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The Oceanic Rhythms of Fugazi

by Shawn Rameshwar

Fugazi pic #1 I got the chance recently to talk to both Brendan Canty and Joe Lally of Fugazi -- if you're not real familiar with the band, they're the guys back behind, on drums and bass, respectively. Seeing as how there's enough out there about Fugazi "frontmen" Ian MacKaye and Guy Piccioto, I thought it was time for someone to ask the rhythm section of the band something a little more specific to them.
With Joe, I really wanted to hear his thoughts on music and on being a musician in general. Joe Lally has always been a facet of Fugazi's sound that continuously grows on me. His bass lines are integral, purposeful, groovy, and concise. What I've always appreciated about Joe's bass playing is his ability to support, lead, and direct simultaneously and without sacrificing any other aspect within a given song. He seems to downplay his prowess in favor of up-playing the tremendous amount of musical growth still left on his plate.
As for Brendan, I've personally always enjoyed his drumming and have really been impressed with his recording/producing ventures. To me, his drumming can be most easily compared to the ocean, with its subtle ebbs and flows intertwined amidst the pulsing tidal cycles. Brendan always seems to know when to pull the trigger on his precussive tsunamis and upbeat waterspouts. This is his greatest gift, to me as a listener, hearing the virtues of placement. So, when I got the opportunity to interview Brendan (and Joe, as well), I tried to ask questions not often asked. Looking back, unfortunately, my stomach sinks, as it seems like I left so much out. Maybe next time.
Hope you guys learn something; I did.

SCR: How long did it take for you and Brendan to feel comfortable with each other as a rythm section, and which songs that you've both played together on would you consider definitive movements into new territory, having established a rapport with one other (that is, expanding your musical horizons together as a rhythm section)?
Joe Lally: Brendan is an incredible drummer. Ian and I played with a number of other people when Colin Sears left us to tour with Dag Nasty. Brendan sat in with us once, but he was playing in Happy Go Licky. They were one of my favorite bands, period, at the time, so I didn't think he'd end up drumming with us. We couldn't help comparing everyone we played with to Brendan, so no one seemed right.


Fugazi -- http://www.southern.com/southern/band/FUGAZ/

Fugazi Live CD Series -- http://www.fugaziliveseries.com/

Dischord Records -- http://www.dischord.com/

Trixie DVD (Burn to Shine) -- http://www.trixiedvd.com/

What I'm trying to say here is that I felt comfortable with Brendan from the beginning. I had rhythm, but I didn't know what I was doing. So, the better the drummer, the better I played. Brendan plays around the beat so much that it could be very difficult to play a very simple bass line at times; that has never changed. The writing on the first 2 EPs was different than Repeater, because Guy and Brendan had been writing together for so long that it brought us into a different place. Ian and Brendan and I were writing down a particular road which I wouldn't say was confined, but it changed when Guy was adding to it. It just got that much better. For Fugazi, I think it was so important to bring something new into each song that I don't see a particular moment where things changed. We were challenging ourselves each time we wrote a song. I'm not saying we wrote amazing music, I'm saying we worked hard at it. It was part of the writing process not to fall back on any habits; it was always evolving.

Brendan, could you name the one person in your non-musical life that has had the most influence on you, and tell us why?
Brendan Canty: My father showed me, through loving reverence of his record collection, that passion was really all that mattered in music. He loved Jazz, he played piano, and he taught me about all the old guard of musicians that I never would have learned about if I just kept listening to my far-out Steve Lacy records. In turn, I tried to turn him on to Public Enemy once when their first record came out. He wasn't having it, though.

Fugazi pic #2 You've done some recording/producing for other musicians; what draws you to get involved with these artists? What motivated you to work with these musicians?
Brendan: Usually, people have asked me to work on their records because I'm at their shows a lot, because I love their band. I think that's about the long and the short of it. I'm always flattered when people ask me to help them, and I take it very seriously. I try to shepherd the project through the entire process. Two of my favorite records I've ever done are about to come out, Medications (on Dischord) and Mary Timony (on Lookout! Records). Please buy them. They are good.

In the recording context, how do you manage to convey what you hear going on musically with the vision of the band you're recording? Do you strictly act as a conduit, or do you try to actively participate in the writing process?
Brendan: I'm an augmentor, usually. Not a co-writer. Certainly, if someone wants my advice, I'll give it to them, but usually, in a band situation, there are plenty of opinions flying around, and mine is just one of them. I'm more like a tie-breaker. Also, if there's trouble coming, I can usually sense it and defuse arguments before they start.

Joe, when you play your bass, do you feel its most important to know the mood of a song before you approach writing for it, or do you basically bounce back and forth between the melodies or chord progressions or the tempo Brendan uses, placing parts where they fit?
Joe: You have to remember that I never took lessons and never understood much about how music works technically. I'm working on that now, but I have a long way to go. I usually write to the drummer. I often wrote something as soon as I plugged in. Brendan would already be playing, so that establishes some kind of mood, I guess, and I would play to it without thinking. Notes follow the movement and feeling of the previous notes, and a pattern starts to form. I try to hone in on what is in the pattern that sounds best to me. We're talking about creativity, here. That's the best I can describe what I'm doing. There's no set formula to it.

Often times people tend to underestimate the musical prowess of "Punk" musicians. I'm not trying to say that I would personally classify you as a "punk" musician, but I would be interested to know how you would classify yourself in terms of musical knowledge? Have you taken lessons? Can you read or write music formally?
Brendan: Yeah, I can write and read music, though I don't have much call for it these days. I actually taught myself how to play piano, read, and write music, back in 1994. Fugazi took a year hiatus then, and I sat in my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment in Seattle for eight hours a day practicing and learning. I did take some piano lessons at that point. I would have liked to be Stravinsky, I guess. He is my favorite composer. I felt like a fraud, getting into situations where some theory would help, and not knowing jack shit. Also, I wanted to compose soundtracks for TV and film, which is what I do most of the time now.

From the Instrument movie, we sort of get a glimpse of Fugazi's writing environment. I found it really inspiring to see you guys whistling in the kitchen, because it sort of solidified the spirit of genuine enjoyment for music that you guys seem to exude. How do you keep this "enjoyment" going during the not-so-fun moments that one endures in a band atmosphere?
Brendan: You don't. You look at each other with utter disdain, because the others are not saving you from your static uncreative self. Then something happens, and you're working, and everything is cool again. Writing a record is truly difficult. The good ones take forever. We demoed shit a lot. I dunno. It's hard to imagine that reality right now. Such a pressure cooker. Still the best way to make a record, though -- sitting in a room together.

I'm of the opinion that it takes a different kind of musician to play bass rather than any other kind of instrument, due to traditional "rock" interplay between guitars and drums. Joe, do you see playing bass as sort of a melodic interpretation of the drummer's rhythm, or do you consider it more of a translation?
Joe: Hmm... I can only talk about this on a personal level. When I'm writing, I see the bass as a foundation that leaves lots of room for all the other instruments and vocals to say what they want, however they want. The bass is there to get back to reality if they want to. I'm not sure about a different type of musician; they all seem to be different to me. I see what you're saying, I often feel like the drummer. I hear the drums when I write alone. I can keep a beat on the drums, but I'm nothing to write home about. There's an amazing drummer in my head. Maybe it's Brendan.

Brendan, I've always seemed to enjoy the drum sounds you've recorded; how do you mic your drum kit when recording?
Brendan: It really is different every time. Even every song. It's nothing special. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I'm doing rim shots on the snare constantly. You may also be reacting to the sound of Inner Ear Studios. That room has a lot to do with my sound. Though, it depends what record. The first couple were recorded in Don Zientara's basement, which was tiny. Perhaps Ted Nicely's production on the early stuff is what you like? You'd have to tell me which songs you like, and I can tell you where and how we did it.

Joe, a lot of really meaningful bassists tend to get lost amidst the varying complexities in a song; do you feel you've managed to survive that? And if so, what is your strategy?
Joe: Well, if they are meaningful to you, then they must not get lost. Are you saying you don't like to hear busy bass players? It's all a matter of taste, as you well know. John Wetton would be considered a prog player, and they are supposed to be busy players. I like his playing and his sound. It's right for the song. "Verying Complexities"; Hendrix is complex in his writing, Billy Cox is awesome. Does he get "lost"? I'm not sure what we're talking about, here. I'm not too busy a player, and I don't understand how to be one. It's just not the way I see my role in the music.

What music are you listening to now that gets you excited/inspired? And what qualities are in those bands that causes this inspiration/excitement?
Joe: Lots of things are inspiring and exciting about music. It's not any particular genre. When I put something on next, it might be Rashied Ali. I just like to hear his drumming. Very dense music; lots of notes. There's an energy, though, that is different than anything else. Sometimes I turn the balance all the way to one side when listening to his records with Coltrane so I can just hear him. It's a kind of music all by itself. It's like watching a fire or a river rush past. I might put on the Breeders' "Title TK," because it's written so well. All the different instruments' parts come together to make such a beautiful composition. In a simple way. I could go on too long here.

Musicians always seem to hear other musicians talk about "finding their voice." Have you found yours, or do you think that's a neverending process?
Joe: I'm not sure I'm on the level of musicianship where one finds their "voice." I'm trying to write songs I think are good.

What, if any, projects are you involved with at the moment, and why did you choose them?
Joe: I'm working with Seth Lorinczi, Julianna Bright, and Sara Lund at the moment. I don't know where we're going to end up with it. We want to write songs that we like to play. It's not a project with a particular end in mind.

Brendan -- musically, you've seemed to covered a lot of ground. Do you ever stop and think, "What next?", and if so, what is next for Brendan Canty?
Brendan: I'm going to be on the road with Bob Mould this September, which should be cool. I'm working on that Burn to Shine film series that I'm producing -- do you know about that? -- and trying to make a film about Ethiopian music. I'm about to sign a lease on 3500 square feet of space so I can record more of my own shit. Want to start putting a few records by other people out on my label, Trixie. And I want to be here for my three sons. That's it for this year.

What item in your current "rig" is most crucial for you to be happy with how it sounds, and why?
Joe: I'm not sure. It could be the bass. I like the acoustic sound of a Hofner so much. I write in a different way with it. I don't have one of those, though. Anyway, it's different playing alone and with a band. In a practice space and onstage. You could really look for different things in each of those places to hear yourself better or play better. So the cabinet, the bass and the amp all make a difference to me.

Is there any one instrument that really makes you want to incorporate it, but wouldn't necessarily be thought of as something people would associate with Brendan Canty? Like a sitar or something like that?
Brendan: I really just love playing piano. I guess that's the one. Though I now have a good acoustic guitar, and that's cool, too. Oh, actually, I know. I got these two Malian balafons from some guys who were playing at the Folklife Festival here in DC on the Mall. They're just huge African xylophones made out of wood, with gourd resonators underneath. Those I would love to make a record with.

For those who may not know, how many instruments would you say that you can play, in the order of most comfort to least?
Brendan: Guitar, bass, drums, piano, a little saxophone ( and I do mean "little"). Variations on those, you know. Like accordion. I owned a violin for a long time, but couldn't do it. I wish I could play the cello.

What musician have you not played with that you would most want to collaborate with, and why?
Joe: Well, there certainly are a lot of people I haven't played with. I have played with Scott Weinrich before, but both times were rather quickly. I feel I know his playing enough to be able to communicate with him musically, and it would be nice to have another chance. Yoko Ono, Robert Fripp, Rashied Ali. Of course, all these people are way over my head, but you asked. Yoko because she's so daring. Fripp because of his guitar tone, and Rashied Ali I've already explained, I suppose. They are all great musicians who have written music that I love. That's my band, if I can hand pick them. As a matter of fact, I'll send in Billy Cox on bass and just watch.

What has been the biggest lesson you've learned from playing with Ian, Guy, and Brendan all these years?
Joe: Too much too boil down to one sentence. Umm... To be patient and keep working at it.

Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans?
Joe: Hello. END

[Thank-you note: I'd like to thank Alec at Dischord for helping me contact Brendan and Joe. I'd also like to thank Brendan and Joe for taking the time to do this interview.]


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