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Fugazi | Furniture | interview | Joe Lally | alternative | rock | Lollipop
An Interview with bassist Joe Lally
by Tim Den
Many think only of Ian and Guy when it comes to Fugazi. Little does the public know of bassist (and occasional vocalist) Joe Lally's inner workings. Now more in the spotlight because of his Tolotta Records (home to The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, Dead Meadow, Orthrelm, and Stinking Lizaveta), we here at Lollipop figured that it was time for the world to hear from this man. A proud, new father and a member of possibly the world's most respected band, Joe is a humble, down-to-earth, music-loving individual who is just happy to be able to live off what he loves.
When did you start thinking about starting your own label?
Around '93. I started out just doing singles. Fugazi had come to a point where Brendan was living in Seattle two months at a time to be with his girlfriend (who was in school there). The band wasn't touring, and the rest of us were left with not much to do. So I made a project for myself. I thought maybe people who I knew in DC would want singles done. In an art project sort of way, I got used paper, cut it up, and rubber-stamped a batch of records. I printed about 1,000 copies of the first batch. Then I quickly found out that nobody in this area really needed help with singles (laughs); it's just something bands do by themselves. So nothing else happened for a few years until Wino (of The Obsessed and Spirit Caravan) moved back to this area around '97 and asked me to do a single for Spirit Caravan (they were called Shine at the time). Wino had been through the whole major label thing with The Obsessed, so he wanted to do something independently. He told me "if you want to do it, we're behind you." And I thought, "I dubbed thousands of tapes of The Obsessed and gave 'em out to people all over the world (laughs) - of course I'll do it!" I'd lived with them, they practiced in the basement of the house I lived in, and I went to sleep listening to them practice. They entered my bloodstream and subconscious at some point.
I thought, "I have to figure out how to put out a CD. This is a mission that I must accomplish!" That was the point where the label became serious. The record came out in '99.
It's my mother's maiden name. I felt my Mom hadn't really gotten credit for anything, so... I'm getting her name out there (chuckles).
Did you ever think about just doing the records through Discord instead of starting your own label?
Well, of course that wouldn't be my choice; it would be up to Ian. It's a completely different genre. And - in the waaaaaay past - Ian loved Wino and thought he was a great guy, but always thought that The Obsessed were a bunch of fuck-ups. Wino had drug problems. He was kind of a loose cannon. He always had a really good heart, but he'd get totally sidetracked by getting really fucked up. Start by getting drunk... and then you wouldn't know what would happen after that. It could go on for a week... all kinds of crazy shit. It took a long time for Wino to come down off of all that stuff. He'd been doing crazy shit since he was about 12. He just stopped in '96.
Just got burnt out?
The Obsessed had left him cuz they were tired of him. He'd been doing crystal meth or something. He kept disappearing. The band was signed at that point and just kinda falling apart, and Wino wasn't doing anything to help them keep going. He ended up on the streets in L.A. Luckily, some people he knew found him in this halfway house and signed for him and brought him home. He ended up taking a bus home to Maryland, and started all over again with absolutely nothing. He moved back in with his parents and worked for a company that delivered equipment to shows. Slowly, he bought a guitar, bought an amp... They did their first show using the company's rental equipment. He came back from it all and just methodically thought "Okay, this is what I need to do." He stopped everything: Stopped drinking, became a vegetarian... he's like a superhero in many ways.
He and his wife just had a kid. He really set his mind to it and got away from all that (old crazy shit), and is now just trying to make the band work. It's reflected in the first Spirit Caravan record: Very uplifting and positive.
Would you say Tolotta is a "doom/stoner" label, or a label that puts out friends' music?
It's really hard for me to describe the label cuz I don't really connect with doom or stoner rock. I'd say '70s rock before I'd say those two genres. Now I have this band called Orthrelm on the label, and... it's a different thing (laughs). But generally, I'm pursuing guitarists for guitarists' sake. The Orthrelm stuff is really fast; scales played at lightening speeds. Just a guitarist and a drummer. Mick, the guitarist, is just insane. The first time I saw him actually do a set - cuz he's played with other people in the past - the first thing I thought was "Man, I'd love to put that out!" He released something where he programmed a drum machine and played over it; Guy (from Fugazi) helped put it out on his Peterbilt label, but Mick was looking to get on a heavy label. Mick's from this area, and it's not like there's a whole bunch of bands like that in this area. I had always wanted Mick to open for Spirit Caravan, cuz I knew their audience would be like "Holy shit!" Seriously, I know this sounds crazy, but it's almost impossible to listen to on record. Watching them is like watching a fire: You're just mesmerized by it. They even write in their own language.
I seem to be pursuing "rock guitars." That's a little bit harder to come by these days... at least what I enjoy. I was never a total metalhead. Metal to me was Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Blue Cheer. I never even got to the point of Iron Maiden.
What bands got you into punk rock?
I didn't go to the same high school as all my friends; I went to a different school for this art class. There, I met a couple of people who turned me on to punk rock. The Sex Pistols, The Damned, etc. In that same art class I met the drummer for The Obsessed.
Some of the first bands I got into were a really mixed bag. It wasn't straight-up, solid punk rock. I hadn't figured out the local hardcore scene. It took me a while. I saw The Clash in '79, The B-52s... it was hit or miss. The B-52s were fucking intense as shit when I first saw them. Sure, there was all the playfulness and silliness of the later stuff, but I was seriously scared of the audience. I got lifted off my feet and couldn't control what was happening to me.
Did you meet the rest of the band through the punk rockers in art class?
No. I went to school in Rockville, MD. It was just far enough away to miss a lot of stuff. I actually listened to WGTB, the only punk rock station (out of Georgetown University). I remember the advertisement for The Cramps' benefit show (for the station). The station was going off the air; they were too rebellious. The university sold the station for, like, a dollar... Guy and Ian were both at that Cramps show. It was one of their first punk rock shows. It blew their minds. The singer threw up on stage - came out and threw up (immediately). The band had barely started. Guy and Ian were both shocked beyond belief. By the end of the night, people were throwing chairs through windows. It was total chaos. They were both like "... YEAH! That scared the shit out of me! That's what I want to do!" (laughs) Guy even ran up to the band on the streets. He was just a kid asking for autographs.
I didn't see that show, but I saw The Cramps in '80 and Teen Idles were opening for them. That was my first local hardcore show. But I didn't understand that it was a local band playing up there.
When did you get involved in the DC scene?
When I realized that "there's this hardcore crowd here," and that these kids I see at shows are all in bands. I remember seeing Dead Kennedys play the 9:30 Club with Half Japanese opening around '82. People were just non-stop jumping off the stage... After that, I kinda thought "What exactly is happening here?" and started searching things out more.
Seems like there's a lot of camaraderie in the DC scene.
I think in any scene where people acknowledge that they're all trying to do the same thing... it can happen.
To switch from the past to the present, how was writing this Fugazi album (The Argument) different from all the others?
It's hard to describe the songwriting thing... especially as someone who doesn't know how to write a full song by himself (laughs). We're challenging ourselves to come up with something that would not be the obvious route to take. When a song starts to take shape and we say "Okay, this feels too obvious of a move or a payoff," we don't let it come. We take you somewhere else instead. That's probably the best way I can describe it.
To me, the songs sound more "pop." But not that we collectively sat down and said "let's try and do this for this album." I think having been a band for so long, maybe we haven't really tried to go "there." And maybe that's just where we have come. But when we've reached "there," we're still trying to keep the songs from being too syrupy, too easily digestible.
How are the songwriting duties divided up?
Anything can happen. Brendan writes a lot of guitar and bass parts, and he writes a lot on piano. He's the kind of person who can play anything. He has an accordion. He definitely brings in a lot of material, which I don't know if people are aware of or not. Anyone can bring in anything, and it can become anything. Ian can come up with a guitar line that, after a while, we decide sounds better as a bass line. When somebody writes something, it goes through the Fugazi filter and turns into whatever it does. If I bring in a part that eventually makes it into a song, it may not even resemble the thing I felt like I was writing for. I barely recognize it anymore. I can barely play the part (chuckles).
What made you decide to sing on recent records?
I've always loved singing, but I don't feel like I know how to sing. I love vocalists, I suppose. When the band first started - maybe even our first show - I sang backing vocals on songs (we were a three-piece). My growth as a musician/songwriter has been this band. Before this band, I was just jamming with people. I guess (singing) was something I always felt I could develop here. Nevertheless... I (eventually just) wanted to sing (laughs).
And everyone was just like "sure, go ahead"?
I think it was also this point where Ian and Guy were a little more stuck than usual as to what they wanted to do vocally. So I took the songs that were like "No one's going to sing on this one." Actually, I did that with one that really should've been an instrumental ("Recap Modotti" on End Hits). It used to be totally different. I was just like "I'm gonna sing on this!" It didn't seem like it was holding up as an instrumental, so I tried to sing on it, but it didn't make any sense. It was much too loud (for my voice). I couldn't sing over it because it was too busy and shit. We did it (with me singing) a few times during soundchecks, and I think we even recorded it once in the studio, but we eventually came home and broke it down into something very simple.
To me, music has always been like that. It can be very simple, and it is what you're singing on it that makes it memorable. I remember one time we were on tour, and this friend of ours was doing some show and we weren't gonna be able to see her. So she just stood on the sidewalk and said "Well, let me play my song for you" and took out her keys, slapped them against her leg, and sang the song. I think that's how she did it on stage, too. I was like "That's my kind of song." All you need is the beat and you're there.
After years and years of carefully not repeating yourself, are practices becoming harder and more strained?
There're definitely practices where we're like "Why are we still doing this?" But it's a day-to-day thing: It's like a bad show. You know there's gonna be another show tomorrow anyway, so forget about how bad this one was. You just put it behind you. Same thing with a day of practice that doesn't amount to anything. We all still believe that we can make something that's interesting, different, and kinda surprising to ourselves. Like anything that lasts a long time, there are points of it that are too familiar; you can become bored if you're not paying attention.
How did the four members of Fugazi get together in the first place?
I'd been going to see Rites of Spring, Happy Go Lucky, and all their bands play... I'm actually one of the few people who saw Insurrection. They played on a baseball diamond at University of Maryland to me and ten other people (laughs). Guy pulled out that tape the other day - let me get completely off the subject - and I think "They're gonna put it out!" All these years he's been "That's horrible, I don't want to hear it." He hasn't listened to it in eight years or something. But he put it in, and our friend Cathy and I were like "it's fucking great, man!" It's totally cool-sounding. But anyway... I'd been going to see their bands forever - Minor Threat, Embrace - and I was a big fan of the band Beefeater. I knew Fred Smith, the guitar player, from going to The Obsessed shows. At some point, they were about to go on tour, and I was like "Pleeeeeease take me on tour and let me roadie for you." At the time, I had a government job - I was a government contractor - and Fred used to have the same job (he actually wrote a song called "Government Worker"), so he was like "We gotta get Joe out of here." We met to leave for tour at the singer's house, which was the Dischord house. That was the first time I'd really talked to Ian. I'd chatted with him before when he worked at a record store, but we never had a real conversation.
After Beefeater came back from tour, Ian and I went for lunch the next day. He knew that I played bass, and I guess he was trying to see what I was like (as a person). A week later, he called me and was like "I'm thinking about doing this project; it's pretty loose and open." I'd never envisioned playing in a band with him. He described the thing he wanted to do, and it sounded simple enough.
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