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

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.

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