Perfect Sound Forever

Chuck Dukowski

interview by Dave Lang
(May 2007)

If Chuck Dukowski had only played on, say, Black Flag's first 6 releases – and he DID – he'd already be a music legend. Hell, if he'd only written Black Flag's "My War" – which, again, he did – he'd make the history books. But there's much more to the guy than that. Chuck also helped run (and co-owned) the SST label from approximately 1978-1989, the core period which saw the label make its name as the most important American independent label of the 1980's, releasing records by the likes of Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust, Saint Vitus, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr. and many more, and was, according to Henry Rollins, the great brains trust, "attitude man" and motivator within that milieu (with all due credit to Greg Ginn!).

But of course, there's also his history with his first band, sludge-metallers Wurm, and his post-'Flag outfit SWA, a band whose hard-rock fury still divides fans and remain a love-'em-or-hate-'em proposition. Well, it's not like the guy ever really went away, but aside from bringing up four children with his wife, artist Lora Norton, he's back with his new outfit, The Chuck Dukowski Sextet. A family concern, they feature Nora on vocals, his eldest son, Milo, on guitar, and other notable folks like Lynn Johnston (known for his work w/ SST outfits Cruel Fredrick and Slovenly) on horns and Fatso Jetson's Tony Tornay on drums. Let's lay it on the line right now: the CD6 are a Dukowski Family/SST supergroup for the '00's. More than that, they're good.

Dukowski has also set up his own label, Nice and Friendly, and released their debut CD, Eat My Life. Housed in a swank sleeve drawn by Lora Norton, CD6 are a combo with that "classic" SST "sound" I tried to nail in that SST article I wrote back in the dark ages: somewhere in the nexus of Rock, Punk and Jazz lies the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. Chuck was, is and forever shall be one of the good guys in music, and the fact that he's back and kicking out the jams in his '50's in a great combo who practice, play and record as I write this makes it a great day indeed. Let the man do the talking...

PSF: Tell me about where you grew up: your family situation, high school, and what you did immediately after high school.

My mother was German and I spent my first few years there. Then we moved to Holly Park in L.A.. A couple of years later, we moved to San Pedro. I lived in Germany for a year in elementary school while my dad worked overseeing Telstar. He was an engineer. After that it was back to 'Pedro until I got out of high school. After high school, I traveled around the country with my friend Ed Danky in a VW van. We started playing the music that eventually became my early band Wurm. That road trip was the seed experience for Black Flag's early touring. I knew how to travel the country, roughing it, on very little money. I went to college at UC Santa Barbara and when I was done I moved back to San Pedro.

PSF: You were born in 1954, so I have to ask this question: were you "affected" at all by the upheaval of the 1960's? Did you see any great bands at that time? Did you have a strong political/social conscience at the time, or do you now?

Of course I have a strong political and social conscience and I always have. In regards to the '60's, I mostly witnessed the culture and upheaval though the media. The hippies had such a colorful and invitingly seductive cultural revolution but I was always a little too young. It's surprising how few hippies there really were, 20 or 30 out of thousands of students at San Pedro High, and by the time I got there they were pretty much gone. It seemed so cool and it did affect me. I remember the Watts riots. They really changed things. I remember the antiwar protests. But what I really experienced was the decaying of the hippie movement and that probably affected me most of all. I had a sense that I had missed the party and there was nothing left but ruin. I think a lot of people my age felt that way; it's what started punk rock. What the hippies had earnestly started had devolved to clichι and hypocrisy. Punk was a breath of fresh air, a medium to say, "this is fucked and I'm pissed off about it". Of course punk's air is not as fresh anymore! I did get to see a lot of great concerts especially because I worked as an usher when I was in High School. I could just wear my uniform and get into lots of things for free. The first "Rock Concert" I saw was Sly and the Family Stone with Mountain. Sly was amazing, SO powerful that the security shut off the sound during the song "Stand." It seemed like the energy of the crowd might explode! That was really inspirational. I remember seeing Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant took of my friend's usher hat off his head and wore it during the set! You know who was great- Little Richard! That was the only show I saw before punk rock where people were rushing the stage. There was wild, a wild energy on the stage and in the crowd. I saw so many bands, I really enjoyed it.

PSF: When did Wurm start? Was that prior to punk in '76? What music were you listening to at the time?

Wurm started in '73 but we didn't come up with the name until '74. I listened to a lot of different stuff Captain Beyond, Black Sabbath, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Yes, King Crimson and Wishbone Ash.

PSF: How and when did you first meet Greg Ginn?

The first incidental meeting was selling him a speaker cabinet in early '77. He noted that I had the picture of Iggy from the sleeve of Raw Power taped to the door of our pad in Torrance. That was big back then. No one you met knew who Iggy was. A few months later, Wurm had moved to Hermosa Beach where we lived in an abandoned beach bathhouse we called the Wurmhole. My friend Ed Danky, the Wurm guitarist, ran into Keith Morris and got talking about music. We all became friends and Keith introduced us to Greg. Keith and Greg became regulars at the nightly Wurmhole parties and eventually talked the landlord into letting them rent some space in the building to rehearse and party. They paid Ed and me to make their space into a rehearsal room.

PSF: What was your first exposure to punk? Did you feel that punk, as a music, was something fresh and exciting or simply a throwback to the more basic rock of the 1960's? Did you feel an instant affinity to it, like it was something you wished to be a part of, or did you scorn that kind of herd mentality, as Black Flag appeared to have during the HC "boom" of the early '80's?

That's a weird question. At first, there was no "punk." We were making punk music before there was even a name for it. I wasn't "exposed" to punk I helped create punk and that was really, really, exciting. I had been so frustrated by the pretentious wimpy direction in music in the mid seventies that it was just amazing to think that hard music was becoming popular. In the summer of '76, Rodney Bingenheimer was running a club that booked a lot of pre-punk groups like the Dogs, Berlin Brats, Motels and such. When I heard the Ramones in '76, I thought they had a great raw energy. By early '77, there were more bands and the L.A. scene started to represent. There began to be more and more music from L.A. and everywhere and so much of it was good: The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Germs, X, The Clash, The Weirdos, The Screamers, The Dils, The Zeros, The Plugz, The Controllers, The Dead Kennedys, The Avengers and DOA. It was so exciting. I didn't throw away my old albums, but they seemed irrelevant.

PSF: Tell me about Black Flag's earliest gigs. It's been said many times before that the band felt shut out by the Hollywood punk scene; was this true?

Yeah, it's true. There was a kind of anti suburban vibe in the early L.A. punk culture. I remember having my car vandalized at a Germs show in Santa Monica (go figure) because it had a Hermosa Beach license plate frame. Black Flag's earliest gig's were self promoted- we rented the venues and got the headliners, the first were The Alley Cats and The Plugz. We did it all ourselves. Since we had trouble getting gigs, we just made our own.

PSF: When did you actually get involved in the day-to-day running of SST?

Right away really. At first there was not that much to do but soon enough it grew. Eventually, I decided to quit my day job and run SST full time, more than full time!

PSF: Was life in BF – the poverty, police harassment, etc. – really as hard as Rollins has painted it out to be in recent years? Was there a feeling of it being a "noble struggle," so to speak, believing at some point that it would pay off and the band and label would really make its mark?

Yes. It was really hard. I had to serve time in jail because of our problem with Unicorn, and at times there was not enough money for food. The police harassed us a lot. But I knew we were making a mark and I felt the need to step up and say the things I felt. It was everything to me. I poured every bit of myself into it and I enjoyed it. I've been very lucky in my life.

PSF: Joe Carducci remarks in his Rock and the Pop Narcotic book that he felt that BF and many of the SST bands' legacy have grown over the years: what do you have to say about this?

The music and message was and is important to me and it's very gratifying that it has had an impact.

PSF: In retrospect, the SST "band scene" of the '80's has proven to be enormously influential – a launching pad for many of the big names of underground/"alternative" music ever since. Did it feel like a mission at the time to affect wider culture or was it simply a case of wanting to play the music you did like "rock bands" do?

Sure, it felt like a mission. It still does. It's the job of artists to point out alternatives to the mainstream.

PSF: How did you feel about the success of Nirvana at the time, a band who quite vocally championed many SST bands as prime influences?

Nirvana was great. It felt good that what we'd done all of those years had sunk in.

PSF: What's your feelings on SST's period in the latter '80s when it began to release so many albums that many fans of the label felt that it was simply releasing way too many records by way too many bands who weren't up to par w/ the label's earlier roster? Did this put a financial strain on the company?

I enjoyed a lot of that music. Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Opal, The Leaving Trains, Elliot Sharp, Blast. Those are good bands. I left my partnership in SST after Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. I had no part in the choice of bands after that time.

PSF: Why exactly did you leave Black Flag? Did you immediately form SWA or did you spend time w/ SST's booking company and running the label?

It's a whole big complicated thing, I'll always be grateful to Henry for reaching out to me at that time, it was tough. It's sad because I'd just hit my stride with Henry. I was having a lot of success putting songs together for Henry and with him. I wrote "My War" and "I Love You" with his singing in mind and they worked out so well. I reformed Wurm immediately after Black Flag and we released an album, Feast, but the band fell apart because of drugs. Eventually Wurm's guitarist Ed Danky, who was my oldest friend, died of an overdose. I formed SWA later.

PSF: What was the motivation behind SWA? Do you feel they have any legacy? What does "SWA" actually mean? Do you still keep in touch w/ Merrill and Sylvia?

Not playing in Black Flag or Wurm or any other group left an immense void in my life. I realized that playing and performing music was not something I had a choice about. I had to do it. Greg Cameron, SWA's drummer, was practicing in Black Flag's space and I started to jam with him, the rest of the band just kind of came to us. SWA was a joke really. Joe Carducci suggested the name and the rest of the band liked it. I was uncomfortable with it.

PSF: Have you had to work straight jobs over the years as well to make ends meet?

Oh, I've worked a lot.

PSF: When did you sell your half of SST to Greg?

I sold my half of SST at the end of '89.

PSF: Do you still keep in contact w/ many of your old friends and compadres of the '80s: Watt, Dez, Carducci, Mugger, Baiza, etc.? How about people like Gary Floyd, Ian MacKaye, Jello, HR?

Ian is a good friend and an inspiration. Joe Baiza is a great musician and a friend, he plays guitar on the Chuck Dukowski SEXTET's song "Freedom?" It's one of the most popular songs on the album. The CD6 plays shows with Joe's groups fairly often. I'm still friends with Henry. I talk to Joe Carducci, Mike Watt and Gary Floyd every so often.

PSF: How do you feel about contemporary, commercial pop-punk bands, and also how do you feel about many of the early '80s hardcore punk bands still touring and playing essentially "revival" shows?

I feel like people can play whatever kind of music they want to.

PSF: Have you seen the film American Hardcore? What did you think of it?

I saw it. It has some interesting footage in it. HR (Bad Brains singer) was great.

PSF: Tell me about the Chuck Dukowski Sextet. When did the band first start up and who's in it? Any plans to tour?

The CD6 is the most exciting band I've been in since Flag, maybe more exciting to me. We really get to stretch musically and be aggressive but with a female singer, the sound has such an interesting character. Lora tears it up. Listen to our version of "My War"- it is so heavy and faster than the original! But we aren't really a punk band- I don't know what you'd call our music. We're in the midst of recording our second album which will be much more guitar heavy and even better than our first, I think. Part of what's so exciting about The CD6 is the feeling that we are doing something really innovative and different and that, like it was with Flag. The CD6 encompasses every aspect of our lives. It's family because Lora and I are married and Milo, our guitarist, is the oldest of our four children. We are breaking down generational barriers and leading by example. Our society gives us the message that our children are our adversaries, never our collaborators. That message is just the powers that be trying to divide us and make us weak. We are treading new ground with The CD6, and it's so satisfying because the kids, not just our kids but kids in general, really get it. Everyone loves Lora's art, too, which is on the CD and the MySpace page and the Web site.

PSF: Tell me about your label; any plans to release other bands on it?

Nice and Friendly Records was launched to release the first Chuck Dukowski Sextet record Eat My Life. We plan to release music that we like, that inspires us. We have three releases planned for '07 including The CD6's new album.

The name Nice and Friendly comes from a sincere desire to be positive and to contribute positively to the world. So many labels have such tough and mean posturing names Murder Inc or whatever. I'm sick of it. What we need more of is Nice and Friendly. Let's make "the real world" nice and friendly.

PSF: Do you feel that, no matter what musical combination you get together these days, you will still always be remembered by most people as "Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag"? Does this concern you or is it something you're proud to have been a part of and remembered for?

I'm glad people love Black Flag and I'm proud of my part in it.

PSF: Flea appears on the CD; is he someone you've known for many years?

I've known Flea for a while; we've become good friends. He's been so supportive of The CD6. We recorded our first album Eat My Life at his personal studio. He is a truly good and generous person (his family too).

PSF: There was a surreal moment on the Grammy Awards about 10 years ago. Comedian Paul Reiser introduced Henry Rollins and mentioned him as being the "singer from legendary L.A. hardcore band, Black Flag, who changed the landscape of music in the early '80's," and everyone in the audience cheered and went wild. My only reaction was "Where the hell were you when they were doing the hard yards?!", but there was also a sense of relief that the band's hard work hadn't gone unnoticed or unappreciated by big-wig music-biz douchebags. How do you react to something like that?

I don't really pay attention to stuff like that. I didn't see the Grammy's but Henry's a hard worker and a great performer- he deserves credit. I'm glad people like Black Flag.

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