Interview: Cro-Mags

This record was really everything, my life. It was everything musically and spiritually. My evolution as a human and as a musician are really in this album, lyrically and musically.

Harley Flanagan is a true punk rock and hardcore original (just check out his autobiography Hard-Core: Life Of My Own for his full story) and his band Cro-Mags are synonymous with hardcore, genuinely having influenced countless bands and artists from all over the world and in many genres. From the undisputed classic hardcore of debut album The Age Of Quarrel and beyond, Cro-Mags, despite issues that have plagued the band, have always let their music do the talking and are back and ready to show everyone why they are held in such high regard among fans and peers alike with a new lineup and a fresh outlook.

The band have a brilliant new album entitled In The Beginning, and ahead of its release Gavin Brown had the pleasure of catching up with the Cro-Mags vocalist/bassist to talk all about the album and the band’s return after lengthy lawsuit processes as well as discussing touring with the original Misfits recently and with Motörhead back in the day, quarantined live shows in these crazy times, the book that told his life story and the reaction to it and takes from his legendary career in music.

E&D: Your new album In The Beginning is out soon. How did the creation of the album go and what was the vibe like when you were recording it?

Harley: Well, I started writing some tunes and when I went in to do the record, I had about twenty five pieces of music written, but only about six were completed as far as from the beginning to the end of the song and the arrangement was completely done and the rest of it was done in a working state, there was still a bit of room for the creative process. A lot of the record was created in the studio and because of that, the vibe was fun and I like to have that creative energy. There was a also a lot of heavy shit going on at the time so that’s why that was a difficult question for me to answer. I was in the process of going through this whole legal thing which was taxing mentally and also prior to going into the studio, a good friend of mine, Anthony Bourdain, had killed himself which was a difficult thing for me to handle. During the process of recording as well, my brother in law became sick with pancreatic cancer and wound up passing away and also my guitarist’s girlfriend, who had been battling cancer for quite some time, actually passed away during the recording process so Gabby, my guitarist, had to leave the studio after we recorded the first few songs. That’s why I was saying it was a very mixed bag of emotions because on one hand, there was a lot of fun creating with your friends and working on stuff but there was a lot of really heavy shit going on in our personal lives. In one way, the recording and working on the album was really helpful because it gave us something to do, a way to release.

E&D: Did it feel cathartic at all?

Harley: Yeah, that’s the word I was gonna pull out. It was very cathartic. Gabby was going through a lot because of his girlfriend and the only way he could get his mind off of what was happening was playing. Even myself, writing the lyrics to this record was pretty intense also because, there was lot of, I didn’t want to say soul searching because that’s just sounds stupid, but it was really introspective. This record was really everything, my life. It was everything musically and spiritually. My evolution as a human and as a musician are really in this album, lyrically and musically.

E&D: Does it feel like a new beginning for the band and as exciting as the band’s early days?

Harley: Absolutely. I mean, nothing is going to be like the early days. Everything is different, everything is its own thing. This is now and all we have is now. The past is gone, the future is unknown. The only thing we really have is now and that was something I really became aware of during this process and leading up to it. That’s why it was important for me to pull together a line-up of people that I really enjoy playing with. People ask me, “is this going to be a permanent lineup?” In a perfect world and a perfect situation, yeah but ultimately who the fuck knows! I could walk out the door tomorrow and get hit by a bus so what’s really important is to do something great and the best that you can so I pulled together a bunch of guys I really love playing with.

E&D: How is the new line-up of Cro-Mags working out? You’ve played with all the members in the band at some point too.

Harley: You know what, we all get along really well especially musically so there was a reason I pulled all these guys together. It wasn’t random. I put this group together. So far, all the shows have been fucking great and it’s been a blast. We had a bunch of shit booked for this summer but unfortunately because if the corona situation, the gigs got cancelled and rescheduled for next year but we’ll see.

E&D: Will you be making it over to the U.K. at all next year?

Harley: We have a bunch of shows lined up for the U.K. and I’m really happy to say that we’ve confirmed some gigs in Ireland too.

E&D: What has the reaction to your new material been like so far?

Harley: Surprisingly, really good. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like because there’s a few things on there like ‘Between Wars’ that are, I hate to say the word experimental because I’ve done weird shit in the past. Alpha Omega had an instrumental thing at the end of it, Revenge had that hidden drum track at the end so I always like to do something a little odd. The Age Of Quarrel demo had that dub thing at the end of it. Even ‘You Gotta Know’ from The Age Of Quarrel, the beginning of it, that was a very unusual jazz-fusion type of intro. No one had ever done anything like that in a hardcore song before so I’m always doing things like that. I always like to bring elements of other shit into my music but at the same time channel it through my vision, through my hardcore scope.

 

E&D: You released a new video for the song ‘From The Grave’. Can you tell us about the song and the video?

Harley: The song, I’m very proud to say, features Phil Campbell from Motörhead on slide and lead guitar which is absolutely fucking amazing and a huge honour for me. The song pulls no punches, don’t let no one break you, don’t let anything bring you down. It’s about taking the beatings but keep going and rise back up, come back and win!

E&D: What was it like working with Phil on the track? Obviously, you know him from back in the day.

Harley: I’ve known him since Cro-Mags toured with Motörhead on the Orgasmatron tour so me and Phil go back quite a way. I didn’t actually work in the studio with him, I sent the track and he went into the studio in Wales and his son recorded it and they sent it back. The only thing I requested was that I asked him if he could do some slide guitar on it because I loved the way he plays the guitar and some of the things that stood out to me were some of his slide tracks. It’s funny, as we speak, I just got an email from Phil, I sent him the video and he replied, “That’s awesome man, all in capitals! Proud to be on it, best of luck with the record, next time you see Ice, tell him I said hello, that’s Ice T!”

E&D: What was the experience of touring with Motörhead like and what is your favourite memory of Lemmy?

Harley: I keep on saying it was an honour and it fucking was man! I tell you, I watched every fucking show they did, I watched every soundcheck they did, I lost a lot of hearing doing that! I think my ears are still ringing and it’s like thirty years ago! I have so many memories of Lemmy and those guys, but I’ve got to say that the first thing that comes to mind is me at fifteen doing crystal meth with Lemmy and Philthy Animal Taylor off the bar at the Mudd Club! I told Lemmy I just started a band called the Cro-Mags and asked how can we get a gig with you, this is before we recorded anything and him saying “well, you gotta try and get a record deal, you gotta get a record out, you gotta do this, you gotta do that” and lo and behold a few years later, we’re on tour with Motörhead!

E&D: You had your two sons do back up vocals on the Don’t Give In EP, how was that experience for you and would they help you out on any music again in the future?

Harley: Oh fuck yeah, I’m going to get those fuckers into the studio with me every chance I get! It was fun, I just wanted to put them on it.

E&D: How was the experience of your quarantine live stream show and how strange was it doing a full gig but having no audience going berserk?

Harley: First of all, I think we were the first band to do that and what happened was that we had a gig for that day. We were supposed to play at Webster Hall with Body Count and literally up until about forty eight hours before they show, the club was till saying it was on as everything was slowly starting to shut down, all the other states and stuff. I kept checking on and they said, it’s still on, it’s still on. Twenty four hours before the fuckin’ show, the governor and the mayor said that was it. We had been practicing getting ourselves ready for the show and then they canceled, I was like fuck man! We were in the rehearsal studio and my friend had his computer there and he said we could set up there if we wanted to and broadcast it on social media. It was this conversation that we’d been having and when the show was cancelled, I said you know what, fuck it man, let’s just set up our gear as if we’re doing a show, put up our backdrops, and play the set like we’re really playing a gig and just broadcast it to all our social media. Let’s take a shitty situation and try to turn it into something good. That’s what poor people traditionally do, we take a shitty situation and turn it into something good. That’s how we survive. That’s how the best cooking has been invented, take what you have and make something good with it. That’s how the best music has been made, that’s how the best everything has been created. Poor people know how to do the best with fucking nothing! We would ave played in front of 1500 people tops that night but we wound up playing to 200,000 people you know! At the same time, as a musician, it’s my job to give the people something, especially at a time when everyone’s stuck at home and everyone’s frustrated. That’s when they need us more than ever, to give them some hope and give them some to get their mind off that frustration and to space the madness of the moment. I was really happy that it has the type of response that it had and a lot of people are following our lead on that one. This is a new form that will probably stay with us after all this shit is long behind us. As far as it was difficult to do, you know what man, I always have fun when I play and what you saw there was a regular practice for me. That’s how I do it every time, I’d not give a fuck if there one person or wherever, I’m gonna give it and enjoy it.

 

E&D: Are there any plans to do another one at all? Depending on how long this situation goes on for.

Harley: Things are a little more complicated now. You can’t even get together in small groups. It is complicated to do. I’m recording next week, starting to work on new material. I can’t go into the details of that because we’re not even supposed to get together.

E&D: Going back to the gig and with future gigs for you. How difficult was it choose a setlist? You’ve got so many classic songs and all your new material to choose from!

Harley: You know what, it’s getting harder haha! There is a lot of fucking material to choose from  and obviously you always want to give them a bit of the first album because it’s the first album. Then last year was the thirty year anniversary of Best Wishes so obviously we had to do that. I try to pull a few songs from each record and the only way I can really gauge that is by two ways. The songs that get the best reactions from the crowd, which vary depending on the audience, depending on which crowd you’re playing to, more of a metal crowd or more of a punk crowd, or a hardcore crowd. I try to pick the songs that have the best moments, the best Cro-Mags moments. I try to go through the albums and pick the songs that have the best moments in them.

E&D: What is your favourite Cro-Mags song to play live? If you can choose one!

Harley: Oooof! I really can’t! There are songs off every record that I really enjoy and there are parts of songs that I specifically enjoy playing, that really more so than anything there are parts of songs. I just enjoy the moment and when I am lost in the moment and there’s nothing else going on expect for just the sound that’s the best!

E&D: How did your shows go supporting the original Misfits last year?

Harley: It was amazing, man! I can’t even say it was a dream come true because it was dream you didn’t even have coming true! Every show was fucking great and I felt that we brought our A game every night and I felt that every band did. Misfits out in a great show every night. Every band, every night really brought their A game, I’m not really a big fan of Rancid but they brought their A game. Anti Nowhere League were great, The Damned were fucking amazing, The Causalities, everybody. I was really proud because i actually played with them five times, the only band that played that many shows with them. Glenn actually reached out to me personally and said “Hey Harley, how do you feel about opening up for the OG Misfits?” and I was like fuck, yes! When Glenn Danzig personally reaches out to you and ask you, it’s amazing! I always loved those guys, I’ve always been friends with them and I always stayed out of it when they had all their beefs and shit, I always maintained my friendships with Glenn and with Jerry and with all of them. I was very happy to see that they were finally able to put aside their differences. Everybody really had a great time. Backstage was fucking great, in the audience was great and onstage was great. It was fucking amazing!

E&D: You released your autobiography Hard-Core: A Life Of My Own a few years ago. What has the reaction to the book been like?

Harley: It’s been great man. I can’t say it was great putting it out because it fucked me up a little bit but the response has been great. Very encouraging, a lot of people feel like my example of being a survivor has given a lot of people inspiration and encouragement and so on and so forth, also my experiences are pretty fucking unique, being in the places that I was at the time, it’s definitely an interesting story and being told through the eyes of a kid pretty much. There was a lot of books written about punk rock and about urban life but most of them weren’t written through the eyes of someone in their preteens and teens growing up through it. A lot of people found it to be very interesting and also inspiring.

E&D: Would you ever do another one? Im sure you’ve got stories that you didn’t have the chance to tell!

Harley: I have actually been writing since because so much shit has happened since that book came out. When that book ended, I hadn’t even resolved the whole Cro-Mags shit. A lot has happened since then and I’ve been writing a lot and I had an offer to do another book but then I thought, it’s a little self indulgent to write two fucking books about myself! If anything, I’ve been discussing the possibility of doing a second edition with some additional chapters to cap off what has happened since then, the resolution of the Cro-Mags. I’ve got so many other things and I think it’s important that people see that from where the book ended to now. I’m in the best place I’ve been in, in my life, mentally, physically and spiritually. I’ve landed on my feet after all that madness and I think that’s a bigger story even. I have a whole lot of new photographs from the last few years, like touring with the Misfits and me and Anthony Bourdain, a lot of shit that happened after the book had ended until now.

E&D: How does it feel for the Cro-Mags to be held in such legendary status by so many across the globe and to have influences so many bands from different genres?

Harley: It’s a bit of a surprise, you know, if I look at it through my eyes as a youth when I started the band. The longevity of the legacy. It’s humbling and it’s an honour to have reached so many people because music is a really powerful thing. It means so much in our lives. Me, myself, when I meet somebody that has written songs that were meaningful to me, like really did something to me, I feel a connection to that person. I may not know them at all but I feel some kind of happiness when I meet them, like dude you have no idea! The songs gave me strength or they just comforted me and for me to have had that impact on our people, it’s pretty unbelievable! To know I have made that impact on others because I know what it feels like to have had that impact on me and to know my songs and my music was part of the soundtrack of their lives and some of the best memories of their lives have my music in the background, even maybe some of the worst memories of their lives! One of my friends, Jocko Willink, who is the Navy SEAL who pretty much told me I had PTSD, when he told me that my music got him through some of the hardest parts of his life, it made me go, fuck man! Here’s a guy who’s been through some really fucking heavy shit and to know that my music gave him strength, if that doesn’t say something about the power of music then I don’t know what does. It’s a little overwhelming and it makes you feel humble and I’m honoured.

E&D: What have been your proudest moments from your career with Cro-Mags?

Harley: There’s been many, but I’d have to say, now, is definitely one of the proudest moments because after all the turmoil and all the bullshit and all the drama, to finally get it back and to finally be in a position where things can finally be right. Whatever happens moving forward, it’s ok because at least now I have some control over what’s mine, over my destiny, over my name, what I’ve done and what I’m doing. There’s been a lot of proud moments, I have to say Cro-Mags opening for Venom at The Metro in Chicago was a proud moment because the crowd fucking hated us! They were booing us and throwing shit at us and within two songs, we had turned the crowd around! We won the crowd and the show and for me, that was a moment, I’ll never fucking forget! Coming back, all those years later and getting up onstage with The Misfits and doing those shows, that’s got to be one of the crowning moments and my son coming up and singing backup vocals with me in front of thirty thousand people, that has to be one of the crowning moments.

Photo credit: Laura Lee Flanagan

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