Fugazi may have gone on hiatus nine years ago, but bassist Joe Lally hasn’t lost sight of the band’s legendary work ethic. He put out solo records on Dischord in 2006 and 2007, toured several continents, and this week released his latest full-length, Why Should I Get Used To It, on Dischord and his own Tolotta Records. It’s a groove-centric work of post-punk that rocks harder than his previous solo records, while flirting with free jazz and reveling in Lally’s signature sparse arrangements. We spoke to Lally about his daily grind, getting comfortable with being loud, and why he stopped wearing earplugs in Fugazi. We’ll have a review of Why Should I Get Used to It in next week’s City Paper.
Washington City Paper: Your last release came out in 2007; why the long wait between records?
Joe Lally: First, I decided I would take my time writing this one. The second one I definitely rushed because I wanted to keep the momentum going of getting out a record and playing. It also just gets harder, the more material you’re writing, to be happy with it. It takes longer as you accumulate more. I also moved to Italy after the second release. That was the other thing—-I was trying to finish recording the second one before leaving the U.S. I literally did just that. I left it for Ian [MacKaye] and Guy [Piccioto] to finish and literally flew before it was done. In the meantime, I had tours. I can’t recount them all, but I toured Brazil, did two in the states, played England, much of Europe and Italy, and went back to Japan last October. I toured Europe in November.
The last two years, as of last summer, I had met a guitar player, who had been sticking with me… this gets confusing, when we start talking about my band mates.
My guitar player here [Elisa Abela] is from Sicily. We met two years ago, and she had only played drums with people before and didn’t do a lot of touring really. Then I saw her playing her guitar around her house and I said, “You are a guitar player.” She plays saxophone and flute and can kind of play music on whatever is in front of her. I pushed her into being a guitar player, and eventually we did a tour in Spain—-she and Emanuele [“Lele”] Tomasi, a drummer I’ve played with a lot here. He is in a lot of bands, like most people here, but doesn’t leave Rome that much and has a straight job here. He’s a fantastic drummer, really a free jazz kind of drummer, and his band here is like that.
He really only had time with me to rehearse to play a show or to play a tour. After a few years of that, it was getting really hard to play with him. I only ended up with two days to practice with him and two days of his recording time. So Elisa really couldn’t prepare as well as she should’ve been able to with a drummer, so I ended up playing guitar on some of the songs.
I really spent a lot of time writing [the album] and getting happy with it. I wrote toward the way Lisa plays and toward the way Lele plays. When I was writing toward Lele’s drumming, I wrote “Let It Burn,” which really lets him do what he does naturally. As far as Lisa goes, a song like “Philosophy For Insects” was a song where she could really just let go. That’s me playing guitar and bass and bass in the background. She plays pretty free over it, and I just took the sections I like. I could hear the ones that fit in my arrangement. The record is a lot of my writing; I started writing before Lisa was with me, and I wrote a lot on guitar because there wasn’t one.
The live situation is that we played with Lele up until I was getting so frustrated until I realized he was about to get married and things were just going to get more difficult, so I told him I’d have to start looking for other drummers. That’s when we miraculously found Fabio Chinca. He had played in a band called Assalti Frontali that Fugazi had toured with in Italy, and he was the only other drummer I actually knew here in Rome, but he’s always been busy. Luckily, when I started asking around, I found out he was available and looking to play drums in a band again. He has a practice space that I moved my stuff into, and we can play up to three and four times a week when everyone is available, which I haven’t been able to do since Fugazi. We’ve been playing pretty steadily since last September and have been starting to feel very band-like. It’s pretty great.
WCP: How does Rome compare to D.C.?
JL: It’s a way bigger city with an even bigger tourist attraction. I don’t spend my time in much but my own neighborhood. We’re between the center and the edge of the city. I can walk everywhere without driving much, but I don’t really go out at night. My daughter’s nine; I get up at seven to take her to school. I’ll drop her off at school and take the bus and walk to the practice space. We practice at 10 a.m., but I’ll get there early and work on stuff.
WCP: Are you just playing music exclusively right now?
JL: I just keep working on music. It’s not like I’m doing something that is pulling in a decent income that allows me to do it, but I just keep insisting on doing it.
WCP: To me the new record sounds heavier and more aggressive than your older ones. How would you compare the forthcoming LP to your previous ones?
JL: It is fairly accurate because I’ve also worked on my voice, singing live a lot. Singing doesn’t come naturally to me, so I’ve had to work on it. It’s becoming a little easier as things have naturally gotten louder. It’s funny, things were getting louder and I realized I needed to wear earplugs, but then I realized I wasn’t singing in tune with them in, so I took out my earplugs last month. In a way, the music can’t get too loud because it’s just going to be damaging. At some level, we’re keeping our stage volume down, but my ability to sing to a louder thing has matured and come into place. I’m able to write that way and sing to it, which I couldn’t really envision before.
WCP: Did you wear earplugs in Fugazi?
JL: I went through a period of it because of the ringing and the pain, but it removed me from the situation so much that it was a drag. I just decided it was an occupational hazard. In the last few years of the band, there was a lot of frustration because the volume was becoming so painful, but you do what you love to do.
WCP: I understand one of your last records got picked up by a lot of DJs—-is that right?
JL: I think it may have been during the first record. [Bill Daly] at Crooked Beat was saying he played it in the store when a DJ friend of his was there, and he really liked it and wanted to sample it. So he started playing it on purpose around DJs when they were in the story. I think they were into there being more space.
WCP: The press release says this album is coming out jointly with Dischord and Tolatta Records—-I thought Tolatta was closed? Is it re-opening?
JL: It’s a technicality. It’s not re-opening. I don’t live in D.C., but I can’t imagine being involved in any other label—-once I realize I could do music of my own, it was all wrapped up with Dischord. Before that, when I discovered there was a Dischord, a local label that put out local bands, that blew my mind. I wanted to quit my job and work for Dischord—this was before I figured out I could play an instrument—-to be involved in a label is all tied up in that.
When it came time to make this record, I though it’s not fair [to just be on Dischord] because I don’t know what’s going on in D.C. and I haven’t for a long time. During the first records coming out, when people talked to me and when I was touring, I couldn’t talk about the D.C. scene, but I feel like that’s what a Dischord band should be able to do. It kind of justified it better for myself to have it as a half Dischord release.
The vinyl also came out in Brazil on Desmonta—-there’s a guy there who is crazy about Dischord stuff. I went over there and played with two Brazilian musicians a while back. On Feb. 16 in Japan, it came out on CD only on a label called After Hours. I tried to get it on small labels in different places I want to return to, to build connections.
WCP: Do you still enjoy touring?
JL: Yeah, that’s the thing that to me always makes the band. In a lot of places in Italy people are involved in a lot of bands because they want to play music, but they’re too busy to be dedicated to one band.
I don’t feel any different than how I did before Fugazi. I quit a perfectly good job to be a roadie. In 1982, I had benefits and a job that would’ve paid for computer science classes, which was a really big deal at that point. I had all the things most people want and love, but I somehow figured out by seeing Rites of Spring, Beefeater, and tons of bands in D.C. that it’s not what I wanted. I asked myself, “What are you gonna do? You’re not happy doing this job you could care less about.”