Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

The sign on Route 29 an hour outside Charlottesville, Va., said y-not stop?, which seemed like a harmless, even welcome suggestion. So Joe Lally and the musicians who would be accompanying him when he played a show that night at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar stopped to take a bathroom break, stretch their legs, have a snack.

But then drummer Malcolm McDuffie tried to start his car back up. He’d recently had the keys remade; they hadn’t been a problem before, but now the ignition just wasn’t catching. After an hour of trying, Lally, 43, called the promoter, who agreed to come get them after he got off work.

The Charlottesville show went fine. Lally, McDuffie, bassist Massimo Pupillo—a friend of Lally’s visiting from Italy—and Pupillo’s girlfriend spent the night in the venue, because McDuffie’s wife couldn’t come down ’til the next day with a rental van to collect everyone. In the morning, they drove back to the Y-Not Stop?, called a tow truck, and while waiting for it, lo and behold, the damn key finally worked. So the now five-strong party booked it back to D.C., to Petworth, where Lally was scheduled to play a Utopian pan-Arab restaurant called Alfishawny Cafe.

They returned the rental van and made it to the venue just in time for sound check—and also just in time to find out that the people at the venue had expected them to bring their own PA. And that they also had to make a $100 deposit on the room. And that there was a PA, but no one knew how to turn it on. In a moment of frustration, Lally announced to the room, “You would think for a $100 deposit that I would get someone who could turn on the PA.”

It got worked out. Someone got the PA to turn on and found some speakers (subwoofers, but speakers nonetheless). Lally had to play sideways so they wouldn’t feed back, but that wasn’t too great a problem, since the only people who seemed to know about the show were his friends and family and folks from his record label, Dischord. His 5-year-old daughter danced at the front of the stage with another little girl and had a grand old time. All things considered, he felt the show went wonderfully.

Then, as he packed up to leave, Lally found out that he had to pay the cafe $50 more. A month later, the woman who booked the show there called Lally to take him to task for his crack about the PA. She told him he needed to be more respectful to people younger than him. (He was a bit taken aback, but he would like her to know he’s sorry.) You can’t help but wonder whether on that night, or more likely the night of the Alfishawny show, Lally lay in bed thinking, I used to be in Fugazi. Why am I doing this the hard way? Or whether the wording on that sign seemed like a stronger suggestion than he’d first imagined. Why not stop, indeed?

“Joe is the perfect effortless bass-line player. He plays the greatest rolling lines. And that was kind of what the sound of the band was.” —Guy Picciotto(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Twenty-two years ago, when he was working as a tape librarian at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Joe Lally cut his hand something fierce. He was standing on a skid of boxes, counting boxes on an upper level, when he lost his balance. He put out his left hand to stop his fall; it hit the metal banding around another pallet. As Lally fell, the sharp ribbon cut three of his fingers severely, his middle one to the bone.

Lally had taught himself to play bass by listening to Joy Division records, and two surgeries later, he was able to pick up his four-string again, but that was academic, because he wasn’t in a band. He religiously attended hardcore shows in D.C., even though none of his friends from his native Rockville would come with him. They’d check out art-metal local yokels the Obsessed, no problem. But Gray Matter with Rites of Spring and Grand Mal at Food for Thought? Lally was on his own.

“I was like, This is the whole world,” he remembers of those groups’ cathartic shows. “Why isn’t anyone else paying attention to this?”

Guy Picciotto, who sang in Rites of Spring, remembers Lally as a quiet fan from the ’burbs who once drove up to New York for one of that band’s rare out-of-town shows and offered the equipment-bashing group the use of his bass amp. “Basically I was still taking a lot of drugs and wanted to not do that anymore,” Lally says. “And I was very unhappy with my job…and nothing made sense. I just wanted to be in a band.”

Lally, who’d graduated Albert Einstein High School in Kensington by the skin of his teeth, was making good money for the time—$8.50 an hour—but when Fred “Freak” Smith, who he knew from D.C. shows, mentioned that his band Beefeater was going on tour, he saw a way out of his anomic existence. “I was like, ‘Bring me as a roadie; please save my life; take me on tour,’ ” Lally says.

The Beefeater tour took two months, ranging across the United States and into Canada. For Lally, who’d never been west of Illinois or south of Virginia Beach, it was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” He’d already been gradually ramping down his drug use (at one point he bought 100 hits of speed), but being with Beefeater put him in a social milieu where getting fucked up wasn’t the focus of hanging out. He also, at the band’s suggestion, quit eating meat.

The day after the tour ended, Lally spent the night in “Dischord House,” the group house in Arlington where Beefeater singer Tomas Squip lived with Ian MacKaye, who had been somewhat adrift himself since the breakup of his iconic hardcore band Minor Threat in 1983. MacKaye took Lally and Squip out to lunch to debrief them on the tour. Squip was pushing Lally to join Happy Go Licky, Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty’s post–Rites of Spring band, as its bassist, but MacKaye called dibs. “I remember when Beefeater came back from tour, they had started playing the Bad Brains’ ‘Pay to Cum,’ and Joe sang it. And he sang it perfectly,” MacKaye remembers. “And I thought about the fact that if Joe could sing ‘Pay to Cum’ rhythmically…he damn well could play bass.”

In 1986, when he found out his friend’s band Beefeater was going on tour, the 23-year-old Lally saw a way out: “I was like, ‘Bring me as a roadie; please save my life,’ ” he says.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

MacKaye had an idea about a band built around bass lines. He, Lally, and Dag Nasty drummer Colin Sears started woodshedding ideas, practicing several hours a day, three times a week. “I just wanted to play,” MacKaye says. “At the time, I said, ‘This is not a band. We’re just gonna play music.’ ” He says he wanted to “slow down the process” of bands forming and playing shows.

Slow was good, because as a bass player, Lally wasn’t really there yet, especially in a band whose early songs were defined by the instrument. (“He was still—it was early,” says MacKaye about Lally’s bass skills at the time.) But Lally quickly grew into the role. Not a year later he was rolling out the fluid intro to Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” which even today, much to the bandmembers’ annoyance, occasionally turns up in NBA and NFL broadcasts.

“One way to look at it is that the band was one long bass line,” says Picciotto, who joined Fugazi after its first show in 1987. “Brendan, Joe, and Ian all wrote bass lines….And Joe is the perfect effortless bass-line player. He plays the greatest rolling lines…and that was kind of what the sound of the band was.” Picciotto says that after the band asked him to play with them, he couldn’t figure out where he’d fit in. “When I first went and saw them, and the way Ian’s guitar integrated with [Lally’s bass], I didn’t initially see a role for myself in the band.”

Lally’s bass playing is one of Fugazi’s signature elements, as recognizable as its chugging guitars, eventual drummer Canty’s brass bell, or the contrast between Picciotto’s gristly yelp and MacKaye’s martial bark. Drawing on the rolling, deep lines of dub reggae as much as hardcore, Lally didn’t reinvent the instrument, or even alight on a novel combination of influences. But he did find a bass sound that’s absolutely his own.

Joe Lally was finally in a band. And still he was a little intimidated by the other bandmembers’ hardcore pedigrees. “I could be in that band for years and still sit in the van driving through whatever country and was kind of like, How did I end up with these guys?” he says. “I was pretty lucky to have fallen into place there.”

Ask Lally why he’s not taking the easy route, and he’ll apologize for “getting corny,” then say, “I guess because I’m just trying to find the music.”(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Over the next 15 years, Fugazi got famous. Sometimes even for its music. Mostly, though, press accounts of the band focused on the way it conducted its business, playing more than a thousand cheap shows, selling its records for $10, and turning down million-dollar record deals, spots on the bill of Lollapalooza, even the opportunity to appear as the house band in the bowling alley in the Woody Harrelson vehicle Kingpin. The band could make a lot of these decisions easily because it sold more than a million copies of its seven albums, all on Dischord, which MacKaye co-owns. The label split its profits with the band, which then divided them four ways. Lally bought a house in Arlington.

One night in Rome in 1995, Fugazi was playing at a giant squat called Forte Prenestino, where Lally met Antonia Tricarico, a photographer who was working the sound system. (“I was more familiar with Minor Threat than Fugazi,” Tricarico writes in an e-mail.) Tricarico eventually moved to the United States, and the two married in 1998. They sold the Virginia house and bought a place in Columbia Heights. In 2001, they had a daughter. Then the floor fell out.

After some shows in Britain, Fugazi had a band meeting at the end of 2002 and decided to stop playing. Neither Lally nor Picciotto will discuss the reasons why on record; MacKaye maintains the band is on “indefinite hiatus” and keeps a mailbox for Fugazi on his answering machine. Canty didn’t return my phone calls. The group hasn’t played a show in four years or released a record in five. And for Lally, the end of the band, however temporary it seemed in 2002, was devastating. “It was horrible…horrible to even think about,” Lally says. “[I]t was like going through an earthquake,” Tricarico writes.

If ever there was a time for Lally to cash in on the past decade and a half, or maybe make the move to Italy he’d been dreaming of for years, it was now, when he had a mouth to feed. “I never wanted to have a child if I had to have a real job,” he says, remembering thinking, “I don’t know how to do anything else, they don’t need a bass player in Italy, this is really fun.”

By fall 2003, it was depressingly apparent to Lally that the “hiatus” wasn’t going to end anytime soon. And even though any number of successful bands would gleefully throw their bass players off a cliff were Lally to express interest in joining them, he wasn’t ready to be in another group. Besides, Tricarico had friends in Los Angeles and was interested in photographing people on the West Coast. “I was also thinking that Joe could eventually play with other musicians and get inspired by new experiences for his own music,” she writes. They got a place in Los Feliz, one of the rare neighborhoods in L.A. where you can walk—to the park, to Trader Joe’s—and enrolled their daughter in a Montessori school. He and Antonia began a project where they turned tapes of old Fugazi shows into small-run CDs, which they sold online. And he indeed began playing with other musicians.

He’d already been collaborating with former members of Frodus in Decahedron. In L.A. he joined Ataxia, with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, a fervent Fugazi fan who used to fly from city to city in California to see the band. But those were projects, not occupations, and after a 2005 trip to Ashland, Ore., where Tricarico was showing photos at Southern Oregon University, they continued up to Portland to take a look around. They loved it. “Portland also was a place I heard there were no jobs,” Lally says. “And not wanting to work, I thought we’d better go there.”

There was a lot to love about Portland—Lally particularly enjoyed the library system, which let him order CDs by artists he probably never would have checked out on his own dime, like Bo Diddly. “The neighbourhood where we were living was like a floating island, with artists, musicians and happy families and the most beautiful rainbows I have ever seen in my life,” Tricarico writes. “But at that point we needed to speed up other priorities, show my photos more and joe was ready to make a cd with his music.”

Lally had been hearing songs in his head, he says, but he was having trouble writing them without the input of MacKaye, Canty, and Picciotto. “I really didn’t know how to complete a song,” he says. “Unless the song was going to be one bass line—that’s…the way I like to hear music.” Even though Fugazi regularly tore down its songs, rebuilding them painstakingly through four-hour practices five days a week, it was a process Lally had grown used to. Now he had to learn to write on his own.

And so he started writing songs around bass lines and vocals. Lally had done a little singing in Fugazi, though his quiet voice usually forced the band to rethink arrangements once it was added to a finished composition. “With Fugazi there was a lot of sound,” Picciotto says, “and when you were trying to find places to sing in it, it was hard. And with a lot of Joe’s songs…they started kind of raucous, and then we realized we had to make them more minimal in order to give his voice its space.”

“I always wanted practice to be quieter,” Lally says.

Lally With Fugazi in 2001: From left, Brendan Canty, Guy Picciotto, Ian MacKaye(Photograph by Shawn Scallen)

Lally and his family returned to D.C. in September 2005, and he began recording songs at Arlington’s Inner Ear studio the following February. He mostly put down bass and vocals with the idea of adding more instruments and musicians later. He did on some tracks, but usually, what sounded best was just him, playing bass and singing, with perhaps some minimal percussion. “Guy described it as an upside-down pyramid,” he says, “where I had done the ending part first. We were trying to build the basic track after that. It was a mistake.”

Meanwhile, Lally had begun playing solo shows. He arranged a couple gigs at odd hours at Crooked Beat Records in Adams Morgan. He toured some Southern cities with Inner Ear owner (and longtime Fugazi recordist) Don Zientara, then headed north with Jason Kourkounis accompanying him on percussion. While visiting Tricarico’s family in Italy’s Basilicata region, he played a few shows with some locals. An idea was shaping—Lally would write songs where his vocals were the focal point, the bass was the base, and anyone he felt like playing with could add whatever they liked. It wasn’t as much about aesthetics as portability. “I thought it would be easier to travel to a place like Amsterdam and hook up with [Dutch avant-rockers and frequent Fugazi opening act] the Ex for a short tour or fly back to the states and play with people there,” he says.

Moving into a leader role was a huge adjustment for a guy who prided himself on grounding his old band, where he’d “play my three notes” during the group’s extended live deconstructions of tunes such as “Glue Man” and “just try to hold on to that and then everyone could come back.” Playing on his own, he says, “was like I got on a train and got off the other end.”

After an “annihilating” first show at Crooked Beat, he’d even toyed with the idea of forming a band, but then he thought better: “I must be able to do this,” he remembers thinking. “This is driving me crazy.”

Lally and Kourkounis played coffeshops and art co-ops, record stores and house shows. Lally’s name was on the bill, and they were playing his songs, but he was less a bandleader than a facilitator, providing a groove that anyone could sink their beats into.

Back home, Lally began to record on Fugazi’s equipment at Dischord House. MacKaye ran the boards, and friends added guitars, beats, vocals, or sometimes nothing at all. The sound of the resulting record is jittery, spectral, haunted by the spaces between the notes. Most of the songs comprise a bass line, some percussion, and Lally’s delicate voice. Some sound like Fugazi. One—a meditation on war called “Sons and Daughters”—is just voice. It sounds weird, almost unfinished, until the bass lines soak into your short-term memory, mingling with your everyday sounds. It’s listening as collaboration, an accidental metaphor for a local music scene that finds itself in the same position as Lally—fighting to emerge from the pretty goddamn long shadow his former band casts, trying out lots of different sounds in the meantime.

The cover of There to Here is a photo by Tricarico of a ruined house near the aqueduct in the Roman countryside. Shrubbery sprouts through the roof, brush laps its weathered exterior. Nothing lasts, it implies. The back shows cactuses in the desert outside Tucson, where Lally’s parents were living for a while. “Europe to America,” he explains. “Fugazi to here.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

This is where the trashed, fucked-up people sit, isn’t it?” asks the long-haired guy who plops down next to me on the riser next to the Black Cat’s upstairs bar. It’s mid-October, and Lally is nearing the end of a short stint opening for the Melvins, a long-running Seattle band whose audience has always been neatly split between meatheads, arty types, and, well, dudes like this.

The show’s not a sellout, but there’s a healthy crowd here that whoops and cheers openers (The Men of) Porn as they lumber through old-timey grunge riffs. Drummer Dale Crover, dressed as Fat Elvis, complete with wig and sunglasses, announces that Joe Lally will be playing next, to general disregard. He makes an “I can’t hear you!” gesture and is rewarded with a much stronger, “Woo!”-based response. “Jesus, you’d think you’d never heard of the guy,” he says.

Lally plays tonight with Crover (back in street gear) and Coady Willis, who both also play drums in the Melvins. They’ve been backing Lally for the past week, and the trio is at least as tight as the opener, laying “Theme From Shaft” hi-hats under “Like a Baby” and providing Lally the kind of rock-solid rhythm he needs to improvise just a tiny bit, reaching out to worry a tambourine now and then.

“How’ve things been here lately?” Lally asks the crowd. “They melt down some buildings to start even more buildings?”

He doesn’t silence the standard faction of Black Cat attendees chatting loudly no matter who’s onstage, but he more than holds his own, and when he thanks the audience for “being so polite,” he doesn’t sound sarcastic. Willis and Crover had really wanted that show to go well, he says, because D.C. is his hometown. They boned up in their minivan, listening to There to Here, while Lally drove in another van with Melvins singer Buzz Osborne and the band’s new merch dude, a farmworker from rural Washington state whom Osborne grew up with.

“The guy had never been east or anything,” Lally says. “He just looked really happy.”

The former Beefeater roadie saw a little bit of himself in Merch Guy. Lally wasn’t with the dude when he walked around Manhattan for the first time—he was hunkered down in the East Village, practicing with a well-known drummer he’s hoping to play with more in the future (he doesn’t want to jinx it by saying the drummer’s name): “When you’re jamming with somebody and you just kind of relax and respond to what they’re doing, where they’re pushing you to go—I’ve never been there before.” It’s an interesting contrast to Lally’s current approach.

“I think with this record he was just interested to see what angles other people would put on it,” says Picciotto, who played some guitar on There to Here and says Lally gave him little direction in the studio.

“You wouldn’t expect that from someone who was in this wild legendary punk band,” says Justin Moyer, a City Paper contributing writer who accompanied Lally on percussion for nine shows this past September. “He set up some basic limitations and let you do your own thing from there.” Moyer and Lally could practice only before 10 a.m. “I would go over to his house, basically his living room, and his daughter would be running around,” Moyer says, adding that even though he “isn’t a morning person,” he grew to appreciate the early-bird sked. “It’s a more workaday aesthetic,” he says. “It felt more organized or something.”

Organized, methodical, difficult. Those aren’t unfamiliar adjectives for a former Fugazi member—ask MacKaye why Lally’s not, say, making a play for Jason Newsted’s spot in Rock Star Supernova, and he’ll remind you of the DIY spirit of D.C. punk lifers and imply you’re crazy for even wondering. Ask Picciotto, and he’ll say, a trifle more diplomatically, “I don’t think he’d look at it as being in a hard way, and I don’t think any of us would, because it’s exactly the same way that we started playing.” Ask Lally himself, and he’ll apologize for “getting corny,” then say, “I guess because I’m just trying to find the music.”

“It’s not in the band where I get together with somebody…and I play bass with them,” he says of the sound he’s looking for. “It’s not in a band.” But for a guy with a wife and kid who describes his current financial situation as “hanging by a thread,” this determination to make it on his own could be viewed as suicidal. Or maybe that the occasional crappy show is a smaller price to pay than slotting into the next Queens of the Stone Age tour.

“I guess I’m trying to exploit it,” he says. “I’m trying to make the maximum of my situation. To me, I’m still like, ‘Let me away from Fugazi with my bass line; this is all that’s left’…I felt like this is war, and I am going to make this thing work, and it’s just me.”