I have to admit that when I reviewed Black Flag's catalog on my site six years ago, I wasn't sold on Ginn's bizarre solo style and thus poked fun at it, but after taking in much of his solo work, I've grown somehow fond of its strange "free jazz" style. Certainly it doesn't ALWAYS work, especially in the live material. But when you listen to the kind of amazing, sick, dissonant against-the-notes lead stuff he does in songs like "Can't Decide," it's difficult not to accept the opinion of the avant-garde that he IS a musical genius (if you weren't already convinced by the dozens of endlessly ass-kicking riffs he's written throughout his career). So here's the interview! We spoke on a rainy Saturday afternoon via Alexander Graham Bell's famed "television." My questions are in bold; his answers are in black color.
Can I speak to Greg?
This is Greg.
Hi! My name is Mark, and I write for a zine called Citizine Magazine (www.citizinemag.com). My editor told me that you might have time today for a quick interview?
Oh great! Thank you! What are you working on at SST these days?
Oh wow. Well, it's been a while since we've had anything new out. We've been through some distributor problems.
Our distributor DNA went bankrupt a few years ago.
What were they called?
DNA. But now we have a real strong distributor, and we're starting to put out some new records again. It's pretty exciting. We have four new releases coming out, from (NOTE: AT THIS POINT, MY DOGGY HENRY HEARD SOMEBODY OUT IN THE HALL AND RAN TO THE DOOR BARKING UP A BLUE STREAK) Confront James, Mojack, Hor and Fast Gato.
What was that last one?
Fast Gato. F-A-S-T-G-A-T-O.
Sounds like you have a dog there!
Yeah. I'm sorry about that.
No, that's fine!
He hears somebody out in the hall. (Off phone, but included here because it is of dire interest to you): HENRY! LEAVE IT! (Back on phone): I have CDs by Confront James and Hor. I actually have a ton of your CDs - all the Black Flag stuff, the three Greg Ginn ones, three by Hor, three by Confront James, something like six by Gone and two Screw Radio ones. Plus I know you've done a bunch that I don't have, like El Bad and the Killer Tweeker Bees and stuff. How many albums have you made anyway?!
(laughs) I don't know! I can't really count them! But I always play music and always have, so it's been frustrating not being able to put out anything while I've still been recording. Now that we've worked out our distributor problems, I'm gonna put out a lot more.
Do you approach each of your different solo projects with a different concept? Or do they just have different names because you're playing with different people?
In a way. Mojack, for example, is an instrumental group that I've had with Tony Atkinson, a saxophone player. And it's different in the sense that it's the only group we've played together in. But I tend to be - I'm not very calculating about music, I just kinda do it and see where it goes. So I don't have a "this is this kind of band" sort of thing. I don't even know what to call most of the music I do. I just kinda do it and work on it, you know. And collaborate with a lot of different people. I don't have a preconception of where the music's going. That's why it sometimes falls between the cracks, not fitting into one category or another.
Yeah, that's definitely one thing about your solo work. I can't compare it to anyone else. It has sort of an industrial feel, but the guitar stuff you play is definitely not industrial. It's like. I don't even know how to describe it. But it all sounds like you, and not anybody else. You have your own style, and it's hard to categorize. It's a cool sound!
Thanks! We just jam a lot here, just about every night we're playing and working on music, and I've been doing that for such a long time very consistently. Some people think it's like, "Oh, this is a project; I dabble here and dabble there," but these are people I've been playing with for many, many years. We still jam about six nights a week.
You still play SIX NIGHTS A WEEK?!
Yeah. I always have!
Right now I'm doing some shows locally - quite a few actually. Like tonight we're playing in Victorville, tomorrow in Anaheim. And those are under my name. But other than that, I'm jamming just about every night, and playing with different people.
So you probably have a TON of other material you haven't released.
Well, I have a lot recorded and I never stop recording! But it's been frustrating the last six or so years with distribution problems and having to wait for things to get better before releasing any of it. We're just starting to do that, so I'll have a lot of music coming out over the next few years. It's pretty exciting. From the music end, I've just always stayed involved with that and played a lot. One thing we're doing that you may have heard about is a Black Flag benefit show. It's gonna be September 12th at the Hollywood Palladium, to benefit cat rescue organizations, something I've gotten heavily involved in the last 5 or 6 years. Rescuing them, taking them in, taking care of any diseases they might have, and finding homes for them.
How did you get into that? Have you had cats all your life?
Actually no. I've always loved cats, but most of my life I've moved around probably 50 times and haven't had the ability to even consider having an animal. But about five or six years ago, I got into it gradually and just got more and more involved to the point where I now have probably 80 cats. But we've found homes for a lot of them!
You have EIGHTY cats?!!? How do you take care of 80 cats?!
I have a lot of help. Besides myself, I have a lot of help from people. Volunteers.
Do you have your own organization? Or are you part of another organization?
We don't have an organization. That's just what I do on my own. My work doesn't have anything to do with the benefit. That will be for groups that do similar to what we do, but are registered as nonprofit organizations. I didn't want to do it for my own effort - that's just something I do on my own. I wanted to do it because as I've gotten into cat rescue, I've seen how many smaller organizations there are that do great work with cats and do it really efficiently like we do, because we have limited resources but we want to save as many cats as possible. I know how efficient these smaller ones can be, because cat lovers tend to be kinda fanatical, so there are a lot of volunteers and people to help. I've always resisted doing a Black Flag reunion since we broke up in 1987. It's something I've obviously been approached with many times and it's always turend me off, but finally I decided, "Well if they're willing to do it as a benefit for this cause that's important to me, it would take the greedy factor out of it and make it a fun thing." So that's why we decided to do it, to raise a lot of money for cats.
Who will be involved in the reunion show?
I actually don't know yet. It's quite a long way off, and we have to figure out schedules and everything. But it'll be a lot of different people.
Have you heard that CD of Black Flag covers that Henry Rollins put out?
I donated a bunch of my songs to it, but that was the extent of my involvement with it.
Are you familiar with that case at all? I honestly don't know much about it.
I wasn't familiar with the case, but Henry Rollins' manager called me up, and she knew a lot about it and was very passionate about it. I don't know whether those guys are innocent or guilty - that's beyond my scope of knowledge - but I did feel like, with her passion, she convinced me that it would be at least worthwhile to raise money for legal efforts so that if they were wrongly convicted, they'd have a chance to air that. That's why I decided to participate in that. I don't know a whole lot about it myself, and am in no position to judge whether they were innocent or guilty or that kind of thing. But some people have very strong feelings that they were convicted on not strong evidence.
Do you keep up with any of the other ex-Black Flag members aside from - does Chuck still work at SST?
No, he doesn't. He left six or seven years ago. Some I do. There were a lot of people in Black Flag. We had 20-25 people. Four different singers, four different bassists, four, five, six drummers. Obviously, a lot of them are scattered in different cities and different countries. So some of them I've kept in contact with; others have drifted into different ways of life.
Have you heard the other Black Flag tribute that just came out - Black on Black?
No! Who's on that?
It's a bunch of these "metalcore" bands - Coalesce, Converge, The Dillinger Escape Plan. I like it a lot! They take the intensity of your songs and really build on them - these bands are really intense in the first place, so -
Oh wow! That sounds interesting! One thing with the CD that Henry made - it's kinda, I mean I'm talking without having heard all of it, but the songs that I did hear, it seemed like the bands were playing it pretty straight, and not really taking a different approach that might be interesting.
I'd be happy to make a copy for you!
Thanks! That sounds like something I'd like to hear. Especially people doing them in a different style. Maybe they possibly sent me a copy, but I'm not big on reunions and tributes and stuff -- although I'm doing this reunion, but it really is because I'm fanatical about cats more than anything else. I never go to those punk reunion shows or that sort of thing. I tend to like..
The idea of moving forward instead of looking backward?
I'm just not real big on that.
Are there any new bands you're really into? What are you listening to these days?
I listen to a lot of jazz, and that tends to be older stuff. As far as new music goes, probably electronic and techno music is what I've really gotten into the last dozen years or so. I've gotten really involved in that, as far as listening and going to clubs and stuff. I like the hardcore techno, but also a lot of other electronic music. As far as punk rock, it's kinda grown from something exciting and different into a more traditional type of form like a blues or something like that. Maintaining a tradition, as opposed to looking to punk rock for the next something new and surprising. And that's not a value judgment or anything; that's just generally what happens. It's like, I like a lot of blues too. I don't think it's a necessarily bad thing - it's just the reality of it. But for new music trying new things, it's moved more into other areas - electronic music being one. And that's what I've gotten a lot into.
I can actually - now that you say that, I can understand your more recent work a little better. It DOES seem to have that electronic influence to it.
It certainly affects my music. It's had an impact on my music for about 14 or 15 years. That sort of electronic stuff. I'm not that into industrial music. You know, it's not like I'm turned off by it, but it's just not something I've been into a whole lot. Even though some of my stuff has kind of an industrial feel to it, that's more the techno and electronic influences rather than the industrial sound.
Oh, I didn't mean - when I said your solo stuff had an "industrial feel," I just meant the dissonant guitar mixed with the electronic drums.
Yeah! That's not offbase. I just heard some of the Gone stuff from the 90s, and I think that saying it had an industrial feel was a good description. But it's not because I'm into industrial; I just listen to a lot of electronic music.
That's interesting, considering how much of a guitar guy you are, that you would be so much into a type of music that traditionally doesn't have any guitars at all.
In jazz, I don't listen to that many guitar players either. Mostly saxophones and pianos. My icons are more likely to start with the saxophone player. Yeah, there are jazz guitar players that I like, but I think I'm probably more influenced by the horn players in that genre, for example.
I guess that explains why you don't really sound like you're influenced by any guitar players. You have more of a "free jazz" approach, it seems like.
I don't wanna - I don't necessarily listen to guitar players. For one thing, I'm just as much a bass player as a guitar player. I play just as much bass. Obviously I'm known more as a guitar player, but I just look at it as music. I don't really separate - I don't particularly study guitar players or anything like that. And I think more recently some of my playing has been influenced by techno in the sense of some of the repetitive kind of keyboard stuff and hard edge to it.
On the new stuff you're putting out?
Yeah, and going back to the last Hor album, A Faster, More Aggressive Hor. That music, just hearing so much of it - I go to a lot of clubs and stuff and have had so much exposure to it, it definitely creeped into my guitar playing quite a bit. Maybe somebody else, I don't know if somebody else outside can see it when they listen to that CD, but I certainly can see how it's influenced me. But it's in a strange way obviously because it's guitar.
Now that I understand what you listen to and where you're coming from, it's a lot easier to understand why so much of your solo work has been instrumental.
Well I do both, and have for a long time. Gone was instrumental, and we also did some instrumental stuff in Black Flag. As far as the new CDs, Confront James has a vocalist, Richard Ray, and the Fast Gato cd is a band that I have with Scott Reynolds, who used to be the singer in All. Just some songs we worked on a while back and are finally able to release. I do both kinda equally. As far as the shows I'm playing now, I also do vocals myself. I started doing some shows - I wanted to get my feet wet because we have this benefit coming up. We set up a lot of shows to give me a chance to play some songs I haven't played in 20 years, and I'm doing vocals there as well. Myself. And that's kind of interesting because some of the songs where I've written the lyrics as well as the music, it's kind of interesting to sing them myself and bring my own interpretation to it.
I like the way you sing! Not only on the three Greg Ginn CDs, but I saw you play live with a three-piece around the time those CDs came out, and the way you approached the Black Flag songs was really aggressive, but not in a Henry Rollins "Yeah!" way. It was more of an obsessive, possessed sort of low, angry threatening approach. I was kinda hoping you'd put out more of those CDs with your vocals on them.
I will later, in a few years. But I've gotten distracted with a lot of other things. And we've been working with some good singers doing things. You have to understand - I write music constantly, but I'm a little bit slower with lyrics. So I tend to - that process is always faster because I'm just jamming all the time, so I've gotten pretty prolific at writing music. I certainly am not as quick with the lyrics, so I appreciate working with other singers and lyric writers as well. But I do plan to do more myself too. Right now we're just playing a lot of Black Flag songs as preparation for the benefit, but that show got pushed off until September.
Since you've kinda moved on to - well, not "moved on," but since you're kinda into different styles of music now, do you still enjoy playing the Black Flag songs?
Oh yeah! I really like playing them, and it's interesting for me to sing songs that I wrote that have meaning for me lyric-wise. It's interesting to do my interpretation of them. Yeah, I really enjoy playing those. Because I've been playing so much new stuff, it's not like I'm encumbered by playing old songs. It's a refreshing change actually. But as far as myself in the future, I'll be playing a lot more of my own stuff.
How well does your solo material sell? Is it too "out there" for Black Flag fans to get into? Or do they kinda follow you from Black Flag to your newer stuff, as far as you can tell?
Well, it's a matter of - I think both. Some of my stuff has been pretty extreme - also the fact, I mean the main thing with that is playing live. That's what I've found by putting out so many albums by different groups. The ones that sell are the ones that play live regularly, and that's not something I do. I did a couple of tours in the mid-90s, then I went through a lot of different things with distributors and I really had to concentrate on that for a while. I was keeping the label going and in the meantime recording and playing music, but not releasing it and not really touring. So that's the main promotional avenue that we've always had, the group tour. Because obviously it's not radio music.
And with Black Flag, you were touring constantly, right?
Yeah. A lot of people could be exposed to it if I toured more.
Would you want to at this point?
Oh! You would?
I'd still love to tour. That's definitely what the plan is. Now that we're releasing records, I can't wait to do that. Now that we're back on our feet after all the distributor problems.
While you were having those distributor problems - I don't know much about the music business - when that was going on, were you not able to sell any records at all?
No, we've always sold records, but we don't always get paid. We continuously sold our catalog. Those have been selling; the problem is getting paid for them. When distributors go bankrupt, they generally have large reserves, and it's a lot harder to change distributors than it might seem, because they get their hooks into you and pool large reserves, which is understandable for insurance, but when they go bankrupt, we can have very substantial losses. We lost a lot of money. But the records sold. We had small interruptions in the distribution, but large interruptions in getting paid. DNA went bankrupt and they didn't pay us for a lot of records. So we had to keep our costs low and not release anything new until we got back on our feet. It's kinda boring stuff and a lot of people involved in music don't even know about these companies, nor do I think they necessarily need to worry about them, but it has a lot of impact on the labels. This stuff happens - when DNA went bankrupt, it caused a lot of labels to go out of business. But it's not the first time that it's happened with us unfortunately. But right now we're with a real strong distributor and knock on wood -
What's the name of your new distributor?
KOCH. They're in New York. And very solid. Of course, DNA was very solid when we started up with them too! But I think we're on real solid footing for the foreseeable future.
Are you planning to focus mainly on recordings that you have made over the past few years, or are you also looking at signing new bands?
Initially it's easier to focus on my own music. After recording for all this time, I have very much of a backlog as far as recordings, and it's a little bit easier to get started again that way, since we don't have a lot of money for promotion and advertising. So I kinda wanted to not take on anything else yet. That makes it a little bit simpler as far as dealing with artist relations and all that. But down the line, I'd like to sign other bands as well. We're going to take it slow and careful with that - one step at a time. Our resources are somewhat limited now, so I'll basically take it one step at a time.
Of all the great bands you discovered and signed to SST, who in your opinion are the top three - your absolute favorites?
That's too difficult!
It really is. A lot of times, I go through different phases where I listen to a lot of this or that, and also a lot of my favorites aren't necessarily the most known ones. Some of them are, but there are more obscure groups that are that way because they never toured consistently enough to be that known. So my favorites are not necessarily limited to the most well-known and popular, though I definitely love those bands as well. But to have to choose between Husker Du, the Minutemen, Bad Brains and other groups that everybody knows, then others that aren't as familiar, it's hard to say I like one more than another. I just don't think that way. I don't have a top 10 list or anything, because I like so much different music. I just listen to what I feel like hearing at that time. And I know if I mention one band, later I'll think, "Uh oh, I like this other group just as much!" I feel privileged to have worked with so many great bands.
I really appreciate you taking so much time to speak with me. I'd just like to finish with one question I always like to ask. I'm always interested in hearing what people think about what's going on in the world. The War on Terror and what's going on in Iraq and everything. Do you follow that stuff at all?
Yeah I do. I don't have any - I tend to not like to deal in some of the - when it comes to politics, I don't have a pithy quote. And a lot of that stuff that's coming from entertainers and musicians is very simplistic and not very insightful, so I certainly don't want to participate in that. At the same time, I follow that stuff pretty closely and there's a lot there that really makes me think - in terms of how you can't help but get drawn into the international politics, and it's hard to think of it as just local. But even following a lot of the stuff, I also realize how much I don't know and how much some other people might know more than me. So I don't have a real simple answer regarding my position on that. But I do read a lot of newspapers and Internet publications. I would say that, like in LA, I would say if somebody's getting their news from the LA Times, there are probably much better sources. People would do themselves a good service by checking out some other sources, whether that be the Washington Post, Washington Times, where there's a lot of reporting on the military. The New York Times has been exposed for some of their fictions. But still I can't help but think that the LA Times is so terrible, and really not providing insight on the national and international news. So that's what I have to say - that people should definitely look to a lot of other sources, and just read the LA Times for the sports and calendar pages. It's pretty worthless beyond that. I know that's not a very good answer.
No, that's a good answer!
It's too bad that in LA, there's just the one paper that's dominant. And the weeklies aren't much help with political content. I don't bother with them outside of entertainment coverage. But there are a lot of sources on the Internet and a lot of reporting that gets to a whole lot of people.
Well that leads me to one other last question! Since you mentioned the Internet - do you feel like. I don't use them because I don't really understand them, but would you say that the file sharing services like Kazaa and Napster hurt independent labels like yours?
I'm on the Internet all the time, several hours a day, but I don't download music. Sure it hurts independent labels. But labels like us - we've always had a lot more exposure of our music beyond what we've sold. When our distribution wasn't so good, people would make cassettes of the albums and pass them around to their friends. So for every album we sold, a lot more people than that heard the music. And even people that wanted to buy the music would have a hard time finding it, so they'd make a tape from a friend or whatever. So it's not like it's new that people would hear our music without paying for it. It's just another form. I think it definitely hurts. I think it helps as far as new artists or getting them exposure if they're traded in files and people become familiar with them. But it definitely has an impact. Not as much as some people think, but not as little as other people think. But again, it's not something new. Our reach as far as music has always gone beyond sales, whether it's copying tapes, CDRs and now the Internet. It's always been there. But it's not something that we can really - I don't spend my time worrying abut that or complaining about that.
Copies aren't enough for me. If a record's really great, I always want to buy it anyway. Because CDRs and tapes just break, plus I want the artwork and everything.
I think that's true in a lot of cases, but a lot of people ONLY get music on the Internet and never buy it. And if they're buying CDs, they're just blank CDs. On the other hand, there's the promotional side to it like you said. But with catalog music, there's always a way to get it for free. But again it's not something that I complain about. It's just the reality of it.
Cool. Well again, thank you very much! I'll make sure you get a copy of the zine and I'll also send you out a copy of that Black Flag tribute CD. Is the SST mailing address on the Superstore site (http://www.sstsuperstore.com/)?
Yeah, just put "Attention Greg Ginn" on it.
Okay, will do. Thanks again!
Sure! It was really enjoyable talking to you. You had some really good questions on a knowledgeable level, and I really appreciate it. I appreciate the interest.
No problem. Have a good Saturday!
Nonetheless, Greg is still an important figure in my book (maybe not as much as Mr. Berry) but I've got to believe some of the stories that I've heard directly relating to SST's poor management skills and the rumor that the label had turned into a place in which scoring hydro was more important than minding the books were more fact than fiction. Hence the continual departure of much of the label's bread and butter (Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, etc.) and the continual signing of shitass free jazz style bands that pushed the label further away from any public interest. I view that label's downfall with more anger than any other indie in the past twenty years as there was a time ('83-'88) in which practically everything they released was either 1.) groundbreaking or 2.) worthy of attention. For Ginn to avoid this discussion and explain why (the shit didn't start with DNA going under) is a typical response from a notorious pothead trying to avoid conflict or "heavy" discussions. Want more proof of keeping an eye on the bong instead of the bottom line: let me remind everyone of the great Negativland vs. U2 lawsuit and the not so famous recall of a Das Damen "Marshmellow Conspiracy" e.p. because Michael Jackson threatened legal action if the company didn't recall and destroy all copies of the pressing. Don't worry, I still have my copies of both releases, and yes, I still have my respect for Gregg Ginn. It pains me to think that we could be (and some might) talking about SST and say Stax records in the same breath instead of patiently waiting for them to get their distribution troubles behind them just to be able to get a fucking copy of Minutemen's "3 Way Tie (For Last)".
As for him being a bum pot head years ago. The story holds up. Yet I really don't think weed was the most irresponsible thing to do at that time.
Comments about his music: I love the Flag. Greg Ginn's style I can consider chaotic genius, it's similarly to what Lou Reed was trying to do during his VU days. I've considered either Rise Above or the 82 demos (sorry to say Henry was Flag's worst singer) as his peak. But I think it was also the help of Dez Cadena's (Now he's someone who had a falling out with drugs) wall of distortion that backed Ginn up. I have the ticket for the BF reunion and I just like to take a good smell of it now and again to check if it's real. Disturbing, I know.
and whats with this techno bullshit, dance music is fucking gay! and all these cats too - is he a psycho granny cat lady now or what.
Thanks Greg for making LOADs of great stuff and inspiring Nirvana, The Melvins, Soundgarden, and of course, Slayer.
Kram some Eldnrip up your nose by clicking here with violence!