Photo by Fernando Godoy
Interview with Harley Flanagan | By Hutch
Interviewing Harley Flanagan cultivates blunt replies. That’s expected. Occasionally dismissive, Flanagan is a dude who will be straight with you. His youth was steeped in the Lower East Side New York City art and punk scenes. First, a quick bio: Flanagan was brought into his sister’s seminal punk band, The Stimulators, at the age of 12. Hanging with Warhol, touring the U.K., and—allegedly—bringing skinhead culture back to the U.S. are all notches on the young child’s belt. Being a fierce participant in early pits at A7 earned Flanagan a quick reputation.
Befriended by Bad Brains, squatting in NYC, Flanagan would soon help birth one of the greatest hardcore—metal—albums ever. Flanagan on bass alongside vocalist John Joseph, guitarists Parris Mayhew and Doug Holland, and drummer Mackie delivered Cro-Mags’ The Age of Quarrel. Fusing the crusty crunch of Discharge, the vibe and bounce of Bad Brains, and the searing spite of Negative Approach, The Age of Quarrel bridged a gap that makes too much sense in retrospect.
Now, in January of 2016, he has dropped a new album via MVD Audio, Cro-Mags, reflecting the grit of his own New York story.
Flanagan’s music here is straightforward, short, and ugly. Fast-forward through the prior three decades—peppered with more make up/break up drama than your grandma’s afternoon “stories”—and Flanagan is still making tough as nails hardcore punk. Someone could write a book on the Cro-Mags drama. Wait. Flanagan is. John Joseph did. Refocus. Flanagan carries abundant fodder to vent on this album. Cro-Mags delivers a nasty bit of his world in 2016, which unfortunately involves a 2012 assault, accusations of a stabbing, resultant legal issues, and ultimately, dismissal of charges. Songs titles like “Mess with the Bull,” “Betrayal,” “I’ll Fuck You Up,” and “Fighting the Urge to Kill” reiterate the sentiment.
Flanagan opens, “That wasn’t my intention, it just wound up that way.” Despite the negative tones of the songs, he insists, “I feel great. My life is great.” He should feel great.
Flanagan still writes ardent street tales over fierce hardcore riffs. “It was the same process as usual,” he says. “I just write riffs that feel and sound good to me. It was fun to record them. I love the creative process. I love hearing it in my head and creating it and recording it. I did the demos myself, first on acoustic guitar. I played drums on some of it and, then, tracked bass. Then, I had other guitarist friends of mine come in and lay down tracks.” Those guitarists include Sean Kilkenny of Murphy’s Law, Dog Eat Dog, and Mucky Pup; Al B Romano of Joey Belladonna and Sun Red Sun; and Pete Thompson. Flanagan is a competent drummer, but he handed off the sticks for most of the songs. “My man, Pablo Silva, is super nasty,” he says. “I knew he would do a better job than me. He’s a better drummer.” The sound and performances are tight as hell on this record. Fast and furious, the music crashes in under a thick veil of raw production, handled by Pete Thompson at HoboRico Studios.
Flanagan played with a band named Harley’s War for a few years in the 2000s, rocking with a rotation of metal and hardcore all-stars—from Rocky George to Crazy Jay Skin to Walter Ryan—for a long run of live tours and two albums. However, Cro-Mags was released under, simply, Harley Flanagan. Why drop the “War”? “Because, my war is over,” Flanagan explains. “I’m not at war with anyone, and ‘Harley Flanagan’ is my name.” If the war is over, why title the album Cro-Mags? Wouldn’t a different title show growth? Flanagan, however, wears his heart and burdens on his sleeve: “Of course I could have chosen something different. But why would I separate myself from it? It’s mine, it’s me. It’s a part of me. They haven’t written one new song without me. They had the audacity to call it a band? And to call it ‘Cro-Mags’? It was a cover band, a tribute band and a scam. It was just a way to milk every last dime out of the fans. I’m giving [the name] its integrity back. I’m actually writing songs.”
What about the concept of forgiveness, perhaps a spiritual guidance that may have stemmed from the Krishna fueled lyrics and themes of Cro-Mags’ discography? Flanagan is quick to let go of that piece of history. “What I learned from Krishna consciousness was great,” he says. “It helped me a lot at that time. But, I could care less about any religions. Most of them are full of shit, just looking to get over on other weak people. What I let go of and what I hold on to is no one’s business but mine.” Fair enough. Cro-Mags is a brutal record, so who are we to complain?
In 2012, label cofounder Greg Anderson had boasted that Southern Lord had “officially signed Harley for several upcoming releases.” Though the public never heard of the deal again, Flanagan reveals that Cro-Mags is that record: “Southern Lord lost their distributor or changed their deal with them. The label decided not to sign any new projects. But, they were super cool. I got to keep the tapes. That worked out fine for me. MVD has always done right by me. So, I worked out a deal with them. I am happy with it.”
Flanagan has been photographed frequently since the late ‘70s. Sporting his iconic, menacing chest tattoo in most of them, Flanagan’s street tough physique is now backed by a regimen of Jiu-Jitsu. Now raising two sons, he focuses on health. “I eat well. I have been a vegetarian most of my life,” he explains. “I don’t drink much, some wine or saké now and then. I exercise. I teach Jiu-Jitsu six days a week. My job requires me to be in shape, and so does life. If you don’t take care of yourself, then you are doomed to be unhealthy.” This voracious momentum has Flanagan constantly pushing himself, and the health regimen keeps him able to work. “I am going into the studio in March,” he reveals. “I write every morning and every night. I play my instruments every day.”
Cro-Mags’ amazing presence definitely puts Flanagan back on the map in the New York Hardcore world. Consider it a statement of solitude or a crushing counterpunch in an ongoing feud, either way, this LP speaks loudly. It snarls. It doesn’t just bite: it tears through flesh. This is promising for his next few albums. This, accompanied by his imminent auto-biography, solidifies his fighting presence. “[The book] is done. It came out great,” Flanagan says. “Anthony Bourdain read it. He loved it and actually wrote the blurb for the back cover.”
Flipping through pictures of Flanagan—from 40 years ago or last week—in each one, his sneer and pose combat the viewer peering at those documents of a legendary subculture and the street legend in them.