Rob Bates was known as one of the flashiest bassists in the Michigan music scene. He listened to weird music, he joined weird bands, and he just wanted to turn some heads. After years of touring with Detroit’s Downtown Brown, he went through enough trial and error and even an entrepreneurial stint as creator of Gripzee, a garment that uses friction to lighten the load for parents holding their children. Things didn’t take off like they were supposed to, and disappointment and boredom began to sink in. It was time to take a shot at the big leagues. In February of 2013 it all started after searching for “tour bass” on Craigslist for all of New York, Austin, and Los Angeles listings. After a bit of browsing, a very intriguing post surfaced.
The listing read: “Band looking for bass player. Good situation for the right guy,” and included a link to stream two singles from the band Good For You. Thinking it was the band that Black Flag founder Greg Ginn and skate legend/punker Mike Vallely had recently started, it was a no brainer for him to submit something.
“When I was first getting into punk rock, I liked the bands that had speed and melody like NOFX and Lagwagon. The first time I tried to listen to Black Flag, I was 14 and I didn’t care for it.” Rob explained to me. “The recordings were rough, the singers couldn’t sing, and the playing was so raw. It was slow compared to what I was used to.”
Rob had no idea how many people would die to be in his shoes, auditioning with an original Black Flag member. Though the recent reincarnation of Black Flag had become a bit controversial. The iconic four black bars on T-shirts and tattoos all over the world is the logo of the legendary hardcore punk band, Black Flag. The argument used to be whether you preferred the vocals of Keith Morris, Henry Rollins, Ron Reyes, or Dez Cadena, but after a strange reformation of the band in the last few years, people now get to choose between Black Flag and Flag. An embarrassing lawsuit and competition coming from founding member, Greg Ginn’s nu Black Flag attempted to put an end to the fan favorite, Flag (featuring original members Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski as well as drumming powerhouse, Bill Stevenson).
“When you have the opportunity to play with legends you don’t think about it, you just do it,” Rob said to himself right before he sent MP3s of his ridiculous bass-driven band called Taozins with a disclaimer, “That was my stupidly, over-the top bass playing and yeah it’s way too much, but that’s what I could do.”
Within 30 minutes, an email from Ginn himself showed up in his inbox asking for Rob to audition. A flight was booked to Taylor, Texas, and the audition was only two weeks away.
Black Flag (the new Black Flag, anyway) playing in 2014
“I probably spent about 30 hours learning that record just so I could show up and nail it. It was pretty simple. None of the songs were that hard, but I just wanted to know the thing front to back.” It was consuming him, because it had to. “I was so sick of the songs by the end of it. I still haven’t listened to it since.”
“I was super anxious. I didn’t really sleep at all the nights before and arrived on absolutely no sleep.” The flight landed and a Sprinter van arrived at the airport in Austin, driven by the drummer of the band coincidently named Drummer. “He apparently hasn’t worn shoes for what I think was 20 years, but he had to put on flip flops when we went into one of the bars. He kept cracking me up and was just such a weird, interesting guy.” It set the mood for the whole experience.
The guys arrived at SST Records headquarters in Taylor, TX. The warehouse was filled to the brim with crates of records and shirts from Black Flag, Bad Brains, and The Minutemen. Upstairs was a large recording studio with a built-in stage for a live setup and mattresses all over the floor. Greg Ginn would fly in his drummer and engineer and they would just sleep on the mattresses, which is where Rob ended up sleeping, too. The legendary Black Flag Dan Armstrong guitar that fanboys drooled over for years was just sitting there.
Ginn was relaxing in the studio room, sitting on stage left, smoking through his volcano vaporizer and doing work on his laptop. He offered Rob a few hits, but he had to decline. The audition was important so playing bass while being high as hell was not on the agenda. After going through a few more bags of the vaporizer, he was wondering if everyone else was hungry.
The guys walked down to a nearby diner to grab some takeout chicken sandwiches. On the way they were complaining how cold it was, even though it was 65 degrees and Rob just got out of the blizzard that is Michigan. Everyone engaged in decent small talk, but nothing substantial for about an hour. Things seemed very relaxed, but still, no music had been played yet.
Everyone came back, and immediately Ginn returned to checking his laptop, going through more bags of his vaporizer. It seemed like he never stopped smoking and the audition would never begin. “As soon as one vaporizer bag was done he would start another one. It had to have been ten to 15 bags.” Rob was getting antsy.
Black Flag (again, the reformed one) in 2014
Finally, everyone walked down the street to what seemed to be an old, gutted-out furniture store completely empty other than gear set up right in the middle. People pass by the store front on a daily basis and have no idea Black Flag regularly practices inside.
“Oh fuck! We’re not playing any of these songs, I spent so much time learning the record and we’re just improving.” The jam finally began, but it was just that: a jam. None of it was Good For You songs, just spontaneous weirdness. “It was fine, but I wish I would’ve known that instead of wasting all of that time. I just had to pay attention to riffs and remember how to improv.” After so many hours learning the songs it was very disheartening. “I didn’t want to overplay my way out of the job. I just wanted to be tight with the drummer and not overstep on what the other guys were doing.”
After only an hour of jamming it was time to go to another restaurant, this time a Mexican joint where plenty of margaritas were consumed. It almost seemed like the verbal part of the audition or just a way to loosen up and cut the tension. But spending time on distractions and partying could be an unfortunate sign of things to come.
“Really, I was more interested in asking questions about The Minutemen instead of Black Flag. I love them and I love Mike Watt.” Rob tried to stay relaxed enough and talk about the old days, and make a point to not fan boy over Ginn’s musical history.
After taking down a few drinks, it was finally okay to take some hits of the vaporizer and really get in the zone for the next jam.
This time it was all about testing the limits. Everything from walking bass lines to slap bass was coming out, and it seemed to earn some serious brownie points. Things got to the next level when Ginn finally started playing some riffs from the Good For You album. It felt great for a bit, then quickly became apparent that overplaying was not the right choice.
The jam ended and everyone was exhausted and ready to relax for the rest of the night. It was still so strange how soft spoken and almost hippie-like the legendary Greg Ginn was. The stories of him being an asshole to band members seemed blown out of proportion. “He seemed fine, but if he was nice there wouldn’t have to be two separate Black Flags.” One day of knowing the guy made it hard to tell.
Drummer told Rob that the band knew he could play the Good For You songs no problem, but they wanted to see if he had chemistry that made sense with the band and the members. It was more about testing that and his personality instead of just simple punk songs. Things had to flow a certain way, especially if they planned on hitting the road. For some reason, the audition process started to make a bit more sense. Something seemed urgent and more important than just simply being an audition for a side project band. Ginn and Drummer had a deep-rooted connection and played in a few projects together, so for as brief as Drummer’s message was, it held some real weight.
After slowly putting the strange pieces together, it finally clicked in Rob’s brain that this audition wasn’t intended just for Good For You, this lineup was going to double as Black Flag.
“If this is for the new Black Flag lineup, I’m totally in,” Rob finally blurted out as Greg drove him to the airport early the next morning. It was maybe the last chance to really lock something in and seal the deal, but nothing was said in response, just another shrug off. The consolation prize for the experience was a copy of the Minutemen record Double Nickels On The Dime, food and flights covered.
After getting home, there was not a single email, call, or any form of contact from Ginn ever again. A member of Screeching Weasel joined as Good For You’s new bassist and just as suspected, ended up played with the new Black Flag.
In retrospect, it was a good thing Rob didn’t join the band. Later that year, Black Flag’s new release featured some cringeworthy Microsoft Paint-style album artwork that made its way around the internet but not onto many turntables. To many, the new reputation seemed to outweigh the legacy and it's just a hollow shell of what it used to be. Although Rob’s not in a touring band, he now owns his own screen printing business and continues to plays bass on his own terms.
“I still can’t believe I got to do that audition.” Rob reflected. “Part of me is glad I didn’t get it so I wasn’t in the middle of the Flag/Black Flag thing. If I got the job I still would’ve done it. If you have an opportunity to join one of the most legendary punk bands in history, you do it, no matter the situation.”
Jonathan Diener is happy to audition for any reunited punk legends. Follow him on Twitter.