I grew up in Cleveland Park, in Washington, DC, in a big Victorian house along with my six bothers and sisters who were mostly older than me. It was really mellow, and I remember spending a lot of time hanging out on the roof with no shoes on. There was also a lot of music. My father played piano, and my brothers and sisters all played instruments too, and that kind of set the tone for me.
My father wasn’t a musician professionally, but I think it was always something he had wished he had done. There were always instruments around, he’d often rent them, say for a month at a time, and we got to try out whatever was around.
He would also play with other non-professional musicians in our neighborhood, mostly jazz, like with this guy Gill Carter who would play stand up bass, and they’d have these jam sessions in the living room where everyone would get together and listen.
My father was always encouraging of anything musical, and more broadly of anything creative, understanding that his kids had different passions. One thing he imbued us with was this feeling that we could do something creative, and it wasn’t a waste of our time. But when I was getting into punk rock, he didn’t really like the music at all.
At first, I didn’t have my own set and I was always borrowing other people’s drums. I was not a good drummer. At all! I couldn’t even play the kick pedal! I bought my first drum set off a kid for about $25. It was basically a couple of shitty cymbals, a kick drum, and a tom that were barely held together. And the cymbals didn’t even have stands, so I would use rope to connect them to the ceiling rafters in our unfinished basement. It was totally jerry-rigged, so the cymbals would just hang there flying over my head, and every time I tried to hit one it would fly back and almost chop my head off.
In 1981, when I was fifteen, I made my first recording with a band called Deadline. When the record came out, my dad was impressed enough, and I lobbied him hard enough, that he said he’d buy me a better drum set for my birthday. I started constantly scouring the Washington Post classifieds because back then that’s where everybody got their instruments. I finally found a set of drums out in Olney, Maryland. Because we lived in the city, we rarely ventured into the suburbs, but my dad and I went out there together.
It was a 1964 Gretsch set, really beautiful, wrapped in a sexy, sparkly brown… like if a go-go dancer had to wear brown. (Laughs.). And it had maple rims, and all of this vintage stuff… like a Rogers dynasonic snare, which is this totally wackadoodle contraption, sort of like a mechanical way to put the snares on the bottom of the snare drum. Back in the jazz era, you had all of these crazy add-ons, like cow bells and whistles, and shakers, and shit like that, and these old jazz guys would be like ba-na-na-na-na kish ba pa whooo!
These were called the traps, and your skill as a drummer would be judged by how quickly you could grab all of that shit and get it off in a song. The modern drum set is called a trap set because it incorporated all of the blocks and the bells and the cymbals and everything right where you can reach them. But this set was like a time capsule, and I was drooling over it.
My dad on the other hand was all business, and he went straight into hard bargaining mode. The funny thing about being out there with him was I’d never seen him interact with other men except on an extremely friendly basis. The guy selling the drums wanted $400 but my dad went through the whole rigmarole of looking at all the stuff, checking it out, appraising it. He told the guy he only had $250 with him and that’s all he was going to pay. The guy was so pissed, but my dad had dropped the hammer on him and he just resigned himself to accepting the offer. We brought the set home and set it up inside the house. It was the loudest thing! It was like bringing a horse into the house, like setting off fireworks inside the basement.
And I just remember when I first started playing that set how beautiful and perfect it was. Having a real instrument really made a difference. I started really playing! I played it in Deadline. I played it in Rites of Spring. I played it in One Last Wish and Happy Go Licky. And I also played that drum set in the first few years of Fugazi, on all of the first records…
Until Fugazi, I never really left my neighborhood, never really left DC. I didn’t even have a passport. Since then I’ve done a lot of traveling, but I’ve always come back. Today I live about a mile away from the house where I grew up. I have four kids: three sons, ages nineteen, sixteen, and thirteen, and a daughter who’s nine. The sixteen-year-old started playing in a band last year called Your Mother and I Are Separating—best fucking name for a band, right? [Laughs] And he started playing at the very same age I was when I started.
Back when Fugazi started making money, I got a brand-new drum set, which was pretty much the same as my old Gretsch drum set except it had better hardware. The old set became kind of secondary and had mostly been sitting around in storage for years and years. So I said to my son, “Hey, I have this old set if you want it…”
I was so happy to discover that the drum set may have lost some of its sparkle, but not its sound. It gives me great joy to hear my son playing now. To me it’s this great passing on of a great piece of gear, but more than that, a passing on of a history that I feel so attached to. It’s not some big, flashy, bullshit “rock” drum set. It has a kind of timeless modesty—a four-piece drum set with a whole lot of soul. I recently got all the stuff, the sandpaper and the shellac to refinish it, and I’m about to start working on it for him. I think it’s going to look and sound really beautiful.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Brendan Canty is a musician, composer, producer, and filmmaker. Best known as a founding member of the post-hardcore bands Fugazi and Rites of Spring, Canty has been recognized as one of the best rock drummers of all time. His film production company Trixie makes music clips, concert films, and shorts for bands including The Black Keys, Wilco, and Pearl Jam. Canty is also making music in his current band, Deathfix.