I talked with Joe Lally about four days after I was laid off in 2002 as part of an as-yet incomplete project to interview each member of Fugazi. In a wide-ranging conversation, he discussed how he came to be a bass player and join one of the most influential and respected bands of the late 20th century, as well as his life outside Fugazi.
I hear there have been some tragedies in the Fugazi camp of late.
Joe: Yeah. We're human beings with extended families of more human beings and all kinds of things can happen to people. It's definitely not something I want to talk about very much, but there was a death in the family of one of the members and it was a drag. It was a complete and total bummer and extremely depressing, so we canceled the tour of going to England, Ireland and Scotland, and that wasn't very hard to decide. It was just reacting to what needed to be done at the time and sometimes Fugazi can't be a band. We're just four people dealing with what some people have to deal with, which everybody has to deal with at some point. It wasn't a difficult decision to make. We all needed to be here.
For what it's worth, I'd appreciate it if you could relay my condolences. I lost my mom back in 1997 and I know how hard it can be.
Joe: I can't even imagine. My parents are certainly older and so it's something I've been thinking about. Even though my parents are in good shape, my dad just has everything wrong with him. He's had every kind of crazy thing - osteoporosis, glaucoma, arthritis, emphysema - the shit is just going on in every direction so I've been thinking about it for a long time, you know? I certainly didn't think that someone else's parents would die before mine, but that's life.
At the same time, I understand you had a recent addition to your own family.
Joe: Yes, definitely. I had a little girl in September and it's a beautiful thing.
So in my background research, I stumbled across Shawn Scallen's site and I'm not sure how much, if at all, he was joking when he said he was taking a Fugazi photo every day for a year, but he noted that your daughter was born on September 26th, 2001. I also read in another interview that you were only a few blocks away from the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, and I was wondering how that affected your perception of your daughter's birth.
Joe: It was definitely a strange time, but I must say that it's more the reverse. It's more how I perceived the rest of it as my mind was obviously somewhere else. We're more than a few blocks away - we're probably a mile away from the Pentagon - but definitely not very far and the morning that happened, we listen to NPR in the morning, and I had come down to the kitchen and my wife said, "You know, they're talking about planes hitting the building," and we start to figure out as the story went on that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. She said, "It must be on the television," so we sat down for about 10 minutes and that was when the plane, if it was a plane, hit the Pentagon. It hit it while we were watching this thing on television. It definitely shook the house, it was like a truck had backed into the house or something. The door cracked, the windows, everything. It was something that shook the house. I don't know how else to describe it, but it was like, "What the hell was that?" Luckily, because we were watching TV, a voice-over came on and said, "I don't want to alarm anyone, but there seems to have been an explosion at the Pentagon," you know, some voice from the Pentagon talking about it, but it took them a long time to say it was a plane. Ian and I were talking about this a couple of days ago, and I don't understand how there weren't more people talking about seeing a plane because it was rush hour, basically. I don't understand where the plane was. Why didn't people see it? There should have been tons of people going into D.C. or coming out of D.C. You just think there would have been so many accounts of people on the news and I just didn't see anybody talking about seeing the plane. It was pretty odd.
There seems to have been remarkably little wreckage for a plane crash. And how do you explain the 72 people who are missing?
Joe: Right. I just don't understand, but of course it's not like I politically monitor planes crashing and how much debris is left, etc. etc., because I certainly don't, but it's just odd because there were so many accounts of so many things. Of course in New York, the fact that someone was filming the Trade Center, which obviously is happening all the time anyway, means they got the first plane hitting it and everything, I guess that's not too surprising, and I know that people don't exactly hang around the Pentagon, but it just still seems strange.
So you mentioned that the birth of your daughter had changed your perception of the events of the preceding weeks.
Joe: What I should say is that having a child, you're definitely at a different place in life. Suddenly, all of your attention is geared toward that so the fact that the world suddenly started going insane was definitely strange, but my mind was on her. My mind was on my immediate family. I guess it just kind of made me realize that I really did want to have a child because there was a long time in my life, I guess until my late 20s, where I was just, and I guess this is not necessarily something that I had thought about getting into in an interview, but I didn't always think that having a child was necessarily the right thing to do. The world is an insane place, etc. etc., but knowing that we were about to have a child, I knew we were doing what was right for us to do. It certainly didn't change my opinion of bringing a life into the world, in other words. I guess it was just more evidence of the badness of our world, but I knew what I was going to do despite what the United Stated suddenly thought was all kinds of terror about to be rained down upon us. I knew what I was going to focus on.
Shifting gears a bit, what prompted you to start the label? I've read that a lot of it had to do with putting out the Obsessed record, but was there anything beyond that?
Joe: You know, I've never exactly figured out what year I put out the first thing, maybe 1993 or something like that, but the first thing I released was a single and my intention of starting a label really was about helping people I knew who were just starting bands but would go out and play and sell a thousand of a seven-inch and so I started a label for that. I guess the incentive for that, wanting to start a project like that, was Brendan going to live in Seattle for a time while his girlfriend at that time went to school in Seattle. He started spending months, two or three months at a time, away, so Fugazi was being put on hold basically. I wanted something to do and I decided that would be a good thing. It was something that I was interested in doing because it was more of an art project. Dischord had a bunch of legal-sized paper that it had picked up from some business that had closed that no one knew or something and there were just boxes of paper around, so I knew I had all the paper for the covers. The first thing I did was a band called Sevens. I got rubber stamps made that had the information for who played on it, really minimal, obviously, and song titles. I got another stamp for the front that just had three sevens which is what they wanted the cover to be, so I just got these legal-size pieces of paper and cut off one side and folded it in half so it was seven by seven, or whatever a seven-inch is, I guess it is seven by seven, actually, but it was easy. I ordered bags, I looked into what it was to get the things pressed. I used a booklet that the people from Simple Machines had provided.
The Mechanics Guide.
Joe: Yeah. Then I had any knowledge of anything I really needed at my disposal through Dischord and information I needed to get things going, and it was distributed through Dischord, so basically all I had to do was press it. Like I said, mainly it was for the band to be able to sell and go out, and actually it was a surprise that Dischord took and sold some because I was thinking I was just making it for the band and of course people know who Bobby and Mark Sullivan were, so they'd be interested in them and so they were easy to get rid of. It was a fun project to do. I just sat in my room and stamped and folded and inserted and whatever. The second one was Stinking Lizaveta and that was really cool for me because there were two brothers in that band too, Alexi and Yanni Papadopolous and their father George did a linoleum cut which I hand-rolled ink on and printed, the same deal. The back was actually Xeroxed at his father's work so I took the paper down there to be Xeroxed first, brought it home and cut it, so these were like art projects and something time-consuming for me to do when the band wasn't out so that's really how the label started. After doing those two singles, I realized that most local bands really didn't need help from me and they were putting out their own singles because it's an easy thing to do and it's a nice thing to be able to do for your band and yourself, so I really wasn't needed. A couple of years passed and I think it was 1996 when I ran into Wino from Spirit Caravan walking down the street here. I was going to my parents' house, actually Jem Cohen was dropping me off on his way driving back to New York, and I saw Wino walking down the street and I was like, "Oh wow, that's Wino, you have to drop me off here," and he was like, "Are you sure? Is it okay?" because he saw this crazy guy with long hair walking down the street and that's when I learned that Wino had moved back to town and was getting a band together, they were called Shine at the time, and eventually he was asking me to put out a single, so that's when the label found purpose again. We put out a seven-inch and then they were forced to change their name because someone else had the name legally and they had to change their name as we were deciding to put out a CD, and when they asked me to put out a CD is when I had to go, "Okay, do I want to try to do a label seriously enough to invest in having a CD made?" Yeah, I guess that's what really brought it up to that level of putting out CDs because otherwise I would have just been doing singles. I must say, although I tried a lot to get Spirit Caravan stuff into chains and, I think, succeeded through a series of accidents, I think they are available to some extent in chains, I think you can ask for them at Tower or order them at least in some chain stores, that the whole prospect of getting them into chains and trying to bump up to that level to deal with chain stores is really not that interesting to me. Although Dischord still sells to individual stores, I had to move beyond Dischord to a distributor that is connected with Dischord, Southern Records, to get it into chains and it turned out, try to follow this, that the people who buy from Southern to sell to chains ended up not taking my stuff. I guess they have to decide to take on a label and sell their stuff and they just never really would, but through some fluke, another distributor, Caroline, was buying from Southern and selling them to the chain stores somehow. I don't even understand this stuff and I must say, when it comes to this kind of business aspect of the label, I don't really care enough to try to make it all work. I'm just not that much of a businessman, I guess, to get all excited and have a good time with it. To suddenly bring you up to date with Spirit Caravan breaking up and Dead Meadow signing to Matador and just recently finding that Stinking Lizaveta can do their next record with Relapse, I'm kind of back in the position where I want to be which is trying to make Wino's music available, just trying to keep it in print. I think his music is wanted by particular people and that the distributors who are interested in it will get it out there and will make it available. The people who want it will find it and I don't think that I have to go totally crazy trying to make my label more than it can be because I can't put that much time into it. I'd really rather be doing other musical projects and just putting my time into Fugazi and any other projects than trying to run a business which I know I'm not that great at. I think I do have the dedication at least to have his music pressed and try to keep it in print and just make it available. So with everything stopping now, basically, as far as new releases go for the three active bands that I had, I think I want to try to get the second Obsessed record out which is something that we were always hoping to do, but I was, "My God, there will be another Dead Meadow record to put out, there will be another Spirit Caravan record to put out, and there will be another Stinking Lizaveta record to put out." Orthrelm, I would do another record with them, I just don't know if they want me to because they put out another record at the same time they did mine, with Troubleman. I really don't know what their plan is, I thought they were just going to get a bunch of different records out on different labels, but I would do something with them because I think, again, they're more my kind of band. They could care less about a release date or distribution or whatever. They just want their record made and I think the people who are interested in that kind of music will find it. That's more what I can do. I don't think I'm going to become a big label.
Didn't you produce a few of those records as well?
Joe: Not exactly. It turned out that I've had a lot of say in the way that things sounded in the Spirit Caravan, at least on their last record. As a band, I think they were just pulling in different directions and they gave me something that sounded not up to par, as far as I was concerned, and once I started to talk about it, I think they agreed that it wasn't up to par, but I've never actually been sitting in the studio throughout getting initial sounds and the production of the record, etc. I've never gone through that. I was actually trying to get a little more involved in that. For example, for the next Stinking Lizaveta record, I had Shelby Cinca line up to go do that. I don't know if he still will now because Relapse may have something else to offer Stinking Lizaveta, but I think Shelby is great. He produced the first and second Dead Meadow records, I guess both on portable ADAT, and I thought he did a great job. Actually, he did a session for John Peel in my basement with Fugazi equipment on an eight-track reel-to-reel and he did a great job with all that stuff. I really felt like he could just go up and record Stinking Lizaveta in their practice space and get very good quality sound.
One of the funny things I read was an interview you did with Lollipop magazine in which you said that you had to figure out how to put a record. It sounded like you had a really steep learning curve in terms of figuring out what to do. I was almost chuckling about it because after all those years of being in Fugazi and around Dischord, it sounded like you found yourself in the same position that I found myself in when I was scrambling around and trying to figure out how to put out a record.
Joe: It depends on what you're doing. Like I said, when I first did singles, it was amazingly easy because it fit into Dischord. It was like any independent punk, or whatever you want to call the music at that point, because it fell into that category, those first singles I put out were easy. It was other music that Dischord had worked with in some way or another, with Bobby and Mark Sullivan, etc. That was really easy. I only had to look in the Simple Machines booklet to go, "Oh, I can get it pressed here or I can get it pressed there," you know? There really wasn't much that was that difficult. It was dealing with Spirit Caravan because suddenly all of my connections with punk and Dischord didn't really make any difference because the people who were going to buy Spirit Caravan weren't necessarily hipster independent record buyers. They were young kids who went to chain stores to look for that kind of music. Suddenly, I was kind of faced with a problem because they kept going on tour and saying this EP that they had put out with another label, the "Dreamwheel" EP which was Meteor City, they had some kind of distribution that went to chains so everyone was telling them, "Oh, we can find your EP really easy, but we can't find your stuff on Tolotta." That's when I started to go, "Crap. I have to figure out how these kids are supposed to find the music," because they're obviously not the same kids who are going to buy Dischord records in places or the other labels that Dischord distributes. That's where it became a completely different thing. I had to make some decisions about putting out CDs and how I wanted to do it, but even that part of it still fell into place fairly easily because there were enough people around me who had worked with a local company that basically put all that stuff together for you, CDs, artwork, etc. It was really just the fact that Spirit Caravan was a different kind of music and that's where I found that all of my contacts don't mean as much anymore. It turned out to be the same for them touring. There wasn't a whole lot I could do for them. I even called people up at some point trying to find a booking agent to try to help them find one and I'd say, "This is Joe Lally from Fugazi and I work on this label, Tolotta," but almost everyone I talked to, their hands were full with the bands that they did and I couldn't get anyone interested. It didn't matter. Any of my connections through Fugazi just didn't mean anything and it was basically the same for overseas. It's kind of a weird little world that Fugazi works in because it's tailored for us and it's been designed since 1987 or whatever to fit out particular thing. It doesn't necessarily work for other bands. Those people who book us in different countries, they barely even book bands anymore because they've been doing it on and off for 15 years, when we come through every few years. Those people don't necessarily work with bands all the time. I couldn't do anything for Stinking Lizaveta. I found that really depressing after a while because I just couldn't help them. One of the main things they wanted to do was get to Europe and there was just nothing I could do. After a while, I just went, "This Dead Meadow is getting picked up by Matador, maybe that's what needs to happen," and actually, when Spirit Caravan broke up, we had already decided together that they should try to find another label to put out their next record, basically to give them more help touring because an established label could hook them up with a better booking agent in the U.S. and in Europe. All of that, I couldn't do anything for people. That's where I realized that my label is really just a small thing and maybe it should be for more obscure music to some degree, because I can't really deal with the big business end of things to try to get it everywhere. I can't put up the money to press enough records to where I'm just sending out hundreds of records as promos trying to push them, you know? I just can't operate on that level. It's just me.
I am so glad to hear you saying these things, because I've been feeling like my label was a failure for the last six months.
Joe: What was your label?
It was called Pointed Finger Records. I pressed a thousand copies of some friends' album, and it sounded really good but we just couldn't get it into stores and kids couldn't find it, you get the idea.
Joe: Well, maybe this will turn into just a conversation between you and me about our record labels, but really, you should just operate on getting them into local stores and trying to get the band on tour to go out and sell them. Just operate on getting those thousand records sold and that's it man, you're successful, you know what I mean? That's the way I'm looking at it from now on. If I'm going to put a thousand records, I'm just going to try to sell those thousand records and take it from there. More people knew about Wino so I always felt like, "I know there are almost 10,000 people out there who will buy their record," there really should be because The Obsessed sold that many records and I know he has an audience. It became a real challenge to get those out there because I thought the people existed. Over time, that's kind of happening, although it takes time, and in the end, we should sell six to ten thousand records of something Wino does, but even so, it's been a challenge to just get them out on the road to advertise the record. To me, if I can get the thousand records I've pressed of Orthrelm sold, I'll be psyched. If the band can go out and tour, and I tell you, that's been the great thing about Stinking Lizaveta is that they were already established when I did the one CD, their third record, and they had always toured like dogs around the United States. They didn't necessarily draw that many people when they went on tour, but they had gone out booking their own tours for years already. They would camp on tour. They would bring a tent and camp at campgrounds. They would just fucking have the hardest tours, I would think, but they loved it. They were like, "We're not at home, at work, we're on tour. It's awesome." "How's the tour going?" "It's awesome." They're eating dirt and living in a tent and it's going great. They were just that psyched. They would come home from a tour and send me money for the records they sold and I can't say that about the other bands that I have on my label.
Being on tour is one of the greatest things in the world. When I get vacation time, I try to go roadie for a band that's out on the road and it's an amazing experience. I drive almost all night and most of the day, load in and out and then there's hours of dead time, but it's one of the greatest experiences ever.
Joe: It totally changed my life. I roadied for Beefeater in 1986 and it literally changed my life because that turned out to be my connection to starting Fugazi with Ian, but just being out on the road with that band, yeah, completely. I had cousins in Illinois, so I had been to Illinois with my parents once, I had gone to Maine once with my parents, but otherwise, it was to New Jersey to see relatives or to New York to see relatives. I had never been outside of those places, outside of Maryland and maybe Virginia Beach, in my life. I had never been on an airplane. I had never been on an airplane until Fugazi went to Europe, until we went to England the first time in 1987 and I was like 23, so going on tour with Beefeater was the greatest experience I'd had to that point. We went into Canada, we went all the way west, it was amazing. I totally know what you mean, because if I wasn't in a band, I think I would have just kept being a roadie for bands and I still, because being in Fugazi, until I had a kid or got married, that's what I would have done on downtime. I was ready to go roadie with bands. I was always waiting for someone to line up a tour while we had time off but it just never happened. I was ready to go roadie for Shudder To Think or any band that I wanted to see night after night, like Lungfish or something, but those things didn't line up. Lungfish didn't keep touring that much and obviously haven't even toured for years.
I think the thing that did it for me is that it's just such immensely hard work and yet it's so rewarding and there's a tremendous sense of camaraderie.
Joe: Totally. It's a great feeling to be able to do that every night, to be able to help a band play every night in a different town. It's an amazing feeling. With the right people, it's awesome. Beefeater, basically it broke the band up. That tour actually really divided the band into two and two with me in the middle going, "This is impossible. This is the greatest band in the world, how can they be at odds with each other?"
Well, it really does give you an entirely different perspective on music.
Joe: Yeah, it is and even though it's a completely different perspective, it didn't change my mind about how great it was. It's not your idea when you go to see a band. It's not necessarily what you thought they went through as a band, day after day, but it was still incredibly inspiring.
Well, now that I've seen the flip side of it, like bands pooling money to figure out how much food they can get and whether there's a buyout, how much food or coffee they have to get to the next town and can they afford gas to get there, once I got a chance to see how much they go through to play and how determined they are to do it, it's given me an entirely new level of respect for them.
Joe: Yeah. I guess that traveling life is for some people and not for others. Definitely, doing it six months per year on the level that we do it, in a van, we've never been on a bus, it starts to become seriously loopy when there's no grounding, when relationships don't work because you just keep going away and keep coming home to, "Hey, this really isn't working," which is not what you were thinking. Eventually, it's kind of like, "Oh yeah, I guess it isn't working, is it?" That became really hard for me after a while. I really wanted to see some kind of life work. I really felt like, "Okay, do I have to put life on hold and just be completely nomadic and live this way for the rest of my life?" That part of it was difficult for me, and so much better now. Even having a child, as long as we're going away for two or three weeks, I think it's fine.
Is that part of what prompted the change to the touring schedule?
Joe: Yeah. Brendan had a kid, then he had another kid, then we had our kid so it definitely had an effect on the band, but I have to say, because of the way we tour, I think we have a lot of comforts on tour, but I don't think I could do six months per year. It's hard on your body and I'm almost 40. I can definitely feel it. I don't know how I'd feel doing six months per year at this point. I think it would seriously be beating me up. It's hard to do.
The longest time I spent on tour was about three weeks, but every time I come back, I'm sick.
Joe: Yeah. For years in Europe, that happened to me, mainly because we were always touring Europe in the winter and we'd be playing Holland and Germany, you know, places where everyone in the room was smoking hash and it's small. Those years in the beginning, they were much smaller places so we were basically doing the most physical activity you could do for the day, which is good for you, getting exercise, and yet it was like you were smoking hash at the same time, so every time we went to Europe, halfway through the tour I got bronchitis. Isn't it insane? I was completely getting sick from it. That became quite hard, but as years went on, we started playing bigger shows and we also switched to go to Europe in the spring and so we ended up doing a lot of outdoor shows and that changes things completely. Going to Australia, the tours through there, Japan, New Zealand, we'd go to Singapore and Malaysia, Hong Kong, you just do a lot of flying and that is really hard, just as far as tiring.
The canned air, the time changes ...
Joe: It's just flying. The tour that Ian had gotten sick on to where we had to cancel the tour in Australia, that was 17 plane flights when we had stopped and those were within three weeks to a month. It's just stupid, traveling like that in terms of health. It's not that it wasn't a great experience - it was great - until he was too sick to do it any more and he had come down with this crazy whatever it was, pleurisy or something like that, fluid in his lungs, etc. I'm not trying to figure out how tough it is for a musician, but doing those kinds of tours, now, when we're touring six months per year and a month or two of that is doing dozens of plane flights, that's just harsh. Now, in that respect, going out for two weeks seems a lot better and we haven't gotten back to Australia and Japan and done all that, at least since Lydia was born, so I'm curious to see how we make those tours happen financially. You know that we're trying to keep the prices down and it gets harder to go out for short periods of time because you have to try to make the money to pay for it in a shorter period of time.
As opposed to spreading it out over six months.
Joe: Yeah. Going to Japan and Australia and all that would take a month, at least, to cover all that ground, and you play in each country long enough to make it pay for itself, but trying to squeeze that into two or three weeks, taking Australia and New Zealand as one part of it and then Japan and Hong Kong and Malaysia or any of those places that we would try and incorporate into a couple of weeks, we haven't figured that out yet. I haven't seen that come together but maybe that will be one of the next things we work on when we're ready to venture outside the United States, especially doing Brazil and those places. It's hard to generate money in those countries, trying to do lower door prices. It's not a big concern. I'm not like, "Gee, how come we can't walk away with thousands more dollars to make this work?" It's much easier to go, "We shouldn't do that now until we can make it work" rather than raise the door price or something. Eventually, I'm thinking that those place will work out and we'll go back someday.
Going back to the roadie story for a moment, and I'm not sure if this is a myth, but I read that the day after you got off the Beefeater tour, you met Ian over lunch and he mentioned that he was doing a free form project. Is that true?
Joe: I don't remember him mentioning it that day that we ate lunch. I came home from the Beefeater tour and spent the night at Dischord because the singer from Beefeater lived there and I really didn't have anywhere to go home to anyway because I had moved out of the group house I lived in to go on tour with them and I wasn't going to go live with my parents so I was just kind of in between places. It made the most sense with unloading the equipment, where we were driving from, etc., and so I stayed in Thomas' room. The next afternoon, Cynthia and Ian took Thomas and I out to lunch. We talked about the tour and I know Thomas had written about the tour and me being on the tour and how I was to work with and stuff, so I think there was maybe some feeling on Ian's part that he'd better check out this guy Joe and see what he was about, because Thomas told him I played bass, but it wasn't until my girlfriend at the time, who was house sitting for her sister, and it was way outside of D.C., like 40 minutes outside of D.C. or something, and so that's where I ended up, but I got a call about a week later after being home and that's really when he talked to me. I don't really remember talking to him about the band on that first day. I think we talked more about the Beefeater tour. Maybe he mentioned it briefly, but I certainly didn't have any idea that he would ever want to play with me if he had mentioned it. Then just getting a call from him then, being way out there, I was just like, "Wow, cool. Somebody who I know is serious about music is talking about doing a band and is interested in working with me on it." That was a great opportunity. I had never even considered working with Ian. It just never really entered my mind.
Why do you think that was?
Joe: Well, probably because I think I never thought about it because I couldn't relate that much to his bands live. To me, they were such weird phenomena. Watching Minor Threat play, they were just those people. They were just regular looking guys. It's really hard to explain because that doesn't make any sense. I think my idea of music, of a band at that time, it's hard to explain where my head was, but you have to remember that I had seen a lot of bands, I mean, at that point in 1986, I had seen all the local hardcore stuff between 1982 and 1986. I had missed some of Ian's earlier projects. I didn't see the Bad Brains until 1983 with The Obsessed opening for them or something, but I had seen all kinds of stuff. I had seen The B-52s and The Clash and The Cramps a number of times by then, so I always associated with the way a band looked, you know? I had long hair at the time. I still had this idea of a band looking a particular way, and bands like Minor Threat, I don't know, somehow they stood out as ... it's hard to explain, but I just didn't see myself as one of the people in Minor Threat, whereas I saw Ian's brother's band, The Faith and Alec, play and that was a band I always thought, "Wow, how awesome would that be, playing bass for Alec MacKaye's band?" I can't explain it at all but it's just not something I ever imagined, but it happened. It was interesting, because I guess as a person who had not much of any relation to ever having been in a band, I had played in two bands that had done one or two shows each, and I had never done shows on any large scale by any stretch of the imagination and so having Ian talk to me about doing a band, I wasn't that freaked out about it, like a fan of his bands going, "Oh my god, Ian MacKaye is calling me?" and that kind of thing because I thought Minor Threat was a great sounding band, but like I said, it wasn't a band I wanted to be in. I think I was able to be somewhat relaxed about it.
Whereas it might have been different if Alec had called you.
Joe: Yeah, if Alec had called me, I probably would have been like, "Oh my god, wow!"
So I understand that you started playing bass after going to a Minor Threat show with Peter Cortner from Dag Nasty.
Joe: Pretty much, yeah. That's the point where I can say that we came to a decision. The two of us were like, "Okay, we're going to do a band." As much as you listen to music as youths and think about playing instruments, it had been going on for years with me. Since I was 10 or so, I had been listening to music that I thought was fantastic and I had imagined myself playing music, you know, where you jump around playing air guitar or air bass because you're listening to Graham Central Station with Larry Graham playing lead bass. That was a big thing. Even though I had imagined it for years, listening to Joy Division was like, "Wow, there's one or two bass lines going on per song, this seems so do-able," and yet it still seemed like something out of my reach. It wasn't until Peter and I saw this Minor Threat show where Ian had lost his voice and everyone in the crowd was singing and we were just like, "We have got to do a band." He was just home on break from school in New York and he said, "I'll sing," and I said, "Okay, I'll play bass." Literally, before he came home from school, I went and found a bass. I talked to the guys in The Obsessed about equipment and I worked a decent job where I was making a decent amount of money to buy equipment so I bought a bass and then I went and bought an amplifier and a cabinet, probably talked to some musicians in the area too much, who I didn't know and probably thought I was a pain in the ass, trying to understand what amplifier went with what cabinet, the right equipment to buy and stuff like that, but yeah, that was probably the point where that was it. I don't know what else would have inspired me to just go buy a bass. It was that we had both talked about music enough and were inspired by bands enough to get each other psyched enough to just go, "Okay, this is it," and so we went and had to go get the equipment to do it. And so it began. Peter actually wrote a lot of the songs that we played. I mean, he was writing a lot of the bass lines because I could play anything he showed me, like I had rhythm and stuff, but I didn't understand notes going together or something, and I learned by ear. It's funny, the second band that we did together, I ran into the guitar player at Peter Cortner's wedding and at some point, someone mentioned Fugazi or Joe Lally, this is Dave Smith and he said, "Yeah, I taught that guy how to play bass." I thought that was really weird and a strange thing to say. I suppose it was because he was showing me how to play songs that he wrote because the thing I thought about after he said that, although I didn't say it to him, was "You've got a lot of shit to answer for because there's a bunch of stuff I don't understand!" What an awful claim to make because I'm lost, to some degree, as a musician. I completely play by ear and I don't understand what it is that he taught me. Like I said, Peter was really laying out what we played so Dave wasn't any different than anyone else, and actually Dave had this guy to play drums with us that just didn't work out very well. He couldn't play at some point and we wanted to do a show, so I got my friend Eddie and suddenly the music clicked so much better. It was so much that they were like, "Wow, you can play!" because Eddie could play, because the other half of the rhythm section showed up. There are all kinds of weird things you go through as a musician starting out. I just thought it was funny that he looked at it that way because for years, I was just like, "I don't know what I'm doing." Now I'm at a really nice point because I'm back to kind of writing one-on-one with somebody which I haven't done since the very beginning of Fugazi because as soon as Guy started playing guitar, it became at least three people writing pieces if not four because Brendan started putting in riffs then too because he's a guitar player, a bass player, a piano player, an everything player and it really became the four of us sitting down and writing songs. Those guys can talk about parts whereas I don't know anything about notes and keys, all that shit. I just can't talk technically about what is being played. The best time for me to write is when I plug in my bass and the drummer is playing something and something will come out of me fresh, without thinking. Now I'm in this position to play with someone again, I'm playing with Shelby Cinca for a project of his. Shelby played with Jason Hamacher in Frodus and they had gone through tons of bass players. Shelby had come over to help me with different things with Tolotta and with my computer. Suddenly he was like, "Me and Jason have been wanting to get another project going," and when Jason was home from playing with some kind of speed metal band from Florida, they were working on stuff. In the meantime, Shelby would come over and show me riffs and I started writing bass lines for them. He would come over and we would work on stuff while I was taking care of Lydia, my daughter. It was so relaxed and so easy to do. For me, I haven't been involved in that kind of writing for so long and it's really helping me a lot, even to play with Fugazi, it's making me play all the time because Fugazi, so much of our lives have gotten in the way of the band doing things, it's not like we can just get together and practice or write all the time. It becomes periods of time when we settle into writing again or we settle into practicing for upcoming shows and go through the entire catalog of music to get ready for touring, so this project, it's called The Black Sea, has been really nice. I don't really see how I could tour with it because there are other priorities but it's great because I have 30% or more input on writing the songs instead of 25%, whatever my percentage reduces itself to in reality because everyone can write so much easier than me or at least talk about it and make it work. This has definitely been really helpful for me and I'm trying to work on another project with Wino actually, because he's free to do stuff. We did this project for a German compilation. This guy from Germany does a label which I don't even know the name of and I don't know if it's already come out, but it's a Coltrane tribute record. He asked Wino to contribute a song and Wino wanted me to play bass and Jean Paul from Clutch to play drums and we did a song. The first four hours we ever played together was in the studio to record this song that we had just listened to and never really figured out how we were going to play. I wish we had put more time into it.
Which Coltrane song?
Joe: It's called "Alabama." Even though I wish we had spent more time on it, it's totally inspiring to listen to that and know we did it. We walked into the studio and four hours later, we had a take of it that we were satisfied with. Actually, my wife and child were in the studio with us and so I was just trying to get my part down, to get a good take with all three of us and make sure the bass was in there. I left before Wino put piano on it and they mixed it. I wasn't there for any of that. Like I said, it was very inspiring. I wish I could spend more time playing with Wino and Jean Paul. Wino is about an hour away from me and has his own practice space at his house. It would be great to work with him more, but I've just started to work with Jerry who works with Fugazi too playing second drums and working for the band. I'm trying to get down my ideas to play with Wino with Jerry because Jerry is the right drummer for it, so maybe Jerry and Jean Paul will jam with both of us as we write music and hopefully get an album's worth of material done. This is just beginning so we don't have a name for it or anything. We called ourselves Crescent for that Coltrane comp, but since then I've noticed there's another band called Crescent.
You said in another interview that you saw The Cramps in 1980 and the Teen Idles were opening for them; that it was a local show but that you didn't understand that it was a local band playing up there. To me, that sounded like the moment that everyone goes through when they realize that there's no barrier between being a participant and an observer.
Joe: Pretty much, although it wasn't until later that I figured that out. At that point, I didn't even go close to the stage to watch them play. I was that out of it. I was like, "What are these guys doing?" They were trying to do some Sex Pistols thing. It was so weird to me. I was like, "Isn't that part of punk rock? Isn't that something that happened in the past?" As I went to more shows, I started to realize that the people I saw in the audience from that show, from the Teen Idles and The Cramps, that they were in bands and I was seeing them opening for other bands. I don't know when it was that I saw Faith opening for the Dead Kennedys, that seems like a little bit later but seeing the Dead Kennedys at the 9:30 with Half Japanese opening, I don't know what year that was, '81? Maybe as late as '82? That's when I really knew. There were all these kids and they were all fucking diving off the stage the entire fucking time. That's when I realized that hardcore was a thing, that there was a thing called hardcore. Before that, I was coming from a lot of different types of music. I didn't know that much about Angelic Upstarts or the wave of music out of England that was more like hardcore or punk rock than, say, new wave. I'd go see the Psychedelic Furs or something, but yeah, being at shows, I suddenly started to realize those guys were in bands and then I started getting the fliers and noticing where the hardcore shows were taking place and then I started seeing them in all these obscure places that basically only put on hardcore shows. It's not like bigger bands were going to play any of those weird places. That's what became really influential, because the whole scene was self-contained. It was all happening through kids making it happen. There were records coming out, there were shows being put on. It was pretty mind-blowing.
You've said that your growth as a musician and songwriter has been through Fugazi and that before Fugazi, you were jamming with people. At the same time, there are critics praising your playing and the rhythm section.
Joe: Well, I can't say that I take what people say that seriously. I don't know how to respond to that exactly because I think it's wonderful that people think that it's that great but I am also totally aware that I didn't write all those bass lines. I'm more aware of it than most people because I'm aware of how great a bass line "Waiting Room" is. I didn't write it. I don't argue with good things that the other people in my band write because I can see that they're good. I can see where maybe some other bass players may have put their ego ahead of it and said, "You know, I don't like that because I didn't play it, because I didn't write it." I realized I wasn't going to do that. Maybe there's something to be said for me for that. I'm not saying I didn't write any good bass lines, I'm just saying it's a collective effort and I think if you consider the bass lines in Fugazi and the rhythm section being good, then it's because of the attention paid to it by the band, by the four of us. For a good song to be written, they don't just overlook the bass as a part of song construction. It's just as important as anything. I mean, we slave over shit. We tinker and tinker and tinker with parts to the point of absolute madness as far as I'm concerned. It drives me insane sometimes. I get to where I'm like, "Play the song. Play it any way, just play the song." We work on that stuff. We'll say, "Maybe this guitar line really should be the bass line. Maybe that's what's wrong." A song like "Bed For The Scraping," we know that's interesting, the guitar parts that were written are totally crazy, the weird hammer-on thing that Guy is doing, this thing is locked in and totally cool. They're writing all these bass lines, they keep changing the bass line to it to try and make it work and I was just like, "Give me a second." This is one instance where I can say I wrote something that worked out really well because there wasn't much room for anything to work as a bass line because there's so much going on and it just came out of me without having to think, by having listened to what they were playing over and over again, I could just let my mind be empty and go, "This needs a bass guitar in it doing something simple." That's where I'm at as a bass player and that's where I come from as a bass player and that's where I hope and think that I'm always heading to. I always want the bass line to be totally crucial but totally simple. My point isn't that it's an astounding song and I wrote this amazing bass line, I'm just pointing out how it can fit in and it can work within our songwriting because we'll just work at something for so long and try it so many different ways that if the rhythm section is good, it's because we took the time to constantly work at it. Even in this project with Wino, I think that I'm able to get the music out that I've always heard in my head and hasn't necessarily been sensible or natural music for Fugazi to play, that Brendan hasn't responded to in the way I hear the drumming for it. I've never really understood the drumming and the first time I really tried, there was one riff I had heard in my head for so long and it sounded like something but I couldn't make anything of it with Brendan. Then I sat down and played it with Jerry intended for Wino, I talked with Jerry about the way I saw it and he went into some kind of drumming that I couldn't have explained to anyone and it was much more jazzy because Jerry had played jazz. I don't know if it's necessarily jazz because it doesn't sound like jazz from my end because it's not something I understand that much, to be able to go and play jazz blind like that, but I think it's something that works in a particular way, that is completely open for the drums to be that free and for Wino to be totally free and playing. I hope I can explore that kind of music with them, just other things that I always hear but have not really been able to figure out. The music with Shelby, it's not like I think the Black Sea is the most incredible, innovative music or anything, but it's so good for me to be able to work on because it really, really helps me. It's really important for me to do, it really helps me as far as playing with Fugazi, getting back to where we're writing again. I don't think I'm going to sit there completely lost about what we're going to play next and I can do that in our band because we've been doing so much stuff for so many years and there are so many things. We sit down and say, "Okay, this sounds too much like this, this sounds too much like that." Sometimes we're so hard on ourselves that it leaves me just completely lost. I bring in stuff sometimes and they're like, "Well, that sounds like it would be good for Spirit Caravan." As a writer, sometimes I still can come from that kind of playing although I don't see myself as being able to necessarily sit down and write that kind of music with Wino. I can understand where I'm coming from that the guys in Fugazi hear it that way, this very, very blues-oriented, heavy rock sound. I would really like you to try to make some sense of what I'm talking about.
It already makes sense. This is a good interview. I'm very stoked on it.
Joe: Good. All I ask for is not to have me saying a bunch of uhs and buts, and if I change the subject in the middle of what I'm talking about or something, just try to print the cohesive part. I know I'm not that eloquent of a speaker. I used to live with Ian so I listened to literally, without having to try or anything, thousands of interviews. It's a constant thing with him. People were calling and talking to him all the time, so I know that he learned after all of these interviews, you get better at it and really develop an easy way to express yourself and say exactly what you want to and I'm not that great at it. I always appreciate it when someone tries to clean it up a little bit.
It will make sense. With the exceptions of ums and ahs and buts, it will be identical to the conversation. It's almost surprising to me that we've been on the phone now for about an hour and 15 minutes.
Joe: Oh, goodness.
So you were talking about blues and the Spirit Caravan influence but when I listen to the bass playing you do with Fugazi, it always strikes me more as a soul or R&B influence, like Stax or Volt playing.
Joe: Well, I can't say that I necessarily see it that way. Maybe it's just song construction within the four of us and what we are striving for as far as writing a good song. It's totally flattering to hear that quality of songwriting and I have to admit, the first music I ever really got into, aside from the occasional random singles that were bought or listening to my sister's Beatles records or 45s or whatever, I was going to my neighbor's house and listening to music and I started listening to Otis Redding and James Brown. The first songs I could say that I really loved as a song were "Try A Little Tenderness" and "Cold Sweat." I thought they were phenomenal at whatever age, nine or 10 or whatever it was. That's all they listened to and they took me to shows. The first shows I ever saw were R&B and soul shows. We saw the Isley Brothers and I saw the Jackson Five. I don't even know what years this was, this was the early 1970s because I know I saw Graham Central Station in '74 and that was the first arena show I ever saw with Bobby Womack opening. I think I was 11 or something in '74. Actually, I hadn't even turned 11 yet. I was seeing whatever else there was like The Spinners. I don't think we saw The Commodores. I wish I would have seen Funkadelic but they were probably playing arenas and after the Graham Central Station show, I wasn't allowed to go see anything because we stayed out until about two in the morning. I got in trouble with that. The neighbors were older, all boys in the family, and they were just into all kinds of music. Their stereo was set up in the basement in such a way that there was a pegboard over the stereo with nails or something that held singles, so all these singles just hung in little stacks all around their stereo. I don't know what it was, if their parents were into it or if the first son, his name was Joe Bonanno, and it might have been his interest in music but there were these Elvis and James Brown singles hanging. Music, from a young age, was a thing for me. I watched "The Monkees" and stuff and it's interesting because now, looking back, I can see how important music was to me, even at a young age, and I knew funk and soul music much better than I knew rock. I didn't get into rock until 7th or 8th grade and by then I was already well into all sorts of funky stuff.
Going back to the songwriting process, it sounds like Fugazi is a relatively ego-less unit in which anyone can contribute something and if it's good and the group as a whole thinks it's good and likes it and wants to use it, that it will be worked in or a song can be built around it regardless of who brings what in, whether it's Brendan bringing in a guitar line or you singing on "The Kill" and "Recap Modotti." Is that pretty much true?
Joe: Yeah, it's totally true. I'm sure there are still ego problems that come up and battles that go on that are unnecessary and stuff, but for the most part, yes, it does not matter. I think Brendan writes guitar riffs on piano first. He writes a piano line and then we start to search as to whether it's better as a guitar riff or a bass riff just because we know it's a good riff and we know we want to try to work on it from there so then we just build however it can be done. Yeah, anybody brings in anything and we're definitely up for it because we're all searching for that thing that is new to all of us. There is so much that's been done and everything has been done and I think even what we're doing has been done to some degree but at least we've found some way that we're happy to do it and I think that's the only difference. I don't know how much you can say that we're so incredibly original. I think that's a hard thing to say these days because so much shit has been done, you know? At least we take the time to try to make it different. We purposefully work against things. If the song starts to take a certain shape, if it's too catchy, we try to make it interesting. We definitely work at fucking it up a bit, you know?
You try not to do the obvious.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. You work at that. I think I am much less better at achieving that working with, say, the Black Sea. Shelby will bring stuff in which I think has too much of a hook, is too catchy, and doesn't take you enough of anywhere else and I will work to fuck the song up a bit, to make different things happen, but I can't even dedicate enough time to the Black Sea to make it achieve as much as I want those songs to achieve but I still think it's a great exercise for me.
What about the lyrical process? Who tends to bring in lyrics?
Joe: Those are completely slaved over too. The last record is a good example of us just coming in at the end and everybody trying to write their lyrics in time to go into the studio. I think people had lyrical ideas for their songs but we didn't really hear any of it until we went into the studio and by then they were totally thought out. We went into the studio in January and I seem to remember "The Kill" really starting to take some shape in the song in December so mine was one of the last songs put together and then it got completely rearranged in the studio. It was being over-arranged and so in the studio, we just said "Why don't we do this and then do this and that's the song." I took the recording home and said, "Okay, where would I sing?" I was literally doing it all while we were in the studio. I recorded the take of the song onto one track of my four-track and then I kept singing over it until I had some lyrical ideas and getting my words together at the same time. Then I brought that into the studio and said, "Okay, this is it at this point," with the whistle and everything. I had the whistle, I actually wanted Wino to come in and play a lead while I was whistling and they just really liked the whistle so I ended up having the whistle and I lost my chance to have Wino come in and play on one of our records. You know, for this band, it tends to be last. It's weird because, what is it, "Strangelight," where Guy had lyrics and a way of singing on that song and then we kept trying to write to what his idea of the song was but we kept screwing it up so he'd go home and play acoustic guitar and sing and then come back in and, "The way we're writing on this, I can't sing on it anymore." He just kept struggling with that. I mean, that song went through so many changes. Finally, it just became what it is and we even ended up slowing the speed down on that track so it's actually slowed down on record. If you're playing along to that record, suddenly you're out of key when you get to that song because it's been slowed down and then he sang over a slowed down version of that song.
How do you go about playing that live?
Joe: Fast. We just play it in our regular tunings. We just don't tune down a half step or whatever it ended up being off. That's the way it works.
You mentioned earlier that it's been about 15 years since Fugazi started. Do you ever think about how long it's been?
Joe: Yeah. It'll be 15 years in September. September 3rd, 1987, was our first show. Yeah, over the last five years or so, ever since it was 10 years, it was like, "Good God, it's been 10 years." I certainly never thought that the band would be together for 10 years when we started, but the way the four of us work together, it's not that surprising. When I think of the four of us, I think of the four of us being interested in music, like our insane interest in music. For example, Guy does an amazing thing for me every Christmas. He gives me a subscription to Mojo. It's incredible. For me, I go backwards with music much more than I go forward. I'm probably way more out of it as to what's going on in contemporary music. I'm always trying to piece things together. I'm still trying to piece together the 1960s, like how things fell together. I'm reading this book about Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Fariña and Richard Fariña called "Positively 4th Street" and that's great because it's like putting another piece of the puzzle of the 1960s together for me. To me, that kind of stuff is really interesting, to understand where people were coming from and who influenced who and how this music came about because that music came about to create what is going on today. It's all the same linear thing. When we go on tour, when I get in the van with these guys to set out for the first show, especially nowadays because we're caught up in our regular lives and don't see each other or talk that much, we start catching up on all the different things we've been reading about or hearing or going to see or whatever because I don't go to see as much stuff as I used to before my daughter was born and so just being able to read Mojo is totally inspiring for other reasons since I'm not seeing live shows. We can all just talk for hours about music. It's still very interesting to us. We can still read things and see things and be totally inspired to do music, and we know the other three guys are there for us to try to create new music. It's still an exciting thing so when I think about that, I'm not that surprised. If we couldn't stand being around each other, then it would be fucking insane that we're still together, but as it is, we're together because it's still interesting to us. It's amazing that we've been together this long, but in that way, it's not surprising because it's still totally exciting for us to talk about music and everything else. If it isn't music, then it's something else that we can talk about while driving down the road. I am still totally interested in what these guys are talking about and their take on what's going on in the world. It's still a very interesting thing to be involved with. It's still totally interesting to hear Guy talk about even what's been going on in his neighborhood or downtown, like a march or protest that he went to or a band that he saw, stuff that he read about because Guy reads about so much stuff. I don't even finish Mojo completely every month and he's able to flip through magazines all the time, even if he's just in a store or something and sift through articles. It's the same with Brendan and Ian. They're intelligent guys and they have a lot to say about a lot of things so it's totally inspiring and rewarding to be out traveling with the guys, much less writing music with them and being able to play it live every night. You know, the way we do our music, I've been thinking about this for the first time now that I've been considering playing with other bands, even though I don't know if I'll ever play with them live, if I ever play with Wino and Jerry or Jean-Paul live, will there be a set list? I really don't want there to be a set list. Playing that way with our band, with Fugazi, is just great. It's totally exciting live. You just have to be there so much, it can't be boring. We do this show every year at Fort Reno which is this outdoor thing for free, it happens Monday and Thursday evenings for a couple of months of the summer every year and we always do this one show for it. We just did it the other day and because Guy's mother died and we just hadn't been able to practice very much, we practiced the week before we did it and we only practiced the last couple of records, thinking that there just wasn't enough time to be able to try to dig into our whole catalog and be ready to do it for one show, but just before we went onstage, somebody said, "Do you mind if we do this one song?" Then somebody else said, "Why don't we just do old songs if we want to? Is it okay with everyone if we just do anything?" So then it was suddenly that we could do any of our songs. It sounds weird but I spend a lot of time on my own before a tour, making sure I know every album, minus the couple of songs that we just don't play for whatever reason and there aren't that many of them. It becomes a thing because I just remember everything by the fucking dots or whatever, you know? I don't know what key a song is in, so I always worry about that before a show so it was pretty incredible to be able to just get up and play. I was so psyched that I remembered everything that anyone pulled out and was able to play it well, you know? Sometimes, I don't. Sometimes you just can't, you're just awful that day and no matter how hard you try, you just aren't going through the changes in songs. You go somewhere else or you think it's some other song or you just fuck something else up from the beginning. There's always something and some songs sound like other songs when they're starting, so I fuck that up sometimes, but to hear this guitar riff and lock in immediately as to what song it is, sometimes our stuff doesn't sound that different and I make mistakes, so that was just such a great show and it's so rewarding to be able to do that. I felt, because we hadn't been able to spend that much time together, a little more distant from the band before the show but to be able to do the show and feel like I was able to play it that well, that was fantastic. So here we are, almost 15 years into the band and I am having this great time with it, then that says something. It's still rewarding and a very interesting thing to take part in.
It's so amazing to hear you talk about how you play bass because I picked up a bass about two or three years ago and I know E, but after that, I'm counting strings and frets, like it sounds good if I put my finger on the third fret of the second string over, so listening to someone at your level talking about the dots makes me feel a lot better.
Joe: Well, it's all in your way when you're basically self-taught. No one sat down and said, "This is what's going on and this is how one approaches playing this instrument." No matter how many people show you songs, sorry Dave Smith, you're self-taught and you're showing yourself how you're going to make songs work or how you're going to remember how to play songs or how you're going play songs period. Even if you know how a song goes that you learn off a record or whatever, it's up to you how you're going to place your left hand through the playing of that song, which fingers you're going to use to play this part and that part. I think that's a technique that self-taught people are showing themselves. I remember seeing Michelle from Babes In Toyland, their first bass player, play a bass that I didn't consider myself really able to play, a Fender Precision bass, and she just totally kicked ass on it. Her hands are so small and she just played mostly with her index and middle fingers almost the entire time. She just moved around however she could move around and that's the way she taught herself to play. That's the kind of thing I find so inspiring to watch because she was just a great bass player and obviously wasn't trained how to play. I just love that shit. I think it's great because it hopefully opens a different way to approach the instrument. If there's a set way to play and everyone's being taught how to play it, then there's probably a set way of approaching how you're playing and what you're writing, so hopefully an unorthodox approach opens up some other way of writing. Who knows?
So what keeps you interested in playing music?
Joe: I can still go see a band and be totally inspired and go, "I want to do that." Watching Orthrelm play, watching Mick Barr play guitar and watching Josh Blair play drums is fucking insane. I would never have thought to take music there. They're doing something that I just find so incredible. When I first got to see them play a show, watching their set, I was like, "I would love to be putting out their music," just to be involved with in some way, helping them get their music out because this stuff is insane. It's crazy music that they're making. At the same time, I realized, "Why would anyone ever listen to this on record?" It's something you have to see, like looking at a mountain or something. It's just breathtaking but listening to it, you can't even think straight. I can't do anything when I put on that record. I can't get work done. It's not background music. It's like grab you by the throat and bang your head against the wall music. It's interesting for all that to be going on but knowing at the same time that it's something that lights a little fire in you to approach music in a different way. It's still exciting to try to find bands that do that for you, so you're always searching. You're always hoping that the band you go see is going to do something for you because there are bands that make you feel badly about music, that you're even involved with it, that you're somehow related to this thing.
Well, those are all the questions that I had. Is there anything you'd like to add?
Joe: No, I think it's also time for me to get back to Lydia. She's had enough of mama and she needs papa.