Harley Flanagan on his new album and punk rock history
by Interviews

Harley Flanagan’s new album sounds really pissed off. It runs for 24 minutes and pretty much every one of the 12 songs is about how he hates someone. But, the weird thing is, he seems to be in a really good place right now.

Flanagan is one of the architects (or maybe the architect) of New York hardcore. In the famed Cro-Mags, he forged a new sound with his bass -- a rumbling, heavy-as-hell, bullish charge that hurdled the band ever forward. But, after the band released the seminal The Age of Quarrel album, they fractured and the ill-will between band members became more and more vitriolic.

In fact, it all sort of came to a head in 2012 when Flanagan was involved in a conflict and then faced possible criminal charges. Eventually, the rap was dropped and since then, Flanagan seems to have moved on to a better head-space. Meanwhile, he responded to the whole situation with his new album, the cheekily titled Cro-Mags. So, Punknews spoke with Flanagan about the new LP and his punk rock history.

The new album sounds very angry. Where were you at when you wrote it? Were you in a good place? A bad place? I wrote this around 2012, which is when I had that little incident at Webster Hall, so there was a lot of stuff going on, and most of it was not good. The album sounds angry, it was angry. The other side is that I got to pour all of that into that. I’m in a much, much better place now in my head and my life and that album captured all of that and made for a strong album, if nothing else. It made for an aggressive album.

Does great art require great conflict? I think it can produce it. That’s one of the things that made the Cro-Mags what they were. When we wrote Age of Quarrel, me and John, we were living in squats at the time and writing songs like “Survival of the Streets.” It wasn’t myth or storytelling. It has always been like that. I always thought that was sort of the difference between hardcore and metal. I always found that metal was a little more fantasy lyrics, dragon killing and so forth. We wrote about real life stuff. That’s what I still do. When this last record was coming together, that was what was going on and what came out of it.

I always feel that you are very genuine in your songs. But, is there any downside to opening up so much in your songs? Yeah, yeah… definitely. If you are an artist, if you want to be true to yourself, that’s the price you have to pay, unfortunately. When you share yourself, it comes with a price. But, what are you going to do? With real art, you have to give a part of yourself.

Along those lines, the last track on the new album is called “Trust No One.” That made me feel sort of sad. Do you really feel that you can’t trust anyone? Well, actually, the problem is that I trust too many people. I wrote that song as a reminder to myself. I make the mistake often. I’m very forthcoming. I’m very honest. It gets me in trouble. I wear my feelings, I wear my heart on my sleeve so to speak. What you see is what you get. I’ve dealt with people on that level and they’re not really dealing with me on that level -- either old band members or fans that are strange or whatever. I give too much. People that know me are like, “Jesus Christ! Trust no one! Your problem is that you trust too much!”

You stated that you are in a better place now. Why are you in a better place now? A lot of reasons! Well, I got married to an amazing woman. When I wrote that album, I had just gotten through that whole shit. I was going to court at the time I was writing those lyrics. There were a lot of personal things going on my life that were taking a toll on me. Getting arrested. Not knowing if I was going to wind up in jail for basically defending myself. A lot of people that had been my friends for years were second guessing me and turning their back on me when I need them the most. The good side of that was I got to see who my real friends are -- people like Renzo Gracie, who is my boss and he’s like my mentor. I got to see who had my back. It was a cleansing process and I got to see who my friends truly were.

Is all that unpleasantness and badness now wrapped up and in the past? Yeah, it’s in the past. Who knows if any of these things… Your past will pop up and here and there through the life, but as long as you promote the positives and not the negatives, that’s going to catch up with you. Things are getting better and better for me. I’ve got a book coming out. I’ve got this album that just came out. Life is good, man. Life hasn’t been this good in a while… Maybe too good. Things are going so good my next album might sound like the Bee Gees!

Because things are going well for you, do you worry about losing the anger that was the magic touch on the recent album? Nah. I don’t think so at all. I play aggressively. This style is just the way I play. Lyrically, I’m going to dig in like whatever I do and whatever comes out is whatever comes out. The style of playing is always going to be that kind of intensity. It’s the only thing that makes me feel good. I listen to a lot of different styles of music. I play a lot of styles of music. But, when it comes time to really play, the only thing that really makes me feel good is that hard, aggressive style of playing that I do. It’s my thing.

You talk about the people that you are unhappy with on the new album. Are you worried about any sort of blowback? When I write, I don’t so much think about that. You gotta put out what you feel. I speak the truth. Everything I said was true. If people want to take it however they take it, so be it.

You got into punk rock at 10 or 11. How do you even get to a gig, or get a record, at that age? My mom was always really into music. I have to give her credit. She was, back in the '60s, she was going to shows. That’s how I first started going to shows. It was because of her and my aunt Denise. My mother was the person who got me the Sex Pistols album, so it was her fault!

Tell me about when you first got the Sex Pistols album. It was a life changer! The first punk albums I got was Never Mind the Bollocks, the Damned’s first album, the Clash’s first album and the Dead Boys’ first album. At that point, I just started getting my hands on anything that I could. You would pick up anything that was even resembling that kind of music -- Ian Dury, Nick Lowe. Anything that was non-mainstream, you would check it out. At that point, you are picking up whatever is coming out. “What is this? This could be cool! What’s new!”

You actually knew Joe Strummer when you were a younger guy. I was a part of the underground music scene in the '70s. When Warhol and the Clash came to town. When the Dead Boys came to town. I knew everybody.

Do you have a memory from that day where that famous photo of you, Joe Strummer and Andy Warhol was taken? I remember it like it was yesterday. That picture -- people always make fun of the look on my face. What happened was I was standing there with Joe and Andy, and someone said “Hey kid, turn around!” So, I turned around and like 20 flashbulbs all went off. Bop! Bop! Bop! My jaw dropped because I was a kid. I didn’t know what paparazzi was. That ended up being the picture that went everywhere. I snuck in because I was friends with the Cramps and it was a great time.

There’s also the story of how the Bad Brains stayed at your Grandma’s for one Christmas. Oh, yeah. I’m friends with all those guys. They were our friends. They were in town from DC and had no where to be. We invited them out to the house. They were close family friends. That’s what you do for family.