Interview: Joe Lally of Fugazi
Joe Lally — former bass player for the post-hardcore juggernaut known as Fugazi — is a busy guy. His third solo album, Why Should I Get Used to It, is out now via Dischord Records, and he is set to play shows on four continents in the latter part of 2011.
Joe was nice enough to find time in his hectic schedule to talk to Guitar World about his new album.
GUITAR WORLD: This album features your signature, mid-rangey bass sound. Can you talk about your gear set-up on the new album?
JOE LALLY: It’s definitely different than the Fugazi sound, but then again the last two records have been. I use mainly a Hofner on this record. I have a Euphonic Audio amp and cabinet that I use, and that would probably be the same since the last time you guys talked to me.
This is your third solo album now.
Do you enjoy writing for solo albums as opposed to the band dynamic?
There are things that are very frustrating as one of four people. You just have to relax and let everything find its way. Everyone has to be pleased. So it’s just wildly different, it’s a whole different thing. The payoff of that is you just have so much input that you have so much to work with.
I tend to just write a number of things at once. Putting all those initial ideas down and returning to them, I can kind of surprise myself when I go back to them and have something to work with. It’s kind of tricking yourself into hearing it differently, and hearing it as something new you can react to.
It’s such a different thing; it’s so hard to compare them. Playing with three other people and slowly constructing music on your own are two totally different things.
How has your songwriting changed since the first record? Are you more comfortable writing on your own now than you were when you first began writing after Fugazi went on hiatus?
Yeah, I suppose I am because I understand what to do with what I’m hearing in my head. It was very difficult at first because I’d never really made my way through the whole song before on my own. The first couple records, I was kind of working on the theory of creating a skeleton that I could get someone to basically solo in. Well, not exactly soloing but creating kind of an atmosphere or texture that I would direct them into. On this record, when I began really trying to flesh out the songs and get them down as demos, I found there was nobody else who was going to be playing guitar, so I started playing guitar. As a result, I was really putting the songs in place before I had people to play. That was a huge difference.
So the songs were complete when you brought them to the other musicians involved?
A much larger percentage of the songs were in place. Right as I started to write on my own, I actually met my guitar player Elisa Abela in Sicily while playing with some friends of hers. She had been a drummer in bands, but I just heard her play guitar in her house and said, “This person is a natural.” I pretty much convinced her, kind of pushed her into the role.
Through a year of her really sitting down with me and understanding the old material, she had spent much more time with me than any of the other people playing with me. As I played with her more, I got an idea of her playing and was able to guide her better, which I didn’t really do with the other records with anyone. I’d give them ideas, but with Elisa I could do some playing with her, and a with song like “Philosophy for Insects,” I knew what I wanted her to do. Then I was just going to chop it up and arrange it, and that’s pretty much what we did.
In that sense, I was kind of writing with her in mind, understanding how she plays and how it would work for me.
Your drummer, Emanuele Tomasi, seems to take center stage on the song “Let It Burn.”
Drums are sort of the lead instrument of that song. The thing with Emanuele, he’s an incredible player but never had a lot of time to practice with us. So it was “Let it Burn” that I really just wanted him to play the way he enjoys playing the most, which is basically just free, and I allowed that song to work with the drums as the centerpiece, and everything kind of comes after it. It’s as if you’re sitting in the drummer’s seat, and then you hear the voice in front of you, you hear the guitar after that and the bass back there somewhere.
Do you see yourself getting involved in any bands in the future?
Last July I was in Austria with a band that did acoustic versions of Fugazi songs. They were called Fucoustic. They don’t do a lot of playing because they’re all teachers and they have very little free time. I had met them just before I moved to Europe. They had played D.C. and stopped by Dischord House, just to see it, and I was staying at Dischord House before I moved, and we just sort of talked about playing together some day.
They knew someone who does a project where they sort of bring people together in sort of a social center. I don’t know what else to call that place. There’s a bar in the basement where you can do shows, there are offices upstairs and a kitchen, places for people to stay, and a gallery. We wrote music before we got together and then we lived together for like a week and did three shows in Austria and played on the radio. That was much more of a band situation where they were writing ideas and then sending them to me, and then I would add to those and send them back, and so on.
By the time we got together, we were still batting ideas around and finishing off songs, but they just work so much that we’re left with very little time. But I’m really hoping someday that there’s enough material there to do a real recording and do a tour.
The production on Why Should I Get Used to It is very sparse and raw, in a way that lets the instruments breathe and ensures that you hear each one. Was that the goal from the outset or more of a by-product of how the album and songs came together?
It’s the way I hear things. I’d just never mixed a record before, so I don’t know what I hear. [laughs]
I really thought I should have Ian mix some songs so that I could understand what I liked, but Ian was just so busy last year when I was working on this, it took quite a while for him to get a song mixed and sent back to me, but as soon as I heard it I realized I can’t accept anything else. At that point I had sat with the songs the way I hear them for so long, and anything else was just weird sounding to me, it was like something else had happened, you know?
So I thought whatever people say about this, good or bad, that’s going to be it, and I’m just going to be more satisfied with mixing my own record. So now that I went over that hurdle, I haven’t really heard anything like, [laughs] “This is really fucked up. What did this guy do?” It’s kind of nice.
You seem to take the approach of trying to get the sounds right in the first place, and then mixing is just volume and placement.
I really just tried to make things sound the way I was hearing them, and for me, mixing is the initial recording. I’m not sure how much of that’s going to change when I make my next record, if people will think it’s kind of bland, or dull, or I-don’t-know-what-sounding, but I just can’t sit there and … when I was in the studio with Fugazi, I used to think, “I can’t do this work” or “I suck at this.” But the fact is, there are just people who work differently, and I just have to work faster with it. The initial sounds have to go down when you record, and then it’s almost just volume adjustment. And that doesn’t have to be so limited, either. Things change wildly with volume.
I don’t like to tamper with it too much, or if I do, I really want it to be different. I really can’t stand that aspect of, you know, trying to clean up a snare sound or worrying about bleed about sounds from another instrument in the microphone. I just think that’s ridiculous. I think a lot of old records sound great because they’re kind of gelling into one sound. I think music just sounds more real that way. I think it’s very strange to try and get each instrument on its own, and then try to bring them together and try to make them sound like they’re together.
I have a lot to learn about it and a long way to go, I suppose, but this record is the beginning of it.
The press is again abuzz after Ian [MacKaye, Fugazi singer/guitarist] said not to hold your breath over a Fugazi reunion, but not to count it out, either. Has anything changed in the Fugazi camp lately, or is that status of the band the same as ever?
I don’t know why it changed. A lot of people kind of jumped up and down or something when that Pitchfork interview came out, but it really isn’t any different. If we can do something, we will. It’s a matter of life kind of taking over. None of us have ever ruled it out, because there’s nothing to really reunion about because we didn’t really tear ourselves apart. Things just kind of happened.
Brendon has four children! It’s like, “You should stay home with your kids!” I think in the beginning, it was mainly needing to find your own way and know that you were secure in your life, having your children, having the family that you want to have and not getting pushed around by this thing that kind of takes over everyone’s life. And a band is like that.
I’m really glad we didn’t fuck around with any of that because you can unnecessarily cause a great divide between people as you struggle through trying what the band wants to do as a band. The band has a life of its own, and it really starts to pull and push and it will run people over if you’re not able to give 100 percent to it. And you know we recognized that.
There’s nothing for anyone to regret, and it’s open as it always has been. Nothing’s really different now than it was four years ago. I think people just heard it more clearly or something, I don’t know. But I’m hoping … I’ve always been hoping we do something. I felt like we wrote … that you kinda got the best record out of us at the end. I think we were just getting good at it.
Joe Lally's third solo album, Why Should I Get Used to It is out now on Dischord Records. For more info, check out www.joelally.com.
Photo Credit: Antonia Tricarico