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Interview: Joe Lally of Fugazi

Words // Todd Harrington

Just recently I was able to conduct a short interview with musician Joe Lally.  Lally, known largely as the bass player for the legendary band Fugazi is gearing up for a short tour of the US.  Lally will be touring in support of his third solo album Why Should I Get Used to It.  Joe was gracious to talk with us about how the album came together, his former band, collaborations as well as his thoughts on the current state of music.

Visible Voice: First, lets talk about your latest release “Why Should I Get Used to It”.  In reading, the album came together in a “live setting”.  Were the songs recorded live, or did you road test them first?

Joe Lally: Less than half the songs had been played live with Elisa and Emanuele. I began writing guitar for the songs I had before Elisa started playing with me. There wasn’t a lot of practice time with Emanuele as he plays in a few other bands. I could never make as much progress with rehearsing the material as I wanted. In the end I got 2 recording days with Emanuele and that was great for 99% of the record. I really thought he’d be perfect for the way I envisioned the drums on Ft. Campbell, KY, but we just didn’t get to work with it enough so I left the drums off of it in the end! In those 2 days we got down all the basic tracks for the rest of the songs except Philosophy For Insects, which has no drums. I played guitar on the songs Elisa was less familiar with.

VV: Do you care to elaborate on the meaning of the album title?

JL: Well, let’s see… the woman on the cover could be the average person, or mother earth, or a woman! Why does she need to defend herself? I suppose it could take days to go through the list that comes to mind. Another way to look at it might be, why humans were around for about 50,000 years living one way and then we became “civilized” and arrived where we are today in a relatively short time.

VV: There seems to be more guitar on this record vs. your prior solo releases (There to Here, 2006, and Nothing is Underrated, 2007).  Was it easier for you to let guitarist Elisa Abela loose on this one?

JL: I think it was summer 2008 that I had so much of the material ready to organize and no one to really play it with. I started writing guitar parts myself. It came out of necessity. When I found Elisa, who is a natural improviser, I wrote a few more pieces where we could take advantage of her playing. It would have been great to meet her before I made the first records when I was leaving a bigger space for improvisation.  Having done that on those records I was looking to do something different.

VV: You have toured some already for the record in both Japan and South America.  How have the audiences been?  I've often read bands are not sure how to react when they play their music to non English speaking audiences, yet are always amazed at the ravenous reaction and sing alongs.  Have any of those moments occurred?

JL: Audiences in Japan and South America have responded very well. I think the music is coming across more like hard rock than anything else, but that seems to be what was enjoyed about it. Elisa’s a very aggressive guitarist. There was more people on both those tours singing along to songs than I’ve really experienced so far. I’m not sure why that is.

VV: What can North American audiences expect from your live show?  Can you tell us about the other members?

JL: I’ve done 7 tours with Ricardo and he played on a lot of the tracks on the second album so it feels like he’s in the band. Elisa and I did a tour in the UK with him in 2009. He’s one of the best drummers I’ve played with. He’s in a band called Many Arms that will be releasing a record on John Zorn’s label. Alison Chesley plays solo under the name Helen Money and has a couple of great records out. We were introduced by a mutual friend and I’ve been trying to record something with her since then. Instead we seem to be doing this tour first. I hope we’ll be able to make a record together some day. She’s joined us onstage at shows in the US, Canada, and Switzerland.

VV: It is difficult to ask these next two questions what with touring for new music, but here goes.  Fugazi is only listed as being on indefinite hiatus.  Are we on the sunrise side or sunset side of “indefinite?”

JL: I don’t know, I ask the same thing about my time left on the planet. I still feel like a part of the band. I don’t feel the need to start a new band in which I am a quarter of. We’ll have to see how things turn out.

VV: There was talk of releasing a series of Live Fugazi shows.  Is there anything you can add, such as formats (zip drive vs, compact disc, via download only?)

JL: It will be available to download. We wanted to get as many shows up as possible and that’s the way to do it. I think there are more than a hundred shows about to be added to the existing 30 that we had. That should be happening very soon if it hasn’t already by the time people read this.

VV: One final question about the past.  You have worked with John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer, both whom can add the Red Hot Chili Peppers to their resume.  How did you get involved with them for two records (2004's Automatic Writing, and 2007's AWII under the band name Ataxia).  Are you still friendly with the two and would you work with them again?

JL: Frankly, I don’t think the opportunity will present itself again. I was living in LA when John and Josh asked me to play a live show with them. They wanted to do the first performance of the material they had written for John’s solo records. I tried learning 9 songs but I never really do that. Learn a set of someone else’s songs. We also needed a keyboard player and in the end John said he’d rather have it that we were playing songs we wrote together. That was a lot easier for me! You might say I provided an assignment for them. They were releasing a record a month for a year at the time so they were looking for something else to do. I didn’t realize this until we had written 10 songs and John said do you mind if we record this? The whole thing happened in about 12 days including the writing, recording and 2 live shows. More time was spent mixing, but the recording for both records happened in the one session.

VV: In the early stages of your live shows you were using a laptop as your “band” what had you change from that style?

JL: That’s a misleading statement really, and I know it’s listed on the Dischord bio, but I used the laptop to create a drone for some songs. Eventually I bought an electronic shruti box that produced the same thing. Those shows were difficult to watch I think. I’m not sure I gathered many fans from it. I forced myself to get up in front of people playing bass and singing. They were more like skeletons of songs. It might have been some kind of self-sacrifice. It prepared me to do what I’m doing now. I didn’t know how else to get here.

VV: You have been able to tour the world with various bands.  What are your favorite cities or venues to play?

JL: The O-Nest in Tokyo is really something. They have the best stage crew, monitors and sound system. We had a very nice show there last time. We just had a great show in Buenos Aires and it was the first time I played their solo. I love playing all over Brazil. It’s a beautiful country.

VV: You are now living in Rome.  What brought you from the East Coast of the United States to Rome?

JL: My wife is Italian. She lived in the US for almost 10 years and now we’re looking after her mother here. I feel fortunate to be able to live in another country.

VV: Quickly back to Fugazi.  The band is, and was lauded for its DIY aesthetic, all ages shows, reasonable ticket prices and releases.  How do you react when someone calls you personally, or the band “influential” or “groundbreaking”?

JL: That’s their perception of it. From the inside you just don’t look at things that way. I’ll say it’s nice they think so.

VV: As a label owner (Tolotta Records) what, if anything, do you think is “wrong” with the music business today?

JL: I don’t think there’s enough music business for me to be too worried about what’s wrong with it.  I closed up my label back in 2003 or so, because I was moving around too much. I gave the remaining stock to the bands. What’s left of the music business is in the hands of the big acts I guess.  In the independent world it’s what you can make of it. Everything’s changed so much. It’s a shame that it became so difficult for many labels to stay alive.

VV: How do you and others in the business feel about with a service like Spotify?  With free, mobile, and  immediate access to virtually every popular album ever made what happens to the artists in this scenario?  How does this relate to Dischord/Fugazi's long time DIY philosophy?

JL: Technology brought it about and now it’s here. There isn’t much an artist can do about it. Certainly there are less sales, but I won’t let it ruin my life.

VV: What are some of the artists you look to for inspiration, and is there anyone you are excited about currently?

JL: I listen to a lot of music for inspiration, too much to name really, Nina Simone, Hendrix, Howlin’ Wolf, Dylan, Elis Regina, Black Flag…. you always feel you’ve left out too many. There’s a band we played with in Belgium called Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp and they come form various places in northern Europe. An all around great band to see live. A bass player I love to watch is Chiara Locardi from a French band, L’Enfance Rouge. Mauricio Takara in Sao Paolo has a solo project called M Takara 3. My drummer in the US, Ricardo’s band, Many  Arms.


Joe Lally performs at Great Scott in Allston on Tuesday November 15, 2011 with special Guest Helen Money.  Tickets available here.  Addtional tour dates and all the Joe Lally news can be found on his website.  Thank you to Joe Lally for taking the time to talk with us.  Get your tickets NOW!

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