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Joe Lally

A founding member of iconic D.C. punk band Fugazi, bassist Joe Lally provided the glue that held the legendary group’s diverse, sometimes extreme stylistic choices together, anchoring the sounds into a coherent vision with his taught, oft-funky, and always deft playing. From 1988’s 7 Songs EP through Fugazi’s excellent 2001 swansong, The Argument, Lally and drummer Brendan Canty created a nimble and flexible powerhouse rhythm section that strengthened the punk anthems of singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye and livened the arty jams of singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto.

Lally has kept pretty busy since Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus in the early aughts. He released two albums as a part of Ataxia—the experimental rock band he played in with guitarist John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and drummer John Klinghoffer (Beck, Gnarls Barkley)—and three solo efforts. Like his previous solo releases, this year’s Why Should I Get Used To It (Dischord/Tolotta)—his first album since relocating to Italy—sounds like a bass-heavy version of some of Fugazi’s final collection of tunes, and perhaps points at the direction the group might have taken. Before his gig at the Crofoot Nov. 11, The A.V. Club asked Lally about his experience recording in Italy for the first time, how terms like “post-punk” are meaningless, what he thinks of Wugazi, and why he still feels like a member of Fugazi.

The A.V. Club: Why Should I Get Used To It is the first album you recorded since you moved to Rome. How has that affected the writing and recording process for your work?

Joe Lally: I’m not sure of the effect that it created. The big thing about having done it all here in Rome is that I never saw a recording through mixing a record all the way, basically overseeing everything. I always left the mixing in the hands of somebody I felt was more capable of doing it. As a result, I learned what I like to do now, as far as mixing goes.

I just kind of thought, especially after years with Fugazi, I kind of thought that it was something that I didn’t do very well, because you hear the song like 5,000 times and I just don’t know what I’m hearing after a while, I can’t make a judgment. But I think different people work in different ways, and I just found that I’m better off getting sounds that I like from the beginning and taking it from there. When it comes to mixing, it’s really like adjusting volumes more than anything else.

AVC: As far as mixing, did you get help from anyone in Rome?

JL: I went to a studio to record it with a guy that had played with me live. We didn’t really know each other, but a mutual friend hooked us up for a show here in my neighborhood. This guy Mattia Candeloro and a friend of his are in a band, and they just kind of came and assisted me for a show like really on the spot—they just kind of made up what they were doing as we went along. Then they asked me to do a project with them, which our mutual friend Guido Celli, he’s a poet and he did vocals for a piece they had written with him, and they asked me to play bass.

So we knew each other a little bit, and when it came time to record, I knew he had a space, I went and checked it out, and it’s just all I need. It’s not big, it wasn’t expensive; it was an all-digital place. It was just, you know, to do what I needed to do. 

I kind of took a week or something like that when I had a couple of days to record with my drummer and I figured a couple more days of recording, some days of mixing, but at the time I had just never really mixed a record before. So him of course being experienced, Mattia was a great help, but he also kind of leaned towards cleaning everything up. I think, especially with digital recording, you just have the opportunity to clean everything as you do it, and make everything really what I find to be a little too sterile. So it was a little bit of a struggle to make sure that things stayed kind of, I don’t know... dirty.

AVC: How’s it been adjusting to life in Rome? It’s a pretty big move from D.C. to Rome.

JL: It is, of course—it’s a completely different life. It’s just—it’s nothing that I wouldn’t have expected, like the differences. I think I had been here enough in Italy to understand what it would be like when I moved here to live. I rather enjoy it, I think I really enjoy the change of atmosphere, and although it is really different, it’s hard to explain. There are so many things that are different, and of course, it’s not that incredibly different. Culturally, Europe isn’t that different than America, but life is slower, although there is a strange feeling of people being hectic and a faster pace to some degree, it’s not really... everything closes in the afternoon here for like four hours and reopens for the evening. That kind of opens a different pace to life.

AVC: I know you worked with Italian musicians on the album. How often do you collaborate with Italian musicians outside of your solo work?

JL: Since I moved here, almost all the time. I basically moved here and then started looking for people to play with me because it was the only way it was going to happen. I needed to practice with somebody who lived near me; I really wasn’t into trying to make a band work where I just showed up with people I never played with and then we just go at it. I was doing that to some degree, and I find that kind of hard—I need to practice with people. I need practice.

So once I came here, I played with a couple of different people and just kind of settled into the people who could play with me. For a long time, I was playing with a drummer who really was in three other bands and didn’t have that much time to play with me but is a fantastic drummer, so he would do well even if we didn’t practice much. But, like I said, it was me who probably needed to practice more, and of course I always wanted to introduce new music and so forth, so I really wanted someone I could play with more.

Right after we recorded this last record, I really couldn’t go on with that situation and told him I’d have to find somebody who had the time to practice. Then the one person that I knew here in Rome is a drummer, long before I moved here, was available, lucky for me. And we’d been playing with Fabio Chinca since then, and it’s been really great.

Elisa [Abela], who I started to play with regularly a few years before that, she had just kind of dedicated herself to figuring out my music and just really liked it and wanted to play. She’s from Sicily, but she kind of changed her residence, moved here to Rome to be closer to me and be able to do it. So really having these two people to really explore what the music could be, because it was always one thing on record and something else live, and it was just a matter of spending time with people to see what we could make the songs into. I’ve finally been able to do that in the last—what’s it been, a year... it’s been just over a year and a half or something like that.

AVC: Was that a difficult task? I know in Fugazi, you guys basically had a lot of time to practice and get to know each other and feel one another out for your live performances.

JL: The beginning was really hard, playing with different people all the time, and I did it out of necessity. I knew I was moving around, I knew I wasn’t gonna find people to meet up with me or travel to where I was or do whatever to make it work. So I just kind of approached the music like that from the beginning, and the first two albums were sort of written that way.

I was writing sort of a foundation that people could come in and play over, and they could sort of interpret. The idea was kind of based on a jazz situation, it just turns out I’m not a jazz master or whatever, writing music that well, but it works on some songs and others it’s more people having to really learn how to fit inside each song. It’s something that it was hard to do for a while, because I found that I really wanted to be able to change songs if I wanted to. If we suddenly needed to play quietly for a show or we wanted to do something different, a song that wasn’t so fast could be a faster song to liven up the set at that point. I just wanted a band to be flexible with me, because I feel like the songs are flexible. So we got to explore that now.

AVC: I notice the new album is a little bit jazzier than your previous solo work. Is there any other way you brought jazz into your work?

JL: Well, I have to say the last record, if it feels that way, it’s probably mainly because of Emanuele [Tomasi, drummer], because he’s a foremost sort of a free-jazz player. I tried to entice him into playing with me under the idea that getting into the groove was like a different thing for him to explore, and it would be good for him.

I think he enjoyed that, really. He just never developed any extra time to do it necessarily because of that, but I think he enjoyed that. A song like “What Makes You,” the first song on the record, which is a very straightforward song, I think it sort of swings the way it does and feels so nice because of his playing. In the end, I guess I don’t really see my music as really being very jazzy. Maybe because I’m hard on myself, but in the end I feel like what I’m doing is rock. But that’s what I said about Fugazi, I felt like we were a loud rock band, if people asked what kind of music we played. I have a hard time with the descriptions that go into other things, like post-punk, whatever the hell, I mean that doesn’t mean anything to me, that doesn’t say anything to me.

AVC: Why’s that?

JL: Well, you describe: What does a post-punk band sound like?

AVC: I’d say it’s pretty ambiguous, which is why the term is used so often.

JL: That’s it, it’s impossible to describe. That covers, I think, probably a hell of a lot of different types of music. I don’t know where it goes at that point.

I had someone ask me that in an e-mail interview recently, like, “How did we feel, how did I feel being described as a post-punk band and what does that mean to me today?” Like it’s lost some meaning. It just gave me a chance to rant on it because I never paid attention to that at all. If I did, I would’ve stopped playing from the beginning and said, “Oh, all we get to be is a post-punk, whatever they called us.” I was like, “That’s not music.” I mean, either rock or hard-rock or jazz or funk or something, to be a legitimate name of music for me. So, I think I draw off of different things and hopefully you can find them in the records.

AVC: I noticed that Why Should I Get Used To It is a split between Dischord and your old label, Tolotta. That label has been quiet for a while, why are you starting it back up now?

JL: It really—it helped fulfill a technicality. I really didn’t feel right doing a Dischord release, because I don’t live there, and I know that can be an issue among other people trying to play on Dischord.

But the main thing for me was for it to be a straight-up Dischord release, I feel like I should know what’s going on in D.C., because any Dischord band should. I have just been so removed from that scene for so long now, because first I moved around when I was still living in the U.S., and I’ve been gone for a long time now, almost five years now. After that, so it’s been like eight.

I feel pretty out of touch with what’s going on in the city of D.C. I feel like when I’m going out on the road and in different countries and people are interviewing me from wherever, I should be able to comment on that if I’m a Dischord band. I brought that up with Ian and we talked about it for a while, and in the end, he came up with the idea of why don’t we just use Tolotta so that it is noted that it’s a half-release and you’re still here. Which is fantastic for me, because Dischord is the only label I really relate to as my home kind of label, and I would hate to have to be some place else. So it kind of allowed me to stay there.

AVC: Is it strange not to know what’s going on in the D.C. scene?

JL: It is in a way, but a lot of things changed. I suppose so did I by moving or whatever, because if I was still there, I’d probably be able to see what it is. Of course, it would probably also look strange to me because it’s quite different than it was 25 years ago, or 15 years ago, or 30 years ago, or whatever.

I saw those changes over the years. It is weird in the sense that I don’t have a scene like that, I don’t know if you can even say that there’s still that kind of feeling for a scene in D.C.; I think things changed so much on a musical landscape that that also changed for Dischord. I think it’s a tough thing, because it’s not fair to make any kind of critique of what changes in a city, but so many things happened in the ’90s for what would be considered the Dischord scene when major labels came talking up bands and trying to get people to sign. That had never happened before, and that probably had the major change that took place there.

I think that’s where a lot of things changed, because you didn’t have the opportunity to grow as a band anymore that you once did, because you could just kind of see what a label was going to do for you without actually going out and seeing if you lasted as a band. Could you last on a two-week tour, on a month tour through the states as a band without, I don’t know, personally fighting with each other and breaking up? Those are the kinds of things you find out just by being a regular band touring. I think a lot of stuff started to change at that point.

AVC: Talking about touring, the album came out in April, so why is now the time to tour a large chunk of the U.S.?

JL: Well, you gotta plan ahead for these things, and I probably did start trying to figure out when America would work. The reason I’m taking so long to answer this is because it took a while for the record to come out, it took me long enough to get it together to record the record, and then it took a while for the record to come out. I was mixing it and it was fine; I really killed a lot of months doing that. The months through the summer here, nothing really happened, and I really couldn’t continue my mixing, so I decided to do it. I kind of had to wait for the rest of July and August to finish before I could get something booked in September to finish the mixing.

And then once that was done, I kind of had to go through all the motions with Dischord to see when the release date could be, and that ended up being April. In the meantime, I think I was just not knowing when the record was out, I really couldn’t book a U.S. tour yet, so I was just booking what could come up. There was a band from France called L' Enfance Rouge that had invited us to basically fly into France and get in their van, share their equipment. That was really great, and we did two tours with them in the first half of this year. On top of that and I think some Italian tours I’ve had come up, it wasn’t going to happen, so it had to happen in the fall, and November turned out to be the month. I since went to Japan and Brazil in September and October.

AVC: I notice you tour Brazil relatively often, too. What’s the connection there?

JL: It’s mainly because they asked me as soon as my first came out, they just contacted me. Somebody contacted me and said there [were] people there who would play with me because they understood I could go there by myself. I met, I know some really great people, incredible musicians, as most Brazilians are.

This last record, the vinyl came out with the label that the person who brought me there, Luciano Valerio, his label, Desmonta, went in on the pressing of the vinyl with Dischord. So that came out Dischord/Tolotta/Desmonta, and they did a vinyl-only release there. That’s the real reason, is that they asked me so quickly from when I kind of started playing solo, and I love it there, so I was very happy to go there. I just had such a great time there, people seemed to enjoy the music so much there, that it was a great pleasure.

AVC: One of the stops on your U.S. tour is Fun Fun Fun Fest. I noticed one of the other bands performing is Wugazi, which is the Wu-Tang/Fugazi mash-up. Have you had the chance to listen to any of that?

JL: I listened to it when it was just bouncing around as a song, and then within a week or two there was a website that had still seemed to be just someone who liked to sort of mash the two things together. I thought it was so cool that someone enjoyed both bands enough to do that and start a website and just go, “You know what, we’re gonna put up the mash-up of these bands.” That’s what it seemed to be to me.

So I enjoyed it, even though, I mean, I could be less critical of it then. To be honest, as soon as it seemed to be such a set thing, that seemed to be sort of the calling card for some producers, like “This is our work, check it out.” I mean, I don’t really know what’s behind it, maybe that’s the end of what they want to do, they want to bring together ultimately what Fugazi backing Wu-Tang people rapping?

I don’t know what their real intention is. But as soon as the site became so formalized, they did the whole thing, it got a review in Rolling Stone, they were selling T-shirts, I felt like I could be more critical about it in an interview. I just think that it could be better. I mean, I don’t mind all the stuff that they’re doing, whatever, but if they’re gonna do all that, I think they could’ve found better Fugazi pieces to sample with Wu-Tang guys rapping on it.

In one way, it’s kind of cool, but when it’s like the full-on, that’s the work that they’re doing, I tend to be a little more critical about it. I hate to sound negative. 

AVC: How often does stuff like this, when people take something that Fugazi has done and reinterpret it in a new way, make its way back to you?

JL: I think I usually find out because I think a lot of stuff gets sent to Ian, even if someone in the band doesn’t find it. Someone who Ian knows, because he’s in touch with a lot of the underground world, someone will usually bring it to his attention, and he’ll kind of pass it on to us. So there’s different things we listen to.

I mean, it’s enjoyable, and I do appreciate it for the fact that somebody enjoys our music enough to bring it into that. But, you know, I don’t know. I guess I should shut up, because I suppose I’m about to run into these people at the festival and talk to them. But I’m afraid that is my opinion on it. It’s like, get better samples of our stuff, do better work. I don’t know.

AVC: Every once in a while, there will be a news story that says Fugazi may or may not be getting back together. Do you get contacted all the time about that?

JL: People ask in interviews, fans will write sometimes and just ask. It comes up, I mean, it’s natural. It’s great that people still see the possibility there.

I still feel like a band member even though we haven’t played together for a long time. I like doing my solo thing, because it is not a band. I feel like I’m still in a band; I’m still in Fugazi. So, I really just try and remain open-minded about it, because if I think about it too much—it’s useless to think about it too much. 

But I do feel like we were just getting good, and The Argument was a great record that we should try and top. It’ll take some time to come together and everything. To do that, we’d have to, the way the four of us are, we would take quite some time, I think, re-associating ourselves musically, and then just letting it come about naturally, because it would have to be a natural thing. So we’ll just see.

AVC: I know you were working on the Fugazi Live Series before you left. How involved are you in the digitalization process for the rest of the live recordings that you guys have? 

JL: Not at all, because I wasn’t there to assist in any of it, and they found a few different people. Really, Ian’s been doing a ton of it, and then brining in other people to get everything into digital format, and some of that was people I’m not even going to know. 

And then later, it became Joey Picuri, who was a soundman for Fugazi for years. Really, the project came about because of Joey’s insistence from the beginning, just taping shows. Joey used to write down the songs while we played them, and had most of the song lists. You could go through and listen and check, and sometimes there would be mistakes, but Jesus, he wrote down the names of songs while we played. We had a lot of it documented quite well from the beginning, just because of Joey. 

So he was doing some of that transferring and maybe some of the mastering, I forgot what aspect of it he worked on, and then Jerry Busher, who played drums with us and worked on the stage for us, he took over a lot of that towards the end and got a whole bunch of shows going. Brendan Canty did that work, too, and then other people Ian found.

But, no, just because I’m not around that. They got specific equipment to change things from all the formats, digital audio tape, minidisc, CD, cassette tape. It’s a huge, huge project. I think, I mean, really it’s supposed to be now they’re aiming for September, I think a separate site, a Fugazi live site, and it was going to have more than 100 shows added to the 30 shows we had. It’s crazy.

AVC: How often do you talk to Ian, Guy, Brendan, and all your really close friends from the D.C. scene or the Dischord family?

JL: It’s pretty regular. It’s hard to let too much time pass, I usually want to say hello, touch base. I’m about to go there, so a while back, I kind of spoke to everyone about exactly when I’d be there, days after the tour, and how could we all see each other. So we worked all that out, so now it’s just a matter of getting over there and I’ll actually get to see them again. Usually, it’s a couple of months at the most, but Ian, I talk to fairly regularly, it’s really based on when I’m away and I always seem to speak to him when I get back from going away or when I go... I lived with Ian for nine years. It’s like family.