Advertisement

I Took Bass Lessons From a Punk Legend For a Year. I Learned About More Than Just the Bass

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

About a year ago, I was scrolling Instagram, when a hand-drawn, black-and-white post caught my eye. It looked like a flier you’d see stapled to a telephone pole, advertising a local punk show. The flier said: “Bass Lessons w/ Joe Lally of Fugazi, Messthetics, Coriky. Classes Available.” As a fan of post-hardcore punk, this was like stumbling on a post that said, “Home run lessons with Ken Griffey, Jr.” or “Moon landing lessons with Buzz Aldrin.” Lally’s heavy grooves propelled Fugazi and influenced an entire generation of rhythm sections. I, on the other hand, am an amateur musician. I can bumble my way around a guitar, piano or drum set, but the bass is like a foreign object to me.

Still, I had to give it a shot. I reached out to Lally, and for a year now, he and I have been meeting over Skype every other Friday for bass lessons. Last week, Lally and his band the Messthetics released a new LP, The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis, on the revered jazz label Impulse! Records. The album release and the one-year anniversary of taking lessons felt like a good occasion to talk to Lally about the new LP and his bass-teaching side hustle.

For our interview, Lally, 60, appeared as he does when he teaches: over Skype, in the basement of his Washington, D.C. home, wearing a button-down shirt and a black knit cap. In conversation, he’s dry and slyly funny. He exudes the same attitude in our lessons that he does onstage. He’s focused, thoughtful, and dependable. Whenever a Fugazi show erupted into a hurricane of chaos, Lally was always the anchor that kept the ship from capsizing.


Before we met for our first lesson, my nerves jangled as I logged onto Skype. I didn’t want to mention that I was a fan of Fugazi, his solo albums, and the Messthetics—I needed to play it cool. I also worried that my lack of musical knowledge would make me look like a stooge. But lack of knowledge is exactly why I wanted to take lessons in the first place. Not to brag, but I do play drums in a Neil Young cover band (the Cinnamon Boys, natch), and I’m always at a loss when our bass player says something like, “Instead of going to the fifth, Neil goes to the sixth here.”

To put my nervousness at ease, Lally quickly proved to be a patient teacher. He explained his teaching method: We’d discuss and analyze music theory concepts, he said. Then each week, my assignment was to write and record three bass lines of my own, and then we’d analyze those. The idea, Lally said, was to always be creating, always working toward writing enough songs to fill an album.


If fostering creative energy and creating songs is at the heart of Lally’s lessons, he’s practicing what he preaches on the new Messthetics album. The Messthetics are usually a trio — with Lally on bass, his Fugazi bandmate Brendan Canty on drums, and Anthony Pirog on guitar. But as the title of the new record states, the Messthetics’ latest batch of songs feature the fiery saxophone work of James Brandon Lewis. A renowned jazz musician from New York City, Lewis adds a new level of verve and sophistication to their sound. On LP’s nine tracks, the vibe ranges from jazzy funk that jumps off the turntable to moody and emotive explorations.

In Fugazi, Lally and Canty’s rhythm section pushed the boundaries of what that band could sonically achieve. On The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis, they’ve pushed their sound to the outer reaches of the jazz-punk-funk galaxy. If you were to travel back in time to the ‘90s and play the latest Messthetics LP for a Fugazi fan, and say, “This is what Lally and Canty are doing in 2024,” the reply would undoubtedly be an emphatic Hell yeah.

Like many of the classic jazz LPs on the Impulse! label, the third Messthetics album was recorded in a flash, over just two days in Takoma Park, Maryland, in late 2022. The addition of Lewis takes the band to new aural heights, but it wasn’t a given that his role in the band, or even that this album, would happen.

“In 2022, it hadn't been very long since the Messthetics got out of the COVID nightmare,” Lally said. “We lost our recording space, which was our rehearsal space where we recorded the first two records. And just getting back together on a regular basis to play was tough. So we were trying to drag up some music we had played before COVID. And then, as we went through all that material for writing another record, we really just kept James in mind and said, ‘Let's just prepare the groundwork for him to come in and work on it’ and bam, it came together.”


In the lead-up to our first lesson, I was unsure what to expect from Lally. Fugazi’s members have (somewhat unfounded) reputations as ascetic punk monks. I thought he might constantly refer to early ‘80s D.C. hardcore bands or obscure jazz artists. But, to my surprise, from our first lesson on, there was nothing ascetic about Lally. He was an engaging teacher, occasionally cursed like a sailor, and loved to talk about the Beatles.

“If I'm explaining something complicated, or moving through the major scale and understanding chord progressions,” he said, “that is very easily explained by looking at a Beatles song, because they do it so naturally. And their music, at this point, is universal. You don't even have to like the Beatles and you probably know how ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ goes.”

A few weeks into our lessons, Lally had me learn “Cissy Strut,” a 1969 funk instrumental by the Meters, a proto-Neville Brothers band out of New Orleans. I learned about feel and groove by playing along to that track. To get a sense of great bass playing, Lally recommended listening to nothing but the Meters for a couple of weeks. When he asked me to learn “Cissy Strut,” I confessed I had never heard it. “You’ll recognize it,” Lally said. “It’s played at almost every party I’ve been to.” This only confirmed that Lally goes to much cooler parties than me.


Pushing yourself to experiment and not overthink your next move on the fretboard was a theme that kept arising in our lessons. On that note, the new Messthetics album isn’t just sonically adventurous—it’s the first time Lally has recorded for a label other than Dischord Records. Dischord, which has been run by Ian MacKaye since 1980, released every Fugazi album, and the first two Messthetics albums. The significance of having an album on a storied jazz label like Impulse! isn’t lost on Lally.

“For me, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, these people, they were on that label. That just fucking blows me away,” he says. “It’s wild that we’re on this label.” Later in our conversation, when we were talking about theory, Lally interrupted me and said, “I should also add it's really weird to not have an album out on Dischord. There's a weird thing about signing a contract: I never signed a contract with Dischord. There's an understanding through someone who is like one of my best friends, if not my best friend,” he said, referring to MacKaye.

“But for me, it is weird and I do feel like this is a period, and then I'll continue to make music for Dischord. It still feels like the musical home that I belong to, so it's very strange. But there is a really great feeling that it's Impulse! It's, I think, one of the only record labels that I might feel this way about. Anyway.” Lally smiled. As his student, who he’s pushed to try new techniques and approaches, it was fascinating to watch my teacher grapple in real time with stepping out of his own comfort zone.


From the start, the way Lally spoke about music theory with such knowledge and confidence made me think that I was in the presence of a true scholar and savant. During one of these early lessons, Lally said, as an aside, “All this music theory shit would’ve really helped me in Fugazi.” I was taken aback.

“You didn’t know music theory in Fugazi?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I learned it during COVID.”

I brought up this exchange when I interviewed him, and Lally said, “When COVID came, I had to teach. I had a job at a box office selling tickets for I.M.P., the local independent promoter in DC. That job that just disintegrated in COVID. And it was like, ‘Okay, now how do we live?’ So I started advertising that I would teach, and so I started teaching and figuring out teaching at the same time. That was a bit of an insane task, but I was learning theory so I could teach it.”


Our Friday afternoon lessons became a highlight of my week. Around lunchtime (Pacific time), I’d head out to our garage, set up my laptop, and connect with Lally. Over time, I went from being a bass-playing rube to someone who could articulate the difference between the Mixolydian and Dorian modes. Our washer and dryer are in our garage, and occasionally my wife Melissa would walk by and overhear my lessons. “You guys sound really intense,” she’d later tell me, finding the whole thing pretty funny — just a bass-playing legend and a suburban dude discussing the intricacies of the circle of fifths.


About six months in, I hit a wall. The concepts Lally was teaching me felt like they were in Latin. Sometimes, the way he’d speak about modes and scales seemed to make total sense to him, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I felt that Lally could sense my frustration. So in the middle of teaching me about modes, he paused and asked, “Are you familiar with the song ‘Suggestion’ off the first Fugazi EP?” As a Fugazi fan, this is like asking a gardener if they’re familiar with daffodils. I nodded and let him know that I knew the song. “Let’s spend the rest of the lesson learning it,” he said.

This was out of step with the way Lally taught. He’d never brought up examples of his own work before. But teaching “Suggestion” worked. It snapped me out of my funk and sharpened my focus.

“I think I'm able to identify when people are overthinking something I know they're capable of doing,” Lally said when I asked him about that moment. “It's really important to make them think in a completely different way. It's like they've tied all this information in a knot, and then basically you just go in and go, ‘Let me undo this knot.’ And then if you understand that, it's just such a simple idea. For example, “Suggestion” was a song you knew. Then that became a very simple way to go, ‘You know the sound of this, you know the feel of what we're trying to do, here are the notes.’ Then you could get out of this weird thing you've tied yourself up in and go, ‘Oh, that's the thing that I hear and I understand.’ It resets your thinking.”

Lally video recorded himself playing “Suggestion” and forwarded it to me, so I could follow along exactly to how he plays the song. Needless to say, this video has a treasured spot in my Photos app.


Even though Lally said he learned music theory during the pandemic, just so he could teach, it was clear to me that he deeply understood the complexities of bass playing long before he studied theory. There are two lessons that he imparted to me that have stuck. One is to never overthink when you’re playing or composing. He mentioned that in Fugazi, he’d often try to write basslines while Canty was setting up his drums. In those quick, fleeting moments, he felt like he did some of his best writing.

Something else Lally would occasionally say to me is, “What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t share it?” That sentiment often made me think of how Chuck Berry used to tour from town to town without a backing band. He’d just bring a guitar and an amp, and use whatever local musicians were around as his band. (This is how Bruce Springsteen ended up backing Berry one night in 1973.) Berry did this out of financial necessity — it was a more affordable way to tour — but he also ended up educating a generation of bar bands as a result. Lally’s lessons feel like they’re in that spirit.

At the end of our conversation, I worked up the nerve to ask Lally: “So, for the past year, would you say I was an okay student?”

“Of course you were an okay student,” he said. “You were learning and excelling in what we were doing. A bad student is one who never, ever thinks about anything we talk about, but keeps meeting with me. That doesn’t happen much. I think theory is like an operating manual for the bass. But it’s not written in stone.”

Lally paused to reflect on learning and teaching music theory, then continued. “I can actually now see things in a different way because I've studied. It's a very logical resolution to the fact that I could be very frustrated when we were in Fugazi, because I couldn't talk about it. I had no language for it. I had no way to formally organize what it was. Now I do. But playing, it comes from inside here,” Lally said, tapping his chest over his heart. “It's the thing that I do.”

Originally Appeared on GQ