Published May 03, 2011An extraordinarily talented musician now based in Rome, Italy, Joe Lally is best known as the bassist and occasional vocalist in Washington DC's Fugazi, one of the most significant and powerful bands of the late 20th century. Since Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus in 2003, Lally has kept very busy, releasing solo albums and touring the world extensively. His latest record is entitled Why Should I Get Used to It, and is out now, as a co-release between Dischord and Tolotta Records. Here Lally discusses his new band, his affinity for Motown and funk, President Barack Obama, and updates us on Fugazi's "indefinite hiatus."
I've been really struck by the sounds on this new album of yours, because I feel like it's the most, I guess, "jazz-rock" record you've released. There seem to be more songs that explore guitar riffs and bass and drum grooves in really cool, loose ways. How would you characterize your songwriting approach here in relation to your last two solo albums?
Well, I got to work with the people I ended up recording with for a while. [Laughs] Y'know, that's only partially true. I suppose it had more to do with me taking more time to write the record and writing a little bit towards the people I was playing with. Emanuele [Tomasi] is an incredible drummer. He plays in a couple of bands in Rome but he has a regular job and doesn't do a lot of travelling around. In the end, I really couldn't practice the new material with them enough for Elisa [Abela] to learn all the guitar parts so I ended up playing guitar in a couple of songs. She's often playing my riffs and there's often a theme, let's say, to my songs. She has an area to have input improvisationally, and then to kind of return to the theme. Some are more structured, some she's doing as she pleases.
But unlike your past records, here you're playing with musicians you've actually toured with. In a sense, it's more of a band effort, right?
Exactly. Some of those songs on the second record got played live but weren't something we could focus on, they just sorta happened. So, when you go to record them, in a way you're approaching them for the first time. This record was the first time I could explore the music with a couple of people but a lot more live with the actual people playing on the record.
Right, you went in with a cohesive unit of people you've been playing with in Italy rather than a loose assembly of DC musicians contributing to the recording sessions. How does it feel to be playing in a band again?
Well, it's almost there. A band is a particular thing, but for sure, this feels so much closer to having a band because they're people I love to be around. But being the main songwriter, I'm still in that position with this; it's not really a band. It really changes to me when it's a band and there's totally collective input and it's just run in a different way. I also realized that, if it becomes a real band, I don't want it to be under the name "Joe Lally." I want to call it a band name. So, I'm still sort of struggling with all that. What does it all mean? I dunno. There were so many years where I was in a band and I loved doing that, and this seems to be my opportunity to figure out music in a different way, and so therefore, it's quite exciting. I spent 15 or 16 years playing with people in the collective experience, and this is something different.
Well, the playing here is just magnificent; it's just a great sounding record and a more charged up one than others you've made. At any point in your writing process, were you listening to any particular records that might have influenced this sound?
Not necessarily. Like I said, part of it was writing to the people that I was with. For example, we didn't have enough time to practice this material other than maybe half of it live. A lot of it had formed in my mind and I realized I could pull it off because Elisa is a multi-instrumentalist, although she hasn't studied anything in particular. She was a drummer when I found her but she was just playing guitar one day. She'd never stood up and played with a strap holding the guitar before; she just sat in her house and played for years. And I was like, "Excuse me, but you're a guitar player." I kinda pushed her into it. She was coming up to play with us in Rome once and she was like, "So, I should bring my stuff to play drums, right?" and I was like, "No, you're gonna play guitar." I really forced her and soon brought her on tour in Spain and she was really nervous about it but she relaxed into it because she's a natural. And Lele [Tomasi], he's like a free jazz drummer, and I convinced him to play with me and was like, "Look, you get to explore what it's like sitting in a groove," because he doesn't do that when he plays. He just goes everywhere and he's great at it, but it's not what I need in this band all the time, even though I love that kind of playing. He's like a Rashied Ali, kinda airy player ― it's a different kind of energy really.
You know what the new record brought to mind for me? Miles Davis and the Minutemen.
[Laughs] It sounds great; I like that. It's Miles Minute. I definitely keep the songs short don't I?
Oh you do, yes you do. But they have that free spirit with hints of funk but with a jazz tone to it.
Yeah, y'know Massimo Pupillo from a band called Zu here in Rome, he once assembled the players for a show by Damo Suzuki. Have you ever seen him?
Yes, I have, yeah.
That thing where someone in the town puts together a band for Damo and he shows up and they play. Well, Massimo did that and asked me to come play bass but he said he'd also be playing bass, I think to help me relax and get me into that because they were really great players I was playing with. But then he proceeded to go home and not come back so I played the whole set with them and it was such a great thing to do but I'm not an improvising kind of guy. So it was a really hard thing in a way but I love Damo Suzuki and Can, so I was like "Okay, I have to do this." I trust Massimo a lot; he's a great musician. Zu took me on tour in Europe a couple of years ago, and I trust him completely on stage and if he tells me about a musician, I would just play with them. So I did that show and I realized that, just naturally, if I play with people who are ethereal, or whatever improvisational people do, I go to the funk. It's in my background. All I listened to when I was young was black music. I don't know how else to put it because that's what it was. When I was growing up, I was in an all-white school pretty much; there must've been three other black kids at the school. "Three other" I said, aside from myself! [laughs] I'm not sure what that―
Yeah, you had that funk spirit in you I guess, and… yeah… I should actually not touch this one…
No, I'm a mess. Just leave me on my own to roast myself. Anyway, I couldn't really relate to any other music except for that of my next door neighbours. They had older brothers and, by the time I was 11 or so, they were taking us to afternoon shows of, what I now realize were a bunch of Motown bands like the Jackson 5, the Isley Brothers, the O'Jays, the Spinners, and I saw all those kinds of things when I was really young. But that's all the radio I listened to: Parliament, James Brown, and Otis Redding. Grand Central Station was the band for me when I was young ― them and Sly and the Family Stone. So, in a way I suppose, when I'm trying to figure out where to start with music, it ends up kinda like that, kinda funky. So this record probably is a blend of a lot of stuff but, even before I started playing with Zu and even before Fugazi went on hiatus, I really started to hear free jazz in a different way. It sounded much more relaxing and less confusing to me and more meditative. I spent a lot of time with it even though I can't read music or anything and don't have a great understanding of it; it's more of a gut feeling. It makes a lot of sense to me because I see music as very meditative, about being with a group of people and going to this place together where you're no longer individuals.
How long have you lived in Italy?
Almost four years.
And if I understand things correctly, it's because your wife's from there and that's why you relocated?
What's it like living there?
Man, it's kinda hard to describe. It's a completely different world than the United States but I'm also kinda isolated because I really haven't taken on the language properly and I also leave a lot. I should probably start taking an Italian class here but I don't do something on a daily basis where I interact with other Italians. And so, my main language at home is still English. My wife lived in America for almost ten years and our main language between us is still English and we have a daughter who's nine now, and I have to keep speaking English to her because she's not hearing it from anyone else. So, I'm kind of in a really weird position here and, like I said, if I had a job here, I'd be forced to interact more. It's a bit of a problem but I don't let it bother me.
Sounds like you're functioning rather well.
Yeah, either that, or you could say that I'm lazy. I'm not sure which one!
As usual, your lyrics on the new record are really artfully written and, I think, contain ideas about resistance and thinking differently in this world, but your perspective is kinda enigmatic. You sing in such measured tones, it's hard to tell if it's because you're grim or just being gentle. How would you describe your temperament as a songwriter?
I dunno [laughs]. I dunno. I think I'm delivering something I'm feeling. How it comes across, I dunno.
Well, the songs seem to be addressing specific things and subject matter and I get a sense of the meaning but they're also kinda like riddles.
Yeah, because in the end, a song like, say "Nothing to Lose" isn't just about Barack Obama. It's about somebody in that position and about people who've been in that position. I mean, how could he fuck anything up worse than Bush did in his time? And Bush was given two chances to fuck it up even more and was tearing things apart as he went outta office, just to make it harder for the next person. And I really felt like the same thing would happen; things would still be such a mess at the end of Obama's term that they would just vote him back in to be like, "Y'know what, you just keep trying to deal with it." But y'know, I have no idea what's going on at this point. I almost feel like he was elected in the first place because no one really could see what would happen next. Like, who on Earth should step in at this point? Because it seems like such a catastrophe!
But, as an American living abroad and writing politically-minded songs, are you seeing things about your own country from a more objective perspective?
Yeah, although I definitely am able to look at America differently than when I was living there, I still feel like I'm writing the same way as when I lived there, which was as an Earthling, as a human on Earth because I really do feel like it's pointless to talk about specifics when it comes to those things. I feel like the things that are going on in America are going on everywhere. And certainly, I didn't leave a mess behind by running off to Italy. It's just crazy here; I don't know how to describe it and I don't even understand all of it. I do want to say that, when I do write, it's about people and it shouldn't really matter who and where you are. What we're finding out is that, the few people who seem to control so much are doing the best they can to grab even more and keep control. But especially now, with people being able to see each other so easily through the use of the internet, the good thing is that you see that we're all so much the same. It's becoming harder and harder to believe that anyone is that different than you or that you must listen to people at the top and obey them blindly and go kill somebody else. It seems like it's gonna be harder and harder to do that because really, you can exchange thoughts and ideas with people from those countries and see that they're just people hoping to raise their kids in a decent world. So, I dunno. Maybe I'm just naive.
No, I don't think you are and I appreciate what you're saying. Well, what's next for you? Are you already working on new songs?
Yeah for sure, I started writing new songs a while back. They're always taking shape and I always put up as many ideas to mess around with as I can at a time, so I can kinda go back to them and be surprised. "Oh, I don't remember doing that." Then I can write to myself, as if I'm someone else and be surprised by something. Really since last September, I've been playing with the same people more than I've been playing with anyone since Fugazi stopped playing because nobody was gonna practice with me three or four days a week and we do that some times and it's fantastic. We go long periods without doing that too, but it's great just being able to play with people so much and we have almost enough equipment to record everything ourselves in the place where we practice. At some point we'll get into all that and songs are getting started and in the writing process. I'm definitely gonna take my time and pick and choose through them. It just gets harder doing albums because you're harder on yourself about accepting songs. We have some shows in France in May and a festival or two this summer. We're supposed to go to Japan too but I'm not really sure what's going on with that now. We're also supposed to go to Brazil in October and hopefully pass through the States and Canada in November.
That sounds great. How frequently do people ask you about Fugazi's indefinite hiatus these days?
Yeah, when I go out and play, a couple of people come up and ask. It's wonderful; people are still telling me how much they're influenced by Fugazi or picked up the bass to figure out our songs. It's always fantastic to hear. I'm so far removed from most people's idea of what Fugazi is in a way. When you're in a band and you're not playing, you get on with the rest of your life. It's not a priority for my daughter or my mother-in-law; it's not in my daily life. If people really want to see it, it's still a matter of the band getting together and making it happen. And who knows? The thing is, our drummer Brendan [Canty] has four kids and it's probably best that he raise his children.
And don't all the members of the band have families to raise now?
Indeed, everyone has one kid, and Brendan has four (laughs)! As much as Fugazi made our own decisions, one thing we realized was, we couldn't really do it half way. We couldn't be a band that just sat at home and made another record. Writing songs meant going out and playing them and being happy enough with them to record them. So, it's a real process for Fugazi to function. It means playing live and working out songs and then working on them at home and then recording them and then playing the things that we've finished. It just has a life of its own and I think it really is better for anybody who's trying to raise a family that they spend time with their kids instead.