The Long VICE Interview with FLAG
Original vocalist Keith Morris, bass player Chuck Dukowski, drummer Bill Stevenson, and guitarist Dez Cadena are going on the road as FLAG. Meanwhile, Black Flag’s founding member, guitarist and principal songwriter, Greg Ginn, announced in January...
Photo by Dimitri Coats.
For the first couple years of their existence, Black Flag couldn’t even get anyone to book them a show and the shows they did get were invariably shut down by Los Angeles Police Department riot cops, who battled the band’s teenage punk-rock fans in now legendary clashes remembered as "the Riot at Baces Hall" and "the Riot on the Sunset Strip." This summer, by contrast, two rival lineups of the band that broke up in 1986 have reformed for highly anticipated reunion tours, and each version of the band will take the stage at large music festivals in Europe and the United States. While longtime fans debate which of the two reunions—if either—are closest to the true Black Flag in spirit, or which will rock the hardest, it is clear that the band is at the height of its popularity.
The return of Black Flag to the stage began in 2011 around the time of the 30th anniversary of the band’s classic first LP, Damaged, the record often credited with inventing American hardcore. Original vocalist, Keith Morris, and bass player, Chuck Dukowski, took the stage with the LA-based band No Age to jam on some old Black Flag songs at an outdoor gig at MacArthur Park. That December, “Black Flag” was the surprise guest at the 30th-anniversary Goldenvoice show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Former Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson’s longtime band, Descendents, were the headliners. Morris and Dukowski joined Stevenson and Descendents guitar player, Stephen Egerton, in playing the classic Black Flag first record, Nervous Breakdown, in its entirety. This lineup announced in January of this year that they would form under the name FLAG to play songs from the band’s entire catalog at several large festival shows this year. Soon after, Black Flag’s third singer and one-time rhythm-guitar player, Dez Cadena—currently playing with the Misfits —joined up to complete Flag’s all-star lineup.
Meanwhile, Black Flag’s founding member, guitarist and principal songwriter, Greg Ginn, announced in January that he, too, would be reforming the band, and would tour heavily across the US and Europe this year as Black Flag in support of a new record. Ginn’s lineup features the band’s second vocalist, Ron Reyes, who left the group in 1979, and a newly recruited rhythm section who had not previously been in the band. The two lineups present two differing takes on the band’s legacy. While Ginn characteristically pushes forward into new territory that may or may not connect with longtime fans, FLAG promises a joyous and passionate delivery of some of the most classic punk songs ever, played by the legendary musicians who helped make them so special.
In February, I hitchhiked to Ginn’s home base of Taylor, Texas, to try out for bass player of the new Black Flag. Along the way, I also talked to the members of FLAG on the phone and via email about their upcoming shows and plans.
VICE: It seems that Black Flag is now, almost 27 years after breakup, at the height of its popularity. Why do you think that is?
Chuck Dukowski: We made music that was truthful and that expressed a deep commitment. I think when you look at the best music that came out of hardcore, it was music that was heavy and truthful. To me, songs like “My War,” “Rise Above,” and “What I See” have stood the test of time more than say, “TV Party,” because they give voice to the feelings of disaffection and anger that most of us have. Music is uniquely great at expressing emotion. It creates bonds between people. That’s why the police restrict live music so much—it’s too powerful.
Dez Cadena: Black Flag was the first serious band that wanted to do everything on its own. It was a different kind of lifestyle. Like the band sleeping under the desks in the office of the studio we recorded in. That kind of thing.
Keith Morris: They’re great songs, amazing songs. They transcend the genre. Maybe we just struck a chord with all the nerds, all the people who never got invited to the party! It was really hard work getting gigs back then. When we got one, we’d be ecstatic, just out of our heads with excitement. Now we might be playing a festival where there could be from five to 50,000 people. But when we started, we didn’t even have monitors.
It seems to me that the legacy of Black Flag has partially gained mystique because of the band's absence. Until now, Black Flag has avoided the reunion tours that many classic punk bands have been on since the 90s. Do you feel there is extra pressure to live up to the band's legendary past?
Chuck: Black Flag has always had a lot of mystique because of the way we lived and toured, because of Raymond Pettibon’s art, and Henry Rollins’s book Get In The Van. I think Henry doesn’t get enough credit for the continued popularity of Black Flag. He is so talented and has always worked so hard. I feel pressure from myself to play the music with the honor, commitment, and energy that the legacy deserves—but it’s a good kind of pressure like an athlete that loves his game.
Keith: Is there any pressure? Yes, and no. There’s a lot of physicality in this brew. Most people can’t really do it. We don’t want to just go through the motions the way many bands do it. There are a lot of doubters out there, a lot of haters. Sure. We get the “It's not Black Flag without Henry” thing. We get “It's not Black Flag without Greg.” But the fact of the matter is the four of us put in our time and helped make those songs what they are. I was one of the founding members. I had to put up with a couple different drummers, the first three bass players who weren’t really bass players. We didn’t really become a band… or a “machine” as Henry would say… until Chuck “the Duke” Dukowski joined the band and word got out that we were practicing three to six hours a night.
Dez: We [Black Flag] really ground those songs into the ground back then with all of our practicing, but it actually seems easier to pick them up and do them again now for some reason.
Dez, you already have some experience playing in a classic punk band’s reunion with the Misfits. How are the experiences of playing in these reunions different or similar?
Dez: In a way, it’s more personal for me with FLAG. Black Flag taught me how to be in a band. When I first played with the Misfits, it was just for one show for the 25th anniversary of the band. I did some Black Flag songs with them, and it went well, so I stayed on the tour. Then, Doyle quit the band, and I became the guitarist. I’ve been in the new Misfits going on 12 years now, which makes me the longest running guitar player the band ever had. People might laugh because I’m wearing makeup or face paint or whatever. But we do it our own way and we have fun.
I’ve been asked for many years at Misfits shows to play Black Flag songs, so sometimes I’d do “Rise Above” or a couple others in a set, and people have always been very appreciative.
I’m wondering about what its like to perform these punk anthems at a different stage in life. The band members have all reached middle age. Some of you guys now have children yourselves. Has your relationship to Black Flag’s lyrics changed in any way or taken on any new nuances?
Chuck: I feel the same way now! It wasn’t just a phase!
Dez: Black Flag songs are about inner angst and emotion more than other punk bands’ songs, and I think those subjects are timeless. I still feel that way. Like “Clocked In.” I still feel that. No one wants to work for the Man. And nothing against the bands that were singing “The hell with Reagan” or whatever, which was happening a lot at the time, but that stuff is not so timeless. Black Flag dealt with feelings. People throughout life might have those feelings. They want “Revenge.” They might be feeling like they’re going to have a “Nervous Breakdown.”
Keith: When we played those songs early on, we were whole-heartedly living all of that. When you get older, your perspective changes, sure. But we still live in a hectic society and it’s not hard to relate to those lyrics. Its not like I’m at the beach, meditating on a fucking blanket with my legs crossed, or doing tai chi and staring at the sunset and going, “Oh, I’m so at peace with the world!” I live right off Sunset Boulevard at one of the busiest intersections in LA. Right now, Friday night is coming up, so I guarantee I will be hearing people yelling and arguing out there. There will be brakes screeching. And there will be the guy who gets out of his car to punch the other guy. Or the guy will unload his fucking gun into the other guy. That’s happened out there twice. So things are still hectic for me.
What do you most hope to achieve with FLAG?
Chuck: I want to have a great time with my friends and I want the audience to have a great time. I want the audience to come out of our shows sweating and thinking “That was righteous!”
Dez: I just want to play the music the way I feel it. I want to pay it respect. Black Flag’s music is a little different than straightforward punk. It has other qualities that other bands don’t have. Like in the rhythms—there will be little hesitations between the next note or the next bar. Like in “Slip It In.” Those breaks aren’t in perfect time and that’s intentional. Many Black Flag songs had these characteristics that other punk didn’t have. I want to keep that integrity and do it the best I can. That music was a big part of my life.
There are now two Black Flag reunions. Do you feel any sense of competition, friendly or otherwise, with Ginn's version of Black Flag?
Chuck: It was unexpected and strange that it happened this way. Keith and I had already done two shows together playing Black Flag songs, for free, for fun. One was with the band No Age at McArthur Park and the other was at the Goldenvoice 30th-anniversary show. People liked those shows so much we thought we would do some more—it was never our intention to have some stupid pissing contest. I don’t know what Greg’s motivation is.
Dez: I’d heard all kinds of things. You hear stuff online, and until I talked to Chuck, I didn’t know what was up. I’d heard Greg was doing something with Ron. But being that I like to just keep respect for the music, I just try to do that. I don’t think there’s any competition. Maybe in the past, like when Keith left Black Flag and formed Circle Jerks, you could say there was some competition. But even back then I never dwelled on that stuff.
I haven’t really talked to Greg in a couple years, but I wish everybody the best. I don’t think there’s any problem between us, though.
Keith: People ask me about what Greg and Ron are doing. They say, “Well, why aren’t you a part of that?” They’re supposed to be making a new record. Well, we’ll see how that turns out.
Chuck, do you remember when and where your last show with original Black Flag was? Did you know at the time you were leaving the band?
Chuck: I’m not sure when it was. 1983? We did a tour up the West Coast, the Meat Puppets were with us. I didn’t see the end coming, really. The song “My War” is about my feelings at the time. After Greg asked me to leave I went to my grandparent’s house in Germany for a while. I continued to write songs for Black Flag after I left the band.
Would you have played with Ginn again today if he approached you?
It seems strange to me that Ginn would start to use the name Black Flag again after being so uninterested in punk for so long and after priding himself on continual reinvention and experimentation. Were you surprised by Ginn's announcement of new band and record? Are you interested in the music he makes today?
Chuck: I was a little surprised. I’m not very interested in his current music.
Keith: I’m not in too much of a hurry to hear Greg’s music now, no. I saw a Ginn performance a couple years back. There were two other die-hards besides me left in the place. All the other performers had left. Half the people who worked there had gone home. They were sweeping the place up all around him and Greg was still playing. He asked me to come sing and I said, “How about some royalties? Maybe then we can talk?”
If anyone’s interested in what the new Black Flag might be like, they can always go on YouTube and see the clips of Greg playing with Ron at his 50th birthday party. I guess that’s what sparked this whole thing (Ginn’s Black Flag reunion). Now, I recommend that those people then also go to YouTube and check out our set at the Goldenvoice anniversary party, too, and see how the crowd reacted when wecame out. That’s the kind of show we will be doing.
But that Goldenvoice show was billed as Black Flag. Do you really think that’s accurate?
Keith: Well, unfortunately, they billed us as Black Flag, and I wish they hadn’t done that. Because it’s not really exactly Black Flag, no. But they were trying to make as big a splash as possible and that was the way to do it.
But, we’ve done nothing wrong. We were all a part of it! Greg Ginn can’t play guitar, bass, and drums all at the same time. He’s a horrible vocalist, that’s for sure. He needed us to make these songs what they are. People want to say Stephen (Egerton) is trying to pose as Greg Ginn or something. But who the fuck wants to pose as Greg Ginn? Greg can pose himself as Greg Ginn! The fact is, to borrow a title from one of Black Flag’s many fine records, there will be a process of weeding out! All will be revealed!
Don’t you think the best way to silence any doubts about the reunion’s legitimacy, though, would be to record some great new music together? After all, Ginn is making a record…
Keith: [after a full ten-second pause] Well, maybe. Maybe that’s true. But it’s difficult enough to get together to play at all because we’re all in five other bands.
Black Flag started out unable to find venues who would book you gigs and facing police oppression. Now both BF reunions will be playing fairly enormous festival gigs this year to great anticipation. Does this represent to you a triumph of the band's vision?
Chuck: I feel like it’s a triumph! We worked so hard. We changed the business of music. We spearheaded changes that are still working through our culture today. We created the DIY movement by successfully booking our own tours and releasing our own records. We shared that knowledge with other bands and labels, like Minor Threat and Dischord, who ended up doing a better job than we did! Musically, we brought a stylistic progression to musical language and culture that ended up having a very deep impact. The music was composed and performed with a deep and intense passion that gave it lasting meaning.