands playing," says Canty. "At one of the screenings this woman asked me, 'Did Bob Mould get out of the house in time? What happened?'" Canty soon added a voice-over to the beginning of the movie to fill in the backstory.

This summer, with the D.C. project in the can, Canty and Green decided to expand "Burn to Shine" into a series. They've jointly founded a company called Trixie (trixiedvd.com) to release the DVDs, and in October Touch and Go agreed to distribute them.

The Chicago property was offered up by Edgewater resident John Gorlewski, a program manager for a local research company and longtime Fugazi fan who'd seen a Craigslist posting from the filmmakers. He'd bought the house next to his own, and it was scheduled for demolition. (It was too close to neighboring buildings for the fire department to burn it down first.) Canty enlisted his friend Bob Weston, the bassist for Shellac, as curator and recording engineer. Weston picked a wide range of artists, including the Lonesome Organist, Tight Phantomz, Pit Er Pat, the Red Eyed Legends, and Freakwater. "It was complete mania, back and forth between styles," says Canty. "But I love that. The common thing is that all these people are genuine artists and you get a real sense of the community they're a part of."

Green resisted the urge to listen to the bands' songs ahead of time, so that his visual thinking would be more spontaneous. At the Chicago shoot, on September 13, the crew tore out part of the ceiling in the living room, allowing what was dubbed the "drum cam" to capture some striking overhead angles, and Green floated one of the conventional video cameras over the building by attaching it to a large helium balloon.

Green and Canty are in postproduction on the Chicago "Burn to Shine," which they plan to screen locally in May and release on DVD in June. Meanwhile Jason Noble (Rodan, the Rachel's, the Shipping News) is looking for bands for a Louisville edition, and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi is handling a Portland event, tentatively scheduled for March and likely to involve another burn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Saah.

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