Bassist Spotlight: Joe Lally (Fugazi, Messthetics, Coriky)

Photo: Antonia Tricarico

When I was young and trying to learn how to play guitar and bass I would play along to certain albums (KISS, Endpoint, Metallica). After I tackled tuning to the music without a proper tuner I could slowly hash out the parts in my head and match notes.

When I got older, and a little better the challenge was trying to figure out the music for Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, and Slint. The top of the mountain for me was learning Fugazi albums.

Fugazi had so many amazing things happening within the songs, and the bass parts were definitely the most challenging as an up and comer. I think I saw them live probably 4 or 5 times in my life and their performance level while playing all of those complicated parts was always awe-inspiring. How did they play all those notes, while going off?

When Joe Lally answered my email that he was willing to participate in my Bassist Spotlight series, I could have jumped outta my skin. 

I owe tons of credit to several of my interviewees for my own style of playing. Joe, however, is probably the person who you would say I emulate the most. Be it simply ripping the man off, or his inspiration always seeping into my subconscious, I owe him the most.

Thank you, Joe, for being a part of my musical life, and answering my questions. I hope you all enjoy his interpretation of everyone's favorite instrument. 

Introduce yourself to everyone.

Hello, I am Joe Lally, bassist of Fugazi, Messthetics, and Coriky.

How did you first get into playing the bass guitar?

A friend from High School, Peter Cortner (Dag Nasty), and I were at a Minor Threat show and as we left we said we would start a band. He said he would sing so I said I would play bass. I worked and had money saved so I went out and bought a bass, amp, and a cabinet without knowing a thing about what I was doing.

Was your family supportive of your musical endeavors when you were getting started?

They didn’t really comment on it. about 3 years later I quit a very good job to roadie for Beefeater on a 2-month tour in the US and Canada in 1986 before Ian [MacKaye] and I started playing together. So over the following 3 years or so my dad always pushed me to get a degree in something, because I worked in a restaurant/nightclub after the Beefeater tour.

Other than that they didn’t say much as I had been living away from home a few years by then.

Fugazi @ Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 1988. (Photo: Andy Perseponko)

I have seen you play with a guitar pick and your fingers. What makes you decide the picking approach to a song, and can you give any details on why you prefer one to the other?

I learned to play using a pick. I only recently began playing some Messthetics songs using my fingers because I had to. I couldn’t move between strings fast enough with the pick for the particular rhythm of the song "Mythomania."

I played with my thumb on some quieter songs or parts of them in Fugazi, but never developed the technique of properly playing with my fingers.

Would you say you upstroke or downstroke more?


Has there been a typical way you write your bass parts with the songs over the years? Do you keep your first versions of parts or do you take it home with you to refine? Also, when your away from your instrument and a riff comes into your head, can you remember it for later or do you need to record it on your phone asap?

There has been no rhyme or reason to how lines are written. They can happen in the practice space or at home. I try to remember and idea and record it with my voice into the phone but I rarely remember what I was thinking.

Photo: Antonia Tricarico

What is your favorite accompanying instrument to accent in a song ie: drums, guitar, vocals? I've noticed you will dance around musically with all your band members in songs.

Not sure I understand this, but I am always accenting, thinking with the drummer from the initial writing of a riff. I have a very advanced drummer in my mind that interacts with what I’m writing always. It’s rare that I would write something and not hear the drumming that accompanies it. From there, any other source in the music can be joined with what I am doing, yes.

Is there a bass player who has influenced you the most in your style?

I have spent more time thinking about guitarists and I suppose what it is I could set up for them as a bassist than I have thought about how particular bassists play. Hendrix, Page, Wino and now Sonny Sharrock and for that matter saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, Ayler, Shepp, Pharoah Sanders….

Are there any drummers in your life who change the way you play the bass?

I don’t know if they have changed the way I play but I love Rashied Ali and Hamid Drake for starters. Tony Allen, Ricardo Lagomasino… Brendan Canty certainly helped shape my bass playing because locking in with him was the whole point.

What is your favorite amp, pedal, bass guitar set up?

Iain Graham or Dave Johnson bass, flat wound strings, Benson B-700 Amplifier, and 1X15 Cab.

 Messthetics @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, 2019. (Photo: Benedetto Manzella)

Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto obviously write lead parts that have hooks that will be memorable forever. Your bass parts in my opinion are also lead parts that have legendary hooks. Was it a conscious decision, in the beginning, to have lead bass parts like that, or was it just a natural occurrence?

It was the way I saw the bass functioning in music. I didn’t try to figure out their bass lines but listening to Jah Wobble and Peter Hook opened my mind to the idea that I could play bass myself. I saw the connection between what they were doing and funk and R&B, dub. It was not a provable theory, but it made sense to me and I saw my way forward.

Is there a song that kicks your ass to play live?

Some Messthetics songs get difficult when they speed up beyond reason.

Have you always been able to sing and play at the same time?

No, it’s something I really had to work at.

Fugazi (Photo: Cynthia Connolly)

You have traveled the world, is there any other city you would like to live in?

A less expensive one than Washington, DC.

I worked in the nightlife industry in Manhattan for years, and sometimes we had DJs who were hardcore/punk kids in their life. Sometimes they would mix in a punk song during the normal dance music, and it would go over amazingly with the crowd. A lot of times they would play "Waiting Room" in the wee hours, and people would go crazy. I seriously doubt the crowd knew the song, but it didn't matter. They loved it. Have you ever been in a situation where one of your songs is being played, but nobody knows you are on the recording?

I don’t think so. Fugazi's music doesn’t get played so much that I’m hearing it at the grocery store.

Is there anything new musically for you you can tell us about, and how has COVID affected your music?

I’ve been into seeing Irreversible Entanglements live whenever possible until the world came to a halt.

Finally, can you give any advice to someone picking up the bass guitar for the first time?

Write songs with it.


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Tagged: bassist spotlight, coriky, fugazi, the messthetics