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FLAG vs. Black Flag: a Chat With Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena

Kevin Scanlon

26 years ago: June 27, 1986, Black Flag played its final show.

The last song played at that Detroit gig was a nihilistic run-through of Chuck Berry’s “Louie Louie.” In the weeks following that, guitarist and band leader Greg Ginn would call singer Henry Rollins to inform the already multi-faceted frontman that he was quitting the band and thus, ending a decade of inventing and ultimately challenging the conventions of hardcore and American punk.

There would be moments where the specter of Black Flag would reemerge. First in 2003 when Ginn played three shows under the Flag banner, bringing in halcyon days drummer Robo, pre-Rollins frontman Dez Cadena and final bassist C’el Revuelta. What confounded fans was the inclusion of skate legend Mike Vallely in the Rollins role and a pre-recorded bass track for a run through of 84′s scalding platter, My War. At the same time, Rollins hit the road with his band and the band’s very original frontman Keith Morris (handling 10 songs at the beginning of the set) for a tour of America with the Rollins Band. Henry & Crew blazed through a full set of Flag songs on a U.S. tour to benefit the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three. As expected, Rollins’ tour was the more brutish and hard-hitting of the two attempts at reviving the Flag’s past glories.

Then silence. Ginn, relocated his legendary SST label to Taylor, Texas, where he’s continued to release records that kicked hard against the mainstream. Rollins, Morris, drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Chuck Dukowski have continued to make a racket with Off!, All and the Descendents and The Chuck Dukowski Sextet, respectively. Rollins has retired from making music altogether to concentrate on his spoken gigs and multi-media work.

Then, the unexpected happened in 2012. At the 30th Anniversary show for L.A.’s long-running promoters, Goldenvoice, Morris, Stevenson, Dukowski and Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton (filling Greg Ginn’s shoes) delivered a hot as fuck eight minute assault encapsulating the entirety of Black Flag’s 1978 Nervous Breakdown EP.

Plans germinated to continue with that lineup under the simple name: FLAG.

In Jan 2013, it was announced that FLAG would be hitting stages in the U.S. and abroad. Hot on the heels of that, Greg Ginn announced the reformation of Black Flag with post-Morris vocalist, Ron Reyes: Reyes being the only member who had done time with the band itself. Enter a FLAG vs. Black Flag face-off, which set off a buzz that trickled up to an article in Forbes online on the politics of band reformation.

Noisecreep attempted to reach out to both bands to discuss the enduring Black Flag legacy. Ginn politely declined, stating: “I retired from interviews. I’m going to concentrate on playing.” Reyes also declined to comment on Black Flag’s reconsitution. On the Flag side of the fence, Chuck Dukowski and the band’s third vocalist and guitarist, Dez Cadena (on loan from the similarly reconstituted Misfits), happily obliged to discuss their legacy: past and present of a band that forever changed the course of underground America.

On Jan. 28, FLAG announced its debut at Las Vegas’ Punk Rock Bowling festival (May 24-27). On the heels of that Greg Ginn announced a series of Black Flag shows beginning at the UK’s Heavy Music Festival in August as well as a new Black Flag album featuring Reyes, due out in March 2013. Dukowski admitted: “I was a little surprised” at Ginn’s sudden and near surgical strike.

Noisecreep spoke to Dukowski and Cadena, about the emergence of FLAG and the legacy of one of the underground’s most enduring bands.

What was the impetus for continuing beyond the Goldenvoice 30th Anniversary show?

Dukowski: The impetus was the joy of playing music with my friends Bill, Keith and Stephen! It all starts there. We are doing a few more shows because we had such a good time revisiting the music that we helped create We want to do the music right that I wrote for Black Flag and the music everyone else wrote for Black Flag RIGHT. We want to do it JUSTICE. All the guys are such great musicians and performers. It’s truly amazing to play with them.

Chuck, you’ve been playing in bands since leaving Black Flag in 1983 and continuing to work with SST as well as becoming Black Flag’s booking agent and playing in Wurm, SWA and The Chuck Dukowski sextet. Why does it “feel right” now to do this and revisit Black Flag?

Dukowski: The first thing that happened was Dean and Randy of the band No Age asked me and Keith to do a few Flag songs with them at a free outdoor concert in MacArthur Park in the summer of 2011, I hadn’t really spent time with Keith since he left Black Flag in ’79 or ’80. The whole show was amazing. I was really struck by what a great performer Keith is. There was something else too, something great. When we played the crowd became unhinged. The audience, who had no idea we were going to play just went crazy. People were flying everywhere and there was even a guy crowd surfing in a wheel chair! The police also started getting unhinged and started to make trouble. We managed to keep it all going for the six songs we played and it was a really great experience.

So when Gary Tovar of Goldenvoice called to ask me to give a speech at the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary show I suggested that we play some songs instead. Bill Stevenson was already headlining with the Descendents so we just added Stephen Egerton on guitar. And again, it was great. We all had such a good time. People kept asking if we’d be interested in doing a few more shows. We all thought about it and decided to do it.

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Do you feel like you have an obligation to Black Flag’s fans: both the fans who saw the band when they were active but also younger fans who are just discovering the band now?

Dukowski: I am not interested in cheapening what I worked so hard for. When I go out and play I’m going to REPRESENT. I love the music of Black Flag and I’m proud of it. I want the audience to feel the searing energy that we are capable of. It has to be heavy or why bother?

One major twist on FLAG’s reawakening has the band playing material from all eras of Black Flag’s history stretching from the -78′s Nervous Breakdown EP to 85′s Loose Nut with Keith Morris handling vocals on all of it – even material from Henry Rollins’ tenure with the band. While Flag is still in the earliest stages of rehearsal, Dukowski is quick to assure fans that “Keith is genius. He sounds fucking great.”

OK, what was the criteria for song choices?

Dukowski: I wrote a lot of these songs for Flag after I left the band including “My War,” “The Bars,” “I Love You” and “Modern Man.” I love the intro to “Modern Man” and the lyrics mean a lot to me. I’m interested in playing many of my songs that were performed by the later band.

Cadena: There’s no song list yet but we are doing a lot of songs off The First Four Years and Damaged. There’s a couple off My War. It’ll be interesting because it’ll be Keith singing. That said, I will be singing some of them as well.

Did you reach out to other former members of Black Flag. Henry? Kira Roessler? Even Ron Reyes before he joined up with Greg Ginn’s version of Black Flag.

Dukowski: We did reach out to a few others! Everyone I spoke to was positive but in the end we decided to keep it simple.

How would you compare Stephen Egerton as a guitarist next to Greg Ginn?

Cadena: I’ve always thought he was an amazing guitar player in his own right. His playing is very modeled after the bands on SST. I remember when he and the bass player, Karl (Alvarez) joined the Descendents: it added something to the band. The Ginn influence is definitely there.

Is there an era of Black Flag, whether it be with Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, Dez or Rollins, that is a personal favorite or you guys feel is underrated?

Cadena: It depends on the individual. There are videos that keep certain eras of the band alive but keep in mind; there are almost no videos of when Keith was in the band.

People will come up to me or I’ll be introduced as the original singer of Black Flag and I have to tell them that I was the third singer. There were four singers and I was the third one. To me, maybe I would say the Keith version. After ’79, Keith was gone. There were actually line-ups very early on that had some different people: Ray Pettibon (Black Flag cover artist and Greg Ginn’s younger brother) played bass for a while. There was also Brian Migdol, who was the original drummer. I was lucky enough to witness the Keith line-up.

Two weeks following the announcement of the birth of FLAG, Dez Cadena, Black Flag’s third singer and second guitarist (also currently touring and recording with the reconstituted Misfits) was added to the FLAG line-up on guitar. (editors note: Anyone with a passing interest in Black Flag needs to seek out The Complete 1982 Demos, a demo session for material on My War and Slip It In, featuring Black Flag with a freshly joined Rollins and Dez on second guitar. It’s probably Black Flag’s most powerful recording.)

Dukowski: It’s about the greatness of Dez and the feelings of love and respect we have for him. We were intending Dez to play with us for quite a while and we finally made it real. I think his contribution both musically and emotionally will bring a lot to the performances.

Cadena: The reason we became a five piece was because I didn’t want to be the singer anymore. I was asked by Greg and Chuck: “Can you sing and play guitar” and at the time?” At the time, I really couldn’t. Since then, I have done that (in the Misfits) and it is possible. Keith is the singer but I’m definitely going to do some songs in the set. And I may do them with a guitar on. If I was able to do that back then, we may have never looked for another singer.

Alan Snodgrass

Asked if there’s been any contact between the members of FLAG and the Greg Ginn-Ron Reyes Black Flag, Dukowski is extremely direct. Cadena is bit more genteel in his answer.

Dukowski: No. None of us can deal with him.

Cadena: Things are what they are and I wish everybody the best. I haven’t talked to Ginn in a couple years. Ron came to a Misfits show in Vancouver a couple years ago around his 50th birthday and came up onstage and sang “Jealous Again” with the Misfits which was a highlight. But I haven’t talked to anybody outside of that.

So what was Black Flag’s legacy? Theirs is a career that careened from Redondo Beach outsiders to hardcore icons. Rather than embrace the complacency of the scene they were instrumental in creating they pushed boundaries, releasing everything from the expected Rollins-era Black Flag fare to fully instrumental records: ’85′s The Process of Weeding Out and a jazzy collaboration with label mates, the Minutemen simply titled Minuteflag.

Black Flag’s influence resonates today despite a latter career of idiosyncrasies. Why?

Dukowski: It’s not meant to be “easy” music. It is music that speaks to a kind of pain. It is intense and that is its power. It is music that speaks to people and tells them that they are not alone. It is music that tells the truth. That why people care about it so much about it still.

Cadena: When you do something with that much heartfelt conviction it usually stands for a long period of time. We had our songs that had their share of social commentary like “Six Pack” or “TV Party,” but there were also some very heartfelt, gut wrenching songs that Chuck wrote and Greg wrote that were extremely personal, emotional statements. We wrote deep, dark songs coming from geeky Americans.

Asked if FLAG has plans to write and record new music: “I doubt it,” says Dukowski, insistsing that the future of this regrouping will be: “One day at a time. We will be playing a few shows this year and after that I don’t know.” Regardless, over three decades later Black Flag (or Flag) rises (above) again. Is it going to be a case of FLAG vs. Flag? Does it really matter? The legacy of this one-time beach-punk band is sure not to go quietly.

Flag on Tour:
4/26 Munich, Germany @ Monster Bash Festival
4/27 Berlin, German @ Monster Bash Festival
4/28 Meerhout, Belgium @ Groezrock Festival
5/24 – 5/27 Las Vegas, NV @ Punk Rock Bowling

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