Joe Lally was the bassist in Fugazi. More than any other member, he held their music together. His steady, circular playing laid secure foundations for the more extreme tendencies of his bandmates and powered the rhythmic momentum of the band. He now lives in Rome, and refers to Fugazi in the present tense more than any of the other members. We spoke about practicing, playing live without ever using a setlist and his surprising love of a British music magazine.
What did a Fugazi practice look like? Where did it happen?
“In the beginning it was in the basement of Dischord House, where the label had been run. That was a basement that most of those guys couldn’t even stand up in, I could stand between the floorboards because I was short enough. It was one of those really cramped places, but when you want to write music badly enough you just do it wherever you can, so that was fine.”
Would you all be facing each other?
“Pretty much. There was enough room just to set up where you wanted to and all be facing each other, right on top of each other. That led to Guy’s parent’s basement. We had a lot more room and we did a lot of writing there. From there it moved into a group house that was willing to give us a space. Maybe we were in my basement years later…”
When was this, the early days? I can’t imagine Guy’s parents were happy about having you down there for too long.
“Well it wasn’t that early, and we were all older by then anyway. His father would be at work anyway, his mother might be home, but it was okay to use the space.”
She was a big fan?
“Yes, she was. A lot of what became the Instrument soundtrack was recorded in Guy’s parents’ basement… what time period was that? That’s the kind of shit I can’t answer.”
There’s lots of stuff from that which ended up on End Hits, right?
“I guess that would be it. So we were at Guy’s parents’ as far along as that. After that we were in that group house. It wasn’t that far from Dischord House, and I lived halfway between the two. I suppose we ended up at my house first then me and my wife had a kid so we moved to that group house to allow it to not be a problem.”
When you were practicing in those little rooms were you ever wearing earplugs?
“If I wore earplugs it was very hard for me to write. It hurt a lot too. I wrecked my ears even before Fugazi. I went to see The Obsessed play a lot and a lot of that was really loud and really fucking unnecessary. But it felt really good at the time. It seemed like the right thing to do. I was never the player, I could never look at someone’s hands and figure out what they were doing, I’d need to hear. So a lot of times at practice I would need to stick my head next to my bass cabinet and try to go ‘would this sound good with this?’. The last couple of records I was definitely saying ‘couldn’t we just play quieter? And use smaller amps? And actually understand what it is we’re doing?’ I didn’t really win any of those arguments.”
Was there any distinction for you between having a writing day or a practice to go out on tour?
“We would be working on writing material unless we were close to a tour. We rarely just went out to play one show. We prepared and went out to do a continent on tour. That would mean a week or two of four hour practices, four or five days a week. We would try to go over all the material we’d done up to that point. We also did specific periods where we’d take trips up to Ian parents’ house, it’s in the Fugazi film [Instument], up in Connecticut.”
That’s the place where you’re talking about being monks in Instrument?
“Yeah, and that was perfect. It’s not a big house but there are books lining the shelves and the sound of playing in that room, with a little piano in the same room, was great. We could set up the board in a separate room. It was really like a cottage, you know? It was beautiful there, it was isolated, so you’re stuck. You’re not doing anything else. If we’re to get together again it will take us time, it will have to be a natural process of just playing together, but I really hope we could go back to a place like that where it’s just super-intensive, where you’re really focussed on it.”
It seems like that’s the only way you can hope to achieve the understanding you had. The music is so densely constructed that you need almost a painful closeness I suppose?
“I guess a lot of that develops from playing [live]. But it was easy for us. It was definitely not an ordeal to be together, isolated, writing. It was always a very good hang. Whenever we do hang out, still, my face usually hurts from laughing.”
When you wrote would someone come in with one riff or would songs be fully formed?
“Very, very rarely did anyone have anything fully formed. That would be something that only happened when Ian and I would play together, with the first drummer that we were jamming with. It just wasn’t something that really happened, it was all about trying to figure out together where songs would go. Ian and Guy might have an idea of singing and playing something, but even that was really rare, it was 99 per cent not the case. It would usually just be a riff. Then it would be determined, ‘is that a guitar riff? Or is it a bass riff?’”
And Brendan wrote a lot on the piano?
“Brendan really could write on anything. He could bring in something and again, you’d try and figure out how it would be used. Ian often wrote riffs on piano that he would then transfer to guitar and bass, and those are always the starting points. And then you bashed it into… something, and figured out what it was going to be. Meanwhile everyone played with whatever that was, and then that thing could really change a lot. Whatever you brought in you definitely kissed it goodbye, because it wasn’t necessarily going to turn out like any vision you had of it.”
That demands quite a lack of ego.
Did you have anything that was outlawed at practice? I know Epic Problem was kicking around for years.
“There were things that weren’t really outlawed, but just at points something would come back and you’d be like ‘NO! NO! NO!’ because you were afraid of going into the hole with it and not getting out for two hours. You were trying to preserve the time we had to play that day.”
Was there anything else like Epic Problem which did eventually see the light of day? That took forever to reach a point you were happy with?
“There were things that were really old, an old riff, that came back and worked very differently. We had this song that we played live on our first tour of Europe because we had to play longer sets than we had material for. On the last single we did… What’s it called, Good Morning or something?”
Hello Morning, I think?
“I’m really bad with song titles, up to this moment even with my own songs. But yeah, that one just got put away because we didn’t know what to do with it. But years later we set out to really try and tackle it and make a song. But I wouldn’t recall it by name, it was just some riff that finally turned into something. That was the natural process that went on. There were older songs that we never did anything with that we finally went back to. There were also riffs that would go across albums, it wouldn’t make it on an album, or the next one and then it might make it.”
Was Number Five [the other song from the Furniture single] really old as well?
“No I don’t think that really sat around much. That’s a crazy-ass piece of music, I was listening to a recording of us writing that, or a version of it up to that point. I didn’t even really understand what song it was, because it just sounded so strange. It sounded like all these parts pasted together, but at the same time kind of incredible.”
That’s a good example of a song where you’re completely holding it down, if you weren’t locked in and doing your thing it would be in pieces.
“That can happen. It’s a balance that keeps it exciting too. It’s probably a good position to be in, where the bass is weaving through it and keeping it together and that makes the rest of it seem more chaotic.”
When I saw you guys live you were a really calm presence on stage. Was that a conscious thing? Is that just who you are? Or was it having to stay cool on bass to keep all this other wild stuff in line?
“It’s kind of all those things, but it is a lot to do with who I am. It was because of what I was doing, and my personal need to be focussed. I couldn’t have anything on the stage in front of me that was distracting. If there were too many cigarette butts or a plastic cup that had landed on the stage… When we get on the stage one of the first things I do is clean things from my visual field. I found things distracting. Where the mic was that was micing the hi-hat between me and Brendan… Just too many visual obstacles to find distracting. So it really was a space of meditation where I would go up and be absolutely empty to try to understand what was going to happen next. It was very much the nature of being able to play however many songs there were, and understand the beginning of them.”
It sounds almost OCD, the need to have that complete clarity.
“Yeah, I mean it really was the best way for me to be able to call up any song at any second and to remain aware of what each person was doing. Not just what was coming next but what was going on even at that moment, what song we were in and how we were treating it. Our monitoring what not necessarily normal. I stood back there with Brendan and my bass cabinet, but in the monitors for Guy and Ian it was usually their voices and sometimes even their guitars. So I would have Guy’s guitar on the left of me and in front of me I could also very well have Guy’s voice very loud. Sometimes we’d go to record something we had written and played live a number of times. When I would listen to the playbacks of the recording I was really hearing what Ian played on the song for the first time, because he was over there on the right and I couldn’t hear him.”
What would you normally in your monitor as a bassist?
“Well somebody like John Paul Jones who would stand way back with the drummer would have his own monitor there with him. In one very rare instance we had the best monitor person in the world, from Rat Sound, this woman Carrie. We were playing a big stage in some empty, colossal room. One of those high-ceilinged venues in LA that is kind of hopeless. We were doing the soundcheck and it was just like ‘where the hell is the sound?’ It was like being outside, you know? She said ‘I could give you your own monitor’ and I said ‘well I don’t really do that,’ and she said ‘well let’s just try.’ So I got one and it was incredible. Just anything I wanted, right there. It was insane. She’s known for that, she’s like the person that does everything for Pearl Jam and has spoiled them ridiculously so they can go anywhere in the world and hear exactly what they want to.”
Did you have a monitor after that or did you go back to just standing next to Brendan?
“No, I never bothered. You’ve got to put the monitor somewhere, and that’s a pain in the butt for me. Like ‘where does that go? I’m already back there making sure Guy doesn’t hit me with the base of a microphone.’ It was useless. I enjoyed there being less on stage.”
Was it strange for you when you started coming out to the front to sing on some songs?
“Yeah it was really weird. Sometimes I kept the whole thing back to where I was standing with Brendan, I got them to bring the mic back. There were a couple of songs that I sang back up on. Like…. ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-dum / da-da-da-da-da-da-dum-bong-bong’…What the fuck’s the name of that song?”
I’m not quite sure… I feel like I’m on a quiz show. Is it Fell, Destroyed?
“No. I wasn’t doing it that well because I can’t get my head together for it… But I sang backup and eventually made them bring the mic back to me because it didn’t make sense to stand at the front and have Guy stand behind me while I sang such a short part of the song. It kills the movement of the entire set, and takes away from Guy’s energy on stage. It was okay if I went up to sing a whole song, that was different. It should be my energy that moves into the front part of the stage. Otherwise I felt better that a mic showed up where I was to sing a backing vocal.”
Did it take any persuasion for you to do those songs live having not done it before?
“No, I had sung a song more than once. I was roadie for a band called Beefeater and I got up and sang a Bad Brains song with them, I always wanted to sing. The fact is that I couldn’t sing. That was kind of the hard part about it. But I enjoyed trying to do it.”
Tell me about the way you approached not having a setlist. How many cues did you have for songs, hand signals for instance?
“The whole feeling for me was that I had to be completely there to do that. As much as we practiced for a tour, I would play all the songs at home too. Because inevitably one bassline may sound like another, it was just where they were placed on the neck. I might call up a song that had started in the wrong place. I would usually catch myself in the first note or two and slip into the right song, but those mistakes are so hard to keep away because you may even be thinking of the right song but your hand goes to play another bassline that’s similar, and you have to recover from that quickly. But mainly what would happen is we would decide just before we went out on stage what song we were going to play first and what song was going to follow it. From there it was always going Ian / Guy / Ian / Guy, you were looking to the other person when a song was ending. There were some songs that would often follow another song, so you could hear it starting sometimes. Then when that note did actually come on from the singer, because they would start that song on guitar or something, you knew you were right about it. So there was a lot of that, kind of feeling about being telepathic and just knowing that song was going to happen anyway, which helped set you up for what was going to happen later. You’d feel confident about it.”
Was it always Guy and Ian who were leading those changes, or did you ever start something?
“Sometimes it was just someone wanting a break, or saying ‘Joe should do a song next’. I would sometimes decide in advance what song it was going to be, for a while it only was one song [Red Medicine’s By You]. It was really about just getting to know how people signalled that song. Sometimes it was just yelling a thing, yelling it for too long sometimes. Sometimes it would be Brendan yelling it to Ian because Guy yelled it to Brendan.”
How often did it go horribly wrong, it just wouldn’t happen for you?
“The only time anything really went horribly wrong was entirely my fault. One of those gigantic shows I was telling you about in LA, where the sound was kind of weird, we started Promises. And it starts out with a guitar line, and then the bass comes in. ‘der-ner-ner ner-ner-ner–ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner der-ner. der-ner-ner ner-ner-ner–ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner der-ner.’ And I just could not fucking remember what to play next. It went on for so long that I thought there isn’t anything else to do but stop playing the motherfucking line. So I stopped playing the line and everyone kinda went ‘well, that’s interesting. This is becoming a really interesting beginning.’ Then all I could do was go back to playing the line. By now, I don’t know how much time had passed, to me it seemed like at least 45 minutes. I think I had to entirely stop the song to try and figure it out, to ask somebody how it went. By then I had gone down some black hole that I couldn’t escape. That was just infinitely embarrassing. It’s hard to me to be embarrassed when things went wrong on stage, because you just went with them, you know? That was so totally dragged out and fucked up. Extremely wrong.”
How strict was that rule about not using any pedals for your guitars?
“It wasn’t like what we could refer to as a White Stripes thing. Ian was never interested in having to deal with pedals and without that what you’re dealing with is just having the right amp and the right guitar. We had this guy Steve who really was able to fix our gear. Ian broke a guitar at the headstock and lower at the neck near the body, the same white SG, it just got completely broken to pieces, but each time was put back together. Steve just did an amazing job. So Ian could just really make sound that he could control that much. It’s one thing if you’re Hendrix and you’re on 10 the entire fucking time anyway. You’re using your volume on your guitar and you have these insane pedals or whatever, but Hendrix only had a couple of pedals, the rest of it was how incredibly fucking loud everything was working for him. So it’s just being able to do that with natural sound. Ian was always working with that, and therefore if the room or a stage would be against him, he could be quite frustrated with that. Guy was providing a different kind of sound, playing the Rickenbacker, but he used one distortion pedal. Guy, as you well know if you watch him on stage, just shouldn’t have many pedals in front of him because they’re either going to get destroyed, they’re going to end up somewhere else or the cord is going to get pulled out of them. There were too many of those factors. There was no real law about it. Everybody was just willing to do without them to make life easier.”
What happened with the Steve Albini sessions for In On The Kill Taker?
“We went there for the idea of seeing what it would be like because we didn’t want to do another record with [Repeater producer] Ted Nicely and also Ted was doing different things, it wasn’t just that we didn’t want to work with him. We just wanted to do something different because we had become friends with Steve and Shellac. It was awesome. We had a great time doing it. We went there for a long weekend and we had an idea of doing a few songs. It just kind of rolled along, we weren’t really done with it, we hadn’t written all of the songs at that point. We went ahead and recorded everything that we had at that point in a really short time. You have to remember that it wasn’t in a studio with Steve, it was in the basement of his house. So it wasn’t like what he would normally do. It was about hanging with Steve, recording, and seeing how all that worked. In a way we just vomited the whole thing out really fast. After doing it we found that some of the songs just weren’t quite done. They weren’t quite ready to be recorded. We also felt the sound of it didn’t represent a lot of the sounds the way we heard them. It’s a hard thing to explain.”
There’s often talk about a reggae and dub influence in the band, and I guess that’s most prevalent in the basslines. Was that something you were bringing to the table, or were you all into those genres?
“I think everybody was into it, everybody loved it to some degree. It was definitely in my concept of how music was put together. I was really drawing from the way I visualised music, and repetition was a big part of it. That stands out in a lot of reggae, and bands that drew from that. Like, Joy Division must have seen that in what they were doing, and Public Image. I only really listened to black music growing up. That’s the way I still think of it as it’s very much still divided in America, it certainly was in the time I was growing up. I saw all these R&B bands when I was 11 or 12 years old: The O’Jays, The Spinners, Jackson 5, Grand Central Station. I saw all that stuff and even though basslines can be more complicated there was something about that music that I just related to. Maybe it was the James Brown aspect of that, there’s a strong idea of repetition in his music. And you know, the basslines are not quite like that, they’re not repetitive, playing the same thing like I do. I kind of simplified that and bought it into that. I didn’t pick up my instrument til I was 19, it was really my own idea of what was going on in music and it was just because I was a very intense listener. I didn’t realise until much, much later how badly I needed to play and how dedicated to it I was when I was listening to all the different types of music I listened to. I went through hard rock at junior high school then luckily punk rock happened when I was about 15 which was a huge relief as I wasn’t listening to anything else.”
Are you still reading Mojo? I read somewhere you’re a fan of that magazine.
“I haven’t actually read it for a long time. I had to let it go, it was definitely an addiction for a while. It was just so fun to read about the making of records, that aspect of the record. Just today I was doing an interview with someone about a Fugazi record. A record I can’t remember anything of. So as much as I love reading that about other people I’m definitely the member of the band that actually can’t really add very much to what happened.”