Q&A: Joe Lally On Moving To Rome, Wanting To Be In The Melvins And How Being In Fugazi Destroyed His Hearing

Antonia Tricarico
Mass hysteria took over the music web-o-sphere when Pitchfork blew its wad on the "breaking news" that Ian MacKaye revealed Fugazi might emerge from their self-imposed exile and "reunite one day." That's not to imply the members of D.C.'s most storied art-punk crew have been dormant musically since it went on "indefinite hiatus" back in 2003. MacKaye and partner Amy Farina have finally revived The Evens and new songs are on the way—their first batch since 2006.

Then there's bassist Joe Lally, the most active member (three albums in five years) and the dude responsible (in tandem with drummer Brendan Canty) for so coolly directing Fugazi's rhythmically jagged groove-ism genius while MacKaye and singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto went ballistic and for what might be post-punk's most killer bass line.

Similar to Fugazi, Lally's solo material builds from the bass up, his heavy low end throbbing with dub, funk and reggae swagger and his voice subdued and mellow—the polar opposite of MacKaye and Picciotto's gnashing pipes. Lally's newest LP, Why Should I Get Used To It, is a more aggressive and musically diverse effort than the stark bass-drums-voice minimalism of 2006's There to Here and 2007's Nothing is Underrated. On his current tour, don't expect Lally and his band (classi-punk cellist Helen Money and Many Arms drummer Ricardo Lagomasino) to get too loud—years of playing in Fugazi inflicted major damage to Lally's hearing (more on that later).

Sound of the City caught up with Lally at home in Rome to talk Fugazi, living in Italy and at Dischord House, and his dreams of being the Melvins' bass player.

How long have you lived in Rome?

It's been four years.

What prompted you to move there?

My wife is Italian and she lived in the States for almost ten years. She never felt that human place [in the States] in some ways, I guess. I don't know if I can really explain it that easily but she was just ready to try to come back [to Italy]. We weren't really sure whether we should be doing that. It turned out—and it was totally by accident—but we sold our house in D.C. just before it was worth a lot less [laughing]. By total accident—not because I'm a genius, that's for sure.

Living in another country, how detached do you feel from your former home base in D.C. and at Dischord Records?

Even when I lived in D.C. towards the end, we had moved away for a couple of years then moved back. Since we had our daughter, I stopped going to shows as much. I like to get up early in the morning so it wasn't against my nature but I did stop going out at night. Here, things happen really late at night so I don't see that much and I'm not really on the pulse of what's going on here musically, that's for sure. Somehow it's led to my ability to focus on what I want to do—like I don't care what's going on [laughing]. I'm not distracted. It's weird, not that I would necessarily be distracted, but I'm not self-conscious because I don't know what the fuck's going on.

So there was more pressure living in D.C. than in Rome?

When I lived with Ian [MacKaye], man, we'd go to shows fuckin' I don't know how many nights a week. We would just see all kinds of shit that was going on and just being right there-living with Ian for so many years—I was in the next room from his office where he would be in contact with the world. Everyone lets him know about everything one way or another. They send him everything and he's on the phone to everyone. In a way, you get this picture of all this stuff going on and this feeling there's nothing you can really do that's any different because it's all being done by somebody—it's a good way to stand still.

Is it rare for bands that you want to see come through and play Rome?

Things do come through but even though Rome is considered the center of the country, it's considered pretty far south. Italy is kinda like Florida: you have to go down into it so people really just start through the top. They hit Milano, Turino, Bologna maybe, just what's in the north. It's really kind of a drag. One of my favorite musicians and old friend Scott Weinrich comes through with things. but I don't think he's ever made it to Rome.

If a show came through to another city, you couldn't take a long drive to see it?

It would be a good four hours; it would be like going from D.C. to New York. It's not the biggest deal in the world but we'd have to leave my daughter with my mother-in-law or something like that. It really wouldn't be fair for me to just go, like, "I'm going to see a show! Fuck all of you!" [Laughs].

You can give a couple of weeks notice.

My playing is enough. I try to spread things out but I got as much as I could this fall [with touring] It all came together: I went to Japan, Brazil and now I am coming to the States. The States trip is much longer because I have to practice with some people there first. Then I'm going to stay a little bit and visit my mother. Usually it's only two weeks but it's turning into a three-week trip.

Getting back to living in D.C., how long did you live with Ian?

We lived together for like nine years—1988 or '89 to 1998.

That's fairly recent.

It was really great because we worked so much, doing all the things we did during that time. It was mind-blowing for me because I came from fuckin' Rockville [Maryland] in the suburbs. It was like a miracle that Ian asked me to play with him in the first place. [The Dischord band] Beefeater took me on tour with them in 1986 and the singer lived at Dischord House. When I returned from tour with nowhere to stay, he was like "Stay here tonight." We spent the night there and Ian took us to lunch in the morning to talk about the tour—that was the most time I ever really spent with Ian, having lunch that day.

A week later, Ian called and was like "Do you want to play bass with me because I'm trying to do a new project?" He never saw me play bass, so it was kinda amazing. But I know now why that was: it was because we talked about the [Beefeater] tour and he really understood how totally dedicated...generally, you can't really be a roadie for a band unless you're really dedicated to the whole concept. And I really was. At that time, it really, really helped change my life. I was working for a government contractor and I just did not give a fuck about what I was doing.

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