Cro-Mags is featuring in the hall of fame of Hardcore Punk without any doubt. They were amongst the very first Hardcore bands I ever listened to and stay to this date one of my favorites. Often imitated but never equalled. I asked a few questions to one of the two figures of the band: Harley Flanagan. This interview was conducted around the time Harley’s full length “Cro-Mags” and book “Life Of My Own” were released and was supposed to feature in S&A Fanzine #2.
I am sure you’ve been asked this a hundred times but could you come back on how you got into hardcore punk?
I didn’t get into it.
I was a punk then it morphed and got faster and turned into Hardcore punk. I was part of that change; the beginning of Hardcore is not something I got into after the fact. I was a part of its beginning, and I helped define it and coin the term.
You are for sure one of the best bass players that Hardcore Punk has ever seen. You were already playing drums for the Stimulators at the age of 12. How did you happen to play instruments so young? Did you receive any musical education at school or something?
Some people are born musicians.
Why did you eventually decide to play bass? Were drums not your thing?
Cause I got sick of writing songs and teaching people how to play, and then them either not being good enough or quitting. So I switched to make my life as a writer and composer easier. I love doing both and would gladly play either.
Let’s get back on how the early NYHC scene was. What was it like to go to a gig as a teenager in the early 80’s? Were there really gangs and cops around as described in some old NYHC stories or is this part of a fantasy kids of today believe in?
Read my book, it will be out in a few months.
I’ve heard there was a strong rivalry with Boston kids. How was it when they decided to show up in NYC for shows? Was that rivalry related with them being straight edge?
Did New York kids also go to Boston shows?
Again… Read my book.
We never went to Boston shows unless we were playing there.
Talking about Straight Edge, how did you feel back in the days about this huge Youth Crew wave of straight edge kids rising in the mid / late 80’s in NYC? Was it another kind of rivalry or did you guys manage to coexist without too much trouble?
It was actually not very huge at all and didn’t influence very much. None of the old school guys gave a fuck or even noticed that shit ’cause it was already so late in the game. That’s just a fantasy these guys have now that they have gotten old and people have written books glorifying their youth; they think the shit was bigger than it was and meant more than it did. And the fact is most of those bands weren’t even from the city. I grew up on the Lower East Side and none of those people did, they just came in for the Sunday afternoon matinees.
We could read John Joseph’s version about the History of Cro Mags in his book. Without trying to pour oil on the fire or shit talking, could you let us know about your version of all the mess around Cro Mags?
I never read his book. As far as my book goes, buy it and read it yourself.
It’s undeniable that Cro Mags radically changed how Hardcore Punk sound like, adding a big twist of Metal into Punk. First of all, is that something you really wanted to do and you thought “let’s revamp this whole style” or did it happen by mistake? Then, what kind of reaction did you get from people listening for the first time to Cro Mags?
Nothing I did musically was a mistake. I knew what I wanted to hear and what I wanted to create. I took from my influences and built on it. I wrote what was in my head and in my heart. I grew up on punk, I saw all the great hardcore bands from Bad Brains to Minor Threat to Black Flag, the Circle Jerks etc etc- I was into Motorhead, Sabbath and Venom. Cro-Mags was the result of what was inside of me and what I grew up on and the life I lived.
And I can honestly say the reaction was always the same. No matter how any of us feel about each other now or since, when we were the AOQ line up, you really couldn’t touch us. Me, Parris, Doug, Mackie and John as a group at that point in time, despite whatever imperfections we may have had as individuals, as a group, it was something special. We all brought something to the table and the chemistry was special and that is why even though we only ever recorded one album as that line up, it has stood the test of time and people still talk about it 30 years later. Not many people can say that.
“Best Wishes” and “Revenge” are the only Cro Mags album where John isn’t singing. How would you say this affected the sound of the band ? Were these albums better / less good in your opinion?
My Opinion doesn’t matter. It was a lot easier to record without him.
If you had to keep only one Cro Mags album, which one would it be and why?
Well obviously AOQ had the most impact ( I prefer the original recordings) but I like Revenge a lot as well.
If I asked “what is your favorite Cro Mags album?” would your answer be the same?
It would be the same answer.
Your debut album with Harley’s War was called “Cro-Mag” in 2003, now 13 years later you release a new LP titled “Cro Mags”? What motivated you to name your albums after the name of the band?
Cause it’s my name. It might as well be my middle name. I wrote the music, I came up with the name. I am re-claiming what is mine; a name that has been misappropriated and dragged through the mud for more than 20 years by a fraudulent band that didn’t write any of the music.
Is there a reason why this new album got an extra “S” at the end of CRO MAG?
The cover of this new album features a really cool picture by John Conn that gives a feeling of dangerousness and insecurity. What is the idea behind this artwork?
It’s just a great photo. I don’t think there is any insecurity in it at all, Danger, yes. This is a photo taken in the subways in NYC back in the 80’s and it reminds me of exactly of what it was like growing up in the city.That’s why I used it. That is what made me what I am and gave my music its edge.
Why did you choose that specific picture? Did you pick John Conn’s picture just because of this one or do you have any further interests in the photographer’s work / history?
I wanted a picture that reminded me of the New York I grew up in. This one caught my eye.
He has taken tons of amazing photos and he’s a good friend of mine. You should all check out his work and buy prints for your walls!
What lineup is behind this new full length? Are you planning on doing shows or will it stay a studio band?
Initially I tracked all the demos on acoustic guitar, then I had several different guitarist friends come in and play on it, my friend Pablo Silva played drums.
If I’m right I’ve seen a post on your personal Facebook account a few weeks ago saying you would consider coming back on stage with CRO MAGS, including John. Is the hatchet buried? Do you really think this could eventually happen?
No I don’t. I would love to make peace with all of them. But I don’t think they are ready or able yet.
But I would do it. I have put it out there and I want that to be known. But in all honesty I really care less and less about it everyday. I would do a show, to make the fans happy. I’d record a album, cause I think we could do a great one and I think it’s a shame that we only ever recorded the 1 record- “AOQ” as a group. I would be happy to share the stage with them one last time.
But honestly none of them are people I really want in my life at this point. I am in a great place in my life and I don’t really want to bring any negativity or any of those guys back into my life. A show would be great, and for the fans I would do it. A record would be great. I write songs everyday that’s never a problem, and I would even love to play with them, all of them again even if it was just in a rehearsal studio together in front of no one just to do it. But it’s all good. I’m not holding my breath.
The band has always been associated with Hare Krishna. Are you still into Krishna? How would you say this helped you to go through your hard times living in squats etc?
It helped me then, because I needed something, but I am not into religious organizations; I don’t align myself with any sect, church or religion.
I have always been into Martial Arts. I have been training Jiu-Jitsu under Master Renzo Gracie for over 20 years. I have a Black Belt under him and I teach at his academy in NYC; alongside Renzo Gracie and his family, and legendary MMA fighters.It’s a great job. I love it.
And yes there are similarities; It’s art, it flows, it has rhythm. It takes a creative mind to get good at it, and it is a way to express yourself. I love it. It changed my life and how I interact with the world around me. It changes everyone’s life who takes it up and sticks with it.
Do you still keep an eye on what’s going on today in Hardcore? If so, is there any recent band / record that makes you think Hardcore is still cool in 2016?
I heard a couple songs from a couple bands I liked, but no. There is really not much new under the sun. A Lotta different versions of the same things.
Do you happen to go to shows sometimes? How would you say they are different from the ones during the “glory days of Hardcore”?
I don’t go to shows. To me it’s just a lot of posturing and tough guy wanna be gang shit. Spinning back fists and dumbness; it’s pretty boring to me.
How do you feel about how Hardcore has evolved?
What keeps you busy and how do you spend your days now?
I teach Jiu-Jitsu 6 days a week; I am married to an amazing woman; I have 2 kids, 2 dogs and a horse.
Life is fucking great.
I’m sure your give your kids good music to listen to. Do they like Hardcore? Would you like your kids to be involved in bands or going to Hardcore shows when they will be older?
They like a lot of different kinds of music.They have been to shows, they went to CBGB’s and I bet most of people reading this probably didn’t. I don’t necessarily hope they get into being in bands, but if they do I will always support and encourage them.
By extension, do you think evolving into hardcore punk brought you some specific values? Which of these would like to pass down to your kids?
I dont think the scene has any values. I think most people on it are full of shit.
Thanks a lot for your time Harley. Is there anything you would like to add?
Check out my website: www.harleyflanagan.com
Check out my new LP/CD and my new book will be out on Feral House later this year! [available on the store.]