INTERVIEW WITH HARLEY FLANAGAN BY GEORGE PACHECO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO GODOY
Today, there are two iterations of the Cro-Mags touring out there on the road, but that’s definitely not the case if you speak to band founder, bassist, and songwriter Harley Flanagan. For him, there’s only one Cro-Mags, and it’s the band with him set firmly in the creative driver’s seat. This is the Cro-Mags that recently signed to Victory Records and has released a killer EP of new material titled Don’t Give In. The sound is rooted in the crossover thrash style that defined the band’s sophomore effort Best Wishes, while simultaneously echoing the classic NYHC sound of their seminal debut, The Age of Quarrel. We spoke to the charismatic and outspoken Flanagan one summer afternoon to discuss hardcore, metal, and the state of Cro-Mags in 2019. Harley did not disappoint.
Now that the dust has finally settled with the Cro-Mags split, which I imagine was exhausting…
I’m sorry to interject, but it was exhausting and costly! (laughs) You have no idea!
Well, that’s the vibe I got, as well. I’d be exhausted if I were in your shoes. How does it feel now that it’s all said and done?
Well, the joke of it is that I actually never lost the name. It was just that, for the longest time, I wasn’t in any financial position [to move forward]. For years, I’d been sending cease-and-desists to the clubs that were booking those guys, and the band’s basic attitude was “Fuck you. Do something.” So, you can send as many letters as you want, but it doesn’t matter until you’re able to take it to the next level. They all knew that it’s a very costly procedure, so for years they were like, “Fuck that guy. What’s he gonna do?” Finally, I was in a position where I was able to do something about it. I was able to take it on. Of course, I had no idea how costly it was going to be, but once you set your mind to something, you haveto go for it. That’s the joke. It wasn’t a matter of me getting the name back, it was me stopping the illegal use of the name that had been going on. So we wound up coming to a settlement. It’s official, and already it’s starting to pay itself back. I’m not in the black, by any means. I don’t think any band in this genre has spent this kind of money on something like this, maybe other than The Misfits, but I think that it’ll be worth it in the long run. It had to be done. You can’t let people take advantage of you forever, because they’ll keep on doing it until you stop them.
“MY LIFE WAS PRETTY MUCH DESTROYED OVER ALL THIS BULLSHIT IN A LOT OF WAYS. BUT AT THE END OF DAY, YOU HAVE TO LOOK AT THE GREATER GOOD AND TRY TO DO SOMETHING POSITIVE.”
Bands like the Dead Kennedys come to mind, with those guys touring without Jello Biafra, but nothing to the level of acrimony within the Cro-Mags.
For starters, I can’t think of any bands where there’s been serious violence, like what went down at Webster Hall. I went to that show in order to try and extend a hand to those guys, and I ended up getting jumped at my own band’s gig by people that I knew. This shit honestly makes any story in rock ‘n’ roll look tame! I can’t think of any beefs in rock ‘n’ roll where people actually got stabbed and arrested. The whole thing was just crazy. Honestly, though, and I mean this, I had been extending myself to all of the former members on and off throughout the years. To be quite honest, to have that kind of power to make people happy, with something so simple as getting up on stage and playing music? It’s such a gift. And for any of those guys to have even a second thought about doing something like that, I think it says something about their character. I got stabbed. I was arrested. My life was pretty much destroyed over all this bullshit in a lot of ways. But at the end of day, you have to look at the greater good and try to do something positive.
I’ve always admired the fact that you’ve remained creative way before releasing this new Cro-Mags EP. You did the Revenge album almost 20 years ago, and I really dug your solo record, as well. That album in particular had a Discharge-esque punk influence that bleeds a lot into Don’t Give In. Was that solo album inspirational for what would become the Cro-Mags 2019?
For me, it’s just a natural evolution of my playing. I’m at a place right now where I think I’m a better player and more mentally together than I’ve ever been. So I’ve been looking back at everything I’ve done, because a lot of our fans are younger and brand new to this shit, so it feels like a rebirth of the Cro-Mags, to be honest. I’m able to go through all the songs I’ve written in my lifetime and examine what worked the best and take the elements that had lasting value. Some of the older songs I don’t enjoy playing as much. For instance, a couple of the songs on Best Wishes aren’t as much fun to play as they were when I wrote them. As time goes by, you can reevaluate and re-think, so I’m trying to keep the same classic vibe while working on the aspects that worked and making them better. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m trying to make a better one.
Hardcore, in its infancy, was never really about musicianship, but the band has definitely grown as musicians with every record. What was it like becoming technically proficient over the years, versus the energy of youth, that almost naive feeling of “loud fast rules” all the time?
There’s this period, they call it “brown belt syndrome” in Jiu Jitsu, where you have a lot of information, and you kind of get lost in what you know. I feel that I went through that a bit with Best Wishes and even on Alpha Omega. I don’t even like to talk about Near Death Experience, because that was some weird shit that those guys snagged and completed. I’m definitely returning to that more primal place, but I’m doing it now with more proficiency. My playing is a lot better. When I started writing Best Wishes, I was honestly bored with hardcore. I’d pass by CDs and see a lot of youth crew type bands, and I just felt that a lot of it was redundant. To me, it was tenth generation repetition, with nothing much going on. So I started listening to metal, and it started influencing my writing. In a lot of ways, Best Wishes was a metal album written by hardcore dudes. It was metal without the dragons, spandex, or swordplay—street metal that would kick your ass.
“LISTEN TO METALLICA’S FIRST ALBUM, KILL ‘EM ALL, AND LISTEN TO OUR FIRST ALBUM. I THINK THAT THE AGE OF QUARREL IS A BETTER RECORD, IN A LOT OF WAYS”
Best Wishes was ground zero for crossover at that time. You were on tour with Destruction and Metallica, right in the thick of it. What are your memories of that era?
No disrespect intended to any of those metal bands, but one thing I do remember is that we smoked them almost everywhere we went. The intensity we came out with was just something they couldn’t fuck with, and the intensity of my lyrics and what I went through just came out on that stage. These guys are up there singing lyrics that weren’t really saying anything, and I’m out there singing about survival of the streets and street justice. This was coming from living in places without electricity, without running water. From stealing my food and—I hate saying this now—but robbing people, and basically being a fucking thug. Fuck poor, it was having nothing. I was poor when I lived with my mom and we were on food stamps. When I left home, you’re talking about a teenage kid fending for himself. You take that on stage, and put it against a bunch of longhairs who have their parents’ garage to practice in, and you better believe that the intensity we’re bringing is going to kick the shit out of them, just based on reality. It was great exposure, though, and I’ll say that I think The Age of Quarrel was actually the first crossover album. Some people may disagree, but I think it was the first hardcore album where the musicianship was really on a level that was as good as metal players. Listen to Metallica’s first album, Kill ‘Em All, and listen to our first album. I think that The Age of Quarrel is a better record, in a lot of ways, and definitely as tight as anything metal around that time. It was also the first hardcore record to get a music video on Headbanger’s Ball right in the mix of all that shit. It was the first record to pull metal kids into the hardcore world, because they were seeing for the very first time people who weren’t in the hardcore community stage diving and crowd surfing in that video. They had never seen that shit outside of a hardcore show, because the only other band that was getting any kind of MTV airplay was Suicidal Tendencies, and their videos were actual videos, they weren’t live footage. So you’re seeing one great video for a great song, but it’s just Mike Muir singing at a camera. Then you have our video that was actual live footage of us playing, so it hit outside of the hardcore community and gave them a sense of what it was about. That’s how it “crossed over.”
The EP opens up with a riff where it almost seems like you’re purposefully being nostalgic for The Age of Quarrel opener “We Gotta Know.”
Paying homage? (laughs) Yeah, and then it goes someplace else, but even the place that it goes to is still in the vibe of stuff I’ve done. You’re gonna hear a lot of this on the forthcoming full record. You’re gonna hear the feeling of something, but it’s not going to be exactly the same. That intro isn’t the same as “We Gotta Know,” but there’s no mistaking that it’s coming from the same place. You’re always going to feel that from my songwriting. It’s going to be coming from that place. Even the other songs definitely have a Best Wishes and even Alpha Omega element, but it’s done in a way that keeps them apart. That was definitely intentional, though, because I’m not going to change who I am.
Rocky George adds so much to these songs.
Oh, between him and Gabby, I can honestly say that I have two of the most badass guitarists of this genre. I know there’s been a lot of great guitarists in hardcore, like Dr. Know, but I’ll tell you right now that I have two of the best gunslingers in the game playing on this record. We all know Rocky and what he can do, and don’t ever think that Gabby isn’t on the same level. When he’s not with me, he’s touring with The Gil Evans Orchestra, and anyone who knows anything about jazz knows that name. He plays with the sort of people that I couldn’t even hold an instrument against! (laughs)
“NOT TO SOUND LIKE A DICK, BUT I DON’T THINK THERE’S A LOT OF INTERESTING STUFF BEING DONE IN THIS GENRE”
When people of a certain age hear the term “Victory Hardcore,” they think of bands like Strife, Integrity, and Earth Crisis. Did you follow hardcore’s progression around this time?
Not at all! (laughs) I didn’t know a thing about those bands, and to be honest, I know very little about what’s going on now. I’ve only seen a few bands that stick out to me, and most of them aren’t even new anymore. I liked Terror when they came out, but they’re not new, and I liked Lamb of God a long ass time ago when they were playing club shows, but I honestly don’t listen to much music within this genre for several reason. For one thing, I have a wide range of music interests and am always exploring other stuff, and second, I don’t like to be influenced too much by bands from the same genre in which I play. I think that subconsciously you might borrow a riff or chord progression, and not even realize that you’re doing it. Not to sound like a dick, but I don’t think there’s a lot of interesting stuff being done in this genre, as far as I’m concerned. You also have to realize that I grew up going to see bands like Bad Brains in the their prime, Black Flag, and Minor Threat. So there’s very little that impresses me.
You share a lot of photos from this time on your Instagram page, as well as a lot of personal memories of New York City’s punk rock history—photos of you with people like Andy Warhol, Blondie, and The Clash. I love the fact that you’ve preserved these for so long. What are your thoughts about sharing these images, of the city’s legacy and your place in it?
I owe that to my grandmother, may she rest in peace, because all of those photos were sitting in her closet when I was roaming the streets of the world. That’s the only reason why I still have all that shit. It was just an interesting time, and people are interested in seeing that period. If there was one person who kind of experienced it from the punk rock era on through the birth of hardcore through where we are now, I’m probably one of the few who were there for the whole ride. I know a lot of people say they were…but show me the proof, you know? Show me the photos. I was doing this podcast thing for a brief time, and I was talking to Glen Friedman. He started laughing, “A lot of people say they were there, but I was there taking pictures. They’re not in those pictures, but Harley is!” (laughs)
“I’M SPEAKING MORE TO MYSELF, TO REMIND MYSELF TO KEEP GOING AND TO GIVE MYSELF A BOOST. I’M TRYING TO REPEAT MANTRAS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND TO REMIND MYSELF THAT YOU HAVE TO KEEP FIGHTING THROUGH BULLSHIT”
You interact a lot with fans on there, and for better or worse it puts you in close contact. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Harley Flanagan?
Well, the fact that I do it at all is because I come from a punk rock background, where the fans and bands on stage are really the same people. It was a really small community, so you interacted with each other. It never left me, even as the scene became bigger and bigger. I remember meeting The Clash when I was little, and those guys were so cool to me. They treated me so nicely, and I was such a fan. They disarmed me, in the sense that they didn’t even give me a chance to be star-struck, because they made me feel that I belonged. That left such an impression on me, so I never had the rock star shit that, ironically, some of the hardcore bands started to have, like their shit don’t stink. It always stuck with me, to try and be gracious to fans. At the end of the day, you’re really no better than them. It does expose me to a lot of bullshit, though, because I didn’t grow up in a world with the internet, so you get a lot of assholes who just want to push your buttons. That’s their moment of glory, to get a rise out of someone. It’s just so fuckin’ weak. It’s a culture of spineless cyber assholes. I post a lot of stuff. I don’t want to say “self-help,” because I think that’s a jive term, but I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from some of the encouraging posts I put up there for people to keep fighting through shit. And I want to say this for the record, that I don’t feel for one second that I’m this guy with all the answers. I’m no guru, and when I post this type of stuff, I’m speaking more to myself, to remind myself to keep going and to give myself a boost. I’m trying to repeat mantras of encouragement and to remind myself that you have to keep fighting through bullshit, no matter how tough it gets. A lot of people are going through stuff that’s way worse. So I’m not trying to create this sort of image for myself, but posting these public words of encouragement seems to be having a positive effect, and I think that’s cool, weird, and sure as shit better than, “Hey buy my new record!” (laughs)
I was lucky enough, and it seems like a lifetime ago now, to see the first Cro-Mags reunion in the early 2000s, when you toured with Bad Brains. Was there any discussion as to which songs both Cro-Mags iterations play live?
Well, first of all, there is no both Cro-Mags. There’s one Cro-Mags. There’s another group of people that, per the terms of the settlement, are being permitted to use the name Cro-Mags JM. They are being permitted to use that, so long as they use the JM attached to it, but there’s only one Cro-Mags, and the owner of that Cro-Mags trademark, worldwide, in all shapes and forms, is the man you’re talking to right now. So, again, those guys are being permitted to use that name, with that attachment, and that attachment has to be the same size as the lettering “Cro-Mags.” It has to be the same font and it has to be on the same line. Again, I didn’t win any name back. It was always mine. Unfortunately, having to spend the money to establish that fact, once and for all… (laughs) Well, it just had to be done! You know, Phil Campbell from Motörhead plays on a track on the new album, and ironically, Lemmy came to me in a dream! He said, “Take it back, mate. It’s yours, you started it.” That’s when I took them to court, so then I got his guitarist to play on a track! I figured it made perfect sense (laughs).