Interview with Joe Lally on his latest solo album, Fugazi, Ataxia and much more
Bassist and vocalist of Fugazi, Joe Lally, has just released his third solo album “Why Should I Get Used To It?” Seeing pressings through the label Ian Mackaye created, it has bene released on vinyl and cd this month on Dischord Records. We contacted Joe a few months ago as I heard about a new album he was releasing from a friend in Italy. After Joe sent me this album I had to ask to do an interview to cover the release. Joe Lally has been very busy the last 20 years making records, touring, joining forces with John Frusciante and much more. This has all come together in the presentation of his latest album. Joe Lally is a very important musician in contemporary music. I am honored to have had the chance to send him questions to answer around his recent tour schedule for promotion of his new record. We have also included a YouTube audio only clip of the title track, Why Should I get Used To It. ~ Erik Otis
SCV Interview with Joe Lally
Before we go into your latest album and many subjects about your musical path, I wanted to ask about your upbringing. Where did you grow up and what were some of the first records or people that made you realize that you could be a part of putting music into the world?
I grew up in Rockville, MD., about 1/2 north of Washing ton, DC. My best friend lived next door and his older brothers were deep into Sly, James Brown, Otis Redding, Parliament/Funkadelic, and all things soul/funk/r&b. We listened to black radio stations from Washington. I saw a lot of R&B bands with them at matinee shows, Isley Bros, Jackson 5, O’Jays, etc. when I was 10 or 11. But how one went about becoming a musician like them was beyond me. It wasn’t until after I’d been through all the classic hard rock and some prog rock that I discovered punk through a friend in high school. That gave me the first feeling that I could make my own music despite my inexperience with an instrument. Coming into the city from the suburbs it took a while longer to figure out that other people my age at these shows were not only in bands but releasing their own records. That would be the kids doing hardcore bands and the records coming out on Dischord, Fountain of Youth and R&B Records. Armed with that information nothing could stop me from getting a bass, equipment and writing songs
with a friend.
In your youth, what were some of the first shows you attended and how did these experiences change you?
I mentioned already the first shows I saw and although they were very good they were related to what I heard on the radio. My first punk shows were in 1979: Devo at Painters Mill in Baltimore, MD., The Clash at Ritchie Colloseum at the U of MD., and The B52s at the Ontario Theatre in DC. There was such an intensity at those shows it’s hard to explain how it felt. Suddenly you’ve discovered a new form of energy and no one at school or anywhere else in your normal life seemed to even know about it. There was no context to put it in. It blew my mind wide open. The person who turned me on to all this music listened to everything with such total concentration. It meant so much to him and I could relate to that completely. His name was Ivan Martinez and he went to my school. It’s like he was able to point out to me that I had only been using a small part of my brain and here was the way to use the rest of it. Life would have been quite different without him. I saw the Cramps in 1980 and also Iggy Pop. The Cramps show was almost scary but you couldn’t look away. With Iggy I felt like I was being shown a world that he had invented and was able to communicate to an audience from the stage each night. After the first 2 years of this I thought my life was some kind of plastic representation of what it means to live and somehow you could get a glimpse of the true world at these shows. It took a long time to figure out that the message was really that there was nothing wrong with me but the life that seemed to be laid out before me was some form of death.
You linked up with Ian MacKaye in the 80′s and formed the band most people know you for your work, Fugazi. How did you meet Ian and what did you take away from being around him that no other human being has given you?
In 1986 I quit a very good job with a government contractor for NASA (free schooling, health and dental coverage) to roadie for the Dischord band Beefeater on a two month tour across the US and a part of Canada. When we returned to Washington, DC I really didn’t have a place to stay so I spent the first night a the singer Tomas’s house, which was the Dischord House. The next day Ian took us out to lunch to talk about the tour. About a week later he called me and asked if I wanted to play bass with him in a new band he was starting. He had a drummer then, Colin Sears, but after a while Colin left us to tour with Dag Nasty and we set out to find a drummer. I think being around Ian I learned how to be comfortable in my own skin.
Now I would like to get into this new record of yours. For your latest album you are releasing through Discord, Why Should I Get Used To It?, you contribute much of the instrumentation along with Elisa Abela, Emanuele Tomasi and Christine Mairer. How long did this album take to piece together and where did you record it?
We recorded the whole thing in about 5 or 6 days in a studio here in Rome. The cello was recorded a few months later and sent to us. I was not confidant with my mixes and while waiting to hear a song mixed by Ian I did some playing with people in Austria and decided Christine could send us the cello part. I had started making demos for the record right after I met Elisa while playing in Sicily the summer of 2009. It would take a few months before I convinced her to get on stage and play guitar with us, so for the first time I was ready to move on with the writing alone. I didn’t want to follow the formula of the previous records and leave the lead instrument’s role wide open. I could hear how the parts should function and decided to get down as much of it as I could myself. Elisa worked with me a lot to understand her role in the older songs and over time I started to visualize how to shape her playing in some of the new ones. She’s a natural improviser, but like I said I wanted less of that on this record. We didn’t have much time to rehearse all the new material before recording because Emanuele was in other bands and worked a regular job. Luckily there were 4 or 5 of the new songs we had worked into the live set.
How different was it recording in this studio than other studios you have utilized in the past?
This was an all digital studio, but that didn’t affect the actual recording process. I was overseeing the whole process because there was no one else to hand it to. The studio itself was a little smaller but as long as the atmosphere is good I don’t need certain types of equipment and couldn’t afford them anyway. As I keep making records I’ll probably develop preferences for one part of the process or another, but for this I wanted a place where I could get the work done. The engineer Mattia doesn’t speak english any better than I can speak italian, but he really did all the difficult things well because his intuition is great. My biggest problem was believing in my own mixes. I had to hear Ian’s mix of a song to realize I had my own vision for the sound of the record and good or bad I had to go with it.
On this album, there is a really heavy tone with the bass where it is pushed much higher into the mix than most albums I hear. When you mixed this record, did you have a specific sound already set in mind for how you wanted your bass to come through?
There’s a lot of space in the music. It’s usually just 3 instruments and maybe an extra guitar track. Being a bassist I suppose I focus on it more than most people as far as how it sits in the mix. Maybe that attention is usually given to guitars.
The title track from Why Should I Get Used To It? sounds like you speaking in large about society and the affects it has on human beings. Are there specific stories behind most of your lyrics or are they intended more on the larger scale of things?
It goes both ways but I try to stay away from describing a historical moment in time and leaving the listener trapped there.
This record really hit me when I got to the piece Revealed in Fever with the inclusion of flute. The flute carries a very spiritual ancient tone and your bass lines compliment that sound so well. When you created this song, what type of state of mind were you in?
I think I was sitting on my bed and Elisa was playing flute in the hall so I could still hear my riff acoustically. That’s where the seed of the song came from. I had her record parts on the flute which I cut up and added effects to for the demo. It really was about understanding something in the present through a feverish dream.
I have always wanted to ask an artist how they construct the order in which the songs make up their album. Would you be comfortable in talking a little bit about how the final order of tracks took shape for Why Should I Get Used To It?
I think about that all the time that I am writing the songs. I visualize the songs as fitting in the beginning, end or middle and of which side. I’ve never stopped seeing the LP as the final destination. It’s the only format I wrote for. They went through a lot of order changes, but I think Ian convinced me What Makes You was the opener. Fort Campbell should have had drums on it and it might have sat in a different place if it had them. Lele was so busy that he never really got that song in place. I recorded the guitar and then we all did the hand claps, but it should have sounded so different I was ready to leave it behind. Then my wife said, listen to it without the drums, and we discovered it still held together.
Having been known for being in a very political band such as Fugazi, this new record Why Should I Get Used To It? has many lyrics that seem a lot more personal. It’s hard to imagine how much your life has changed since the beginning of your music career. How different do you see song writing as you have gone through all your experiences and more specifically how different do you approach writing your lyrics as opposed to those you contributed to Fugazi?
I haven’t changed much as far as writing lyrics or even the way I write bass lines. It all continues to come from listening closely inside. But yeah, it’s been like 20 years so certainly some changes are taking place that I’m not aware of. They’ve probably developed so subtly I haven’t noticed them. I believe looking at your self is the responsible way to affect the larger Self so I don’t see any political difference.
Who are some bass players that have really influenced and changed the way you see music?
Larry Graham, Jah Wobble and Peter Hook really made me look at their role in a song. For example, Christina Billotte, Billy Cox, Chiara Locardi, Rick Denko and Aston Barrett are people I love to watch play bass. That list is quite long really.
Having shared so many experiences around the world, do you feel social change is moving for the better or for the worst in the places you have lived in the last 10 years?
Things seem so out of control everywhere, but I suppose it’s pushing something else to the surface. I have no idea what’s going on anymore. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It seems people have been manipulated easier in the last few decades and I hope we’re moving away from that. The initial spell of the internet seems to be wearing off.
In your time being a musician, what have been some of your favorite bass guitars and amps that you have either owned or had the chance to use?
I like how they’re making small solid state amps for bass now. In the past an Acoustic or Ampeg head was great. The SVT 8×10 is a great cabinet. I’d love to play the Hofner through an old Ampeg amp and 2 8×10 cabs. I use a Euphonic Audio amp and cabinet now because they make small lightweight equipment that still has a fat bass sound.
What are some of your favorite pedals to use?
I don’t use any pedals. I don’t even let a tuner interrupt the signal between the bass and the amp. Larry Graham really made the instrument stick out in a song, but the simplicity of Peter Hook and Jah Wobble made it clear what the bass does in the song. It’s why I chose the instrument to play. I could see exactly what I was supposed to do.
One of your side projects that I really loved was the trio group you formed with John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffe, Ataxia. You guys have released 2 albums so far, how did you link up with these guys and what was the recording process like?
That was a project that was formed to play one live show only. John is a big Fugazi fan and we had met years earlier. When I was living in LA we would talk a lot on the phone about music and at that time he and Josh Klinghoffer were releasing an album a month for a year. Initially they had asked me to play songs from Johns solo records at a show they had booked at the Knitting Factory. When we got together we decided to write our own music and do that at the show instead. It turned into 2 shows and a recording session. Including the writing, the whole thing took place in about 12 days. If it was with other people I don’t think anyone would even know about it. The 2 records came out of the one recording session. We set up the drums in the main room at Sunset Sound in LA. I think Josh only had 2 microphones on the drums. John and I were in the room with him so we all used headphones so the amps could be isolated in separate rooms. We probably recorded everything in 2 days. Modular synth was added, otherwise little or no overdubs.
You have had the chance to tour Europe and Japan with one of my favorite bands, Zu. They are one of the best bands I have heard in the new groups covering experimental and technical music. What was that experience like travelling in Japan and do you see yourself ever diving into the type of sound Zu creates?
The tour with Zu in Japan was cut short after 3 shows because my father died. I had toured through europe and the UK with them before that though. We only practiced once in London before our first show together. Before the European tour we got together for one more, but there was never any time to really push the songs into a new space. I was hoping they would kind of take over the songs and twist them into their own sound.
Fugazi is a band that toured and recorded extensively for almost 20 years. In the documentary Instrument it speaks about how you guys would all channel into each other and would know exactly where to go, a source of communication through sound. How long did it take the band to find that inner connection within the group and what were some of the most memorable experiences where this connection took shape?
Any band that plays a few hundred shows live, if they want to explore and not just go through the motions every night, they’ll develop all the unspoken parts of the songs. It’s something that happens naturally because everyone feels it. It’s not something that had a starting point. It was always there and developed more over time. You just bring all your attention to the stage and allow it the space to happen.
Brendan Canty is one of my favorite drummers and was by your side for every interval of Fugazi’s existence, what was it like to be able to be a part of what he brings to the drums on a nightly basis?
It’s a little bit of everything I’ve been talking about. I never played with one drummer that much before Ian and I started playing with Colin Sears. Once Brendan was in the picture that became the normal state for me. I didn’t really jam with other people in all the years we played together. Brendan can play many instruments so he’s very active in the writing process. Playing in Fugazi was like jumping onto something and holding on for the ride. It was very much a band in the sense that 4 people lost their individuality for the greater whole. I can’t separate playing with Brendan from playing with Guy from playing with Ian. It’s one thing.
Looking back at all the time you devoted to your band Fugazi, do you have a favorite record or period from the bands existence?
Usually it was what we had last done. So it’s only natural that I would think we did a great job on The Argument. It felt as if we had become much more comfortable with the whole process of getting down on recording the songs we had written.
In 1994 you started your own imprint, Tolotta Records that lasted until 2001. The label saw distribution through Discord Records and put out many bands. What were some of your favorite releases from the period and why did you decide to start your own imprint?
Brendan had moved out to Seattle while his girlfriend was in school there so the band had more down time. I wanted to put out some singles of local bands who might need the help, printing the covers very simply and assembling everything myself. Most bands just did it themselves so it wasn’t until Scott “Wino” Weinrich (The Obsessed, St. Vitus) moved back to the area and asked if I would do a single of his new band Shine. He had been through the wringer with various chemicals and was getting his life back together. They were forced to change their name just as they had their first album recorded so I decided to step up my label and put out the Spirit Caravan cd. So that album means a lot to me because I had lived with Wino back in the mid-’80s and I was happy to lend a hand. We reissued the first self-titled Obsessed record with a live show added on and that was a big deal for me too because they were the first local band I was really following around. I met the guitarist from Beefeater, Fred Smith, at their shows. I liked all the releases but was extra happy to do an Orthrelm LP because Mick Barr is just a great guy and an insane guitar player.
There is a lot of debate on how art, music and film take shape in our lives. I personally feel these mediums of expression are very positive tools in changing the way we all see this world. Creating a new canvas in which we can expand and grow from to be better human beings collectively. Do you feel that music and art are as political and full of social change just as much as literature, marches and other means of the obvious ways to express our political power?
I think you put it well, changing the way we see the world, or opening our perspective, to see through the eyes of the other. To realize we are that. There is no difference or separation between people. When we see from the point of view of the collective self instead of the individual self, we act differently. That is social change. So yes, I feel music and art are powerful tools.
Thanks for your time Joe, we really appreciate it.
To order Joe Lally’s latest full length release this month, go to the Dischord Records page HERE
From Dischord Records:
On Joe’s newest album, “Why Should I Get Used to It” he has settled in with a line-up featuring his current touring mates, guitarist Elisa Abela and drummer Emanuele Tomasi. The album was recorded in Rome, where Joe now lives with his family, and is being released on Dischord in conjunction with Joe’s imprint, Tolotta Records.
Joe and his band will continue to tour in 2011, with dates in Japan, Europe and Brazil already booked, and more dates and territories to follow.
Check out Joe Lally performing live for the following dates:
The following May shows are with L’Enfance Rouge
May 21: Montreuil, France@ la pêche
May 24: Lille, France @ malterie
May 25: Tours, France @ le temps machine
May 26: Metz, France @ trinitaires
June 10: Tolentino (MC), Italy – Ambient Pub
June 11: Bologna, Italy – Villa SERENA
June 18: Torino, Italy – NOFEST
August 6: Genk, Belgium – A-Shock ‘adreniline fest’