This interview originally appeared in Ripper 6. Thanks to Tim Tonooka for permission to reprint it.
Black Flag has always been incredible, but with their new lineup they're totally awesome. Seeing them perform is an experience with few parallels in terms of sheer intensity. Their sound is a thundering explosion of rage.
The name "Black Flag" stands for Anarchy, but instead of shoving political slogans down your throat, they prefer to create music that directly expresses the angry, frustrated feelings of people who don't fit into the established order of things.
One of the most impressive things about Black Flag is their integrity. Their commitment to change is reflected in the way they do things. They have a totally uncompromising attitude about their music and their band. They're not interested in conforming to any style or fashion, in fact their clothes are more ordinary than what most people going to their shows wear.
Black Flag was formed in late 1976 by Greg Ginn and Keith Morris. Greg played guitar and Keith sang After going through several bassists and drummers, the lineup solidified with Chuck Dukowski on bass and Robo on drums. In late 1979 Keith left to form the Circle Jerks and was replaced by Ron Reyes (Chavo Pederast), who later left and was replaced by Dez Cadena in the summer of 1980. Last July, Henry Rollins joined Black Flag as lead vocalist and Dez now plays second guitar and does backup vocals. (For more detailed background information on Black Flag, there's an interview from September 1980 in Ripper #3, and there's a great article by Jeff Bale in Damage #11.)
Henry is from Washington DC, where he was in a hardcore band called SOA (State Of Alert). He doesn't drink, smoke, or take any drugs. Guitar is really nothing new for Dez, who's been playing it since he was 12 years old. Robo, who's originally from Puerto Rico, is not leaving the band as you may have heard. He rarely talks in interviews and was not present for this one.
Having two guitars now gives Black Flag an even more powerful sound, and an opportunity to do a wider variety of songs than before. When Henry sings he looks so tough you'd think the Marines would reject him for being uncontrollable. He's great at getting out the intense fury of Black Flag's songs.
The distinctive feature of their music is an extremely raw, savage sound played at a fierce intensity. It's ultra fast and ultra loud, a total assault on your ears. Wild squealing, crunching guitar sounds are combined with hard relentless rhythms and skullcrushing drumbeats to create a maniacal noise that's unlike anything else in the world. You can always count on Black Flag to keep coming up with new thrills.
They love performing and touring. They enjoy playing high schools and small clubs as much as huge halls. In the past two years they've been up and down the West Coast and out on two national tours, becoming one of the most popular hardcore bands in the country. They're currently out on an extensive third tour.
Black Flag has tried to play San Jose three times, but have been struck with bad luck each time. First there was the show at HOLMS Hall in downtown San Jose on May 17, 1981. After performances by Onslaught, Happy Death, the Ghouls, Los Olvidados, and the Lewd, Black Flag set up their equipment, tuned up and were about to hit their first song when the power was shut off. This came at the request of one of the owners of the hall, although the show was okay with the other owner. A little bit of a riot ensued and about 15 squad cars showed up.
On October 23, 1981, Black Flag was going to headline a show at Breiner Hall in Campbell with the Unaware, Los Olvidados, Warzone, Ribsy, and Crucifix. Unfortunately, they weren't able to make it because their van broke down that night on their way out of LA.
A week later, on October 29, Black Flag was ready for another crack at Breiner Hall. This time they arrived well ahead of the show and set up their equipment onstage. With plenty of time left before their set, Greg, Henry and Chuck decided to fulfill a previous commitment, and split for a quick trip to San Francisco to do an interview at KSFS. Their van wasn't in top running condition however, and as bad luck would have it, ate up all the gas they had spent their last few dollars on, before they could get back to San Jose. Meanwhile, at Breiner Hall, the show was shut down by police after sets by Plastic Media, the Maltones, the Retorts, the Unaware, and Ribsy, because of some violence between rival punk factions.
In the four and a half years that Black Flag has been together, they've had a constant problem with police harassment. They never live in one place too long because they keep getting driven out. They're now living in Hollywood after being thrown out of Torrance last summer. (Their mailing address is still the same--SST Records, PO Box 1, Lawndale, CA 90260. The new phone is 213/657-0535)
The police in LA have a very unfavorable attitude towards punk in general, and being the most notorious punk band in town doesn't help. The police threaten club promoters and make lots of last minute attempts to shut down gigs. As Greg says, "Gigs in LA are much harder for us to set up just because of the problems with the police department trying to put a stop to them. Playing out of town is much easier in comparison."
Black Flag has their own record label, SST, which also puts out records by other bands like the Minutemen, and Saccharine Trust. For their new album, "Damaged," Black Flag had worked out an arrangement where SST Records would be distributed through a more mainstream independent label called "Unicorn," which is in turn distributed by MCA, the same people who do Tom Petty.
CHUCK: We recorded the album and it was supposed to go out, they'd already heard the thing, and then a week later the guy (from MCA) comes back and says, "No way, as a parent of two daughters I can't let this happen. It's anti-parent, it's anti-social beyond any redeeming value."
GREG: He said we WEREN'T like Simon and Garfunkel, and Dylan. We never quite put ourselves out as that. But we had 25,000 covers printed, with the MCA logo on 'em, because we did this after they had approved it. So we're gonna have to put a sticker on it. But we do have other distribution lined up.
CHUCK: It was very similar to the thing with the police. They're just super conservative, and they don't want to see anything that's a little bit out of line happen. They're real afraid that their stockholders will say something, and they're threatened by the whole attitude and the brashness of the thing. They consider somebody like Tom Petty radical. What do your parents think of what you're doing?
GREG: They try to think about all the good parts.
DEZ: Mine are into it, because I get to go all over the place and travel. I'm only 20 and it's a good learning experience or something.
HENRY: It's furthering our careers in life as young Americans growing up.
CHUCK: Mine wish I was a doctor or a lawyer. They wish I was real conservative and they go, "Do you really know what you're doing? Do you understand that the more recognition you get for this thing, the less future you have?"
What was that Manson trip (Creepy Crawl) you had going for awhile?
GREG: It was devised by Raymond Pettibone (Greg's brother, and Black Flag's artist). It was basically a series of flyers and other stuff, just on the Manson theme, and the various things you can do with that.
DEZ: It was a fun topic to joke around with.
CHUCK: And he's a real current symbol with a lot of impact on a lot of people. You take that to a place like New York, and it's really alien to them--the whole young, healthy and virile thing with this whole sick side, and the potential that he had to STRIKE. It's not like I take Manson very seriously. But there is something going on there that was interesting to hook into a little bit. And I am into the Creepy Crawl concept to the end.
Would you like to explain that concept?
CHUCK: Creepy Crawl is fear. Fear is a real strong emotion in people. It goes both ways. When you go into a situation, you experience it, and the whole idea is to RIDE it--to use the adrenalin you get from that and direct it. And that within yourself is part of the Creepy Crawl. What you do to other people with it is make them feel this experience of fear. You threaten a lot of their values, and the potential for something to happen that they don't understand, or they don't have control of in their existing mental framework, makes it useful to throw them off balance and thus open people up to where you don't have as prejudiced an attitude.
GREG: That's part of what we try to do as a band.
HENRY: If it's done right, you can have a lot of impact.
CHUCK: If you can knock 'em out of their standard way of looking at things, with a strong emotion like fear, then you've got open minds.
GREG: But not just fear. Sometimes you can just BLAST 'em. We read an article in BAM about Carlos Santana, and he said, "In general, people like to be punched, they don't like to be blasted." Well we like to blast.
Now that you've become widely known, what kind of effect do you think you've had on the general public?
GREG: A lot of people have the wrong idea about us. That's something we continuously have to fight. People think we're into promoting some kind of violence. The general public is starting to get the idea, because we've been able to counter some of the bad publicity with a more accurate representation. But we still got a while to go.
What do you hope to accomplish when you tour England and Europe in December?
GREG: Not very much. We think we can accomplish a lot more in the US as far as making an impact with the culture. We're more interested in playing in the US really, although we will go over there.
I've heard a number of different people's ideas of what your song "White Minority" is about. What's your explanation of it?
GREG: The idea behind it is to take somebody that thinks in terms of "White Minority" as being afraid of that, and make them look as outrageously stupid as possible. The fact that we had a Puerto Rican (Ron) singing it was what made the sarcasm of it obvious to me. Some people seem to want to take it another way, and somehow think that we'd be so dumb to where a Puerto Rican guy would sing it and it would be--I don't know how they could consider that racist, but people took it that way.
CHUCK: It's one of those things. It's like the flyer for this gig (a naked superman flying through the air with a hard-on). It draws out peoples' existing attitudes. If someone is afraid that they're racist or something, then they're gonna call it racist.
GREG: Or they would like to say, "Oh, Black Flag--racists." It's people that don't like us, basically.
CHUCK: If someone IS racist, they'll use it for an anthem, for a while, but it's so polarized, that if you do it for a little while, it starts to get a little bit ludicrous.
GREG: It throws that attitude out and makes people think. To me, that's what it does. It doesn't preach, but it makes people think.
CHUCK: The fact that there is a controversy means it accomplished its goal.
GREG: It's not a kind of song that has a long term emotional impact or value to us. We don't even play it all the time.
What is your song "No Values" about?
GREG: It's not ABOUT anything. It comes from just feeling like what's in the song, rather than some kind of political thing. It's an emotional concept of a feeling at a certain time.
Would you say that describes most of your songs?
HENRY: Yeah. Our songs are personal. They're not about issues. They're about what's in our heads.
GREG: Yeah. "White Minority" is different than that.
Then you have "Police Story."
GREG: "Police Story" deals with police in a very personal way. It's kind of half and half. It doesn't really deal with police in a political way. It deals with them as an individual up against police problems and having to deal with it.
What do you think of the current American hardcore scene?
GREG: I think that bands should be considered on their own rather than as part of a scene, at this point especially. When everything is lumped together, that just tends to weaken things.
CHUCK: It lets a lot of things that are very weak get by, and that waters down a lot of things that are really very strong, and it also closes the door to people who are doing things a little bit different.
HENRY: A band that's really doing their own thing gets dragged down and defined into a lump movement. What they're trying to do doesn't really stand out as much as it should.
CHUCK: It makes it real easy for people on the outside to categorize it and shove it away.
GREG: How many articles have you read about the punk scene, where you would think that they were talking about you, and it doesn't represent you, or us, in 99% of the cases. So we would rather talk about how we think, and let other bands talk about what they think, and a lot of times, that's a lot different.
CHUCK: And the hardcore scene is a bandwagon effect.
GREG: Yeah. We don't need bandwagons. We need an open thing, an open attitude, so new stuff can come along.
HENRY: It just gets to be a formula. People who don't really have anything to say get up and just do the formula.
CHUCK: Doesn't it get boring? As boring as seeing a band that's copying Led Zeppelin.
GREG: The first thing I consider in a band is their motivation behind it. And that comes out in their music. There can be a band with a bogus motivation, and they can play the form, but I don't necessarly like them just cuz they're mocking a certain form.
CHUCK: Usually, I dislike them. You see somebody doing that, and it's usually really obvious. I get mad because it makes what we do all the weaker, because these people will get interviews, and they'll make big dicks of themselves, and try to include themselves with us.
GREG: There's a lot of good new bands coming out, and I think it'd be better to just concentrate on them, rather than on the whole scene. Flipper is hot, DOA, the Dead Kennedys, Saccharine Trust, the Stains, the Descendents. And there's a lot more, in various parts of the country. These are people that want to do something that's in them, rather than taking something that's outside of them and just conforming to it.
CHUCK: The conformist attitude is very different than the attitude of somebody who's not a conformist. And they're gonna try to enforce conformism, they're gonna try to make sure nobody gets away with doing anything else, so it doesn't weaken them. I've heard people criticize bands like that. "They're not hardcore, they don't play fast enough."
They're not cool because they don't conform.
CHUCK: That's exactly it.
HENRY: I'm not down on anybody disliking or liking a band, people can do what they want. I just wish people would have a little more open mind, to just not immediately shut out something.
CHUCK: A lot of people wouldn't like a band like Flipper, yet they don't get down to why they don't like it. They just use a convenient out.
GREG: I can't really analyze all the reasons people wouldn't like Flipper, I just love 'em. Like all the people that hate us, they have their various reasons. We just try to do our best to subject people to it.
CHUCK: Drag 'em out of the woodwork.
GREG: Or go into the woodwork and blast 'em out. Not punch. BLAST!