Interview with Joe Lally of Fugazi: By Paul Comeau

May 24, 2011

For fifteen years, Joe Lally made groundbreaking music as part of one of the most solid and distinct rhythm sections in rock—punk or otherwise. The often funk-tinged sound of Lally on bass and Brendan Canty on drums is so unique, you can’t imagine Fugazi’s sound without the duo. When the group went on indefinite hiatus in 2002, Lally continued making music on his own, writing and recording two solo albums: There to Here (2006) and Nothing Is Underrated (2007), backed by a who’s who of musical collaborators. The barren soundscape on much of these albums rivals the most minimalist of Fugazi’s songs. The stripped-down sound brings Lally’s bass lines and sing-speaking vocals into close focus with their smooth, cool sound and gravelly undertones. Lally spent much of 2010 writing and recording with backing performers Elisa Abela on guitar and Emanuele Tomasi on drums. The result was Lally’s third solo album Why Should I Get Used to It, released this past April as a split on Dischord and Lally’s own imprint Tolatto Records. The album features a more complete sound compared to his previous solo efforts, reflecting a songwriter who has finally come into his own.

Paul: What led to your decision to pursue a solo career and how do you decide who to collaborate with?
I just couldn’t stop doing whatever it was I was doing before with a band. What I found was I could agree on what everybody needed to do as a band, which, at the time, meant taking a break. But then once that break started, I realized it didn’t mean that I was ready to stop playing. It just kind of has become what it is. I’m just kind of dealing with it as it happens.
It started out as more of a question of where I was going to be trying to play the songs. When I was still living in the U.S., I started out playing alone, which was very strange, just playing bass and singing. Then I started getting in the van with another band. The guitar player for Antelope played drums behind me when I went on tour with that band, and the two drummers in the Melvins played with me when I did a little tour with The Melvins.
That idea was just kind of where I was, where I was going. I kind of figured it out as I went along. If I was in D.C., I played with people from D.C. I kind of knew that I was going to end up in Europe. My wife is Italian and we’ve come to look after her mother, so I just knew that I’d have to make a kind of music that allowed me to be in different places. As I’ve been in one place for awhile, I’ve been trying to hone in on just a couple of people. It’s really come about fairly naturally just because I refuse to stop trying, I guess.
Paul: What is the writing process like for your solo work compared to the writing process for Fugazi or other past projects?
Joe: It’s very different because a lot of it takes place alone. I don’t know how much I like it either, just being the sole person trying to work out the songs to some degree. It’s a tough one because I always want to bounce what I’m trying to do off somebody else.
The band has kind of arrived, that’s the good part. We’re two people in Rome—one who made Rome a place she would spend more time because she wanted to play with me. That’s Elisa. That’s really great and that led to us staying together long enough to find a drummer. The only person I really knew who was a drummer here in Rome before I moved here was always busy.

Paul: Having played in one of the most influential bands of the last twenty years, Fugazi, how did you step out from the shadow of that project to forge your way as a solo artist?
Joe: I guess by not looking at that at all. If you look at that, you’ll just stand still because it’s easier. Something else already happened that was well-received and, at the same time, meant a lot to you—whether anybody thought well or badly of it or whatever. That’s where it comes from and that’s where it keeps going. It’s just something you do because you really have to do it, because you really want to do it.
I had a job in the early ‘80s where they would have paid for my schooling, anything to do with computers. In 1982, I was paid well. I was a government contractor. I went to shows other than going to work. That went on for four years with that job, and I had all benefits paid. It was really secure for a future, but I just couldn’t stand it.
I quit that to be a roadie for a band. Things could have turned out in a different way. I could still be roadie-ing for someone. I got involved with a band that was going long enough at this rate—years—since the early ‘80s, but my dedication to that was the same. I loved it. I wanted to work for a band. Then I ended up playing bass in a band, which I really didn’t think was going to happen.
After doing a tour with this band Beefeater, which was on Dischord, I thought they were the greatest band in the world. They toured during the summer when people wouldn’t go see them and not a lot of people did see them. That meant everything to me. I didn’t see how I could ever be in a band if people didn’t love them.
Paul: Listening to a lot of the stuff that you’ve recorded over the years, I’ve always found your bass lines to have a very distinct sound. Your playing style is very unique. You can pick it out — whether it’s the opening riffs of “Waiting Room” or stuff you’ve done on your solo albums. How do you describe your playing style and how did you come to that style?
Joe: As a musician, what really affected me was that I listened to music for so long before I played it. I didn’t really pick up an instrument until I was eighteen or nineteen. I picked up the bass and it was to join a band, to write songs with somebody. Looking back on it now, that music was the most serious thing in my life, and I don’t think I really knew it at the time. Picking up a bass, I could just play it. I had rhythm. I couldn’t really write It’s not like I picked up a bass and just immediately started writing songs. I wrote some things in there, but I don’t remember any of that stuff or think about what I wrote then.
But if the person I was working with could barely play the bass, they could point out, “Play this note and then this note,” and I had rhythm and I could just play it. It’s weird how if you really want to do something, it’s just going to happen. It didn’t make any sense at all. The great thing is not having understood it for most of the time that I’ve been playing… [laughs]. I don’t really understand it. I think that’s why I love it so much. I’m just following something that I feel, and it’s this surety to it that’s so wonderful. In a way, I feel like Dee Dee Ramone, or something. There’s this thing that I do, and I just keep doing it. I don’t know if people recognize it because it’s always the same thing or if they do recognize, hopefully, they recognize something else about it.
Paul: I wouldn’t say it’s the same thing, but there’s something unique, something where you can pick out this is you.
Joe: With Fugazi, I got more variety out of it because I didn’t write everything. I didn’t write “Waiting Room.” Ian wrote “Waiting Room.” But I always felt, and I always said that I would never refuse something because it wasn’t mine. That’s how I started playing, though. People brought bass lines into Fugazi—because everybody did. At certain points Guy brought something in that I played on bass, or Brendan, or Ian. Sometimes bass lines became guitar lines. Sometimes guitar lines were transferred to bass.
Fugazi was not a person. It was a thing. It was people and you just let it do what it needed to do. That’s the big difference with songwriting on my own. To go on a break from playing with the people you learned how to play music with, was like having somebody remove some of your limbs or something.
I probably had some kind of nervous breakdown through those first few years [laughs]. It certainly made me insane in some respects. You find out that you have to do something and you just figure out how to do it. I didn’t smash my head against a wall. I went and figured out each thing at a time. I needed to understand music better. I took some piano lessons, which I still don’t know how to play. Some information was transferred and it came through to me. That’s wonderful, but I’m not a studier. I’m trying to sing and play, but that doesn’t fucking work—that’s the way I feel about it. I’ve taken lessons, and, hopefully, that comes out in the way I work, but I don’t sit down and study all the time to progress.
What can you tell us about your new album?
Joe: It came out in April. It’s a half Dischord half Tolotta release, which was a label I did for a few years when I was still living in the D.C. area. I don’t live in D.C. I haven’t lived there in three-and-a-half years and I moved around before that. I felt like, “Should I even be on Dischord?” I don’t live there at all and that’s what Dischord is, but I have my permanent relationship with music and a label set in my mind is Dischord. So it would be very hard to put out a record that didn’t involve them.
Paul: What sorts of themes do you address in your lyrics?
Joe: I’m always singing about being a human. I don’t know how else to put it. There are so many things that still piss me off. I don’t think I spend a lot of time angry, but when it comes to songwriting I feel that you actually should talk about something that you feel even if it’s a love song. I can’t write a decent love song, but I just talk about things and how I feel.
Paul: Are lyrics something for you that come spontaneously in the process of writing or are they something that occur to you in advance
Joe: Early on, it just came. Music just came at me in a way that I didn’t even understand where it was coming from. I could get the whole vocal melody and just have that going through my head so strongly that it was just a matter of putting the words in place. Then the words were there and I just moved on to the next song.
The next song would be a bass line that I could hear, something that I could sing over and find a place to sing in that bass line. So the songs came in different ways and I just dealt with them. Now, I have time to play a riff and record it, to come back to it and not remember it, and then try to understand what that riff is and feel it again. The riff can really change when you focus on it.
Now I can spend a lot more time with them. I was really rushing in the beginning. I was trying to figure out what a song was, listening to one part of it or another. Now, there’s enough time to try and sit back and figure it out. Writing the last record, I decided I never take as much time as I needed. Really though, if I took as much time as I needed, I’d be recording it now [laughs].
Now, I have that and I can do that with people to some degree, but I’m finding that because we’re working towards playing live, I’m again sitting at home—or now I have a practice space that I can go to sing and play—and try to figure them out, and find out where the songs are going. I’m probably still learning how to jam something with them.
Generally, I’ll bring in bass lines and we’ll play on it as a band for a little bit, but something is always forming in my head. It’s a weird thing. Someday, I hope it gets to where Elisa is writing and it’s just a band. To interact as a band is a wonderful thing. She wrote parts on the record and I play guitar on a couple of songs because I had to, but I’m not a guitar player. I guess I am now because I have to figure things out on my own.
Paul: The writing process sort of forces you into it?
Joe: To sit down and do this last record, I found myself at the point where the guitar parts were needed. There was no one there to play it and I just started playing it. I don’t really know chords, so I was just playing pieces, little leads, a melody, or whatever. Those became the way it should sound and either she should learn it that way or I should play it for the record. She ended up knowing most of it by the time we got to the studio. Now I’m recording parts myself—bass parts and then the guitar—and I’m going back and forth. I’m faster than the band getting together is what’s happening. It’s more work alone, which is strange, but it’s better than nothing.
Paul: As someone whose career has always existed outside the music “industry,” how has making a living as a musician changed for you since you first started making music?
Joe: Making enough money to live while being in a band, in Fugazi, was just the greatest and largest accident of my life. It’s still keeping me going because I keep putting myself in a position where I physically can’t even work a regular job [laughs]. Something’s bound to happen though, because it’s getting much harder to play music all around the world.
The rest of the world is slowly catching up to how it is in the U.S. where there are just so many bands everywhere and so many people have seen so many things that they’ve just had it up to here. Eventually, there’ll be no reason anyone should pay anyone for anything. Then people who just want to play will be standing around playing, and you can listen or not. You should play because you need to play. I’m not really focused as well as I should be, possibly, on making money. What one does as a musician to make more money is not on my list of things to do.
Paul: The making of the music itself is always the primary concern?
Joe: It really doesn’t have too much to do with making money. It’s just a matter of getting by and I’m trying to see how long I can keep getting by. That’s where I am for the present. I don’t think about the past or the future too much.
Paul: You mentioned that you moved to Rome for family reasons. How did that change your perspective on music? You’ve come from this American music culture where everything is very saturated online these days. What is it like living in Europe and absorbing music from a different vantage point?
Joe: It’s completely, completely different. I lived with Ian for nine years in Dischord House, and he received everything from everyone all over the world. Of course that’s an overreaching statement [laughs], but he had a lot of cool things sent to him from all around because people wanted him to hear it. Ian’s just a person you want to share great music with. I would hear about everything. So it began when I moved out of Dischord and moved into my own house. I was not as exposed. Living in Rome, I’m so far away from knowing what’s going on, I can’t even explain it.

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