What’s important now though, is that we don’t fight with each other. There’s a hard fight in front, be smart about that.
Punk rock has always represented an ideology that screams “FUCK YOU!” in the face of adversity. The raw aggression of it created a platform for freedom of speech and a culture of innovation. In times of social and political discord it feels evermore relevant in the creation of music and, with the do-it-yourself blueprint flowing in full force, in the way the business of music has changed.
A founding member of Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski, is a legend in his own right. Not only for being a badass bassist but for also writing some of the bands most prominent tracks such as “My War,” “What I See,” and “I Love You”. He was also the co-owner of SST Records until 1990 which saw releases by Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, all under his watch. Dukowski also played an integral role in creating the DIY ethos at its birth, shaping the underground scene into what it is today.
IMN sat down with him to talk about music, politics, DIY and what it is to be “indie”.
What was it about punk rock for you?
Punk rock just happened and I became part of it. I thought here’s a trend that embraces the things that I felt were missing in music. The intensity of it and getting down to some meaningful content – artistically with the music and vocally with the ideas, instead of filling whole massive amounts of time with free-birding and pretentious drivel. Don’t get me wrong. Free-birding can be fun. It was more the pretentious void that started to happen in music that became problematic. There was also a general diss of anything hard, even the more mainstream hard got a diss. The only group in the old World that could cross the line was Led Zeppelin, where they could play Stairway to Heaven and it could go both ways. But then every band from that era tried to come up with their own Stairway to Heaven, which became tiresome of course. I was wanting more.
Who were your influences at that time?
I started out on Cream, I got into Sabbath, Hendrix, Zepp, Alice Cooper, that whole era. Then it worked its way around to ’72’, T-Rex, Bowie and Montrose. But also there started to be more groups running out of gas and not making as interesting music around that time. I guess in the summer of ‘77’ it seemed like everything sucked, it was all bad.
What made you want to play bass?
A friend of mine had a more developed situation at home where he had privacy from his parents, they were down for him to do stuff and gave him freedom. We’d all go there hang out and just play music. There were all sorts of instruments like recorders, harmonicas, a piano. His aspiration was guitar but he also had a bass. I was mainly learning drums at the time but when I picked up his bass I was like ‘this is awesome’, and it started me down that road.
What was your drive musically?
I love touring, when I started that was really my big motivator. I wanted to tour, I wanted to make music and I wanted to have a voice in the world. They were my big drives. I had travelled on my own with high school college friends and we went all over. I thought the only thing that would make this better would be if it involved doing shows, being able to play music. That would be the only thing to make this cooler. So that’s how I set about having a band, being able and willing to do that. I missed it a lot when I stopped touring with Black Flag in ‘83’, it took me a minute.
Black Flag played an important role in pioneering the DIY movement starting in the late seventies. Is it fair to say you were particularly instrumental in that?
Well, we did it! It wasn’t easy to build the ladder, get up and make it happen. I think one of the most positive legacies of punk rock is the DIY movement. It empowered people who had a fire under their ass and wanted to do something and not wait around for someone to find them. Get started, do it yourself, then you can own yourself. I think initially I was just wanting to do the DIY route because it was the only way. Had there been some Daddy Warbucks waiting there with a wallet I might have gone down that road.
How different do you think it would have been if you did go down that road?
My first thought is – ‘how do you even contemplate that?’ – if somehow that had been the road to go down. In Black Flag we were friends with a guy at a big label, the only positive thing we got out of that was major independent distribution with the people who were doing soul music and stuff and a little bit of access to mainstream radio play by using their pluggers, but we figured out in a second how to do it ourselves.
It seems currently a lot of young bands are following the DIY punk ethic, not wanting to go with a major.
Right, and the one piece of advice I give everybody if one ends up wanting to go there: lay the foundations but whatever the fuck, make the contract end and get your music returned to you. The big labels aren’t as powerful anymore because of the web and unless you’re going to make a giant hit there isn’t as much interest from them. And now with streaming you still want the promotion and stuff to happen, so figure out a way to monetize that. If you’re a band you’re wanting to tour and stuff, it’s hard to DIY that. We tried it more recently and did a pretty good job, but that’s a massive effort to pull everything together and make it fly. It’s helpful to have somebody else working on it if you’re wanting to work on the music. With SST we brought in another dude to be a partner in our label which allowed us to expand with other bands. Once we had the infrastructure together we could deliver with consistency and were still able to focus on the music and touring.
What other advice would you give bands starting out and taking the independent route?
Book your shows tight and keep the drives as short as you can, so that you don’t have to drive far night by night. And you might as well play everywhere. If you’re going to do it once do it at least twice if you want to make a dent. Don’t go out and do it once unless you want to experience doing it at all. Good food is important, try to eat well, if you get sick it’s hard to play, and if you get sick enough you can’t play at all. You’ve got to plan your tours at least four months ahead, more people are booking their own gigs these days. Get the dates you want, make your route and figure out how long you have. I was having to plan gigs at The Smell months in advance because they take in touring bands and local bands. Hammer that date in so they’re working around you. Substitute advance planning for scrambling and you will get more people coming to see you and more recognition for what you do, it doesn’t pop out of nowhere. If you come back in less than a year people will remember you and it starts to stick, there’s a lot said for repetition and consistent effort. You need to keep putting the music out too, that’s what gets hard in the long haul, keeping on going with the music. You’ve got to stick to it. Other than that, it’s just go!
And if you have success?
I think if you have success it poses a whole new difficulty, you see a lot of bands try to retread if they have success, to go back and rewrite that song. When you’re touring you’re in this bubble and you can start to lose touch with your inspiration or you start to second-guess yourself. Success can be the undoing of a band but some make it through, keeping their jams and art flowing, generating more than one thing. That first phase of getting across at all requires so much focus and repetition. A band will do a crap-load of gigs and would have played the music on the first album so much that by the time it’s recorded, it’s real good. So the next one theoretically is about keeping everybody’s attention, keeping the momentum going. That first record was their whole life coming up to that point, years from when they started, coming together and finding their group sound.
You booked all of your tours whilst you were on the road before mobile phones existed. How did that work?
Yes and I booked for many other bands too, right up until ‘86’. At the time I wished I had invented the cell phone. I’m sitting in this van thinking it would be nice to be taking advantage of the downtime, more because from the minute I got to a club I would ask the promoter if I could use their phone in their office and if I couldn’t do that I’d be using the pay phone downstairs and would shut down the minute they opened the doors.
I’m sure you would have liked a mobile phone but I think it’s more badass that you didn’t…
[Laughing] I would just set up like a little mobile office. I had a shopping bag with a rolodex, a notepad and I would just break it out. The best was when there was a coffee shop with a payphone on the wall, then I could just chill out.
Going back to when Black Flag first came about, do you think that the mainstream media and authorities felt threatened by the power of the punk movement?
One hundred percent! They created the riot. They had built up capability that they wanted to play with. In the sixties they ramped up all this anti-riot, and they wanted to try out their techniques. They would come through doing the phalanx and knock you down and beat you up kind of thing. We mocked Daryl Gates in all of our shows because they would literally come to every single one of them. Only certain promoters that had the relationships could do shows, and even they had trouble. The police would turn up and there would be some giant to-do. We were rolling up at this one show loading in the PA and they had a command post, helicopters going overhead and it was still light. There’s a reason why they put a squeeze on the jams, to break up the gatherings and push people apart. The pigs understand power – it’s important for them to not let it get cooking because once it does, it threatens their position of capability.
Do you think the current punk scene will have a similar impact as it did then because of what we face politically?
It’s surprising how much energy of frustration is kept as quiet as it is – it’s not without effort coming from the other side. That’s the case and I feel like these weird fucked-up politics are part of that story. It’s the systemic repression that society is putting on young people who want to do something on their own. I mean, give people impetus or at least intellectual impetus. If something squeaks out, sometimes there’s a golden droplet that comes through.
Music is especially powerful. It conveys emotion more strongly than any other artistic medium. You can point to that all through history in the discussion of politics which are repressive of all things, including art. I suppose Reagan happened in punk rock. I was lucky I wasn’t so hindered by hard times because I did have a job. I was making money and when it was time to get flyers and put gas in the tank, I could. What I was short on, was sleep.
What’s important now though, is that we don’t fight with each other. There’s a hard fight in front, be smart about that. All that edginess is because there’s not enough to go round, and that’s on purpose because there’s a couple hundred people who own way the fuck too much. We need to work with each other and not give them our money or power. At every turn keep that in mind – to cut them out because they’re the problem. They’re actually consciously trying to pit everybody against each other in a policy of division, in a mental state of privation, when people are having a tough time it’s easier for them to do that. People are more inclined to look over their shoulder at the guy next to them and say “they’re my problem!”, but they’re not your problem, they’re just like you. We should align with one another and turn on the guy who’s taking a fucking thousand times more and who is laughing at you fighting with each other. But there are so few of those people, it’s not too tough to imagine doing something positive about the current state if there is unity.
What are you doing right now musically?
There’s no focused drift. I play every single day for hours. There’s no plans to go out on tour with Flag again but it could happen. I don’t think I’ll do anything like the tour we did last summer.
Wrapping up, I think it’s fair to say you’ve massively inspired musicians, creatively and politically and will do for years to come.
That makes me feel good, because that means it worked. It’s like I did a thing that wasn’t easy and if it got across then that’s pretty satisfying.
Musicians who choose independence are going to have their own epic story to tell because it’s never easy, and it’s never the same.