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Interview with Joe Lally
Interview with Joe Lally

Most of people know Joe Lally as one of the founding members of Fugazi. After the members of Fugazi decided to take an indefinite hiatus, Joe began his successful solo-career, releasing three significant albums.

In 2018 Joe Lally co-founded The Messthetics with his old colleague Brendan Canty and guitarist-virtuoso Anthony Pirog. The band released their first album at the same year. Now the new residents of Dischord Records work on their next album.

We had the opportunity to talk to Joe Lally. In the interview for Distortion magazine, Joe told about his solo-creativity and Fugazi, about The Messthetics and his cooperation with Ian Mackaye and Amy Farina.


Talking about the first years of Fugazi you said once that you need to understand music better. ould you please tell me when you got this understanding of what you want to do and how youd like to see the final result?

Well, I cant say that I remember what I was talking about (laughs), at that time. Probably that I wanted to understand my ability to get musical ideas across. Im a self-taught musician. So I imagine thats what I was referring to. I wanted to develop my own understanding of what I was doing on the bass. That didnt happen during Fugazi. I spent very little time playing with the other people. Just a few people in 15 years that I played with besides the guys in Fugazi! And I didnt really change the way that I worked, when I was in the band. So I just tried to understand what the others were doing by looking at their hands. It really wasnt until the band went on hiatus. Then I started asking questions: What was I missing? To be able to complete songs on my own. Thats what I realized when Fugazi wasnt playing. I understood that I needed a few more tools to be able to complete my own ideas of music. So that really began more when Fugazi had stopped playing. I had a lot of music in my mind, but I couldnt get it finished, for my solo work. But eventually I released three solo-albums. So I definitely figured out things that I needed to know. And I still am!

Furthermore, as for all the D.C. bands hardcore was your background. What role took hardcore in the formation of your unique style?

Hardcore music in D.C. was a particular entry for me. As far as being able to play in a band. Before that, I was someone who went to see music that I wanted to see. But It wasnt until I was more closely involved with the crowd of people that was going to see hardcore bands. There was a lot less difference between people in the band and people in the crowd. I began to realize that the people who were making hardcore music were the people I used to see at all the shows I went to. And when I saw hardcore bands, I saw that these were the guys on stage playing and they were putting out their own records. So that allowed me to see my own ability to be engaged in making music, being in the band and possibly getting records made too! Hardcore music didnt inspire me to make music quite so much as it just inspired me to be in a band, and everything that entails. Like making your own record labels, making your own fanzines and seeing the crowd that was made up of people my age. But, when I was finally in a band the first band I was in, was with a friend of mine Id gone to high school with Peter Cortner. When we wanted to play music, I didnt think about making music like hardcore, but I did think about all the music I love. Which for me, really started with a lot of soul music, RnB and funk. James Brown and Otis Redding and Funkadelic. Those were the things I listened to, when I was very young. And the first bands I sawI was like 10 or 11 years old. And I saw The Isley Brothers and The Jackson 5, The Spinners, The Four Tops and The O'Jays. So all of that music, I listened to when I was young It was really informing what I was playing a lot more, than hardcore. Because there were only a few hardcore bands that I really liked outside of the bands I saw in D.C. And a lot of D.C. musicafter a while it was similar. Unless it was Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Dove and Double-O, The Faith, Rites of Spring. Those things were different. Many bands from outside of DC just sounded like sort of generic hardcore music. And it wasnt really inspiring me to write. So I was always imagining music that hadnt really happened, that I could be a part of helping to create. And you can only believe that youre going to do something new. But you keep trying to do something new. Thats what happened with Fugazi, because I was just very lucky to encounter Ian who shared all the same music that I love. Which was not only classic rock and some punk rock, but also a lot of African-American music. James Brown and all that I like.

Could you please tell me about the recording of your first album - Repeater? Was it hard for you to do this?

It was a newRecording the two EPs firstThe first EP was done in Inner Ear. Which was Don Zientaras basement in his house. So it was a very small space. The second EP was done in England at the end of a tour at Southern Studios in London. We had a couple of days in a rented studio to get the drum tracks down. Everything else took place in the control room of John Loders studio. Which was in the garage of his house. Another small space! Inner Ear was something like a family room and a laundry room. It was not a traditional studio at all! But by then, we did have had a couple of different experiences in recording. It was pretty easy to go back to where we originally recorded the first EP ( in Dons basement ) and do that again. We were very familiar from playing the music so much live. I dont remember it being difficult. And I didnt find the recording process very hard. I remember Ted Niceley was working with us and he asked me to re-do a little piece. I think from Shut the Door and It didnt occur to me that there was no other instrumentation for me to keep time on the bass. I had to understand the timing on my own. Without thinking about it, I re-did it! But I didnt know how hard that could be. Ian was kind of upset that Ted made me do it, because there was no drum-beat to be connected to. But I managed to do it! Because, I really wasnt thinking about how hard it was. I just did it. So a lot of that wasnt intimidating to me. I think I was pretty comfortable with the process by then.

Interview with Joe Lally

After the release of the record you started to change the sound of Fugazi a little bit, as with each next album. But what was the impetus for these changes? Changing your principles of work or something else?

No, Its reallyI think for all of us as musicians it was natural, to try to do something different. Just within our means. Its again, I dont think that we felt we were necessarily creating a new kind of music that never had been done before. But in order to keep this process interesting you have to. The process of going into the studio and playing live. And most of the time its playing live. Thats really whats interesting to you, because you are interacting with the audience. And playing music liveits such a different experience to the studio! A whole other animal to deal with. Its recorded and eventually its a finished process and you dont go back to it. Its done! So really we were making music that we could then change live! But mainly, it was just about challenging ourselves. Trying to come up with something different for ourselves. To what we were going to do on stage. The next album had to be something different than the previous album. It was always the process of moving forward.

As far as I know, with the release of In on the Kill Taker you got few serious offers. Including contract with Atlantic Records. And participation in Lollapalooza. You refused all of them. And as a result released practically the most experimental album of yours - Red Medicine. Can you say that by this you tried to approve your status as fully independent band?

That particular period wasnt really different than any other period. We created our own world in which we felt we worked the best. So over time nothing could really affect us. Whether it was an offer from a label or to play a festival. That type of thing. Yes, Lollapalooza at that time it was like a new idea. That you take a festival on tour around the U.S. But those things just turned out to be contrary to what we felt was good for us as a band. We only did the things that(laughs )you know, we were just veryyou could call it autonomous or you could say that we were self-absorbed. You can hold it against us, or you can see it as something that benefited us. In our situation we just did what we felt protected what we were. To allow us to do our job the best. Which was to make music and present music to people. In an environment that we enjoyed most. And that we could present our music in the best way. So we wanted a lower door price and we wanted a lower record price. And we wanted to make all the decisions ourselves. We didnt want there to be a fifth member of the band, shall we say. Making us look at something different. About when the record would come out. Or how it sounded. Or anythingSo, this was already part of what we were doing. Until that point, nobody was asking us. I think the labels came along earlier. Because they were asking us to sign after the first EP reached a certain amount of sales.

When people started offering you this big deals?
There were people contacting us after the Fugazi EP reached 30 000 or something. That type of sales just gets their interest. At least back then. It doesnt exist anymore. But back then it got the interest of regular record companies. Major labels were there saying: Oh, who is this independent band selling all these records? Maybe we can have some of that money ?! So they contact you, and make you an offer. And we just werent interested because we were doing fine on our own. And we didnt see how anyone else was going to help us! By the time Ahmet Ertegun (from Atlantic Records) had come to the show. That was years later and we were even more adamant about being independent. Because we knew that our audience appreciated what we were doing. And it was contrary to who we were to be signing to a major label. It just didnt matter to us. And it seemed like a betrayal. Not only to ourselves and what we to accomplish but to the audience that appreciated what we were doing.

The Argument was the hardest record to made for Fugazi. Could you please say, how it was recorded, and is this a collective record for you?

I think we did a really good job with The Argument! I remember we felt we had made the record we always wanted to and that probably made us happier at the end of that session than any other record. I think we really felt fulfilled with it! There are always things you wish that are different in some way. But I really felt like if you had a vision for a song on that record, I really thought like we were hitting it! I felt like our writing was good. And our ability to record those ideas was coming across. It made the things hard in a mixing process. Because we were doing so much of what we love that maybe becomes more challenging to actually finish it properly and do it justice. But it may have caused us to work harder and it was maybe a little stressful. But I only remember being very happy with the way it sounded. Personally, Im not very good in the mixing process. I dont have the ears to listen to a song over and over and try to improve that recording. Like a hundred times listening to a mix. And make adjustments. I just cant. I dont have ears for that. And thats why I dont mix peoples records. Ive been asked to do it once and that was it! I didnt feel that I could really help very much. Its not my cup of tea in music, to do that. So my idea of mixing the record is a much faster process. And for example on that record, the song that I do( The Kill) it even got written faster than other songs. Writing it and the final version of that song came together a lot quicker just by experimenting with Jerry playing percussion. And almost the first thing Guy played to it sounded good to me. The whole song was taking shape. It was very quick. Thats the way I hear things happening. Concept of the song is thereit only needs a few elements that should come together. And thats the way my particular vision of that song was. And it worked. I know Guy had two songs with the idea of Bridgette and Kathi doing backing vocals. Finally, all those things came together. I think that we did a good job and we were really happy with it! It may have been a lot of work. But in a way, it should be. Because youre harder on yourself as you keep recording. And you just have bigger goals to accomplish. I think we improved the way our record sounded by the time we got to that last record. It requires the work.

Interview with Joe Lally

While working as a solo-artist you continued your cooperation with some of your colleagues. Was it hard for you to get from the format of the band to solo-format, where everything is under your personal control?

Yeah, for sure. At first I didnt know what I was doing. It was a period when I just did not know how to get the music I could hear in my head on to a record. And I didnt have a lot of self-confidence. I think you can hear it in my singing, frankly. On the first two records especially. I think by the third record I had a little more confidence in my singing.

In this process, what helped you to understand yourself better? Like How can I express things that I feel?

I think it was just doing it. Just playing live. The first shows I did as a solo-artist I just played bass and sang. That was almost suicidal! ( laughs ) It was painful to do and I feel like it must have been painful to look at that. But I felt that I needed to do that. I needed to believe that the songs stood up as a bass-line and a vocal line on their own. I did a couple of little tours with Don Zientara like that, where I played alone. And then I did the following tour with at leastsomeone playing percussion along with me. Each tour I really gained confidence in what I was doing and tried to build on that and bring more people into what the live performance could be.

In such a way, can you say that Why Should I Get Used to It became the quintessence of your creativity?

It really just reflects who was playing with me at that period. The people that I met. So in a way its very similar to the two other albums. The first album I really let the musicians decide on the direction of the song. Like it would just take shape as we played it in the studio. The songs like All Must Pay I never really intended it to sound that way. But thats the way that Guy and Jerry and Eddie played the song. I had a very open-minded approach to allow the song to be the way other people saw it. And that song totally changed shape. There may have been a less of that by the last record. Because, I didnt know the people I was playing with that well. But I did have some ideas of what the songs would be like, because I was playing them live. I also had ideas of how to build the songs in the studio. Because I just started playing with the guitar player who was on that record Elisa ( Abela ). She hadnt been playing with me for very long. And she actually didnt know how to play some of the things that I wanted. I ended up playing guitar on some of those songs. And the drummer - Emanuele Tomasi. He was a fantastic drummer! And he didnt take any time at all for those parts. Because he was very good. So he followed suggestions very well. And he had been playing with me live. So he understood what I was aiming for.

Also, Mattia Candeloro who was the producer of that record, he understood my idea of what I was aiming at. For Elisa to play guitar riffs that we would then chop up and re-arrange. Because they were concepts that I was putting together in the studio. I would lay out something for her to play on, because I knew what she did well. I knew that I couldnt really teach her a song or get her to play the same thing twice. So I was kind of setting up ideas for her to play over. And we would go back and lift pieces. Its just an arrangement idea that I could execute by then. Because, I was making my third record and I had a lot of ideas. In that sense that record was very different. But I think it was also due to the people I was playing with. If I had a different guitar player or a different drummer things would have taken place differently. So it also reflected who was on the record.

Last year you released the first full length album of The Messthetics. But if well speak about your solo-creativity there you also had lyrics, while The Messthetics is fully instrumental band. What was the point of entry for The Messthetics and how did you get to fully-instrumental format?

During the time I was living in Italy and playing with people there, I was exploring more and more ideas. Especially, after making a third record. I really didnt feel like I had anything new to say lyrically. So I really challenged to come up with more lyrics that I was happy with. I just wasnt. I didnt play for the last three years that I lived in Italy. I had a drummer that I played with there who asked me to do some shows just before I moved back to the U.S. Because of our friendship I said Yes and we played like 4 shows. And other than that, I really started thinking aboutsome kind of new music. Because I listen to a lot of instrumental music. In terms of....kind of classical jazz and free-jazz. I just find that music very interesting. And not having lyrics I was happy with, I was trying to understand just communicating with other musicians. Musically. Could I arrive at a point I would be happy with? Now the music that I was putting together and I have some people record on, including that drummer, his name is Gioele Pagliaccia. He sent me drum-tracks. And I would put the bass-lines on that. Or I would write bass-lines and have other people record drums. I would send tracks to America, for people to record drums and send back like Ricardo Lagomasino, who really did a lot of touring with me. And then I had people in Italy, one I recorded with in a live space I could access in the morning. When a club was closed. That was Riccardo Coccolini. There were two guitar players, Manlio Maresco and Mike Cooper, who just plugged directly in my computer in my apartment there. So I was actually formulating my own concept and ideas about an instrumental kind of music. When I came back to America, I played those tracks for Brendan. That made Brendan think about Anthony Pirog as someone we could collaborate with. But he still assumed that this music might have lyrics on it. And we should just get together and play my solo-music. So the first time Brendan, Anthony and I got together It was to play my solo-music. We went over a lot of material from my three records. We werejust playing that. But immediately, I thought that this guitar player Anthony is just too good to be wasting on the simplicity of my solo-music and we could be creating an entirely new thing. It seemed to me that there was just no point in singing when he could say so much on guitar. So all three of us felt that it was quite possible. Now, I have to say that we actually didnt do a lot of thinking about it, because the next opportunity we had to play together was based on the fact that Anthony wanted to make a record and he asked us to be the backing rhythm section. He was going to makeI guess It would have been a solo record. He was communicating with a label about making a record. As we got together to make this music, we just turned into a band. Because we gave him as much time as he wanted to think about this music and let it grow. Brendan and I would add what we thought about things, and we let him take his time. AndIts just naturally turned into a band! The idea of Anthony making a solo-record just fell away. He wasnt sure the label would be interested in the music we were making. Meanwhile, we played our first show. Ian was there and he said that it would be great for Dischord. So Anthony no longer had to worry about the other label would they like the music or not.

Interview with Joe Lally

Can you say a few words about the process of work on debut record of The Messthetics? What was the sort of situation you had working on it?

That was a very comfortable situation. Because it was in Brendans practice space that he uses to record his own music when he records soundtrack music. Whether its for commercial purposes or for someone he knows working on a film. Brendan is used to occupying a space where he can put up the mics on his own drum-set. a guitar-cabinet, bass-cabinet, keyboards everything he needs to do to complete his ideas on his own, to create instrumental soundtrack music. So the space is already comfortable for recording. But this particular space is very much like a living room. Because its at the top of the club and its just wood and bricks, wood ceiling, wood floor with rugs and couch and chairs. That kind of thing. It just feels comfortable and sounds comfortable. Because he already knows how it sounds to record in, it was very easy to record what we were doing. While we were recording our ideas for the songs it seemed obvious that they were good enough to release. So thats where we recorded. And that couldnt have been easier. The recording process was just experimenting with ideas that Anthony was bringing in. Building on any ideas that we came up with on our own. Anthony and I love the same Sonny Sharrock album Ask The Ages so much! We brought in the idea of doing Once Upon A Time. And since Brendan doesnt often play freewithout any tempo, I suggested that song might still be able to breathe naturally if we used an afro-beat kind of beat. We tried that and it worked! So we thought that sounded nice like that. Anything that was working for us we just kind of worked with. And the album came about. There were some songs that we left out, that we didnt feel strongly about. And its what it is. Were already working on the second record that hopefully we might get most of recorded this month, if we can. But well see how it goes.

Against the background of rumors concerned the reunion of Fugazi I cant but ask about your last show with Ian and Amy. A band with no name played in support of the organization Loaves and Fishes which helps homeless people. Can you say a few words how you got this idea to gig together again?

Well, as soon as I moved back to Washington D.C. from Rome where Id been living for 8 years, and even during the time I was away, Ian and I talked a lot about playing. Because, he felt that The Evens had reached the point where they wanted to collaborate with a third person. So when I moved back it was almost natural that I would start playing with them and see what it would be like. They had a lot of pieces of music left from The Evens that they hadnt ever played live or finished writing. And they wanted to work with someone. So weve been playing in the basement for three years. Really! The songs we played at shows we played two shows now. One in D.C. and one in Winchester, Virginia. And we just dont have a name because we cant find a name that isnt taken. Weve been writing songs for three years. There are 11 songs with words and there is a number of other songs that are taking shape, in a musical sense. We have also been recording lately

Has the recording already started or you just have some rehearsals?

So far, there are ideas! We dont know if they are going to end up on the record. Its possible. But well have to keep working to find out.

Now Id like to get to the very beginning of our talk. As a musician you passed your way from playing in the band to solo-creativity and your new project The Messthetics. So talking about music in your life. What things changed for you and what things remain the same?

Well, the idea of how music is made is still the same for me, because I still see music as something youll put on an LP. So it has a side A and side B. And its roughly 35 minutes long. So my piece of art that I aim to create is still the same. I still look at that the same way and I dont try to make a different piece of art that would be longer, because it fits on a different format or anything. I dont look at that any differently. The industry has changed a lot. But since I started making music, I never felt that the industry was going to do too much for me. Personally, I didnt think it really worked, because it didnt care about music we were making until it sold a certain amount of copies. Which was through our own effort. Then they became interested. So industry of any kind is always interested in money. And this usually damages everything. In every industry. If these industries like governments were mainly focused on people, humanity and the humanness of whatever it might be., whether its art or politics. I think these things would work. Any form of government can feasibly function, I believe, if people come first. But people dont seem to ever come first. In the idea of the way the governments carry out their business. Or industries carry out their business. Everything seems to be based on money. No matter what anyone says they do or the way they think. Everything seems to be based on money. So that hasnt really changed. And making art is about something else. Making music is about something else. Its always been about something else. Because it changed my life in a way it has always been there, to give me inspiration and help and sort of nourishment and a spiritual nourishment. I feel thats what were doing when we make music. In the projects Im involved in. I really feel like music is a healing thing. And if youll bring what you want to it you can really give something to someone else. If youre doing that, its not about trying to charge as much money as you can. Like selling the pill that is the cure for cancer. Its going to cure the cancer so it costs a thousand dollars for a pill. To me thats just disgusting. So Its the same thing with music. Its something that I think Im able to contribute in the world. And it should be accessible to people, otherwise, what is the point ? In some ways I suppose things changed a lot but on the other hand things have not changed. You still have to look deeply for music you like. Music that is underground music, that is always going to happen. No matter what, whether people would pay attention or not. That music is still being made out there. You just need to look, to find it.

Text: Danil Volohov
Photo: Antonia Tricarico / Fabio Locci / Rik Goldman / Fotonify

Interview with Joe Lally