Many of you have probably heard guitarist Anthony Pirog at various bars and restaurants around the DC area, and some of you might not have even realized it. Whether playing with local jazz artists at Utopia or Tryst, as an experimental duo with celloist Janel Leppin at Bossa, or with his vintage rock band The Bang at the Velvet Lounge, Anthony's prolific guitar work seems to find its way into just about every club and every genre possible. With a laid back attitude and a signature sound, Pirog managed to catch our attention and we've been following him around this fair city for quite awhile now; he most recently wowed us with a solo performance at the Warehouse Next Door.
A jazz guitarist by training, having graduated from New York University's music school and having spent time at the Berkelee School of Music, Pirog is technically brilliant and able to take that brilliance into the experimental realm. Taking the stage already chock full of effects pedals (23 in total), Anthony began the night with an almost ambient post-rock song and progressed through the night with pieces that were at times jarring, calming, challenging and multi-dimensional. By the second song, Pirog was pulling the rug of "ordinary" out from under us. He introduced a variety of sounds through both the electronics he had onstage and his guitar (at one point playing a child's keyboard into his guitar) — tweaking them, processing them, looping them and then layering them.
Throughout the night, he painstakingly set up all his pieces; he continued to layer sounds until that moment when the cacophony could not get any more intense and then would pull everything together into one coherent and melodic piece, playing his guitar soaringly above the fray. It was at those moments when chaos triumphantly became ordered that Pirog's genius was most exposed. As he revealed to us in his interview, "I had the first loop prerecorded to get me going and that was it. The rest was improvised." His facial expressions while doing so revealed his genuine interest and curiosity in each new sound he was creating and in figuring out how best to fit those sounds into an overall melodic structure. Using his extensive knowledge of music and combining it with electronics-galore, Pirog is essentially a one-man experimental orchestra, taking the roll of composer, musician and conductor. At the end of the show, all the music geeks came out of the woodworks to look at all his pedals and discuss with him his process — which he kindly did.
Pirog continues to experiment with music when playing as Janel and Anthony. The duo improvises while playing the cello and guitar, while still using processing and looping to add layers to their songs. Whereas solo we find him confronting the more intense spectrum of experimental music, with Janel, Pirog creates soothing and exquisite mis-en-scene works. An abrupt left turn is made when we see Pirog fronting such bands as The Bang, where he delves into traditional rock songs that have an americana flair and feature a growly voiced vocalist and other stellar musicians (including Janel Leppin on bass guitar).
Wherever and in whatever form you might be able to catch Pirog play, do so. He is by far one of the most accomplished guitarists in our city, and his interest in so many genres of music means that you are sure to find him playing something your musical palate will relish.
Questions for Anthony Pirog:
When did you start playing music?
I started playing guitar when I was eleven years old. I played piano and violin before then, but I got serious about music when I started playing the guitar.
Can you tell us about your musical influences and how they inform your work today?
Lately I've been influenced a lot by Nels Cline. Fred Frith, Bill Frise ll, Buddy Guy, Derek Bailey, John Fahey, Kurt Rosenwinkel are some other guitarists that I enjoy listening to. I was never into heavy technique when I was growing up and I wasn't into the music that very technical players would write. I enjoy very deliberate and melodic players as opposed to technicians. I also really like people who use effects or who can naturally get weird sounds out of the guitar.
How would you classify your music? Where would you like to see it go?
I am really trying to do everything. I've worked on being able to play country, jazz, rock, blues, and noise. Being slightly proficient in different genres allows me to do all types of gigs. I guess I would ultimately like to develop a signature sound that would be applicable to all styles of music. I really just want to get better.
How many guitars do you own, and which one is your favorite? What other instruments do you own?
Let me count. Sixteen I think. My favorite is always my newest one. My newest one now is a 1962 jazzmaster. They're all different and are all suited for one thing or another. I also have a lap steel and a pedal steel that I like to pretend that I know how to play. A couple of people want me to do some recording with them on lap steel so I guess that I'm not the worst player known to man.
You play with a number of other groups – as Janel and Anthony, and with the Bang – can you tell us about each group you play with? What other groups do you play with?
Janel and Anthony is a cello and guitar duo that I have with my girlfriend Janel Leppin. We both play electric and use tons of loops and effects. Writing with Janel is great because she's so open. The Bang is my rock band. Janel is the bass player in this band. My friend from high school John Lee is the other guitarist in the band, Billy Triplett is the singer and Larry Ferguson plays drums. Billy Triplett fronts a bar band I'm in called Slim Pickins or the Slim String Band or Stringbean, Peanut and Pineapple. I'm in an electronica group called Inner Loop. I play solo improv guitar. I have a free improv duo with bassist Glen Oliff. I'm in a rockabilly band called the Rockin Bones. Blue Lou and Friends. I think that's enough for now.
Tell us about all your pedals. I counted at least ten. What are some of the most interesting/different?
Let me count. I have over 60 pedals. I had 23 when you saw me playing solo. I like pedals that are way over the top. Zvex is a company that makes crazy effects. I have 12 of their pedals. I love midfielectronics as well. I have the random number generator, the glitch computer and the what. I also love loop pedals. My favorites are the EHX 16 second delay, the Zvex lofi loop junky and the Boss RC-50. LAL effects are made in Japan and are great too. Fuzz pedals are boss!
What is your musical process when playing solo? You seem to be doing quite a bit of work prepping each song — how much do you plan out ahead of time and how much do you improvise?
I had the first loop prerecorded to get me going and that was it. The rest was improvised. The prepping that you saw was me setting up loops. I'll get an idea and record it into my loop pedal so it plays repeatedly. From there I can keep recording and layering over top of the original loop or I can start to play melodies or solos. Setting up loops gives me time to think and allows the music to breath.
What are some of the other instruments that you use onstage when playing solo?
I had a electronic toy piano and an electronic whoopie cushion that were both purchased at CVS. I was holding them up to my guitar pickup and then looping their sounds.
You first went to the Berkelee School of Music in Boston, and then transferred to NYU's music program — what are a few of the most obvious differences of the music scenes of Boston, NY and DC?
I was too young to go out in Boston because all of the clubs were 21 and up. I hung out in Cambridge a lot to see music though. From a player's perspective you get paid more in DC. In New York I could see a lot of music that I can't see in DC. There was always someone amazing
playing at Tonic, the Village Vanguard or someplace in the city. I miss that a lot. Most of the time I couldn't go see them though because I couldn't afford it. There are great local players in DC but I don't get out very often because I play so much.
What do you see as the plusses and minuses of D.C., musically? What can you tell us about the Jazz scene in D.C?
My best friends live in DC so when we play there is a total familiarity and trust present that is very welcoming. I don't like playing with strangers very much. There are great musicians here and I feel lucky that I get to play with some of them. Getting an audience is hard everywhere. I play some jazz around the city and its great.
What are a few of your favorite local bands/artists?
Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, but they're both dead.
What are your favorite venues to play at in DC?
I love playing at Sangha, Bossa, Tryst, The Velvet Lounge, DC 9, Galaxy Hut, Utopia, the Warehouse, The Warehouse Nextdoor, The Red and the Black, The Surf Club, and The Cowboy Cafe.
Finally, if you had to choose four albums to recommend – two from last century and two from this century – which would you choose?
THEN: Elvis' Sun Sessions, Bill Frisell's Ghost Town. NOW: Wilco's A Ghost is Born and Nels Cline's The Giant Pin.